Locating the Problem

By Paul Koch

When we are quiet, when we give ourselves moments without distraction or entertainment, when we allow silence to occupy our space, we begin to think about our lives, about our world and our place in it. We begin to realize that there is something wrong, something misplaced or broken about our existence. Maybe for you it begins when you realize how bad your joints ache or how difficult it is to do things that once seemed to do with ease. Or perhaps, in your contemplation you struggle with inner demons, with things no one else can see, with depression and anxiety. Some days are a dark and confusing battle where hope seems to be in short supply, and you can’t seem to get a hold of the reason why. Then again, maybe your quiet moments are consumed with thoughts of guilt and shame. You think of friendships that you’ve lost, of loves that have grown cold. When we enter the quiet we often find that we quickly seek the distractions, the diversion from what is broken within ourselves.

Now, this all gets worse when we come to church. I remember years ago getting a bunch of my buddies from my rugby team to show up at church one morning right before I moved away from St. Louis. There they were, all packed in together, a bunch of large and rough men who actually wore their jerseys to church. They sat there, shocked at how our worship service began. After the invocation they found themselves confessing to God along with everyone else, “We have sinned in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved You with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We justly deserve your present and eternal punishment…” Afterwards, they suggested to me that was a real depressing way to begin a worship service. It didn’t make them feel very good about themselves. Now, these were men I had spent a lot of time with, men I bled alongside of on the rugby pitch, men I had more than a few beers with. And so, I smiled and looked them in the eye and said, “Look, we don’t go to church to be lied to. Are you suggesting that you haven’t sinned in thoughts, words and deeds?” Of course, they laughed and said no, but they still didn’t like hearing it.

Well, of course not. No one likes hearing about who they really are before the perfect and holy Creator of the universe. It offends our pride and our self-righteousness. See, we don’t like to be alone in our own thoughts and realizations in our broken and ailing world. But when we come to church, the Law of God has a habit of cutting even deeper, of showing every deviation of our lives, every fault, every failure. God’s law exposes your hypocrisy, it highlights your desires to turn from His Word and promise and instead cling to your own desires. The Law of God is relentless, as well. It doesn’t care if you are trying to be better, if you are finally making progress, all that matter is if you have met the standard that He demands of you. And if not, why then, judgment and punishment are waiting for you.

Now this tough realization, this understanding of your own sin and failure is not much fun. So, whether it begins with your own self-reflection in a quiet moment, or if it begins with coming into contact with the law of God, our reaction tends to be one of two things. To begin with you can just ignore it, stop going to church, try to stay away from the places where the law will pull you down. However, I’m not exactly sure you will be able to pull that one off. For the law has a way of finding you far away from this place. On the other hand, the solution is to address the problem head on. If the law reveals the depth of your sin, then maybe you need to do what you can to correct and change your thoughts, words and deeds. So that you might be holy and acceptable to God.

Perhaps you start with the things that are easiest and work your way to the things that you really don’t want to give up. Perhaps you start with reading your Bible a little more, start a morning devotion program of some sort, do something that you can keep up. It’s not too much, but something. As part of that you might spend a few moments of your morning in prayer, bringing your petitions to the Lord. Seeking His blessing and encouragement for the day. Then you might move on to watching your tongue, not only making sure you don’t curse or swear, but also that you speak well of others. After all, you don’t want to be a gossip or a slanderer. Now of course, you will have to address your thoughts, your lusts that lead to wandering eyes. Or your coveting heart that make idols out of human creations. And then there are the habits that you’ve developed over the years that will be hard to break, but you already know they aren’t good for you. They don’t promote holiness and faithfulness before God, so you will have to exercise some control over them. And of course, we haven’t even begun to discuss matters of stewardship, the giving of your time and treasure.

Fortunately for you, in this endeavor to better yourself, to live a more godly and holy life, there are abundant resources for you. There are self-help books and small group Bible studies that can guide direct your spiritual wellbeing. There are multitudes of churches out there that are ready and willing and completely focused on helping you control your desires, guide your actions, curb your thoughts so that you might be a good Christian, so that you might be worthy of the gift of God’s love. The problem, they will say, is your conduct. The issue is how you choose to act in any given situation. You fail because you haven’t been properly guided or catechized or discipled or whatever other term they might come up with. If you want to stand tall, if you want to rejoice rather than fear the law of God, then you need to correct how you live so that you might live better.

But here’s the thing, that quest to fix yourself or someone else, that desire to control and limit a person’s thoughts, words and deeds has never ended in the glory that is promised. It isn’t a road to a confident assurance that you will be saved, that eternal life is yours. In fact, it is a delusion that pretends to give hope while simultaneously depriving you of it. It is a downward spiral that one does not easily escape. In fact, you cannot escape it on your own.

So, Jesus says to Pharisees new and old, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” (Mark 7:14-15) The things that defile you, the things that bring you under the judgment of the Law are not primarily the things that are “out there” the things that can be controlled by new habits or better choices. The problem isn’t located in these things, as if we could perfect ourselves by avoiding them. The problem isn’t that you misuse your freedom, but that you are not free to begin with. Our Lord says, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery…” and on the list goes. The problem is the heart of man. That is why your attempts to fix yourself will always fall short, for how can you change your own heart?

Hope, confidence, assurance, these things are not found in your actions or your wish dreams of a better life. The hope for our quiet times when you feel the aches and pains and the guilt and the shame, the hope for our terror before the Law of God when your sin is magnified before your face, your hope as you crumble exposed before the judgment seat itself, is found in one name under heaven: Jesus Christ your Lord. This is what the Gospel is all about. This is what our gathering is about. This is why you can confess your sins and not lie about your depravity. For you have a Savior. You have One who took it all, took your sin, your defiled heart, your brokenness and depravity, and He declared, “These are mine, mine and mine alone.”

For your defiling heart He suffers. For your sin He dies. But He does not stay in the grave. Our Lord rises victorious for you, for your hope and confidence. And this very day He proclaims that new life into your hearts even as He washes you in the waters of Holy Baptism and feeds you the same body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. As you fail yet again to live as you ought, as you struggle to love and honor God in thought word and deed, you throw up your hands again and boldly declare, “We justly deserve your present and eternal punishment…” Yes, yes, you do. But He has sent me to tell you something, something that changes everything, “In His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sins. As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, I therefore forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

Go in peace, you are free!

2 thoughts on “Locating the Problem

  1. In the quotation from the confession (LSB Divine Service Setting Three; TLH “pg 15”) it actually reads, “confess…all my sins…and justly deservED” – it may be semantics, but certainly there’s importance in that – past tense seems to state past sins… but of those I’ve already been forgiven. I suppose this could imply, “since my last confession.” Is there a better way this could be stated? I’d prefer the way stated in Pastor Koch’s writing here, “justly deserve.” Thoughts?

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