Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
James 4:8 (NIV)
There is a classic scene in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Lady Macbeth and her husband murder the King of Scotland who is spending the night in their home. Macbeth had received a prophetic word that he would be King. The King unexpectedly shows up for a visit on his travels through the region. The couple decide that it’s their place to make the prophecy come true. They murder the King.
In classic Shakespearean story-telling, the murder successfully launches a chain of events to put Macbeth on the throne. It also launches a chain of events that destroy the couple.
In the final act, Lady Macbeth is descending into madness. Her servant notes that Lady Macbeth often walks in her sleep and acts strangely. She and a physician watch together as Lady Macbeth, sleepwalking in the middle of the night, struggles to wash the blood of her victim off her hands…
Out, damned spot! out, I say!-
…who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him.
What, will these hands ne’er be clean?
Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the
perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little
hand. Oh, oh, oh!
Wash your hands, put on your nightgown; look not so
pale.–I tell you yet again, Banquo’s buried; he
cannot come out on’s grave.
To bed, to bed! there’s knocking at the gate:
come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What’s
done cannot be undone.–To bed, to bed, to bed!
Macbeth Act 5 Scene 1
Almost anyone who has committed awful acts can attest to the fact that a guilty conscience can really do a number on you. I know this because I write from personal experience. Along my life journey, my hands have been stained with the consequences of my own willful transgressions. I remember the pit of despair, the sleepless nights, the heaviness of soul that reverberates with Lady Macbeth’s question: “What? Will these hands ne’er be clean?”
In today’s chapter, James begins by calling out those who have allowed unchecked passions, appetites, greed, and selfishness to lead to transgressions and the dark consequences of the soul that accompany them. James urges:
Come near to God, and he will come near to you.
Like the Prodigal Son, like Lady Macbeth, when I wallowed in the slop of my own making and wrung my hands in hopes of washing away the stains, it was a futile exercise. It was only when the Prodigal returned home and “came near” to his Father that things began to change.
Wash your hands…
Notice that the washing of hands comes after the “coming near.” This is not a coincidence because it’s not me doing the washing. It was Jesus who washed my feet of the dirt of where I’ve been. It is the Living Water that springs up to wipe the stubbornly stained conscience clean.
In his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Paul addressed those among the local gathering who had once been immoral, adulterers, drunkards, and slanderers. “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.“
Purify your hearts…
Purification from my sins is not something I did. It was something Jesus did for me. Once again, like the Prodigal, all I did was to come near and confess.
And, as John wrote to the followers of Jesus: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
I found myself, like the woman caught in adultery. One moment I was lying in the naked shame of what I had done. The next moment I find that Jesus had not condemned me, but had washed me, purified me, and given me a clean start.
“Go,” He said, “and don’t go back to those dark, dirty places.”
This is what I found crucial to understanding the way of Jesus. The repentance, or turning away from sin, was not the result of being shamed, condemned, and/or threatened. It was the result of experiencing Jesus’ kindness as He washed my stains clean and purified my spotted soul when I didn’t deserve it.
Macbeth and his Lady, I’m afraid, did not experience this grace and forgiveness. Lady Macbeth dies, leaving her husband to cynically reflect on their lives, the futile mess they’d made of things, and the meaninglessness he finds of it all:
It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
In the quiet this morning, I find myself grateful that in the deepest and darkest stretches of my journey, I was afforded the grace to “come near” to Christ and experience my “damned spots” washed clean.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.