The other night, I performed an “involuntary dismount” from my horse (i.e. I got bucked off).
This happens sometimes—the cowboy who trained Ruach let him buck because he thought it was fun, and that habit didn’t magically stop when I handed him the check and he handed me the papers. But this latest bucking episode got me thinking. Usually Ruach’s a very somewhat well-behaved horse, but every once in a while, those old habits overtake all his new training and leave me on my back in the dirt.
He was only trained by the cowboy for four months before I bought him, and I’ve had him for over two years now. But it doesn’t matter. Those four months of bad habits are still a part of his past, and sometimes the behaviors that I think I’ve buried under hours and hours of sweat “rear” their ugly heads (pun intended).
The thing is, I can’t really blame Ruach, because I’m just the same. I work so hard to bury my bad habits. I make myself workout every night for weeks, then one night I don’t, and that one night turns into a week, and before I know it Planet Fitness is sending me e-mails saying, “We want you back!” even though I’m still a member.
I know not working out a night or two isn’t a sinful thing, but believe me I have far worse struggles, too. And I know I’m not the only one. Even Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament, struggled with this slipping back into sin: “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate” (Romans 7:15).
And then there’s Israel, God’s chosen people—I think they might have been the worst backsliders of all. I’ve been reading through the Old Testament, and sometimes I wonder if I’ve placed my bookmark in the wrong place, because I seem to be reading the same repetitive thing over and over (and over and over and over). It goes like this: 1) God gives them victory in battle. 2) They vow to always love and obey Him. 3) Their neighbors are like, “But look at this cool god we have over here, guys!” 4) They’re like, “Oh yeah, we want that golden cow!” and they go running blindly to the neighbors’ idol. 5) God tries patiently to win back their love and obedience. 6) They decide to return to God because there’s a scary battle coming up. 7) God takes them back, because—despite all they’ve done wrong—He’s never stopped loving them. 8) God helps them win the battle. 9) Another neighbor comes over with a pretty girl or a pretty statue. 10) Repeat.
I’m not saying this kind of behavior doesn’t come with its penalties, because even as forgiven followers of Christ, behavior has consequences. Ruach knows that well—I certainly don’t say, “Oh, you’re right, I deserve to walk!” and put him back in his pasture when he bucks me off. Instead, I patiently (and sometimes kind of angrily because I don’t have perfect patience like my God) teach him that bucking isn’t ok. And God doesn’t say, “Oh, you’re right, do whatever you want” when I slip back into my sins, either. He forgives, but He also, according to the second part of 2 Corinthians 3:18, “makes us more and more like Him as we are changed into his glorious image.” God is constantly working on His people and making them more like Him.
For followers of Christ, the moment of salvation isn’t all there is. Although it secures the relationship as one of God’s children, like “I do” secures a marriage, the work only just begins when we accept Jesus. (Excuse my change of metaphors here—you can only attribute so much meaning to a horse’s buck.) Newlyweds don’t get home from Hawaii or Europe and say, “Well, the work’s done here” and never communicate again. No, marriages require work. There may be seasons where they feel closer than ever and seasons where they need help from a counselor or pastor just to tolerate living together, but that doesn’t change the relationship. They’re still husband and wife.
The same with God. I’ve been through seasons where I talk to Jesus out loud in the car and feel like He could audibly answer at any moment, and I’ve been through seasons where I lived how I wanted and spent my prayer time (if I had it at all) trying to convince Jesus why it was ok. I’m not defending these sins, and I know I have to live with the consequences of my decisions relationally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. But even so, I know that through both extremes and all the in betweens, I am a child of God, and my eternity is secure. And you know what? This pushing on covered by God’s perfect grace, despite our gravest flaws and the valleys we just can’t escape, is the beauty of the Gospel. Because every single mistake I’ve made—and every sin I’ve run back to time and again—was nailed to the cross with Jesus. And I believe He meant it when He cried out, as He died for my sins, “It is finished.”