Around this time last year, my mother-in- law fought the most difficult battle of her life with cancer. She suffered greatly in this battle, not only with physical pain, but also with tremendous emotional pain.
My mother-in-law had lived a difficult 70+ years, the majority of which were spent married to an abusive, alcoholic husband with whom she had three sons.
Many called her a woman of great faith who knew scripture better than most, and who talked mostly about her trust in the Lord, especially during the dark times. And I imagine her faith was an inspiration to many. For up until the end, she told others how she believed that the Lord was going to heal her of cancer, but even after many prayers, healing services, treatments, and a restricted diet, the terrible disease took her life in the end.
But those of us who were close to my mother-in-law knew that she was actually a woman who suffered in more ways than she wanted to let us see, especially in the area of her faith. Her life had been far from perfect and at times even scandalous. And on the worst days of suffering, especially close to the end she told me that she believed her previous sins had smudged the good name of Jesus and had given Him a black eye.
As I sat by her nursing home bed last year hearing her say those words, it broke my heart. At the time, she was terribly uncomfortable, her mouth coated with thrush and barely able to eat, also with her backside infected with an incredibly painful bed sore. To know she was struggling emotionally, too was almost more than I could bear.
I never found the courage to tell her about the sin I’d fallen into that was so similar to her own. I suspect she’d been told by others in the family, but she never once let on to me if they did.
She, too, had been in an inappropriate and abusive relationship with a pastor and was almost excommunicated from a church because of it, but she left and went to another church before they could.
Not only was this scandalous story a part of her past, but she also deeply regretted the pain her three sons had suffered as a result of their abusive Dad. It didn’t matter how much we a told her that we loved and forgave, she continued to apologize.
But during her last days, as her body grew weaker, spiritual relief finally came. I’ll never forget the mornings I was blessed to spend with her talking about the forgiveness and grace of Jesus. As I watched her cling to His grace, love, and mercy with all the strength that she had, I saw true faith and grace at work. I’ll never forget a few nights before she died when a visiting church group stopped by and sang to her. She’d gotten so weak she was barely able to speak, but her face revealed the peace of the Lord and so did the entire room. I realized in those moments Jesus wanted her and us to know that all truly was well with her soul.
Jesus declared over all of her pain and sorrow and sin that it was finished and she was going home.
But today thinking of her emotional pain, I am reminded of my own that crops up every time the memories of my past are triggered. All the questions and accusations begin to bombard my mind, How could you have done that? He was thirty years older! You were sick. Look at what you did to your family. Look at what you did to the church…And these questions especially pop up when I feel alone.
A couple of days ago I wrote a blog called Real Community. It’s been mine and my husband’s desire to find a church since we moved to the area, but with every church we’ve visited the memories of the past have made it almost impossible to go for very long. I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time online listening to sermons from pastors as much as 60 miles away. I’ve attended 7 different churches since we moved here, but no where has felt like where we belonged. The counselors we’ve seen encouraged us early on to take time and stay away from church so that we’d have time to heal. But the loneliness has been very hard.
The church we visited the longest amount of time initially felt like a place we might be able to stay, but then the pastor preached a sermon on the Lord’s prayer and I wasn’t able to go back. In the sermon, he made the comparison between his own kids having his last name and how when they did something wrong they brought shame on the whole family’s name. He said when we as Christians did things that didn’t honor God we brought shame on the name of Christ. It was the same message I heard on the worst days when I felt overwhelmed by shame. It was the same message my mother-in-law heard almost until she died.
I know that sin has consequences, but isn’t it lessening the work and power of Jesus in our lives when we believe messages that communicate our actions actually bring shame on God? Isn’t His righteousness covering all our sin and shame the reason that He died? Does He really wanted us burdened with the emotional pain that we’ve given him a black eye or smudged His name? Do we really have that power?
The only thing that brings me any relief is the fact that Jesus righteousness does cover all my sin and that it really is finished.
Yesterday, I’m encouraged after visiting a church that we may have found a home. I especially began to think it when the pastor made a comparison between his kids having his last name and all of us belonging to God and being called the children of God. But he didn’t make the comparison to tell us if we sinned we brought shame on God’s name. He made the comparison to point out that no matter what we’d done that God still loved us and that His grace covered it all. And in those moments God whispered to me it really is finished. And my soul felt sweet relief.
No matter what we’ve done, no matter what consequences our sins and others sins have brought into our lives, Jesus wants us to know it is well with our souls. He wants to lift those heavy burdens. He wants us to know it’s never too late to begin again. This is the Gospel. This is our glorious unseen hope.
And it really is finished.