God's Unlimited Patience For My Imperfect Progress

For Sunday September 12, 2010

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)

Jeremiah 4:11–12, 22–28

Psalm 14 or Exodus 32:7–14

Psalm 51:1–10

1 Timothy 1:12–17

Luke 15:1–10

           When my family had our picture taken for the church directory, Olan Mills encouraged us to "upgrade to a touch up." For an extra the touch up would erase age lines, blemishes, wrinkles, sagging skin, and even the glare on my forehead. An airbrush here, a digitalization there, and my photographic image would look considerably better than the human reality that I see in the mirror every morning.

           We bought the upgrade.

           As we left the studio, I wished that my progress in the Christian life could be as simple. Of course, you can find books, seminars and sermons that promise to repair your marriage, fix your finances, teach you to pray, or make you the best parent on the block, all in a few easy steps. My forty years of Christian experience has proven otherwise. The superficial touch ups feel more like predictable set ups. There's a big difference between burnishing my image and transforming my reality.

"The person who has come to know the weakness of human nature has gained experience of divine power. Such a person never belittles anyone...He knows that God is like a good and loving physician who heals with individual treatment each of those who are trying to make progress."

St. Maximos the Confessor (seventh century)

           When you pay attention to the psalms, you discover a liberating truth — that before God we can be both truly Christian and fully fallen. In Martin Luther's idiom, at one and the same time we're both saint and sinner. This is one of the reasons that monastic communities immerse themselves in the psalms, reading, singing and chanting their way through all 150 psalms every few weeks for the rest of their lives. The psalms range the gamut of human emotion and experience. These ancient poets celebrate, praise and rejoice, but they also vent their bitterness, anger, loneliness, regret, and despair.

           In her book Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris recalls how as a little girl going to church meant dressing up, both literally in pretty clothes and figuratively in superficial cheerfulness. As an adult, the psalms liberated her from this impossible and oppressive standard, for they charted all the complexities and contradictions of her normal human experience.

           The psalmists taught Norris that praise and optimism are not the same thing, that anger need not be suppressed, that wanting God to slay your enemies can feel good even though it's wrong, that she need not repress "offensive emotions," and that their religious experiences mirrored her own "inner chaos." In short, says Norris, the psalms were "unrelenting in their realism about the human psyche," freeing her to walk honestly and openly with God.

"Do all in your power not to fall, for the strong athlete should not fall. But if you do fall, get up again at once and continue the contest. Even if you fall a thousand times...rise up again each time."

St. John of Karpathos (date unknown)

           Other saints have made similarly sober observations about Christian progress. The German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer remarked that disillusionment with the church is a good thing because it disabuses us of "false expectations of perfection."1

           Lewis Smedes, former professor at Fuller Seminary, wrote that one of the reasons he joined the Christian Reformed Church was because its "modest expectations" comforted him "in view of the sluggish pace of my own spiritual improvement." The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) which has shaped his denomination's heritage contains a long exposition of all the Ten Commandments, after which it asks whether a Christian might keep these commandments perfectly. The catechetical response is shocking in its candor: "No, for even the holiest believer makes only a small beginning in obedience in this life."2

           The two psalms from the lectionary this week elucidate why Christian maturity proceeds in fits and starts rather than as one victory after another. If the great American religion is optimism and denial, the Biblical view of things begins with the bad news of sin: "The Lord looks down from heaven / on the sons of men / to see if there are any who understand / any who seek God. / All have turned aside / they have together become corrupt; / there is no one who does good, / not even one" (Psalm 14:2–3). In Augustine's famous phrase, we're "not able not to sin." This doesn't mean that every person always sinks to his moral nadir, but rather that there is no part of any one of us that is not morally and spiritually compromised. Our human frailty bespeaks breadth if not depth.

"Even if you are not what you should be, you should not despair."

St. Peter of Damaskos (12th century)

           Similarly, in the famous Psalm 51 for this week, David, who elsewhere is described as "a man after God's own heart" (Acts 13:22), confesses his sins (plural) of adultery and murder. But he also confesses his deeper problem of sin (singular), that he has been "a sinner from birth" (Psalm 51:5). In medical terms, he struggles with acute, episodic sinful actions, but his underlying malady is a chronic, congenital, sinful condition that he will struggle with the rest of his life. We're not sinners because we sin; we sin because we're sinners. In the very last paragraph of his book Christianity; the First Three Thousand Years (2010), Oxford's Diarmaid MacCulloch thus observes that "original sin is one of the more plausible concepts within the Western Christian package, corresponding all too accurately with everyday human experience" (p. 1016).

           John Donne's famous Sonnet XIV is unsparing in its realism about our captivity to the powers of sin and evil:

           Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you
               As yet but knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend;
               That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me and bend
           Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.
           I, like a usurped town to another due,
               Labor to admit you, but, oh, to no end;
               Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend;
           But is captive and proves weak or untrue.

           Yet dearly I love you and would be loved fain;
               But am betrothed unto your enemy;
               Divorce me, untie or break that knot again;
           Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
               Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
               Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Echoing the psalmists, Donne longs to love God and be loved by him, and he labors hard to do so, but he confesses that he is weak, captive, untrue, and engaged to the enemy. His only hope is that God would "batter his heart." There's no use asking for a finishing hammer when what you need is a sledge hammer.

           In the epistle for this week Paul describes himself as "the worst of all sinners." Before his conversion he was a "blasphemer, persecutor and violent man" who murdered Christians. He uses himself as an example that however imperfect our Christian progress, God has "unlimited patience." We should "fully accept," writes Paul, that Jesus welcomes sinners just like us (1 Timothy 1:12–17).

           That's exactly what we find in the gospel for this week— Jesus mingling with the despised tax collectors and people of ill repute, much to the chagrin of the religiously righteous establishment. "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them," they muttered (Luke 15:1–2). They were right.

           My wife once heard about a study on National Public Radio that suggested that the most successful marriages had modest, realistic expectations. On the journey with Jesus, says the Heidelberg Catechism, every believer should "begin with serious purpose to conform not only to some, but to all the commandments of God." True enough. But we also journey with the sober realization that as pilgrims we're a long way from our ultimate destination. However far and long we journey, we'll only make a small beginning, and that's okay, because nothing should shake our confidence that God's unlimited patience will take us all the way home.

[1] As quoted by Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), p. 163, commenting on Bonhoeffer's book Life Together).
[2] Lewis Smedes, My God and I (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003, pp. 61–62.