Pam's tortured conscience

How to avoid the pitfalls that await conscientious souls seeking peace of mind and freedom from guilt.

Martin Weber, DMin, is communication director for the Mid-America Union of Seventh-day Adventists, headquartered in Lincoln, Nebraska, United States.

Twelve years ago Pam gave her heart to Jesus. As she rejoiced in her new salvation, power over sin surged into her life. She imagined that within a few weeks she could be perfect—just like Jesus—through faith in His indwelling strength.

Somehow that didn't happen, and guilt mingled with doubt began gnawing at her conscience: "Since I'm not any where near perfect yet, I wonder if I'm worthy of heaven. . . . Suppose I'm not even saved anymore!"

Pam confided her confusion to a friend, who came up with some quick advice: "You're trying to do it all by yourself, silly! Just let go, and let Jesus live His perfect life in you."

But, Pam remained perplexed. "How do I do that?"

"You missed the point—He does it!"

"But He won't do it without me. I must have some part to do."

"Well, you know, just surrender your will to Jesus every morning and nurture that relationship with Him. Then when temptation comes, Christ will naturally live out His victory within you—as long as you don't resist."

That sounded sensible, but she had already been surrendering her life to Jesus in sincere prayer every day. Now she increased her devotional time, studying the character of Christ with the intensity of a college senior prepping for a final exam.

Still she found no spiritual satisfaction. In fact, her sense of guilt even worsened. You see, the more she learned about Jesus, the more aware she became of her own unlikeness to the Lord. That left her with deeper hopelessness than ever. Often she rose from her knees in greater despair than when she began praying.

Pam also got discouraged when she compared herself with women in her prayer group who seemed to enjoy a closer relationship with Jesus than she did. They reveled in being filled with the Holy Spirit and reported all kinds of star-spangled answers to prayer. Poor Pam couldn't recall any of her prayers answered. Nothing major, anyway.

Intimidated by those super-saints, she consoled herself by contrasting her sober lifestyle with church members who apparently lacked commitment. Those who didn't join prayer groups, didn't have daily devotions, or didn't send their kids to Christian schools.

Although Pam hated herself for indulging such a "holier-than-thou" attitude, she couldn't make herself stop. Self-righteousness provided the only refuge from a torturing conscience.

Her friends considered her one of the most helpful and humble Christians they knew. She wasn't all that happy, they could tell, but her pious convictions impressed them. Even so, guilt, like a nagging toothache, hounded her constantly.

Pam hated to admit it, yet it was true just the same: she had actually been happier before becoming a Christian!

Before long she secretly resented religion for ruining her life (which made her feel all the more guilty). Why go on trying to please God? What was the use?

All sinners

Finally she decided to discuss her frustrations with her pastor. There in the church office, she opened the conversation: "I've always admired you, Pastor. You seem to know the whole Bible back ward and forward. I wish I knew the Lord as you do."

"And I admire many of your qualities too, Pam," he responded. "But both of us have a serious problem. The apostle Paul exposes it in Romans 3. Notice verses 22 and 23: 'There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.'

"You see, all of us fall short of perfection. So there is no difference, no distinction—none are better or worse than others in the church. We all deserve damnation."

She looked startled as he continued. "Really, none of us are any more worthy than the most desperate criminal cringing on death row. We don't even deserve the polluted air we breathe. When you hold up my life, or your life—or anyone's life—comparing it to Christ's character, we all come up short. Evidently there's no ground for comparisons. We're all equally unworthy."

Pam observed with a rueful smile, "In other words, I'm not OK— but at least you're not OK either! That doesn't leave us with much hope, does it?" "Well, we can be thankful the story doesn't end there. Listen to this good news: 'But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)' (Eph. 2:4, 5).

Redeemed together

"Do you see what has happened now? We are alive together in the Lord Jesus Christ. Before we were doomed together. But now in Jesus we are redeemed together. So we're equal again."

Pam perked up as the pastor added. "Let me tell you about Lisa, a new believer in a church I used to serve. She compared herself with older Christians and got discouraged. They seemed to have a better prayer vocabulary than she did. Or they didn't appear bothered with the doubts and struggles she faced. Soon Lisa developed a spiritual inferiority complex.

"She would have been shocked to realize many of the older Christians en vied her—the same ones she put on a pedestal. Her fresh faith and eager enthusiasm for the Lord made them nervous. They felt threatened by her. Seeking to build themselves up, they put her down, finding in her young spiritual life things to criticize. Feeling condemned, Lisa finally got so depressed she almost left the church."

"I know how that feels," Pam interjected. "I've been on the verge of giving up too."

"That's tragic! How few of us really know the gospel. The gospel that makes us all equal—equally lost without Jesus, equally saved in Christ. Whatever our level of Christian growth, all of us share the same perfect record of Jesus Christ. We must all approach God through His mercy, not on the basis of our character development. Our hope, you see, is never in our spiritual attainments, but in Christ's sacrifice for us on the cross. And our assurance of salvation is not our feeble love for God, but His great love for us in Christ.

"Comparisons are foolish," the pastor continued, shaking his head. They always create barriers of inferiority, hypocrisy, intolerance—barriers that Jesus tore down at the cross. There is no difference now between believers. We are either saved or lost —no second-class Christians. And no super-saints who stand more acceptable before God than the poorest straggling believer."

All share perfection

Pam looked excited. "This is such a wonderful concept that it's hard to get hold of. Let me try to put it in my own words. When I accept Jesus as my Saviour, God considers me as perfect as He is—even though I'm very much imperfect. Is that it? And since you have accepted Jesus, you're counted just that perfect too. We all share Christ's perfection—there's no difference now! That means that I don't have to feel intimidated again by anyone!

"Well," she concluded, "I guess I don't have to prove myself to other Christians. Not even to God! He loves and accepts me completely in Jesus."

"Amen!" the pastor concurred.

"Day by day, Pam, just cast yourself upon God's mercy and obey His will. When you fall, confess your sin and ask for His help next time around. As you keep committing your life to Him, He will keep counting you perfect in Jesus. Keep resting in His love, and He will quietly develop in you a character that will honor Him and make you a great blessing in this world."

All that week she thought over what she learned from the pastor. It all made sense. For the first time in years, rays of hope and peace began brightening her life.

Next weekend at church the pastor shared lessons from the life of Abraham. Called in Scripture the father of the faithful, the ancient patriarch's original name was Abram, and his wife's name was Sarai. They lived in the city of Ur, within the present Persian Gulf region of Iraq. God called them out of their homeland with the promise to make them the parents of a great nation.

Abram and Sarai accepted the Lord's call by faith, wandering obediently from place to place before finally settling in the area we know as Israel. Finally the time came for God to fulfill His promise.

That was the night the Lord surprised Abram outside his tent and urged him to look up at the desert sky. "See the stars? So shall the number of your descendants be," God declared.

Quite a promise indeed, especially for an elderly couple with no children of their own. Then God announced another surprise. He invited them immediately to consider themselves the parents of a great nation. He even changed their names to reflect their parenthood:

"No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you a father of many nations" (Gen. 17:4). Sarai's name God changed to Sarah, which meant "mother of many nations." It took quite some faith for Abraham and Sarah to accept their new names. How could a man 100 years old and his childless wife of 90 consider themselves already the parents of many nations?

Humanly speaking, the idea was foolish. So ridiculous that Abraham "fell on his face and laughed" right there in the presence of God. Eventually Abraham and Sarah grasped God's promise, and He counted their faith as righteousness. Remember that God had already declared them to be parents—something they were not. Something they were completely unworthy of considering themselves to be. But by faith they welcomed their new names anyway.

Unworthy but perfect

Through the experience of Abraham and Sarah we learn about the faith by which we are saved. We must accept God's declaration of something we are not—God justifies [forgives] the ungodly," according to Romans 4:5. When we repent and believe, the Lord counts us perfect through the blood of Christ— even though we are totally unworthy.

God does not leave us helplessly trapped in failure, however. Alcoholics become sober through God's grace. Adulterers become trustworthy spouses. We forgive others as God has forgiven us.

Faith also transformed the lives of Abraham and Sarah. She gave birth to Isaac, the miracle child of promise. And just as faith worked miracles for Abraham and Sarah, faith in Christ will bring about the miracle of transformed lives today.

No, salvation by grace doesn't give us permission to fool around with sin. God offers all the power we need to keep from yielding to temptation.

But let's be careful here. Victory over sin never becomes the basis of our salvation. The miracle of a changed life never becomes our ticket to heaven.

Remember Abraham's miracle child Isaac. As the young fellow matured and bore children of his own, did Abraham become more worthy to have the title "father of many nations"? No, from beginning to end it was God's mercy alone—not that miracle in Abraham's life—that qualified him for acceptance with Him. Likewise with us. Sincere faith will bring victories over sin, but such miracles never become the basis of whether God can accept us. Only through the blood of Christ are we ever worthy of heaven.

Well, that was quite a sermon for Pam. Learning the truth about Abraham really helped her understand the good news of salvation. Questions lingered, of course, so the following week she visited the church office again.

Holy Spirit Living

"You've helped me a lot, Pastor, but I'm still perplexed. What about the Holy Spirit? How can the Holy Spirit live in my heart unless I first achieve holiness myself?"

The pastor explained, "The Spirit lives within us because God has already made us His children through Jesus—not be cause we are worthy," her minister explained. "Remember Abraham. The Holy Spirit gave him power to become a father, but that was only after God had already accepted him as the father of many nations."

"But what if I momentarily resist the Holy Spirit and yield to temptation? Like if I get mad at the kids. Am I lost at that moment?"

"No, thank God. Abraham failed too from time to time—he even lied about being married to Sarah. Yet the Bible says he did not waver from his faithfulness. He wobbled, but he didn't waver! It's the general trend of our lives, not some occasional good deed or misdeed, that shows whether we are genuine Christians."

"You know, Pam, along the gospel freeway lie two opposite ditches, equally treacherous. Off to the left you have the ditch of presumption—people thinking they are saved while refusing to surrender themselves to Christ. To them, forsaking their sinful ways is something optional— nice but not necessary. They overlook that faith in Christ involves a covenant with Him, an agreement similar to the marriage commitment.

"Since you are conscientious, Pam, your big battle isn't with presumption. Your tendency is to fall into the opposite ditch, legalism—basing your salvation on your spiritual accomplishments rather than of rejoicing in what Jesus has already done as your Saviour. You've got to guard against that and keep trusting in the blood of Jesus."

"But Pastor, I want so much to over come every sin!"

"The devil knows that, and all these years he's been taking advantage of your sincerity. It seems incredible, but it's true just the same—many earnest Christians actually compete against Christ. Seeking to equal His perfect character, they fail to find refuge in Him as their substitute. Yes, they go to Him for strength, but they don't trust His blood to cover their short comings. Because of such legalism they never find rest."

"You're right. I've been miserable all these years."

"Pam, you might have been confusing what the Bible calls the fruit of the gospel—a changed life—with the gospel itself. The gospel, you see, is the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The fruit of the gospel is a transformed life because of the indwelling Christ. Do you see the difference?1

"I certainly do. I guess I've been making my pattern of Christian growth the basis of my salvation—rather than finding my security in the blood of Jesus."

"You've got it. Christian living offers all kinds of possibilities, but my faith must remain rooted in God's forgiveness. I could memorize 10 books of the Bible during the next year, perhaps the entire New Testament. But if I fall short of that goal, am I lost? It might be possible for me to win my whole neighborhood to Christ this coming year. But suppose I fail—am I lost? It's possible for me to be such a good father that I run circles around Bill Cosby. But am I lost if I simply love them and show them Jesus?"

Once saved always saved?

"Spiritual security is wonderful, Pastor. But how far does it go? Once I'm saved, is it impossible for me to become lost?"

"Well, think of a married couple. Nobody in the world can rob them of their relationship, but they can forfeit it them selves by their own free choice. The national divorce rate tragically attests that there's no such thing as once-married, always-married. We Christians like wise must preserve our relationship with Christ throughout life. God keeps us in His grace, but only as we continue yielding ourselves to Him. If we return to our old lifestyle, we squander our salvation." 2

"Well," she responded, "since it is possible to become lost again, at what point would we forfeit our salvation?"

"Suppose a husband and wife have a little argument. They might say things that don't reflect the love they really do cherish for each other. Later they feel ashamed and deeply sorry. So they con fess to each other and make up. Now tell me. After they have cleared the air with their confession, must they go down to the county courthouse and get married again?"

"Certainly not," she answered, laughing at the absurdity of the suggestion.

"Now, if they refused to admit their guilt and stubbornly denied their sinfulness, that marriage would ultimately be lost. Any problem, even something small, can eventually split apart a relationship unless it is confessed and confronted. So in the Christian life. We must confess specific sin—to nip it in the bud before it becomes a cherished sin, something more important to us than Jesus. Otherwise, we would indeed lose our salvation. Thank God, though, we don't have to live in the dungeon of spiritual insecurity. Having entrusted ourselves to Jesus we can know we are saved."

Feelings and faith

"But what happens when I don't feel saved?"

"Feelings often fool us, Pam. People with terminal cancer often feel fine, unaware of their fatal condition. On the other hand, we might feel awful when really nothing is wrong.

"Spiritually, too, feelings often fail to tell the truth. We might have great confidence about heaven even while lost outside of Christ. And we might struggle with guilt when everything is fine with our relationship with our Lord."

"I think I'm understanding that now, Pastor. But there's something else that really bothers me. Often I feel impatient or resentful, and I ask the Lord to take those desires to sin away. But I still have those cravings—even when I spend a lot of time with Jesus."

"Pam, you could spend the whole day praying, and still the fact remains that you have a sinful nature that produces those cravings."

"But doesn't the Bible say we'll get a new heart?"

"That means a new attitude, a new willingness to resist temptation and fol low Jesus. Cravings of the flesh remain to tempt us. Listen to this from the book of James: 'Each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed' (James 1:14). So we all have desires for sin that conflict with our commitment. The important thing is that we don't yield to those urges."

The battle ended

"But I wish God would take all those sinful cravings away!"

"That won't happen until Jesus comes, when He will change our vile bodies into ones like His glorious body. Till then, the Spirit and the flesh battle it out, and it's up to us to make the right choices."

"Can't I just let go and let Jesus fight my battles?"

"The Bible says we must fight the good fight of faith and 'run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus' (Hebrews 12:1, 2). God's Word has a lot to say about effort, Pam.

It takes effort to get up in the morning to spend time with Jesus. It takes effort when temptation comes to turn to God for help. God gives strength, but we must trust Him for it. That's not always easy."

"Well, Pastor, all this is so wonderful! I sure hope I remember everything so I don't lose my peace with God."

"Pam, peace with God isn't an emotion that comes and goes. It's a state of legal innocence that is ours through the gospel. Whether or not we feel peace, we can know that we have it with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1). Pleas ant feelings are nice, but they're not necessary to be saved—a surrendered heart entrusted to Christ is what counts."

Pam looked relieved as she departed the pastor's office. She left behind all her years of insecurity and uncertainty, of being tortured by her conscience. Now her life is a pageant of rejoicing in Jesus.

How about you? Why not give your self a spiritual checkup? Have you repented of your sins and accepted Jesus as your Saviour and Lord? If so, then, thank God, your sins are forgiven. When God looks down from heaven He smiles at you and says, "This is Joe, my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased."

"Oh no, Lord," you may protest, "You can't be happy with me—I'm still struggling with problems. After I conquer them, I can consider myself worthy to be Your child."

God responds, "I've got the power to help you overcome your problems. But even now you are 'accepted in the Be loved,' 'you are complete in Him' (Eph.l:6; Col. 2:10). Not because you are worthy but because you have accepted the life of My Son."

"God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. These things have I written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life" (1 John 5:11-13). 

1. Colossians 1:4-6 clearly distinguishes between the "word of truth of the gospel" and the "fruit" of the gospel, a victorious life.

2. Consider the parable Jesus told in Matthew 18 about the unjust servant. His master had set him free from a huge debt, yet the ungrateful man refused to pass along that forgiveness. He went out and hunted down someone who owed him a pittance, threatening the poor debtor. The unforgiving servant had his own forgiveness cancelled. Other texts which warn against forfeiting salvation are Matthew 24:13, Colossians 1:22, 23 and 1 Corinthians 9:27.

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Martin Weber, DMin, is communication director for the Mid-America Union of Seventh-day Adventists, headquartered in Lincoln, Nebraska, United States.

March 1992

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