You Can't Receive the Good News Without First Coming to Grips with the Bad
The Activities Director put a star by his name. She wanted to make sure I saw him that day. He had missed "church" on Sunday and a visit from a pastor was sorely needed.
I imagined a staunch church-goer whose confinement at NHC was causing church withdrawals, but he surprised me. As it turned out, he never had attended church, at least not regularly, and he felt dreadful about it. He considered himself a Christian, and had long believed in Christ, but being a part of a church family and worshipping and serving with fellow Christians just was never a part of his life. And now that he sensed eternity drawing near, this singular black mark on his moral record was worrying him mightily.
"I've been a good man. I never did anything bad - just not going to church; that's the only thing," he said. "I want to go to heaven. I don't want go to the other place. I hope I go to heaven, but I don't know."
Seeing that he had very little if any understanding of the gospel, I affirmed that his avoidance of Christ's church was indeed a sin. "And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near" (Hebrews 10:24-25). So there wasn't any doubt about it - he had disobeyed God's Word; he had sinned.
Establishing that all people are sinners and stand condemned before God apart from Christ, I mentioned Jesus' inclusion of sexual lust in the biblical prohibition against adultery. "Well, everybody does that," he said. "Everybody notices a pretty woman, but I never committed adultery. I was married 45 years, and I never committed adultery. Well, just one time. Just the one time and that was all. It just happened. But that was it - just the once. Well, twice, but with the same woman. I'm not sure whether my wife was unfaithful to me. Maybe she was. I don't think she was, but I don't know. She never found out about me, and if she did I never found out about her."
I felt like I had enough to establish guilt before God, and did (I hope), and went on to explain how Christ's crucifixion and resurrection bridged the resulting gulf between sinners and a holy God. We ended with 1 John 5:13, "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life." We prayed, and I left. I hope to stop in on him again to see if his grasp of the gospel (and its grasp of him) has improved.
But what does this extraordinary encounter tell us? First, it shows us that sinners are terrible judges of their own moral condition. We are particularly prone to misjudge ourselves on the high side, imagining ourselves to be far better people than we actually are. Second, it illustrates how naturally it comes to us to excuse ourselves of sin. There was the willfull forgetfulness the sin in the first place ("I never did anything [else] bad"). There was the minimizing of it ("It was just the once"). There was the exculpating passive voice ("It just happened"). And there was even, Adam-like, an attempt to share the guilt with the wife ("Maybe she was unfaithful, too"), which I suspect as pure slander.
But finally, it shows that when the Holy Spirit "convicts" people of sin, he may not focus on what other people might consider the worst of our sins. Knowing that this man was suffereing under the weight of his sin of "neglecting to meet together" with fellow Christians in a church, it surprised me to learn that he was guilty of adultery, too (and not just in his mind, but in his flesh). Why did the Holy Spirit choose the former to shine the light of holiness on? I don't know - the Spirit is like the wind; he blows where he will. But maybe he chose the sin that was more chronic, and represented not an episodic but a longstanding and stubborn resistance to God. In any case, the conviction of the Holy Spirit is a gracious gift of God meant to lead us to salvation in Christ. "Faithful are the wounds of a friend" (Proverbs 27:6).