I had an unusual and unexpected experience on Sunday–one that struck me as rather significant. I have been doing quite a bit of preaching at Grace Fellowship Church and elsewhere and knew that Sunday marked the last time I would have to prepare a fresh sermon until the end of the calendar year. Somehow this made me feel like I would be crossing a finish line when the service came to a close. It was a milestone I was looking forward to as it will allow me to focus on some other things for a while (good things, ministry things, but not preaching things).
I finished the sermon–quite an emotional and difficult one for me–and, after the service, was greeting people and then doing whatever else needs to be done at the close of a service. Very suddenly, and very unexpectedly, I was faced with a temptation to sin–to commit a sin to which I am particularly prone. I will not tell you what that sin is because I fear it would detract from what I am writing here. It could be envy or lust or fear of man or idolatry or any of the sins we find ourselves particularly drawn to. It is a sin for which I have experienced the Lord’s grace so that I am usually able to redirect my heart, at least in the moments that I am eager to honor God. And that is what I did. I saw the temptation to sin and immediately directed my heart to something better.
But then something happened. I don’t even know how this can happen, but in just a brief second, less than a second, a thought flashed through my mind. It was something like this: “Come on now. You’ve finished preaching, so go ahead and indulge. God won’t punish you now.” It stopped me dead in my tracks for a moment. It was an ugly thought and one that somehow seemed extrinisic to me. I truly don’t know where it came from. At least, I don’t think I’ve ever thought that before.
I guess there are two ways I could take this. I could see it as an invitation to reward myself with some sin now that the task of preaching was complete. I had earned it, right? Hadn’t I had earned the right to indulge in a little sin based on all the effort I had put into serving the Lord? I have heard from other pastors that this is a regular temptation in their ministry and that pastors are more prone to sin on Sunday afternoon or evening than at any other time.
I could have taken it that way, but it struck me a little bit differently. It struck me as an invitation to indulge in sin because now God could not punish me by embarrassing me in the task of preaching. In other words, “Go ahead and sin because now God can’t get you back by making a fool of you in front of the whole church. After all, by the next time you preach, God will have forgiven and forgotten. So just go ahead; it’s consequence free.”
I am grateful that God kept me from following that thought or that intuition or whatever it was. But it still bothered me that I had faced that follow-up invitation to sin. It made me wonder, Have I been seeking to honor God in my life over the past days or weeks simply because I fear his hand of punishment in my preaching? Was this perhaps a little glimpse of grace, that would allow me to see that I had been seeking to live a moral life in the hope that God would not then use my sin against me by humiliating me in front of the church? That thought disgusts me.
I considered it for some time and simply could not come to a conclusion. It doesn’t ring true, but it is certainly not outside the realm of what’s possible (knowing my heart as I do). In the end, I’ve simply had to hand it to the Lord. I do not want to live a moral life out of fear of punishment any more than I want my children to obey me because they do not want to face consequences for their disobedience. God knows that I want to do what is truly right, I want to live as one who has been transformed by the Holy Spirit, because this is what honors him. And now I see that I need his grace, more than ever, if I am to live in that way.