This is a beautiful reminder, from a pastor long ago, that as we come before God to confess our sins, privately or in public worship, we’re not coming in fear of His wrath and curse, but as a response to His love in Christ. That same love is what turns us from sin to seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness with all of our hearts:
“In [man’s philosophy and man’s religion] there is not one thought of grace or divine free-love; no recognition of forgiveness as the root of holiness. . . . It would seem as if man could not trust himself with this, and could not believe that God would trust him with it. He has no idea of barriers against sin, save in the shape of walls, and chains, and bars of iron; of torture, and threats, and wrath. On these alone he relies. He is slow to learn that all legal deterrents are in their very nature irritants, with no power to produce or enforce anything but a constrained externalism. The interposition of forgiving love, in absolute completeness and freeness, is resisted as an encouragement to evil-doing; and, at the most, grace, only in a very conditional and restricted form, is allowed to come into play. . . . That God should act in any other character than as the rewarder of the deserving and the punisher of the undeserving; that He should go down into the depths of a human heart, and there touch springs which were reckoned inaccessible or perilous to deal with; that His gospel should throw itself upon something nobler than man’s fear of wrath, and begin by proclaiming pardon as the first step to holiness; this is so incredible to man, that, even with the Bible and the cross before his eyes, he turns away from it as foolishness.
“Nevertheless, this is . . . the true and only way of getting rid of sin. Forgiveness of sins, in believing God’s testimony to the finished propitiation of the cross, is not simply indispensable to a holy life, in . . . removing terror and liberating the soul from the pressure of guilt, but [in] imparting an impulse, and a motive, and a power which nothing else could do. Forgiveness at the end or in the middle; a partial forgiveness, or an uncertain forgiveness, or a grudging forgiveness, would be of no avail; it would only tantalise and mock; but a complete forgiveness, presented in such a way as to carry its own certainty along with it to every one who will take it at the hands of God — this is a power . . . against self, a power against sin, a power over the flesh, a power for holiness, such as no amount of suspense or terror could create. . . .
“It is forgiveness that sets a man a-working for God. He does not work in order to be forgiven, but because he has been forgiven; and the consciousness of his sin being pardoned, makes him long more for its entire removal than ever he did before.
“An unforgiven man cannot work. He has not the will, nor the power, nor the liberty. He is in chains. Israel in Egypt could not serve Jehovah. ‘Let my people go, that they may serve me,’ was God’s message to Pharaoh (Exod. 8:1); first liberty, then service.
“A forgiven man is the true worker, the true law-keeper. He can, he will, he must work for God. He has come into contact with that part of God’s character which warms his cold heart. Forgiving love constrains him. He cannot but work for Him who has removed his sins from him as far as the east is from the west. Forgiveness has made him a free man, and given him a new and most loving Master. Forgiveness, received freely from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, acts as a spring, an impulse, a stimulus of divine potency. It is more irresistible than law, or terror, or threat.” (Horatius Bonar, God’s Way of Holiness)
Thanks be to God!
When I was a young man, I used to look at old men and think many of them had lost their combative edge. It wasn’t that they were incapable of fighting, far from it; they just seemed to have no eagerness to fight. And, to my young mind, there were just so many things worth fighting about.
Not so young now, I’ve learned something. Play fighting is good sport. Real fighting is no game. It consumes enormous time, energy, and resources, and since there’s only so much to go around, one eventually must ask if certain fights are, in fact, worth it. To my younger self, this was obvious. Not so much now.
I have watched people whose powers I respect devolve into what I might call an addiction to conflict. They live for it. It energizes them. Judging from the little I see, I surmise some of them must (for example) sit by their Twitter accounts for hours, just waiting for the next subtweet to drop. And they are on it.
I’m not the only one who’s noticed this sort of thing is becoming much more prevalent in our public spaces. Many people now are “up in arms,” at least online. Perhaps more accurately, they’re active ringside spectators in the blood sport we call “the discourse.” We’re all watching the melee, cheering or groaning. We’re juiced. Not all of us, but I’ll return to that.
I reached official midlife around the time social media burst on the scene. This seemed to coincide with pretty dramatic changes in what we North Americans call “politics.” (This has been talked about ad nauseum, but bear with me briefly). The decibel levels really went off the charts during COVID (are we still in COVID? I guess it depends who you ask). This was the first time in my life that I felt something big happening in me as a result of all that stuff out there in “politics.” I began to experience fairly acute social gun-shyness. I discovered that many people I knew and loved, and had walked and conversed with for years, had (or had recently developed) views that I considered extreme, and in some cases terribly wrong. What was tough during COVID was that I couldn’t get away from it. The crisis was on everyone’s mind, it seemed; it came up in every conversation; and I found myself constantly hearing things I was expected to respond to, maybe even obligated to respond to, but I had no idea how to respond without starting a fight. The only way to avoid such scenarios was to stay away from people – most people, in fact.
This challenging and exhausting experience, drawn out over many months, reminded me of counseling deeply troubled marriages. All the oxygen is sucked out of these relationships; the parties can’t talk about anything without it somehow looping back into their mutual grievances. Things are so raw, the crisis so intense, that even the thought of having a conversation incites reaction ranging from total disinclination to raging hostility. And this intensity is self-perpetuating, because any attempt to draw things toward some reality outside the conflict is seen either as indifference toward “just how bad things are,” or as one more subtle tactic that serves the interests of the enemy.
Yet a curious fact remains: most of the good world God made existed long before this crisis, continues to exist peacefully even now quite apart from the crisis, and will exist long after the crisis has run its course. Not only is this a fact, but there is quite a lot of healing that comes in noticing it, because it means there are many things to think about, and to do, that have nothing to do with the crisis. And if I think about those things, and do those things, I may find that when I look back at the crisis, at the very least it no longer consumes my field of vision. I may find that my head is clear enough to have fresh ideas about how to handle the conflict. I may even find the whole thing just doesn’t matter so much to me anymore.
Outside the window of my study (I work from home), there’s a big tree. I’ve worked in this study for years, and each day I look out the window at the tree. Sometimes it’s richly leaved. Sometimes it’s gray and bare and tossed by winter winds. It was here long before we bought the house; I suppose it will be here long after I’m gone. It’s just there in my yard, calmly doing its tree thing, while the crises of my small life come and go. If I go out, put my hand on its rough bark, and am still, there’s a quiet strength that seems to say, kindly enough, “You’re not very important. You’re like the grass down there, here today, gone tomorrow.”
This is just one tree. There are the forests, plains, ocean floors, mountain ranges, vast desserts. There are beasts, fish, birds of the air. There’s the awesome expanse overhead, reaching out into trackless universe. There are the endlessly fascinating cultures of the human world, the stories of the past, the possibilities of the future. There’s the realm of imaginary things, beckoning beyond the merely visible. There’s the world of spirits, of angelic hosts, and beyond all creaturely things, the abode of God. All of these invite us to ask, think, investigate, envision, and act.
I find myself lately turning to questions and ideas, projects and explorations, unrelated to any particular crisis. It’s worthwhile to wonder why some chocolate is better than others, to hear the interlude my child composed and reflect on what it tells, to follow the scent of soap to forgotten memories in my grandparents’ house, to visit Rabbit Hill again after many years, to learn how to clean a carburetor, to talk about my neighbor’s fishing trip, to debate the merits of cryptocurrency, to watch our budgie’s antics, to ask why four Gospels, to ponder how our Lord’s emotions were joined to changeless divinity.
What’s more, people still exist who are interested in such things, and they’re interesting, because I don’t already know what they’re going to talk about (the crisis) before they start talking.
Crises obviously demand a response. A crisis mindset, however, should almost always be short-lived. Crises can stunt us and make us boring, because we start thinking and acting as if one thing is everything. Eventually this distorts our view not just of things outside the crisis, but even the crisis itself. We start seeing conflict or potential conflict where there is none, or at least should be none. We lose all sense of time and scale in the urgency of the moment (THIS! NOW!). COVID showed me in real time what is meant by “fog of war.”
There are real problems in the world, serious problems. There is also a deficit of fresh, constructive thinking about them. Often the lines have been drawn in debate about the problems, and we all stand stoutly at the same old lines, ready for war. Sometimes this is noble, an act of faithful courage; we need William Wilberforce from time to time. It can also reflect blindness and stupidity, and bring carnage and staggering waste. The best thinkers about crises are those who are not always thinking about the crisis, who “have a life” as the saying goes, who are in touch with a lot of God’s good reality and so can come at one particular thing from many angles.
I often think of those old men my youthful self was wont to judge. Maybe they were tired, or had lost their nerve. Or maybe they saw what I couldn’t: the sunlight of God touching the mountains above the little skirmish in the valley. Maybe they even heard Him who sits in the heavens laughing. Maybe that made them want to go enjoy a day out with a grandchild, make dinner, read a novel, or watch the birds at their window. Maybe old warriors know: that’s how you stay fit for the fights that are worth it.