Elmer Colyer, Dealing With Sin Among Christians
Elmer Colyer is professor of systematic theology at the University of
Dubuque Theological Seminary, and pastor of a Methodist congregation. Dr. Colyer received his Ph.D. from Boston College/Andover Newton in 1992.
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J. Michael Feazell: Everybody has a sense of justice and wants to see justice done, at least in terms of how they view justice. But it works two ways. We want to see Christ as coming back and taking care of the evil people, the oppressors, the wicked people that do so much damage to everybody else, and we kind of want to see that happen, and then yet that same sense of justice can be a real conscience and depression factor when it comes to us and the heinous things we’ve done and we wonder, how does God view us? Am I one of those that he’s coming back to smash with ten thousands of the saints and all that? How does that come together with a right understanding of God in Scripture?
Elmer Colyer: It’s interesting – a lot of times the more shrill people are in terms of other people being God’s enemies and God judging them, the more it’s really a projection out of the brokenness of their own life, and it’s their way of dealing with it, because they don’t have a God who can look at the evil in their life and still love them and forgive them – the way to do it is to project that out onto others, and then you get it out of your own system, and then but you still have this problem, these two aspects, God loving some and hating others.
We do all have a profound sense, most people (other than sociopaths) have a profound sense of justice. It’s part of that sense that God has implanted in us by the presence of the Spirit, that this is a moral universe. That’s part of the problem, because the line between good and evil doesn’t run between nations and groups of evil, the line between good and evil runs through the heart of every one of us.
In our heart of hearts, when we face the secret sins in our life that we don’t talk about to one another, oftentimes we are afraid of this God, this dark inscrutable God behind the back of Christ.
I remember in another church when I was first a pastor, a similar situation… I was leaving the church and a woman came to talk to me before I left, because she had developed a trust in me. I asked her what she wanted to talk about and she said nothing, which meant she really had something, but she wasn’t comfortable to talk about it. We got to talking about our high school years…
(I can’t remember if I mentioned at the last time in the interview, but I was not a nice person before I became a Christian. If you think of the four or five guys in your high school most likely to fail at life, you’re looking at me before I became a Christian. I was such a hellion that after I became a Christian had a call to ministry, my brother sat me down and for three hours tried to talk me out of going into the ministry, and I’m convinced that he was far less concerned about my career decision than he was any congregation that would ever have me as a pastor, because he knew what I was really like. In my ten-year high school class reunion when we went back, and by then I was a pastor and serving a congregation, they asked me to pray before the meal. I got three words into the prayer and the entire senior class burst into hysterical laughter because they couldn’t fathom me praying, let alone being a pastor. The truth of the matter is that line between good and evil runs down the center of all of us.)
In talking to this woman and talking about the brokenness in my life, she probably figured out, maybe he would understand the brokenness in my life, so she went on to tell about the fact that she was in an adulterous relationship with her husband’s best friend. That wasn’t the worst part of it. The worst part of it is that her guilt and her shame and remorse were causing her to reject her husband’s love, and he was sensing this, and the more she pushed him away, the more he tried to reach out to her, and she realized she was destroying her marriage, and she could not break the chains of the guilt and the shame that she had.
If I had said, God is a nice God and you’re really a nice person, you just need to get over this guilt and shame, and things will be fine, it wouldn’t have brought her emotional spiritual healing. It’s the wrath of God and the justice of God that she needs to hear as loudly as the love of God for her to be set free. She needs a God who can look at the darkest moments in her life, the most evil things that she has done, and not blink.
That’s why, if we’re going to be effective as pastors, we better deal with that kind of stuff in our life and be able to deal with it in others’ lives, because when they come and they tell us their deep dark secrets of things they’ve done, if we blink and we’re not able to manifest toward them both the holiness of God and also the love and acceptance of God, we won’t be able to. They won’t talk to us, they won’t share with us.
The only thing you can do in that type of situation is take the person to the foot of the cross. This is what God thinks of what you’ve done. He declares it evil and sinful. It’s God’s final no, not in my universe will you behave this way. But at the same time Jesus, our elder brother, is the one who comes beside her, who takes her brokenness upon himself, suffers in her place, and says,
But I love you and I’m not going to leave you there. Therefore I forgive you and I set you free. I’ve objectively dealt with it. If you continue to lash yourself with sin and guilt and remorse and shame, you’re trying to undo what I did on the cross. When I said ‘it was finished,’ it’s finished. That means it needs to be finished for you. You need to leave it there at the cross.
I put my hands on her shoulder and I said, I am your brother in Christ and minister of the gospel. I signed the sign of the cross on her forehead. I said, “In the name of Christ our Lord, as a minister of the gospel, I declare you are forgiven. Go your way and sin no more.” She slumped into a puddle of tears; I had to get a bunch of Kleenexes. When she got done, she straightened up. It was as if a 1000-pound weight had fallen off her shoulders, and she went home and she was able to receive her husband’s love again; she had broken it off.
The interesting thing, and this says something about the way God deals with evil both in the cross and in our lives, oftentimes God uses the fundamental brokenness, the failures of our life, the evil that’s done to us in ways that we would have never expected. It was so with this woman. A few years after I left that church, I was back visiting and she said, “Pastor El! I’ve got to tell you the rest of the story.” We got together for a cup of coffee.
She said, “About two or three years after I came to your office, when you took me to the cross and I received Christ’s forgiveness, my husband started pushing me away and I couldn’t figure out what was going on.” Then she said, “I thought back and I said, ‘I remember what this is all about.’ I bet that blankety blank is cheating on me.” God hasn’t fully dealt with her language, so she was very colorful. She said, “You know what I did, Pastor El?”
She said, “I confronted him. I said, ‘You’re cheating on me, aren’t you?’” He tried to deny it and eventually he came out and he said yes, that he was. She said, “You know what I did, Pastor El? I did the same thing with him that you did with me. I said, ‘I got a story to tell you.’” She went back and retold her story and then she took him to the foot of the cross, put her hands on his shoulder, signed the sign of the cross on his forehead, and said, “As your wife and your sister in Christ, I declare that you are forgiven. Go your way and sin no more.” She said, “You know, Pastor El? We have the most wonderful Christian marriage now, that we never would have had if we hadn’t have passed through those things.”
That doesn’t mean that God is the author of them. They’re still evil, they’re still brokenness, they’re not what God intends, but God uses even the brokenness and evil for our good. That’s the way God overcomes evil, not by dealing with it at a distance, but entering into the midst of it on the cross, overcoming it within. The cross was the most heinously evil thing that ever took place in the history of the world – where humanity pushed God out of our world, out of our lives, up on the cross, and crucified him. That is the very thing, the very evil of rejecting the love of God, that God uses to finally reconcile us to God so that we know that in our despicable most evil moments, when we are enemies of God and we push God out of our lives onto the cross, that’s precisely where the love of God and the justice of God doesn’t let us go. It both deals with our sin objectively for the evil that it is, and yet loves us with a love that will not let us go and frees it from us.
JMF: Taking that a step further, the person who goes through an experience like that, but they go and they do sin some more, what do they do then? How does that work for them?
EC: This is where people really get worried. It’s one thing to sin before you become a Christian. But after you become a Christian and now you’ve tasted the glory of the coming kingdom, to go back and sin again, now “obviously” there cannot be any more room for forgiveness at this point, you know? This is the way, once again, we tend to think that there are limits to the love of God for us.
Many times we think if we’d have just have been Jesus’ disciples and lived with him for three years, that would be enough for us. Well, how much did the disciples really learn? Not all that much. All of Jesus’ disciples, including Peter, denied him and went the other way. In John’s Gospel, Jesus restores Peter, who is absolutely broken-hearted. “Here I am, I said I would die for him, and I denied him three times. Surely there can’t be forgiveness for me.” But Jesus three times asks him, “Peter, do you love me? Peter, do you love me? Peter, do you love me?” Three-fold rejection, a three-fold restoration.
In one of the questions you asked me to think about, is how has my theology changed over the years? If there’s one place fundamentally that’s changed it is my realization that the thing that finally sets us free from sin is when we become absolutely utterly convinced that even if we do… (We all have our secret sins, we don’t share them with other people, we all have them, and we do them over and over and over again. We kind of like them, we kind of protect them and make sure we do them, and then secretly we’re in turmoil and guilt because as Christians we keep doing it over and over again. We’re powerless before it.)
This is a funny thing in our culture. We pride ourselves on free will, that we’re able to make choices and choose things, and yet we’re the most powerless of cultures, in North America. We talk about our freedom, our free will and responsibility, and yet all of the 12-step groups in our culture bear witness to the fact that we’re a compulsive culture in North America. There’s a 12-step group for everything. Not only alcoholics and drugs but gambling and eating and spending. There’s a 12-step group for everything. And what’s the fundamental thing that you have to acknowledge if you’re going to be a part of a 12-step group? “I am powerless before a habit that I cannot break, and I need a higher power (God) and a community if I’m ever going to be set free.”
It’s no different for Christians. Where I’ve changed theologically is my utter conviction that even if we sin, and we sin and we sin again, that the grace of God is always greater, because Christ has objectively dealt with even that sin. Even the sin of scorning him and sinning against his love, he took upon himself on the cross. This is why Paul says in Ephesians, “I pray that you’ll understand something of the height and depth and breadth of the love of God in Christ that surpasses all understanding.” We’ll never get our minds around the extent of the love of God in Christ. But remember, it’s not a love that overlooks the sin and the evil, it’s a love that looks it in the eye, names it for what it is, and still overcomes it.
And the secret sins in my life…it’s when I became utterly convinced of my powerlessness even as a Christian to overcome them, and that Christ would continually forgive me, but guess what? I found the power beginning to dissipate – because oftentimes it’s the underlying fear that God is really out to get us, that there’s a deus absconditus, that in the end it’s not going to be mercy for us; it’s only going to be wrath, because these attributes are separate. It’s that fundamental fear that holds us in bondage. When we finally lose that fear and we realize that God’s love is far greater than we ever realized, far broader and far deeper, that we find the power of sin begins to lose its hold on us, and we find freedom.
In early Methodism, discipleship always took place in small groups, because we have a hard time believing that ourselves. We believe it of other Christians, but we don’t believe it of ourselves. In those small groups in early Methodism, the first question they always asked when they got together in the bands for Christians, “Do you have peace with God in Christ? Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart?”
Before we can begin to be a Christian community and ever watch over one another in love, we need to make sure that we don’t have a deus absconditus that we secretly fear. That’s why in early Methodist discipline, watching over one another in love, always took place in the context of fellowship. It’s only when we’re absolutely convinced of the love of God in Christ and the love of our brothers and sisters that we begin to lose our fear, and we can be honest with God and one another about the brokenness, the secret sins in our life.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all Christians had a group that they could get together on a weekly basis where Christians asked them, “Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart? Where have you sinned? How has God delivered you? How have you known the forgiveness of God in Christ? If you have any doubts about that, before we continue this meeting, we, your brothers and sisters, are going to convince you of the love of God in Christ, because that’s the only way we can be a Christian.” Then we can talk about our shortcomings.
JMF: It’s hard to get into a group where you actually trust the people to not take it outside the group and tell other people, if you do say something. That becomes a barrier… Sometimes even best friends betray you that way. It’s very difficult …it’s one thing, if it’s something everybody already knows, if you’re an alcoholic, for example or something.
But if it’s something that would be extremely devastating if anybody did know, it’s really hard to share that with somebody else. You almost have to carry that alone with God, and until you get to the place that you’re talking about, where you can see yourself in that kind of configuration with God, it seems like you’re not able to forgive other people in a way that’s complete and gives you freedom, until you can forgive yourself in the context of knowing who God is for you, and what God has done for you in the way that actually believes it – that you really are forgiven.
Often you hear a refrain among Christians, when somebody does something others find out about, “And he calls himself a Christian,” “She calls herself a Christian.” Well, yeah. How can you say that if you don’t realize that you’re just like that? But that’s the rub, isn’t it?
EC: Yeah, it is the rub. It’s a good point. Part of the problem goes back to this individualism of our culture. It’s safer in some respects to be an individual and bottled up with our secret sins, because we don’t have to worry about that. The other side of it is, how many Americans are caught up in compulsive behaviors and end up having to be in 12-step groups? If the church were a little bit more like those 12-step groups, maybe we’d be less bottled up with all these compulsions, because we would be able to do it. But you’re right, there’s a risk involved in sharing. This is why, when you start small groups in the church, one of the things you have to agree on from the beginning is that there will be absolute confidentiality. What’s said in the group has to stay in the group. That’s the way it is with the 12-step groups. What you say in the group stays in the group.
JMF: In the 12-step groups they tend to do that because they’ve been burned, whereas with the church, it’s like, because they’re Christians it’s okay to talk to another Christian, “I’m just telling you this so that you can pray about it” and that gives our conscience the ability to share something that should never be shared. Why do we get like that?
EC: We just can’t be that way. This is where we need to watch over one another in love to be able to start it. The bottom line is, to start this in the church it always involves a risk, but that’s the way love is. Love is risky, isn’t it? Any time we’re going to love… (indeed, it’s not difficult – it’s impossible. This is one of the wonderful things about Christian faith. If there’s nothing else that happens today with all the people listening to us, I hope they get this point: Christianity isn’t difficult, it’s impossible. The sooner we learn that the better off we’ll be.)
There’s a wonderful story of Major Ian Thomas, he’s the founder of the Torch Bearers…and this is the way it is with a lot of Christian workers. He became a Christian, became a whirlwind of activity for God, doing all kinds of Christian things, went on about seven years until he totally burnt himself out. He says he knelt down beside his bed in his college dorm room and he said, “Lord, for these last seven years I have served you, I’ve tried to be faithful to you and do it right, but I’m just worn out. I’m sorry. I just can’t do this anymore.”
He said he thought that Christ was going to be greatly disappointed. And Thomas says, “No sooner did I finish my prayer when I heard Christ breathe a great sigh of relief.” It’s as if for the last seven years, he said, “You’ve been trying to live a life for me that only I can live through you, and finally, I’m in business.”
It is impossible to love one another this way in the church. It is impossible to keep those kinds of confidences apart from the grace of God in Christ. It’s astonishing when even a few people begin to step out on the basis of the forgiveness that they have known because of the love of God in Christ, and begin to get together with other Christians and be honest, the kind of snowball effect that can have. There’s nothing like openness and honesty that breeds openness and honesty. Therefore I think it’s worth the risk.
The alternative to having those kinds of small groups where we can grow up together… (because remember, we’re created in the image of a Trinitarian God, not the image of an individual God with attributes – we’re created in the image of a Trinitarian God, where the love between the persons and the community of the persons is equally primordial with the persons themselves. This is the wonderful thing about Trinitarian Christian faith. You don’t have to choose between the good of the individual and the good of the community, because they’re equally primordial in God. They have to be equally primordial in the church. We have to be concerned about the good of the Christian community and the good about the individuals. We don’t have to choose between the two.) As individuals begin to step out in light of that love of God in Christ and to be vulnerable, we begin to manifest loving, forgiving relationships. The church then becomes something exciting.
I tell my seminary students, “If you have to tell the members of your congregation to go out and tell others about the gospel and invite them to church, if you have to tell them to do it and coerce them to do it, there’s something wrong with the fundamental fabric of the character of Christian faith in that church, because the way evangelism happens best is when the quality of the love of God in Christ and our community together is so awesome, so profound, we cannot help but tell others. And then, you know what? Virtually any method of evangelism we use will work. Evangelism is far less about having the right technique than it is embodying a kind of a community that’s transforming our lives and that we really want to invite others in. But there’s a risk involved. There’s always going to be a risk involved, but it’s worth it.
But what’s the alternative? The alternative to having that kind of Christian community is to be just where we’re at. It’s to have lonely Christians who are bottled up with their secret sins that they’re afraid to talk to other Christians about, so they don’t have the body of Christ supporting them, helping them believe the good news (because we all struggle to believe the good news), and so we end up lonely, guilt-ridden, fear-ridden, entering into something less than the fullness of life that God offers us in Christ. Wesley said it this way, “Christianity is a social religion, and to turn it into a solitary religion is to destroy it.”
There’s no other place in Christian life where we’re more aware of our need for brothers and sisters than this fundamental problem of us continuing to sin as Christians, and our fear that grace has run out for us. There are a few Christians I’ve met over the years in my life as a pastor, who their danger is cheap grace. They’re just going to sin it away. But the vast majority of Christians I know that are committed, their great danger is they think the grace of God is not enough for the sins that I continue to commit.
JMF: Right. It would probably be helpful for some to know that when you are disclosing to somebody else in a confidential trusting setting like that, that you don’t always have to disclose every detail. The point is, that you’re disclosing that you are in struggle with a sin of some kind, and it isn’t necessary that everybody know the details, and it isn’t necessary they know the when’s and where’s, but the fact that you are sharing that struggle as a human being with a sin, with a personal issue.
EC: Yes. The point is, is that the community, the small group… This is why you can’t do this kind of ministry in a large group. The place to do it is not Sunday morning with 100 or 50 or 75 people. You can’t…
JMF: I’ve seen that happen. “Let’s break into groups of three or four and let’s confess to each other.”
EC: This is one of the interesting things that in my study of Scripture and in looking at the history of renewal – that there are two equally primordial expressions of the church. The church hasn’t always gotten this, particularly even Protestant churches. We tend to think of the church as the community gathered around the sacraments and the preaching of the word – the large group. But when we go back and look at the ministry of Jesus and we look at the New Testament, we see two equally primordial expressions of the church.
Even in Jesus’ ministry, he taught the crowds, and we know that he had many more followers than simply the 12 apostles. We know that from Acts. It says that there were 120 who were gathered in the upper room. So there were a number, probably hundreds of other followers of Jesus. But of those, Jesus chose 12 to be with him. And it wasn’t a one-way street. Remember in the garden when Jesus was tempted to the uttermost there and almost despaired? He took Peter, James, and John (the three closest disciples) with him. And of the three, only one, John, is called the beloved disciple.
So we see two expressions of the church already in the ministry of Jesus. The large group gathered around Jesus, but the small group gathered for discipleship. We see it in Acts, too. Remember in Acts 2 and 4 it says they gathered in the temple courts and praised God with glad and sincere hearts. The large group gathered for worship, but they broke bread and prayed in their homes. The small group gathered for fellowship and discipleship.
When I’ve looked at the history of renewal, take for example early Methodism, you find two expression of the church. The large group gathered for worship, for preaching, for sacraments, but the small groups gathered for discipleship and fellowship. You can only be a part of that kind of intimate fellowship with a limited number of people, because we’re finite human beings. You simply don’t have time to develop depth of relationship and trust [with a large group]. That’s absolutely crucial.
You’re right, we don’t have to say everything. We just have to be able to be authentic and vulnerable enough about the guilt, the remorse, and the shame in our life that we expose it to other Christians and can hear them tell us the gospel over and over and over again, and hear them manifest in how they relate to us the love of God in Christ. Manifesting that in relation to one another, that’s what connection and spiritual fellowship is all about. I remember Jesus said it, “They’ll know you are my disciples if you love one another.” That’s very important.
There may be some times in small groups where there may be some things that are not appropriate to share in terms of a particular sin in your life and the details. That may be something you need to share with one other Christian or you may need to share with a pastor. But the point is, do we have relationships with other Christians where we can be authentic and vulnerable about these fears, about this guilt, and about this shame? Unfortunately, a lot of times people find more acceptance and love and openness in a 12-step group than they find in the church. That’s tragic, that it’s 12-step groups that manifest this level of community more than the small groups in our church.
JMF: Even in the small group setting like you’re talking about, even if you don’t feel comfortable sharing something, when you hear somebody else do that, it still speaks to you on that level… That tells you, this applies to me, too, and I can receive this assurance as well along with this person.
EC: Yeah. There’s something fundamentally cathartic about the confession of sins. Anybody who’s ever been to a 12-step group… I’ve had relatives that have had drug and alcohol problems, and they’ve invited me to go, and one of the things I’m amazed at is how profound it is to hear people talk about their struggles and how cathartic that is for others in their own struggles, because they realize they’re no longer alone in the midst of their struggle and their despair.
Simply knowing that there’s another human being who somehow understands the depth and level of stuff we’re going through, is part of the manifestation of the high priestly ministry of Christ in our midst. That’s how Christ’s ministry works. It’s in a mutual ministry to one another. It isn’t simply the other person who’s being open to us, it’s Christ who’s being open to us in and through the other person. This is the problem with our individualism, the “me and Jesus” kind of thing where we think we don’t need the body of Christ. The way God has put us together, wired us as human beings and created the church, it is that we have to be in relationship with one another. It’s in that relationship that we really manifest the image of God, which is Trinitarian and relational.
Jesus says all people will know you’re my disciples if you love one another. In the history of renewal, whether you find it in Acts after the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost, or other movements of renewal like in early Methodism in the small groups, often it was in the small groups that people came to Christ. In early Methodism the vast majority of people came to Christ not through field preaching, but in small groups, often only after they had been there a year or longer. After they had been in a small group where they were learning to pray, learning what the gospel is all about, interacting with other people who had struggled, only after a year of that process did they finally come to faith in Christ.