Article first appeared in ABC Religion & Ethics.
Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22 and Mark 1:9-15.
Theologians often make doubtful Christians.
I do not mean they make other Christians doubt whether they are or want to be Christian. That may happen, but that is not what I mean by describing theologians as “doubtful Christians.”
The doubt I think often characterizes the life of theologians is meant to describe how theologians are often unsure if they are Christians.
They are doubtful not only because they are exposed to intellectual developments that seem to make many Christian convictions problematic. But the problem is deeper than such challenges to the faith.
The problem is quite simple: theologians get paid to believe in God.
I have made a good living by being a theologian. If I had ever quit believing – at least, if I were a person of integrity – I would have had to find another job. But the very fact I have been paid for being a theologian cannot help but create in me questions about my identity as a Christian.
The matter is complicated by the fact that most of us identified as theologians in our day are more likely to be servants of the University, rather than the Church. Theologians cannot help but wonder if we are Christians, not only because we assume the objectivity characteristic of university disciplines demands a distance from what we assume is our subject; but, in fact, we get paid by universities to be – or at least to pretend to be – Christians.
As a result, we cannot help but entertain the thought that we are more likely to be playing at being a Christian rather than being one.
Why am I imposing on you these pathetic anxieties from the world of theology? I do so because I suspect in some ways the kind of worry that may bedevil the theologian – that we fear we are more likely pretending to be a Christian than being one – pervades many lives, not just those of theologians. I think this particularly true at a time like this – namely, Lent.
Lent is a time when we are to examine our lives in the hope that through such an examination we will discover and repent of those sins, those impediments, that stand in the way of our being disciples of a crucified saviour.
We are able to undertake such an examination because, as we are told in 1 Peter, “Christ suffered for sins once and for all in order to bring us to God.” Yet it is hard to avoid the sense that we are playing at being sinful. We cannot help but think this is some kind of game. It is almost as if God wants us to be sinful because God is – or we are told God is – a God of forgiveness. So in order to help God be a forgiving God we have to play at being sinners – at least during Lent.
For example, think about the Gospel reading. After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God. He said, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent, and believe in the good news.” We, of course, are quite glad that the kingdom has drawn near, but it is by no means clear why the kingdom drawing near means we need to repent. Nor do we know what we have done or not done for which we should repent. We are not even sure we know what it means to repent.
But this is Lent, so we are willing to try to come up with something. We all have some sense that we often do something we later regret so we know we are not perfect. I should not have been as candid with Mrs Smith as I was, but she can really get on my nerves. I know I am a bit selfish, but when everything comes out in the wash I do my bit for others. I know I should not lie, but if I had told the truth to X or Y they would have been hurt. You can add to this unending list of our petty failings. After all, we confess we have sinned not only by what we have done but by what we have left undone. What we have left undone cannot help but cover a range of behaviours that are sufficient to make us sinners.
That said, it remains the case that, while we know we may be sinners, we have trouble taking that description of ourselves all that seriously. We know we are not perfect but most of us think we are good enough. The truth is most of us are conventional people who lead good, conventional lives. It is not at all clear to us we are all that sinful, but as I suggested we are willing to try to play being a sinner for God’s sake – at least at Lent.
That we may have the nagging thought we are only playing at being sinners, I suspect, involves the more general worry that in the world in which we now find ourselves, we are not at all sure if we know what it means to be Christians. I suspect we are not even sure we know what being a Christian looks like. Surely, to be a Christian means more than being a nice person that believes stuff about God. There is, after all, the Sermon on the Mount. But then that is one of the problems: we cannot imagine living out the demands of the Sermon. Because we cannot imagine living the lives the Sermon seems to envisage, we cannot help but fear that we are only playing at being Christian.
Something seems to have gone decisively wrong with our attempt to be a repentant people. I think the problem is quite simple. The reason we find it hard to avoid the sense that we are playing at being sinful during Lent is itself a manifestation of our sinfulness. No sin is more basic than the presumption – a presumption schooled by our pride – that we can know on our own what it means to say that we are sinners. Too often I fear that our attempt to examine ourselves in order to discover our sins turns out to be an invitation to narcissism.
We do not come to Jesus because our sins need to be forgiven. Rather, we know we need to be forgiven because Jesus has come to us as the One alone capable of revealing who we are without that knowledge destroying us. Never forget that we get to shout every Easter, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
Sin is not a generalized category to designate that we have done something for which we are later sorry. Sin is an offense against God who, as our Psalm indicates, is a Lord of compassion and love, and exactly because God is so we have revolted. We only know we are sinners because we are first loved by God. To confess that we are sinners turns out to be a theological achievement, because sin is not a general description that anyone can understand whether they are a Christian or not. In short, sin is not a naturally given category. That non-Christians use “sin” to describe some failing in their life is a left-over from a past age in which Christian speech was a kind of “given” – but that time is quickly disappearing.
As Christians, we believe that we must be taught to be a sinner. That training comes by being confronted by the Son of God who, as Karl Barth has put it:
“has accused us by turning and taking to Himself the accusation which is laid properly against us, against all men, against every man. He pronounced sentence on us by taking our place, by unreservedly allowing that God is in the right against Himself – Himself the bearer of our guilt. This is the humility of the act of God which has taken place for us in Jesus Christ.”
The good news is we do not get to be our own judge. We do not get to determine what our sins may be. The devil, the great tempter, would have us believe that we should want to be like that false god, the lord, who we assume to be self-sufficient, self-affirming, self-desiring, the supreme being, self-centred and rotating about himself.
The problem, of course, is that is not the God who has come to us in Jesus Christ. That God – the God that has come to us in Christ – is sufficient to Himself, but that sufficiency is the love that has constituted the life of the Trinity from all eternity. Our sin is, quite simply, our refusal to be loved by such a God.
What could possibly account for such a refusal? In a lovely book of prose poems, entitled Tears of Silence , Jean Vanier writes:
the mysterious power of compassion
compassion requires that I have found myself
and no longer
play the game
of putting on a mask, a personage
pretending to be
That I become myself
accepting my poverty
letting the Spirit breathe
opening my being
to the delicate touch
of God’s hand
accepting that I am loved
as I am
with my fears and frailties
with my intelligence and competencies
with my heart and with my hopes
free to be myself
Could Vanier possibly be right that we fear the mystery of compassion? I suspect he is right that we fear compassion because God is compassion “all the way down.” Accordingly, we fear God because we fear knowing who we are. But God has overwhelmed our fear by compassion itself. The name of that compassion is Jesus.
We have been made part of that compassion – the compassion that is Jesus – through the sharing of his body and blood. Accordingly, we have little use for our doubts about whether we are really Christians.
So do not worry that you worry about whether you are really a Christian. You may think you are only pretending to be a Christian, but by God’s grace God makes us what we pretend.
This is Lent. Repent! Recognize that those self-centred worries about whether you are really a Christian do you and God no good. Rather use this time, this sacred time, to prepare to meet the Christ, who for our sake “suffered for sins once and for all in order to bring you” – and me – “to God.”