I worry at times that my comments are somewhat redundant from entry to entry to entry. If they are, please tell me, I won’t be offended.
Firstly, I love art. I love art a great deal. I’m a canter and a composer and a musician and a performer and I totally and completely affirm the value of art. When I post critiques of the more artistic videos you all share, I hope it doesn’t come across as a devaluing of art.
Also, I don’t think that art has to be 100% theologically perfect to be “good art”. Art that communicates who the artist is, right in that moment, with clarity, is good art. So again, if I deconstruct some of what was asserted here, it isn’t meant in any way to say that this piece is somehow not a good piece. I actually think the performance is a fantastic performance. (Although I do find the video images a bit… obvious?)
This articulation of the frustration we all feel with our struggle to overcome sin is wonderfully honest. I would love to have seen some quotes from Lamentations or the Psalms or St. Paul’s wonderfully convoluted articulation in Romans 7:15 “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” The Patristic writings are full of the ardent struggle to be genuinely penitent and to grow in grace to greater and greater glory. But, the articulation here is right and true without quoting scripture.
There was a missed opportunity to point out that one of our biggest idols is our own sin. We convince ourselves that God cannot love us or save us because, unlike everyone else ever, our sin is too big, too special, too horrible to be redeemed from.
Ultimately, we escape the trap of trying to save ourselves by brute forcing a morally upright life not by simply giving up on that and basking in God’s grace, but rather by bringing down the final idol of pride that is our own sin and recognizing that God is bigger than our sin.
My biggest concern here is the very loud, central message of salvation by faith alone which hinges on some very narrow proof texting. While it is true that Christ’s command is to “believe in him and love our brother”, it can be all too easy to think of belief as this abstract thing that happens in our brain with regards to assenting to a discursive truth and for love to be this hippie influenced idea about being nice and not hassling people. But St. James’ epistle tells us explicitly that faith without works is dead. And Jesus himself warned in Matthew 25 that when the sheep are separated from the goats, we aren’t going to be judged on the quality of our intellectual beliefs. We’re going to be judged on whether we clothed the naked, fed the hungry, visited the prisoner and cared for the sick.
Protestantism has hit a wall. It spent 500 years reducing Christianity to a system of morality. In our current culture we see how hollow and unfulfilling that is, and society has rebelled against it by not only rejecting the morality, but by rejecting the faith as well. Those who want to keep the faith are scrambling to find new ways to articulate what the life of a Christian looks like if it doesn’t hinge around bashing your head against the wall as you struggle to “be good”.
The problem is, what you end up with is this very vague articulation that ultimately we not only don’t need to do anything to be saved, but that we ultimately can’t do anything to be saved and the problem is, that leaves one with a faith that’s even more hollow than mere morality. Because God loves me even though I can’t love him, and because God’s goodness saves me even though I can’t be good, the life in Christ amounts to relaxing into a hammock with a broad, contented smile and waiting for the trumpets to sound — meanwhile the world around us is hungry, naked, sick and oppressed and we aren’t lifting a finger to help.
Without the motivational force of the moral life, being a Christian amounts to little more than a secret club card we carry that we’ll whip out when we’re queued up at the velvet ropes outside St. Peter’s gate. Why yes, thank you very much, I believed in Jesus, and yes, I would like a gold harp and a pair of sandals.
The problem with early Protestantism wasn’t the morality. The problem was that the morality was put prior to sanctification. We need God’s grace to clean out that pain and hurt and exhaustion of our own failure so that we’re capable, by the movement of the Spirit within us, to be moral — to feed the hungry &c.
I think this piece gets on very thin ice, however, right at the end when it claims that we can’t love God, only God can love us. This is a flat denial not only of scripture, but of the witness of the tradition of the church for centuries.
The whole purpose of the moral life of faith is that in demonstrating faith by works, we make manifest our love for God. It is true, we cannot love God on our own but we aren’t on our own! God’s grace, and the Holy Spirit dwell inside us and make us divine. Christ showed us the way to love. His two commandments are love! Love your neighbor, and love God with your whole being.
The danger here is that many young people hear about morality and they think “I have to be good or God won’t love me, that’s judgmental and crappy and I don’t want that”. And so we get these new articulations of faith that focus on grace, and what happens is, people start to think that God loving them is all that matters — they forget that they have to love God in return. And just as I can’t claim to love my wife and then take her for granted or abuse (or neglect) her, neither can I claim to love God and live in rebellion against his sovereignty.
“Being good” isn’t about God loving me, it is about me loving God. The freedom we discover is in realizing that we can only do this by God’s grace, not our own will power. But you still have to do it you can’t just sit back and coast along for the ride.
I agree with what you’re saying here.
I’ve always felt caught in the middle of two ideas: the one being that works are all that matters, which I don’t believe. I don’t believe that I can earn salvation, I think that’s something only God can do. The other, that salvation gives me a free pass, which I also don’t believe, but it’s been hard for me to articulate where the two meet in the middle.
I think, finally, I’ve found that spot in the idea of how I love God back. I think you’re right, a lot of the problem comes in this wishy washy understanding of what loving God and each other means. Love is a lot more than feeling squishy towards people and the idea of God. Love acts, it get’s messy, it sacrifices self… and we’re missing that piece in the way we speak because the word love has been so watered down.
Sometimes I wonder if people really understand how they are loved by God. Since we know that our understanding of what love is has become so distorted, then it makes sense that we could rationalize coasting along while the God of the universe thinks of us all as neat kids. Because isn’t that what love is? A general sense of good-will and warm and fuzzy feelings towards something else? In that case, I can understand feeling zero motivation towards living a moral life that honors God.
When I start to think of God -being- love and the reality of what love is, as you described, it makes me feel a lot of things… authentic love requires love as a response. I can’t know even in the smallest degree how God loves me and not feel an aching desire to love him back, and it isn’t about earning anything, it isn’t about feeling eternally secure, it isn’t about achieving a reward at the pearly gates. All of those motivations fall short, instead it’s an almost unbearable desire for union, to participate in life itself, if that makes sense, which is why I think James said that faith without works is dead, because I don’t think you can really experience life without the desire to reciprocate.
I’m probably just repeating a lot of what you said, or I’m headed off in a completely different direction and don’t even realize it… but for me a lot of the problem comes down to people not living this reality. We have a whole lot of people who are going around saying that they “love the sinner and hate the sin” and at the end of the day all that’s amounting to is people feeling free to point out sin EVERYWHERE and in EVERYONE.
I think Christians need to stop a moment and think about what it means to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Seriously. What does that look like in real life, because what you’ll find is that in order to live up to that commandment, it requires a whole lot of action. We have to realize that there’s no measuring stick though, you start with what you have and you put one foot in front of the other and sometimes you fall, sometimes you stumble, but that is why there’s no condemnation in Christ, because the very next moment you can get back up and there’s never a ‘love God enough’ moment that earns you gold status, there’s only love God or not, and through the process of sanctification we love God more, but there’s never an enough.
I’ll stop rambling now. =)
There is a wonderful articulation by a father of the church that initially, one pursues a life of faith to avoid Hell. As one grows in faith, one eventually pursues it in order to achieve Heaven. But true spiritual maturity is pursuing a life of faith simply because one loves God.
The monks on Mount Athos, when they are asked “what do you do here?” respond with “we fall down, and we get up, and we fall down, and we get up, and we fall down, and we get up…”
Love not only requires a response, love is a response. God is love. When his creatures fell sick from sin and were dying, what did he do? He became one of us so that he could conquer Death and restore us to the immortality we were created to have! That’s the response of love. And he did it knowing that his response would require sacrifice. Not some blood offering to cover some cosmic debt for our guilt. NO. But rather, that truly authentic love is so inherently self-less that sacrifice is inevitable.
God knew that the way to conquer Death was to allow sin to kill his incarnation.
I love thinking about Genesis 1:26 when he says “let us make man in our image…” and he is there speaking within the Trinity. The three persons having a conversation. And you know that what’s really going on is this conversation between the Father and the Son; “let us make… you know what this will mean, right son?” “Yes Father, I know. Let us make…” and the Spirit moves, and the Word speaks, and we are made. And eventually that Word has to come and hang on a tree and say “It is finished” because finally man is truly in God’s image and likeness because man is being love just as God is love.
Anyone who can know that reality and think that their day to day moral behavior doesn’t matter, or that the only way they can be good is by their own will, is… deeply deluded by sin.
There is SO much I love about this comment that I’m going to have to wait until I’m at my computer to reply so that I can use all my fingers to type
I was going to leave a point by point comment, but after rereading your last comment I don’t think I can, mostly because they all boil down to a lot of the same thing, or another one general theme that I keep thinking about.
So I said before that I wondered if people really understand how they’re loved by God. In my personal blog I’ve written about what a revelation it has been to me to slowly start to come to understand how I am loved by God. It’s a hard thing for me to even talk about because I’m afraid that no matter what terms I use to describe it, it comes out over simplified and that the sheer magnitude of how it’s developing me as a person isn’t clear.
I think a big thing for me was this whole idea of separating myself into bits and pieces… these bits are good, these pieces are bad, these sections are me, these sections are not who I really am. Except that I never truly believed that those sections that were “bad” weren’t really me, what I believed was that they were the truest me, the most authentic me. As a result I never understood how I was loved, I was trying to be lovable while believing that I wasn’t and so my response was not love in return by guilt. Trying to be good because I felt guilty that I wasn’t good
Don’t groan too loudly, but there’s this Alanis Morissette song called “Everything” and the chorus says…
“You see everything, you see every part. You know all my light and you love my dark. You dig everything of which I’m ashamed, there’s not anything to which you can’t relate and you’re still here.”
That line, “…and you love my dark” used to really bother me for all of the reason I listed above, I wanted to believe that those things weren’t the real me, and yet I fully believed that they were, so it was a big, big thing for me when somehow I realized I had to stop trying to divide myself into to sections because it is all me and hear God say, “Yes. Even that.”
At that point guilt turns to gratitude and gratitude becomes a very deep kind of love.
The difference in how we treat other human beings as we are either acting out of guilt or out of love is pretty remarkable. And it’s sad to me that it’s so difficult for people to see they are doing.
It is difficult for us to see our inability to accept God’s love because of our sin as an act of pride. God can love everybody — but not me because I’m Such A Great Sinner.
And what you describe here is what I think the artists who made this poem are getting _correct_. God is. And God is love. His love for me is in the endlessly unfolding present moment — because neither the past (full of my failures and regrets) nor the future (full of my anxiety about repeating those failures) is either where I am or where God is. We are both here, right now. And He loves me. Which means he loves _who I am right now_. Not the sanctified version of me he wants me to become (although he will love that, too, when by his grace it manifests) but who I am right now.
And so to think that God can’t love me until I get my sin sorted out, or until I can carve away the parts I don’t like, is to deny the reality of God and his love, because that’s some future love that never comes.
The key there is to understand that how we love God back is our quest for sanctification. It isn’t simply easing back into a hammock and waiting for the trumpets and it isn’t rolling a rock uphill trying to be moral under our own will power. We love God back by seeking relationship with him through prayer, and we prepare for the necessary discipline to pray that way through asceticism. By meeting God directly, through prayer, and the ongoing indwelling of the Holy Spirit that results, we can then love God back, and the moral life of service to him will be the inevitable consequence.
That is why our burden is light. Not because there’s nothing to struggle to get done. But because our struggle is merely to face God and know him, not to uphold every last ink stroke of The Law.
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