We’re doing autobiographies in sophomore English right now. It’s a great way for students to learn how to articulate their life stories and beliefs before they tackle the dreaded college application essays. And it helps develop a quality that many teens lack: self awareness. An added side benefit is that it also gives me a window into each student’s life. I’m often surprised by what they’re willing to share. They write openly about divorces, family deaths, and deeply personal struggles. Drifting apart from friends. Being the victim of a vicious rumor. Breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Smoking. Cutting. Depression. One girl abruptly ended a particular painful story by stating, “I’m sorry, but I just can’t write about this anymore” (and yes, she’d well exceeded the minimum word count).
A couple Sundays ago, our pastor ended his sermon by describing three gifts the gospel gives, and I instantly realized how well this applied not only to my own life, but also to stories I was reading in the autobiographies. So I’ve been writing it to students over and over, and I finally decided that it should go up on my blog. If we remind ourselves of the truth of the gospel daily–that we need a Savior, that we cannot save ourselves, that God loved us enough to send His Son to live a perfect life and die to set us free from sin’s guilt and power–these three abilities will quickly develop in our lives.
1. The ability to face death. We live in a culture that is highly fearful of death. That fear takes a number of different forms, from frenetically optimistic denial to relentless use of cosmetics and plastic surgery to cover up signs of death’s imminence. We’re encouraged to move on and not grieve loved ones for long. We’re not supposed to say “died” (it’s “passed away”). We quickly look for scapegoats to blame for what we perceive as people’s premature deaths (sometimes, people are indeed to blame and need to be held responsible for their actions; sometimes, they’re not). The gospel gives us the power to look our own death squarely in the face with confident assurance. We don’t look forward to the process of dying, but we hold eternity in our hearts with great anticipation. This can give us great peace in going about our everyday lives, because we’re not trying to desperately grasp all the life we can get in 80-odd years. We’re okay with life being at times deeply unsatisfying because we know that there’s much more in store for us.
2. The ability to live with our past. We are all visited by film reels replaying our mistakes for us countless times in our heads. We envision ourselves acting differently, rising above, being the better person. But the reel repeats because we know the truth of our own guilt, and we are overwhelmed by regret. Many people develop complex coping mechanisms for living with the giant, steaming pile of their past mistakes and failures. Some of them attend therapy, which often gives them the ability to shift the blame to other people in their past. Others shrug their shoulders “It’s no big deal,” minimize their wrong and move on as best they can. Florence Welch sings about regrets that “collect like old friends, here to relive your darkest moments.” Her solution? Just “shake it out!” The gospel, on the other hand, gives us the freedom to face the enormity of our sin. We can fully acknowledge its terrible cost and embrace our utter failure. This is because the guilt of our sin was carried by Jesus. It is truly “nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more.” John Bunyan envisioned the past as a literal, physical burden carried by the protagonist Christian in the book Pilgrim’s Progress. The whole reason Christian starts out on his journey is that he wants to know how to be freed of the terrible weight of his burden. Where does the burden fall off? At the foot of the cross. It then rolls into an empty grave. This doesn’t mean that Christians never experience the pain of regret. We have to continually preach the gospel to ourselves so that we are continually relieved of our burdens.
3. The ability to forgive others. It’s not just the wrongs we’ve done that plague us–we are also visited frequently by the demons of what other people have done to us. We’ve been hurt and betrayed. We’ve been blindsided by injustice and unkindness. Just seeing the faces of the people who’ve harmed us is enough to make our stomachs churn and fists clench, which of course ends up hurting us much more than it hurts them. We know that forgiveness is the answer, but we just can’t bring ourselves to give it. This is where the gospel comes in. If we know how much God has forgiven us, it becomes easier (not easy!) to offer forgiveness to other people. The more aware we are of our own failings, the more gracious we are when we’re dealing with other people’s failings.
These abilities aren’t cultivated overnight. They’re the result of a long, slow process of reminding ourselves daily of the truth of the gospel. I don’t believe that there are any real “secrets” to life. But the ability to live with death’s reality, our own sin, and the sin that’s been committed against us comes pretty close to unlocking the mystery of human existence.