You're running late for work and the car breaks down on the freeway. Later, on the job, you make a costly error. That evening you burn dinner. Just as you are squelching the screaming smoke detector, the doorbell rings. It's your neighbor. Your cat went into his kitchen through the dog door and ate his pet bird. This is the kind of day you'd like to start over.
Some things, like a written letter or a computer-generated document, are easy to cancel and start over. If only everything in life were as simple to fix as tearing up a sheet of paper or tapping the delete key on a keyboard, then starting over.
Everyone sooner or later wistfully considers just such a fantasy, of being able to go back to square one, of taking back the careless, hurtful words spoken too quickly.
Think for a moment about the big mistakes: A person drinks too much, gets behind the wheel of a car and causes a fatal accident; someone fails to exercise self-control, and a pregnancy results. The human journey is marred by such faulty judgments and their painful consequences.
Think further about Christians and their all-too-human errors. More than just wanting to avoid the pain of sin, a Christian is oriented to honor God, his Father, and enrich the lives of other people. The Bible describes a Christian as sober, or serious-minded and conscientious-or we could say conscience-driven. He knows his life should be a guiding light for everyone to see.
A serious mistake, a sin, can become a manifold source of discouragement to the Christian, with painfully familiar consequences: a sense of disappointing God, an awareness of failure to meet responsibility toward other people.
Christians need the chance to start over. But does that statement sound a little strange? Aren't Christians people who have already turned away from the mistakes common to all mankind?
Yes, but men and women who are experienced in the day-to-day commitment of Christianity realize they are still saddled with human limitations.
God provides Christians a needed opportunity for a new beginning-not just once, at conversion, but countless times after that initial start. He has given us His annual Passover festival to remind us of, and encourage us in, His help.
Paul put to pen a deeply personal, anguished cry in Romans 7:22-25. Whatever the circumstances were that prompted his words, they were powerful enough to capture and imprison him. He felt overwhelmed, unable to break free, even though he passionately wanted to leave the past behind. The apostle wrote:
"For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God-through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin."
Paul found an avenue to the impossible. He learned how to start over. Although we may be overwhelmed with regret because of what has been done, we are stopped dead in our tracks unless we find the same help of which Paul eloquently wrote.
Because the Christian's mind or conscience is taught by God and guided by His Holy Spirit, when a Christian commits a sin it in effect slaps his mind with restraints. He is discouraged and dispirited. He needs help to break free. Ritualistic religious acts can help a person feel good about himself, but they cannot create the comforted conscience he craves.
Can't change the past
The book of Hebrews describes the value on the one hand and futility on the other of carrying out what we would commonly call good works. The temple worship extant at the time Hebrews was written provides a ready-made example of such deeds. That worship typified the futility of anything a person can do in the present to affect the sins of the past:
"But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?" (Hebrews 9:11-14).
Christ, our Passover, represents a power greater than any physically available to mankind, infinitely transcending the high cost of human error.
"Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest," said Jesus (Matthew 11:28). Christians know from experience that "rest" doesn't mean isolation from the troubles of human existence, but release from the nagging restlessness of selfish thoughts and actions.
When we study and reflect on the truth of the Passover, we should feel refreshed and strengthened because we realize we can start over, in spite of our mistakes. Christ promised: "Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light" (Matthew 11:29, 30).
The picture of God wanting to show us our mistakes so we will own up to them is incomplete. Prophesied in Isaiah 61, and quoted by Christ Himself in Luke 4:18, 19, God's purpose is revealed as much greater than that. The person who hears the gospel-who understands and acts upon it-will of course come to see personal sin. But that person will also find healing for a broken heart, relief from oppressing circumstances and confidence to carry on in life in spite of his serious mistakes.
To show His ability as well as His willingness to help us start over, Jesus freed a man whose body had been imprisoned by a serious physical impairment. Christ's higher purpose was to demonstrate what He, as our Passover, means to us. Think of the dramatic scene of a man permanently disabled by chronic illness suddenly made able to walk.
He gave this dramatic demonstration "that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins." Then Jesus told the paralytic to pick up his mat and go home (Matthew 9:6).
The forgiveness of sins is the healing of the soul, a release from thoughts and actions that can spiritually cripple us, an opportunity for a fresh start.
Let yourself start over
"Oh, no, I've made a big mistake," the sinner may lament. "How can I help other people when I've let God down?" It isn't unusual for the Christian, who is blessed with a conscience, to fall into the trap of denying himself another beginning. Our intuition tells us we must somehow pay for our mistakes, but in this case our intuition doesn't know what it's talking about.
Sin is too big a mistake to pay for; anything we could offer in payment is cheap in comparison to the actual cost. The result is that we, in trying to do right, carry an unnecessary burden of guilt.
It is right and proper to live conscientiously and diligently. To simply dismiss selfish acts or outright sins as nothing to worry about is arrogant.
At the same time, to feel shouldered with responsibility to the point of becoming spiritually paralyzed is self-defeating. We need an encouraging reminder that everyone has the option of a fresh start.
"My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. And by this we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him. For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence toward God" (1 John 3:18-21).
Confidence toward God is the trait He seeks to rebuild in us through the truth of His Passover.
Other people's opinions
Does acceptance by other people-boss, family member or friend-after you make a serious mistake mean God has forgiven you? When our friends forgive us, we certainly feel better about ourselves. Our conscience may no longer bother us. Is this what it takes to make sure we're forgiven by our Creator?
Conversely, if friends, relatives or associates fail to forgive us of our shortcomings or trespasses against them, does that mean we cannot have godly confidence to go forward as a Christian?
People cannot grant or deny us what can be given only by God. You cannot deny godly forgiveness to yourself, nor can others deny it to you. These truths do not diminish the value of human relationships, but show that these relationships cannot overpower you spiritually.
Here is something we can control: We can direct the extending of tolerance, forgiveness, understanding and mercy to others. While we cannot grant anyone a new beginning in the spiritual sense, we can help make the way easier for others. Doing so helps us appreciate God's will for us and helps us take on some of His nature. Even the apostle Peter had some difficulty grasping this concept at first:
"Then Peter came to Him and said, 'Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?' Jesus said to him, 'I do not say to you, up to seven times, but
up to seventy times seven. Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants'" (Matthew 18:21-23).
Jesus drove home the point to Peter in verses 32 and 33: "'Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, "You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?"'"
To the early disciples, Jesus taught and explained the idea of forgiveness in the model for prayer, commonly called the Lord's Prayer: "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors . . . For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:12, 14, 15).
If I knew then what I know now
While we cannot provide anyone a guilt-free conscience, we can help create a more encouraging environment for him or her by imitating the priceless gift given us through the Passover Lamb.
While we cannot undo the past, the past cannot undo us. When we repent, a new beginning is ours for the asking-every time we need one.