Posts

Moving From Guilt to Freedom

Written By Deborah Lee, Singapore

My heart was tense. I kept remembering the recent conversation with my former church leader. I had explained to her my decision to leave for a new church,* and apologized for letting her down.

But she was visibly upset, and directed hurtful, accusing words at me. After that conversation, I tried texting her once a week, but her reply was always short— “I’m fine. Thank you.” The last time I texted her, she stopped replying altogether.

This leader had been a great help to me during my discipleship journey. I remember when she first brought me to the church five years ago. I was facing some complex family issues then, and she was one of the persons who directed me to God and showered me with love.

I grew spiritually in that church. I was grateful for the comfort they provided, and I made a promise to stay faithful to the church and to eventually bring my family there for worship. But that never happened, and now with my departure, it won’t be happening at all.

I felt helpless, and God seemed so far away. I was so consumed by that feeling of helplessness that I woke up one Sunday morning, and didn’t feel like worshipping God. But I figured I should at least go to church and listen to the sermon, so I eventually dragged myself out of bed.

 

The Bondage That Held Me

As the worship leader led us to begin singing the song “No Longer Slaves,” I remember praying, “Lord, show me what is hindering me. I just want to worship you.”

God brought to light my guilt over leaving my previous church. While it was not necessarily wrong for me to leave, I felt guilty for not fulfilling my promise to my former church leader.

I had also raised my voice during the discussion with my church leader. I was defensive and somewhat bitter as I explained my reasons for leaving. Hence, I was guilty also for taking offense instead of seeking peace (1 Peter 3:11, Matthew 5:9). I should have answered with gentleness and respect (Proverbs 15:1), thus keeping a clear conscience. Instead, I sinned, and in turn, led my church leader further into sin also.

As we continued singing, I became immersed in the lyrics: I’m no longer a slave to fear, I am a child of God. . . We’ve been liberated from our bondage, we are the sons and daughters, let us sing our freedom. . .

I found myself lifting up my hands as we sang. Tears filled my eyes as I recalled how the Lord had rescued me again and again in the past. Though I have faced many tough situations, the Lord has always carried me and walked me through my darkest moments.

At the end of the song, I felt as if God were speaking into my heart, “Don’t hold onto the guilt of leaving anymore. Look at My redemptive work on the cross. Lay down your burden; I will carry it. You are no longer a slave. You are mine. Be set free.”

 

Where Freedom Is Found

As I shared my worship experience with a trusted friend, she pointed me to Romans 8:1-4. If we are in Christ, there is no condemnation; the Spirit is life-giving and sets us free from the power of sin and death. No matter what mistake we have made, Christ has died to set us free from condemnation. As long as we put our faith in Him, His sacrifice on the cross justifies us. No human work can do or undo this justification.

When we live according to the Spirit by faith, we can repent, experience Christ’s forgiveness, and move on by His grace even if the person we have wounded has not yet forgiven us. Our flesh is weak. We do things we should not. But there is power at the cross. At the same place where God freely offers forgiveness when we ask, there is a redemptive work that empowers us to live differently—to let go of guilt, and focus on leading a life worthy of the Lord, pleasing Him in every way and bearing fruit in His kingdom (Colossians 1:10-12).

Through the worship on Sunday morning, God taught me to focus on the power of His cross—even in our confusion and brokenness, it brings both healing and direction for a way forward.

Though my former church leader has yet to forgive me, I know that God already has. Because I am set free from the guilt, I can now pray without hindrance for my church leader to also find healing at the redemptive work on the cross. I continue to pray for the eventual reconciliation of our relationship.

 

* I do not encourage changing churches lightly. No church is perfect, and generally we should remain in our home church and seek to grow spiritually there, encouraging and supporting one another to grow in Christ. However, if you do feel led to move on to a new church, it should be done only after careful consideration, a period of prayer, seeking the Lord through reading His Word, and counsel from mature Christian mentors or church elders.

When I Got Tired of Hiding My Sins

Written By Dorothy Norberg, USA

“The truth will find you out.”

When I was a small child, these words struck fear in my heart, because when my mother quoted them to me, it meant that even though she lacked sufficient proof to discipline me for my disobedience, she knew that I had sinned and was leaving my conscience to God.

This line from Numbers 32:23 was issued by Moses as a warning to Israel against violating their covenant relationship with God, but it also illustrates the general idea that even though we can bury the evidence of our sin and refuse to confess, we cannot escape the reality of our misdeeds.

When I read mystery stories, I always looked forward to the moment when the detectives would unmask a criminal. But in real life, I identified more with the criminal who hid his or her guilt, afraid of the moment when they would have to face the truth and its consequences. Nothing terrified me more than the thought of people seeing how bad I really was.

As I matured, I stopped wasting my mother’s time by lying about deeds that I had obviously done, but I sinned in other ways. People at church thought that I was a sweet girl, but at home, I was characterized by angry outbursts and disdain for others. When youth leaders praised me for my biblical knowledge and sterling character, I tried to convince them that I wasn’t nearly as godly as they thought, but they just chalked up points for my supposed humility, never understanding how bad I actually was. There was no way for me to convince people of my brokenness without shocking and alienating them, so I kept my public behavior up to the level of others’ expectations and felt like a total fake.

 

Confronting the Truth About Who I Am

I spent hours obsessing over my own perceived guilt and innocence, and this drew me even deeper into my lifelong interest in mystery stories. According to Hannah Anderson, who writes about how detective novels helped her discover the importance of truth in a chapter of her book All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment, readers gravitate towards this genre in search of “something that is more elusive in our real lives: certainty, truth, and resolution.” These are exactly the things that I was searching for—and yet at the same time was most afraid of.

Near the end of my teenage years, I devoured every single Agatha Christie mystery, enjoying the adventures of her famous detectives, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, as well as those of her lesser-known detectives. Agatha Christie’s mysteries, published from 1920 to 1973, are famous for their ingenious twists and moral core; her detectives love justice and seek out the facts regardless of the personal or social costs.

As Hannah Anderson writes, “Pursuing truth requires more than knowing where the facts lead. It requires the honesty to actually follow them, no matter who they implicate.” When I reached the denouement of books where the murderer was a likable person or a love interest, I would inwardly groan, because I didn’t want it be them!

As I dealt with this fictional reality, I realized how much murder mysteries illustrate the truth of human depravity. We tend to assume the worst of unlikable people, while minimizing the sins of those who seem sympathetic, but we are all sinners, and our inner guilt doesn’t always manifest in our outward appearance. It pained me to think about characters that I cared about facing imprisonment or death because of what they had done, but this was the punishment that they had earned, and if the detective had not discovered their guilt, innocent people would have remained under suspicion.

The truth must come out, even when it is unpleasant, and seeing this reality at work in fiction encouraged me to be more courageous in facing the truth about myself. At the same time that I was reading a murder mystery a day, I became aware of red flags in my own life, recognizing that sin issues which I had ignored out of confusion and helplessness had become deep-rooted in my everyday habits and thoughts.

I could have spun stories about myself to ease the tensions between my problems and my ideals, but instead of looking for evidence to confirm a personal narrative, I held myself to the higher standard of truth that the best murder mysteries encourage, willing to deal with the facts in the most accurate, impartial way.

 

The Truth That Sets Us Free

I discovered that I was far worse than I had originally thought, and my feelings of guilt intensified. During this time, I became much less interested in explaining my sins away, because what I needed was forgiveness, not a better narrative.  This sense of desperation drew me back to a verse that I had memorized as a child: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9, ESV).

I clung to this promise, knowing that even though it was excruciating for me to reevaluate my life and face up to my sin, God would not leave me in the depths of my depravity. He promised to cleanse and purify me, and all I had to do was confess and reach for Him in faith.

“Truth is more important than my self-image,” I insisted, and as I accounted for the facts, faced reality, and moved forward in repentance, I learned what it means to be loved by a God who already knows everything about me (Psalm 139:1-5). The consequences that I had feared seemed paltry in comparison to God’s lavish grace, and I knew that His mercy had always been there for me, even during my worst moments.

As the psalmist writes, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (Psalm 32:1-2). I was finally free to face the truth, and I knew what it felt like to be cleansed of my sin.

When I finally told people about my struggles, they responded with compassion and understanding, but my greatest relief came from the divine grace that I laid claim to in faith. Because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, I am cleansed of my sin and clothed in His righteousness (Isaiah 61:10), and this frees me from the bondage of sin and from my old, constraining fear of reality.

At the cross, all that I am, and everything that I have done, is totally exposed, but even though this can be an excruciating thought, it guarantees that I will never have to defend illusions about my own goodness again. My sin will find me out, but the mercy of Christ will restore me, because the One who has always seen the whole truth chooses to love me anyway.

I Thought I Would Never Forgive

Written By Deborah Lee, Singapore

When I got married and moved in with my husband’s family, there were many conflicts. I was immature and hot-tempered, and exchanged many harsh words with my in-laws. I continued to anger my in-laws for days after heated quarrels, and eventually my mother-in-law called me a “nobody’s child,” emphasizing how unwanted, unloved, and unwelcome I was.

After a year of this—my husband often siding with his parents—I left the house on a bad note. My departure supposedly marked an end to the verbal abuse I had suffered. However, I carried with me a lot of anger and hurt. These had been accumulating since the day I got married and left my parents’ home to stay with my in-laws, all the way to the day I was called a “nobody’s child.” The insults left a deep wound in my heart. In my darkest moments, I even wished misfortune upon my husband’s family.

During this time, I stayed with a church friend. My pastor and mentor continued to follow up with me concerning my family struggles, and they constantly urged me to bring them before God. In the quiet home where I now was, I began searching through God’s Word. The more I searched, the more I was captivated by God’s promises for us during bad times, He was constantly reminding me of how He keeps track of my tears (Psalm 56:8) and how His plans for me are good. In those times of desperation where I felt extremely vulnerable, God’s assurance of my future held me close to Him. Through His Word, God continually led me to a place of repentance and surrender.

But I still struggled internally. Even though I was no longer staying with my husband’s family, phone calls with my husband triggered memories and anger again. My husband continued to side with his parents and insisted that I owed them an apology. It felt like everyone accused me of being the problem.

 

God Is My Defender

Through all this, I wrestled with God. I kept telling Him, “It’s not fair that I have to go through all this. I did not marry to be bullied. Everyone has a defender except for me. Who will hear me? Why can’t I just escape it all?” I wished that I had a different battle, something I could either manage or escape. But so often in life, we cannot choose our battles.

As I wrestled with God, I was reminded of Romans 8:31-32. If God is for me, who can be against me? He did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for me—how will He not also graciously give me all things? As I read those words in the Bible, I felt as if it were God speaking to me, assuring me that He is with me, and would give me the strength I needed to overcome this situation. As I continued reading in verses 34-35, I was reminded that there is no condemnation in Christ, and nothing can separate us from God’s love.

I began to see that God was not being unfair. I began to sense that He was indeed with me. Even if everyone in the world were to condemn me, because of Christ’s sacrifice, God does not condemn me. Nothing can separate me from God’s love. As I leaned into the words in Romans 8, I began to see my situation in a different light. I began to see the purpose in my hurt. Through my hurt, I experienced God’s assurance and comfort. Even if I was condemned by people around me, I found hope in God.

God had allowed these events for me to see His love for me. If I had not been failed by men, I would not have turned to God. God in His faithfulness had used events in my life to draw me back to Him and show me His blessings. I could not deny God’s sovereignty throughout these events.

 

My Struggle to Forgive

While Romans 8 comforted me, Matthew 7:3-5 convicted me. In this passage, Jesus reminds us to get rid of the plank in our own eye before accusing others of the speck in their eyes. These verses spoke to the heart of my situation. If I were to say that I was not at fault, I would obviously be lying to myself. I shouted at my in-laws instead of showing them respect. I was rude to them, and that was not pleasing to God either. These verses reminded me that, all along, I had been pointing fingers at others without paying attention to the plank in my own eye. I owed my husband’s family an apology.

I knew I needed to repent. But truth be told, it was hard for me to do so when neither my husband nor his family showed any remorse for their actions against me. They continued to insist that they were not at fault. Surely, it wouldn’t be fair if I pretended like nothing had happened and allowed them to continue to bully me.

 

Enabled by God’s Love to Forgive

Over time, God encouraged me and renewed my mind. As I continued reading the Bible, I increasingly realized that I was God’s precious child, not a defenceless “nobody’s child.” In my broken moments, I learned to anchor myself in God. I no longer needed to walk in the brokenness of unfairness, anger, and despair. Instead, I could see my situation through God’s eyes—filled with hope and purpose. I was determined not to fall back into my old self, enslaved to self-pity and hopelessness.

When I first tried apologizing to my in-laws, they remained aloof and continued to hurl words of insult and condemnation. But I held on to the promises that God had given me and persevered. And through a long period of endurance and patience, my husband and family eventually softened their hearts and accepted me as family once again.

This process involved a lot of self-denial, heartache, and pain, but God showed me that we should overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). The famous words of Martin Luther King, Jr. resonate with me. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” The only way to experience forgiveness and be able to forgive is to first experience the love of God for ourselves and show others His love.

Our reconciliation eventually moved my husband to purchase a new home with me, and we had the blessing of my in-laws to live as a married couple. But more important to me than even this reconciliation, is realizing that having God in my life is the greatest good, especially in the face of conflicts or trials. None of this would have been possible if not for God’s love for me, compelling me to live a life worthy of Him and radiate His love to others. Nothing surpasses the worth of knowing God. As I see the goodness of God working in my life to redeem me from the darkness, forgiveness is made easier.

What Difference Does Jesus Make?

Written By Paul Wong

Paul is the campus pastor at Singapore Management University’s Christian Fellowship (SMUCF). Prior to that, he was a ministry trainee at St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, London, where he spent two years in full-time ministry training, having previously worked as a corporate lawyer in the City of London. In his free time he enjoys photography, reading popular history, and spending time with his family. He is presently thinking about exercising more.

 

Jesus doesn’t really make life better

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him. (Philippians 3:8-9, ESV)

The man who penned those words wrote them from a cold, lonely prison cell in about AD 60, chained 24/7 to a Roman guard. As he writes the letter, his reputation and good name are being dragged through the mud by rivals, jealous of his influence over the churches in Asia and Macedonia. Indeed those very same churches he planted, including the one at Philippi to whom he’s presently writing, are under the threat of persecution or apostasy. In short, much of what this man has labored for, and achieved, in the last decades of his life is under attack and at risk of being destroyed.

So, what difference does believing in Jesus make to Paul of Tarsus (c.5–c.64/67)? Well, in one sense you could say: quite a lot. But not in a good way.

When Paul writes that he has suffered the loss of all things, he really means it. Status, security—all of it gone. And all because he has spent much of his adult life in the single-minded proclamation of salvation through faith in Jesus.

So the big, gaping question for us has got to be: How could he consider that “gaining Christ” was of “surpassing worth” when compared to the loss of literally everything? Why does he describe his previous comfortable life as “dung” (as the old King James Version translates it), when he now languishes in jail? Those are extraordinary things to write.

I think Paul would have said that it has all to do with his deep assurance of the love that God has for him, and how that love was ultimately displayed when Jesus showed up. Paul knows something which, for him, changes everything. ‘Tis the Season, so I’ll try and explain it in Christmassy terms.

 

 

Christmas I: Forgiveness and relationship

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea (today’s West Bank) that first Christmas, He came for a reason. The events surrounding His miraculous birth attest this. One eyewitness record of His life tells us that He is named Jesus (meaning “God saves”) “because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). That means that His singular purpose on earth was to rescue men and women from the punishment that we deserve for our rejection of God.

I wonder what you think of that. Perhaps the concept of a creator is so alien to you that you think this is all hogwash (in which case I’d encourage you to read some of the other articles in this series). Perhaps you think you’re a good person at heart—so this idea of punishment for “sins” is just ridiculous.

But Paul of Tarsus would look you in the eye and ask you to be honest with yourself: are you truly “good”? Who gets to decide anyway? Paul would say to us that in virtually everyone’s books he was a good person—blameless under his understanding of the Jewish laws (Philippians 3:4-6)—and yet a total failure in the eyes of a holy and righteous God.

Here’s why: God doesn’t merely view “sin” as the bad stuff you and I do wrong every day. What he says is far more offensive. He says that we are living in darkness and in rebellion to Him. Humanity is living in His world (trashing it even), using His stuff and breathing His air, all without any reference or deference to Him. And that’s a problem because if God is holy and just and good, and if I’m living as if He’s a nobody, then that kind of behavior deserves judgment—just ask any parent.

But God, in His deep love for His creation and His desire for a relationship with His people, administers the antidote Himself by sending Jesus. God provides forgiveness and a way out from our otherwise inevitable judgment. And the way that happens is by Jesus dying on a Roman cross, taking on our behalf the punishment that we deserve for living in God’s world as if he didn’t exist. Jesus’ sacrifice secures our forgiveness. He stands in our place—condemned as a sinner so that we might be pardoned. Christmas happened for Easter, as my old pastor puts it.

Trusting in that sacrifice means that God now sees us as He sees Jesus. The Bible describes Christians as being “hidden with Christ”. Incredibly, God no longer sees our sin, but the righteous perfection of His Son instead. Crucially, repentance (turning from our rebellion) and faith (trusting Jesus) bring us into relationship with God. As a Christian I can listen to Him speak in His Word, the Bible, and speak back to Him, knowing He hears me because I trust in Jesus.

This is the knowledge that changes everything.

Because he is a Christian, Paul of Tarsus can be sure that he need not fear the judgment of God. He is certain of the forgiveness won on his behalf at the cross. So even as he sits in a dirty jail cell, incredibly, he cannot help but rejoice at the receipt of this free gift. He might die condemned as a criminal, but ultimately he knows that he has been made right with his maker.

What difference does believing in Jesus make? He offers forgiveness for our rejection of God, and a relationship which begins now and lasts forever. And that is everything.

 

Christmas II: A different time frame

For Paul though, that’s not the end of the story (though there is plenty to cherish already!). The rest is all to do with the time frame.

Before Jesus died, He promised to return. There are two Christmases if you like, and the second is still to come.

Jesus promised that when He returns, He does so as judge of the world. And for those who trust in Him, there is a promise of eternal life—but not here on this broken world. In a place where the frustrations of this life will be a distant memory. A perfect heaven without sin, suffering, or pain.

Now here’s the thing. Being a Christian doesn’t make your life better now. In fact in all sorts of ways it makes your life more difficult (just ask Paul!). But what being a Christian does is to radically shift your time frame. It stretches this idea of “life” past our short 70-90 years on earth and into eternity.

Crucially what Jesus promises is a relationship with Him that is satisfying and soul-quenching because it is not temporary. It’s a relationship with the God of the universe which begins now but stretches on beyond your death, which means that Christians are those who will eventually be satisfied forever. That is knowledge which changes everything.

That has been my experience. Living life as a committed Christian in the world today isn’t a walk in the park (I doubt it has ever been for any Christian through the ages). The fight against sin brings me to my knees in prayer.

My work as a campus pastor is often very busy, and sometimes stressful and discouraging. Some of my non-Christian family continue to describe my job as useless. There seem to be challenges and discouragements at every turn. I do sometimes wonder how life could be more stable and secure if I had stayed on as a corporate lawyer. In fact, I have no doubt that it would be, humanly speaking!

But these wobbly moments are steadied in the face of the glorious truth that I am already forgiven, and headed for a better, brighter, eternal future with my savior. If the Bible is true (and I encourage you to test its veracity), then the frankly infrequent difficulties of being a Christian are but a blip on God’s eternal timeline.

The words of Paul are comforting: For I consider that the sufferings (if you could even call them that!) of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:18, ESV; parenthesis mine)

So, what difference does believing in Jesus make to Paul of Tarsus? Well, in one sense you could say: quite a lot. And in the best way possible. When Paul writes that knowing Jesus is of surpassing worth, he really means it. Forgiveness assured, relationship with God secured, and an eternal happiness to look forward to. And all because of salvation through trust in Jesus.

Can I ask: will you consider putting your trust in Jesus this Christmas?

 

Editor’s Note: This is the last article in a four-part series on who Jesus is. Read the first article, “Why Do We Even Need A Savior?” here, the second article, “Why Did Jesus Have to Come As A Human?” here, and the third article, “How Was Jesus Both God and Man?” here.