Talking about hell is passe. Fire and brimstone sermons are considered out of fashion. The goal is to find the lost, comfort the broken-hearted, and rescue the perishing. Therefore, God is the faithful Hound of heaven, the gentle Shepherd, and the Lover of our souls.
Many Christians say things like, "Sin? Well, yes. But please don’t focus on it too much; it really turns people off. They might get offended, and if they feel guilty they won’t come back." Or, "Confession? Of course confession is an important part of prayer. No, come to think of it, we don’t have a time of confession in our worship service. On my own? That’s none of your business, thank you."
But sin is where salvation begins. We only need a Savior because we are sinners. The lost need to be found because they are wandering in the fear and deception of sin. The broken-hearted are begging for comfort because they have been victimized by the ravages of sin. The perishing are desperate for rescue because they are dying from the fatal disease of sin.
That is why Ignatius of Loyola (ca. 1500) taught that the first step in a life of spiritual discipline was to come face to face with sin. He instructs that we are to “beg for shame and confusion about myself, as I see how many have been damned because of one mortal sin, and how many times, for how many sins, I have deserved to be damned forever” (Ignatius of Loyola: Spiritual Exercises, Joseph Tetlow, Crossroad, New York, 1992, page 74).
Are you willing to pray in such fashion? Am I? Ignatius goes on to guide the learner how to meditate: to consider the sin of the angels who fell with Satan, to ponder the sin of Adam and Eve, to focus on how many others have perished eternally for their sins, and finally, to look closely at their own soul, and to see it clearly for what it is. “I remember the seriousness and malice of sin against our Creator and Lord. I apply my understanding, reasoning how by sinning and going against the infinite Goodness, the person truly merited being damned forever” (Tetlow, 75).
But why? Why is this important? Why dwell on the blackness and evil within ourselves and within the world? Is it not better, more holy, more effective, to focus on the light of God’s love?
The answer is found in the very next words Ignatius penned following the above exhortations: “Imagine Christ right before you, hanging on the cross . . . How is it that he has come from being Creator to making himself human? How is it that he came from eternal life to death in time, and came so as to die for my sins? Turning it about, I ask of myself: What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I do for Christ?” (Tetlow, 75).
In order to truly understand the light, we have to understand the depths of the darkness. In order to treasure the healing, we must understand fully the disease from which we were dying. In order to understand the Love, we have to understand the horror of why and what he suffered on our behalf.
Generation upon generation of believers have shown the value of coming to grips with sin. Not only at the point of their conversion, but at various times and seasons along their walk with the Lord. Those who gloss over or turn a blind eye to sin, preferring rosier pictures of halos and heavenly cities, speaking only of light and love, find an emptiness in their lives and a shallowness in their gospel. Those who confront evil for what it is, wrestling with the warning of eternal damnation, recognizing the filth and stench it has left in their own lives: these are the true warriors of light. They go forth understanding the brutality of the Cross, and the crowning victory of the Resurrection. They know intimately the pit they have been pulled out of; they can vividly describe the tomb from which they have been raised. They go forth to preach a glorious message to a dying world: that they know the crushing, asphyxiating power of sin—and the Triumphant Savior.