Blind spots - Midweek Message 17th February 2021
Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults. (Psalm 19:12)
You are driving along, approaching a corner when you see the warning sign: ‘Hidden entrance’. Or this time the road is straight, but undulating, and as you come to the brow of a hill, there is again a warning sign: ’Blind Summit!’. Both signs are warning of hidden dangers – things not immediately visible, out of sight - and if you are wise, and accept such signs are not there without good reason, you will exercise caution. You will be extra vigilant. The Psalmist in his prayer is recognizing the same kind of problem for the believer in the spiritual realm. He knows we can have spiritual blind spots where we fail to see the errors, the faults, the sins that threaten our walk, our witness and our welfare as a Christian believer. Wisely, he accepts his vulnerability and cries out to God for help.
In that connection, I also wanted to think about one way as a church family we can help one another in this difficult realm of discerning and dealing with the danger of hidden faults. Joseph Rhea recently wrote an article1 in which he quoted and reflected on some passages from Dieterich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together. Rhea was writing in the wake of the Ravi Zacharias scandal and with Christian leaders particularly in mind, but what he says is relevant for all of us all because it is essentially about the nature and the depth of our fellowship as a church family.
It’s vital, says Rhea, that our churches are places where we are honestly able to admit to one another our sins and struggles as Christians. He warns of the danger of a church being what Bonhoeffer calls ‘the pious fellowship’ as opposed to being what it actually is, a ‘fellowship of sinners.’
The pious fellowship says Rhea ‘encompasses most of what we imagine in healthy Christian community: corporate worship, prayer, service, and spiritual conversations. It’s easy to assume that someone engaged in these activities has a proper spiritual life…must be spiritually healthy’ The problem with the pious fellowship is that the ongoing presence of sin in the life of the Christian is never openly acknowledged. It is hidden. He quotes Bonhoeffer:
The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy.
But that is not how church is meant to be. Remember Jesus response when people complained about the kind of people with whom he was meeting and eating It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. (Mark 2.17) Church is a fellowship of sinners, a gathering of those who have admitted to God and themselves that they are not spiritually healthy but sick and, unable to heal themselves, have therefore placed themselves under the care of the only one who can cure them, the crucified and risen Jesus. As Rhea puts it: ‘The fellowship of sinners (the church as it is meant to be) is marked not only by a striving toward worshipping God, but also by radical honesty about one’s sins and struggles. It is a community that practices deep confession and frequent repentance and celebrates God’s forgiving grace.’
He further quotes from Bonhoeffer:
‘In confession (admitting our sins and struggles) the break-through to community takes place. Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sins wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person. This can happen even in the midst of a pious community. In confession the light of the Gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart.’
Rhea continues that it is this ability and willingness to admit our sins and struggles to one another that turns the merely ‘pious fellowship’ into a genuine ‘fellowship of sinners’ living under the grace of God in Christ.
Again, he quotes Bonhoeffer:
The sin must be brought into the light. The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged. . . Now he stands in the fellowship of sinners who live by the grace of God in the Cross of Jesus Christ. Now he can be a sinner and still enjoy the grace of God. He can confess his sins and in this very act find fellowship for the first time. The sin concealed separated him from the fellowship, made all his apparent fellowship a sham; the sin confessed has helped him to find true fellowship with the brethren in Jesus Christ.
As Rhea then points out, this honesty and openness with one another is something that James encourages, as we will see later in his letter confess your sins to each other and pray for each other… (James 5:16)
I don’t know how we may respond to all this. Some of this may sound a bit scary to us and yet it is, I think, a wise and pastoral reminder that Christian believers are vulnerable (think of James’ warnings to professing Christians in his opening chapter of the danger of being deceived) - and particularly vulnerable where we find ourselves isolated and alone with our sins and our struggles because we feel we dare not admit them to anyone. The Lord Jesus taught us to pray together: Forgive us our debts)… and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil (Matthew 6.12,13) He knows, as I hope we all know, we all sin and struggle with temptation and evil. He never intended that we fight such battles on our own. He calls us into the fellowship of his church, to which he has given birth through the gospel of his grace. In that fellowship, he intends not that we might have to pretend to be something we are not, but rather honestly admitting what we are, we might help one another continue to find his grace in forgiveness and repentance and thus step by step, be transformed into his nearer likeness,
Yours in that fellowship of sinners and the grace that is ours in our Lord Jesus Christ,
1 You can read the original article here