January 22, 2021

The Things That Won’t Go Away

They’re back.

My sins, that is.

Just in case you need to know, my name is Michael Spencer. I’m a Christian minister who has given 33+ years of my life to telling people…

My sins, O the bliss of this glorious thought
My sins not in part, but the whole
Were nailed to the cross and I bear them no more
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul…

and other similar things about sin and forgiveness.

Unlike some people in this business, I actually believe this stuff. Like the creed teaches me, I believe in “…the forgiveness of sins…” As a reformation type Christian, I’ve got it all worked out how my sins were atoned for, taken away, tossed into the depths of the sea, put behind God’s back and so on.

The problem is that while God has forgiven me and God has put my sins on Jesus and God has replaced my sins with the righteousness of his own Son, etc., etc., some of the persons I sinned against have taken a different route.

They’ve brought my sins back up. They’ve been holding on to them for years, filed away, still affecting them and now at a particularly point of clarity in their own journey, they’ve brought those sins back to me, put them on the table and announced we have a big, big problem here.

We have a song we often sing where I work, saying that Jesus died for our sins AND for the sins that were done to us. Because I’ve sinned against many other persons, I’ve always liked that verse. Apparently, too much; now I have to deal with my sins- several decades of them- and Jesus’ death, forgiveness, etc. is going to be of limited help. Those I have sinned against say that these sins matter and life is unalterably changed by them.

I’ve grieved over these sins, and I’ve asked forgiveness many times. But I haven’t successfully repented of all of them or abandoned all of them. Again and again, some of these sins have reappeared in my life. Prayer, accountability, counsel, more prayer, good theology, tears, more prayer…..none of it has killed off these sins entirely.

Jesus may have forgiven me, but my sins have followed me. Their footprints in the lives of those I’ve sinned against are still there, and they are calling me to an accounting.

I don’t know what to do about these sins.

I can’t honestly promise that I won’t sin again. I can say that with all my heart and all my efforts I will fight to never sin in these ways again, but these are sins that are deeply wound up in my personality, my upbringing and my physical/emotional make-up. Promising to never get angry again would be very unrealistic, and talking some pietistic trash would be deceptive. Somewhere out there, this sin will reappear.

I once knew this guy….well…I’ll let him talk…

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

What I’d like to ask that guy is this: Jesus may love you, but what about the people other than Jesus? The ones who can’t love you with those sins you don’t understand still on the record? What do we do for those who aren’t interested in imputation, but want accountability? Payment? Consequences? What about those who have been sinned against, but aren’t offering me the Gospel, but purgatory?

How do we take hold of the grace of God for ourselves but then deal with people who aren’t God and can’t be God? People who are going to hold us to the law for their own protection, and who won’t risk further dealings with me until guarantees of repayment and promises of no future sin are on the table?

Protestants are often faulted for having a view of “cheap grace.” Is this what “cheap grace” looks like? The forgiveness of the prodigal’s father on the one hand, and the real-world demands for repayment and improved behavior on the other?

Roman Catholics often refer to the Protestant Gospel as a “legal fiction.” Is this what they mean? A sinner enjoys forgiveness, but cannot adequately make amends, repayment or restoration for his sins against those he loves?

My sins have returned. God may have forgotten them. Other persons have not.

What do I do?


  1. What Jerod said.

    Oh . . . and uh, join the Reformed Church. 😉

    Thanks Michael for sharing. I am sorry about the sin, yours and mine.

  2. Michael – Thanks for this post. I read it this afternoon and have been thinking about my own sin and the consequences that fall on all the people around me as a result of my own screw ups. Thanks for provoking my thoughts, as you are surely not alone in having to deal with the consequences of sin. – Ryan

  3. God’s generosity is a real challenge to our imaginations. It is meant to be so. It’s supposed to be a surprise and a benchmark at the same time. As with many other aspects of God, we can just stand in awe and try to say thanks.

  4. After reading through all these comments, I’m shocked to find that nobody raised a point that I would have thought to be obvious – In today’s fee-for-service Christian industry, Pastors are members of a professional class. They are expected to keep the highest ethics of their profession, and THEN carry the millstone of religion around their necks. To me, that’s the biggest reasons pastors “move on” and find new pastorates.. to wash the *professional* slate clean and start anew somewhere else.

    Some Christians may extend grace and ease the religious burden at times, but as Americans, we pompously demand perfection for our dollar and expect anyone with a professional title to have a clean “past performance” record.

    It’s sad. It’s not biblical, and I’m sure it doesn’t comfort you at all Michael (sorry), but from my experience that’s the expectation that the majority of parishioners hold.

  5. urban otter

    Terri, I infer from your post that the tendency to sin is located in the physical body. Is that what you mean?

    What about sinful thoughts? If I’m angry at my brother and wish him to suffer, this is a sin. But it’s not a sin driven by an untamed physical desire, such as lust or gluttony.

    Well, this is an interesting tangent. I don’t know that I believe in the seperation of soul/spirit/mind/body that so many people like to parse, define, and elaborate on.

    The redemption of humanity is a physical redemption, not simly an etheral/mind resurrection. The mind is made up of physical flesh, runs on physical properties, and works in a tangible way. If simply controlling the will was what redemption was about, what’s the purpose of having a glorified body?

    Think of Jesus during his temptation in the wildreness. Someone once asked me why he had to do that. My answer was that Jesus was created sinless and perfect. With no taint of original sin within him, temptation had to come from outside of him…via Satan…in the same way it did for the first sinless people, Adam and Eve.

    does that make sense?

    Th mind and body are more closely allied…and maybe the same exact thing….this is still something I am thinking through.

  6. oops….”wilderness”

  7. Memphis Aggie says

    Thanks Bob – You’re right I cut and pasted that prayer: should have checked it first.


    There’s another thought you offered that I recognize in myself. What to do about that persistent sin that returns even after repeated confession and prayer? Why does it come back? In my case I think my contrition is insufficient, partly because I’m excusing it as “no big deal” and partly because I’m avoiding the real self examination required to root it out or at least see it’s source. It’s not like I have a good answer here. I’ve shaken other habitual sins, some with relative ease. Why does this one stick?

    Sorry, I don’t really have a good answer for you because I have a similar problem.

    Should I go through penance and hope that my sense of contrition will catch up with my actions? In those other habitual sins, once I understood how I was offending God and others I had a stronger sense of shame – that helped: quitting was easier. I’ve dialed down the sin in frequency and intensity and yet I still fail way too often. Maybe it’s just a matter of patience and repetition. Maybe someone else has advice.

  8. “God’s generosity is a real challenge to our imaginations.”

    A very good observation, Jim. Unless one preaches grace to the extent of being accused of licensing sin you haven’t actually preached grace. Even Paul asked the obvious rhetorical question, Should we sin that grace may abound?”.

    Grace can never fully be flushed out by a guilt ridden, self righteous, and judgmental lot such as we. The first glimpse of the Risen Christ will flood our beings with an expanse of grace the was completely untapped by mortal “theologians”.

    While we argue over God’s grace as it pertains to this sin or those sins, we will one day realize that just one small bite of fruit required the bloody murder of God Himself to provide that grace, and to restrict that purchased grace to some totured view of “quantitative transgressions” is to do despite unto the Spirit of…well…GRACE.

  9. I really dunno? Do you have an Inkwell around? Hurl it bro!

  10. Of course Jesus forgives us, and that’s what matters most, but the consequences of your sins and mine remain. Some may choose not to forgive us even when we apologize and try to make amends. Some may even go further and seek some sort of revenge against us, even when and after Jesus has forgiven us. As a big fan of “Law and Order: Criminal Intent,” I see that happening frequently on the show. Needless to say, that can get scary at times when it’s our life and not a TV show.

    We are all in the same situation as Michael. What can we do but pray, listen, try to do what we can to confess and repent? Then, we simply have to trust God–much easier said than done, as we all know.

  11. Bror Erickson says

    Forgive them for not forgiving you. Go buy the book “The Hammer of God.”

  12. GranpaJohn says

    By the time Michael is able to review and post this, there will be quite a few more comments. Lengthy and numerous replies often equates to: “You’ve struck a common issue in the heart”.
    The sin is theirs who by nature are sinners (all of us).
    Forgiveness is the act of imitating divinity by taking the consequence of sin upon ones self and letting the perpetrator go free (seldom accomplished by us).

    In the words of a spiritual woman I know, “Go to Lowes, buy a ladder, and get over it”; Said to me as I wore the mantel of the continually reminded one and to those injured by my arrogance as well.
    I will be passing on all of these comments to those I have recently offended and apologized to, along with this point of theology:

    Two things are true. There is a God who loves and forgives, and you have just proven you are not Him.

    RATS!!! Now I’ve gone and offended someone else…

  13. The book that Bror recommends reading, ‘The Hammer of God’, is the one by Bo Giertz. There’s another one of the same title by Arthur C. Clarke.

    ‘The Hammer of God’ by Bo Giertz, is absolutely a must read for anyone even halfway serious about this topic of sin, forgiveness, and the lack thereof.

    Thanks Bror for the reminder. It’s time to read it again.

    – Steve

  14. I’ve been thinking this one over again and I’m curious about something. To what extent are we to blame for our actions and to what extent are we being tested? I don’t mean this in any ‘buck-passing’ way, but rather what people think about the idea of being ‘spiritually attacked’.
    My biggest stressor is the approach to exam times (understandably perhaps). When I get stressed I can get angry over trivial things, end up taking it out on those closest to me (not physically, but just through general stroppy behaviour). I then get into a cycle of wondering whether this is all ‘worth it’ for the sake of being called to ministry, am I really cut out for ministry, wouldn’t it be a lot easier for everyone if I got a job again and so on. And then I get the suggestion from some that this is just the devil testing me and my family. And, of course, he’s going to go for the vulnerable areas of my life.
    I don’t want to take this too far from Michael’s excellent post (you could always not publish it if it’s too far off topic, Michael), but I’d be curious to hear some thoughts on this idea of being tested by the devil.

  15. Michael,

    My prayers are with you about this. Some thoughts: once you have tried to make amends over the sins (assuming that you can to the people hurt) and are working toward prevention and/or reduction, you are doing all that you can.

    If you find yourself in a situation where a smaller hurting by you is causing a very large reaction, then that is out of your control. Best suggestion is to find a spiritual advisor that all trust and talk it out.

    John O

    I definitely believe in spiritual attack, and yes the devil or his minions go after your most vulnerable areas. I wouldn’t call it being tested by the devil, though. Recently, I have been through a seige of that sort myself. 😉 At least you know why you are being attacked, I really don’t know.

    I would talk to other, mature Christians about the situation, to make sure that you are seeing clearly. One question that I ask under those circumstances is “Who wins if I do this?”

  16. At the risk that the What do I do? was a rhetorical question:

    In Celebrate Recovery, an understanding as we enter the amends process is that the person’s reaction at the other end is beyond our control. We should have an expectation that the amends might be rejected. All we can do is ask for forgiveness.

    If someone I wronged and made amends to continued to bring up the matter anew, I would hope to have the courage (if they profess to follow Christ) to remind them that God remembers my wrong no more. But still, the choice is theirs. And that can suck.

  17. I think that you should read some good old Lutheran Theology.

  18. Just love, baby. For love covers…

  19. “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you,

    leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.”

    My advice? Forget the law/gospel divide and make amends. When we deal with humanity, we are all Catholics. Human beings require faith and works.

    For example, if I’m the one who said something stupid, I need to buy her flowers. That’s how it works. But flowers alone don’t accomplish anything. They must be paired with a desire not to say something stupid again, and faith in our relationship. After doing my penance, I’m back in a state of grace.

    Big mistakes are something different. They can be forgiven, but never forgotten. Those truly place you in purgatory or sometimes get you excommunicated from a person’s life. Time is the only thing that really heals those wounds.

    If someone does not forgive, then suffer in man made purgatory for His sake.

  20. Charley: Your advice is simple and true. However…. “After doing my penance, I’m back in a state of grace” illustrates to me just how meaningless denominational lingo can be. Where’s Jesus on working yourself into a state of “grace?” Working yourself into a state of right works I understand. Working yourself into a state of “grace?” No disrespect, but that seems the definition of doublespeak.

    Henry: What does good ol Lutheran theology have to say on wounded relationships with people who don’t forgive like God that I have missed?

  21. GranpaJohn says

    Addendum: This often seems to be my lot as well.
    I offend, repent and am forgiven; then reminded of that for which I repented and repent more, yet forgiveness is temporary until the next reminder.
    At that point I sometimes confront the sin of unforgiveness as the offended soul and am reminded that I started it all.

    Yet in all, I am reminded of how I often plead over and over with the Lord for forgiveness from that which I KNOW He has not only forgiven but atoned as well.

    It is in this that I have compassion (albeit with exasperation) for those who are as human as I just at different times than I.

    When we all get to Heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be..

  22. Amazing the number of comments a post on our sinfulness will generate! What always makes this such an emotional issue? Could it be more a result of our disappointment in the lack of permanent transformation than any unwillingness to accept forgiveness and Christ’s atonement? OK, I am forgiven, and it is a free gift, and Jesus loves me no matter what, and I am going to heaven some day. That is a great thing , but how come Christians aren’t better, how come I am not a better person now? And how come we’re not on this blog saying I am forgiven, saved and fixed?

    As Jesus and epistles say so many times being transformed -being a new person, loving, caring for the needy, “doing the will my Father”… is part and parcel of being a Christian. Being a Christian does not just mean God doesn’t see the sins we commit anymore. We are supposed to be better, but we often are not. And forget the accusations of legalism or “earning salvation”; transformation is what we want, and this is what God wants. This lack of transformation shakes my faith.

    Maybe our struggles, not our sins, are part of who we really are and never change. But it would be nice if they did. After all Jesus was resurrected with holes in His body.

    I think that this is also what the discussion on the Last Supper and liturgy is also partly about. Transformation. I think we “get” the idea of forgiveness, but communing with Jesus, receiving grace and transforming your life is much harder. If Communion is only an intellectual and emotional remembering of the fact that we are forgiven, that isn’t enough.

  23. Your sins are forgiven, period. People who cannot deal with that reality… Well, they just can’t deal with it. If you have the strength and will to endure being around that kind of gracelessness day in and day out, good for you. And if you don’t, then you are free, my friend. Just one more example of how radical grace really is.

  24. Jack: I appreciate your unconditional support, but if a person has hurt someone with whom they are in a relationship, remaining in that relationship may mean forgiving someone who is not as gracious as they should be. Its not a matter of strength or endurance for me. It’s a matter of who I am as a human being. I’ve chosen to be some things, and to un-choose would be to lose myself.

  25. Michael:

    No offense taken. I did not mean to say that God requires works/penance for us to reach a “state of grace.” Instead, I was trying to say that people require works/penance for us to get back into their good graces.

    I should stop posting at 12 minuets till midnight. If you made your site less interesting maybe I could get some sleep! 🙂

  26. A long time ago, I read this science fiction short story. In it, (and I do believe that it was the theme of the story) it had the very best definition of a man.

    “Man is the sum total of everything that he has done, and not done, wants to do and wants not to do, wishes to do and wishes not to do”

    Even though I don’t remember either the title or the author of it, that has stuck with me for many, many years.

  27. Great post with difficult questions. These are things that come to mind as I pray and listen – if any are helpful (to me or to you or others), I am glad.

    We must fear God and not people and sometimes these questions may arise in the context of the fear of man.

    Have great grace and love toward those who haven’t forgiven you – forgiveness is a gift and it can’t be forced. At the same time those who haven’t forgiven another are bound in a lie of Satan and in unforgiveness – it is a horrific place to be and they need your unconditional love. When you face someone who is angry and consumed with unforgiveness toward you, the best response is the opposite spirit of grace and love. And may God grant them the grace to release that which binds them.

    “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

    For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

  28. Life is naturally graceless. We all want to be treated with grace and yet we discover it’s opposite, only and always, apart from Christ. Which expounds the beauty of Christ in that He really does forgive us and establish us in a grace relationship with God, fully loved by the one who matters most; and therefore, it is vitally essential that we who know God’s grace, both trust and submit to Christ and His grace promises to us.

    I have no control over how people respond to God, but by God’s grace I do not have to wear the lablel that they set on me.

    Dredging up already-forgiven sins and labeling a person by their those sins, is evil. Christ gives us a new label or identity “in Him.” A Christian is not identified by his or her sins anymore.

    “I am not the thing that I hate most about myself.”

    As Paul taught, we are blessed and a blessing to others when we “no longer view each other according to the flesh but… as new creatures” in Christ.

    May God Himself protect you and speak to the hearts of those who no not the grace of forgiving others.

  29. Life is naturally graceless. We all want to be treated with grace and yet we discover it’s opposite, only and always, apart from Christ. Which expounds the beauty of Christ in that He really does forgive us and establish us in a grace relationship with God, fully loved by the one who matters most; and therefore, it is vitally essential that we who know God’s grace, both trust and submit to Christ and His grace promises to us.

    I have no control over how others respond to God, but by God’s grace I do not have to wear the label that they set on me.

    Dredging up already-forgiven sins and labeling a person by those sins, is evil. Christ gives us a new label or identity “in Him.” A Christian is not identified by his or her sins anymore.

    “I am not the thing that I hate most about myself.”

    As Paul taught, we are blessed and a blessing to others when we “no longer view each other according to the flesh but… as new creatures” in Christ.

    May God Himself protect you and speak to the hearts of those who know not the grace of forgiving others.

  30. Memphis Aggie says

    “Its not a matter of strength or endurance for me. It’s a matter of who I am as a human being. I’ve chosen to be some things, and to un-choose would be to lose myself.”

    Do you mean you view your sin as part of who you are?

  31. I haven’t read any comments yet. Hard hitting piece.

    Trust that God will give you the opportunity to make things right (in the restoration sense), as He wills. He may not, also. But it’s in His hands. Still rejoice in His forgiveness of your sins, and don’t let anyone take that from you, even those you’ve wronged. David stayed the anointed king and kept his authority, even after committing such a heinous, traitorous murder of a loyal member of his band.

    But also remember that the Scriptures teach not only forgiveness in the crucifixion of Christ, but life in the resurrection of Christ. Communion consists of 2 elements: wine and bread. Trust that God is making you spotless, and in the final day all will be worked out between us. The salvation process God has marked out for those you have wronged involves them exercising the faith to forgive you–let that have its course as well.

    I don’t understand what you meant by “Apparently, too much; now I have to deal with my sins- several decades of them- and Jesus’ death, forgiveness, etc is going to be of limited help.” If by ‘limited’, you mean halfway, I’d agree. As Bob George likes to put it, “Christ death brought us forgiveness. But what good is a forgiven corpse? We also need His life.”

    I understand how some of the sins you have committed against others must eat you up inside. Ask Jesus to let it eat him up inside, instead of you. By faith give Him your frustration, and ask Him for opportunities to set things right.

    And if all this sounds like facile, or like counsel from Job’s friends, I’m sorry. It’s the best I have.

  32. Michael,

    From what you’ve written, I’m not sure I have a picture of what their forgiveness looks like to you, specifically in precisely how it differs from God’s forgiveness.

    I’ve come to see (human) forgiveness as more of a matter of choosing not to let the past continue to cause hurt in the present. I know that some people see it differently, and that forgiveness is supposed to be about the hurt never really having happened at all.

    There are times when what we have done really does continue to cause a present hurt, and we have to let the other person work through that hurt – sometimes by allowing ourselves to be cut out of their lives, sometimes by taking grief from them, sometimes by making amends.

    But in other cases, the present hurt that they are feeling is self-inflicted. Sometimes they are deliberately re-cutting and re-opening old wounds, or even creating new ones for themselves. Sometimes, there really is a point where they become responsible for their own ongoing pain.

    In all of this, with regards our interpersonal stuff, we have to discern for ourselves where, first, actual reparable harm was done, and second, where our own motivations created culpability.

    Paying attention to their reactions, their pain, their anger, their unwillingness, unreadiness, or inability to forgive is important, and critical from the standpoint of empathy.

    But for your own healing, it seems to me that the most important part is for you to set their part of it aside and be as clear as you can about how much of their present pain is your responsibility. And take action on that. If they have taken their pain further, or laid other people’s sins on you, or even just become bitter, that is a different matter.

    It isn’t accurate to say that you have no responsibility in those situations – but you have no more responsibility than you would have to another brother or sister in pain. If you choose, you can work to help them heal the parts that are not directly yours just as you would someone who was hurt by someone else. Or, you can choose, if appropriate, to step out of it and let someone else less close to the situation help where you cannot.

  33. is it not the same answer as all things, your sin and the grace you claim points you to Christ and should do the same for them

    meet people you have hurt face to face confess and apologize set as your gaol amends.

    However there are no true amends only meetings with that as the goal when you come face to face with true hurt that you have caused.

    christ is the only thing you can claim for yourself and them

  34. My heart broke to read this. I too have sinned and offended My Lord and those I call friends and family. And though I have repented and ” moved on” it seems to me as if that is what bothers them the most..They have not seen me pay
    the price nor see me undone before them they have only heard of my repentance and sorrow but I have not groveled at their feet but only at the feet of Christ. I have received the grace, mercy and forgivness that has inched me into a new life and “they” are still living in the hurt I caused. When I pray for them the hurt they have paid to me fades, when I think that God allows the pain to seep into my own life I feel chastised, and if chastised, then I think that I am loved by my Father, for God diciplines those He loves. I would rather God do the spanking than people. Perhaps He will have compassion and look at me through Christ’s sacrifice even though others cant. When Christ sees us even in the depths of sin He does not condemn us if we are His, he does not judge us, He does not make us pay..He looks at us with compassion and tells us to go on our way sin no more..Go your way, make new friends and family. You neeed to be loved and encouraged for whos you are not for what you did. Find those that beleive in the grace of God and there you will find balm for your heart.

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