My Gethsemane ordeal began the evening of October 22, 1971.
I was attending a student retreat in the mountains of western Maryland, hoping to enhance my joy in the Lord and my service for Christ. The speaker that weekend was an elderly minister who headed an independent, “self supporting” institution. His organization had a well earned reputation for co-operating with the church and its various programs, never accepting tithe funds from supporters. Despite the basic integrity of the organization, there were hidden cracks in its spiritual foundation, none of which were apparent that night at the retreat. The only thing that impressed me was the sincerity of the speaker as he solemnly spoke about the delay of Christ’s second coming.
“Think of all the years gone by since we expected Jesus to return,” he implored as his earnest eyes swept the attentive young faces of his audience. “Why has our Lord not yet come?”
“The answer,” he told us, “is that Christ is waiting for every one of His people to live perfectly without sinning. We must overcome every sin before He can take us to heaven.”
No, he wasn’t referring to sins of rebellion committed by the unconverted. His point was that the failure of genuine Christians to become perfectly sinless was preventing Christ from coming. He compared Jesus in heaven to a mother mopping the kitchen floor. She can’t put down the mop until all her children quit tracking in mud. Likewise Jesus can’t stop what He is doing in heaven and return to earth until every Christian quits muddying up heaven’s book of record by having sins to confess.
“Is this really true?” I wondered. I could feel the joy of my life, the assurance of salvation, evaporating in the cool mountain air. I winced as the speaker disclosed more bad news. He informed us that every time we fail in our attempts to please God we not only delay Christ’s coming but we bring crucifying pain to His loving heart. Jesus is like a railroad engineer pinned beneath the wreck of this world’s sin, and our mistakes are like scalding water from a ruptured locomotive boiler dripping down upon Him. Not till every believer achieves total Christlikeness of character will the load be lifted and Christ’s terrible agony cease.
“How awful!” I thought as my heart sank further. “But if it’s true I’ve got to accept it. How can I overcome all my sins so Jesus can stop hurting and I will be safe to save for heaven?”
“The solution to the sin problem,” declared the speaker, “is to continually contemplate the terrible cost of our sins which are breaking Christ’s heart. Only then can we benefit from Christ’s life changing sacrifice. Only then will we love Jesus enough to stop sinning forever. Finally then He can return for His perfected people.”
All this commended itself to my sensitive conscience. Not till years later did I learn that it’s not the continual burden of our guilt but the peace of God, the assurance of His acceptance, that keeps our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10) in Christian living.
Yes, it’s true that stubborn resistance to repentance is melted only by the love that paid the cost of Calvary. But after we do surrender to Jesus, it’s time to dispense with guilt and bask in the sunshine of His acceptance. Christians who continually brood over their sin’s awful cost tend to become psychologically unhealthy and spiritually paralyzed.
Well, that night at the student retreat, my horrified mind couldn’t find rest. I tossed and turned at the agony of my Lord in the sanctuary suffering every time an opportunity passed unfulfilled to witness for Him. I could hardly imagine that I was torturing Jesus with my failures and delaying His coming as well.
By the time morning dawned I vowed that by faith in Christ I would overcome all sin and put a stop to His suffering. I would develop the closest possible relationship with Jesus so He could perfectly live His life in me. Then I would be ready for Him to take me home to heaven.
Upon my return to the college campus after the retreat, my friends quickly noticed the change in me. “What’s wrong, Marty?” they asked. “You seem depressed.” I was, though daring not to admit it. I solemnly asked them to pray that God would help me overcome all sin and lead others to experience that vital transformation.
By Friday afternoon I had xeroxed hundreds of copies of a yellow sheet entitled “How to Stop Sinning.” It was crammed full of what I learned at the retreat. I circulated that miserable paper all over campus—in the cafeteria, the dormitories, the gym, the chapel, everywhere. I confess I felt like a hypocrite telling everybody else how to stop sinning when I had not achieved that lofty goal.
Not because I wasn’t trying, though. I rose earlier than ever to deepen my relationship with Christ and have His overcoming strength. But a big problem confronted me. The closer I came to Jesus, the more aware I was of my shortcomings—and thus the more guilty and despairing I felt.
“This is ridiculous,” I thought. “Getting close to Jesus only makes me feel more sinful by comparison to Him. What will it take to become exactly like Him so I can finally have peace?”
I stopped at nothing in my quest for a Christlike character. Determined to quell all competitive pride, I quit playing sports (no loss to the college, I wasn’t an athlete anyway). To shut down any potential temptation, I shunned dating. To keep my mind absolutely clear, I stopped eating desserts. To avoid the danger of disease, I gave up dairy products. In all these things I was following the rigorous “blueprint” advocated by that speaker from the self supporting institution.
Do you see what was happening? A year before when becoming a Christian I had relinquished sin’s dead leaves, but now I was breaking off life’s innocent branches. All I had left was a dying stump.
What next? Without a thing left to surrender that God didn’t have already, all I could think of was to abandon the Christian college that permitted its students the freedom to participate in competitive sports and indulge in dating.
So good bye to all my friends. So long to my hard earned scholarships. Farewell to my college diploma and my cherished dream of becoming a pastor.
But where should I go?
(This is the second post of a five-part series of Martin Weber’s testimony, “My Tortured Conscience,” in which he describes his misguided quest for revival and reformation, which led him to quit his studies as a theology student and join an independent group of Adventists seeking sinless perfection. To read the first post, click here. For the third post, click here.)