This morning, I was walking nonchalantly along our front walkway when my foot hit a patch of ice, and down I went. It was only the second time in the 28 years that I’ve lived above the Mason-Dixon line that I have fallen from slipping on ice.
Because this morning’s fall (Did I mention that it was only my second one in 28 years?) landed me in the very deep snow just off the sidewalk, with my feet still on the ice, getting up from that fall was a challenge. I reminded myself of Randy, the little brother in “A Christmas Story,” who goes down in his bulky coat and struggles to get back up. I could hear Ralphie saying, “Mark lay there like a slug; it was his only defense.”
In retrospect, I’m reminded of how we believers can easily slip and fall into sin if we fail to walk carefully in our spiritual walks. In Ephesians 5:15-16, Paul, after telling us to walk as children of light and to take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, tells us to look carefully how we walk, not as unwise, but as wise. In other words, walk carefully. Peter echoes this idea when he says, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith…” (1 Peter 5:8-9a).
If we do not take care how we walk – if we are not on our guard – we can become susceptible to a spiritual fall into sin. And like a roaring lion springing from the dense jungle – or like an unseen patch of ice – it can seem to come out of nowhere. It doesn’t matter how infrequently we may have slipped up and gone down in the past; that patch of ice sits there today and is just waiting for a careless foot to slip on it.
As I mentioned, getting up from the snow on my own was difficult, and for a moment I wondered if I would be down for awhile. When we sin, there is one way to get back on our feet and back into a walk with Christ, and that is to confess our sin to God (1 John 1:9). The sin has already been paid for by Christ on the cross, but it can keep us down in a joyless, ineffective place if we fail to own up to it before God. We need to call it what it is: sin. Our pride sometimes wants to explain sin away – to give God all the “good” reasons we have for doing what did (e.g., “Did you see what that guy did to me???”). But sin is sin and needs to be confessed as such lest we find ourselves continuing to slip and slide on the snow and ice as we spew out our self-justifications.
Once we are back up and walking on, we may discover firsthand the truth that falls often have consequences. Getting back on our feet doesn’t always take those consequences away. As I type this, I have a slight muscle pain over the left side of my rib cage from the twisting action that was involved in my trying not to go down. I also had to deal with burning cold on my right hand for awhile from the time that hand spent in the snow as I tried to push myself back up. Spiritual falls have consequences, too. Our sin may have been paid for by Christ, and we may have confessed it to God, but there may still be consequences to what we have done. We must face those humbly in the strength of the Lord, walking on with Him, and taking careful steps as we move forward. We will find that, whatever the consequences may be, God has not abandoned us, and He has “grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). And many times we will find that He cleans up an awful lot of the messes we make. Hopefully, we will learn some lessons and will walk on with care.
I grew up in the South – in Tampa, to be exact. A lot of my friends in childhood were racists, in large part, I believe, because we white kids who grew up in the South in the 60s didn’t know any better. That’s not to make excuses; it’s just reality that kids adopt the views of their parents and tend to hold to those views while they remain children.
My dad was a racist. He used to make fun of black people on TV. He would act disgusted when he saw a black man and a black woman on TV kissing. The “N” word filled the air in our home often.
As the child of my father, I believed him when he told me that a black person would never look you in the eye, that you never wanted to find yourself in a dark alley with a black person, and that all black people carried knives. I didn’t really have any experiences to help me see the error in such statements. For the most part, black people lived in their part of town, and we whites lived in ours. Black kids went to black schools, and white kids went to white schools.
And yet, while my dad’s heart was racist through and through, my own heart, if the truth be told, was a mixed bag. I can remember on some occasions countering racist talk with statements such as, “They’re people, too. They just have a different skin color.” But while saying that, I could laugh at my dad’s “black” impersonations. I remember being with some friends one time when we had a radio on, and Gladys Knight and the Pips’ song “If I Were Your Woman” came on. I ran to sit by the radio, expressing how much I loved that song, and the friends I was with laughed at me for liking “N – noise.” But at the same time, I could sit in my eighth grade science class where Mr. Taylor, a black man and one of my favorite teachers, was telling us about how school busing was going to be implemented the next year; it was not going to affect me, but it would affect my sister, who was a year behind me, and I said to those sitting around me, “My sister ain’t gonna go to school with no “n – .”
Now, it’s important to understand that I was a Christian at that time; in fact, I have been a Christian for as long as I can remember. I cannot recall a time when I did not know that I was going to heaven when I died, not because of good things I have done, but because my sins have been paid for on the cross by Jesus. As a Christian kid in a racist environment, I believe the Spirit of God was drawing me to see the sin of racism while the environment in which I was raised was telling me otherwise. Thus, I was a mixed bag. But all that would change the year after the busing plan got implemented, which happened in my ninth grade year.
Prior to busing (or, as we called it, forced busing), our junior high school (which at the time was grades 7-9) had only two black students, as I recall. They were both girls. I did not know them, but I remember seeing them walking together to class from time to time. They were quiet, and they seemed to me to be nice. That’s all I knew. But when busing happened, our junior high school was suddenly 20% black, and, frankly, that scared me. The thing I didn’t realize at the time was that it might have scared them, too. But sometimes, you figure things out when you get older. During that ninth grade year, my perception of things did not change much. But then came high school (i.e., tenth grade).
In high school, I met a black male student named D’Andre. I don’t remember how we met; it was probably out on the basketball courts after school because that’s where we would go on to spend a lot of our time together. D’Andre became one of my best friends, and in hanging around with him, all the stereotypes I had learned as a child began to crumble. He wasn’t “some black guy” that I knew; he was my friend. And though I have not seen him for decades, I still cherish the friendship we had and hope that someday we might reconnect. God used my friend to turn my heart toward what the Spirit of God had been telling me all along regarding the racism in which I had been raised. I even wound up going against my own father, standing up for D’Andre when he had made a joking comment to my sister that my dad had not liked and for which my dad had banned him from our house. Though my dad has been dead for many years now, I still love him and miss him dearly. But he was dead wrong on that one.
Speaking of my dad, I’m glad to report that he did not leave this earth a racist. In January, 1988, at the age of 56, my dad was diagnosed with cancer that had spread throughout his body and was given months to live. Throughout his life, he had paid lip service to God (once in awhile) but had really had nothing to do with God beyond taking His name in vain. Nevertheless, I took Dad during his illness with me to see the elders of the church I attended in Tampa so that they might anoint him with oil and pray for his healing in accordance with James 5:14. I joined in the process of laying hands on my dad and praying out for him, and while the Lord did not heal him physically, Dad told me later that that was when everything my mom and I had tried to tell him about Jesus clicked and Dad believed on Him; God healed Dad spiritually. And that healing showed up in a way that I never would have believed might happen: Dad suddenly stopped being a racist and even verbally repented of the racism that had been so much a part of his life.
I wish those who deny that there is a God and who deny the power of God could hop into a time capsule and go back to 1988 and see the proof in my dad of the power of the living God to change a heart – even a racist heart.
One of the things about God that blesses me so much is his capacity for forgiveness. Those who come to know God’s forgiveness do so initially when they place their faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins. Doing so makes one a child of God. But while our experience of God’s forgiveness may begin at the cross, it doesn’t end there, for once we become children of God, we proceed to demonstrate what wayward children we are.
There are different levels of waywardness. Some stumble here and there in the details while maintaining an overall walk with God, but others can seemingly tend to wander away from God altogether. Either way, God’s forgiveness is always on the table.
In the Scriptures, Israel and Judah, the two nations that comprised the one people of God (i.e., the Jews) showed a great propensity for wandering away from God. And yet, again and again we see God offering them a way back and receiving them when they would turn back to him. Hosea chapter 6 gives us some good insight into God’s forgiveness of his wayward people. We read in verses 1 and 2: Come, let us return to the LORD, for he has torn us that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days, he will revive us; on the third day, he will raise us up that we may live before him.
A child of God who wanders away will inevitably face difficulties in being away from God. Our Father just won’t let us walk away comfortably. And we see in this passage that at least some of the difficulties we face when we walk away from God come directly from him. The way most people view God would suggest that such difficulties are because he wants us to know just how mad he is about our wandering away. But this passage gives a different view of God: namely, that he hurts us to help us. God wants his wayward children back where they belong (i.e., with him), and the difficulties we face in walking away from God are for the purpose of driving us back to the place that is best for us – the place of refuge and safety. They are for the purpose of directing us back to the God who loves us.
But notice that God’s intention in doing this is not just so we can live happy, self-directed lives doing whatever we want to do. He does it so that “we may live before him.” The self-directed life of doing whatever we want in the belief that God is the ultimate tolerant Being is actually the life of wandering away from God. Living “before him” rather than away from him means that we have a conscious awareness that we are in the presence of the holy and righteous Creator and Judge of the universe. It means taking God seriously in how we live our lives. Will we fail? Absolutely. All the time. That is why we require his forgiveness, which, from a New Testament perspective that Hosea didn’t have, comes through faith in Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, who came to earth to bear our sins on a cross, paying the penalty our sins have earned for us, and offering us forgiveness free and clear through faith in him, a forgiveness which results in a life of fellowship with God and, ultimately, eternal life.
And yet, even when we have this eternal life, we can have times when we wander away from our Lord. When we do, we can be certain that he will (as Hosea says) tear us so that he may heal us, strike us down so that he may bind us up, all in an effort to draw us back to the place of refuge and safety – the place of living before him.
Today, I had to the privilege of visiting a woman who is dying of cancer. She is not an elderly woman; in fact, she’s middle aged. She does not fear death, for she knows without a doubt that her eternity is secure in Christ and that she will be with him when she passes from this life. At the same time, she would love to remain in this life for the sake of her family.
While I was impressed by her strong faith and the certainty it has given her for her eternal future, I was even more blessed by another aspect of her faith: namely, the spiritual growth she is experiencing through her ordeal. Here is a woman who no longer eats solid food, who is exhausted by more than ten minutes of conversation, and for whom the simple act of shifting her position on the sofa brings excruciating pain. Much of her life is shutting down, but her spiritual life continues to grow like a weed. She spoke of how she is learning to submit to the sovereignty of God as she has prayed for healing and has not received it. She spoke of things she is learning about God and hopes to learn in the future, even as her future appears to be very limited. The doctors tell her that she is nearing death; nevertheless, she continues to grow in grace and in the knowledge of her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18). When the Lord does call her home, she will cross the finish line at a full sprint.
We will all one day face the end of our lives on this earth, and for many of us, our ends will come in a manner similar to this woman’s in that our bodies will shut down gradually. But one thing we can all learn from the shining testimony of this dear saint is that, regardless of what happens to our physical bodies, spiritually we need never stop growing.