Going Back to Move Ahead

I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. A sin can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on. Evil can be undone, but it cannot 'develop' into good. Time does not heal it.
-- C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce  (preface, viii).

I was rereading this great novella on a plane flight last week, realizing that it was time I revisited C.S. Lewis's famous bus trip between hell and heaven. I find new things in C.S. Lewis's writings when I force myself to go back, perhaps because my own experience has deepened over the years. This quote from the preface struck me this time, but in a way tangent to his intention in writing it, I think.

There is a tendency, as a Christian, to think that we can simply move ahead from any point in our lives and find ourselves surrounded by God's blessings, if we seek him in prayer, go to church, and try our best to be obedient. I have a particular application in mind, but let me offer a different one as an example. Let's say a man builds an empire on a corrupt business. He cheats others, harms some people deeply by his deception, and then finds himself on the path to affluence as a result of his sin. After he has a nice house and a comfortable life, he decides that he wants to be close to God again, perhaps as he was before he made a decision to prioritize his own needs over everything else. He knows he cannot while he is living corruptly. So he does his best to eliminate the worst parts of his business dealings, and he tithes a large amount to his local church. He asks God to forgive him for his past. He attends church regularly, gets involved in a Bible study, and even spends time reading his Bible. He has the outward trappings of holiness and a sense of peace, believing that he is following God, and the expectation that God will bless him as he moves forward in his life. He asks God to bless his business and help it to grow, now that he is in prayer over it, and expects that it will.

But something about this is all wrong. God's blessings do not follow sin.

All of us have failed and leave behind us a trail of financial losses, broken relationships and emotional wreckage. Often we pay the price for those mistakes at the moment we make them, or they profit us for a while but later end in disaster. Sometimes, though, we escape consequences for the mistakes of our past. Sometimes those mistakes are hidden, and no one else knows that we have gotten away with them. No one except God, of course. We can go to him and ask for forgiveness for anything. God wants to offer us his mercy and love.

A question presents itself, however. How does God offer us his blessings when they are built on sins that have never been corrected? I think that, in cases where we have refused to go back and make things right, he does not. Not all decisions are this way, of course. There are mistakes we have made that affect us (and others) that cannot be fixed, either because the situation cannot be corrected by any means at our disposal or because it involves something or someone outside our control. But the only way we can hope to have God's blessing is to make the attempt. Sometimes that means confessing something that is hidden, and dealing with the consequences. Sometimes that means giving up something that means a great deal to us, but which only came about because we were disobedient from the outset. It likely means going to people we have wronged and doing anything necessary to make things right with them. I do not believe a superficial apology that stops short of actual repentence means anything to God.

I think part of the problem is that we are led to think that Christianity is about getting something from God, rather than giving something up. We have trouble understanding Jesus' directives to leave everything behind to follow him, because we think that God's desire is to make our dreams come true, whatever we envision those to be.

In the case of the businessman, it is not clear if there is anything he could do to restore to people what he did to cheat or harm them, but if he could, he would have to, if he expected God to bless him. It would be more than simply asking for their forgiveness, it would involve doing everything in his power to make restitution. It might require him to liquidate the business, turn over the profits to those in need, and start fresh. I'm not going to try to define "blessing" here or try to make some absolute principle out of this, but I do believe there are tangible, powerful works of God in the lives of people who put their interests second to his, whatever the cost. And by the same token, there is an absence of such works in the lives of people who prioritize their desires over his and do not truly repent of them. That repentence will necessarily look like a backward turn from the direction we've been heading, a sacrifice of the thing we want for ourselves, and a new direction that will align with his holiness. There is no distance from our sin, however far, that justifies a refusal to make things right.

What C.S. Lewis writes is along these lines. I think he's absolutely right. It's a hard pill to swallow, but anything other than this would be inconsistent with almost everything we find in scripture. A number of verses come to mind in support of this, but the purpose of this post isn't scripture study, so I won't explore them. Luke 19:8-9 models this, and Matt 5:23-24 relays Jesus' thoughts on this. Hebrews 10:26 is also relevant, because a refusal to turn back and correct past decisions amounts to committing ongoing sin. Those who have trusted Christ do not have to fear condemnation, but if we are living in disobedience -- or living "obediently" but refusing to address the sins that got us to this point -- we can find ourselves entirely outside the realm of God's blessing. Not outside the realm of his love, but without the peace and empowerment that come from having our purposes aligned with his. I think many people do live in such a state of denial, and assume that God's forgiveness means they can simply chart their own course for happiness, and as long as they try to do better, God will issue a stamp of approval on their future. I think this assumption is wrong, and they are never going to be truly right with him or have the life he intended for them. If anything I am writing comes off as sounding self-righteous, let me confess that I was in this very position at one point. How it became resolved is a story in itself.

Following Christ means leaving worldly things behind, but not leaving our failures unresolved. To move ahead from those requires us to go back to them.

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