The summer heat was finally ending, and the warnings of cold winter air whipped around us as we stood in the field. The worship leaders had decided to have a special chapel event outside today. During this special service, they wanted to hear from the new students of the university how God was working through their lives through the school. After a few songs were sung and Scripture had been read, they opened the microphone up to anyone willing to share.
An older girl with dark hair and a nose ring went forward. She kept her head down and eyes on the grass, peering through her glasses that kept slipping further down her nose, even as she spoke into the microphone. She took a deep breath and then began to tell of her struggle with anxiety, how she fiercely faced panic attacks almost daily and felt the weight of depression each day. But last week, she went forward for physical healing during the chapel service. After the professor prayed over her and anointed her head with oil, she felt a weight lift off her shoulders, and she knew she had been released from her anxiety and depression. Since then, she has been completely free.
The students roared with claps and cheers. A small smile curled the ends of her lips up, but she kept her head down as she went back to her place on the grass. I clapped along with them, forcing a smile of my own. Then a few more people went forward, until the band began to play again.
As we sang, I watched her worship from her small spot in the crowd. Her eyes were closed, but now her head was facing upward as she sang with her hands in the air. She looked genuinely free.
As I stood with my arms by my sides worshipping on the other side of the field, I envied her. That anxiety, that depression, still clung to me just as tightly as it did before I came here. The day after my conversion, I thought I experienced the same release that she did. I walked with Daniel over the worn paths behind my house, nearly skipping with joy.
“So it’s completely gone?” he said, trialing behind me.
“Yes!” I exclaimed, turning around to face him. “It’s like this heavy yoke has been taken from my shoulders. I feel light with freedom. I don’t have a single anxious thought or feeling.”
He smiled, his eyes wrinkling at the sides. “I’m so happy for you, Lara. I love you.”
We came to university together later that summer. Though I had a few worrisome feelings, I attributed it to all the newness of being a freshman and being on my own. A few weeks in, I shared my testimony with my friends at the lunch table, of how God completely freed me from my anxiety when I became a true Christian.
One of my friends looked at me with wide eyes. “So no more anxiety? At all? Completely gone?”
I nodded. “He took it all away.”
She smiled at me. “That’s amazing, girl. Praise the Lord!”
But at some point, that heavy yoke was slowly lowered back onto my shoulders. I ignored it at first, not wanting to admit that it had returned. But at some point, it became too evident to pretend it wasn’t there. I went to bed early most nights to cry in the darkness of my bedroom and battle panic attacks. I spent more time behind my closed bedroom door than out with my friends in the large living area. I declined most social outings. I began sneaking around campus to the counsellor’s office.
A failure. A disappointment. Yet again. What if it was all a lie—my conversion, yet another false hope?
Every sin I caught myself in was further ammunition I used against any assurance of salvation I had. As I stood worshipping alongside my friends during chapel, I put on a smile, but inwardly wondered if God had closed his ears to any sound from me.
I had to untangle unbelief, poor counsel, and false gospels to find assurance again. Well-meaning writers and people gave me doubt-inducing counsel that led to further anxiety and lack of assurance—the same I have since given to others.
All believers will bear fruit. James wrote,
You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (James 2:19-26 ESV)
Reading passages like this, and hearing them preached, I had placed my assurance solely in my works. If I am displaying works of righteousness, if I am doing what is good, if I have all the boxes ticked, I am truly saved. The problem with this type of evaluation is that though we are believers, we continue to sin and fall short of God’s law. Each day I could list off countless sins I had committed, ways I had failed Christ. Like Paul, I often mourned,
“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” But with Paul we likewise rejoice, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Romans 7:21-25 ESV).
Though we are freed from the slavery of sin that kept us from obeying God at all, and we bear Christ’s righteousness, we are still living in a body rotting from sin. That’s why we need a Savior, and that’s why we need him to persevere us.
I had to carry my doubts to the foot of the cross. I needed to remember the sufficient and complete work of Christ that merited God’s forgiveness and love towards me. I needed to remember that forgiveness of my sins was a gift of grace, and continued to be a gift of grace, so that, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Romans 10:9-10 ESV). I needed to remember the old, old story of the cross.
I was setting my assurance on the tangible and visible, but my assurance must rest in the work of Christ accomplished two thousand years ago. As the writer of Hebrews wrote,
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:19-25 ESV)
When we believe the gospel, our hearts are radically changed, and continue to be wholly changed by the Holy Spirit—so that good works are stirred up within us. We do these good works from a heart that loves Christ and looks forward to the day to come. While these works display the inward change, they cannot be the assurance of it. Our confidence rests in the finished work of Christ, that he opened the veil for us to come near to God and that he has made us clean by his spilled blood.