CHRISTIAN WISDOM: A Challenging Answer by Frederica Mathewes-Green

The Ancient Christian Path of Transformation

A Challenging Answer by Frederica Mathewes-Green

From: The Illuminated Heart

Illumine our hearts, O Master who lovest mankind
with the pure light of thy divine knowledge,
and open the eyes of our minds to the understanding
of thy Gospel teachings, for thou art
the illumination of our souls and bodies,
O Christ our God.
(Prayer before the reading of the Gospel
Liturgy of St. James, Fourth Century)

A modern Christian may well feel perplexed by the questions at the end of the last chapter.  We think, “But we know what the answer has to be: Jesus is the answer.”  So we try each day better to love and follow him, and yet the life we lead would not readily be described as “victorious.”  To tell the truth, we don’t even attempt anything that strenuous.  We know we can’t do it.  So we do the best we can, getting by, sometimes befuddled and disappointed, turning to God for consolation.

This spiritual cycle was depicted in a devotional story that came my way by email.  In it a young mom was reflecting on her tendency to grump and gripe, such that one day even her toddler said he didn’t want to be around her.  “I wish I could make a whole-life resolution” to do better, she said, but she knew that she would inevitably fail.  “I’ll make lots of bad choices, I’ll sin a lot more.  My heart is heavy with this reality.”

Then, turning to the hymn, “And Can It Be,” she quoted the line, “No condemnation now I dread.”  Because grace has been poured out on us, she explained, we no longer have to feel burdened by our inevitable falls.  We can go on trying and failing and being forgiven, comforted by the limitless nature of God’s grace.

Most of us modern-day Christians will nod at this story; it sounds so right and so reassuring.  But let’s imagine we could hand this email to a Christian of another era, perhaps from the fifth or sixth century, living in the Middle East.  We’ll call her Anna.  As she read over this anecdote, she’s perplexed by the sudden turn at the end.  Oh, plenty of it sounds familiar: being grumpy, having failings, wanting to do better.  She has three kids herself, and a husband who runs a busy olive press.  Some of these stresses are timeless.

But how does “No condemnation now I dread” address that situation?  She wants real help to change, not just consolation.  And she expects that real help, through Jesus’s promise of the Holy Spirit.  For her, this story omits that practical hope, and trails off in anticlimax.

One thing about the anecdote particularly perplexes Anna.  Why is this mother mainly concerned with condemnation?  For Anna, the problem is not so much the final reward of sin, but the natural daily result of it – the way it distances her from God.  Her whole life is a journey toward union with God, and nettling daily failures are like rocks in the path, hindering her from drawing closer to this great love.  Sins are all the little actions and inactions that serve our selfish impulses and that can be so hard to resist – even, ahead of time, hard to detect.  Anna gets frustrated with these failures, not mostly because they earn a future penalty, but because they block her today from what her heart desires: to see the glory of God reflected in the face of her beloved Lord Jesus.

Just fixing the final-condemnation part won’t solve her problem.  Resigning oneself to continual failure, then stamping “Debt Paid” at the end of the bill, sounds like a depressing prescription.  What Anna wants instead, and what she expects, and what she steadily progresses toward, is a truly transformed life, where sin is being conquered every day.

So far Anna it’s not gloomy dread of condemnation that’s the problem.  Sure, that’s what our sins deserve; yet God desires not the death of a sinner, but that we turn from our wickedness and live.  His seeking, saving love is beyond question.  At church Anna’s husband, Theodore, a deacon, chants prayers emphasizing God’s unceasing mercy.  Many of her church’s hymns conclude with the line, “For you alone are the lover of mankind.”  God the Father is likened to the father of the prodigal son, someone whose forgiving love is never ending, never deserved.  Anna and her fellow-worshipers see themselves as the harlot who washed Jesus’s feet with her hair, or the thief on the cross, who did nothing deserving yet was “saved by a single glance” of Christ, as one hymn says.  So God’s seeking, saving love is something Anna never has to doubt.

No, the problem isn’t with God, it’s with her.  God continually calls to her, but she doesn’t always want to listen.  His love is constant, but she doesn’t receive it consistently, or sometimes even willingly.  This is because God’s love is a healing love, and healing isn’t always comfortable.  It heals in a surgical sense, and the scalpel can hurt.  It’s more comfortable to avoid those times of authentic confrontation with God, which can rattle us so deeply.

Yet God is unwilling to leave her as she is, confused and mired in sin.  To receive God’s healing Anna must examine and admit her failings, the things she’d rather ignore or dismiss with, “I just can’t help it,” or, “God accepts me anyway.”  She must not just resolve to do better, she must actually do better.  She must expect that there will always be new layers of unexpected sin under the old ones, and that she will never outgrow the identity, “sinner.”  Yet there is peace, joy even, in admitting this truth.  After all, Jesus came only to save sinners; the righteous, he said, can take care of themselves.  All the cloudy layers of sin inside Anna are something that God already knows about and sees through, and he loves her and wills to save her anyway.  There is no need for shame.

Nor is there reason to slack off.  Anna must take seriously Jesus’s charge to “be perfect,” and daily ask for grace to perceive her sins and fight against them.  Otherwise she will block the love that God constantly streams toward her, and her healing will be delayed.  There is a fearful danger here.  A habitually hardened heart can even cease caring about God, and cast away the gift of salvation.  Look at Judas, who received bread from Jesus’s own hand, and yet betrayed him for money.  Could love of prosperity, or social climbing, or vanity gradually drag Anna away from Jesus as well?

Every morning she prays for help to be vigilant, humble, yielded; every night she prays for forgiveness, reviewing the day’s mistakes and asking for strength to do better tomorrow.  She is like an athlete in training, striving toward a prize, as Saint Paul said.  In the company of her fellow church members, mutually forgiving and supporting one another, fasting together, listening closely to the words of the worship services and cultivating constant interior prayer, and by talking privately with her pastor about her struggles, Anna can draw closer to her beloved every day.  It’s a thrilling prospect, the work of a lifetime, which proceeds in glory in the next.

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