The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit…Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! —2 Corinthians 3:17–18; 5:17
More important than any human relationship is our relationship to God. All other relationships are merely symbols of it. First and foremost, we bear God’s image and we need to find reverence for that fact again and again.
The greatest hope for every person, and for every relationship or marriage, is to recognize that even though we have distorted this image and fallen away from God, a faint reflection still remains in us. Despite our corruption, God does not want us to lose our destiny as creatures made in his image. Therefore he sent his son Jesus, the second Adam, to break into our hearts (Rom. 5:17–19). Through Jesus the image of God can be restored in every man and woman, and to every relationship.
Jesus opens the way to God and to each other.
Jesus is God’s reconciler: he has come to reconcile us to God and to others and to heal the inner discord in our lives (Eph. 2:11–19). When we become discouraged or downcast, then more than ever we must seek him. Everyone who seeks will find God. This is a promise. Jeremiah says, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13). And there are the wonderful words in the gospels: “Everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Luke 11:10). These words are true today, and if we take them seriously, God will become living in our hearts.
The way to God is open for everyone. No human being is excluded from this gift, because Jesus came as a human being and lived among us. God sent him to restore his image in us. Through him we have access to the Father. But this can only happen when the experience of Pentecost – of personal repentance, conversion, and faith – becomes a burning reality for us.
The miracle of Pentecost, in which the Holy Spirit descended to earth in power and love, can happen anywhere in the world at any time. It can happen wherever people cry out, “Brothers, sisters, what shall we do?” and wherever they are ready to hear the age-old answer of Peter, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…Save yourselves from this corrupt generation” (Acts 2:37–40).
Freedom comes through surrender, not human strength.
We can find forgiveness and salvation only at the cross. At the cross we undergo death – a dying to self-will. This death liberates us from everything that has prevented fellowship with God and with others and renews our relationship with them. In giving up the sin and evil which has enslaved us, we find freedom in Jesus. We can never redeem ourselves or better ourselves by our own strength. All we can do is surrender ourselves completely to Jesus and his love, so that our lives no longer belong to us but to him.
My father, J. Heinrich Arnold, writes:
If we want to be healed of the wounds made by Satan’s tricks and arrows…we must have the same absolute trust in Jesus as he had in God. Ultimately, all we have is our sin. But we must lay our sin before him in trust. Then he will give us forgiveness, cleansing, and peace of heart; and these lead to a love that cannot be described.1
What does it mean to “lay our sin before him in trust?” Freedom and the possibility for reconciliation begin whenever we confess the accusations of our conscience. Sin lives in darkness and wants to remain there. But when, as the following story of an acquaintance, Darlene, shows, we bring to light the sins that burden us – when we admit them without reserve – we can be cleansed and freed:
By the ninth grade, I had picked out my “future husband.” I spent many secret hours writing to him in my diary, dreaming about him, and watching his house in the hope of seeing him through a window. Several years later he married someone else, and my fantasy world fell apart.
Through my high school years I tried to be part of the “in” crowd, always conscious of what I said, did, and wore. But by the time I graduated, I had flirted with countless boys, and though I felt guilty about this because of my upbringing, I simply chose to ignore it. I squashed my protesting conscience and convinced myself that I could handle any situation.
After high school I traveled to Israel, intending to spend a year at a kibbutz. At first I was shocked by the constant partying and the preoccupation with sex among the teens there, but soon I was hanging out in guys’ rooms and going to drinking parties and discos like everyone else. I told myself I could withdraw from any situation at any time, but within weeks I had let myself be sucked into a relationship with a boy who said he truly loved me. I wanted so much to believe him that I fell for him, even though I knew he was the Don Juan of the kibbutz. I felt more and more guilty; I could see I was doing exactly what I had claimed I was strong enough to resist. I panicked when I saw him a few nights later with another girl.
I returned home and, during the next two years, thought I had overcome my problem. But I had not. I fell again.
A man promised me a wonderful future, and he told me constantly how much he loved me and how beautiful I was. I wanted desperately to believe in him. Soon it was hand-holding, hugging, kissing, touching – one thing led to the next. As he wanted more and more from me, I completely blocked out all feelings of terrible guilt and horror. When he asked for sex, I gave in. I chose to fall deeper into sin rather than face up to the absolute mess I was in. I wanted to run away from home and live with him, and I promised him my love and loyalty – even when he threatened to kill me if I told anyone about our relationship. The next day he disappeared, and I never saw him again.
Plagued by depression, I considered suicide. My head and stomach ached incessantly. I felt I was going insane. I was obsessed with sex; I didn’t see how I could go on without a man to “love” me. I went for one boy after another; two of them were even engaged to other girls. I grew desperate and wept secretly for hours. Through it all, though I felt like a prostitute, I tried to show my family and friends a happy and confident image…
My double life could not last forever, and eventually I was caught in a lie. I realized then that God was giving me another chance. I might never again have such an opportunity to break out of my sin. Giving in, I turned to my parents and confessed everything. The devil was not quick to let me go, tormenting me in my sleep, but the depth of God’s love became very real to me in the following weeks and months. There were constant prayers and love from my family and church, who never lost hope for me. I believe prayer drove away many evil spirits that often seemed to hover around me, especially in those first weeks.
After months of hard-fought struggle, my bondage to evil was finally severed. Then came the unforgettable moment when the forgiveness of all my sins was spoken out by my pastor, in God’s stead. The power and joy of that moment knew no bounds.
When we are burdened by sin, it is a tremendous gift to find someone to talk to about it. Pouring out one’s heart to another person is like opening a sluice gate in a dam – the water runs out, and the pressure disappears. If confession is honest and heartfelt, it can bring a deep feeling of relief, because it is the first step on the road to forgiveness. But ultimately we have to stand before God. We cannot run away or hide from him, as Adam and Eve tried to do when they disobeyed him. If we are willing to stand before him in the light of his son Jesus, he will burn away all our guilt.
Just as God gave the first man and woman peace and joy in the Garden of Eden, he gives every believer the task of working toward the new creation of his peaceable kingdom. To carry out this task, we must joyfully accept the rule of God in our lives and be willing to go the entire way of Jesus – to start at the stable in Bethlehem and end at the cross on Golgotha. It is a very lowly, humble walk. But it is the only way that leads to complete light and hope.
Jesus alone can forgive and remove our sins, because he alone is free from all stain. He can stir our consciences and set them free from impurity, bitterness, and discord (Heb. 9:14). If we accept the stirrings of our conscience, take responsibility for the choices we have made, and embrace God’s judgment and mercy, it does not matter how far we have strayed or how corrupt we have been. In Christ, the conscience that used to be our enemy becomes our friend.
Forgiveness has power to transform our lives.
The forgiveness Jesus offers is so powerful that it will change our lives completely. Everything that makes us fearful or isolated, everything impure and deceitful, everything that prevents us from showing and receiving love, will yield if we give ourselves to him. What is up will come down, and what is down will come up. This change will start in the innermost heart of our being, and then our outward life, including all our relationships, will also be transformed.
Whether or not a person has experienced such redemption shows up most plainly when he or she faces death. Those who have been at the bedside of a dying person will know how absolute, how final in its significance, is each person’s inner relationship with God. They know that in the end, when the last breaths are drawn, this bond is the only thing that counts.
It is the life-task of every person to prepare to meet God. Jesus tells us how to do this when he says, “Whatever you do for the least of them you do for me.” He also says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” I have personally experienced at deathbeds that if a person has lived for others, as Jesus did, then God is very close to him in the last hour. I have also experienced at the hour of death the torment of those who have lived selfish and sinful lives and refuse to repent.
All of us, whether married or single, need to grasp more deeply the eternally healing words of Jesus: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). In Jesus there is life, love, and light. In him our lives and our relationships can be purified from all that burdens us and opposes love, and God’s image in us can be restored.
1. J. Heinrich Arnold, Discipleship (Farmington, PA: Plough, 1994), 42.