Absolute Beginners

A few weeks ago, I became bored listening to the CDs I had in my car and took them all back into the house to be shelved. In the process of doing that, I found a few albums that I had not listened to in years, so I ended up grabbing a double-CD set of David Bowie’s career-spanning greatest hits. I started collecting vinyl albums by Bowie back in the mid-1970s and still have a fairly-impressive catalog on my shelves; the point is that I am well familiar with the man’s musical career. And although I have never seen the film attached to the soundtrack, I have long enjoyed the vocal artistry and compelling arrangement of the song “Absolute Beginners,” written by Paul Weller. In January of 2015, however, the opening verses caught my attention in a new way:

Absolute BeginnersI’ve nothing much to offer.
There’s nothing much to take.
I’m an absolute beginner
when I’m absolutely sane.

In God’s great mercy, He used these simple love-song lyrics to shine a brighter light on how far I am able to wander from remembering who I am.

After nearly two decades as a confessing Christian, there is a strong temptation in my heart to move imperceptibly toward thinking along the lines of “You know, I think I finally have the repentance thing figured out.” Our head knowledge of the Bible tells us that our hearts are steeped in self-deception (Jeremiah 17:9), that our natural way of living and thinking will certainly lead to death (Proverbs 14:12) and that we need at least two other solid, non-judgmental Christian brothers or sisters to help us withstand attack (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).

And yet, over time, it can be easy to drift slowly away from the beautiful realization that newer believers are given – that we are forgiven of much and don’t deserve any of the grace poured upon us.

We can see that there is something of a “process” associated with living a life of repentance. We must start off by acknowledging that we are all self-destructive fools and that we were created to be dependent on God and submit to others who love us despite our sin, folly and rebellion. Early on in my conversion, I understood and accepted as foundational truth that the day I confessed Jesus as my Lord and Savior, my life became one “of continual repentance,” as Martin Luther has made clear. I accepted it at the time…but continuing to embrace it and live it out? That’s another story.

In my experience, our sinful hearts have this tendency to accept the need for the process but, over time, reject the heart requirements of entering in (Psalm 51:17). Is it possible to become so skilled at working the steps that we do so without being at all broken over our sins? In the race to set things right, is it possible to entirely overlook the intentions of our hearts?

This is one more of those areas where I see myself in continual need of being brought back from my wandering. Oddly, the song I mentioned above is what most recently made me realize I had forgotten that two decades of belief doesn’t count for much in God’s eyes. I may be tempted to think I’ve arrived, but those twenty years have been weak, inconsistent, fragile faith at best. In many ways, I’m still an absolute beginner and have to return regularly to the foundations of what it means to be found in Christ.

This tendency to conveniently forget that I’m not “all that” can also easily corrupt God’s call to speak truth to others. In those moments when I am thinking more highly of myself than I ought (Romans 12:3), I reveal thinking that indicates I believe I am “different” or “more mature” than a friend or loved one who is moving rapidly into sin and self-destruction of one kind or another. In short, this kind of thinking can separate me from the person I want to love well; in thinking I’m not quite as bad off as “this person over here” who has so clearly run off into the weeds, I inadvertently harden my heart to the need for my own repentance.

Car AudioSeparation from sinners is the exact opposite of what Christ calls us to. We are called to unite with others in the battle against sin, not categorize one brand of foolishness as “better” or “worse” than another. We are called to display the fruits of the Spirit in our dealings with one another (Galatians 5:16-26), not ask others to exhibit a level of humility that we ourselves have somehow lost sight of (Matthew 7:5). We can’t possibly claim to love Jesus and then turn right around and quickly withdraw our support and affections for someone who “won’t listen.”

To do all this, though, we must remember that no matter how mature our faith may seem to ourselves or others, we don’t have much to offer. We’re still absolute beginners.

When I am “clothed and in my right mind” (Luke 8:35), the sins and rebellion of others cause me to focus less on their folly and more closely on my own, in preparation for The Day when I will be face-to-face with Jesus. It’s God’s mercy in my life that I am regularly called upon to help others seek a path to repentance; in doing so, I often find to my amazement that it has been far too long since I have walked the road that I am recommending to others. Interestingly, drifting away from my need to repent is not something that I would ever have consciously chosen.

May God forgive us all as we focus in on the sins of others. May we all cooperate with Him as he patiently points out our errors day after day after yet another day. As we ask others to step on the path of repentance, may we all be mercifully reminded of how sin has stained our thoughts and the intentions of our hearts. Protect your people, Lord, from ever allowing ourselves to think that we are anything more than beginners.

Psalm 139:23-24
Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

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