During my teen years, I discovered that my church had a 14-page list of rules that were mainly "don'ts." No matter how I tried, I felt that I never quite made it to the state of sinless perfection I sought. Many nights grim dreams of punishment for my failures haunted my sleep. But the sum of my observable demerits was nothing compared to the sins of my heart, my inner being.
I recall feeling jealous, ugly, grossly inadequate, and highly sensitive. Even justified criticisms frightened me. I knew nothing about self-esteem. What if God agreed with others' disapproval of me, I wondered. Tragically, I had little awareness of his grace, love, forgiveness, or power.
Furthermore, I watched as other believers outwardly struggled to live those 14 pages of rules. Many of them did pretty well. But being a quiet person, I listened a lot. I heard lengthy criticisms of sermons, and long lists of faults demonstrated by pastors or other church members.
Thankfully these observations never made my faith waver, but they did make my faith erratic and robbed me of joy and peace.
God's love, wisdom, timing, and power, however, exist in good supply!
Over time, He kindly and gently opened my darkened eyes, although only a crack at first. I began to understand the concept of grace: favors from God that I hadn't earned at all. Could it be that God loved me even when I was not perfect?
The light increased in my spiritual sight. I was shocked the day I learned that I am a child of the Heavenly King. What a statement! I realized I could no longer be ugly, inadequate, or worthless, since I was by my choice and His adoption, God's child. As my self-esteem grew, I learned not only to love myself, but also to love others. The more I felt and expressed this genuine love, the less jealous and negative I became toward others. The unconditional, perfect love of God enabled me to love and accept others unconditionally. As I began to express such love, I found that love rebounded.
At times, the love that surrounds us becomes overwhelming in its beauty and amazing in its quantity. Jesus said, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind . . . Love your neighbor as much as yourself" (Matthew 22:37, 39 TLB). I was raised to believe I had to love others before I loved myself, and much more than I loved myself.
I know now that unless I love myself as He loves me, I truly can't love others! And the exciting truth is, it's not arrogant, narcissistic love. It's simply knowing the truth of the gospel and accepting it.
To my surprise, the knowledge of God's love and what that means about me enables me to truly love even my enemies: a real challenge. I find I am not the only one who has struggled with sins of the heart.
For example, Ethan (not his real name) was a classic follower of the 14 pages of church rules. He dressed properly, and attempted to live his life above reproach to all outward appearances. Certainly he had never tasted alcohol nor touched a cigarette. But when I observed him entering restaurants occasionally, he gave venomous looks to customers who smoked or drank. If I had been one of "them," I might have inhaled even more deeply to retaliate for his hostility. He probably didn't draw those "outward sinners" close to Jesus Christ with his condemning, hostile sins of the heart.
Christians fall into these sins of the heart because:
- Many Christians are terrified of God's wrath. They fear that if they love "sinners," they may appear to condone their sins. In a way, they believe they can threaten unbelievers into the Kingdom.
- Some believers fear the judgment of other Christians. They truly want to be kept "without spot, and blameless" (2 Peter 3:14, KJV). So while they may focus on avoiding the obvious sins, they may allow these semi-hidden sins of the heart to flourish. But these hidden sins hurt their witness more than they can measure.
- A fine balance exists between believing in God's grace and a permissive theology that fails to define sin. Many Christians err on one side or the other.
- The concept of unconditional love is hard for some to grasp. The Bible clearly says, "But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners" (Romans 5:8, TLB). I just can't see Jesus glaring at smokers. Instead, I believe he would demonstrate love toward them.
- We have a rich heritage of knowledge about the Holy Spirit. Yet Ethan seemed to try to take on his work, trying to convict those he perceived as sinners. We truly can't take the Spirit's place in anyone's lives.
How can we become free from these hidden sins? It's comforting to read of Paul's struggle and his victory. He said, "Who will free me from my slavery to this deadly lower nature? Thank God! It has been done by Jesus Christ our Lord. He has set me free" (Romans 7:25, TLB).
Some years ago, I discovered new insights about God by reading various versions of the Bible. I learned he is holy and hates evil, yet he is merciful and forgiving. He has more power for me to draw upon than I can imagine. He never expects me to go through life alone.
Not only will God enable us to live a holy life on the outside, but he will reveal to us those sins of the heart that can embitter us and hurt those around us. He will gently crack open the barriers that encase us in the darkness until they open wide, filling our lives with his boundless light!
Grace H. Ketterman is a child and family psychiatrist in Kansas City, the author of 20 books, and a frequent speaker on family concerns.
Holiness Today, January/February 2009