Getting past denial
John A. Braun
Some news and some messages are difficult to hear. In fact, some of them are so disturbing that we deny them. Denial is our built-in defense. Some cancer patients deny the diagnosis at first. It allows them time to adjust to shattering news. All of us may have first responded to bad news by saying, “No! That can’t be.” We continue to deny bad news until the truth becomes undeniable and inevitable.
God also has a message we do not want to hear. His bad news is that we are hopeless and helpless sinners. That’s brutal. God’s prophet Isaiah describes our situation, “We all growl like bears; we moan mournfully like doves. We look for justice, but find none; for deliverance, but it is far away” (Isaiah 59:11). It’s painful to read most of that chapter. We might even put it aside or skip to a more pleasant section.
I wonder what visitors to our worship services think when, with others, I stand to confess, “I am by nature sinful and . . . have disobeyed you in my thoughts, words, and actions. I have done what is evil and failed to do what is good.” Together we go on to say publicly that we deserve God’s punishment.
We have come through denial to that confession. The Holy Spirit has broken our self-assurance and pride and brought us a better confidence and sense of worth in Christ’s forgiveness and love.
Is it possible that visitors will not listen to the bad news we confess? They have come for some uplifting news that makes them feel good. As they look over their lives, things are pretty good. Job, family, children all are normal and happy. Sinful? Deserving God’s punishment? No, that can’t be.
Should we change the message? Should we hide it under a layer of “happy church talk”? Some suggest that is exactly what we should do. Others have already done it. They have never gotten past the denial of sin residing in all human hearts.
But even those of us who attend services and confess our sins regularly have a tendency to minimize sin. Our sinful nature concludes that such a grim and harsh assessment is true for everyone else but not for us. Like others, that part of us rushes to hide behind the good we do.
Yes, many do positive things in this world. Law-abiding citizens of all kinds make commendable contributions to the world, assist the poor and helpless, and seek to make society a better place. They should be honored for their contributions and receive the benefits of their efforts.
But before God we cannot deny his assessment: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away” (Romans 3:10-12).
If we deny our sin, our helplessness, and our inability to please God by our own efforts, we will not be ready to hear the good news. It’s like the sick patient denying the diagnosis. As long as the denial persists, the patient is not ready to hear the remedy and cure. The good news for sinners is that God loves them and has declared them right and holy because of Jesus. If we deny sin, we miss the depth, width, length, and height of God’s love in Jesus. We remain in denial and without God’s hope and love.
That’s why the announcement of God’s mercy in Christ follows our confession, and we are ready to sing, praise, listen to his Word, and live as his people.
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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 102, Number 7
Issue: July 2015
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