The words slipped out of my mouth before I could stop them. They were ugly and they came from the very gates of hell as I spit them out at the one I loved most in the world.
They had all the backing of my frustration, my feeling that I had been pushed to the limits of my endurance in an untenable situation. And after they leapt out into the open, I cringed in shame and despair at the pain I had caused, loathing myself, and most of all, feeling crushed by the weakness and frailty of my flesh, my corrupt human nature.
I was unworthy of the beloved standing before me, hurt and disappointed, unworthy of the love that I knew would forgive me the next moment. Worse still, I was unworthy of the Holy Spirit who dwelt in me, having been born again by that same Spirit through God-given faith in Christ Jesus, to whom I had been united.
I knew better. I was committed to a life of holiness through union with Christ. I knew I had been called to
“walk by the Spirit, and . . . not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” (Galatians 5:16-17)
As part of the body of Christ, the church, had not Christ Himself proclaimed that the very “gates of hell shall not prevail against it”? (Matthew 16:18)
It wasn’t the first time I had failed that day to “walk by the Spirit” and I knew it would not be the last. But each time I did, I was bitterly aware that I cut myself off from the joy and strength of my salvation. My life became brittle and dry without the well-spring of the Holy Spirit’s felt presence, as I had once again grieved Him.
Paul had written to the Ephesian church warning against this very thing saying,
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. (Ephesians 4:29-31)
This is the agony of weakness, of being devoid of any good thing apart from obeying my Father, abiding in the Son, and walking in the Holy Spirit. The experience is grossly frustrating and disappointment recurs with every failure. I become a victim of my own and others’ judgment.
There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin.
For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.
My wounds stink and fester because of my foolishness, I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning.
For my sides are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart.
O Lord, all my longing is before you; my sighing is not hidden from you. My heart throbs; my strength fails me, and the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.
My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague, and my nearest kin stand far off. (Psalm 38:3-12)
Here, in this wasteland of guilt and despair at my weakness in living the life I am called to as a child of God, there is this life-giving word of Christ Jesus:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matthew 5:3-6)
Who are “the poor in spirit,” “those who mourn,” and “the meek”? Who are “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” because they have no righteousness of their own and live with that sense of gnawing need? Can they be the same ones whom Christ calls “blessed” for their brokenness? Yet those who are robed in a sense of their own well-being, those who don’t know how desperately they need the strength and saving power of Christ’s life in them, can hardly be “meek” or humble and, therefore, “blessed.”
In the context of Scripture, to be blessed is to be at peace with God, reconciled to Him in Christ and walking with Him. How can it be that when we “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” when we know we fall short of what we are called to be, that we are indeed blessed? Yet it was in the midst of an overwhelming consciousness of his sinfulness that Augustine came to God:
Thus, I understood, by my own experience, what I had read, how the flesh lusteth against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh. Myself verily either way; yet more myself, in that which I approved in myself, than in that which in myself I disapproved. For in this last, it was now for the more part not myself, because in much I rather endured against my will, than acted willingly. And yet it was through me that custom had obtained this power of warring against me, because I had come willingly, whither I willed not. And who has any right to speak against it, if just punishment follow the sinner? …
O Lord, I am Thy servant; I am Thy servant, and the son of Thy handmaid: Thou hast broken my bonds in sunder. I will offer to Thee the sacrifice of ‘Let my heart and my tongue praise Thee; yea, let all my bones say, O Lord, who is like unto Thee?’ Let them say, and answer Thou me, and say unto my soul, I am thy salvation. Who am I, and what am I?(from Confessions, Book VIII-Book IX)
In his agony of weakness, Augustine is brought to a place of praise, a place where God is enthroned (Ps. 22:3).
It is a path that we often follow by God’s grace as Christians, which makes us say with Paul, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness”( 2 Cor. 11:30) and, along with him, makes us rest on the promise of Christ that “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
It is a path I followed as I looked into the eyes of my husband and asked his forgiveness, confronting the enormity of the pain I’d caused, humbled by the grace he showed me, a reflection of the sufficient grace of a holy God whose Son bore on the cross the justice I deserved for that sin and countless more beside.
The last book that John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, wrote before he died focused on the words of the penitential Psalm 51, unpacking what the psalmist meant when he wrote, “A broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (v. 17). Bunyan speaks of the broken heart of a sinner who knows the extent of his sin and his need of God’s healing mercy.
God doth not only prefer such a heart before all sacrifices, nor esteems such a man above heaven and earth; nor yet only desire to be of his acquaintance,but he reserveth for him his chief comforts, his heart-reviving and soul-cherishing cordials. ‘I dwell, ‘ saith he, with such to revive them, and to support and comfort them, ‘to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones’ (Isa 57:15). The broken-hearted man is a fainting man; he has his qualms, his sinking fits; he oft times dies away with pain and fear; he must be stayed with flagons,and comforted with apples, or else he cannot tell what to do: he pines, he pines away in his iniquity; nor can any thing keep him alive and make him well but the comforts and cordials of Almighty God (Exo 33:10, 11).
Wherefore with such an one God will dwell, to revive the heart, to revive the spirit. ‘To revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.’ God has cordials, but they are to comfort them that are cast down (2 Cor 7:6); and such are the broken-hearted; as for them that are whole, they need not the physician(Mark 2:17). They are the broken in spirit that stand in need of cordials; physicians are men of no esteem but with them that feel their sickness; and this is one reason why God is so little accounted of in the world, even because they have not been made sick by the wounding stroke of God. But now when a man is wounded, has his bones broken, or is made sick, and laid at the grave’s mouth, who is of that esteem with him as is an able physician? What is so much desired as are the cordials, comforts,and suitable supplies of the skilful physician in those matters. And thus it is with the broken-hearted; he needs, and God has prepared for him plenty of the comforts and cordials of heaven, to succour and relieve his sinking soul.
Wherefore such a one lieth under all the promises that have succour in them, and consolation for men, sick and desponding under the sense of sin and the heavy wrath of God; and they, says God, shall be refreshed and revived with them. Yea, they are designed for them; he hath therefore broken their hearts, he hath therefore wounded their spirits, that he might make them apt to relish his reviving cordials, that he might minister to them his reviving comforts. [from The Acceptable Sacrifice, Ch. 2].
So rich is the mercy of God that when we draw near to Him, He draws near to us (James 4:8), indeed draws us to Himself, bowed down as we are!
So it is and will be till Christ returns.
In the agony of weakness, shame, and defeat but also complete repentance, I am once again strengthened by Him, resolved to be in continual warfare against the flesh, the world, and Satan. For the way of the flesh is the former self,
but that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:20-24)
And I praise Him who promises that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
So rich is the mercy of God and so greatly to be praised!