As a young adult, I once feared I’d committed the unpardonable sin. I couldn’t have told you exactly that sin was, but whatever it was, I was sure I’d done it. Mercifully, after days of urgently calling out to Him, God gently eased me back into the sea of His grace.
However, not many years later, I had another spiritual panic attack. A friend challenged me to read John Calvin and I complied. The effect was terrifying. I became convinced that I was not one of God’s elect. I’m sure neither my friend nor John Calvin intended that result; nevertheless, fear consumed my thoughts day and night.
God met me on that one, too—in fact it is the most powerful experience of His presence I have ever had. He called to me in the middle of the night, whether audibly or in my spirit I cannot say. I only know it was Him. He said just four words: “Accepted in the Beloved.” But the power of those words, which I located later in Ephesians 1:6 (KJV), freed me from oppressive fear.
I’m glad to say that I haven’t had spiritual panic of that magnitude for a long time. But that’s not to say I’m free from spiritual struggles. These days, I occasionally swing on a pendulum between spiritual perfectionism and spiritual sloppiness. What I mean is, some days I find it difficult to believe that a perfect, holy God could ever be pleased with a sinner like me—while other days I barely acknowledge my sin to myself, Him, or anybody. Both extremes entirely miss the point of grace. I know this. Still, it’s hard to keep my heart from wandering there sometimes.
But God is helping me with this, too. In her book The Way of Discernment, Elizabeth Liebert discusses the Christian’s identity: We are “loved and saved sinners.” That’s not an earthshaking statement—it’s basic Christian theology. But the exercise she offered to help readers grasp that concept was powerful for me. Here it is, in case you also need some spiritual Rx.
First, ask God to ground you in His loving presence. Liebert suggested reading Psalm 139. (Romans 8:32-39 is what the Holy Spirit used with me.) Meditate on God’s love until you are sure of His presence with you.
Then, review your entire life with Him. This sounds overwhelming, but it needn’t be. Do it in two parts. First, ask the Holy Spirit to bring to mind things you have done or failed to do that have hurt God or others, or that have caused you to experience shame and regret. Without judging yourself, write each one down and release it to God with a short prayer of sorrow. [My own note here: the point is not to make an exhaustive list. Don’t probe, don’t wallow. Just let God remind you of any sins, even previously confessed ones, that still cause you grief. Acknowledge them, and move on.]
Next, ask the Holy Spirit to remind you of the ways throughout your life that you have experienced God’s unmerited grace and blessing. As you note each of these, pray a short prayer of gratitude.
Finally, compare the two lists and talk to God about what you notice.
I was surprised by what God showed me. Although I had made my lists side-by-side, I saw that they were unrelated. God’s blessings—and there were many—were completely independent of my actions. I had done nothing to deserve those blessings, neither had my sins caused Him to withhold them. God’s generous grace outweighed my substantial failures—by far.
As I talked with Him about this, a new understanding of His forgiveness and grace washed over me. I am an undeniable sinner. But I am a loved and saved sinner. I can’t make God love me any more or less because, well, as He told me a long time ago, I am “accepted in the Beloved.”