Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.
(Galatians 6. 4&5, the Message)
I think that one of the hardest lessons to learn as followers of Jesus, is that we have to keep learning the same lessons over and over again! I know that I do, and I don’t think I am alone in this…
It is a dreadful blow to our pride to realise that issues which dogged us in the past continue to entangle our thoughts, bring doubts and lead us away from quiet, peaceful service of God. We think that surely we must have matured and grown enough in faith and experience of the Christian life to be able to avoid such mistakes and trials. Finding ourselves back at the bottom of a familiar pit – whatever yours might be, I know mine only too well – we look around in despair and say, “Lord, I can’t believe I am here again, where did I go wrong this time?!”
The temptation for me then is to indulge in a serious bout of self-pity, painting myself as an abject failure, stunted in faith, whose life is a lie and her service of God a sham… It is horribly easy to get into this habit of thought – and it is a very clever trick of the Devil’s, by which he paralyses me, a captive to my own thoughts in dark hopelessness. I wonder if this is how Peter felt after betraying Jesus by that fire, the bitterness of realising that he was not as strong and true as he believed. How deeply pride runs through our thoughts, how we love to think of ourselves more highly than we ought, and despise others for their perceived weakness and vulnerability to things which are not a problem for us!
Yes, it is painful to see ourselves clearly, with all our faults, to admit that in our own strength we will never amount to much that is worthy or beautiful. So what is the healthy response to the pain of finding myself in the pit again?
Think of David, lamenting in Psalm 51 over his sin with Bathsheba, full of grief for the pain he has caused to his Shepherd, and bewailing his sinfulness. He turns back in repentance, and yet also in confidence that his prayers will be heard, and that God will answer. He relies on the revealed character of God, the one whose love is steadfast, the one who sees the heart of man and cannot be deceived by fine words or deeds. He knows that God values the offering up of “a broken and contrite heart”, and by the end of the psalm is already anticipating the renewed joy of praising God with a clean heart.
Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
The passage from Galatians with which I began is very helpful alongside this psalm in helping me to deal with the reality that I will continue to fail as long as I live! Paul exhorts his readers to take a good hard look at themselves, and to be humble about what they see – not puffed up with conceit, but content with whatever God has given them. Their focus is to be on doing their own tasks for God as well as they can, and at all costs resisting that dangerous urge to look at other people. We are only responsible for ourselves, and that is quite enough. I can be glad when, with God’s help, I am able to serve and live for him; and when I fail, I can have confidence that my sin is dealt with, that God is not surprised by it, and that He is gently urging me to keep moving on, recognising that sin no longer has any power over me – either to cut me off from God permanently, or even to keep me in the pit of despair and self-pity.
May our patient, loving God continue to create in us pure hearts, so delighted by Him that we care nothing for the opinion of anyone else. May His presence in our hearts continue to transform us, so that we can live with others without envy, jealousy or pride, content and willing to do what we can and steady against the temptation to despair over our sins. In Christ, we have the victory, and nothing, NOTHING can take that from us!