The doctor asks, “Do you have any pain?” “Nope,” the patient lies. “None at all. Never felt better.”
On the way out of the hospital the man feels a certain euphoria, having escaped needles, hospital rooms, beeping machines, and unpleasant diets. Meanwhile, the pain he had denied suddenly spikes. On his way out through the hospital lobby, he dies.
Self defense mechanisms seem built into our very fiber, rendering us delusional even to the extent of great personal loss. Only God, who is light (1 John 1:5), is capable of shining into that kind of bunker mentality. And, it is hoped, we will respond to Him with contriteness, for only in that state of non-nonsense reality, will God deliver His most precious possessions to us.
We see this reality starkly illustrated in Leviticus chapter 13. At first, the process of examination for leprosy seems laborious, uncertain. Is it leprosy or not? A time period (seven days) must pass, while the priest keeps an eye on it. At the end of the time, the afflicted person is pronounced either clean or unclean.
And yet, a puzzling situation occurs when a person covered from head to toe with the disease presents himself to the priest. The law of God instructs the priest to pronounce the diseased person “clean” (Lev. 13:12-13). How could this be? The disease is evident, obvious. What are we to make of this?
All sinners are in essence, spiritual lepers. With most of us, though, our leprosy is carefully managed, contained, kept out of sight. It may be noticeable in certain particulars, but we try to compensate with good behavior and meritorious works to throw off the judgment of onlookers. We hope our signs of sin will be viewed as ambiguous, playfully mischievous perhaps, pardonable, but certainly not indicative of a spiritually malignant condition. We are all masters of this sleight of hand.
But God never gets lost in the act, no matter how studied we’ve become in its execution. Before Him, there is never anything less than our total condition on display.
In the garden of Eden the first couple sinned, and from that time forward, had sin within them. Their initial instinct was to cover up with fig leaves. They only succeeded, though, in hiding themselves from themselves. When they instinctively felt this was not enough, they hid in the woods, trying to cover themselves with entire trees.
This is what we do with our disease.
But there comes a time when, under the Holy Spirit’s gracious conviction, we sense the foolishness of any further concealment and camouflage. We are, after all, covered in sores from head to foot, and explaining it away isn’t working anymore. Even we ourselves can no longer believe our own rationales. There is nothing left to do, but present ourselves to God’s High Priest, Jesus, and admit the painfully obvious.
And what is the terrible response we imagined we’d receive, and therefore avoided for so many years? God’s darkened visage? A petty Savior who says, “I told you so”?
None of those.
The priest says, “Clean.” Salvation becomes ours, and then commences in earnest.
Recall the two men who prayed in the Gospel of Luke. One thanked God that he was a superior example of morality. But the other, a “tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (Lk. 18:13). He didn’t bother to offer excuses, as we might today, explaining to God our environmental disadvantages, anger management issues, addictions, trauma. And so his prayer, minus any self-justification, was little more than a pathetically brief confession. Apparently, that’s all he could manage under the weight of his shame.
And yet Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other…” (Luke 18:14).
I grew up in a part of the country immersed in conservative religious values. I never truly doubted the Bible or Jesus, never entertained serious disbelief in God. Yet looking back, I don’t count my salvation experience as authentic until that moment my sins became too vivid, too obvious to deny, and a crucified Jesus was the only hope left. For years I had tried to look at the better side of myself, but under the Spirit’s gentle illumination, there wasn’t any good side left to look upon. I had run out of self-manufactured optimism.
Without knowing the textbook definition of repentance, or even faith, I managed an awkward confession of my moral and spiritual leprosy.
“Clean,” He said.
And to this day, when a similar conversation comes up between us, He still says that word.