Monday, September 19, 2011
Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God
A man has a daughter whom he loves very much. As a small child she is bright and inquisitive, but she is often mean to other children who are not as clever as she is, mocking them for her amusement. She asks her father; “Do you love me?” and he replies; “Yes, with all my heart, but I could teach you so much more if you would stop being so mean.” As she grows older, she gets bored in school and encourages other kids to act out in class and say things to embarrass or shock the teachers. She is often given detention and gets poor marks. She asks her father; “Do you love me?” and he replies; “Yes, with all my heart, but I could help you learn more and help your friends if you would stop encouraging them to break the rules.” When she moves out of the house she falls in with a bohemian crowd, given to recreational drug use, abuse of alcohol, and mocking of older cultural traditions and institutions, as well as a casual attitude towards physical intimacy. She asks her father; “Do you love me?” and he replies; “Yes, with all my heart, but I could share so much more with you if you would respect the things I raised you to know.” After a few years of hard living, she ends up in the hospital in serious condition, and looks back on her life and the choices she made, wishing she had taken chances she did not, wishing she had heeded advice she scorned, and her father comes to her bedside and weeps over her. She asks her father; “Do you love me?” and he replies; “Yes, with all my heart, as I have told you all your life, and now that you are ready to listen, I can tell you so much more about my love for you.”
I’m happy to concede that that is a fairly elementary and somewhat over-sweet allegory of the love of God for each of us wretched sinners. But as simple and contrived as it may be, it does serve to illustrate a very important point I see overlooked all too often. There is not a conflict between a God of love and a God who calls us to repent. Further, there is not a conflict between a call to know God through a relationship of love, and to know him as a sinner in need of grace. When we seek to place a binary tree on our relationship to God as either based in Love or based in Repentance, we create an artificial and worldly restriction on our knowledge and relationship with God, and to my understanding, we limit our closeness to him, and thus compound our sins.
As I have already mentioned before, I wholly support the Great Commandments. I quoted from the Old Testament last time; I’ll quote from Matthew today, Chapter 22, 36-40: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Anyone who claims that the Church as established by Christ Jesus does not demand repentance may not have given dedicated thought to the first and greatest commandment. Let’s look back at my opening allegory, we can see the boundless love of the Lord in the expression of the father to the daughter, a love which is not contradicted by his desire for her to repent and learn to live in Christ. But when we look from the other side of the relationship, if the daughter had loved her father with ‘all her heart and with all her soul and with all her mind’ surely she would have felt not only a recognition of the call to repent, but a deep desire and need to do so, to show her love of her father by striving to respect his love, to know him better, and to see as he sees, even if she had faltered up until then.
This duality of love and a call to become better is no less true of any of us. When we sin, we are called to repent, but called in love. When we confront our relationship to the Lord with eyes and hearts open and truly seek to love him with all we are, we cannot escape the clear desire to become better and to try and live up to the love he has for us, even if we know we will always fall short of the mark. We may know that when next we come before him, we will need his forgiveness again, and we will fall short of what we should do, but we will try, and we will repent of those acts and thoughts which we know to cause him sorrow.
Let us not forget the second great commandment. It is not the focus of this essay, but it cannot be simply tossed aside or the thought would be too incomplete. For when we love our neighbors as ourselves, we love them as beings in development, as souls striving to become closer to a God which loves them. This informs us that while judgment is not given to us, that we should approach our fellow man as fellow beings in need of compassion, forgiveness, and encouragement to strive on, and to seek God’s grace and love to help him in overcoming his own sins, and in learning to know God’s love more fully. In order to love another as ourselves, we must desire that they come to love God, and know God’s love, as we do.
To me, a call for repentance which seeks to establish itself as distinct from the love of God and the love he calls upon us to exercise is a flawed faith. It is a faith which will be ever tempted by the call to judgment, a faith which will turn away from the sinner in need, and the suffering who do not know God. While a claim for love without repentance is not a doctrine of salvation and atonement, but is merely a spiritual salve which allows the participants to sooth the pangs of their soul without confronting the state of their relationship with God. It is a faith which risks losing sight of the importance of improvement, of growing so pleased at spreading joy that it forgets to spread the word of the Lord and the knowledge of how to improve your understanding of God’s Love. Faith in the Lord is not a matter of Repentance or Love, it is a Vital matter of both in harmony and without conflict. Neither is of the Lord without the other. So Repent Ye Wicked Sinners, and may God’s Love Be With You.