Go Backwards to Go Forward
There is a strange though consistent message throughout the Bible. We are told time and again that the way forward will feel like we’re going backward.
The Psalms tell us that those whose hearts are breaking and who feel crushed by life are the people God is closest to (Ps. 34:18). Proverbs tells us it is to the low and the destitute that God shows favor (Prov. 3:34). In Isaiah we are surprised to learn that God dwells in two places: way up high, in the glory of heaven, and way down low, with those void of selfconfidence and empty of themselves (Isa. 57:15; 66:1–2). Jesus tells us that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
Why does the Bible do this? Does God want us always feeling bad about ourselves?
Not at all. It is because of God’s very desire that we be joyously happy, filled to overflowing with the uproarious cheer of heaven itself, that he says these things. For he is sending us down into honesty and sanity. He wants us to see our sickness so we can run to the doctor. He wants us to get healed.
Fallen human beings enter into joy only through the door of despair. Fullness can be had only through emptiness. That happens decisively at conversion, as we confess our hopelessly sinful predicament for the first time and collapse into the arms of Jesus, and then remains an ongoing rhythm throughout the Christian life. If you are not growing in Christ, one reason may be that you have drifted out of the salutary and healthy discipline of self-despair.
The Great Prerequisite
If you feel stuck, defeated by old sin patterns, leverage that despair into the healthy sense of self-futility that is the door through which you must pass if you are to get real spiritual traction. Let your emptiness humble you. Let it take you down.
There are positive counterparts to this death. But we cannot circumvent this stage. It is the great prerequisite to everything else. The pattern of the Christian life is not a straight line up to resurrection existence but a curve down into death and thereby up into resurrection existence. And one thing that means is that we go through life with an ever-deepening sense of how reprehensible, in ourselves, we really are. It was toward the end of his life that Paul identified himself as the most award-winning sinner he knew (1 Tim. 1:15). The godliest octogenarians I know are those who feel themselves to be more sinful now than at any time before. They have known the pattern of healthy self-despair. Who of us cannot relate to what the pastor and hymn-writer John Newton wrote in a 1776 letter (at age fifty-one): “The life of faith seems so simple and easy in theory, that I can point it out to others in few words; but in practice it is very difficult, and my advances are so slow, that I hardly dare say I get forward at all.”1
Have you been brought to despair of what you can achieve in your sanctification? If not, have the courage to look yourself squarely in the mirror. Repent. See your profound poverty. Ask the Lord to forgive your arrogance. As you descend down into death, into knowledge of the futility of what inner change you can achieve by your own efforts, it is there, right there, in that dismay and emptiness, that God lives. It is there in that desert that he loves to cause the waters to flow and the trees to bloom. Your despair is all he needs to work with. “Only acknowledge your guilt” (Jer. 3:13). What will ruin your growth is if you look the other way, if you deflect the searching gaze of Purity himself, if you cover over your sinfulness and emptiness with smiles and jokes and then go check your mutual funds again, holding at bay what you know in your deepest heart: you are wicked.
Repentance is turning from Self. Faith is turning to Jesus.
If you plunge down only a little into self-despair, you will rise only a little into joyous growth in Christ. Don’t just admit your condition is desperately ruinous. Let yourself feel it. Ponder, unhurriedly, how vile, left to yourself, you are.
But as we despair of our own capacities to generate growth— what then?
There is nothing noble about staying in that pit of despair. Healthy despair is an intersection, not a highway; a gateway, not a pathway. We must go there. But we dare not stay there.
The Bible teaches, rather, that each experience of despair is to melt us afresh into deeper fellowship with Jesus. Like jumping on a trampoline, we are to go down into freshly felt emptiness but then let that spring us high into fresh heights with Jesus. The Bible calls this two-step movement repentance and faith.
Repentance is turning from Self. Faith is turning to Jesus. You can’t have one without the other. Repentance that does not turn to Jesus is not real repentance; faith that has not first turned from Self is not real faith. If we are traveling the wrong direction, things get fixed as we turn away from the wrong direction and simultaneously begin going the right direction. Both happen together.
Some Christians seem to think that the Christian life is ignited with a decisive act of repentance and then fed by faith thereafter. But as Luther taught, all of life is repentance. The first thesis of his Ninety-Five Theses reads, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt. 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” The Christian life is one of repenting our way forward.
Equally, we live our whole lives by faith. Paul said not “I was converted by faith” but “I live by faith” (Gal. 2:20). We do not merely begin the Christian life by faith; we progress by faith. It is our new normal. We process life, we navigate this mortal existence, by a moment-by-moment turning to God in trust and hope at each juncture, each decision, each passing hour. We “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). That is, we move through life with our eyes looking ever up.
Repentance and faith. In a word: collapse.
Both repentance and faith, however, must never be viewed in isolation from Jesus himself. They are connectors to Christ. They are not “our contribution.” They simply are the roads by which we get to real healing: Christ himself.
- Letters of John Newton (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2007), 184.
This article is adapted from How Does God Change Us? by Dane C. Ortlund.
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