Finally, the wall in Jerusalem was rebuilt. It had been in ruins for many generations, but Nehemiah’s tenacious leadership saw it rebuilt and thwarted many strong attempts to undermine the effort. Israel could not deny seeing God at work; after all, the wall had been rebuilt in an astounding 52 days. Jews everywhere responded by rededicating themselves to serving God. And on the day the rebuilt wall was dedicated, the priests purified themselves, purified the people, and then purified the gates and the walls. And then the singing and praising began!
We can’t stand before God unless we’re pure. The priests knew that; it was their job to purify the people of their nation. Jewish history to that time showed that the priests had their work cut out for them because the Jews just couldn’t manage to stay pure. Even after the renewal the rebuilt wall brought, the Jews couldn’t stay pure. Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem several years later and found them having returned to all sorts of damaging practices that they had promised to stay away from. Boy, was Nehemiah ticked.
It’s just as impossible for us to stay pure as it was for the Jews. This is why Jesus was needed, of course. The lamb of God kept the Law perfectly and bore the weight of all our sins on the cross, et cetera, you know the rest.
I once heard a preacher giving a congregation a stern finger wagging about sin. He wrote this on a whiteboard:
and, with his eyebrows raised in that way eyebrows get when the person wearing them thinks they know better, said simply that the solution to sin was to stop doing it. Just stop! Stop! Yet I had sins I did not know how to stop, and they were crushing me. I wanted to stop them! But I kept returning to them and couldn’t help it. I felt enough shame over it. The preacher’s words only shamed me more.
What I – and, I wager, that preacher – didn’t realize is that when Jesus cried “it is finished” from the cross, the whole mechanism of purity changed, and everybody benefits from it. Jesus has permanently purified us. If you’ve put on Jesus, no matter what you do God sees you as squeaky clean as a white dish washed in Ajax.
Yet we still sin, and sin is what makes us impure in the first place. Romans chapter 6 makes plain that the purity Jesus gave us doesn’t give us license to sin. We’re to work at getting rid of the sin in our lives.
But what about that sin we can’t get rid of no matter how hard we try?
One powerful way to look at sin is that it is the damaging behaviors, reactions, and attitudes that come from us trying to fill with things other than God our unmet need to have God near us. I wager that the sins we can’t stop have, at their root, a core and maybe unconscious belief that our needs will not be met. So we keep trying to meet them ourselves. Usually, the ways we try to meet these needs aren’t effective for long. Sometimes they end up hurting us.
The more we learn to depend on God, the more he will meet our needs. This is hard to accept if you believe deep down that nobody will meet your needs so you’d better do it. If you’re like I was, you worry considerably about what you’re doing and have tried hard, perhaps desperately, to stop. So I encourage you to do something that seems counterintuitive:
Take the energy you put into stopping your sin and, instead, put it into drawing near to God.
Yes, this means your sin will continue. That’s okay for now. It’s not that your actions are unimportant – it’s that depending on God is so much more important.
This is a winding journey on a bumpy road, to be sure, and I can’t draw you a map. But the farther you go on this journey, the more God will meet your needs. One day you will start feeling his presence and seeing him working in your life. You will begin to trust him. As your trust grows, your sin will diminish. In time, it will vanish.
Follow-up 17 Aug 08: It occurs to me that this may be misinterpreted, for example, “I’m abusing my children, but Jim Grey said to keep doing it until I learn to lean on God.” If your sin directly harms others, take immediate action to protect those you harm, such as removing yourself from the situation and getting help.