Here’s another confession. I’m bi-polar when it comes to my spiritual life.
On the one hand I can be very self-condemning: I’m a rotten worthless sinner who can’t do anything right. I wrote a song once called Failure the lyrics to which expressed how I often feel:
I confess that I’m a failure
This sober truth, it haunts my life
Decisions made that were unwise
I’ve messed up my own, and others’ lives
Too many times…
Yes, I beat myself up a lot. And, yes, I know Jesus loves me, but I have often asked, “But does He like me?” I fail time and time and time and time and time and time again. (Had to stop because I was running out of time.) I know I don’t try hard enough. After all, it has been said, “Saying ‘you’re trying’ is just another way of saying you’re doing something when you’re not doing anything.” There are times when I look at the list of the fruits of the spirit in Gal. 5:22-23 and think, “Do I have any of that?”
The worst and scariest times are those when I read 1 John 3:6,9, or 5:18. No one who lives in God or who is born of God will go on sinning?!?! Then the thoughts really start: “Am I even saved? Woe is me!” I cry out and plead with God to crush me if necessary to make me His without reservations, without sin. “Save me, change me, just be gentle, please.”
But then I realize that the reason I’m afraid and filled with worry is because I am looking at my performance… not at what Jesus has done for me. As the hymn says, “My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus’ blood and righteousness…. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.” Trust in myself is sinking sand. As Proverbs says, “He who trusts in himself is a fool” (Proverbs 28:26, NIV).
What then is the constant looking at my own sins but a deception, a slight of hand trick used by the enemy in my own voice again! (See my last column.) It’s the voice of the Accuser (Revelation 12:10).
I remember hearing the old tale about Martin Luther being visited by the devil. Several versions have gone around, but it’s partly based on what Luther himself said: “When I go to bed the Devil is always waiting for me… [If] he brings out a catalog of sins, I say, ‘Yes, old fellow, I know all about it. And I know some more you have overlooked. Here are a few extra. Put them down.’” One version of the story has Luther himself writing down the list of sins as the devil dictates them. When Satan exhausts the list, Luther then writes at the bottom “Washed in the blood of the lamb!” and he tears up the list!
A sober realization of sin is necessary in the life of a believer. But to have sin as our constant focus, to see the glass as half empty instead of seeing the cup as overflowing (Psalm 23:5) is just the wrong way to live. Luther points out elsewhere that God needs to show us how sinful we are before He makes us righteous. But “God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God” (1 Corinthians 5:21). “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:22, NIV). Do a word study on “righteousness” in the New Testament. Over and over again: It’s not us. It’s a gift. It’s by faith. It’s from Christ.
Martin Luther again:
“This is wonderful news to believe that salvation lies outside of ourselves,” he said. “I am justified and acceptable to God, although there are in me sin, unrighteousness, and horror of death. Yet I must look elsewhere and see no sin. This is wonderful, not to see what I see, not to feel what I feel. Before my eyes I see a [coin], a sword, or a fire, and I must say, ‘There is no [coin], no sword, no fire.’ The forgiveness of sins is like this.”
This is part of the life of faith. I need to live in that reality.
So on one hand I become too focused on my sins. I get fooled by that stinking enemy again, swayed and deceived by my own flesh and thoughts into focusing on some kind of works salvation. Then I confess and pray and get back on the path and begin walking again… baby steps, walking by faith not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). But then the enemy does an end around and sneaks up on me from the other direction. Thus, on the other hand I sometimes begin to think I really am something. I start to become “spiritually proud” (a term which my father once pointed out was an oxymoron).
The pride might come as I’m sitting in church. (My last column again.) It might come as I’m writing out our tithing checks. The nefarious thoughts sneak in: “If only people knew how much we gave…” What the… Where did that come from? “You should be proud of yourself for giving extra at Christmastime. You’re really following God in this area of your life.” (Newsflash: This guy is obedient in one area out of a hundred: Reason to celebrate.) Truly I don’t want my left hand to know what the right hand is doing (Matthew 6:3) but suddenly my right hand is waving a flag, trying to get the attention of the left hand. It’s crazy. (Romans 7:17 in action.)
Maybe it happens when I finish writing a column, a blog, or a biblical study. I look it over and feel pretty good about it, satisfied, happy… proud? I begin thinking, “Why, I didn’t even go to seminary. Not even Bible College…”
Get thee behind me Satan!
I know every good thing I have comes from God (James 1:17), all opportunities come from God, anything I know comes from God, anything I accomplish is done by God through me… I have to remind myself of these truths when the lies arise.
I know my pride is only a false pride, a false front. It is a “puffing up.” I say that because deep down inside in my quietest moments I still think that I am the least in the kingdom of God… but then I see those gifts God has given me, and I begin riding their coattails as if they were magic carpets (mixing my metaphors now—watch out!). I begin to puff up and forget the pain of me. By “the pain of me” I mean the struggle that I am not worthy, the thoughts that I am a horrible sinner… These things need to be covered up. I can’t allow anyone to see them. Let me try my own slight of hand to distract others from the real me. Puff. Puff. Puff. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!
You see, it’s a constant back and forth, a roller-coaster, a pendulum, and this is what makes me bi-polar spiritually. I go from hating myself and being a worthless good-for-nothing, to thinking, “Look, I am someone. I can do something. I have some value. People do need me. They need my gifts. God should give me a position of power.” Only some of that is true: God has gifted each and every believer with gifts the rest of the body needs. But Satan is really good at piling layers and layer of sediment and lies upon tiny little cores of Golden Truth. (That’s what cults do, isn’t it?)
In the end, God usually has a good way of smacking me down and setting me straight. Like the time I played a solo at church, sat in the back looking for praise, enjoyed the pastor saying good stuff about me before the sermon, got into the car and listened to the recording of my solo, and then got smacked down by my wife saying, “You’re really getting full of yourself aren’t you?” Sometimes it happens inadvertently: Once I was called into the church office by a pastor who thought I was getting too big for my britches. It was based entirely on a misunderstanding between myself and another person. In that case the accusation the pastor had heard was false, but, honestly, I still needed to hear it, to be kept humble.
Most recently, as I’ve been studying and writing, engaging some friends in debates (sparring matches) about different theological subjects, I sent an email to someone who I greatly respect in many ways… Perhaps I worded it badly, or perhaps I was still bearing the flippant attitude I might have when debating with my buddies. But this person was my elder, and a man who deserves more respect than I probably gave him. He took offense at what I said, or the tone in which I said it (or maybe it was just another one of those misunderstandings)… and I was immediately humbled by God when I realized that what I said might have hurt or offended the person. I accepted the humiliation as from God: “Yes, Lord, you are good to humble me. I can be arrogant and haughty and puffed up. Forgive me. Use this incident to keep me on track. I’m sure I needed this.” I then apologized to the person… and began thinking about the rotten worthless sinner I am.
My whole life is a tennis match.
Lord, I confess that I’m a failure (1 John 1:9)
My “purest” pursuits fall short at best
My filthy rags are not righteousness (Isaiah 64:6)
And my perfection is a perfect mess (See Matthew 5:48, 2 Corinthians 12:9, and Hebrews 10:14)
Lord, I confess… (Romans 10:9-10)
“Failure” was copyright 2003, “Songs from the Wilderness III”
Read my other Bible.org columns here.
 Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, copyright renewed 1977 by Roland Bainton, published by Mentor in arrangement with Abingdon Press, chapter 21: “The Struggle for Faith”.
 Ibid, chapter 13: “No Other Foundation”.