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Mable learned early and often that God was good, holy, and to be feared. She saw God do many fantastic things for her family, the best of which was regenerating them. Mable was amazed at God’s kindness, not just to her family but also to those who have yet to experience His regeneration. Theologians call it common grace (Matthew 5:45). Mable was fond of saying, “We serve an awesome God!” She was right. God is perfect, holy, to be feared, and amazingly good.
Mable loved God. She was a good Christian. There were no alarms in her bio—nothing amiss. You could map her apparently happy story over millions of believers. Scroll a happy Christian’s Facebook stream, and you’ll see how good God is. What you will rarely see is the darker side of their lives. I’m not suggesting we put our junk out there, but the wise soul knows the cover might not always convey all that is in the book.
Mable had intentionally tucked her fears into the depths of her soul. There was another side of her, a much deeper one. There was a discernible gap between the Mable everyone experienced and the one whom only God knew. Omniscience has no blind spots, which was not a comforting thought for Mable (Hebrews 4:13.) She was part of a legalistic religious culture that emphasized externalistic behaviors. Superficiality was the unmentioned norm.
Though she would say that God saved her by grace and not by works, she felt a strong need not to make any mistakes (Ephesians 2:8-9). Mable was in religious and spiritual bondage. Her legalistic culture emphasized rules, obedience, holiness, and behaviors, which sounded okay to her. The problem for Mable was that her rule-based culture ratcheted up the self-imposed pressure to be perfect.
She always knew she was not perfect but never had a context where she could be transparent by openly sharing what she really thought. Though her mistakes, failures, and transgressions were evident to her family members, they were complicit in the family secret. Of course, they had their secrets too. “Judge not lest you be judges,” so the misunderstood saying goes.
Though Christ came to set the captive free, Mable was trapped inside Christianity’s walls by her Christian culture. The self-assumed and externally imposed worldview created an internal fear that she could never please God. Any misstep or misdeed sent her spiraling into discouragement and despair. The only thing she knew to do was to live two lives.
Outwardly she looked the part of a God-loving Christian. It was true—in a sense. Inwardly she felt out-of-step because she was not free from her secret struggles. She was constantly juggling her inner turmoil with how she believed others viewed her. She internalized her sins and kept them secret and hidden from others, which was her best approach to maintain reasonable insanity. Some call her operational motif reputation management.
She learned to make excuses for her failures. Excusing, blaming, and justifying are synonymous when humble confession and transparency are not options. Her pride contextualized in a legalistic culture was too much to bring her to repentance. She chose to double-down on her fakery.
She privately searched websites to find a way to change without telling anyone how she was struggling. Her self-condemnation and the perceived condemnation from her perfect-non-sinning friends was reaching a fearful climax in her soul. Mable lived the first forty-two years of her life this way.
As long as she could manage the low-level, respectable sins in her life and blame the rest, she was “okay.” It was a plan, and she worked it every day in every encounter—until she couldn’t. There was a day when it all went terribly wrong. Mable’s modus operandi failed. She called it the beginning of woes—the day her son wrote a long email, declaring his renunciation of God.
Biffy vowed never to return to his Christian roots. Mable was understandably devastated. She had no one to turn to for help. Her son—like her—kept his anger and bitterness tucked away from the view of those who went after sin like a convict pounding rocks. Biffy learned he could confess some sins, act out a few others, and play down the rest. What he would not do is be honest about his life.
As a child, he bought into the unmentionable hypocrisy of his mother. After becoming an adult, his resentment about their hypocritical shallowness outgrew his ability or desire to manage it. Mable’s legalistic upbringing gave them no context for working out their wrongs. He responded in anger, bitterness, and a renouncement of God. She responded in fear and by inwardly churning but still believing in God.
Initially, Mable could not bring herself to believe God was behind her pain or the humiliation of her family. She thought all her life that God was good and that total embarrassment on this level would never be part of His plan—at least not for her. Then when things went sideways. “God is good!” she exclaimed. A good God would not allow this to happen to my family and me. But it did happen, which left Mable looking for a culprit.
Anger at God was a river too wide; Mable was a good, God-fearing Christian. Thinking God could be in her family’s sin was beyond her comprehension. How could a good God have anything to do with any sin? It’s a reasonable thought for the novice believer. Mable’s only understanding of the sin in her life was through a flawed hermeneutic: “I did something wrong. I must figure it out and find a solution because God is not in this.”
To think Christ would roll up His sleeves and get in our messes had no practical meaning for Mable (2 Corinthians 5:21). She had what I call gospel amnesia. She understood how He came to die for her sin, but that was it. Jesus was relegated to a Savior role, not a Sanctifier one. Just because He does not sin, is not tempted by sin, and is not guilty of sin doesn’t mean He is not active in sin—our sin, specifically speaking.
Christ becomes sin to save us, and He continues to work in the dirt of our lives to sanctify us. There is no area of our lives where there is inhibition from Christ to get dirty so that we can experience cleansing. If perfect, practical sanctification came at salvation, perhaps Jesus would not need to involve Himself so much in our lives. Mable’s flawed theology was straightforward.
She accepted God as a forgiving judge, but she never left the courtroom, which explains her sinful fear of God. She never learned how the judge in the courtroom is a father in the living room. Because of this theological miscue, Mable had wrapped her thoughts (2 Corinthians 10:3-6) with a mental snare (Galatians 6:1) that worked out like this.
Mable overshot the gospel. Though she is a believer, she did not understand how the gospel worked in her sanctification. Like an earthly father, our heavenly Father never stops working in our lives. Sometimes that means God will use sin for His divine purposes. Only in the hands of God can sin become a temporary ally. Sinful creatures cannot do this, but a holy, sovereign God can.
We see Him using sin sinlessly at the cross. The cross of Christ loudly proclaims God is good and God allows evil—a challenging juxtaposition. Because of His goodness to us, He chose to execute His Son on a tree. This execution set us free from sin (Hebrews 2:14-15). Sometimes while living in a sinful world, the Lord permits to bring about a greater good even through the usage of evil.
A cursory reading of the Old Testaments substantially supports this idea. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Job, and David would testify to this thesis. They saw the Father use sin many times to accomplish His purposes. Nothing can thwart God’s plans, and sometimes God will use what Satan means for evil to manifest His glory that ends up being in our favor (Exodus 9:16).
In Mable’s case, she had hidden idolatry and had no intention ever to change how she lived in God’s world. Mable idolized self-reliance, though she was ignorant of what she was doing to herself. Rather than being willing to confess her secret life, she redoubled her efforts to cover it up. God’s mercy broke through those hardened walls by permitting the difficulties to escalate.
Initially, she became depressed, angry, justifying, and blaming. She could not control things until finally, her life exploded through her son’s problems. The lid was off, the secret was out, and she could not hide anymore. She eventually began to care more about what God thought about her. He was softening her heart, and the softer it became, the freer she became. As she understood more what God was doing, she began to come out from under sin’s control.
Sin became less of a big deal to her as grace became everything. She began to see God’s goodness in a different shade. She began to openly talk about her transgressions, confess them, and seek help for them. With a better understanding of the gospel, Mable was no longer tied to its wreaking internalizations. Looking back, she is amazed at how subtle and devastating her religion became. Christianity’s baggage had trapped her. It was merely a slight misalignment of the gospel that threw her soul and her entire family off its gospel-axis.
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