God, Be Merciful to Me

I am a sinner. I don’t deny it. But most of the time I don’t think much about it either. I don’t seem to obsess about sin the way the ancients used to, at least not about my own sins. I  don’t punish myself or go to extreme measures to fight sin off. Most of the time, my sin feels more like a low-grade fever more than it does a raging fire. Its presence is an ongoing irritation that may hinder me from being my best, but it doesn’t keep me from functioning. Sin doesn’t bother me that much either. If anything, the fact that I am a sinner serves as a kind of escape clause when things go badly. “What did you think would happen?” I want to say. “I am a fallen person living in a fallen world. Of course, I went off the rails.”

The fact that we are sinners is one of the few religious concepts that a majority of people agree upon. Most people identify with the label sinner. I think we actually derive a measure of comfort from the assertion. We are strangely comforted by sin’s universal presence. For some of us, the comfort we take in knowing that we all sin is the kind that a bad student might take from the class curve. We reason that if sin is normal, then we are normal. Even if there is something wrong with us, we can at least say that it is only your average, garden variety of wrong. Everybody suffers from it. Surely God won’t penalize everybody?

The ancients weren’t as sanguine about the subject. The early Christian monastics went into the wilderness not only to pursue holiness but to make a study of their sinfulness. Those early Christians analyzed sin and categorized the many ways it manifests itself. They were interested not only in identifying the specific acts that should be regarded as sinful but wanted to understand the internal dynamics which shaped sinful behavior.

Why do we think so differently? One reason is that we have very different notions about virtue. Most moderns don’t think much about virtue at all. The word seems too out of date. Virtue sounds more like something our Victorian great-grandparents would have been concerned about. The notion of virtue is indeed an ancient one. The Greek philosopher Aristotle saw virtue as the pattern of right behavior that characterized a person. Virtue is a habit of life that moves in the right direction. Vice is the same, only moving in the opposite direction.

But even if the term seems archaic, the idea of virtue is not as old fashioned as we might think. Not if we understand virtue as a preferred pattern of life. We may have dropped the philosophical language as a culture, but we still have strong feelings about the way people should live. Theologian James K. A. Smith captures this when he defines virtue as “an ultimate vision of the good life.”

We may not talk about virtue much, but we believe in it. If you doubt this, spend a few hours reading through the opinions expressed on your favorite social media feed. What is all that outrage about? More often than not, it is about virtue or the failure of virtue. We may not all agree on the standard but our vision of “the good life” is clear enough that we regularly criticize those who don’t measure up to that vision. Contemporary interest in virtue seems to be primarily negative. Our ideas about what is good do not necessarily serve as a basis for self-examination and personal improvement. Often they merely provide the grounds for carping against others we perceive to have fallen short.

Others of us treat sin the same way we do high cholesterol or obesity. We know that if we ignore it, things will go badly for us. But our hope is that if we take certain basic measures, we can keep sin under control. This approach takes two primary forms, one is medical, and the other is athletic. The medical model sees sin as a kind of disease. The athletic model approaches sin like a weakness that can be remedied through discipline. Either view makes sin seem manageable. If sin is a sickness, it can be cured through treatment. If it is a weakness, that weakness can be eliminated with training.

One of the appeals of the medical model of sin is that it alleviates the moral pressure that comes with an awareness of sin. So far, I have had two major illnesses in my life. When I was a child, I contracted polio. As an adult, I was diagnosed with a form of cancer. I felt bad on each occasion, but I did not feel responsible. I knew that something was wrong with me, but I did not think that I was at fault. Even Jesus seemed to give credence to the medical model when, after being criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners, He observed, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Matthew 9:12). But the Bible also says that sin has a moral quality. Every sin is an act of rebellion. This is because sin’s ultimate reference point is God. As theologian Cornelius Plantinga explains, “All sin has first and finally a Godward force.” Plantinga defines sin as an act (any thought, desire, emotion, or deed) that displeases God and is worthy of His blame. This is what makes sin different from disease. Sin always comes with guilt, and that guilt is deserved.

The appeal of the athletic model of sin is that it makes me my own savior. If sin is a matter of weakness, then all I need to do to fix the problem is to find the right program or the right guru. I need a spiritual gym and a trainer. With a few disciplines and a little determination, I can lick this sin thing. But if you’ve ever known anybody who has tried this approach, you know that success inevitably gives way to intolerance. The “good” can’t understand why the rest of us can’t seem to “get it together” like them. The rest of us recognize such thinking for the pride that it is. But the virtuous are so fixated on their improvement that they are no longer able to see their sin.

According to Romans 7, sin is more than the absence of positive qualities in our character. It as a living force that resides within us. In that New Testament chapter, the apostle even gives sin’s location. It dwells “in my flesh” (v. 18). Flesh, in this case, is not a physiological term. It is not the skin that covers our bones. Sin is not organic in that sense. Rather, it is organic in an altogether different way. Sin is a force that is integrated into our nature. As New Testament scholar H. C. G. Moule so vividly puts it, “the intruder has occupied the whole dwelling, and every part of it is infected.”

There is no medicine that will cure me of this problem. There is no training program strong enough to counter sin’s own strength. But there is a remedy. It is the remedy that is echoed in the sinner’s prayer in Jesus’ parable: “God be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). It is not the prayer that is the solution. It is the one to whom the prayer is addressed. God’s mercy, shown to us in Jesus Christ, is the only solution when it comes to sin.

We cannot reason our way out. We cannot work our way out. We can only look to Christ to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Jesus alone is sin’s answer. He is the only antidote to its poison. Sin is far more serious than we could have imagined, and God’s answer to sin is far greater than we know. Indeed, this may be the worst effect of all when it comes to our downgraded view of sin. Because we fail to understand the depth of our sin, we cannot see the magnitude of Christ’s salvation. Jesus was right. It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. A sinner like me needs a savior.

Clean

According to family legend, my great grandfather was the first one to drive the twenty-mule team out of Death Valley loaded with borax. I have no idea whether this is actually true or not. Like most family legends, I suspect that it is a work of fiction. But I liked to recount this story to my friends when I was growing up since the twenty-mule team was featured in commercials on the popular television show Death Valley Days. It made me feel just short of famous.

Borax is a “detergent booster.” Apparently, it is used in a lot of other things too. Fertilizer, rocket fuel, and automobile windshields, just to name a few. But I always thought of it as soap. The same people who made Borax also made Boraxo, the hand detergent that promised to make hands “soft, smooth, and really clean.”

Looking back on it, cleanliness seemed to be the driving concern of most of the commercials we watched in those days. They fretted about clean clothes, clean floors, and clear complexions. What did this say about us as a culture? Were we especially dirty? Maybe we were just fastidious. Perhaps it was a little of both.

At points, the Bible seems similarly obsessed. The Old Testament, in particular, appears to be especially concerned about matters of cleanness and uncleanness with its detailed regulations about food, clothing, and its peculiar stipulations regarding spots and blemishes. When we read through these laws we do not get the impression that what is at issue is primarily a matter of hygiene. Indeed, some of the measures prescribed do not seem hygienic at all, especially when the “cleansing” agent is blood. Something else is going on.

The New Testament writer of Hebrews admits as much by calling such measures a “shadow” that can never perfect those who repeat them year after year. Instead of being a remedy, they were a reminder of sin (Hebrews 10:1-3). In a way, so is Jesus’ sixth beatitude: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8). The Greek word that is translated “pure” means clean. No other assertion shatters our illusion that these beatitudes are some kind of moral yardstick quite like this one.

What Jesus describes is a cleanness that originates on the inside and works its way out. Every other kind of cleansing with which we are familiar works the other way around. Jesus is not talking about getting clean but being clean. When we read his statement, we know instinctively that this is not what we are. If we do not know this, it can only be because we do not really know ourselves. We cannot hear Jesus’ assertion without wondering how it is possible for anyone to see God.

Like the others that precede it, we must take this beatitude as a promise. What Jesus gives us here is not a rod by which to measure our lives but a final portrait of what those lives will look like when Christ is finished with them. Purity of heart is not the condition we must meet in order to gain access into the Kingdom of God.  Instead, it is the final destination for those who enter that kingdom through the gate of Christ. He is the only hope we have of being pure in heart. “You can start trying to clean your heart, but at the end of your life it will be as black as it was at the beginning, perhaps blacker” Martyn Lloyd-Jones warns. “No! It is God alone who can do it, and, thank God, He has promised to do it.” Only the blessed can be pure in heart. They will see God.

The Quality of Mercy

Not long after I started driving I had to go to court over an automobile accident. It wasn’t a big one, just a fender bender really. But it was my fault. I hit a patch of ice and slid into an oncoming vehicle. There were no injuries and the damage to both cars was repairable. Still, the driver of the other car was angry. As the police officer wrote me a ticket and told me that I needed to appear in court, the other driver assured me that he would be there to make certain that I received the highest penalty.

I was terrified as the date approached. I’d never been to court before and wondered what the punishment might be. Looking back on it now, I suspect it would have been minimal. The judge certainly wouldn’t have given me jail time for a dent. But to me, it felt like a major offense. The worst part of it was that I knew I was the one at fault. I had misjudged the curve. I was driving too fast for the conditions. What verdict could the judge render on my behalf other than guilty? I felt ashamed.

When my father asked me how I was going to plea, I told him that I planned to admit my guilt. “I am a Christian,” I said. “I can’t lie about it.” He was furious. “You stand there and you tell the judge you are innocent” he demanded. When I told him I couldn’t do such a thing in good conscience, he swore and walked away, muttering something about my faith.

When my court date arrived, I took my place on an uncomfortable wood bench and waited for my name to be called. I felt torn between the demands of my conscience and the desire to please my father. As I listened to the other cases, I noticed that most of them were like mine, minor accidents that were a result of bad weather. I also noticed that many of the defendants didn’t admit to either guilt or innocence. When asked for a plea, they simply stood silent. “Do you stand mute?” the judge asked? When they answered yes, the judge told them that a plea of not guilty would be entered on their behalf.

At last, my turn came. I stood before the judge’s raised bench and shook as he reviewed the details of my case.“How do you plead?” he asked. “I stand mute” I replied. “Is the driver of the other vehicle present?” he asked. Nobody answered. “Is the officer who wrote the ticket in the courtroom?” the judge asked. He was not. “Case dismissed” the judge curtly declared.

The wave of relief that swept over me was palpable. It felt like mercy but it was not. My case was dismissed on a technicality. The judge could not declare me guilty because there was nobody there to testify against me. Mercy is something else. Mercy only belongs to the guilty. For the Christian, mercy is not a verdict, it is a person. God declares me innocent because Jesus took my guilt and the punishment as His own. For this reason, the word that the Bible uses to describe God’s verdict is not mercy but justice. By sending Jesus to stand in my place, God was able to be both “just” and “the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).

It is only through this lens that we can understand the fifth beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). We are tempted to read this as a moral imperative. We think of it as a condition. If you want to be shown mercy, you’ve got to show mercy. In reality, it is a reminder. Mercy is not a warm feeling. It is not a determination to see the good in others despite their actions. It is a decision to absorb the offense and take it upon ourselves. There is only one sort of person to whom mercy can be shown and that is someone who does not deserve it. The Bible has a word for this sort of mercy. It’s called grace.

Empty is Enough

I have reached the age where a large percentage of the articles that show up on my social media feed offer suggestions about retirement. They appeal to a combination of greed and fear. Apparently, your retirement savings need to be at least a million (if not more). Social security won’t be enough to cover your expenses. You need a steady stream of income from stocks or bonds or annuities, which are luckily being sold by whoever has posted the article in the first place. No matter the source, the message is almost always the same. Whatever you have, it probably isn’t enough. The aim is to make me nervous. It often works.

For people like me who by nature and long experience have learned to want more, Jesus’ blessing in Matthew 5:3 seems jarring and maybe even nonsensical: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Nobody really believes that less is more, least of all the poor. Those who want to view this remarkable saying as a statement about the genteel virtues of poverty are really saying that Jesus was merely a sentimentalist and of the worst possible sort. They imply that He was a naïve sentimentalist. “We should not think that Jesus merely wanted to give us a few maxims of practical wisdom, that he merely intended to talk about the blessing of suffering and poverty and console us by telling us that suffering would make us more mature” theologian Helmut Thielicke warns. “Jesus knew all too well that it can turn out just the opposite, that a man can break down under suffering, that it can drive us into cursing instead of prayer, and that its ultimate effect will perhaps be bitter complaining and accusing of God for his injustice.”

Yet the qualifying phrase “in spirit” hardly removes the scandal of Jesus’ pronounced blessing. In Christ’s day as in our own, one’s spiritual standing was considered to be a function of accumulated merits. This is true of all salvation systems save one. The world’s religions all operate on the same basic economy that we employ with our finances. More is always better. You can never have enough. And if you want to acquire it, you’ve got to earn it. There is no other way.

Jesus’ words are a diagnosis as much as they are a promise. Only the poor in spirit can be blessed because there is no other category for us when it comes to righteousness. This is what sets Jesus’ message apart from all others. Those who look to their own reserves to calculate whether they have enough holiness to find acceptance with God will inevitably come up short. If you want it, you must take it as a gift or not at all. This is what the Bible calls grace. Where grace is concerned, only empty is enough.

But this rule only makes sense in light of the second half of Jesus’ beatitude. His point isn’t about the inherent virtue of poverty, whether it is economic or spiritual. It is about access. According to Jesus, emptiness is the necessary precondition to entering what He calls “the kingdom.” Actually, Jesus doesn’t employ the language of entering here, even though He does elsewhere. Jesus uses the language of ownership. The kingdom of heaven belongs to the empty. Only they can claim it as their own because they alone know that they cannot buy it. They do not obtain it by natural right or by personal effort. If they are to receive the kingdom it must be delivered over to them by Christ Himself.

This is the first principle for any who wish to experience the blessedness that Jesus describes in the beatitudes. You must come to Christ as you are. You must come to Him empty and without anything to recommend you. All that you need will be given to you upon entry into His realm. You cannot store it up in advance. You cannot bring it with you as you cross the threshold. You can only come to Christ as a beggar and receive. There is no other way.

Same Story, Different Players

When it comes to the Bible, does it ever feel like you are reading the same story over and over again? In his book The Art of Biblical Narrative, author Robert Alter observes that one of the most common features of the narratives in the Old Testament is their use of repetition. He sees this as an indication of “literary purposefulness” on the part of the authors. Alter writes,“The most crucial case in point is the perplexing fact that in biblical narrative more or less the same story often seems to be told two or three or more times about different characters, or sometimes even about the same character in different sets of circumstances.”

No doubt he is correct. But I think there may be an additional reason. It is because people do the same dumb things. Any pastor can tell you this. Not only do different people do the same stupid things but people often make the same mistakes repeatedly. Actually, you don’t have to be a pastor to spot this. If you’ve attended more than one church, you’ve probably already noticed that it seems like the same story is unfolding with different faces. “Really?” we are tempted to say.  “You did that too?”

It’s a comfort, in a way. There is a certain warm familiarity in driving past the same broken down barn every day. The wreckage is a landmark, part of what makes the landscape feel like home to us. The same is often true of our lives. Over here is the secret drunk. Over there is the important man, whose voice must always be heard. And there is the queen of the kitchen, who likes to tell everyone else how things are done. But after a while, it starts to feel like a cliché. We grow weary of the storyline. This is especially true once we spot ourselves among the cast of characters. “Really?” we want to say to ourselves. “You did that again? Will you ever learn?”

In view of the Bible’s Old Testament narratives, the answer might actually be no. But if this is the case, the point is not our own stupidity. The message is something else altogether. This repetition is intended to draw our attention to the other main character who shows up again and again. It seems that the story was not about us after all, but about God. He does not always rescue us from the consequences of what we have done. Sometimes, He lets us complete the narrative arc of our foolish choices. He does not show up at the last minute to save the day. Instead, when He enters the story, it is to save us.

Stupid is as Stupid Does

Forest Gump’s momma said, “Stupid is as stupid does.” Well, we all does stupid sometimes. I probably feel stupid more often than I deserve. But I deserve it often enough. Everybody has moments of stupid that haunt them, sometimes for the rest of their lives. A college friend once told me how he would lie in bed at night and relive an unfortunate incident from high school. It only took a moment for all the shame and embarrassment to come rushing back. He would lie rigid in his bed and moan out loud. He told me that more than thirty years ago. I suspect he still thinks about it at night.

I could make a list. Indeed, I do make a list. It’s one of the main things I dwell on in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep. It’s either death or stupid. I worry about both. As it turns out, I can’t do much about either. Reason tells me that I ought to ignore what I can’t do anything about. But it never seems to work out that way. The sense of helplessness only increases my anxiety.

In his book Spiritual Depression, Martyn Lloyd Jones writes about those who are overcome with regret over “that one sin.”  This is the case of “those who are miserable Christians or who are suffering from spiritual depression because of their past–either because of some particular sin in their past, or because of the particular form which sin happened to take in their case.” Sin is stupid but stupid isn’t necessarily sin. Still, the language Lloyd Jones uses helps me to at least diagnose my symptoms. Sometimes the distress I feel is over a particular act of stupidity or because of the particular form that stupidity happened to take.

The feeling I experience in these instances is not just shame and horror, ultimately it is regret. I want to turn back the clock and do things differently. I want to change my past and thereby change my future.  I won’t ask the question. I won’t attend the meeting. I will leave the country and go into exile. My whole life will be different after that. And I will live happily ever after.

Now here is what is really interesting about these things that I regret. Most everyone else has forgotten them. Some of the people involved are dead. They probably noticed when the thing occurred, whatever it was. But I doubt that they thought about it much afterward. If they did it is likely that they only shook their heads. While I relived the moment in my mind that night, rewriting the dialogue to give me the advantage and make myself the hero, they were resting in their beds. Or else they were lying awake dwelling on their own version of stupid. The point is they weren’t even thinking about me.

It’s probably not as bad as you think. Even if it is, it won’t last forever. You might think about it for a long time but you will probably be the only one. I suppose I should leave you with three steps for forgetting about all the stupid things you’ve done. If I knew what they were, I’d be practicing them myself. What I can tell you is that as you lie there in bed dwelling on the past, like an old dog worrying a favorite bone, Jesus waits up with you. He is quiet. He does not lecture. He does not try to talk you out of it. He is simply there with you, aware of your pain and your regret. The good news is that Jesus forgives sin. He forgives stupid too.

This is What Forgiveness Feels Like

A few years ago I was diagnosed with cancer. Although it was a common form and treatable, I was shattered by the news. I felt betrayed, not so much by God, but by my own body. I lay awake nights thinking about the thing I had inside me and wishing that I could go back to the days before the diagnosis. When the doctor told me that my surgery appeared to be successful, I felt like a condemned prisoner who has just been given a pardon. “This is what forgiveness feels like,” I told my wife.

But sin is not really like cancer. Sin is not something that can be cut out of us or brought into remission by repeated treatment. It is not an alien presence. This is what I think Paul means when he says, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature” (Rom. 7:18). Sin not only is in me, it is me. It is part of my nature. It is because sin is so deeply embedded within, that we have such a high tolerance for it.

Theologian Josef Pieper describes sin as a warping of our created nature: “Sin is an inner contortion whose essence is misconstrued if we interpret it as sickness or, to descend into an even more trivializing level, merely as an infraction against conventional rules of behavior.” Because of this, the only solution for sin is an extreme one. The remedy is death. Since sin is me, there must be an end to me. This is somewhat ironic since death is also the progeny of sin. Death entered the world through sin (Rom. 5:12). Through Jesus Christ, God turned sin’s own weapon against itself. Those who belong to Christ have been united with Him in His death and resurrection (Rom. 6:5).

This remarkable union places the power of the cross at our disposal. Those who have been joined to Christ in His death have been granted power to “put to death the misdeeds of the body” (Rom. 8:13). The once for all death and resurrection of Jesus Christ produces within us a continual experience of dying and rising when it comes to our struggle with sin. There is an end point to this. The climax of our redemption will be our own bodily resurrection when the imperishable will be clothed with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality (1 Cor. 15:54). Then death will be swallowed up in victory and sin along with it. That is when we will really know what forgiveness feels like.