When my oldest son was 2 1/2, we were driving home one day and from the backseat I heard a little boy voice say, “Fuck!” Thinking quickly, I told him, “that’s right honey – truck! There’s a truck over there.” He repeated “fuck” several times and I kept saying, “that’s right honey – truck!” Finally with a note of confusion in his voice he said, “truck?” Yup. Truck.
Now, where ever would a sweet 2 year old kid of mine ever hear such a word? From me, of course. I do try not to swear (much) in front of my kids, but it happens. Most days. I know you think I should at least have the decency to feel guilty about it, but I don’t really. I swear. I like swearing. Sometimes nothing but a well planted swear word will do.***
Although I’m perfectly comfortable with swearing, there is a verbal tick I used to have that I wanted to get rid of but just couldn’t seem to manage. I frequently used God’s name as a curse word or as part of a string of curse words. It was so automatic that I couldn’t seem to stop. It seems like a fairly minor thing, but it really bothered me. Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain being one of the commandments and all (yes – I know the command can be understood to refer to something different, but still).
There was a time in my life when my inability to stop using God’s name as a curse word made me feel awful. Like a terrible, awful person of low character and lower self-control. Now here’s the thing about a person feeling like an awful, terrible person: that feeling never comes from a Godly place. Scriptures tell us that it is Satan’s job to accuse us – that is to offer an explanation for or story about our behavior which makes us look like terrible, awful people. Feeling like a terrible, awful person is what happens when we feel condemned. But “no condemnation now exists for those in Christ Jesus”.
The reason the enemy loves to use the tool of condemnation is because it hides the truth of who we are from us. You and I and every other human being is an image bearer – one who reflects God himself. And the enemy knows that if we ever discover this truth and learn to live out of it, the jig is up. All his work will be destroyed. But if he can convince us that our sin and weakness defines who we really are, then we may putter along, trying to fight our urge to sin but never really owning, much less living out of the glory which is in us. Now, sometimes the enemy will overplay his hand and the condemnation a person feels for their sin will actually lead them to seek God. But that’s fairly rare and it’s such an effective tool most of the time that it’s well worth the risk for the enemy to keep condemning us. (This dynamic is also why we are not supposed to judge. Even when we are correct about another person’s sin, when we judge, we are doing just what the enemy does. We are telling someone that their failure is a reflection of them. It’s not. It’s a reflection of sin which is not part of who we actually are.)
So, I have learned over the years to do a quick gut check when I was uncertain if a feeling of guilt was the work of God calling me to repent or the work of the enemy. If I feel condemned, it comes from Satan and I need to renounce it. Which was what I did in the case of my misuse of God’s name. I felt condemned. Even though what I was doing was wrong, the guilt I was experiencing came from an evil place and I renounced it. I would repeat “there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus” every time I started to feel guilty over my ongoing use of God’s name as a curse word.
Of course, using God’s name inappropriately isn’t the only way I’ve ever sinned. Nor is it the only thing I’ve ever felt condemned over. The issue with misusing God’s name is the specific sin I’m sharing here, but for years at any given moment I would have been able to rattle off a dozen reasons that I felt bad about myself. It could be sins or past mistakes, or aspects of my personality or desires I didn’t think I should have or my limitations as a human being. So, I actually spent several years regularly repeating, “there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus” over myself for all sorts of reasons before I stopped being so vulnerable to this trick of the enemy.
Over time, through diligently fighting off the enemy’s attacks, I reach a place of freedom from that sort of judgment. It’s not that I’ve become more perfect, but I finally learned to make peace with and accept myself. I now know, deep down in my bones, who I am – one who bears the image of a mighty God.
Eventually I no longer felt bad or guilty over my obnoxious verbal tick. It was just something I did. More like farting than shoring up the gates of hell. I knew that if I spent the rest of my days misusing God’s name, God would love me just the same. I wasn’t a bad person, just a human being with a bad habit. But I still wanted to stop. Which is how it is when God is at work. When we are responding to a genuine, Godly call to repentance, we don’t feel condemned. We don’t feel like if we don’t stop sinning, we’ll never be good enough or desirable to God or a decent human being. We just want to stop doing something. No more, no less.
So once I no longer felt guilty or condemned I went to God, told him I wanted to stop misusing his name but couldn’t seem to do it and asked him to take care of it for me. And that was it. I continued misusing his name although it no longer really bothered me and I didn’t have guilt over it. But a funny thing happened. Ever so gradually and without even noticing it, I did stop using God’s name as a curse word. It’s possible it still happens from time to time, but I can’t remember the last time I misused God’s name. Today, I naturally and without even thinking about it automatically change a certain common acronym to OMGosh every time. I honestly don’t know how it happened – it was so effortless. It just happened after I stopped feeling guilty and handed it over to God to deal with. It turns out that knowing who I am and getting out from under judgment is far more effective in remedying sin than condemnation ever was. Funny thing, eh?
Obviously, one of the reasons that coming out from under judgment is such an effective way to overcome sin is because it relies on God’s power rather than our own. But another advantage is that it allows us to be honest about our struggles. When I feel condemned, it’s hard to be honest. I can beat up on myself, but I feel a continual urge to get rid of the part of me which is condemned. I want to hide from it. I want to deny that it has a hold on me. I alternate between making excuses and confessing that I am a terrible person. My thoughts alternate between trying to avoid what I think are ugly truths and fixating on them.
But once I don’t feel guilt, I can deal honestly with whatever it is I’m struggling with. I don’t have to hide it from myself or God. (It’s probably not a coincidence that I’ve also become one of those people who says all sorts of things you’re not supposed to say – like “I wish my husband would get hit by a bus”, for example.) I am who I am. I am dealing with what I am dealing with. Whatever is going on isn’t some terrible thing to wrestle with. It just is. I’m free to examine it, make peace with it and let it go. I can rely on my true identity and God at work in my life to deal with what needs to be dealt with. I’m also learning that with a little compassion and a better understanding of reality, many of the things I felt terrible about aren’t actually so bad. Stubborn’s just a crappy name for determined, after all.
And now that I can see myself this way, it’s also much easier to see other people clearly. I know their true identity and it doesn’t have anything to do with their sin or meanness or failures. Although I can get caught up in feeling hurt or wounded in the face of someone else’s hostility towards me, often I’m able to stop and ask myself, “what would make a image bearer behave or think like that?” And in doing so, I can see past how the enemy has been working in their life to something true about them. Sometimes I’m even given the chance to show someone else the truth about themselves. Instead of being like the enemy who tells us a story explaining how bad we are, I can start with some perceived failure or sin and tell others a story about where that actually came from and how good they really are.
I’ve heard all sorts of explanations from Christians about how Jesus takes away our sin, payed the price for our sins, takes away our guilt. The problem is that it’s usually explained as a procedural issue – a guilty verdict had been put into the record somewhere and then Jesus died on the cross and that guilty verdict was removed. And somehow this was supposed to change everything. What I have learned is that Jesus’ work is far more real, personal and practical than that.
I lived most of my life under the curse of judgment. I felt it everywhere I went. Every time I spoke, every time I met someone, every time I made a decision, I felt its weight on me. It took me almost 30 years – 16 as a serious Christian – to really understand this reality. It wasn’t about feeling dirty or like my name was listed in a book of the condemned somewhere. It was about feeling like my sins and failures and limitations were evidence to be used against me. Other people had the right to look at my imperfections and come to their own conclusions. It’s a terrible pain to live with and I know so many Christians who are absolutely in the grips of this terrible curse.
Now I understand that this is the exactly guilt and condemnation which Jesus died to remove from me. It’s not procedural guilt he’s freeing us from. It’s not that there’s a record of our sins being kept somewhere that he’s erasing. What he came to erase is this very personal, very painful curse of judgment that we suffer under – and make no mistake, those of us who claim his name and want to be good, Godly people usually suffer under it worst of all. He didn’t come to take away our sins so that when we face God we will be found “not guilty”. He came to take away our sin and our guilt so we could discover who we are underneath all of the enemy’s stories and accusations about us. So that we could recover our true identity. Because once we discover that our real identity is the very image of God and learn to live out of that, the enemy’s jig is up. His work will be destroyed. And that, my friends, is why you need to know and own that “there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus.”
*** I know I’m not the only one, so I have a little tip for other swearing parents out there. Believe it or not, I do not have a house full of swearing little kids. I have explained to them that just like there are certain drinks that only grown-ups can drink (the alcoholic ones), there are certain words only grown-ups are allowed to say. Makes sense, right? As they get older and the kids around them start to swear, I give them a run down of the golden rule of swearing: no swearing around people of a different generation than yourself. Until you’re a parent and then you use the “things only grown-ups can say” rule. But even when you’re a grown up you still shouldn’t swear around your grandma or in church. See? Easy-peasy.