I’ve been a pastor in the same church for almost 20 years and I’ve noticed a distinctive pattern that I don’t think is unique to my community. Whenever someone is first introduced to the claims of Jesus--the whole you are a sinner and need to be saved deal--their knee jerk response is, no I’m not and no I don’t. Of course, the reply isn’t usually that blunt; there’s usually some hemming and hawing and vaguely spiritual anecdotes thrown in but the implicit message they give is I’ve got this.
As the gravity of sin or weight of circumstances begins to tug at their heart, the Holy Spirit opens their minds to the truth and they realize what a wretched sinner they really are. At this moment, the polarity of their soul reverses and now they begin to believe I am not worthy of grace.
Getting to this point is downright beautiful. Yes, you read that right. Believing you are not worthy is a precious thing because that’s where grace shines the brightest. So instead of trying to skip past that feeling, here are five things you can do to lean into it and grow in your Christian faith.
Go ahead. Find some mature Christians in your orbit that seem to have their act together and ask them about their spiritual journey. You know what you are going to find? A person just as jacked-up as you are. In fact, the more mature the Christian, the more likely they are to be in tune with their wretchedness.
When I was attending Michigan State University back in the early ’90s, I was going through some fairly typical college student unrest. I was super involved with a Christian group on campus and as I looked around the room each week I couldn’t help but feel like a poser. Clearly, these people had their spiritual life in perfect sync with the will of God. I mean, just look at how they raise their hands in worship and quote Scripture from memory. I, on the other hand, was living a duplicitous life and my hand raising and memory verses were a front.
I didn’t know what to do.
So I called the only person I could think of: my Sunday School teacher from my church back in my hometown. I asked him if we could grab lunch and he came to campus to meet with me. As we ate club sandwiches and threw darts, I described my dual life and waited for the hammer to come down. What I got was a huge helping of “been there and done that” as he schooled me in life and the finer points of throwing darts.
I went back to my campus group with a new outlook and I began to recognize that everyone around me was faking it just as much as I was. We were all a mess! What a relief. The glorious truth I learned that day was in the Bible all along. “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” -Hebrews 10:14
Yes, we are perfect in God’s eyes because of Jesus. But we are also “being sanctified.” Do you know what that means? We are being made perfect. We are both perfect and being made perfect. We are wretched and we are saints all at the same time.
And we are not alone.
Basically, for this exercise, you can just open your Bible and point (although I don’t recommend that as a serious study method). Your finger is likely to land on an unworthy saint.
Maybe it’ll land on Moses, who gets nearly 800 mentions in the Old Testament, nearly 100 in the New Testament and wrote the first five books of the Bible. He also did pretty cool party tricks like parting the Red Sea and even talked to God face to face. That’s pretty saintly if you ask me. But he was also an insecure leader who killed a guy and tried to hide it, spent two chapters trying to convince God he was uniquely unqualified to be His messenger, and let his anger issues ruin his final years of ministry.
Or maybe you’ll find David, the man after God’s own heart who was also an adulterer and murderer. You also may find your finger pointing at the story of Rahab, the pagan prostitute who saved the Hebrew spies from being captured and is enshrined in the book of Hebrews “Hall of Faith.”
What about Peter, the disciple Jesus called both “Satan” and “the Rock” on which He would build His church? Or Paul, who defended his apostleship at the start of his ministry but declared himself “the chief of all sinners” at the end of his ministry and went so far as to say, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” -Romans 7:15,18
In fact, if you just keep opening your Bible and pointing, you will find nothing but unworthy saints. That is until your finger lands on one particular man.
Once you have let your unworthiness settle into its proper place as the normal human condition you share with the history of humankind, you can lift your eyes to the only one who is worthy: Jesus.
It couldn’t be more true that you are a wretch who is unworthy of grace. That reality makes the glorious grace of Jesus so much richer. He doesn’t love you despite your sin, He loves you in your sin. He doesn’t just take your sin away, He takes it onto Himself, turns Himself into it, and defeats it once and for all. If that was all, it would be enough. But Jesus doesn’t stop there! Oh, no. He has more to do. He hands you His righteousness, His inheritance, and His right standing with God and He promises that He will take your unworthy, wretched life and He will twist it and mold it and breathe life into it until you look like Him.
Look to Jesus whenever you feel unworthy and you will see a savior that loves you so much He will never stop chipping away at your wretchedness until all He sees is a perfect reflection of himself looking back at Him.
Your unworthiness is the very point of the Gospel. It’s part of the Good News!
Noel Jesse Heikkinen is a pastor at Riverview Church in the Lansing, Michigan area, and serves as a network director for Acts 29. He is the author of Wretched Saints and Unchained; he blogs at noeljesse.com. Noel and his wife, Grace, have four children.
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