Think back to one of those sweltering, humid summer days we had last year. Think of times when you were working outside in that weather. (Sort of sounds good compared to some of the cold weather we’ve been having!) Maybe you were jogging or working in your yard. It wasn’t long before your clothes were stained with sweat, and you probably didn’t smell so good either. Remember how wonderful it felt to come inside, get cleaned up, and put on fresh clothes? Aaaah!
It’s normal, of course, for a person to want to be clean rather than being all smelly and grimy. There is another kind of cleanliness we all want to have too. We all long for that feeling of being clean and washed on the inside, too. There is nothing like having a completely clean conscience.
This must be why every religion (as far as I know) practices some kind of cleansing or washing ceremonies. Some are pretty simple; many are very elaborate. People are looking for that feeling of being completely clean on the inside, and they’re willing to pay a lot and/or work a lot to get it.
Guilt is what makes us feel dirty inside. How can we deal with that feeling of guilt that creeps into our hearts as we remember our sins?
Some suggest that we should deny it even exists. We can pretend for a while that the wrongs we have committed don’t matter, but down deep we know they do. When all is said and done, ignoring guilt doesn’t make it go away. It’s like coming in on a hot day and saying, “It doesn’t matter that I’m filthy because my sweaty, smelly clothes will dry.”
Of course, we can always blame someone else for our bad choices. Sometimes you hear excuses like, “I do bad things because when I was growing up my parents didn’t love me;” or “I can’t help it; I’m living with an awful person.” The truth is that we can’t blame others. No one else can force us to think evil thoughts or act in unkind ways.
A more popular way to feel clean on the inside is to follow demanding religious ceremonies. Different religions expect different things, but generally, they command us to perform certain rituals, things like repeating memorized prayers, or bowing at certain times, or doing without certain foods, etc. Doing them makes us feel better, temporarily, because we have DONE something hard or uncomfortable that may balance out what is making us feel guilty. It gives us some hope that our religious efforts may be enough to make up for that sin we know we’ve committed.
There are some downsides, though, when we rely on religious works to clean up our guilt. Think about it. No matter how devout we are, how do we know when we have done enough? What if, when this life is over, we find out that our efforts fall short of what God expects?
Here is another thought: What if we have failures that we didn’t know were wrong? What if we have past failures that we’ve forgotten about? Even if we do enough to make up for our guilt (and we’ll never know for sure if we did), we will soon think or do something wrong again. That makes our religious works a never-ending cycle. Guilt keeps rearing its ugly head, so we have to roll up our sleeves and start fulfilling those religious demands all over again. That becomes a very tiresome treadmill to be on! It is hard to live that way.
God has a plan that is much better! His plan comes through a real person: Jesus.
Those who come to Jesus Christ accept His payment. His suffering on the cross paid for our sin and makes our forgiveness possible. The best part of all is that He hands it to us pre-paid. Jesus is “…the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). In other words, there is no need for us to pay for our sins. Jesus already did that.
When we repent of our sin and put our trust in Christ, He changes everything. Our sins are eternally paid for and He then gives us a new and growing love for Him “… so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
On the outside, the behavior of devoutly religious people might look similar, but on the inside, there is an enormous difference between the true and the false, the self-righteous and the ones God has made righteous. The merely religious live lives that alternate between wickedness and religious good works, hoping all the while that they will get enough good works accomplished to balance out the inner guilt over their sin. The other group, the ones who are trusting Jesus, know they are loved and secure. They now have a love for their Savior. Their good works spring from the new heart that God has given them.
Here is my plea to you. Let Jesus set you free from the drudgery of trying to be good enough for a holy God. His love for you is full and free. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).