forgiveness

Originally published as an op-ed here for the Wilkes Journal-Patriot.

Stay at home orders. Social distancing. MerleFest cancelled. Social gatherings banned. Schools and businesses closed. Church meetings cancelled.

The last few weeks have certainly been eventful. Our current experiences cause concern. Our anticipated experiences in the days, weeks and months ahead could cause fear and anxiety.

COVID-19 has arrived in Wilkes, but how many will be infected? How long will it take before the economy recovers? Will the economy recover? Will our lives ever go back to normal?

These questions permeate our thoughts. As a pastor, I feel it is my duty to have answers and bring hope. But let me offer a confession.

I’ve had plenty of moments in the last several weeks where I’ve felt a mixture of uncertainty, fear, and worry. I don’t offer my perspective from a place where I’ve conquered my anxieties but from a platform of hope and peace.

Solomon, Israel’s wisest king, wrote nearly 3,000 years ago, “Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad” (Proverbs 12:25). Solomon’s words could not be more prescient today.

Government bans, the panic-inducing news over COVID-19, and subsequent worries breed anxiety, often at a more exponential rate than the virus itself.

Fear and anxiety are enemies that weigh us down. When we are weighed down, we are more likely to live in fear, become depressed, or wallow in negativity. Like Solomon’s original readers, we need a good word. Let me offer three good words that might help make us glad.

Perspective. While these days are certainly unique, they are not universally unprecedented. Humanity has already overcome the bubonic plague outbreaks of the Middle Ages, the Spanish flu of 1918, world wars, and countless natural disasters. This pandemic will pass.

We need to evaluate our perspective. Instead of seeing our situation through the lens of all we are missing, we need to see it through the lens of all we are gaining.

Many of us have been too busy, too frazzled, and too distant from those closest to us. The next month (or longer) will afford us time to pause, rest, pray, and make the most of the days with our families. There may be a lot we will miss during this ban, but we will never forget the time we have with those closest to us.

Connection. People in my church tell me nearly every day how much they miss gathering together. God made us social beings who need each other.

Many of you are missing your normal social interactions. I am as well. But the lack of being in the same space need not keep us from connecting to one another.

Social media, text messaging, phone calls, FaceTime, Skype, emails, notes, and media like the Wilkes Journal-Patriot are all means by which we can connect with others. Make an extra phone call. Send another text message. Facetime a friend or family member. Find ways to connect with other people.

Our connections during isolated days will make our face to face connections that much more meaningful when these days are over.

Gospel. Solomon used the phrase “good word.” In the New Testament the good news is the gospel. The good news that the Bible offers is predicated on some bad news.

The bad news is that we live in a fallen, sinful world. This is one reason why viruses, pandemics, and natural disasters happen. But more importantly, the Bible teaches us that we are sinners. Sin is anything less than what God desires.

Our sin is the bad news, but the good news is that God sent Jesus to die for our sins to offer us forgiveness and eternal life. While our current situation is uncertain, our future does not have to be. The forgiveness offered through Jesus cleanses our sin, eases our anxiety, and offers us eternal life.

My hope and prayer through all of this uncertainty is that these good words: perspective, connection, gospel, will bring us gladness, now and forever.

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

I’ll never forget the spiritual journey that brought me to faith in Christ. My father is a retired pastor, and we were always in church. My mother was a godly prayer warrior. From my earliest age, I remember having my spiritual faith encouraged. We had devotions, went to church, and I had numerous opportunities to experience faith.

I learned to be a good little boy. For most of my childhood, I believed the facts about the gospel. I tried to do all the things I should (read the Bible, confess my sins, behave well). In spite of my efforts, my teenage years were internally disturbing. I experienced uncertainty about my salvation and could not be confident that I would have eternal life. For about 6 years, I faced mounting doubt and uncertainty. There were a number of occasions where I just wanted to die so I could find out where I would spend eternity.

On the outside, I’m sure I looked fine. On the inside, I was a spiritual mess.

During the summer of my 18th year, I was invited to go to summer camp with my cousin’s church. I distinctly remember having a conversation with God prior to camp where I said,

“God, I don’t know what is going on in my soul. I can’t get peace. But whatever you say, whatever you tell me to do, I will do.”

At camp, the internal turmoil did not ease. Rather, it grew exponentially. My heart was bursting with tension and frustration. It was at this point of tension, that God spoke loudly and clearly,

“Chris, you need to be forgiven. Your sins are the reason I died. You need to trust Me alone for your salvation.”

That night is forever imbedded in my memory. I gave up. I asked God to forgive me. God saved me that night at summer camp. In that moment, I experienced a peace, a joy, a freedom that was unexplainable. Something else became unalterably clear to me in that moment. God wanted me to preach his gospel to others. For me the call to salvation and the call to preach occurred at the same moment.

In the 20+ years since that experience, I’ve thought a lot about my conversion and call experience. Following are some insights into God’s call that I’ve developed as I interpreted my experience through the lens of Scripture.

  • Personal experiences are not universals, but they can be templates. It is important that we don’t generalize our experiences that we believe they are universal for everyone. But we should learn from personal experiences. Moses’ call in Exodus 3 might not be replicated in our lives today (God speaking through the burning bush), but when God calls, it will be to reveal himself and send us on his mission (this is the universal).
  • My need for salvation was because I had been relying on my goodness rather than God’s grace. Over the years I reflected deeply on why I was not converted at a younger age. I believed the facts of the gospel long before I experienced salvation. God helped me understand that one could believe spiritual facts while still relying on self for salvation. Trusting in Christ alone is required for salvation, and that is what I was missing.
  • God’s calling to salvation may not always be a calling to preach, but it always includes a calling to serve. Not every salvation experience includes a vocational call. But every salvation experience does include a call to follow Christ and serve his purpose. I’m afraid that in experience-driven Christianity, this may not always be communicated clearly. God’s call to salvation anticipates a call to serve his purpose and testify to him and his glory. According to Matthew 28:18-20 we all have the obligation to lead our neighbors and the nations to follow Jesus.
  • In order to hear/sense God’s call, we need to have distractions removed. That fateful summer camp for me provided a time of devoted attention to hearing from God. Moses’ burning bush experience occurred in the wilderness where he was alone. Many of David’s psalms were written during his alone time with the sheep. The principle is this: if we are going to hear from God, we need to make time to be alone and quiet with him. Cell phones, television, and other distractions must be removed so we can hear and experience God.

What about you? Have you experienced God’s call to salvation? I hope so. Nothing is more important than knowing God and being confident of eternal life. If you have that peace, then have you embraced God’s call to serve his purpose and live his mission? If not, why not make time to pause, pray, and hear from God about his calling on your life.