Personal Foul–1 John 1:10

If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. — 1 John 1:10

We’re in the middle of March Madness, a basketball tournament designed to make the fans of sixty-four teams feel lousy while making one set of fans feel great. So far, my favorite has survived into the round of sixteen. One of the things that always amuses me about basketball is the reactions of players to fouls. Some players take the foul call with grace, but many of them have a look of utter disbelief when the whistle blows for them. Some of these guys could throw some sort of flying body block into an opponent and then look, mouth agape, at the referee when the foul is called. “Me?” they ask before breaking into a huge smile that says, “Those crazy refs!”

Today’s verse is yet another of John’s “if” statements. These last three all deal with our admission of sin. Of course, yesterday’s verse, 1 John 1:9, has been memorized by generations of believers, but its importance is underscored by these two framing if’s. Twice John says “If we claim we have not sinned.” Why? Because like basketball players, we tend to deny our sins.

Referees are accustomed to being second guessed. They expect every decision to be questions, criticized, and condemned by half of the coaches, players, and fans watching. I suppose that’s how God feels as well. How many people on this earth go through their day immediately responding to the divine whistle, raising their hand, and saying, “Yeah, that was me”?

You don’t claim never to have sinned, do you? Of course not, but you probably, like me, claim that certain deeds are not really sins. Does that make God out to be a liar any less than claiming we don’t sin? We need only look to Isaiah 64:6 to see just how warmly God considers our sins. The call of God on our lives is not necessarily to banish all sin from ourselves. While such an end is desirable, it’s not expected. Acknowledgment of all our sin, however, is both desirable and expected.

The Powers of “If”–1 John 1:9

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. –1 John 1:9

“Yes, I said ‘if.'” Can you locate that line in the annals of moviedom? “If” is the dreadful, duplicitous word spoken by the wicked stepmother in Disney’s Cinderella. “If” Cinderella gets all her work done, then she can go to the ball. If!

“If” can be a terrible word, a word used to weasel out of just about anything. “I’ll help you move if I get around to it.” “I’ll take you to the movie if you’re good.” “I’ll start tithing if I can afford it.” That’s the power–the awful power–of “if.”

Here’s the problem with the uses of “if” that I’ve just shared. The condition on which things depended, the “if condition,” was fuzzy in all three cases. Getting around to it is not specific. Neither are good behavior nor affording something. When the “if condition” is fuzzy, then the result can be anything you like. “I’ll give you a million dollars if I feel like it.” I can pretty much guarantee that I won’t feel like it.

Another use of “if” comes in the vast expanses of small print that you find in credit card agreements and wireless contacts. “Pay no interest,” they promise, but then add (in tiny print) “if you make the minimum monthly payment every single time without being so much as a minute late in which case you’ll have to pay ALL of the interest and your rate gets jacked up to 23.9%.” If. When the “if condition” is restrictive enough, the company knows they won’t take a loss. They know that nine out of ten buyers will mail a payment late and then whammo!

So let’s evaluate God’s use of “if.” Is the if condition fuzzy? “If we confess our sins.” That seems pretty straightforward. Apparently we don’t have to use any particular formula or timeframe to confess our sins. We just have to confess them.

Is the if condition unreasonably complicated? You could read Exodus and Leviticus and think they were unreasonably complex, but the single condition in this verse seems pretty easy.

It’s easy and the payoff is a two-fer. You get forgiven and purified, all for the price of confession. That’s a great deal, a much better deal you’ll get from your credit card company.

This isn’t the wicked stepmother speaking in 1 John 1:9. It’s a great and gracious Father. We must take Him up on His “if.”

Fooling Myself–1 John 1:8

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 1 John 1:8

A hundred years ago, when I was in college, I had a roommate, Terry, who was, with the exception of his determination to listen to Barry Manilow music when he went to sleep, one of the nicest people you’d ever hope to meet. Terry intended to become a doctor, and he would have been a very kind and caring doctor, I’m sure. We shared that room for a semester, during which he spent a good portion of his time typing papers. As a writing teacher, I approve of typing papers, but Terry had one problem: he was usually typing somebody else’s paper when he should have been working on his own. After receiving awful grades in his first semester, he created an equally dismal grade report in the spring. His departure from the college was rather quick and graceless.

A year or so later, Terry reappeared on the campus and announced that he had cleared his academic hurdles and stood ready to enter the fray once again. When I asked him what his major was now, he said, “Still pre-med.”

As nice a guy as Terry was, I just couldn’t laugh at him. However, having anchored his grade-point average with the ballast of D’s and F’s, he didn’t seem quite pre-med material. Perhaps Hollywood Upstairs Medical College (alma mater of The Simpson’s Dr. Nick Riviera) would accept such a student, but most schools wouldn’t.  Terry was, I am fairly sure, fooling himself. If that got him through school, then I’m happy, but I’m pretty sure there’s no Dr. Terry roaming the halls of a local hospital.

Of course no Christian is going to practice Terry’s kind of self-delusion. We know better than to say that we never sin. “Of course nobody’s perfect,” we’re quick to admit. “I’m not trying to say I never sin.” We say these things, but do we really mean them?

What we really mean, I think is that while we know we sin in theory, our sins are pretty tame and understandable. It’s not like we’re axe-murderers, right?

Self-delusion takes many forms, especially when it gets into the sensitive territory of our own self perceptions. Do I really want to think of myself as the sack of garbage that I truly am minus the grace of God? Do I really want to face up to the freighters full of sin that I bring into port each and every day.

All too often, we categorize sin, lumping the really bad stuff that we don’t do in one corner while excusing the not-so-awful stuff that we do. In the end, we’re no more realistic than Terry when we see ourselves as better than what Paul calls himself in Romans 7:24: wretched.

Genuine Country?–1 John 1:6-7

If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. –1 John 1:6-7

I have a great deal to be thankful for, but near the top of that list is the fact that the country-decor craze in the United States seems to have crested and begun to recede. For a while, it seemed, everything purchased by a thirty-something suburban homeowner had to be a sort of robin-egg blue and emblazoned with chickens or farmhouses or somesuch. When in doubt, it seems, the design gurus behind this craze opted to slap the word “Country” on the objects. I never found this look terribly appealing.

Here’s the deal. If you live in a four-bedroom ranch, if you have a sprinkler system, if eat more than once a month at Panera, if you drive a minivan, if you don’t know what Carhartt makes, if your pickup bed is empty, if you think that chickens grow in the back of Hy-Vee, then you might well not be a country person.

Similarly, if you expect military surplus at Old Navy, start your day driving on gravel, can seel livestock from your bedroom window, or think that Casey’s General Store has the finest coffee on the planet, then you probably aren’t a city person.

Can both parties agree to stop faking it?

But really, much more dangerous than a suburban type trying to fake either urban or rural credibility, are non-believers trying to fool others into thinking that they are believers. And worse yet is to fool yourself. It’s a sad fact, but many people within the church today are strangers to the light. They walk in darkness most of the time and only visit the light for an hour or two on Sunday morning, thinking that they really belong there.

Perhaps most imporant is you! John is not suggesting that we have to walk 100% in the light to be people of light or 100% in the darkness to be people of darkness. If that were the case, then things would be simple. Elsewhere in this chapter he’ll indicate that this isn’t a one-step-of-darkness-dooms-you sort of thing. The last words of these verses suggest it as well. After all, if a person only walks in the light, then what need is there to be purified of sin?

But there are those who walk mostly in the light or mostly in the darkness. The question is, which are you? My guess, since you’re reading this, is that you belong to the light, but don’t deceive yourself. You can be assured that God isn’t deceived.

A Deer in the Dark–1 John 1:5

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. –1 John 1:5

One night, years ago during one of the summers I spent on the Scout camp staff, I walked home from a campfire early, leaving everybody else in the glow of the dwindling blaze. Between the campfire site and the main part of camp, I had to walk through a profoundly dark area. No electric lights gave me guidance and the overarching trees blocked out whatever moonlight might have been available that night. Still, I knew this path well. Provided I stayed on the pavement, I’d be fine.

Somewhere in the middle of that inky darkness, I heard a ruckus in the woods, something crashing headlong through the underbrush to my left. I stood for a moment trying to understand what my ears perceived. A deer, I decided. A deer must be panicked and dashing through the night away from some threat, real or imagined. My ears then told me that the deer was headed my way, up the ridge to my left. What should I do? Should I run? What point would there be in that? For all I knew, I might run right into the deer’s path, winding up skewered on an antler. Shuddering somewhat, I determined to stand in place and wait. The thrashing in the brush came closer and closer. Then I heard a clatter of hooves on the pavement in front of me. How far? I can’t say, but too close for my liking. Then the beast dove into the brush on the right side of the road and headed down the hill to my right.

Let me be clear. I’m not afraid of the dark. I am, however, sometimes afraid of the things that the dark conceals. The darkness conceals danger and duplicity. It hides pitfalls and problems. Sometimes it conceals a stampeding deer that only God’s grace directs around you.

This is why I am relieved to read that there is no darkness in God. God is light. He illuminates everything. There’s nothing unknown, nothing hidden in him. In God, we don’t flounder around asking what to do. We don’t worry about the things we don’t know, the things that go bump in the night. In God, we don’t fear the ultimate darkness, death.

God is light. This much is clear. What is not so clear is how we will respond to that light. Will we hide from it, seeking to hang onto our evil deeds, or will we open ourselves to it, allowing it to seek out and expose our imperfections?

…and my lungs and limbs and all the rest of me.