You are not condemned yet.
In God we live and move and have our being. God might be holding on to us by the slenderest of threads, but he is holding on. God wants us to live, not die. I think the last thing God wants is for us to live in fear of him dropping us into hell.
Yet we still wonder if we are about ready to be dropped. “Is God going to punish me?” — that is not a dumb question if you are a Bible reader. The Bible seems to plainly say that he is: “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9). In other translations, “he will punish” is translated “he will take revenge.” The root idea has to do with working out justice. Justice is going to be done. At the end of days, those who have turned away from God will be sent the direction they are facing forever. So yes, you could definitely call that punishment. God is going to punish us if we refuse to relate to him and we work out death instead of life.
We are not being punished for our sins right now, however. That’s not going to happen until time is up — and it is not up, yet. Consider that there is a difference between the punishment 2 Thessalonians is talking about, and the process of our father responding to the consequences of our choices. There is a final judgment that will bring things to right. But God is forestalling that day, and that punishment. What we experience now is his loving discipline that brings us to life. Romans 8 says that there is NO condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because the Lord Jesus took all of the Father’s condemnation on Himself on the cross. He wrestled evil to exhaustion. The true state of every Jesus lover is uncondemned.
Yet we still wonder if we are condemned. “Is God mad at me? What is going on? Why is this situation working out so poorly? Why do I work so poorly? Am I being punished? Did I cause God to make me sick or make me lose my loved one?” Those jumbled up feelings come with the process of being disciplined for life not because we are locked up in condemnation, like we used to be. Here is a key Bible passage about that: Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline —then you are not legitimate children at all. Moreover, we have all had parents who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! (Hebrews 12).
When uncondemned people experience the struggle of becoming free of the vestiges of sin and death hanging on them, they should consider it the discipline of the Lord, leading us out of darkness into light. We are like babies in the Spirit and we need our Parent to help us learn how to walk and run and build in the Spirit.
So if you are in Christ, God is not punishing you — and I say you only need a mustard seed of faith to be in Christ. You’ll want more faith, but it doesn’t take much to have enough — and God is the judge of what is enough, not you or me. If you are turned toward Jesus and following, God is not punishing you in the sense that he has judged you unworthy of him and has given you over to die — and he never will.
But what do I do about feeling condemnable?
A young woman wrote into one of the internet question sites. She said “I am so depressed right now because I feel all the mistakes in my past mistakes are so many that I won’t have a good future. I’m 29 years old and I had 2 abortions before I was 20. Two years ago I slept with my boyfriend even though I was already a Christian; we went our separate ways because of this. (He’s also a Christian.) I have been single ever since and I have been told that I am being punished for all my sins. Does this mean because of what happened in my past I will never find peace, joy or fulfillment? Does this mean God will never trust me with a relationship again? Will I have to pay for the rest of my life? Will He refuse to forgive me since I made the mistakes when I was already a Christian? I have been so tormented by all this and I am in constant pain–my heart aches. I really don’t know what to do, I have prayed and asked for forgiveness, don’t know what else to do. All I feel is guilt, guilt, guilt.
What can we say to such a poor, dear soul? She is experiencing something most of us feel at some level. She has acted in ways that have consequences; she has sinned. She doesn’t experience peace, or joy, or fulfillment. A very simple way to respond might be, “It seems like your cup is upside down.” You think and feel like you are still condemned. God’s grace is bouncing off your condemnation.
When she asks, “Will I have to pay for the rest of my life?” The answer is, “No, you will not have to pay for the rest of your life.” God just wants you to turn your cup right side up. You already turned his way; you’re feeling the sorrow of being sinful. Don’t stay camped out in a living death with your cup upside down! If you are camped out in living death, feeling guilty and liable to punishment (maybe even feeling like you are being actively punished!), you need to turn your cup up and receive freedom from condemnation.
Maybe that sounds a little too easy to be useful. That’s probably true. Even though we are uncondemned, that condition has not necessarily made us smarter or altogether capable:
1. God is not interested in punishing us, but WE might be.
For instance, my parents were very poor as children and did not get enough to eat. When I was a child they taught me to eat every scrap of food I was given because there might not be more food coming. They did not mean this to be a big lesson, but it is what they thought. I took in what they believed and made it part of what I believe, even though we had enough food to eat. I still follow the rule even though I am surrounded by a sea of food. To this day, I almost never go out to eat without cleaning my plate completely of luxurious, expensive food. Should I feel guilty about not eating my food, as if I am a bad person, as if I will be condemned for that? Of course not! But what do I do, if I do feel that way, if I have that way installed in me?
I need to work with the discipline of the Lord, freeing me and making me holy. I would not want to resent the discipline of learning to live as a free brother of Jesus just because it is hard! I suppose I could see the whole experience of realizing some thing in me that is messing me up as a disaster that shows that I am unsaved and unredeemable — “I can’t stop fretting about food!” But what is really happening is this: I am being disciplined to be a free being. God does not want to punish me, but I might think being punished is normal, and might live under all sorts of irrational rules that kill me, not free me. I have thoughts and habits of the heart that are not fully aligned with how God sees me or how God wishes I could see the universe. I need to turn my cup up.
2. God is not interested in punishing us, but the WORLD might be.
We could talk about the U.S. punishing Afghanistan as evidence. The NCAA is punishing Penn State. The irrational family courts are punishing husbands or wives. We are surrounded by a huge prison punishment industry in Pennsylvania. Cheaters on tests have been punished in our schools. Lance Armstrong lost his tour de France titles. We love “justice.” I am in school, so I am afraid of how my professors might punish my errors, as they see them. You might work in an office and feel afraid to talk to the boss for fear of what she might do to you. Everything is illegal in Philly, so most of us could be accosted by the police at any moment. We fear “justice.”
I am an uncondemned person, but what if everything around me tells me that what I am doing is wrong and expects me to take that seriously all day, or else? It is a problem, if we don’t work with it as part of the Lord disciplining us for freedom and grace. Turn the cup up.
3. God is not interested in punishing us, but EVIL FORCES might be.
The devil is not an anti-god who is able to influence us all day. But there are forces that would like us to fail and die. When Jesus was baptized and made his first steps toward the public ministry that would lead him to death and resurrection, it says that “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘People do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Jesus could have made bread from stones, but humans can’t. One of the reasons he did not make bread from stones is because he was fully identified with us in every way — all the good and all the bad. In the event of the devil’s temptation, obedience to the process of discipline was more important than the gratification of not being hungry. Jesus did not take the situation into his own hands, like humans are tempted to do. He waited on God like humans need to wait. The discipline seems hard, but this first defeat of the evil one foreshadowed the ultimate thrashing Jesus is gave him in God’s time.
We were talking about feeling great as a church the other day. And then we started naming all the ways we felt people were being tempted and turned away by evil. Getting more free and being attacked are kind of the same process for God’s children. The devil might want the process of growing in faith to kill us, or at least feel like it is killing us. But since we are uncondemnable and are walking with Jesus, all that temptation just trains us for being our true selves. We need to keep the cup turned up.
I don’t think anyone needs to tell you, “You are hanging by a slender thread,” so you will wake up and not be cast into the fire. I think you have enough guilt right now to motivate you. I think you have enough fear. I think you have enough loneliness to make you wonder if God is punishing you. Elements of your own being, the world, and evil forces are all conspiring to make feel condemned when you are not. Turn up your cup; you are not condemned! Though we are still a bit stupid and unable, God will help us as we face the temptation to believe the lies that tell us we are unforgiveable, or that we have a God bent on our destruction — you are not unforgiveable and you do not have that kind of Lord. You have a God determined that you will live forever. He has forgiven you and will forgive you and make you whole. If you don’t experience it all tomorrow, just wait; it is coming. Turn your cup up.