Lately I have been struggling with a sense of my sinfulness…and a sense that I am not progressing at all in my spiritual journey. In fact, I often have a sense of going backwards. Do you ever feel like this? If you do, read on.
Most of us are familiar with the story of the woman who extravagantly anointed Jesus with perfume–a sinful woman whom Jesus wasn’t even supposed to touch. The story is found in Luke chapter 7, verses 36-50.
The great thing about Scripture is that every time we read it we bring a little different person to the story or passage. This particular morning when I read the story I came as a frustrated sinner, one who is not feeling any real progress in my growth in overcoming sinful habits and tendencies that I thought would be long dead by now.
I didn’t come to the passage “at the top of my game” feeling that my Jesus must be so pleased with me today. That is why the story and the parable that Jesus told Simon the Pharisee became so meaningful to me. He said to Simon, “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” (vs. 41-42)
Simon was honest and said it was the one who had the bigger debt cancelled. Jesus then lifted up the prostitute for her love for Him as one who realized she had been forgiven the greater debt.
Jesus concluded His story with this: “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven–for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.” (v. 47)
So here is what I believe Jesus is saying to Simon, me and to anyone else who will listen. “This woman is in touch with her sinfulness. Even though she has lived an immoral lifestyle, she gets it. She knows her great need for me and my cross. But you still have a belief in your personal moral uprightness. You don’t get it yet. When you can understand your sinfulness and debt then you are on your way to whole-heartedly loving me as she does.”
The further we go in this relationship with Jesus the more it will seem like we are going backwards. We go from being 50 to 500 denarii in debt. Is it because we become outwardly greater sinners? Hopefully not! It is because we become more acutely aware of our heart, our sin and our utter hopelessness without Christ and His cross.
The Apostle Paul, who was arguably the greatest Christian leader of all time called himself “the worst” of sinners (I Timothy 1:15) and cried out in his letter to the Romans, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24)
This truth is a paradox. It reminds me of an optical illusion that I saw every time I drove from the north shore of Oahu back home to Kaneohe Bay where I lived. As I entered the bay from the north I could see a little island, called “Chinaman’s Hat,” framed by trees at the end of the road before it veers to the right. As the car approached closer to the island, the trees would peel away and I would see the island no longer in the closed context of the framing trees but now in greater context of the wide open sky. The illusion is this: the island becomes smaller and smaller in size the closer you come to it.
I think this is what growing in relationship with Christ is all about. We do get closer but our context changes so we seem further. We no longer compare ourselves with our own arbitrary standards but with Christ Himself. As we do this we become increasingly aware of our sinfulness and desperate need for Him and His forgiveness through His cross.
We go from 50 to 500 denarii in debt as the trees of denial, self-justification and comparison to others are peeled back and we see the limitless sky of His righteousness. We increasingly see ourselves as we really are and HIM for who He truly is and the price he paid on our behalf.
So back to the Pharisee and the prostitute. In this situation the sign of progress in the spiritual life was not perceived as external righteousness but rather actual inner worship. This humble, grateful love by the prostitute is manifested outwardly towards Jesus in a visible way. Genuine love always finds ways to express itself.
Jesus wants to focus me away from my self-righteousness onto His righteousness and His cross. This is counter-intuitive. This is a “cross”-current way of being, a going against the natural self-justifying, self-promoting human grain. This is moving from 50 to 500 denarii in debt, further away in one sense, but actually increasingly closer and more fervently in love with the One, “who loved me and gave Himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
Moving Closer While Seeming To Move Further,
Note: Do you have any stories of God’s Glory showing up in the ordinary? I would love to hear them and share them with a larger audience if you would like! Just email me at (JNBohnett@aol.com)
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