There was a screeching sound of metal scraping on cement, and the bus suddenly stopped. I looked at my fellow YWAMer, my stomach in a knot, and silently mouthed the words, “Oh no.”
I was driving an old rehabilitated school bus into the Miami airport to pick up a YWAM outreach team that had just returned from two months in Haiti. Paying more attention to my friend’s story-telling than the road in front of me, I failed to see the “low clearance” signs. The sickening sound of the vehicle’s roof wedging into the concrete overpass was immediately followed by the shrill screams of a cursing parking attendant. Running to my window, he asked how an idiot like myself ever got a driver’s license. And without giving me a chance to reply, his diatribe continued, ending with a list of pronouncements: I would be ticketed. The air would be let out of all the tires to unwedge the bus. And a truck would be called to tow and impound my vehicle.
In the moment, what he said made sense. I stared, stunned, speechless and feeling the stupidity he was vocalizing over me. Other careless driving mistakes flooded my memory. But this time, there were 20 exhausted students along with several children waiting for me at that moment to be picked up and driven back to East Texas. I was guilty as accused, and others were going to suffer because of it. I could feel invisible cords tightening around me. I deserved this. And I saw no way out.
Trapped? Stuck? Despairing? So many of us are overwhelmed with hopelessness at various moments in life. These dark emotions either jump on us all at once with shock and confusion or slowly build a case against us that feels so true it cannot be challenged or denied. And though we hate it, something inside says, “amen.” It feels true and even just. It fits an old internal narrative we’ve heard as long as we can remember: “There’s something wrong with you!”
Condemnation is the source of so many desperate moments in the life of a Jesus follower. It’s that resonating feeling that agrees with voices spoken by others, voices in my own head or a combination of both. These accusations often begin with, “You always. . .” or “You will never. . .” They attack my identity, question my worth and confirm every guilty act I’ve ever committed. Grace is never part of their vocabulary. They seek to bind my past to me so tightly that I cannot imagine ever separating from it. And to top it all off, I quickly and ever-so-naturally agree. This then becomes the blueprint for my future because it’s just who I am.
A Jesus follower, however, is called to a different narrative. Romans 8:1 clearly lays out the reason: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (ESV). Stop and meditate on what this single verse is conveying. Every word the condemning voices speak no longer applies to one who is embracing and being embraced by Jesus. How can that be?
It’s the miracle of redemption. As I surrender all my garbage to Jesus, He takes it and then wraps me in His righteousness. It’s an uneven exchange, but it’s how God has chosen to give His grace. By faith I am now “in Christ Jesus.” His purity is mine; His future is mine; His identity is mine. I therefore now have the authority to ignore, rebuke and separate myself from condemning voices because what they say no longer applies to me. That’s the new storyline I have been given to live by.
But, you may ask, what if some of those “voices” are actually God correcting or convicting me of my bad stuff? What if I end up ignoring or rebuking God?
The Bible does say that one of the works of the Holy Spirit is to convict the world of sin (John 16:8). He is the one who shows us which of our attitudes and behaviors are unfitting for those He calls son or daughter. So, it becomes important for a Jesus follower to distinguish between conviction and condemnation. Neither feel pleasant. But one leads straight out into freedom and cleansing while the other circles back into bondage and deeper despair. Our spiritual health depends on knowing the difference.
Which is Which?
A condemning voice will never give me a pathway out. If it points me in a direction at all, it will be backwards, downwards, enticing me to marinate myself in my failures, my sin, my worthlessness. Ultimately it leaves me in the same dark place.
Conviction of the Holy Spirit, on the other hand, provides a clear and unswerving way up and out of sin, though we often don’t like it and therefore resist it. Repentance (read post Choosing to Really Change) is God’s gift for those who truly desire to experience freedom from the weight of behavior that offends Him. It is also what releases God’s forgiveness in our lives. The price for walking this path—and for some it’s a deal-breaker—is humility. Humble repentance combined with trust in God’s goodness is the doorway to freedom from guilt. Responding to the conviction of the Holy Spirit is the key that releases this grace into our lives.
Imagine with me a scenario that could easily take place in my home. As I leave the house one morning, my wife calls out that it’s garbage day and that I need to pull the bin to the street. Before I catch myself, I yell back unkind words expressing the sentiment that I’m not a child that needs to be reminded. I then get in my car to go teach a class on the power of God’s love to change lives. And while I’m driving, I hear a voice. It says, “Jeff, you are a terrible husband. How many times now have you spoken harshly to your wife? Why does she even put up with you? She surely hates her life with you. You’re never going to get this right, so why even try? And you think you can effectively tell others about God’s love? Ha!” Thus, the voice of condemnation leads me deeper into myself and the cords tighten. It feels miserable but true. It seems right to make my home in this mire.
Another scenario might go like this: after getting into the car, a different voice speaks. “Jeff, you just treated you wife very badly. She’s much more valuable than your words expressed. What you said is not fitting for one of God’s sons. Turn around, go back and apologize.” The Holy Spirit’s conviction of sin here addresses my actions and attitude rather than beating on my identity. In fact, my true identity is called upon to redirect my behavior— “act like the child of God that you are!” This path is clear, straight and leads to greater freedom. But I need to disregard the other one.
In the end, we must learn to rebuke condemnation and ignore the voices that carry it. Though not easy, it is the path that will lead us into the fullness of our salvation.
As I silently cried out to God at the Miami airport, bending down to let the air out of the first tire, a police car pulled up. I cringed inside, ready for the next leg of my punishment. The officer politely offered to stop traffic behind me so that I could back the bus out. He then pointed out an alternative road I could take to get to the terminal. He smiled sympathetically and then got into his car. A few minutes later, I was loading the vehicle with all the people I had come to get. What had just happened?
The voices had been all bluster. Yet I was so close to giving myself to them. Thank God for providing a different way.
God’s path for a follower of Jesus is never paved with condemnation. It always affirms us as His children as it leads us into His arms and away from our garbage. We just have to decide to take it and reject anything that leads somewhere else.