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Culture Q&A

Barbara Duguid

Honesty about sin

More from Barbara Duguid

Honesty about sin

Barbara Duguid (Corey Perrine/Genesis Photos)

One of our popular interviews last year was with Barbara Duguid, who grew up in the mission field and then earned a degree in medical technology that equipped her to head to a mission hospital in Liberia. She’s the author of Extravagant Grace: God’s Glory Displayed in Our Weakness and Streams of Mercy: Prayers of Confession and Celebration. She’s also married to a fine theologian, Iain Duguid. Some 1,200 words from the Q&A were in our Oct. 27 issue. Here are additional edited excerpts:

What should you do when God leaves you to yourself? We all have times when we feel God has removed His presence. How would you encourage those going through times like that, when we want to feel God’s presence again? First, remember that God has promised Himself to you primarily in the preaching of the Word and being faithfully present for the Lord’s Supper. That is a meal given to you to strengthen your faith and impress upon you God’s abiding presence. I’ve been through seasons when they didn’t move me at all, and I was dry as dust. Dryness reminds me that the efficacy of the Lord’s Supper does not rest in me being able to work up a tear about Jesus. It’s efficacious because of God and what the Holy Spirit is doing. So being faithful to those things is really important.

Why is being in a community important? In a community you can be honest about your sin and say to people, “Pray for me. I am dry. I am despairing.” You need people who will rally around you in prayer and encouragement. If there are periods of time that are extended, and you are not getting over that, remember that God leads us into the wilderness for periods of time that end when He decides. He teaches us wonderful things while we’re in the wilderness and learn to say, “Lord, help me to trust You with my failure, help me to believe that You will bring it to an end when Your purposes for it are done—not Your judgmental purposes, but Your loving purposes.

Why is counseling useful? A really good, grace-based Christian counselor can ask you important questions that you can’t ask yourself, and can help you identify belief systems you are trusting in that you might not even realize are there. We all construct belief systems that we don’t even know are operating. I have the privilege of helping people with those things and being helped.

How can churches help? A good church is a hospital for sick people, and that makes it a safe place to be a sick person. Often churches are places where we report all of our successes, answers to prayer, and victories but we are not reporting the relentless failures and we don’t feel safe doing that—often because if I do that sometimes people will just heap the law on me. It’s scary and it’s discouraging when church isn’t a safe place to be very weak and messed up.

Leaders need to open up about their struggles? They need to let you understand they are weak and broken. Once the leadership starts opening up about struggles, people go, “Oh, this is a place where it’s safe to come when my marriage isn’t great because I know I’m not going to get charged with not being a Christian.” It’s understood that real Christians still struggle with profound sin, and should be sharing it and talking about it. The prayers of confession are designed, as John Newton says, to help us see our sin inwardly. We see other people’s outward sin and we can maybe see our outward sin, but we cannot see inward sin very well. Then there comes this moment or period of time when the Holy Spirit starts to show us that sin is in our thoughts all day, every day. Sin is something utterly different than we thought it was. It’s not our actions. It’s our state of self-obsession. It’s our bitter, prideful thoughts.

That’s when we realize we’re in big trouble? People need help seeing that. In those prayers of confession, we confess sin particularly. In our church, we link it with whatever the sermon will be on. We talk in the prayers about the ways in which we break this law, even though we’ve been Christians for many, many years. We then go on to thank Jesus Christ for being perfect for us and giving us His righteousness. We then ask the Spirit to change us because we cannot change ourselves. That means these other people who are driving me crazy can’t change themselves either. This changes the way we walk together, particularly in our moments of irritation and anger.

That does not sound much like most of our churches: They seem more like Facebook, where you put on a certain act. If a church is not doing what it should be doing, how does it start to change? If you feel a calling to that church, you might need to be a person who courageously starts to do that, and that will be hard. Let’s say you’re a woman at a women’s Bible study. If you start being honest about your sin, some people in the group will go, “How could you do that?” but about 80 percent of the group will say, “Me too. I do that all the time. I wouldn’t want anybody to know it but I do it.” If you have the courage to start doing that, you can begin in that moment.

I don’t think God has designed sanctification so you’ll grow in humility if you just have success. We gain humility by finding out by the mistakes we’re making that we have no wisdom.

When we think about our sins should we be depressed? Spinning out into self-loathing and hating ourselves—that’s Satan’s work. That is not God’s work. Those moments of failure can become profound moments of worship and celebration. We can’t celebrate ourselves when we fail, but we can celebrate Christ. This will radically change your own response to your failure, if God will lead your heart. Instead of going down the twisted path of self-loathing you can follow the glorious path: “I really am weak and sinful. Not only did I just do it, I might be planning to do it again, but I have this Savior who will not let me go, and now has been perfect in my place, and that’s something to celebrate.”

When we become Christians, Jesus forgives us for all the sins we’ve committed and will commit—so why after particularly grievous sins do we still feel a loss of relationship? Why when we repent can it take multiple days before we feel actually forgiven and in a restored relationship? It could be that Satan draws us down this path of self-condemnation. He loves to do that, and he’s very good at what he does. If you’re prone to that, he will plant on that. It could be something emotionally in you that’s hard to recover from. It could be a family thing: How did your parents deal with failure in your home of origin? I’m not all about blaming our parents for everything, but they do profoundly shape us. So many of my sin struggles were shaped in my home of origin, and I have profoundly shaped the struggles of my own children. I could not survive being a parent if I didn’t trust that God would use even my sin in their lives for His glory and their good.

Do some people wallow in self-condemnation? Let’s say you were raised in a home where you fail in something and it’s brought up over and over again—you’re punished and it’s held over your head. Those kinds of belief systems can be unpacked in counseling, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you recover from them. In some areas of my life I know now I’m prone to following Satan down the lying path—hard to recover but I’m a little bit less disappointed in myself for not being able to rebound quickly.

Some of us have heard the story of a person who believed the earth was standing on the backs of four turtles. Someone asked him what those turtles were standing on—and what about the next set of four? He answered: “It’s turtles all the way down.” Maybe when we’re mad at our parents we should find out how they grew up, and when we do we’ll be mad at our grandparents, and as we learn more we’ll be mad about our great-grandparents. It’s turtles all the way down. There it is. The sins of the father visit upon the children. We should not be surprised by any of that, generation after generation. Not only are we told that in Scripture, but we watch it happening through the story of redemption. You look at the family of Abraham: a messed-up family generation to generation to generation. We need to look at family-of-origin issues, not to blame and just to be angry—but what if there are people we need to forgive? You can’t forgive others if you haven’t acknowledged that they’ve hurt you or sinned against you. Some Christian counseling has shied away from this in a very big and maybe unhelpful way, because you can’t get away from the fact that we are profoundly shaped as young people in our homes.

I get very frustrated if my laptop suddenly stops working, but it’s helped me recently when that does happen to realize it is not outside of God’s plan. You write that since God does all things for His own glory and for the benefit of His people, then somehow this computer shutdown is good for me and for God’s glory. How do you practically put your thinking into practice when things go wrong? You can’t assume, every time something goes wrong, that you’ll remember this: It’s good for you and for the glory of God. You are dependent upon the Holy Spirit rescuing you with good thoughts so you can even think that way, but say you’re in a traffic jam, you’re late going somewhere, you’re exploding with anxiety. If I’m stuck in traffic, I am a bully on the road, terrible, very, very bad. I need God to rescue me with a thought: “You know, Barb, I’m doing this.”

What’s the “this”? That God put this really annoying car in front of me and it’s going 10 miles under the speed limit. There is nothing OK about that, but if God put that car there going that speed and I’m late, He has something really wonderful for me in this, and part of it is to see my outrageous reaction and be able to repent of it. When you’re staking your value on getting to a particular event, I guarantee you idolatry is involved. We can pray, “Lord, help me, because …” and here we go. You see your weakness and your dependence because you see what you need to do. I need to calm down. What if you can’t? You say, “God, please help me either to calm down or to recognize that I can’t calm down, one or the other?” It becomes a dialogue with God.

What should we pray for when we are succeeding? When you’re succeeding, there’s always a crushing area in your life where you’re failing. Whether you admit it openly or not, you could be somebody who is very, very good academically but fails to love other people well. So you could ask God, “Show me where I am really blowing it”—because it’s that failure that keeps you humble. I don’t think God has designed sanctification so you’ll grow in humility if you just have success. We gain humility by finding out by the mistakes we’re making that we have no wisdom. It’s about being wrong over and over again until you realize, “I’m not smarter than God. I’m not wiser. I’m not more loving.” That’s what humility looks like and there’s not a fast track to that.

Patience … Be patient and don’t be in such a hurry to be humble. Let the process take place. You are in God’s hands. He has started a work in you. He has you exactly where He wants you to be and He’s not wishing you were more humble. He’s going to get you there in His time, or however He’s going to do it. Just keep asking Him, moving forward and trusting in Him for your sanctification.