It makes you dirty.
Sometimes you know it and sometimes you don’t.
There are at least two different ways people react when they become aware they are contaminated – they either give up trying to be clean or get to work cleaning themselves. I wonder which one you tend towards.
Sometimes the realisation wakes up the old dragon of hopelessness. Your record is spoiled, your purity is gone, and there is no point trying anymore. 'I am dirty so I may as well mess it up good and proper. There is no hope for me.' This one is destructive; you will need to be on your guard. Hopelessness is the worst best friend.
Or perhaps you get to work cleaning yourself. Human history details a long list of supposedly self-cleaning people. One can trace this approach right back to Adam and Eve. In some ways it was more obvious in them because of their experience of going from innocent and pure to guilty and dirty in an instant. Stop and think about that. What would it have been like to be dirty for the first time (Genesis 3)? They had known nothing except pure, sinless perfection. Now they are plunged into a tank of the darkest, thickest, black tar. The purity, which had felt normal, is gone. Consider the grief that would have flowed from lost innocence, the disappointment of failure, and the guilt of their sin. They were all new experiences. It would have been gutting.
What follows in the story of the fall of humanity is something we see in ourselves and others time and time again. Adam and Eve get to work in an effort to reclaim what they lost – cleanness. They cover themselves physically with fig leaves and bushes and cover their shame and guilt with excuses and blame shifting. In doing this they proclaim, 'I am innocent and clean.' They publicly declare they are righteous and good by smearing others with their dirt. 'It was their fault not mine! They’re the dirty one. I am clean.'
It didn’t work for them and it doesn’t work for us.
But it doesn’t seem to stop us trying. Old habits die hard. We still try to clean ourselves. We are the child with muddy hands who tries to wipe the mud off our shirt only to make a bigger mess. We set up whole systems of atonement to deal with our sin and uncleanness. And there are more of these kicking around than you think. Here are some examples:
We do good deeds publicly in the hope they will cover our bad deeds. We falsely believe that looking good in front of others will prove we are good people.
Sometimes we punish ourselves physically or in our thoughts in an effort to purge ourselves of painful guilt. We falsely believe that hurting ourselves or telling enough people about how bad we are will finally prove that we are righteous and good.
We put ourselves down in an effort to show that we are tough on crime, our own crime, in the hope it will prove that because we see the sin and stand in judgment of it, we will be seen as righteous.
Sometimes we cry out and label ourselves a martyr or victim as a kind of smoke screen to distract people from seeing our failure.
But none of these strategies ultimately work because they don’t get rid of what we have done. They leave you in the same place you started – a transgressor, who may have done their time, sure, but a convicted transgressor nonetheless. You still did it. It’s on your record. No amount of cover up, side stepping or self-flagellation can take that reality away.
Self-atonement (or dealing with sin) never works because it can never go deep enough to where the real problems lie. In our efforts to self-atone we act like priests and try to be both the sinner and the mediator between God and us. But it doesn’t work. Something is deeply wrong with us. Deeply. Our self-atonement strategies may help us to look okay to the naked eye, but they are only window dressing - a deeper cleansing is needed. Even the God-given sacrificial system of the Old Testament doesn’t go deep enough. This is what the writer of Hebrews says about it:
Gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper … The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean.
The rituals and sacrifices of the Mosaic Covenant were far richer and more profound than our self appointed rituals and sacrifices, but even they hit the wall. Even they could not get down to the level fallen humanity desperately needs. We needed a better sacrifice – one that would go deeper and cleanse more thoroughly. We needed the sacrifice of Jesus which the Old Testament sacrificial system pointed towards. The writer of Hebrews goes on to say,
How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!
This begs the question, if this cleansing is free and deep, why would anyone walk past it?
Why would we opt for self-atonement instead of the atonement Jesus provided?
I think it’s because we like to have control. We don’t like weakness. Our systems of self-atonement allow us to be strong, in control, and masters of our own destiny (or so we think). Yet our insistence on being in control only guarantees that we will never get what we most deeply want – thorough cleansing by God himself. The desire for cleanliness through self-atonement only guarantees we will stay dirty.
To get clean we need to embrace death, the death of pride, control and independence. To embrace death is to admit we made ourselves dirty and are helpless to rectify it. To embrace death is to say to Jesus, ‘I have no resources to right this wrong, no strength to combat this weakness, and no ability to clean this filth. I can’t fix it and I don’t want it anymore. I give myself to you in all my uncleanness without reservation. You can do as you please. Please forgive me. Help me to do life your way.’
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me and I will be whiter than snow.