“These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come.”
1 Corinthians 10:11, NRSV
If you’ve found your way to my About page, you know that one of the reasons I had for starting this blog was to provide some hope and instruction to those who may feel like their mistakes run their life or define them. For this post, we are tackling that concept head-on, so buckle up! As per usual, our buddy Paul has a thing or twenty to say.
In chapter 10 of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul goes over the less-than-illustrious history of Israel’s obedience to God in the wilderness between Egypt and the land God promised. You might think that Paul was just going to bash Israel. After all, look at how we and our world handle mistakes, ESPECIALLY if they are as habitual as Israel’s seemed to be.
For example, I lost my parish ministry job via habitually selfish behavior. These were not moments that could be rightfully overlooked, and so I actually have no complaints over losing my job. I deserved it, I can admit that. In fact, being fired helped me understand my sense of self, my call, and the direction I needed to go if I wanted to be and do better. However, it was the response to this situation from others that hurt like hell.
Friends issued obligatory words of comfort and encouragement, and then dropped off the map. Ministers refused to answer or respond to my calls. Colleagues refused to add me on Facebook or even speak to me, except to tell me that they would do neither from that point onward. This is all in addition to rumors that continue to circulate, started, as usual, by those not involved.
If you have made any serious mistake in your life, you have probably started nodding along with the above paragraph, as the judgment contained therein is common when it comes to handling each other’s past misdeeds. Forgiveness is considered a virtue, but not a necessity. Unfortunately, we often adopt this approach to dealing with ourselves, opting to feel even more crippling shame after having it leveled at us from other sources.
Don’t get me wrong. I also had colleagues, friends, and loved ones that showed me the very meaning of God’s grace, and I owe those people more than I could ever repay. The fact remains, though, that I was almost broken by the internal self-abuse that had been plaguing me since childhood, and odds are, you know what that feels like.
This is where Paul comes in.
Paul doesn’t use the passage in 1 Corinthians 10 to shame the nation of Israel. He could, but he doesn’t. Instead, he offers an interpretation of those events that helps give hope and meaning to those less than flattering moments that we all find when we look over our own histories. He does this with a simple sentence: “These things occurred as examples for us” (10:6).
You see, God’s will is not for us to feel shame or allow ourselves to be defined by the worst parts of ourselves. This does not produce righteous living or hope, as you and I both know. If, however, we were to take time to feel the guilt that comes with wrongdoing, address it, understand it, and move forward resolved and equipped to do differently, we have turned that moment of weakness into a learning opportunity. We can become our own sources of instruction, made both wiser and more compassionate by those lessons.
While we should never forget our sin, otherwise we will lack the compassion necessary to deal well with the sin of others, we also shouldn’t allow it to have victory and power over us through a useless sense of shame. Christ is the One who has the victory, and if we say that, if we believe that, we must be willing to do the work of letting him in to our sinful natures so that they may be healed. If we do this, we increase in wisdom, compassion, and thanksgiving for the gracious love of God that has the power to change our lives.
It took months of counseling work and prayer to get to the point where my shame gave way to instruction. My friends, my family, and my amazing wife never once gave up on me, and I realize how lucky I am to have them. Don’t get me wrong, I still have to fight those negative feelings, but Christ continually gives me the power to do so. I am even going back into ministry, seeking to become a chaplain so that I can utilize my gift for sitting with others through the hardest moments life has to offer.
My hope for you, dear reader, is that you realize that no matter what mistakes you have made, no matter how “bad” you may feel yourself to be, God already knows, understands, and forgives you. While you can’t be responsible for the negative attitudes and opinions of others, you can take time to heal and learn, taking that negative power away and turning it into valuable instruction that puts you head and shoulders above others who may not be able to understand.
Now, “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means” (Romans 6:1-2, NRSV)! What we can do is learn from our sin, absorb the grace of God, and reflect that grace and wisdom in our lives. Nobody is perfect, but that is what makes the grace of God so powerful.
Imagine a world in which we actually learned from our mistakes and the mistakes of others. Imagine a world in which we all show grace to one another while still expecting changes to be made. Imagine a world in which forgiveness, wisdom, and humility triumph daily over sin and shame. This is the Kingdom of God, and it waits for you. So take heart, learn your lessons, and let’s move forward together to make this imagined Kingdom a concrete reality.
Peace be with you!