She had been a model saint for years, praying, faithful, living a holy lifestyle. Yet in her last months of life she began to be fearful. Had she done enough? Was she really holy enough? Had her commitment to Jesus really been total? Instead of facing death with calm assurance, she had questions and worries. In a sense, she was a tormented soul.
He had been a pastor, evangelist, influential leader. But when he was in his later years, too old to be used very much, he wondered. I saw him after service one Sunday morning praying at the altar. I knelt beside him. He did not want to miss it, he said. There was a troubled tone to his voice. Nothing specific was bothering him except for this indefinable angst. He wondered. He, too, was exhibiting signs of a tormented soul.
He was young, active, intelligent, studying at a Bible college. Yet almost every time an altar call was given, he was there praying. He wanted to make sure he had done everything he needed to do. He wanted to be 100% committed. But was he? He went on for years with a desire, but lacking in assurance. He kept checking on himself to see if he really was in the faith. He scored A+ in self-examination but C- or D in assurance. In that sense, he was a tormented soul.
What causes some souls to be in torment? Why are some people unsure of whether or not they are really pleasing to God? In cases where they are covering over some secret sin their inner discomfort is warranted. “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper, but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy” (Pr. 28:13). However for many this is not the case. They have confessed everything they can think of and even invented things to confess that were not really sins. They have dug deep, as they have been instructed, yet wonder if they’ve gone deep enough. They have said “Yes, Lord, yes” so many times that they almost forget what they are saying yes to, yet have inner unsettledness.
Paul the Apostle was concerned for Israel. They had a lot of religion and commitment. But their efforts were in the wrong place. “For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:2). What were they doing wrong? They were zealous for God. They were committed. But so are Muslims. So are many who have sacrificed themselves and their comforts like Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire. Self-sacrifice, even to the point of death, is not enough. The problem is that they are looking at the wrong sacrifice.
Paul’s inspired writings points out the problem and then the solution. “For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.”
(Rom. 10:3). The problem for them was that they were trying to be acceptable to God by their own efforts, which are never enough. “Lord, I’ll give up this, this, and this. And I’ll start doing this, this, and that. Now will you give me assurance that I’m finally right with you? Please, Lord!” There is something major missing in this formula for seeking God. What is it? Faith in the right object. The solution is not in making more promises to God or in making more sacrifices to make us acceptable. Paul’s solution is the stumbling block for anyone who tries to gain righteousness the wrong way. “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth” (Rom. 10:4). When it comes to getting and staying right with God, our hope is faith in Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice for us, not our sacrifice for Him. If something in our lives is out of kilter with God, it takes the blood of Christ for us to have forgiveness and cleansing. We cannot make an adequate sacrifice to cover our own failures and shortcomings. Thus when we are trying to be right with God by focusing on what we can do, we will always come up short.
Which brings us to the importance of faith in defeating those questions which plague tormented souls. The Hebrew writer made it very clear that our only hope of pleasing God is by having faith. “But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him “(Heb. 11:6). When the Jews were wondering what works to do to please God, they asked the Lord. “Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent” (John 6:29). For us who can look back at what Jesus did on the cross there is a great source of assurance in seeing in His sacrifice that which is necessary to make us right with God. Without faith we cannot please Him, but faith in His grace for forgiveness and cleansing sets us on the right path.
This is not a plea for antinomianism, for the scripture speaks of “the obedience of faith.” True faith is finished with the rebel sigh or the excuse for sin. Faith which “worketh by love” has nothing to do with trying to get away with some hidden darkness or excusing a defiant license to self-gratification. Instead it looks to God for undeserved grace and responds in loving obedience to God and with brotherly kindness to others.
The cure for souls plagued by questions of their worthiness is not placing more duties on them as the Pharisees did, who “bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers” (Matt. 23:4). Rather it is to encourage faith in Christ without which no one can please God.
Faith and torment do not live well together, for faith defeats torment. And our faith is not in ourselves, but in Him who died for us and rose again. There is good hope through grace for those who will believe. Edward Mote penned these words which capture the truth beautifully. “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness…On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.”