By Elton HiggsOccasionally at this stage of my life, I think perhaps I’ve lived this long because there were things God wanted me to know that I wasn’t ready to accept when I was younger. Perhaps you would like to know what a couple of those things are.
Lesson 1: No amount of beating up on myself will compensate for my imperfections. Early in my life, I was so full of my own virtues that I was too insensitive to feel guilty. In my middle years, although I was increasingly and disappointedly aware of my failings, open admission of guilt was dangerous to my self-image; so I suffered the pain of my self-indictment privately, for the most part, seeking somehow to turn my guilt itself into an exonerating virtue. As I edged into my mature years, I began to realize that in spite of my being a nominal believer in the unique efficacy of Christ’s sacrificial death to cover all my sin, I also harbored the unstated conviction that I could earn more of God’s love and favor than I already had by compiling a record of good behavior sufficient to forestall or minimize guilt. Of course, I failed, and then I was ensnared in guilt again.
The solution, I found, is to embrace and rejoice in the process that John presents in his first epistle: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I Jn. 1:8-9). I had always read this process of confession and forgiveness as a kind of emergency medical care to cover those moral cripples who just could not make progress in the New Life they had been given. But I now think that this process of confronting our sin, confessing it, and experiencing forgiveness is an integral and ongoing part of our maturing relationship with God. Embracing this daily process (not achieving behavioral perfection) is what John means when he admonishes us to “walk in the light,” for it is there that “we have fellowship with one another [as fellow sinners] and the blood of Jesus . . . cleanses us from all sin” (I Jn. 1:7). There is freedom in that light to fully accept that being redeemed is an ongoing process that absorbs our sins so thoroughly that we continually stand pure before Him. So the continual recognition of our sinfulness is not a source of perpetual shame, but a source of marvel and rejoicing, because we are walking miracles of God’s grace. There is no longer any need to cover up or deny our lapses, for now our struggle with weakness is an ongoing opportunity to relinquish the attempt to glorify ourselves and to glorify God instead. As Paul says in II Cor. 12: 9-10, I can “boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me . . . . For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Lesson 2: Waning strength provides new focus for my life. In the energies of my youth, I had the luxury of being able to devote attention to a number of significant activities and goals, such as graduate school, church activities, and maintaining and enjoying my marriage. In my late twenties I started my first full-time faculty position, children were added to the mix, and I even managed to participate in a boys’ mentoring group and sing in a community choir. I didn’t always get my priorities right in the distribution of my time among these activities, but that difficulty arose from my having enough mental and physical resources to pursue multiple applications of my energies. This prime of life ability to attempt doing an amazing number of things was exciting, but it sometimes prompted pride if I was successful in one or more of these areas. When in later middle age I began to experience the diminution of some of my skills and the opportunities to display them, I discovered just how much pride I had invested in getting recognition for them. Therefore, I did not accept that diminution gracefully, and I somewhat bitterly lamented my losses, particularly the decrease in quality of my singing voice.
But at least that forced acceptance of reality made me better oriented when real old age set in to be content with the opportunities that were left to me, some of which I wouldn’t have known how to appreciate earlier in life. My writing of these Musings is a prime example of a new opportunity that God opened up as a surprise at just the right time in my life. I spent a lot of time in my earlier life trying to find things I thought God wanted me to do, probably putting more emphasis on my ego-pleasing choices than on God’s will and direction. Now that I have less energy to seek out areas of service, He has shown me that when I wait on Him, He brings things to me.
So, as one old preacher was reported to have said when asked how he was doing, “I’m just repentin’ and praisin’.”