We are never “in the black” with God

I just read an extraordinarily good essay on marriage by Ada Calhoun in her “Modern Love” column in the New York Times. (It’s from July of this year.) But I’m less interested right now in the substance of the column—which, again, is excellent, and you should read—than in these three paragraphs:

One thing I love about marriage (and I love a lot of things about marriage) is that you can have a bad day or even a bad few years, full of doubt and fights and confusion and storming out of the house. But as long as you don’t get divorced, you are no less married than couples who never have a hint of trouble (I am told such people exist).

You can be bad at a religion and still be 100 percent that religion. Just because you take the Lord’s name in vain doesn’t make you suddenly a non-Christian. You can be a sinner. In fact, I think it’s good theology that no matter how hard you try, you are sure to be a sinner, just as you are sure to be lousy, at least sometimes, at being married. There is perfection only in death.

It is easy for people who have never tried to do anything as strange and difficult as being married to say marriage doesn’t matter, or to condemn those who fail at it, or to mock those who even try. But there is so much beauty in the trying, and in the failing, and in the trying again. Peter renounced Jesus three times before the cock crowed. And yet, he was the rock upon whom Christ built his church.

“I think it’s good theology that no matter how hard you try, you are sure to be a sinner.”

I love this, even though it grates slightly against something I profess to believe.

Within my particular ecclesial tradition, after all, we have this doctrine of perfection, that we can be “entirely sanctified” by the Holy Spirit, such that we’ll no longer sin—in this life, prior to death. In fact, we Methodist clergy tell our bishop, at ordination, that we expect to be perfected in our lifetime. It is, by far, Wesleyan Christianity’s most eccentric doctrine, and one that I hold to very—ahem—loosely.

According to my Wesleyan theology professor in seminary, Wesley himself didn’t know anyone for whom this had happened, and Wesley didn’t claim that he was yet perfected.

So maybe we can just concede that “perfection in love” is a remote possibility at best—and not something to get hung up on? Plus, I worry that this doctrine inflicts too much harm on people like me, whose consciences are already tender and easily wounded. Satan—whose name literally means “the accuser“—constantly whispers in my ear: “You are a failure. You are unlovable. You are a disappointment to others.” And now I have this other voice telling me, “You can be perfect. You should be perfect. What’s your problem?”

[I’m not saying that the doctrine of perfection, properly understood, inevitably leads to my particular struggle. And I’m happy to say that Satan’s “whispers” (no, not a literal voice in my head!) aren’t nearly as loud as they used to be. I’ve learned strategies to cope with them, thank God!]

All that to say, I mostly agree with this columnist’s view of what counts as “good theology.” And we need to keep this good theology in mind in light of the idea I expressed in yesterday’s post, “‘Learning to Love the Bomb’ of Our Past Failures.”

One thoughtful commenter, my friend Tom, said he struggled with the idea that we can be grateful, not merely for the tragedies of our lives that we don’t cause, but even for the tragedies that we do cause, usually in part through our own sinful choices. (In my experience, most “tragedies” are self-inflicted.) He wrote:

What a difficult issue for me!… It is true that everything “shapes us,” so if the ultimate result is a good thing, maybe we can even be “happy” for those bad things along the way. This is okay for the “mishaps,” but more problematic for the “misdeeds.” I mean I am really in conflict over this point you are making. I think on the one hand you could be right–on the other, should I acknowledge that I could have been even a better “specimen” had I gone straight rather than on detours? “Be not deceived, God is not mocked. For whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.” Should Samson be as happy about how he ended up as Daniel?

As I said in reply, it’s not a question of being “as happy as” someone who was more faithful to the Lord than we were; it’s a question of seeing, in retrospect—after genuine repentance for our sin—that God has indeed used the experience to help us, to heal us, to save us.

I can’t psychoanalyze Samson, but if his actions at the end of his story reflect genuine repentance, then, yes, even in his death, I imagine that he was “happy,” if you want to put it that way. He was at least at peace. His life had finally resolved all the contradictions that led him to that terrible place, and for that he could surely be grateful. He could take satisfaction, in the end, that he was finally getting his life right with God.

Who knows?

I continued in my reply:

I don’t draw as sharp a distinction between “mishaps” and “misdeeds,” simply because sin remains pervasive in our lives, regardless what is happening to us. God is always relating to us, as the late Dallas Willard memorably said, “on the basis of pity.” We don’t cross some threshold at which point our life is now “in the black.” We’re always in debt, always in need of grace and mercy at every moment—even as we are being sanctified.

It felt good for me to write that. Feel free to share your thoughts.

Here’s a wonderful song about being wrong by Colin Blunstone, from his masterful 1972 album, Ennismore.

2 thoughts on “We are never “in the black” with God”

  1. I like the idea of “perhaps not as happy as,” but nonetheless happy at the “big picture” as to “how we were helped along the way” even with our failings.

    As an aside, “perfection” is okay as an ideal to strive for–in fact, nobody has or ever will “get there.” “I count not myself to have arrived,” Paul said, and if HE wasn’t there, I seriously question how anybody else could be. 1 John 1 as well. But then, I think all denominations have at least one “doctrine” that they are likely in error about (for Baptists, is “once saved, always saved” such an error?). We can’t be in a “perfect” denomination–we just choose the best one we can and on occasions “bite our tongue” about this or that.

    1. Indeed. And we recognize what counts as essential and what doesn’t. Denominations that trouble me are ones that major in the minors.

Leave a Reply