Spiritual House Cleaning

By Keith Miller | January 27, 2010

Keith, I’m not a pious person and have never liked doing things that sound like they will look more “religious.”  But I was fascinated to hear that God wants to transform me into the person God designed me to be.  Can you suggest an approach to spiritual transformation that has its feet on the ground?

Grapeleaves

Great question.  In my case, before I could begin a serious journey toward the radical transformation that they said would follow the daily disciplines of living a new life, I needed to clear my path of the pitfalls and snarling vines growing out of the past that kept tripping me up, and also to inventory the assets and gifts I had.

When Jesus said specifically to “worry about the beam in your own eye,” (Mt. 7:4-5) I think he was referring to whatever is in my life that prevents (or hinders) God from working within me to transform me.  For me these blocks seem to come from the virtually universal tendency to put ourselves in the center where only God should be, which is Sin (with a capital “S”).  And in my case, all the other “sins” (lower case “s”) stem from that one act.  And these dishonest, petty or terribly destructive habits or controlling acts in relationships are what block God’s transforming work in me.

I needed to see clearly what was in my life now (and in my past history) so that I would have nothing mysterious (denied) to hide that could jump up and scare me; because by this time I knew that my Sin would use anything that “pushes my buttons” to threaten me with: the specter of failure, fears, guilt, shame, rejection, and spiritual death.  For me it was crucial to make as clean a beginning as possible if I hoped to stay close to God.

So I was helped to begin by confessing what I could see of how I have hurt others.  I learned that when I began to think about these things, the natural response was to feel sadness and/or guilt about what I had done.  But as I kept focusing on the damage my controlling and self-defeating behavior had caused, the resulting sadness began to produce the motivation to turn away from a particular sin and confess it to God, asking for his power and help not to repeat the harmful behavior.  So I had to confess not only the act of putting myself in the center where only God belongs (Sin with a capital “S”) but also make explicit (in detail) as many of the shadowy deeds and thoughts as I could see at the time.  I was told to make a list of all people my behavior had injured. This act of confession of what I could see brought a number of hidden sins and unconscious self-centeredness and habits out of my unconscious and into my memory and helped expel them and their destructive power from my heart.

I had to find a small group of men on this spiritual journey to find the courage to even see much less confess before another person.  But I discovered that was evidently normative behavior for the early Christians (e.g. “Make this your common practice.  Pray together and confess your sins to each other so you can live together whole and healed.”  James 5:16, The Message).

Over the years as I confessed to God all the specific sinful acts I could recall, the past felt clean and not as painful.  I began to realize (and it took a number of years and different groups and mentors) that I am forgiven.  I could embrace the gift of a new chance at life.  It is as if God has erased the black board on which the sins I had confessed had been listed and handed over a piece of chalk and said, “Here, you can write a new chapter for your life.”  The peace, joy and motivation to live for God that come from these actions is incredible to me: one’s spiritual life can come alive!  But it has not felt like I was getting more religious, but rather more caring and sensitive—and real somehow—than I had ever been both to God and to the other people in my life.  And in looking back, I realize that the transforming work of God had begun to occur in my life.

In addition to the gift of a new life, God has given me the security of his love and forgiveness.  As a forgiven person, I don’t need to hide my Sin from God.  On the contrary, I can afford—and want to see even farther—even behind walls of delusion and denial—and begin to have a clearer and deeper view of the harmful behaviors and attitudes that have been brought on by Sin.  Then I pray sincerely for God to remove them.  I never thought I could do that.  Most of the things I’ve discovered about my selfish attitudes and behaviors were not even conscious to me when I began.

But how do we do this specific housecleaning today when everyone seems to be embarrassed by the idea of confession and horrified at the prospect of revealing anything that might make them look inadequate or sinful?  The saints have given us an answer to this dilemma regarding the exhuming of our buried sins—as a bathing and cleansing of the infectious self-destructive material.  But this course of action is so terrifying that many of us in contemporary religious denominations have discarded it as too severe a remedy—“exaggerated” by the writers of the past to pressure their disciples.  But this very attitude of thinking that they exaggerating their “righteousness” was an example of my projecting my own Sin of pretending to be better than I am.  And this hiding my own Sin by doubting the saints’ sincerity  is just another universal habit that is part of my Sin that has kept me from growing and finding the freedom and courage to receive and give love.

This is one way it works: we begin cleaning out the debris of the past by making a thorough examination of our own lives and bringing what we find out into the light (see 1 John 1:5-9).  We face these character defects and moral transgressions as thoroughly and honestly as we can—and go back and make things right where possible. (See Matthew 5:23)

And we also need to include the positive character traits and abilities that God has given us along with our list of sins.  Because these are some of the assets through which he will work to transform us into the people he designed us to be.

When we seriously commit our lives to God, it’s as if we are agreeing to transfer to him all the assets and liabilities of a business we own.  If we were doing that, we would take an inventory of the damaged goods and the valuable assets that are stored in the warehouse of the past.  And to transfer to God these things we must make the inventory very specific.

For instance, for years I would, on occasion, do something helpful for someone that might cost a significant amount of money or time.  I would tell myself (and sometimes the one “helped”) that I didn’t expect anything in return.  But if the person I’d helped did not express what I considered to be “reasonable” gratitude, I resented him or her—a lot.  I finally realized that my real motive was not just to be loving, but that giving of my help had been sort of an “investment” for which I expected a dividend: to feel like and look like a good  Christian.  My dishonesty about my expectations also set me up to resent people I wanted to help.  So my failure to clean my own house made me into a “generous” Pharisee.

This may sound bizarre to you.  It did to me for years.  But I was fortunate enough to get caught in a serious moral failure and that destroyed and/or almost destroyed my deepest relationships.  I hope you won’t have to do that to find the life, love and settledness about who you are and what you’re “designed” to do and be in your life.  Thanks for asking that question.  It made me feel closer to you, and my prayers come with this for this new chapter in your adventure with God.[1]

Lord, thank you that you forgive us our Sins, especially when we can become aware of them and confess them to you.  Help us to allow you to transform us into the people you designed us to be.  And Thank you for such an incredible opportunity.  In Jesus name, amen.

“This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.” (Matt. 5:  23-24) (In other words this kind of honesty takes precedence for Jesus even over public worship.)

“If we claim that we’re free of sin, we’re only fooling ourselves.  A claim like that is errant nonsense.  On the other hand, if we admit our sins—make a clean breast of them—he won’t let us down; he’ll be true to himself.  He’ll forgive our sins and purge us of all wrongdoing.  If we claim that we’ve never sinned, we out-and-out contradict God—make a liar out of him.  A claim like that only shows off our ignorance of God.”

1 John 1: 8-10 The Message


[1] If after reading this piece you would like to examine an in depth approach that uses the principles expressed here, you might want to read the book A Hunger for Healing:  The Twelve Steps as a Classic Model for Christian Spiritual Growth (Or study the twelve-week DVD course by the same name.)

Topics: Christian Living, Weekly Devotional | Comments Off on Spiritual House Cleaning
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