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How Bitter Turned Sweet & Good Friday Turned Great

Cross Good Friday

Good Friday turned great just before midnight. That’s when my pride died.

Again. This side of heaven, it won’t stay dead.

I can’t tell you the details. It would not be right. But I can tell you that it happened after a good friend confronted me about my wounding words.

Before Pride Died

But before pride died. I want you to know that the words I write do rattle around in my head. By them, I will be justified, or condemned. If I know the truth and ignore it, I’m worse than hot air. I’m a hypocrite.

So I tried to look for the kernel of truth in criticism that mostly seemed off- Assume you are guilty when a fellow believer confronts you about your life. And I tried to apply the cure for passive-aggressivetrust that God means good, leave him your hurt, and do good. By grace, I try to take my advice.

Maybe especially last night, because Good Friday is so good.

Why Good Friday Is Good

Good Friday is good because “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3), and because, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). And it’s good because “The punishment that brought us peace was upon him” (Isaiah 53:5-6).

Good Friday is good because by Christ’s death, we are freed from the penalty of sin and the guilt of sin. Because he bore our sins.

That is why Good Friday is good.

Marahs Made Sweet

I read and re-read my friend’s words. They stung. But I knew there was a kernel of truth in them, because I know there is sin in me. So I confessed, not was she accused, but what I knew was true.

That layer removed, I thought of other sins of which my friend had no clue. And just before midnight, I went to bed and paged to the prayer called “The Grace of the Cross.”

O My Saviour,

I thank thee from the depths of my being

    for thy wondrous grace and love

  in bearing my sin in thine own body on the tree.

May thy cross be to me

  as the tree that sweetens my bitter Marahs…

I got that far before the bitter tears began to flow. Bitter, in Hebrew, is marah. The Israelites found water too bitter to drink and called the place Marah (Exodus 15:22-27). Then the Lord showed Moses “a piece of wood.” He threw it in the water and the water turned sweet.

Wood turned bitter water sweet. I remember when I taught the story to my Sunday school class. Millie and Michaela and Audrie got it. They saw the cross of Christ.

They understood it was wood that makes our bitter water sweet.

How Good Friday Turned Great

Last night I tasted both. Bitterness first- It was my sin that held him there.

But then sobbing like a hot mess in bed, the bitterness became sweet. I knew I was forgiven by my crucified King.

Christ died for this.

Feeling that was how Good Friday turned great. The cross makes our confessed sins, even our most embarrassing and ugly and bitter sins, sweet. Because, Who confesses and forsakes finds mercy (Prov. 28:13).

That is when bitter turns sweet, and good becomes great. We stand forgiven at the cross. We remember and we celebrate:

Christ died for this.

I saw my sin loud and clear last night. But I also saw the cross and confessed and found mercy and grace.

And that is how Marah became sweet and Good Friday turned great.

In confession we break through to the true fellowship of the Cross of Jesus Christ, in confession we affirm and accept our cross…

The old man dies, but it is God who has conquered him. Now we share in the resurrection of Christ and eternal life. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

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How Not to Be a Mule: Come, Unbridled

mule with bridle eating grass

Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you. Psalm 32:9

About Mules

A mule is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. They’re said to be more hardy than horses and more intelligent than donkeys.

Still, being likened to a mule isn’t exactly a compliment.

My uncle owned a mule named Petey. Petey was both strong and headstrong. Life on the farm was good for Petey the Mule.

But one day, which happened to be manure hauling day, “Petey decided he no longer liked his ears touched. This caused problems putting on his halter and bridle,” Uncle John posted. “He developed some escape routes which included trying to run Farmer John over; thankfully this isn’t Farmer John’s first rodeo.”

Thankfully, God can relates to mules too. He’s familiar with beasts that charge and beasts that avoid.

But, biblically, what is it that makes mules so mulish?

Hint: It’s what our kids do when they refuse to come and confess that he stole the candy or broke the lamp or lost his Fitbit, again.

That is, they refuse to come to us until after they’re busted outright or the guilt gets so heavy they simply can’t bear it. That’s mulish.

And foolish.

About The Most Happy-Making Thing You Can Do

In Psalm 32, this is the behavior in view: Refusing to come and confess to the one who freely forgives.

Staying away from God when we sin is irrational-without understanding. Because confessing to the God who already knows and freely forgives is one of the most happy-making things we can ever do.

In fact, that’s how David begins Psalm 32, with a double-whammy description, and prescription, for happiness:

Happy is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

The way to be happy and blessed is to go and confess.

Why Mulish Is Foolish

Which is exactly why the next two verses in Psalm 32 contrast this path to happiness:

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

Pity the fool, the mule, who does that- who stays silent and far away from the Master.

But mules do. They are silent, slow and stubborn. Mules need pressure applied to come to the master. They must be curbed with bit and bridle. That’s why God’s hand feels heavy on us sometimes, like Farmer John’s did on Petey the Mule that day.

I put pressure on you when you were sinning and neglecting me, our Master might explain, so that you’d come back to me. But I wish you’d just come freely. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.

Not Confessing Is Irrational

In case you missed it, avoiding the master is irrational. It is not acting in accord with the truth that repentance brings refreshment and confession clears the conscience. It is living as if estranged relationships and hidden sin are to be preferred over restored relationships and forgiveness. That is foolish. Mulish.

Like when son-who-shall-not-be-named confesses to eating my prized Dove Dark only after I show him the wrapper I found under his bed and not a moment before.

To be human rather than horse or mule, is to be rational. To be rational is to realize that we will be happier when our sin is confessed and covered by God.

And that when we cover it, he will not, but that when we uncover our sin before God, he will cover it (Psalm 32)

Life on the Farm

Mules live on farms. Here John Piper expands the image for us:

Maybe we should try to picture God’s people as a farmyard of all sorts of animals. God cares for his animals, he shows them where they need to go, and supplies a barn for their protection. But there is one beast on this farm that gives God an awful time, namely, the mule…

God likes to get his animals to the barn for food and shelter by simply calling them.

Or even with a look.

Steered With a Look, or a Bit?

Psalm 32:8 says, “I will counsel you with my eye upon you.”

My Mom says that I was disciplined with a look as a child. All it took was the look, and I’d usually come around. I’d curb my tongue or knock it off or change my tune.

If only the grown-up Abigail was always so sensitive to God’s eye.

But sometimes I’m a mule. Sometimes God has to put the bridle of suffering on me and drag me from danger. I completely agree with John Piper that,

A guilty conscience and all the agonies that go with it is a merciful gift to the unrepentant.

Piper continues the barnyard analogy, “So God gets in his pickup truck and goes out in the field, puts the bit and bridle in the mule’s mouth, hitches it to the truck, and drags him stiff-legged and snorting all the way into the barn.”

But we’d be better off and so much happier if we just came with a look or a call.

Repentance Brings Refreshment

But isn’t all this come and confess talk very gloomy? you ask.

C.S. Lewis answers that question like this,

It is not even, in the long run, very gloomy. A serious attempt to repent and to really know one’s own sin is in the long run a lightening and relieving process. Of course, there is bound to be a first dismay and often terror and later great pain, yet that is much less in the long run than the anguish of a mass of unrepented and unexamined sins, lurking in the background of our minds. It is the difference between the pain of a tooth about which you should go to the dentist, and the simple straight-forward pain which you know is getting less and less every moment when you have had the tooth out.

C.S. Lewis, “Miserable Offenders,” God in the Dock (Eerdmans, 1970) 120-121. 

I bear witness: confessing is happy-making. In the moment, it’s humbling and hard and it hurts. But, “‘Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free, ‘Tis a gift to come down to where we ought to be.”

Isn’t it?

In fact, isn’t being forgiven about the most lightening and relieving, soul-healing and refreshing gift a sinful soul can ever receive?

In Acts 3, Peter preached just that:Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins mat be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.

Repentance brings refreshment.

How Not to be a Mule

Sometimes it is the bit of affliction and the bridle of suffering that makes us come to him. Or, to borrow David’s words, to stay near him.

It is much to be deplored that we so often need to be severely chastened before we will obey. We ought to be as a feather in the wind, wafted readily in the breath of the Holy Spirit, but alas! we lie like motionless logs, and stir not with heaven itself in view. Those cutting bits of affliction show how hard mouthed we are, those bridles of infirmity manifest our headstrong and willful manners. We should not be treated like mules if there was not so much of the ass about us. If we will be fractious, we must expect to be kept in with a tight rein. Oh, for grace to obey the Lord willingly…

C.H. Spurgeon, Commentary on Psalm 32

We should not be treated like mules if there was not so much ass about us. Oh, for grace to obey the Lord willingly. Ouch. And amen.

Do you know this?

I mean, know it? I confess that I must re-learn that confession is good for the soul. Like when I sent that early morning apology text (there have been plenty of others since) and when I made a mule of myself on an Irish mountain. And this weekend when I marched up the steps away from a sister, and my mule snorts woke me up and turned me right back down to confess, “I’m sorry I was rude.”

In summary, not being a mule means staying near God without being forced. It means praying to God before his hand is heavy on you. It means confessing your sins to Him straightaway. Before you’re busted.

That is how NOT to be a mule.

And when I do come to him and confess, he will freely forgive. He will tenderly take my chin in his hand and lift my humbled head.

My unbridled, forgiven head.

You, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory and the lifter of my head.

Psalm 3:3

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The First Point Luther Nailed And How It’s Still Reforming Me

Wise men are men, and truth is truth. -Richard Hooker

Martin Luther, like the other epic hero Reformers, was only a man and a flawed one at that.  His “Jewish Problem” was evil. This post won’t attempt to whitewash a sinful saint named Martin Luther.

But, in point of fact, it always has been flawed ones that God uses to build- and reform-his Son’s Bride. And since it was October 31, 1517- 500 years ago to the day- that Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door at All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg and with that stroke, set off the Protestant Reformation and since his reforms still impact sinning saints like me, I thank God for Martin Luther today.

Like him or not, there’s a lot we can all learn from Luther. Like his concept of Christian repentance- which happens to be the very first of the 95 theses.

Luther’s First Thesis: A Life Of Repentance

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance. That’s it. The first thesis.
Biblically defined repentance is changing one’s mind, so that one lives differently (see Thesis #3). It means turning from sin to Christ. Repentance is the path to forgiveness of sins and favor with God. We repent and believe and are saved (Matt. 4:17, Mark 6:12, Acts 2:38, Acts 26:20).
But repentance  doesn’t end when we receive Christ Jesus as Lord. It’s a life-long process. It’s not, as Luther wrote (Thesis #2), a sacrament of penance administered by the clergy. That’s not so much the issue today as the notion that repentance is one and done. As if real Christians, strong Christians, are the one who never have to turn from sin, who never have to repent. The ones who might say, Oh, no. I’ve never changed my stance. I’ve always lived this way.

Really?  I think. Because it seems like that means you’re either God-like and divine or deceived and blind. And I betray my own proud, sinful heart.

Because, truth be told, we don’t see all of our sin at once. Our sins are layered, like onions. We peel a layer off and- lo! and behold- there’s another. We don’t see all our sin. 

From as much as you know of your sin…

Which is why I like J.I. Packer’s definition of repentance so much. He explains,

Repentance is turning from as much as you know of your sin, to give as much as you know of yourself to as much as you know of God. 

This definition, like Luther’s first thesis, helps me see repentance as a lifelong pursuit, a way of living. Not one and done. We confess as we see more of our sin.

Because Christians are not comfortable with our sin. We regret it and don’t settle with it. We want to repent, that times of refreshing might come.

I tell our boys that repenting “is a really big thing to do. Because it means Christ is at work in you.”

We’ve got to live like continual confession is okay.  Which means we’ve got to welcome the confessions of others. And to receive God’s cleansing and forgiveness (1 John 1:9).

Because our Christian lives are continual mid-point correction, like swimming to a target on the beach when your dominant arm always pulls your front crawl that way.

We constantly reorient our strokes, our walk, our lives to align to as much as we know of our Lord.

Not a man who never goes wrong.

You might say we’re in constant reforming mode. By grace alone, through Christ alone, we’re constantly, “making good.” My Reformation Study Bible explains repentance is the ongoing turning from sin in the life of a Christian. Ordinary Christian life will include times of profound sorrow for remaining sin. So good grief, and the repentance that follows is part and parcel of ordinary Christian life.

Continually turning from our sin, to our compassionate, gracious Savior who is Himself in us. Repenting, then is a revelation of the mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Because like C.S. Lewis explained,

A live body is not one that never gets hurt, but one that can to some extent repair itself. In the same way a Christian is not a man who never goes wrong, but a man who is enabled to repent and pick himself up and begin over again after each stumble—because the Christ-life is inside him, repairing him all the time, enabling him to repeat (in some degree) the kind of voluntary death which Christ Himself carried out.  (Mere Christianity 1952; Harper Collins: 2001. 62-63).

Christians stumble. We go wrong. We see our sin and get up and repent. And run on and stumble and see more of our sin and repent.
So, with Christ in us, repairing us all the time, as we see our sin, we repent. But try as we might, we’ll never see it all.

The answer we need when we don’t see it all

Don’t despair. Our Maker knows our frame.

And He knew his servant Martin Luther’s flawed frame too. He saw the sin that Luther himself couldn’t see in himself and, therefore, could not repent of and confess. But seeing Luther’s spiritual blindness, takes us straight back to one of the most precious Reformation truths.

Now I borrow from Trevin Wax to close. 

Luther’s anti-Semitism, egregious as it is, does not lead me to abandon his rediscovery of justification; it leads me to lean harder into it. Here’s the glorious truth: the reality Luther saw so clearly provides the answer to the sin he didn’t.

In other words, Luther discerned the reality of justification by faith alone better than he discerned the sinfulness in his own heart and life. And it’s that reality of justification by faith alone that levels us all and drives us to our knees–thankful for the clear example of horrendously flawed theologians articulating the only doctrine that gives hope to all of us who are horrendously flawed. It’s only in the security of being wrapped up in the righteousness of Christ that we can say, “Challenge me, Lord. Change me, Lord. Expose my wickedness.”

In the end, when death came for Luther’s mortal body, and the last of his parasitical sinfulness was destroyed, his final words contained no more vile epithets toward the Jews, but only a deathbed confession of his Jewish Messiah: “We are beggars; this is true.”

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.  

Romans 5:1-2

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Forgive. Yourself?


The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. 

It is better to forget about yourself altogether. 

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

A friend is struggling to forgive herself. She repented of her sin. She confessed it to God and to the person she hurt. The two forgave her. My friend did the job right. But months later, she just can’t forgive herself. 

Maybe that’s as it should be. Because maybe the problem isn’t a forgiveness problem, but a pride problem. Before you call me cold-blooded and calloused, let me explain. 

Proudly Pre-Occupied With Our Sin

God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your cares on him, because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:5b-6

The connection between feeling unforgiven and being proud is not obvious. But it’s there, not too far beneath the surface. Because, rightly understood, pride is not just thinking too highly of ourselves, it’s also thinking too lowly or too often of ourselves. 

Neither does being humble mean tearing oneself down. Humility, in other words, is essentially a form of self-forgetfulness which is opposed to pride’s self-preoccupationIf we accept these definitions, it means our fixation on sin we’ve already confessed may in fact be pride’s counterfeit version of humility. It means, in short, that the focus on feeling forgiven is not an itch we must scratch. 

The humble, forgiven saint doesn’t get hung up scratching that itch. He can let it sit. When the boys were younger and would scratch mosquito bites until they bled, I would dab on the Benedryl and distract them with toy to keep their little hands busy. They stopped scratching. The focus was off the bug bite. 

But self-condemnation can sneak in under the guise of humility because it doesn’t boast or belittle others.  But don’t rule out underlying pride, writes Jason Meyer:

Self-degradation, self-demotion, and self-condemnation all come when the show is on the other less-fortunate foot…Why would we want others to see these things? Ironically, self-demotion can be a sneaky form of self-promotion because we’re actually fishing for the affirmation and reassurance we believe we deserve…Self-condemnation passes judgment on us when we fall short of our own standards. Sometimes we carry out the painful judgment on ourselves. We can mentally replay poor performance in order to beat ourselves up over our failures. Self-condemnation…feels shame for falling short. (Killjoys, p. 11)

Pride doesn’t want us to forget our failure. Pride wants us to camp there on a shameful, beside Camp Woe-Is-Me. Humility camps elsewhere, writes Meyer. Humility pitches its tent under the mighty hand of GodPride insists on carrying its sin and failure, but humility is fast to cast its cares on God. But since God in mercy is faithful and just to forgive our sins, we’d best accept it. We’d best cast our post-confession cares back to Mighty God and camp out there. 

I don’t mean to be cavalier here. I know it’s no cake walk, accepting forgiveness and moving on. I’ve been there. I’ve spent plenty of nights at Camp Woe-Is-Me and never once have I had a good night’s sleep there. Sometimes after I repent of the selfish, stupid things I’ve said or done, and I don’t feel instantly refreshed (Acts 3:19). So I wallow in my guilt for a while, astounded that I could think, say, or do such ugly things; that conduct so un-becoming a Christian came from moi. I was, as Lewis aptly put it, sorry to find that I was the sort of [wo]man who did those things. 
So why the big push for self-forgiveness these days? Why do well-meaning friends urge you to “forgive yourself”? It’s no doubt because they want to see you at peace, not in pain. They really want you to be able to move forward and live joyful. But the expression betrays a misunderstanding of biblical forgiveness.

Why We’re Confused

While Scripture assumes that we love ourselves (Lev. 19:34, Eph. 5:29), it nowhere calls us to forgive ourselves. Throughout its pages, forgiveness is transacted vertically between the sinner and his God, and horizontally between the sinner and the one he has sinned against. Nowhere is it transacted inside the self-same sinner.  

So why do we feel a need to forgive ourselves? Why don’t we feel forgiven? 

Maybe we stay and wallow in self-deprecation because deep down we feel like we still have to atone for our sin. It’s too good to be true, this message of Christ’s mercy. Maybe it’s because we haven’t grasped the immensity of the price Christ paid to purchase our pardon. Maybe we haven’t, maybe we aren’t, truly humbled and amazed that, He made him who knew no sin to be sin for us so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21)

Or maybe it’s because, like little kids, we confuse being forgiven with having no consequences. Forgiveness doesn’t mean no consequences. We know this. We know we can forgive a son who stole some cash and still make him pay it pay it back. We can forgive a daughter who broke curfew and still deny her Friday-night privileges. Forgiveness quite often co-exists with consequences. 

But our feelings confuse us. We think that if we’re still feeling bad we need more forgiveness. Could it be we need more grace, more faith, to keep the humble tent pitched there where it belongs? Maybe we should pray, 

Lord, we believe we are forgiven. Still, help our unbelief. Help us look on you more and think about ourselves our success and sin less. May these sins of earth grow strangely dim in the light of your mercy and grace. Please help us accept your forgiveness and your loving discipline. 

Forgiven Like David

And make us more like King David, the man after your own heart

David is a marvelous model of how to humbly accept forgiveness and consequences. After Nathan’s confrontational, convicting you-are-the man sheep speech, David and Bathsheba’s borne-of-wedlock baby dies. David’s servants are confused when, rather than weep and wallow, he rises from his mourning and, worships. He explained, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said,Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ 2 Samuel 12:22

At the end of his life, against all wisdom, David orders a census. His conscience is quickly pricked and he repents. God makes him choose his consequence. David’s answer:  Then David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hand of the Lordfor his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man.” 2 Samuel 24:14

When David sinned, he repented. When he repented, he was forgiven. But, still he was disciplined. David might have felt unforgiven, but lying in the bed he made for himself, but he wasn’t trying to forgive himself. He did not grovel under it or spurn it. He didn’t despair nor express entitlement. 

David? He did the right thing. David humbly hoped in God’s goodness. He camped right under God’s mighty hand, and accepted God’s mercy and his consequences.

Me? Discipline after being forgiven, but not feeling it, can leave me groveling; prone to the “all or nothing” syndrome. Either, I’m so horrible. How could God possibly forgive me for the mess I’ve made?  Or, equally faithless, I don’t deserve this. 

You?  Do you pitch your tent in that refreshing, shady spot? Do you humble yourself like David and move on? Do you camp under God’s gracious, merciful mighty hand? 

Godly Grief

For you felt a godly grief so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.    2 Corinthians 7:10

So, Should We Learn To “Forgive Ourselves?” The Corinthians were at fault and Paul had called them out. They had repented and he had forgiven them. But they maybe hadn’t moved on yet. Maybe they just didn’t feel forgiven. John Piper believes 2 Corinthians 7:8–10 is the closest biblical paradigm for dealing with this issue. 

Ponder what Paul means by godly grief and worldly grief…They need to move through worldly grief over sin to godly grief over sin and beyond into life and freedom. And the difference is a grief that leads out of death-giving self-condemnation to life-giving acceptance of God’s, and in this case Paul’s, statement of no condemnation. 

So the biblical way out of death with this so-called self-forgiveness is to humble ourselves and admit we have no right to take the role of judge and pronounce the death sentence on ourselves. That is pride to think that we can hear God’s verdict of not guilty or our friend’s verdict of not guilty; that is, I forgive you, and refuse it. We refuse it and set ourselves up as the new judge and pronounce a death sentence over ourselves. The biblical problem with that is not a failure of self-forgiveness. That is not a biblical category. It is an arrogant failure to trust in the free verdict of God: no condemnation.

David trusted God’s verdict. When he says, if you confess your sins he is faithful and just to forgive and cleanse, believe it. Get out of the Judge’s seat and humble yourself. Move on. Believe he meant it when He said, 

“Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”  

No, I didn’t help my friend forgive herself. Instead, I say to her, and to you, and to myself: Let’s go pitch our tent in that humble place, under God’s, mighty, merciful hand. Let’s cast our cares, even our post-confession, not-feeling forgiven cares on Him. 

He really does care. 

*   *   *   *   *
Here we have a firm foundation, Here the refuge of the lost.
Christ the Rock of our salvation, Christ the Name of which we boast.
Lamb of God for sinners wounded! Sacrifice to cancel guilt!
None shall ever be confounded, Who on Him their hope have built.

Stricken, Smitten, & Afflicted, by Thomas Kelley