by Lee Stewart
On Christmas day, we rejoice in the softer sides of the gospel. We remember the vulnerable baby in a manger, God incarnate, God with us. But the harder sides of the gospel are built into the story. The good news of the cross is built into the good news of the manger.
When God sent His Son, He sent a flesh and blood answer to the worst problem that has ever existed—the problem of sin. This was not a hypothetical problem for any of us. The middle-class, church-going citizen stands as guilty as the criminal.
Does the cross seem like an exaggerated payment for the moral, but an appropriate payment for the vile?
When Jesus came, He shattered the standards for vile and moral. He says if we hate our brother, we’ve murdered him in our hearts, and if a man looks at a woman lustfully, he’s committed adultery with her. Jesus speaks more sternly to the rule-following Pharisees than to the sinners. He knows even our good intentions have cracked under the weight of the fall—even our reasons for doing right are broken. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, and go two miles when we’re asked to go one. He calls us evil! But He says we still know how to give good gifts to our children. Most astonishing of all, Jesus tells us to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.
Jesus addressed behavior, as well as what gets tucked away in the heart. It’s true, some sins have more devastating earthly consequences than others. Harboring resentment will not land you in jail. Worry, pride, and gossip may go largely unpublicized. But every sin says to God, “Not your way, but mine.”
Jesus came to save us, and also to remake us. He says, “Come to Me and rest” and also, “Take up your cross and follow.”
Christians are not exempt from blind spots or disobedience, though we may know how to keep up appearances in the meantime. This can make the problem seem like less of a problem.
Even our morality can be more about us and our image than about God and His glory. So those of us who are reading our Bibles, loving our husbands, serving in church, and teaching our kids the truth may be the most defensive and the least teachable. We are already seeking God, so it’s hard to imagine Him calling us even closer. Why does He convict us over the “quiet” sins we commit? Why does He want to sanctify even our motives?
Jesus came to save us—every inch of us.
When the Holy Spirit convicts us, it is not condemnation! It’s God’s protection over us, urging us out of danger and back into fellowship with Him. Conviction shows us where we grieve Him. It comes through Scripture—the sword of the Spirit. But God also uses our husbands, fellow believers, and our children to open our eyes. We can stomp our foot and say, “QUIT BEING SO HARD ON ME!” But grace is always on the other side of humility.
Sometimes when I read advice to mothers, it sounds like it’s for guilt-free moms. It’s like we’re all good and there’s not even a category for bad. So I imagine a mom sitting in a jail cell reading the same words I’m reading. I read things like “Don’t feel guilty!” and I imagine to a criminal the words must sound very empty. I don’t think we would look at the drug-addicted mom behind bars and say, “Well…nobody’s perfect.”
“Nobody’s perfect” is the mantra of modern day mothers, but we need better consolation than that. We need a meaningful word for people with actual guilt, whether it’s public or private. If the hope we offer ourselves doesn’t also give hope to the criminal, then it isn’t hope at all. If we water down the solution, it’s because we’ve watered down the problem.
Pastor John Piper has said, “Real guilt is radically God-centered. Satan’s substitute is the bad feelings we get from a wounded ego. O yes, it is painful. That’s why we think we are preaching the gospel when we try to relieve it. But it is based squarely on pride.”
The gospel is not just a form of reassurance.
I started wrestling with these issues because I’ve carried some regrets this year, and I haven’t known how to lay them down. I have grieved some of the patterns I’ve passed on to my children.
My kids were born with a sin nature, but I know I’ve helped bend that nature in a particular direction. Sometimes I hear them speak harsh or exacting words to each other, and I know where they learned the lingo. It’s like a giant mirror shouting: YOU TAUGHT THEM THIS BRAND OF SIN.
I have carried these regrets because they are still being played out in front of me. The patterns don’t get fixed overnight. When I hear my kids interact in a certain way, I hear my example in it.
But God is good. In His kindness, He has shown me some of the good patterns, and not just the patterns that need undoing. And in His kindness, He has led me to repentance. I have had to reevaluate my speech, as well as what goes on in my heart. Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.
As I’ve wrestled with guilt and regret, I’ve been tempted to comfort myself with comparisons. “At least I’m not like THAT mom. Look at the things I do right…”
In the book of Luke we learn about a Pharisee who stands by himself and prays, “Thank you Lord that I am not like other people.” To talk like this is to lean on the wrong good news. Our hope is always in Jesus, and not in our own good works, or in a benign view of our sin. To be a Christian is to be bought with the blood of Christ and adopted into God’s family. Grace upon grace! Our hope is in our relationship with God—He’s a Father who disciplines us, not an employer who might fire us.
I’ve prayed many prayers this year for God to undo the sin patterns I see. One day I was reminded of Romans 5 which says, “WHERE SIN INCREASED, GRACE ABOUNDED ALL THE MORE.” Suddenly I saw it in a whole new way—grace really is amazing! Should I go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!
Run to the Savior. Lay down the regrets. Drape yourself over the grace, from the manger to the empty grave. Grace abounds, not just even in our sinfulness, but especially there. And lately when I see God answering my prayers and undoing some of the patterns, I can’t take any credit. I know it’s the grace abounding.