A hidden gift comes as we see ourselves as the worst of sinners.
By Dave Harvey
Sigh … I’ve done it again.
My wife had been running a little behind our intended schedule. Rather than waiting patiently (or maybe actually stepping in to help) I did what I do so well: I pontificated, this time speculating aloud about how many total minutes of our lives she had wasted in delays. My calculations didn’t impress her, but the soul-crushing impact of my words was obvious on her face. Very smooth, Dave, I realized too late, very constructive. A true word in season.
You’d think a pastor, someone called to think and speak in thoughtful, helpful, biblical ways, would have found something better to say at that moment—or at least something a little less damaging. But despite my arrogant, sinful words, Kimm was able once again to cover over with love and patiently help me see what was wrong with them.
Why aren’t I more loving?
While I’m immensely grateful for Kimm’s gracious, forgiving spirit, still the question lingers: Why aren’t I more loving? After all, we have been married for more than two decades. I have been in ministry most of that time, I’ve read lots of marriage books, conducted numerous marriage seminars, and I really think Kimm is a gift from God to me. If I love my wife, why do I find it so easy to treat her like I don’t?
Guys, you know the kind of thing I’m talking about. You’ve planned a romantic evening, complete with her favorite restaurant. But then she says something, or you say something, or the waiter says something, and in the space of about two minutes a whole different kind of memory is created. (“Honey, remember the night we had that really expensive conflict?”)
Or how about this? Rather than watching the football game on your day off, you decide to do the repair project she’s been asking you to finish. Five frustrating hours later you put the tools away, and look to your wife for some expression of appreciation for your personal sacrifice. She glances at your work and says, “I wish you would have asked me before you did it that way.” Cue the pyrotechnics.
Ladies, he tells you he’ll be home by 9:00 p.m. and walks in at 10:45. “Sorry, hon, the meeting ran over.” No notification, no phone call, no real apology, and no consideration for your worry. A moment earlier you’d been imagining how you were going to manage supporting your family as a widow. Now, with visions of him sleeping in the car for a week, you’re not quite sure what’s about to come out of your mouth, but it probably won’t be good.
Paul’s confession and ours
It’s the underside of marriage, the reality of living with someone day in and day out in a fallen world. But what does it reveal? What does it indicate when I see my rottenness? Has the enemy singled me out for exclusive attention? Maybe I’m a threat to his kingdom, like Frodo to the powers of Mordor or Luke Skywalker to the Evil Empire. That doesn’t excuse the fact that I know what’s right, yet often choose to do something else instead.
Well, guess what? If sin is a persistent problem for us, we’re in pretty good company. As bad as we can be, the Apostle Paul seems to think he’s even worse. Maybe we can learn something from him.
Paul wrote to Timothy, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15). Pretty stark, isn’t it? Not a lot of wiggle room there. Paul leads off by calling this a “saying [that] is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance.” That’s the ancient equivalent of putting the little exclamation mark on an email you send—this is of high priority!
His “saying” has two parts. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners …” This catapults us to the heart of the glorious gospel, and prepares us for part two: “. . . of whom I am the foremost.” Now what are we supposed to do with that? How can the Apostle to the Gentiles—the original theologian of the Christian faith—honestly say this? To whom is he comparing himself? And what standard is he applying?
These are important questions. We dare not dismiss Paul’s statement as a passing exaggeration or an empty exercise in false humility. This is the Word of God, and a profound point is being made here.
A student of his heart
First, it’s clear that Paul is not trying to objectively compare himself to every other human being, because most of them he had never met! This tells us that his focus is not primarily outward. It’s inward. He’s also not suggesting that his moral character is bankrupt or his spiritual maturity is zero. He is simply talking about what goes on in his own heart.
He is saying, in effect, “Look, I know my sin. And what I’ve seen in my own heart is darker and more awful; it’s more proud, selfish, and self-exalting; and it’s more consistently and regularly in rebellion against God than anything I have glimpsed in the heart of anyone else. As far as I can see, the biggest sinner I know is me.”
Paul was a student of his heart. He paid attention to the desires and impulses that churned within. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that he knew he was capable—given the right circumstances—of the worst of sins and the vilest of motives. Paul was a realist. He wanted to see God and himself truly. No hiding behind a facade of pleasantness or religiosity for him. As Henry Scougal comments on this verse, “None can think more meanly of [Paul] than he doth of himself.”
Now let’s look at the very next verse. “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16).
With the passing of each day, two things grew larger for Paul: his sinfulness in light of the holiness of God, and God’s mercy in the face of his sin. Knowing both God and himself accurately was not at all discouraging or depressing. Rather, it deepened his gratitude for the vastness of God’s mercy in redeeming him, and the patience of Christ in continuing to love and identify with him in his daily struggle against sin.
Paul’s confession to Timothy presents us with a stunning example of moral honesty and theological maturity: Paul’s acute, even painful awareness of his own sinfulness caused him to magnify the glory of the Savior!
The worst thing about sin
Several years ago I became aware of a subtle, destructive habit. Whenever I sensed I had sinned against Kimm I would go to her, confess, and seek to resolve the situation. Looks pretty good when I put it that way, doesn’t it? But I came to realize that my goal was far from noble. I wanted a quick and efficient restoration of our relationship so I could stop feeling bad and get on with “more important things.” In other words, the confession was basically a tool I was employing for my own sake. No wonder, then, that I was often left with a shallow, haunting feeling that I now believe was the kind prompting of the Holy Spirit.
After a time of prayer, I recognized that God had been surprisingly forgotten in my words of apology to Kimm. I saw that I had been almost completely unconcerned with the fact that my sin had been first against God, and that I stood guilty before his infinite holiness. I had regarded my sins as errors, or at worst, as “little sins” that required little consideration of my heart. My real goal was simply a kind of marital damage control, not an honest accounting before my Heavenly Father. But by God’s grace I began to see, as J. I. Packer says so well, “There can be no small sins against a great God.”
The question that used to boggle my mind, “If I love my wife, why do I find it so easy to treat her like I don’t?” has a universal answer. We are all the worst of sinners, so anything we do that isn’t sin is simply the grace of God at work.
A hidden gift comes as we see ourselves as the worst of sinners: humility—a pride-crushing, vision-clearing humility. The road of humility is open to all husbands and wives who are willing to give “a due consideration” to who they truly are, in and of themselves, before a holy God.
I want to walk that road.
Adapted from When Sinners Say “I Do” by Dave Harvey. Published by Shepherd Press. Copyright ©2007 by Dave Harvey. Used with permission.
Dave Harvey is senior pastor of Covenant Fellowship Church, part of Sovereign Grace Ministries. He and his wife, Kimm, live in West Chester, Pennsylvania, with their four children.