In response to a commenter on this blog, I am posting the following piece I wrote sometime ago. Pastors often say that they write the kinds of sermons they need to hear. That is basically what I did here…
On any given Sunday, I will occasionally utter the words, “I am by nature sinful and unclean…I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed…I justly deserve your present and eternal punishment”.
Some people might consider this a little bit extreme.
Do I myself really believe this? Do I believe that God, in light of His Law, determines this about me? Indeed. I share the view of Eastern Orthodox Christian writer Elder Sophrony, who talks about how “a person who ‘keeps his mind in hell’ is ever aware that only one fate is appropriate for his deeds, eternal damnation. This consideration sears humility into his soul, as he finds himself utterly unable to lift his eyes toward the face of God.”
God created us as persons who would freely and joyfully represent Him – who is Love and Life – to our neighbor. But then came the Fall into Sin. Now, due to the infection that rages within me, there is a sense in which I, like Satan, am a masterful destroyer of relationships. When I stand naked in the midst of a holy God I know that I am undone. I have denied him before men, and in the name of “justice” refused to turn my cheek, refused to forgive from the heart 70 x 7, constantly mixed dung with precious perfume, ignored the unfortunate and outcasts who sense their need for Him more than most, and hated my enemies for whom Christ bled. I have refused to recognize marriage – my own marriage and resultant family – as a crucial sacramental sign of God’s presence in the world. My actions – or inactions – have served as an acid that dissolve the Gospel proclamation that brings forgiveness, life, and salvation. How little I must know my God! In short, because of my lack of trust, confidence, and reliance on God – and hence, love – I have caused my neighbor to perish. They have not seen the love of God in me.
This is crucial because the ultimate purpose of God’s Law – seen in its most simple form in the Ten Commandments – is not, as Lutherans like to point out, to reveal our sin and slay our self-justifications (Rom 3:20), though it is certainly about this. Rather, it is to point to the Law’s fulfillment in love. Said differently, it is to clearly communicate to one’s neighbor God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ. For He is love, Love incarnate. Therefore, it is simply impossible that there would be any “Christless” fulfilling of the law in love, removed from Gospel praise and proclamation (and since “grace” is not something that can be strictly separated from “nature”, nor is it something that is really added to nature, Jesus Christ is, in one manner of speaking, the “Natural Law”, i.e. the way love is manifested in a fallen world). Further, we know that though our visible words and works may well justify us in the eyes of men – even other believers – such is not the case before God.
It is undoubtedly true, as Lutheran theologian David Scaer has said, that in some sense, “works have no standing before God and faith has no standing before the world.” And yet – when it comes to salvation, even if I must not rely on my good works, others must. After all, we have been given a “cruciform life” that is “being given over unto death” for the life of the fallen world. This form of life is one of steady cross-bearing, of being where Jesus is, of prayer, fasting, and [alms]giving. Thus, in the same way that Christ was poured out for our sakes, we receive the bounty of God from one another, and can truly say “what do we have that we have not received”? When it comes to giving Himself and His gifts to others, God has freely chosen to work through us, the means of the means of grace. And this, because of our lack of trust in Him, we damnably reject.
“Vengence is mine, I will repay” says the Lord. Simply put, the reason we face God’s judgment is because He cares about human beings. He cares that we are free to continually receive Him or reject Him. That we are free to receive the only love and life there is or to reject it. And, at the same time, He cares about those who are oppressed when we freely make the wrong choices. All persons are not only victims, but oppressors, for “there are none that are righteous, no not one”. This is finally why, only “those who obey the law who will be declared righteous” – because God’s children need Him, and He defends them by vindicating those who rescue them, who show kindness and mercy to them. He “upholds Zion’s cause.” St. Ephrem the Syrian says of God, “Thy blows are filled with love. Thy punishment burns with compassion. In accordance with Thy love, even when Thou punishest Thou strivest only for good”, and this statement is certainly true in the context we are discussing, for there can be no salvation without judgment…
But woe to me – woe to you – for this means that when Christ comes in glory He will root out everyone who does evil, as St. Matthew reports. It is true that each one of us ultimately believes or disbelieves in the Triune God – at our core, we are either for Him and His people or against them – and yet, when we are truly honest about the evil in our lives, this truth simply can not bring comfort! Certainly, we realize, for the sake of the little ones that we daily cause to stumble, millstones are in order for it all.
Still, the concept of eternal punishment and suffering for those enemies of God who are finally unrepentant, is admittedly, rather difficult to take. In times of war, for example, most Christians do not think it an honorable and glorious thing to torture our enemies or cause them to suffer – for practical purposes in the temporal realm, much less no imaginable purposes in the eternal realm. By the accounts of some Reformed thinkers however, we ought not be ashamed of this, but rather glory in God’s righteous decision that unrepentant sinners suffer eternally. This is jarring, to say the least. It seems to strongly mitigate our concept of the God of love whom we serve.
I think that these Reformed writers are right in that we do not understand the stakes involved here, for we seem to forget that we are at spiritual war. We have a serious tendency to mitigate the horrible effects of our sin. As T.S. Elliot said: “our offenses, infidelities, greed, lust, and violence ripple through families and communities, affecting people unto the third and fourth generation. We spend much of our time, both individually and corporately, protecting ourselves against this knowledge”. On the other hand, I would contend that it is because we have lacked serious reflection over God’s concept of love, and that correspondingly, we have neither understood nor appreciated what His glory means.
For unlike us, God is not a destroyer of relationships. For example, even as a Christian delegated to do so administers the violence necessary to protect his neighbor, he is also to desire the ultimate salvation of the one being executed. Even if a person does not have repentance, this does not excuse us from forgiving him in our own hearts before God. Failing to desire that one’s relationship with the other would be rightly restored beyond the grave is a matter of grave consequence. “Why will you die, O house of Israel?” is not a rhetorical question for the one receiving God’s sword of judgment, but is meant to lead the sinner home. There is a good reason why his anger lasts only for a moment – it is because he came not to judge, but to save – mercy triumphs over judgment, indeed. Perhaps there is no chapter in the Bible that gets to the real crux of the matter as well as does Hosea 11, where God contends that he cannot help but seek out his beloved – yet again – precisely because He is God and not man. Herein lies the core of the word “holy”, and with it, honor and glory.
The reality of Christ’s cross ultimately reveals the content of what love means in the fallen world: it is all at once a “making right” of the creation (Christ’s body and spirit enduring man’s guilt and consequences), an earnest call to repentance (a showing of humanity’s sin, therefore Law), an actual granting of the forgiveness of sins (Gospel absolution), and an invitation to that trust in the Father’s love which ushers one’s neighbor into the new creation, first for all people, and then for the whole creation. God’s greatest good is for humanity to “speak” this word to one another – only this fulfills the law in love, first for Christ, then for the Christian.
First the Christ cries out “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”. Next Stephen, the Christian, in glorious imitation.
In the presence of their Father, they forgive their enemies fully from their hearts, even if directly absolving such unrepentant men is not possible.
In light of this, our mouths are shut. We are unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful (Rom. 1:30), but He, most emphatically, is not. He is not the destroyer of relationships. He absorbs all the destruction that we have to give, and covers over a multitude of sins, reconciling the world to Himself in Christ. Jesus Christ endures the relationship-destroying power of sin that separates us from God and one another on the cross, yet cries out in sin-defying trust “My God, My God – Why have you forsaken me?” (see Psalm 121). Years later, a saintly woman in Calcutta calls out in Christ-like imitation: “I want God with all the power of my soul — and yet between us there is terrible separation.” Elsewhere, Mother Theresa wrote: “I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.”
Hell, or eternal separation from God, is indeed a place of fire and torment, but when Revelation 14 talks about persons suffering forever “in the presence of the Lamb”, I take comfort in knowing that He takes no joy in the death of the wicked… He would stand by them forever even if they would always reject Him. For this is the God who, in Christ, wept over Jerusalem before its destruction.
Again, we, not He, are those who destroy relationships. Rather than seeing others as those whom we can welcome and share life with – and who have significance outside our own desires and pursuit of happiness – we, often, would rather they simply not exist (for ours is not so much the age of anger and hatred, but apathy and indifference). Men might enjoy using this or that “God” for their own self-centered pursuits, but the flip side of this is that oftentimes, man, the fool, wishes the jealous and zealous God of Israel out of existence (Psalm 14:1). Perhaps this explains why there is eternal punishment with God, and not annihilation (the cessation of all personal existence, popular in Eastern conceptions such as Nirvana). Though God certainly expressed regret in the O.T. at creating man, He emphatically can not be said to “take life”, or “snuff out life” in order to be rid of relationships forever, dePersonalizing reality. Said differently, it is man who desires that God not exist, not God who desires that man not exist. Is man really so foolish that he would tell God what love is – namely treating others as if they do not exist, disregarding their presence, and ultimately destroying life, destroying relationships? Evidently. “Would you condemn me [to non-existence or otherwise] that you may be justified?” (Job 40:8). Indeed this is our problem.
Back to Elder Sophrony, mentioned above. In speaking of the modern Eastern Orthodox saint St. Silouan, Elder Sophrony emphasized the life-giving potential of the word believed to be given by Christ to him: “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” Continuing the quote from above, we read that “…grace enables one to fend off temptations to despondency. One’s wretchedness before God is excruciatingly and unremittingly apparent, and yet in that very moment joy is born into the soul as the supreme love of God is revealed as the vanquisher of sin, rescuing him from the abyss of despair.”
“Nice”, we might say. But practically speaking, what shall we do that we might work the works of God? That we might be saved? In a word, to be new before God, we must forget what we “do”, and as Lutheran theologian Norman Nagel says, “be willing to be nothing but given to.” For we must become like little children and be born from above, not below. Just as the completely unpretentious and unreflective infant freely receives his parent’s love and kindness, spontaneously erupting with smiles and squeals of acceptance, so it must be with us. Only in this way, through receptive trust alone, do we return to the Source of forgiveness, life and salvation. God has reconciled the world to Himself in Christ. He has done it all. Be reconciled to God! When you, broken in your sin, hear the comforting Word that Christ has forgiven you, cling to that Word and do not delay in coming to the feast.
For this is the work of God, that you believe on Him whom He has sent.
* When my perishing pagan neighbor senses that something good and wonderful has transpired though him, his reflection before his God ultimately reeks of self-glorification and a veiled ingratitude: “I’m a good person”, “I have done it”, “I must have done something good”, “What a good boy am I”…
** Christians do little better of course. We often strive to follow God’s Law as we understand it for the eyes of our neighbor, while forgetting our vital relationship with God, lest we become too uncomfortable. This is no doubt preferable to completely rejecting God’s pattern for our lives. And yet, when we seek to fulfill the Law in our own strength, we are at inevitably at odds with God’s purposes. For there can be no fulfilling of the law in love by us (Rom. 8:4) in regards to the second table of the Ten commandments at the expense of the first table – which involves deep personal trust in, and reliance on, God.