Choices are fragile, necessary things. Tantalizing, agonizing little things. Brimming with endless possibilities. Accoutrement laced anticipations. Funneling into careless cessations. The question is asked, “Which way should we go?” The question echoes, “Does anyone know?” Arrogance answers, “Just enjoy the show.” Ignorance answers, “There’s no way to know!” Malevolence answers, “Don’t rock the boat!” Yet, choices are tenacious little things. Creeping through our minds even while we sleep. Twisting and tunneling deep in our souls. Every action straddled with reactions. Consequences lurk beneath distractions. They ask, “Is day any different than night?” I believe that shadows prove the sunshine. My friend, the sun still burns with fervent light. The night knows it has but a little time. And choices we make determine that time.
For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of but the sorrow of the world worketh death (2 Corinthians 7:10).
The Difference Makes the Difference
In his second letter to the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul begins chapter seven by launching into a lengthy discussion about how to “perfect holiness” by “cleansing ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit (2 Corinthians 7:1)”. Inevitably, this dovetailed into a unique perspective on sorrow and repentance. Paul describes (and we’ll look closer at it in a moment) the difference between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow. It’s a vitally important distinction because one leads to spiritual death and the other to salvation. The difference makes the difference. We’ve all got to get this one right.
Called to Stop Sinning
The Bible teaches us that the Church is a called-out assembly. God has called us out of sin, and God has called us into holiness. We are supposed to be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1:16). That standard is very high because God is supremely holy. You might be thinking that it is impossible to be sinless. And in a way, you’re right. However, the New Testament reminds us repeatedly that we are to be without sin (holiness). In fact, 1 John 2:1 pauses and says, “Stop sinning. Just stop it!”
My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not… (1 John 2:1).
If you take the Bible and boil it down to its essence, the central theme is God’s grand plan to get humanity from sinfulness to sinlessness.
Our Response to Sin is the Key
It’s easy to start sinning, but it’s hard to stop. That’s basically been humanity’s problem from the beginning. For most people, defining what is and isn’t sin is problematic. Sin is so pervasive and normal that we don’t feel horrified by it. And if we don’t feel horrified by sin, we don’t think of it as all that bad. My struggles with sin have taught me that sin’s grip is hard to break. If you’re human, you have your own stories and struggles with sin too. I also know how enticing sin can be from the countless hours I’ve spent trying to help others find deliverance from every sin you can imagine. I’ve noticed through the years that the real issue isn’t that we have sinned (because we have) or if we will sin (because we will).
The question that matters is, what will we do with our sin? How we respond to sin usually helps us stop or causes us to keep on sinning. Godly sorrow over sin produces genuine repentance, which allows the Holy Spirit to step in and empower us. Worldly sorrow leads to lackadaisical repentance, which only perpetuates sin in our lives. Worldly sorrow produces a self-sustaining cycle of sinfulness. Before highlighting the vital differences between godly and worldly sorrow, we must clear up an apparent contradiction in the Bible.
Does God Cleanse Us, or Do We Cleanse Ourselves?
Sin is a stain on our lives. God desires to present to Himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing (Ephesians 5:27). God is deadly serious about His church being holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5:27). That’s why we’re all in such desperate need of the blood of Jesus. Only His blood cleanses all the stains of sin. But do we cleanse ourselves, or does Jesus cleanse us? The passages below might be a little confusing at first glance.
…let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (2 Corinthians 7:1).
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
To answer this question, we need to identify the context of these two verses. In the previous chapter, Paul clarifies his target audience, “for ye are the temple of the living God (2 Corinthians 6:16).” Clearly, Paul is talking about repentance to people who have already obeyed the Gospel and are in the Church. He’s referring to the ongoing process of sanctification (holiness), which requires continued repentance. We must skip forward to pinpoint John’s intended audience:
These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God (1 John 5:13).
So, it’s clear that John is writing about the initial salvation experience, when we first take ownership of our sinfulness, leading to repentance and obeying the Gospel. At that moment, God covers us with His blood.
God’s Role & Our Responsibility
At salvation, something compelling happens; when we repent, our sins are forgiven (1 John 1:9); at baptism, our sins are remitted (Acts 2:38); at the infilling of the Holy Ghost, we are empowered (Acts 1:8). God did the cleansing work at Calvary, and we stepped into that cleansing flow via obedience. However, regarding our continued walk with God, 2 Corinthians 7:1 clarifies that we must “cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” In other words, God does the initial work. Then He expects us to put some effort into the process from that moment forward. To be sure, His Spirit comes inside to help lead, guide, comfort, correct, convict, strengthen, and encourage us along the way. But the infilling of the Spirit doesn’t remove our free will. After salvation, God expects us to exercise an often-overlooked fruit of the Spirit – self-control (Galatians 5:23).
Sometimes I hear church folks say, “if only God would give me the power over this ____ sin.” But God has already given us His Spirit. He’s already cleansed us. So now we must cleanse ourselves daily. If we’re not careful, we’ll use God as an excuse for our continued sin. God cleanses us first, and then we are responsible for walking in that cleansing. That’s the process of sanctification or holiness. In answer to the original question: Does God cleanse us, or do we cleanse ourselves? The answer is that God does the major cleanse first, and then we step in and do minor cleansing as we continue our walk with the Lord.
A Simple Illustration
A simple, albeit imperfect illustration, may help clarify this concept. Roughly once a month, I take our family SUV to a full-service carwash. They detail our vehicle inside and out. I do that because they have the equipment, chemicals, and expertise that allow them to do a thorough cleaning that I’m not capable of doing. It’s almost like having a new vehicle when they get done. I didn’t do the cleansing. They did. But if I eat a bagel in the car and crumbs fall everywhere, I must clean that mess myself. Otherwise, I’ve wasted my time and money on that professional cleaning job. They cleaned it first in ways I can’t do alone. But I still have a responsibility to keep it clean. In much the same way, that’s how walking in holiness works.
Problems in the Corinthian Church
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, he is very forthright with them. The church was super messed up with big-time problems and significant sin issues. For example, a young man was having an affair with his father’s wife (1 Corinthians 5:1). Even more revolting, rather than the church being grieved. They laughed about the situation like it was a joke (1 Corinthians 5:2). Paul was so angry that he demanded that if the guy refused to repent, they should turn him over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh (1 Corinthians 5:5). That leaven of malice and wickedness would destroy the whole church if they didn’t deal with it correctly (1 Corinthians 5:7-8). All this background is essential because we can now understand 2 Corinthians 7:8-11 and answer the question: What’s the difference between godly and worldly sorrow?
I’m Not Sorry That I Made You Repent
8 For though I made you sorry with a letter, I do not repent, though I did repent: for I perceive that the same epistle hath made you sorry, though it were but for a season. 9 Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance… (2 Corinthians 7:8-9).
In the above verses, Paul was trying to let the church know that his first letter (1 Corinthians), with its strong rebuke, was not intended to make them feel sorry but was a call to repentance.
…for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing. 10 For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of… (2 Corinthians 7:9-10).
In other words, when you have godly sorrow. It leads to godly repentance, and you don’t have to confess the same sin repeatedly.
…but the sorrow of the world worketh death. 11 For behold this selfsame thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge! In all things, ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter (2 Corinthians 7:10-11).
In his unique way, Paul carefully contrasts these two types of sorrow. They both lead to outward repentance, but only one is genuine. The result of godly sorrow is a change in behavior and attitude. But worldly sorrow brings death. It certainly brings spiritual death, but in the immediate, it might mean the death of a marriage, a friendship, victory, blessings, spiritual power, or family relationships. Tragically, in extreme cases, it could culminate in an untimely physical death because of sin.
For All That Is in the World
Anything derived from the world is compromised, “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world (1 John 2:16).” Worldly sorrow is derived from either the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, or the pride of life. So, for example, a person might feel sorrow for their sin because of the pain it produces. They feel that pain in their flesh, and that pain can be intense. It’s real! Emotional and physical pain caused by sin can become unbearable at times. And many people assume the remorse they feel because of their agony is genuine repentance. But if that remorse is a temporary emotion birthed from pain, it’s not godly sorrow.
A second kind of worldly sorrow results from the lust of the eyes. People can be sorry because they see how sin has impacted their life; lost loved ones, broken relationships, wasted moments, embarrassments, and failures. Their kingdom might be crumbling before their eyes like a slow-motion nightmare. Consequences that used to seem so unlikely and distant come crashing into focus. They might think, “I’m going to lose my wife, kids, or job.” But ultimately, their focus is on their kingdom. Many people feel this kind of worldly sorrow and confuse it for genuine repentance. But true repentance is not self-centered. It’s God-centered.
Thirdly, the pride of life produces another type of worldly sorrow. People may feel sorry because they are embarrassed that people can see their sins. They see their reputation going down the drain, their influence waning, or they feel disliked. Perhaps they want to be viewed in a more positive light. But the critical issue is their name. Again, the sorrow is selfishly motivated. Therefore, the resulting repentance is only skin deep.
Me, Myself & I
Worldly sorrow always brings the focus on me. It’s all about my feelings. My pain. My reputation. My happiness. But godly sorrow focuses on the fact that my sin has grieved God and others. Ephesians 4:30 warns us not to “grieve” the Holy Spirit. Godly sorrow is acutely aware that my sin has grieved the Holy Spirit. Godly sorrow isn’t just sorry because of sin’s consequences on my kingdom. It’s more concerned with God’s Kingdom. Godly sorrow isn’t worried about the reproach that I brought on my name but with the reproach that I brought on God’s name. As the prophet Nathan said to David after his horrific sin with Bathsheba, “You have brought great occasion to the enemies of the lord to blaspheme his name (2 Samuel 12:14).” Nathan was more concerned with how David’s sin would impact the world’s understanding of God than he was with king David’s reputation.
Seven Characteristics of Godly Sorrow
Paul doesn’t leave us with a nebulous definition of godly sorrow. 2 Corinthians 7:11 describes what godly repentance looks like in action. He lists seven things that accompany godly sorrow. Numbers are significant in the Bible, and the number seven represents completion and perfection. Therefore, it could be said that these seven things signify complete and perfect repentance.
Carelessness leads to sinfulness. A careful person is full of care, caution, and intentionality. Godly sorrow produces carefulness where casualness once reigned supreme. Decisions are weighed out and made thoughtfully. Every action is measured according to the Word of God. Godly sorrow refuses to blame sin on ignorance, incompetence, recklessness, or inattention to detail.
2. Clearing of Yourself
Godly sorrow doesn’t make excuses. It doesn’t blame other people or circumstances for sin. There’s no hiding, covering, manipulating, shifting, or maneuvering of responsibility. Worldly sorrow keeps things hidden and harbors secret sins and motives behind closed doors. Godly sorrow seeks to clear the air and clean the conscience. It thrives on transparency and always advocates for the truth to be displayed.
Godly sorrow recoils at the thought of past sins. Old lifestyles aren’t viewed as the “good old days.” It doesn’t laugh at sin or find it entertaining. Carnal things that used to seem euphoric become repulsive. The thought of sin and evil produces anger, indignation, and disgust. Godly sorrow views sin as a vile thing to be detested. It doesn’t despise sinners, but it does hate sin. In much the same way as you would hate cancer while loving a cancer patient.
I’m always nervous when someone repents of a particular sin and says, “I know I’ll never do that again.” I’d much rather someone say, “I’m going to take every precaution possible to make sure I never fall into that sin again because I’m afraid of going back to that terrible thing.” You will take godly precautions when you have a healthy fear of a possibility. Furthermore, a little fear of the Lord is a good thing.
5. Vehement Desire
Godly sorrow is fueled by a fervent desire to serve God and avoid sin. Vehement means to show strong feelings. It’s forceful, passionate, urgent, and intense. It isn’t mellow, mild, or casual. Godly sorrow recognizes the seriousness of sin and its desperate dependence upon the Holy Spirit.
The Greek word for zeal is spoudē, found twelve times in the New Testament. The primary meaning of zeal is “haste” or “diligence.” Meaning diligence in the sense of “earnest zeal.” It’s always used in the context of living out godly lives.[i] The idea is that godliness takes ongoing work and tenacious effort.
When godly sorrow is in play, everything in your being wishes you could return and fix the things sin has taken from you. So, in a certain sense, you are looking for revenge against the enemy of your soul. That’s why brand-new saints often get so on fire for God. They are avenging what the enemy stole from them when they were under the bondage of sin. Godly sorrow never looks longingly back toward Egyptian taskmasters.
It’s not hard to receive the Holy Ghost with the evidence of speaking in other tongues. But if you’ve been around an Apostolic church for a while, you’ve probably noticed that some people seek the Holy Ghost for weeks or even months without being filled. The apostle Peter didn’t say, “repent and be baptized, and you might receive the Holy Ghost (Acts 2:38).” He said, “you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost (Acts 2:38).” My experience has taught me that many people struggling to receive the Spirit are actually struggling with repentance. They might be sorrowful and going through the motions of repentance, but their sorrow is worldly and does not lead to life. Gently and lovingly, helping them to decipher the difference between godly and worldly sorrow can lead them to the breakthrough they need.
[i] Renn, Stephen D., ed. Expository Dictionary of Bible Words. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2005.
White picket lines of peaceful persuasion
Cannot undo the cost of invasion
Endless fine lines of baser perversions
Weakened strains of moral conversions
Flawlessly wielding falsified searches
What will become of us all?
Cold, calculating meaningless data
Hiding underneath the smiling strata
Clinging to less fortunate ideas
Laughing, dragging, while dreaming of sions
Intricate veins coursing with curses
What will become of us all?
Meanwhile, one white robed throng preaches the Writ
Tenaciously keeping holy flames lit
Falling valiant, bleeding from vicious slits
Ten thousand swords critically slashing hits
Battered, beleaguered saints climb past ashen fritz
What will become of us all?
One bright light pierces the eastern sky
A triumphant shout falls from mountain highest
One brilliant white horse gracefully flies
The armies of Heaven closely aligned
Every blood-stained voice shouts toward the sight
What will become of us all?
God is nothing, they say Just imaginary games Yet morality, they claim Forgetting their context Ignoring histories flame Hanging by thin threads To ever-waning grace Blind to the inversion Holding conversions Creating diversions They know not their place Goodness without God Like moths to acrid flame Digging for diamond truths Yet never making gains Ignoring perversions Reality gone Almost without a trace Lost in oblivion No equilibrium Willful delirium From grace to disgrace Philosophy flipped aside Lost on the rising tide Grasping for hope inside But hope is not within It rides like winter wind From Heaven above Sometimes fire, sometimes rain Holy convocations Sacred invocations Life reawakened From death to God’s face
The Good Book
The Bible is still the best-selling book of all time. It’s estimated that roughly a billion copies have been sold. That’s probably not entirely accurate. And it doesn’t consider the millions of free electronic editions available to the masses. Ironically, the Bible is more accessible thanks to the internet than ever. Yet, biblical illiteracy increases with each passing decade. Regardless, millions of people have a Bible on a shelf or hidden away in some forgotten drawer. Others treasure their Bible like gold and read it with sacred reverence. Grab ten people off the street, and you’ll get ten opinions about the Bible. However, if it’s not the whole Word of God, then it cannot be a good book.
All or Nothing
C.S. Lewis famously said that Jesus Christ was either “Lord, liar or lunatic.” Similarly, the Bible makes claims about itself incompatible with the idea of being just a good book of wisdom. The Bible is either the Divinely inspired Word of God or the silly ramblings of misguided delusional men. It’s either entirely true or the longest-running, best-coordinated con job in recorded history. Essentially, the Bible is an all-or-nothing proposition. If it’s genuinely from God, half-hearted attention will never suffice. And if it’s not, it’s the worst form of manipulative evil. No viewpoints in-between those two options are logical or possible.
Jesus said in Luke 11:28, “Blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep it.” Regardless of race, denomination, or background, if you ask any Christian if they would like to have Divine blessings, they will answer, “yes.” And yet, you’d be hard-pressed to find large portions of them hearing and obeying the entirety of God’s Word. Most Christians have their candy stick verses or their preconceived dogmas. Sadly, most Christians ignore, overlook, or gloss over large portions of Scripture that seem extreme or inconveniently counter-cultural. Sometimes, they miss so many vital doctrines that their salvation is jeopardized. Others might slip into Heaven, but they miss tremendous blessings that otherwise would have been poured into their lives. Complete obedience to God’s Word is the key to accessing Divine blessings. There is no shortcut or substitute.
What Does the Bible Have to Say for Itself?
As I mentioned earlier, the Bible is either entirely true or a complete lie. But it’s impossible to remain intellectually honest without acknowledging the miraculous continuity of the Bible. Don’t forget that the Bible was written over a period of nearly 2,000 years by forty authors writing from three continents, and it maintains perfect uniformity of message. All sixty-six books comprising the Bible are united in perfect harmony and point exclusively to Jesus Christ, the true Author. Unlike the famed futurist Nostradamus, the Bible’s fulfilled prophecies are precise and uncanny. Scripture’s flawless internal consistency defies natural explanation. But rather than talking about the Bible, let’s take a close look at what the Bible has to say for itself.
The Bible Lays Claim to Divine Origins
20 Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. 21 For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. (2 Peter 1:20-21).
Biblical authors were consistent in claiming that their words were not theirs. Holy men of old viewed themselves as vessels filled by God. They emptied themselves of the words poured into them by the Holy Ghost. If the Bible is not God’s divinely inspired Word, it is a fraudulent document filled with dribble. Of course, I believe the evidence proves (including my life interactions with it) that the Bible is true. However, the claims Scripture makes about itself are so radical that they demand complete acceptance or total rejection. Anything in between complete acceptance or total rejection is an intellectual cop-out. Partial approval or shallow half-hearted nods of respect aren’t compatible with the very nature of the Bible. In our culture plagued with near psychosomatic commitment issues, the biblical insistence upon total adherence is difficult to digest. However, it is the essence and the reality of what the Holy Writ requires.
The Bible Lays Claim to Perfection
The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple (Psalm 19:7).
It could help to rephrase this claim in more understandable terms. The Bible lays claim to moral perfection. If Scripture is the divine Word of God, and if it is true that God is supremely just, then anything prescribed in His book is perfectly righteous. God’s Word sets the standard of right and wrong, good or bad, and so on. Therefore, even if our human sensibility is offended or confused, it does not make God’s Word imperfect. Humanity is corrupted by sin and does not easily comprehend genuine justice. We don’t perceive evil as precisely as we should. Meaning we are reliant upon the Bible to reveal moral Truths to us. Without the authoritative Word of God, humanity is left to its own misguided inward moral compass. Our understanding of good and evil has been tampered with by sin and by the sins of our fathers. We hide God’s Word in our hearts (Psalm 119:11) to replace our broken compass with God’s flawless GPS.
The Bible Lays Claim to Sanctifying Truth
Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth (John 17:17).
Without falling off a theological cliff, sanctification can be described as the process of being made holy. So how can one become holy? By living according to God’s Truth. And that Truth is contained in the Bible. Obedience to God’s Word is the only path to holiness. Anything less falls short of sanctification. All other versions of morality, although containing measures of truth, are not the Truth. Therefore, they fail to make one morally pure in the eyes of the Lord. It’s prudent to remember that God’s holiness is His most biblically acclaimed attribute. Our call to be sanctified through the Word is no insignificant thing. It isn’t just theological jargon or intellectual banter. It is a God-given imperative to be taken seriously.
The Bible Lays Claim to Flawlessness
Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him (Proverbs 30:5).
The word “pure” in the above Scripture comes from the Hebrew word yastsib, which means “true.”[i] However, in the more profound sense of the word here, it means “certain” or “reliable.”[ii] The distinction is important because God’s words aren’t just true at the moment they’re given. They are eternally reliable. This alludes to the prophetic surety of God’s Word. And to Its literal reliability in the past, present, and future. The Bible is eternally true. Its Truth doesn’t morph, degrade, or rescind. So, when the Bible speaks of the past, we can trust that it is true regardless of what current science might say. When the Bible tells of the future, we can believe it shall be so without reservation. When so-called modern “facts” contradict Scripture, rest assured that Scripture will stand vindicated.
The Bible Lays Claim to Vitality
For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).
Admittedly, despite the King James Version being the best English translation, it sometimes creates embarrassing moments for the modern reader. I can’t tell you how many years I took the word “quick” to mean that the Word of God is a fast-moving sword. And while it is true that the Word can and does often move quickly in a person’s life, “quick” is an Old English word for “alive.” The Holy Bible is living. As we interact with the Word, the Spirit of God moves in us and upon us. The Word doesn’t change but progressively reveals things to us as we interact. That’s why you can read the same verse a thousand times, and one day, you comprehend something that previously seemed mundane. As we humbly submit ourselves to the Word, it changes us from the inside out.
The Bible Lays Claim to Salvific Exclusivity
13 But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived. 14 But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; 15 And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: 17 That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works (2 Timothy 3:13-17).
The Bible is crystal clear in the claim that it holds the exclusive plan of salvation for humankind. No other book, creed, faith, or culture has access to eternal salvation with God in Heaven. Universalism is the deceiver currently working to deceive the very elect. It might be tempting to buy the lie that many paths lead to God. For some, that sounds tolerant and exceedingly loving. However, it is not possible to believe the Bible and hold to universalism at the same time.
Furthermore, for those who like to deny the relevance of the Old Testament in the New Testament era: When Paul declares that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,” the New Testament was not yet completed or in circulation among the Church. The apostle was referring to the Old Testament. Indeed, the theological relevance of the Old Testament was affirmed by the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. All of whom referred back to the Old Testament in their preaching, teaching, and correspondence.
The Bible Lays Claim to Unbridled Power
Wherein I suffer trouble, as an evil doer, even unto bonds; but the word of God is not bound (2 Timothy 2:9).
Undoubtedly the apostle Paul was a mighty man of God. He walked in power and authority. Yet, he was still just a man. He suffered unending trials and tribulations. Paul was aware that his multiple incarcerations might cause some to doubt the power of God’s Word. He quickly reminded fearful believers that while we might be bound, the Word of God is never bound. God’s Word bristles with unbridled power even in the darkest of times. It’s working even when we can’t see it. It’s moving even when we can’t feel it. There is no thwarting or diminishing the Word of the Lord. A particular comfort comes when we understand that our weaknesses and sufferings cannot bind the work of the Word.
[i] “יציב,” Hebrew-Aramaic Dictionary of the New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance paragraph 3620.
[ii] “י,” The Complete Word Study Dictionary: Old Testament 1613.
They twist and turn in the lamplights glow Whether friend or foe we do not know Tomorrow's ghosts above and below They are tellers of yesterday's truths The woven tales are not of their making The chains they clutch hellishly shaking With fingers pointed and backs aching They are tellers of yesterday's truths Consequences near or far removed Only delayed by time unreproved Their only intent is life improved They are tellers of yesterday's truths Can I deter my own convictions Interfere with mystic magicians Paving way for faulty suspicians For the tellers of yesterday's truths Holding onto hope like slippery pearls My tenderized heartache twists and twirls Fading memories chasing unkept trails From the tellers of yesterday's truths This transformation isn't complete Little changes building faith so sweet Ground thumping with irregular beats For the tellers of yesterday's truths May tomorrow's ghosts see helpless grace Arrogance gone like a broken vase Reckless demons falling out of place For the tellers of yesterday's truths
Those that run with swifter feet. Know not the grace of falling leaves. Nor the magic of treasures deep. For they move too fast and do not see. Those they love and things they need. They make their lists and miss the trees. The mystics mourn for living peace. Yet moments pass, and no one sees. Deeper wells of hidden gems. Forgetting depths of secret hymns. Humming unheard invocations. They won’t recall, and no one listens. Those that run with swifter feet. Might well find grace in slowing pace. For slow and steady wins the race. Avoiding dungeons, maintaining grace.
I’ll take you to the gates of Hell I’ll show you what’s there It’s a horrific, sadistic, gaudy affair With twisted metals and steep swirling stairs I’ll take you to the throne of Death I’ll show you the way It sits atop the fork of two great lakes One called disunion, the other disgrace I’ll take you to the bowels of Hades I’ll show you who’s there The liars, the lied-to, ordinary faces With haunted red eyes and bent bloody feet I’ll take you to the edge of Sorrow I’ll show you the pain The broken, intrepid, intricate traces Longing to find relief yet complacent I’ll take you to the verge of Salvation I’ll show you the plan The death, the water, the rush of language Choice determines the end destination
The Beauty of Biblical Symbolism
One of the many things I love about Scripture is the symbolism stretched across its pages. It’s everywhere. Of course, it’s all meant to conjure imagery and teach lessons within lessons. Almost every story in the Bible contains a message within a lesson within another moral. I realize we can get carried away and start imagining things that aren’t actually there. We might extract beliefs that aren’t divinely intended without careful consideration, which can be dangerous. And many of my friends are understandably wary of focusing too much on biblical symbolism. I get that. However, avoiding biblical symbolism altogether robs us of vast, awe-inspiring realms of beauty that God intended for us to experience.
The Juxtaposition of Jesus’ Rhetoric
One thing many anti-symbolists forget is that Jesus alternated between straightforward and intensely parabolic teachings. What is a parable exactly? It uses imagery, stories, and symbols to illustrate a moral truth. Jesus is perhaps best known for His use of parables. And they weren’t always immediately understandable because the parables were peppered with prophetic meanings. Quite literally, many of the implications of the parables could not be understood because they weren’t intended to be comprehended at that moment. Like full-fledged prophecy, many parables only made sense in the future as events unfolded. It shouldn’t be surprising that Jesus interacted this way because God has always used signs, symbols, parables, types, and shadows in His communication with us. For example, when God rebuked Satan in the Garden after The Fall, He spoke cryptically: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15).
The First Good News
Genesis 3:15 is sometimes referred to as the “first good news” because it’s the first foretelling of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God announced that a male descendant—He—would someday deal the serpent (meaning Satan) a fatal blow. The New Testament writers understood Jesus Christ to have fulfilled this prophecy (Hebrews 2:14, 1 John 3:8). In an extended sense, the New Testament also indicates that God would work through the Church—those indwelt by the Spirit of Christ—to destroy the works of the Devil (Romans 16:20).
The Significance of Symbolism
It’s worth considering why God would employ so much symbolism throughout Scripture. As best I can tell, there are three reasons: One, because Satan does not know the future, prophecy is purposefully vague to keep Satan confused. Two, if humanity knew the exact details of future events, we might be tempted to help them along when we need to get out of the way. Three, it builds faith when humans look back through the lens of history and see the puzzle pieces clicking into place.
The uninformed might assume the Bible is a carefully orchestrated body of literature. Perhaps, like an epic Tolkein novel, all the little loose ends are skillfully tied up in the mind of a genius for our consumption. However, the Bible is a library of individual books, with over thirty-three inspired writers spanning 1,500 years, written in different places, cultures, millennia, and perspectives. The only constant across the Bible’s pages is God’s inspiration. It would have been impossible, unthinkable, and unmanageable for mere humans to coordinate such a thing without the divine breath of God.
Therefore, when we see various symbols popping up throughout the inspired Book, we see glimpses of the marvelous mind of God. The magnificent consistency of eternal Truth peeks out from Genesis to Revelation offering fresh illuminations of ancient revelations. And while we should be careful not to build beliefs entirely on symbolism, it certainly can reinforce clearly defined doctrines. Powerful inspiration comes from recognizing that these symbols come from God’s throne, not men’s mere imaginations.
A Tale of Three Trees
It’s no exaggeration to say that trees are necessary for life to exist. They suck carbon dioxide out of the air and release the oxygen we need to breathe. Historically, trees have provided food, shelter, energy, sustenance, biodiversity, beauty, and soil preservation. We literally cannot survive without what trees provide for us daily. It’s also not an exaggeration to say a single tree was at the center of the utter destruction of God’s original created world.
Tree One: The Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die (Genesis 2:16-17).
In God’s interaction with Adam, He begins by offering a level of freedom that you and I have never seen or experienced. “Of every tree,” He said, “thou mayest freely eat.” Adam had unparalleled autonomy to do as he pleased. He had comfort, ease, authority, abundance, creativity, beauty, and eternality. The nature of God was to lead with freedom before establishing the first human law. This almost imperceptible detail allows us to glimpse the goodness of God towards humanity. We tend to view God’s laws as burdensome without taking the time to appreciate the freedoms God provides. God’s privileges and benefits far outweigh the weight of the laws He levies upon us. We also think it would be easier serving God if we had fewer rules and regulations. However, humanity’s first sin proves that God’s rules aren’t the problem. The frailty of our flesh and the pervasiveness of evil are the problems. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was not evil by its nature. There was nothing wicked about the tree. To claim this would imply that God created something evil, which would contradict Genesis 1:31. The tree was not the source of sin; humanity was. The tree didn’t contribute to man’s sinfulness beyond providing him with an opportunity to obey or disobey.
In Jewish tradition, the Tree of Knowledge and the eating of its fruit represents the beginning of the mixture of good and evil together. Before that time, the two were separate, and evil had only a nebulous existence in potential. While free choice did exist before eating the fruit, evil existed as an entity separate from the human psyche, and it was not in human nature to desire it. Eating and internalizing the forbidden fruit changed this, and thus was born the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. The closest comparison we have is the sadness of watching a child lose the sweet innocence of youth. No wonder Jesus commands us to be “born again” (John 3:5-7). It also sheds light on Jesus’ mysterious charge, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:1-5).
In Rashi’s notes on Genesis 3:3, the first sin came about because Eve added an additional clause to the divine command: “Neither shall you touch it.” By saying this, Eve added to God’s command and thereby came to detract from it, as it is written: “Do not add to His Words” (Proverbs 30:6). However, evil already existed in the heart of Lucifer. Adam and Eve’s first sin offended God in three ways: One, by rejecting God’s authority (we typically call that rebellion). Two, by distorting His instructions (His holy Word). Three, probably most offensive to God, by accepting Satan’s influence. All subsequent sins follow that same threefold pattern of offense against God.
Tree Two: The Cross on Golgotha’s Hill
Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed (1 Peter 2:24).
Because a tree became the symbol of condemnation looming before humanity in constant judgment. It’s fitting that a tree roughly formed into a cross by sinful hands would become the universal symbol of hope and salvation. In His infinite foreknowledge, God knew that He would become the sacrifice for our sins. Furthermore, God formed the tree that would become His mode of execution. When Lucifer slithered into Eve’s presence and convinced her to taste the fruit of the Forbidden Tree, he couldn’t have known that the mind of God had already formed the tree that would become crucial to the remedy. Only God can so thoroughly turn things around in such a beautifully poetic way.
Tree Three: The Tree of Life
22 And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever: 23 Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. 24 So he drove out the man, and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubim’s, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life (Genesis 3:22-24).
Contrary to popular belief, the Tree of Life did not predate God. The Tree of Life received its life-sustaining properties from the Lord: “And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden…” (Genesis 2:9). Mankind lost the privilege of accessing the Tree of Life by eating from the Forbidden Tree. In that instant, death became a looming inescapable aspect of human existence. Physical and spiritual pain throbbed into the hearts of the First Father and the First Mother and has been passed down to every subsequent family tree.
Every teardrop, every disappointment, every disease, and every act of unspeakable horror is a direct result of that first sin. Even worse, humanity lost connection and relationship with its Maker. Consequently, losing purpose, fulfillment, direction, inward peace, and intrinsic joy. In a symbolic gesture of finality, God placed an angel with a flaming sword at the entrance of the Garden to keep guard over the invaluable Tree of Life. Humanity was cast into a cruel cursed world. Yet, it’s sublimely splendid how God allowed Himself to be nailed onto the same roughly hewn materials central to humanity’s first sin. While that splintered tree bore Christ, He bore our sins in His own body (1 Peter 2:24). A tree for a tree, a perfect sacrifice in place of hopelessly flawed sacrifices, that’s what Christ did for us. And if we take up our crosses and follow Him in this fallen earthly realm, we will taste the Tree of Life’s exquisite fruit when we step into that faraway country beyond this kingdom.
He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God (Revelation 2:7).
An innocent Jew hung unjustly from a tree to the great delight of an onlooking crowd. Only a handful of quietly spoken words crossed his lips before he died. His accusers craved his death long before it occurred. He wasn’t given a fair trial. An actual murderer went free. And history will forever grieve the tragedy. Although the details are similar in many ways, I’m not referring to Jesus Christ. Instead, I’m referencing the undeserved lynching of Leo Frank.
The Tragic Death of Mary Phagan
For the sake of time, I can only give the highlights of a story that sparked national attention in the Atlanta area in 1913. “Little Mary Phagan,” as she became known, left home on the morning of April 26 to pick up her wages at the pencil factory in Marietta and view Atlanta’s Confederate Day parade. She never returned home.
The next day, the factory night watchman found her bloody, sawdust-covered body in the factory basement. When the police asked Leo Frank to view her body, Frank became agitated. He confirmed personally paying Mary her wages but could not say where she went next. Frank, the last to admit seeing Mary alive, became the prime suspect. Sadly for Frank, he was a Northern-born, college-educated, wealthy Jewish man, making him the easy target of intense bias and hatred.
A Sham Trial
Cobb county prosecutor Hugh Dorsey painted Leo Frank as a pervert who was both a homosexual and also preyed on young girls. What he did not tell the grand jury was that a janitor at the factory, Jim Conley, had been arrested two days after Frank when he was seen washing blood off his shirt. Conley then admitted writing two notes found by Mary Phagan’s body. The police correctly assumed at the time that, as the author of those notes, Conley was the murderer, but Conley claimed, after coaching from Dorsey, that Leo Frank had confessed to murdering Mary in the tool room and then paid Conley to write the notes and help him move Mary’s body to the basement.
Even after Frank’s housekeeper placed him at home, having lunch at the time of the murder, and despite gross inconsistencies in Conley’s story, both the grand and trial jury chose to believe Conley. In August 1913, the jury found Frank guilty in less than four hours. Crowds outside the courthouse shouted, “Hang the Jew.”
Historian Leonard Dinnerstein reports that one juror had been overheard saying before his selection for the jury, “I am glad they indicted the… Jew. They ought to take him out and lynch him. And if I get on that jury, I’ll hang that Jew for sure.”
Facing intimidation and mob rule, the trial judge sentenced Frank to death. He barred Frank from the courtroom because, had he been acquitted, Frank might have been lynched by the crowd outside.
A Brave Man Tries
Georgia’s higher courts rejected Frank’s appeals despite these breaches of due process, and shockingly the U. S. Supreme Court voted, 7-2, against reopening the case. Frank’s survival depended on then Georgia Governor Frank Slaton. After a 12-day review of the evidence, Slaton commuted Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment. He hoped to allow Leo Frank time to clear his name and for further evidence to come forward as tempers abated. Governor Slaton told his wife on the day he decided to commute Leo Frank’s sentence, “My conscience is forcing me to commute Leo Frank’s sentence, but that means I can’t possibly run for a second term as governor, my life will be in constant danger, and our reputations will be ruined in this state.” Without hesitation, she responded, “I’d rather be married to a dead hero than a living coward.”
That night, state police kept a protesting crowd of 5,000 from the governor’s mansion. Wary Jewish families fled Atlanta. Slaton held firm. “Two thousand years ago,” he wrote a few days later, “another Governor washed his hands and turned over a Jew to a mob. For two thousand years, that governor’s name has been accursed. If today another Jew were lying in his grave because I had failed to do my duty, I would all through life find his blood on my hands and would consider myself an assassin through cowardice.”
A Midnight Lynching
On August 17, 1915, 28 men — described by peers as “sober, intelligent, of established good name and character”— stormed the Milledgeville, GA prison hospital where Leo Frank was recovering from having his throat slashed by a fellow inmate. They kidnapped Frank, drove him more than 100 miles to Mary Phagan’s hometown of Marietta, Georgia, and hanged him from a tree at the stroke of midnight. The Cobb county’s mayor and sheriff and former Georgia governor Joseph Brown were among the 28 vigilantes.
Frank conducted himself with dignity, calmly proclaiming his innocence.
Townsfolk were proudly photographed beneath Frank’s swinging corpse, pictures you can find with a quick online Google search today. When his term expired a year later, Slaton did not run for reelection, and the dishonest prosecutor, Dorsey, easily won the election to the governor’s office. None of the vigilantes were ever arrested or convicted of any crime. This story has gone down in the pages of history as Georgia’s Great Shame.
The Deadly Silence of a Good Man
In 1982, a death bed confession by a former office boy at National Pencil, along with hosts of other pieces of evidence, confirmed what many suspected. Alonzo Mann, 83 at the time he came forward, said he witnessed Jim Conley carrying Mary Phagan’s body to the factory’s basement on the day of her death. He kept silent, he said, because Conley threatened to kill him and his family.
Fascinatingly, from all the accounts I’ve read, the men who hanged Leo Frank for the murder of Mary Phagan did not go about it with a spirit of lawlessness or vindictiveness. They felt a duty to their state and commonwealth and a responsibility to the memory of Mary Phagan. In other words, they really thought they were correcting a breach of justice and doing the right thing. Now. Did their biased prejudice blind them to their own inconsistencies? Absolutely. Did they have their own sins and hypocrisies to deal with? Yes. Those men, who were otherwise upstanding citizens, committed a horrific act of unspeakable evil. They committed an atrocity while wearing self-aggrandizing badges of righteousness. They even called themselves the Nights of Mary Phagan. They died believing they’d done the right thing, and because they paid no earthly consequences, it seemed like a confirmation of righteousness.
The people who screamed for the crucifixion of Jesus were the Old Testament equivalents of good church folks. They went to Temple services, paid their tithes, offered their sacrifices, and dressed right. The religious elites stirred them up, but the average saint got caught in the current of opinion and outrage. They believed in half-truths, complete falsehoods, and total misnomers. Folks otherwise considered “good” people released a murderer and killed their savior. This odd ability to consider ourselves good while being thoroughly evil is a product of The Fall. And therein lies the lesson within the lesson from the events leading to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Within each of us, “good” people reside carefully masked malevolence, unrealized potential for evil, and thinly veiled hypocrisy.
The Lie of Innate Goodness
The Western preoccupation with people’s (especially our own) relative goodness is astonishing and spiritually toxic. It’s harmful because when we think of ourselves as relatively “good” or “descent,” we compare ourselves to other sinful human beings. Thus, creating a hierarchy of acceptable and unacceptable sins based on our feelings, current culture, upbringing, socioeconomics, and personality. Historically, Christianity has endeavored to walk the fine line between radically affirming the value of all human life because it is created in the image of God while concurrently rejecting the humanistic philosophy which presupposes people are innately good. Muddying the waters, even more, is the fact that even if we accept that people are not inherently good, we easily exempt ourselves (and our loved ones) from that incriminatory viewpoint and reckon that we are good deep down. We hear of horrible things individuals did in the distant past and, with the delightful advantage of hindsight, assume we would never have participated in such a terrible thing. But truthfully, we don’t really know that to be a fact.
Why Do You Call Me Good?
In Mark 10:17-23, a wealthy young ruler came running to Jesus and offered a greeting he never intended to be controversial. He asked, “Good Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” As usual, Jesus responded to a question with another question, “Why do you call me good? There is none good but one, and that is God?” The man called Jesus “good.” The Greek word the young man used is agathos, meaning “intrinsically good.” This word was not used lightly nor for every good thing. Had the man made the leap that Jesus was indeed God, who was intrinsically good? Was he prepared to accept the full weight of his pronouncements?
It became clear as the conversation continued that the young man considered himself quite good based on his actions. Maybe even intrinsically good. But Jesus zeroed in on the man’s secret sins: pride, love of money, and lack of generosity. And because he loved his money more than Jesus, he missed the opportunity to become a disciple. Or perhaps, we might assume the young man missed the broader point Jesus was inferring, which was that He was God manifest in the flesh and that alone made Him intrinsically good.
Capable of Good & Evil
To summarize a weighty biblical theme from this little interaction: Human beings are capable of both good and evil at any given time. Because we are capable of evil and often do bad things, we are not primarily good deep down. In fact, the deeper we go, the more malevolence we find within the human heart. To view ourselves and others as mostly good is to deny the reality and the seriousness of sin. Only God is good all the time. Only God is utterly incapable of evil. To think anything less of God is heresy. If humanity is essentially good, the cross was unnecessary, and the Bible is a colossal waste of time. Most Christians know this to be true but live as if it is not. We accept the grace and mercy of God and slowly begin to lean on our own goodness. And that’s the trap because once humans believe they’ve become thoroughly good, they do awful things without a hint of conviction or remorse. That is the very definition of self-righteousness.
How Can It Be So Wrong When I’m So Good?
Furthermore, most unsaved people believe their perceived goodness will buy them a ticket to Heaven. “After all,” they think to themselves, “only terrible people need saving, but I’m a decent person.” Meanwhile, they point fingers at other people’s splinters while ignoring the log poking out of their eyes. Self-justification says, “If I’m doing it, it can’t be so dreadfully wrong because I’m so good.” It’s sort of like the parent who criticizes everyone else’s kids but winks when their kids do the same things. How can that be? Well, their kids are innately better than your kids in their eyes.
A Flawed Pentecostal Preacher
I think it’s so interesting that God chose Peter to preach the first Gospel sermon on the Day of Pentecost. Of all the disciples, Peter was far from the most exemplary. By my hasty count, Peter failed twelve times before preaching that sermon. Of course, some of those failures were more severe than others. But some of them were pretty significant. Even outright sinful. To name a few, Peter, filled with selfish ambition, argued with the other disciples about who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of God. He rebuked Jesus for talking about His soon-to-be crucifixion and had to be severely corrected. He failed to stay alert in prayer during Jesus’ greatest hour of need. He denied Jesus with “oaths” and “curses” in the public arena. And after being completely overwhelmed by his sins and the self-discovery of his weaknesses, he abandoned the Apostolic Team and returned to his former life as a fisherman.
Yet, Peter was still allowed to preach the first apostolic declaration of the Gospel. I don’t think that was coincidental. In God’s grand design, a man thoroughly acquainted with his internal badness faithfully preached the convicting of sins to a self-righteous crowd. Peter didn’t waver when he declared (and I’m paraphrasing), “You have taken Jesus with wicked hands and have crucified Him and slain Him (Acts 2:23).” He didn’t stop there, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God has made the same Jesus, whom you have crucified, both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36).” Only a man fully convinced of his own capacity for badness could preach with such convicting fervor. Because Peter had faced his personal heart trouble, he could see the disease in others who couldn’t see it for themselves.
Convicts Always Recognize Convicts
An individual who’d spent a great deal of time in prison once told me he could always spot someone who had served jail time in any setting. And they could spot him too. I witnessed that very thing several times while with him. It was intriguing to watch. You might assume it was because of tattoos, stern expressions, or something obvious. But it wasn’t. Two perfectly normal-looking people could walk past each other and instantly know they’d served time somewhere. Besides, tattoos are so common now that you’d hardly assume they’re prison-related.
When Peter called otherwise normal-looking people sinful cold-blooded murderers, it was a convict recognizing convicts. Because he acknowledged his sin, he could see there’s too. Peter’s conviction gave him the anointing to preach conviction. Notice the crowd’s response in Acts 2:37, “…When they heard this, they were pricked in their heart and said… ‘what shall we do?’” Peter didn’t convict them; they were already convicted and pronounced guilty by God. They just didn’t realize it until Peter made it clear. Thankfully, the burden of guilt doesn’t have to end with the punishment we deserve if we’ll obey the way of escape Peter preached. He said with God-given authority:
…Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost (Acts 2:38).
Reaching the Religious
Nearly everyone Peter preached to that day was religious. They didn’t consider themselves bad or lost. Every preacher knows the most challenging crowd to reach is a group of smugly religious people. People who can lynch an innocent man in cold blood in the name of God. People who’ve tasted the loaves and fishes yet still shouted: “crucify him.” Or people who once were blind but now see after one touch from Jesus who now use those healed eyes to find fault in the one who gave them sight. Or folks who had no voice until Jesus touched them, and now their voices are lifted in gossip and slander. Somehow, Peter had to reach these people and show them their spiritual blindness. That’s still the mission of the Church today. However, we won’t fulfill that mandate until we attend to our sin and then call others to do the same.
You Can’t Skip the Grave
We love to tell the story of the resurrection. And that’s a good thing, but we can’t skip over the grave to get to it. There’s no resurrection without a painful death and a dark grave. We modern Christians are far more comfortable with the celebration than with the necessary conviction that must precede that celebration. We don’t like to think about it, but we’re no better than the crowds that shouted for Jesus’ death. Our sin put him on the cross just as their sin did. We’re full of corruption too. Evil is always crouched at the door, waiting to pounce on us. We might even be the modern equivalent of a Sadducee or Pharisee. We might have been photographed standing under Leo Frank’s swinging body with smug grins in a different time and place.
Most folks want to skip right past the painful death-to-self repentance brings. But the apostle Paul, another flawed sinner turned preacher, called that death-to-self a daily process. Calvary brings graphic clarity to a twofold revelation: First, humanity is desperately sinful and deserves punishment. Second, God loves us so much that He took that punishment on our behalf and now offers pardon for our depravity. We aren’t good. Not even close. But He’s good—more good than we know. His blood can cleanse us from all unrighteousness, but first, we must face the ugly truth about ourselves. Letting the old you die hurts. It hurts a lot. But the resurrection that follows is worth it.