Posts Tagged ‘Colin Blunstone’

We are never “in the black” with God

September 2, 2015

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.

The Fall of humanity explained

July 12, 2013

Miracles was reissued as part of a beautiful series of Lewis paperbacks from HarperOne in 1996.

In case you haven’t noticed, blogging for me is mostly about writing things down before I forget them. So here I go again…

Earlier this week, I wrote that C.S. Lewis finally helped me understand a doctrine (God’s impassibility) with which I had struggled for years. And now he’s done it again—this time with the Fall of humanity.

Of course I know what the Fall is. Once sin enters the world through the first humans, death follows on its heels. Man’s harmonious relationship with God is ruptured, as is his relationship with Nature. I blogged about this second part of the Fall a while back.

But how does sin bring death? What changed within man after the Fall that he could no longer live forever? How does the spiritual ruin of sin lead to the physical ruin of death? Of course, it’s more important to understand that it does than to be able to explain how. But Lewis, as always, gives us one plausible account. So here he is once again, ladies and gentlemen: Mr. C.S. Lewis…

The spirit was once not a garrison, maintaining its post with difficulty in a hostile Nature, but was fully ‘at home’ with its organism, like a king in his own country or a rider on his own horse—or better still, as the human part of a Centaur was ‘at home’ with the equine part. Where spirit’s power over the organism was complete and unresisted, death would never occur. No doubt, spirit’s permanent triumph over natural forces which, if left to themselves, would kill the organism, would involve a continued miracle: but only the same sort of miracle which occurs every day—for whenever we think rationally we are, by direct spiritual power, forcing certain atoms in our brain and certain psychological tendencies in our natural soul to do what they would never have done if left to Nature.[1]

Earlier in the book, Lewis said much more about this “miracle which occurs every day”—which is rational thought. He argues that if Naturalism explains everything without recourse to anything beyond Nature, then the “certainty which we express by words like must be and therefore and since” is nothing more than a “feeling in our own minds and not a genuine insight into realities beyond them.”[2]

Thus a strict materialism refutes itself for the reason given long ago by Professor Haldane: ‘If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true… and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.’ (Possible Worlds, p. 209)[3]

The Christian (not to mention common sense) response to this is to say, “No, we have this intangible, spiritual thing above our merely physical brains—namely, our minds—that directs and superintends our thoughts, words, and actions.” To be sure, we Christians (along with nearly everyone else who’s ever lived) could be wrong about this. But if we are wrong, consider what we lose: If strict materialism is true, then our experience of mind and self-consciousness is an illusion created through the cause-and-effect of particles colliding in the mushy stuff inside our skulls. There is no “mind” that isn’t itself the product of unthinking—literally irrational—processes. Therefore reason itself is meaningless.

Since we have minds, however, we already have within us an example of a spiritual force that has the power to subject at least one part of the physical world (namely, our bodies) to itself—as Lewis says, “forcing certain atoms in our brain and certain psychological tendencies in our natural soul to do what they would never have done if left to Nature.” Now imagine, prior to the Fall, possessing this spiritual power so thoroughly and completely that the natural process that leads to death (without the spirit’s intervention) would forever be impeded.

Make sense? It does to me.

If that seemed a little heavy, here’s some music to lighten our load. I do believe in miracles—and one of them is surely Colin Blunstone’s voice!

1. C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 204-5.

2. Ibid., 21.

3. Ibid., 22.