The girl, Susan, (a kind of everywoman) in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, says at one point to Aslan, the lion, (a kind of Christ figure): “I am sorry. That’s just the way I am.” It makes me consider what’s behind such words uttered by anyone. First, it’s an apology – an attempt at reconciliation for a recognized defect. Second, it’s a justification – an attempt to clarify an unavoidable fact. And thirdly, it is a license to remain the same.
I imagine that I say this to You quite frequently; if not in actual words then by my actions and demeanor. It’s a handy tool for rationalization. In uttering it I excuse myself and direct it to You as well – like I was telling You something You didn’t already know. In those times when I am down on myself, when I think I am hopeless and just spinning my wheels, when I can’t imagine that You could have any more patience withme, or when I just can’t fathom how You could love ME, it’s time to shrug my shoulders and say, “Sorry, that’s just the way I am.”
Now the wonderful part of this, which I fail with any regularity to comprehend,is that You already know that that’s the way I am and You still love and pursue me. I can stop using it as an excuse because it is no excuse. You know I would be different if I could be. No apology necessary – especially if I’m trying to do better. It does not now nor will it ever justify me. Only You can do that. Nor is it a license to remain the same. There is a correlation between Your pursuit of me and my growth – if I am open to it. You, and only You, can overcome ME.
At the same time, it does not negate the fact that I am a free will agent. I can choose to ignore You. Susan’s good intentions notwithstanding, I can still push You aside and say, “Sorry, that’s just the way I am.” The fact that God takes this into consideration is historically evident. The chronicles of mankind are replete with second chances. To write myself off with, “Sorry, that’s just the way I am,” precludes my openness to second chances – to the possibility of Your grace doing things in me that I could not imagine.
I am intrigued by the apparent certainty of knowledge with which “the faithful” of a particular religion guide their actions and form their values. As long as human comprehension is fallible and limited, no one really “knows.” How seldom do we consider that religious leaders and the highest of our hierarchies themselves really do not “know.” We look to those who know more than we; and they are often able to move us to their level. But they do not really “know.” We can act with prudence, solicitousness, and the best of human wisdom, but we really don’t “know.” We only know what we know and it’s never enough and is often distant from the truth.
I speak, of course, of spiritual matters; of God and of the hidden but real aspect of ourselves in which our being must exist or not be. Always there is something beyond our grasp. Always our own human limitations pull us up short. If this were not so we would possess knowledge in the way in which our creation was meant. It was and is our will, the tool of both our rise and fall,that drives us both to know and also keeps us from knowing. Our latent urges to seek to know more are thwarted by what we think we know already. We swim in an ocean of unknowing, and that’s the way it is! We know a lot of things but we really “know” nothing. Wisdom is just experience in the directions we take.
All this being said, it points out powerfully the value of faith; the importance in not knowing but believing. This power, this aptitude of the will, we do possess. We cannot know but we can believe. It is something we can do. The shaky ground of what we know can become concrete with faith; concrete in the sense that it becomes more important to believe, to trust, to accept than to know. Though all of this seems to border on agnosticism, the departure from it is faith. Isn’t it interesting that the other two “theological” virtues, hope and charity, are likewise not totally dependent on knowledge.
The existence of God outside all history is a difficult concept. What we know of God is always within the context of history. History, of course, has to do with time, and time is a measure of our own creation. What’s interesting about the history of our relationship with God is the way our own limitations have forced God to act within our framework of time. Outside of our history with God we have no understanding of Him.
Historically it would seem one nation, one race of people was singled out for a covenant between God and man. In the history of this people is recorded many instances of God’s communications with them – through both natural and supernatural means – but always with an element of mystery about it. Clouds, burning bushes, pillars of fire, whispers of wind, the words of prophets and a voice from the heavens are part of the history of the “chosen people.” A part of that history is also their “stiff-necked” resistance and unfaithfulness to God. Even within the long history of that covenant, including all its mystical occurrences, acceptance of God was often too difficult for these people. That history wasn’t enough. God was a part of that history, but too detached from it.
Enter the historical figure of Jesus. You are the emphatic representation of God’s desire for a relationship with mankind. The documented history of Your existence, Your teachings, and Your actions are irrefutable. What’s more, You offered the previously conceived exclusive relationship to all mankind not just anhistorically specific nation.
I am wondering how much of history we create in order to explain God to ourselves? I am also wondering how much of a detriment to God’s presence in our lives at any given moment is our immersion in the panorama of our history with God? For our part that history is too strewn with failure to be supportive or encouraging. But for God’s part it is not history. It is always now! The “covenant” never was exclusively with the one nation that interpreted it that way. You are my people and I am your God is not an historical statement – it is a statement of the now. Mankind is Your people!
I say to You every morning, “Accept today my will to do what I would not choose to help atone for my past sins.” In thinking about this I was wondering (if I could so choose) if there would ever be a day filled with what I would choose. It’s a human inclination, and mine especially, to try and “set up” such days. I guess that’s what we wish others when we say, “Have a good day.” I mean how many times have You heard someone say, “Have a bad day so you can atone for your sins?”
We hope to attain heaven. We hope to avoid hell – both to the detriment of loving You. Sin is a nuisance. I think it bothers us more than it does You. You’ve taken care of it once and for all, but we still feel the guilt.
Guilt always makes us feel we owe something – and we do! Love! Planning a day totally of my choosing or accepting a day full of what I might not choose may, ostensibly, be no different. Guilt resides in both. We can atone with joy or we can atone with sorrow. All that matters is that either way it is with love. The fact that it is tougher to love when we accept what we would not choose sharpens the focus of atonement. Suffering does, indeed, teach. We learn more about love in the times when it’s hardest to love. In trying to avoid such times we avoid opportunities to grow in love. Therefore, it seems to me our love in situations that we would not choose covers more of our guilt. Hence my prayer probably should be, “Accept my will to do what I would not choose so that it helps me grow in love.” It is love that atones for our failures and love shines brightest in times when it is hardest to give.
The most salient way I have compared myself to the New Testament character of Martha has been in her busy-ness and concern for “doing.” But there is another way apparent from chapter 11 of John’s gospel that I am like her. She believes but there is an imperfection in her belief and it is this imperfection in allof us that You recognize and are patient with.
Martha greets You and says if You had been present her brother, Lazarus, would not have died. When You say to her that You are the resurrection and the life and ask her if she believes this, she says, “yes.”But a few moments later she says, “Lord, it has been four days now, surely there will be a stench.” Why do we always worry about the stench? What is it about what we fear will offend others that keeps us from perfect belief? In this too I am like Martha.
So many different stenches affect my faith, my trust. There is the stench of selfishness about me that places a “me-first” attitude in front of letting go and just trusting. There is a stench of cynicism about the motives and actions of others that disallows trusting in them. There is a stench about me of arrogance and superiority that fights against humble acceptance of powerlessness where nothing but trust or belief is needed. I know I have concerns over these stenches in a way similar to Martha’s. These concerns themselves undermine belief. This is what You wanted to point out to Martha, and it’s what You want to point out to me. Regardless of this imperfection You loved Martha dearly – and You love me.
If I say “yes, I believe, Lord,” but am overly concerned with my stenches my belief is not perfect. It is not perfect because my concern for them plays against my complete trust that You will overlook them.
Roman 8: 7-9: The flesh in its tendency is at enmity with God; it is not subject to God’s law. Indeed it cannot be; those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
It strikes me that the amount of exertion necessary to control the tendencies of the flesh is greater than the efforts to direct the spirit and, consequently, the tendencies of the flesh are easier to surrender to than the urgings of the spirit. What God has to fight to get through to us is the “self” of our own making which, unfortunately, is strongly undermined by the body in which it lives. Pandering to the flesh rather than the spirit it contains is indeed at enmity with God. But God comprehends with perfect understanding that as humans we cannot live the life of the spirit without the flesh.
Flesh is the burden we bear, the obstacle to be overcome, the cross of pain and suffering, and the conveyance of our spirit. The tendencies of the flesh are comfort, ease, security, happiness and satisfaction – the same tendencies, it might be noted, that we come under in seeking God and a spiritual life. Because we live in the flesh we easily use words of the flesh to categorize what it is we seek in the spirit. The comfort, ease, security, happiness and satisfaction we seek in resting in God, in doing God’s will, in loving with God’s love is not the comfort, ease, security, happiness or satisfaction we seek in our bodies even though the words are the same. Their meanings are altered by the fleshly or spiritual context in which they are used. In the flesh comfort, ease, security, happiness and satisfaction are commonly connected with wealth, power, passion, pleasure, image, self-indulgence, ego, control, prestige and inerrancy. In the spirit they are commonly connected with detachment, humility, love, trust, sharing, self-denial and altruism. It’s all about the way we direct these desires. One way leads towards God and towards others. The other way leads only to self.
Love and compassion are more about not judging than forgiving. In the guise of truly unconditional love and compassion we tend to give a lead position to forgiveness. But we must consider what precedes the conditional aspect of forgiveness (and love based on it) which goes first toward its being unconditional – not judging! To render no judgment is to forego forgiveness. When we do not judge there is nothing in us to forgive. I emphasize in us (meaning our own interior) because in the judgment of another there may be something that needs forgiveness.
We are steeped in the notion of a judgmental God, judgment day, the general judgment, the goats and the sheep, etc. But all that is predicated of these images is no more judged or forgiven by You than the acts of the angels whom You also love without condition. The failure here is more like a failure to forgivethemselves – a separation and despair whose source is not You but is driven by the guilt of their own consciences. “Punishment” and/or “hell” is not a consequence of Your judgment as much as it is a separation based on our own choices and lack of remorse.
God as the judgmental enforcer who levels the measure of the law when we’re caught with our hand in the cookie jar is not the loving Father about whom You taught us. Being measured by the measure with which we measure is analogous to the compassion and love of God as the measure of “being.” There is neither judgment nor forgiveness here by which to measure – only non-judgmental, unconditional love. If we measure by judgment we judge ourselves. If we measure by punishment we punish ourselves. We need to understand clearly not so much the forgiveness of God as the acceptance of God.
I’ve come to realize something about myself that has become an unfathomed disturbance over a very long time. As precise a word as I can think of to describe it is impatience. Yet it’s not the impatience one usually thinks of when they’re considering the general lack of patience for an expected outcome. I have consciously worked on this type of impatience with varying degrees of successand failure over the years. This type of patience deals with the ability to wait for an outcome with passive resignation; to minimize the agitation of expectation. Cultivating this kind of patience is a good thing, but it’s not the patience of this type that I’ve discerned lurking deeply within me.
The lack of patience I’m concerned with is harder to articulate and much more subtle. It has to do with brushing people aside and doing it even “kindly,” tactfully, and/or diplomatically – when they do not know or act equally or better than I am able to know or act in a given situation. It’s an impatience of mental intolerancemasquerading as a tolerance which says, “OK, that’s fine. Now let me do it.” There is, in me, an ingrained custom of doing exactly that – and not only doing it but reserving silently the mental attitude that that’s what I can always do in order to get things done the way I think they should be. In other words, nobody can do certain things better than I can and, while it’s not nice to say so or act so, my impatience with others who think so leads me to devise subtle tactics that put me first. The people I don’t brush aside in this way are the people whom I know can do certain things better than me or who, I am sure, know more than me. With these people it’s amazing how attentive and patient I can be.
Now, if I look to You I see someone who not only knew more and could do better than anyone else but brushed no one aside even though there seems to have been times of mild exasperation. If Your life showed us how to live, should I not do likewise? What’s ironic is that I become very impatient with my lack of progress in remedying this kind of impatience in myself. It is exasperating!
The sin of Moses and Aaron recorded in the Old Testament (Numbers 20:12) was that they were not fruitful in showing the sanctity of the Lord before the Israelites. I think what this means is that their own pride in their roles as mediators between God and the Israelites got in the way of how God’s people perceived His actions among them. With these roles as the most immediate scenario of their perception, Moses and Aaron became passively receptive to the imputation of God’s actions – as though they might have had more to do with it than being simply channels chosen by God.
This kind of pride creeps easily into my own life. I commit the sin of Moses and Aaron when I fail to internally or externally credit God for His actions in my life or, through me, in the lives of others. It seems to be a sin on the rise. As a people we more and more credit things to ourselves unjustifiably. We hear fewer and fewer individuals crediting God with what they do. It’s not just a matter of doing this verbally or outwardly in some way. More importantly it seems we should be working on being able to consistently and automatically do this internally - recognizing and thanking God for what He does through us. When we master this our witness before others will seek to diminish ourselves and magnify God. How can we let the work of God shine through us when we keep getting in the way? But God knows well about this and His love never fails. Look at Moses and Aaron!
We so often think of sin as that which separates us from God – and that it does! But in another sense it is our sinful nature and our realization of it (along with that separation) that inclines us most powerfully to throw ourselves upon the mercy of a loving, forgiving God. There are strong grounds that suggest a very real correlation between an honest, humble assessment of our own weakness and our ability to love and be open to God. In other words, sin can draw us powerfully to God.
Sin allows us the potentiality of being open to change. Now, I am not advocating that we all go out and pursue a life of intentional sin so that we may grow closer to You. Sin does separate and distance us from You. The more we sin the greater the separation, the farther the distance. But the distance and separation created by sin also creates a potentiality that is not there in the “righteous.”
The Pharisees, Sadducees, and other religious leaders of Your time had little room for this potentiality. They were more concerned with being right. That’s why You did not choose from their ranks for Your apostles. Instead You sought out the twelve frail human beings we know because of their potentialities. You chose sinners because they were not too right to be open.
The same is true of many of the great sinner-saints throughout the ages. If there is any “red flag” here it would have to be about the dangers of being self-righteous. It closes down our minds and hearts. It is yet another paradox of the spiritual life that in the literal following of what a religion teaches as right and good we become smug. We think we’ve got it. And we find ways to show others that we do. Yet this is not the metanoia You desire. The exterior evidence of what might label us “sinners” to others has little to do with what may be going on in our hearts where love resides. Sin has a tendency to make us more introspective than smug. It is in our weakness that a God such as You gives us hope and strength. In the dread of the hopelessness of our state is where we find You.