As I was having lunch today, it suddenly hit me. The reason I seem to have it in for You Know Who. Or You Know Whom. I’m not sure which. The People we’ve been speaking about up until now. The People who would like us to believe they have God’s own particular authority here on earth. The Spatial and Special Chosen People of God. Here on this cosmic plane. Or on this cosmic construct.
But I suppose it is hyperbole to say that this (what I’m about to spout off about) is the whole reason for my torque. I think there may be multiple, as I’ve already intimated. Some personal. Some logical. Some theological. Some epistemological. Some moral. Some accidental. Some occidental. Some oriental. Some celestial. Some mathematical. Some aesthetical. Some rhetorical. Some historical. And some hysterical.
But this one is decidedly parental. Or is it parenthetical?
My children have had for as long as they have had moral identities a penchant for guilt. Profound guilt. Self-pummeling.
Where would that have ever come from? I’ve asked myself for about an epoch now. But I don’t rightly know. Certainly it has something to do with me. How exactly the pieces fit together, I’m not sure. And I’m not completely sure I want to know.
However that may be, my children often beat themselves up. Often cannot seem to forgive themselves. Appear to be whipped by the ideational forces of holiness. Of human perfectibility. Of Christlikeness. Ideational forces released by the Apostle Paul, fanned by Augustine, and brought to an unholy conflagration by John Wesley and his descendants.
There is a pernicious set of ideas loose in Christendom that run right up against Jesus’s central story about God and the followers of God: “The Parable of the Lost Son.”
Just as background, you should know that in my office I have a print of Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son.” You should also know that there are dozens of prints of various drawings and paintings representing this story that are hung about my present church. And you should also know that prints of the Rembrandt painting also hang in my current church and in my brother-in-law’s church, a church in which he is senior pastor. In workplace and worship-place, the story is literally represented almost everywhere I look.
You might say that I take this story pretty seriously. You might say that if I were forced to reduce my understanding of Jesus and the Christian faith to one paragraph, that paragraph would be a paraphrase of Jesus’s “Parable of the Lost Son.”
And as I was sitting across the table from my son today, across a table heavy with sushi—the very trope of Jesus himself—my stomach was grinding away on the idea that there are among us many who have just gotten the whole business of sin and forgiveness wrong. Through no fault of their own.
As I was chewing my sushi, it occured to me that the whole Christlikeness business is doomed. The whole holiness idea is doomed. The whole perfection idea is doomed. We can never measure up to Christ. On this earth and in this particular cosmos, we will always fall short. We will always fail.
We are sinners. He is sinless. It is that simple.
And to attempt to be sinless when we are sinners is the very definition of self-inflicted punishment. The very idea of mortification. The very essence of turning our backs on God and becoming fascinated with the rending of our own flesh, the rending of our own souls—fixated on our own guiltiness and sinfulness and unworthiness. This is a morbid business.
This is work that is doomed, and there are many among us who seem to want to encourage us in this.
But this is wrong. This is backward. This is upside down. This is inside out. Jesus has not asked us to do this. Jesus has asked us to do the opposite. He has asked us to seek and accept forgiveness from the Father. To accept the Father’s unconditional love. And to share that love with others.
We should not be reinforcing those whose penchant is for self-inflicted punishment. Whose desire for love and to love has been changed through no fault of their own into self-torture. We should not be saying that our goal is perfection, or holiness, or Christlikeness.
We should be saying that our goal is to be loved by the Father, to share the Father’s love with others, to accept the Father’s forgiveness, and to share the Father’s forgiveness with others.
We should be saying that our goal is to live by direction of the Father through his Word and through his Holy Spirit.
We should be saying that judgment does not belong to us. That we have no role to play in judgment, either as it may be applied to ourselves or to others.
We should be intolerant of those who would turn Christ upside down and make him and the Father and the Holy Spirit an unholy trinity who demand (or request or prefer) perfection in us.
The last thing God wants from us is perfection.
The first and last thing he wants from us is our love.