Friday, April 19, 2013

I Weep, or Try to Weep

When I sat down to write this post, my original intention was to weigh in on the Lutheran Facebook community’s Controversy of the Week™ concerning sanctification, which itself stems from the ever-raging struggle between the Lutheran Church and antinomianism. I intended to delve into all the theological arguments one can find in Sacred Scripture, the Confessions, and the Fathers demonstrating the fact that sanctification is something that the Christian participates in, albeit all too feebly, as a result of the newness of his re-created life. This salutary synergism requires the third use of the Law, because the Law of God is good and right and salutary, for our benefit and edification, and guides us in holiness of living.

But I decided to take this post in a slightly different direction. In fact, the title of this post is one I was toying around with even before the latest flare-up of the sanctification controversy. It comes from St. Bernard of Morlaix's famous poem De Contemptu Mundi, known to us most commonly in the form of “Jerusalem the Golden,” though it also inspired a few other hymns in The Lutheran Hymnal (cf. TLH 448, 605, and 614).  It appears that the poem inspired something like 20 verses of hymnody under various titles. The verse I'd like to consider is based on 2 Corinthians 5:19, where St. Paul relates words he received from the Lord:  "My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in weakness."  The text of the verse is as follows:
When in His strength I struggle, for very joy I leap;
When in my sin I totter, I weep, or try to weep:
And grace, sweet grace celestial, shall all its love display,
And David's royal fountain purge every stain away.
 
Growing up, I used to (and still do) struggle a lot with the concept of “feeling bad” or, in the words of the hymn, "weeping" over my sin.  For whatever reason - be it seared or defective conscience, I really don’t know - I'll often do something that, though I know it is wrong on paper, I don’t feel any remorse for.  There are times that I have persisted in a sin and have repented only because I know it is an offense against God, not because I feel some overwhelming sense of sorrow about it in my heart. This lack of an emotional response to my sin often led me to despair and feeling as if I wasn’t really a Christian. After all, real Christians feel sorrow over their sins. Real Christians strike their breast in anguish and tear their robes when they’ve done something wrong. Real Christians are shaken to their core when they compare the Law of God to the sorry state of their pathetic, sinful lives. So if I don’t start vomiting every time I’m confronted with the reality of sin in my life - if I don’t feel sorry - I must not be genuinely repentant.

This was my way of thinking for the longest time, so I naturally felt like an inferior and unfaithful Christian.  This was obviously wrong-headed.  As it so happens, a couple of weeks ago I was listening to a podcast from the Issues, Etc. series on the Historic Liturgy; in this particular segment, Frs. Weedon and Wilken were expositing the confession of sins in the preparatory service that occurs before the Divine Service proper (as an aside, I highly recommend the Historic Liturgy series to anyone who is interested in the Divine Liturgy itself and Lutheran theology in general). The segment helped me put into words what was wrong with my former way of thinking.  In short: we can never have enough remorse for our sins. We can never feel guilty enough for the sins that drive us from the presence of God. We can never cry tears of agony that will ever match the severity of our sin. To suppose that we can weep long enough and hard enough over sin in the frailty of our impoverished mortality is to diminish the gravity of sin’s seriousness. After all, these sins caused the Creator of the universe to take on human flesh - and to die. These sins caused God Himself to die. No tears we shed can even come close to demonstrating this reality.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t feel guilty. It doesn’t mean that we should throw up our hands with an indifferent sigh of “oh well” or “why bother?” It does mean, however, that we shouldn’t navel-gaze to the point of despair because of something so foolish as not having despaired enough. Rather, we should confess our sins and confess our inability to feel sorry enough for them. To be clear, God won’t be mocked; He won’t accept a duplicitous confession. But if we honestly confess our sins, God will accept our confession, even if we are only trying to weep and not actually weeping.

This is why I find such comfort in the hymn verse previously quoted. When I totter in my sin, I “weep, or try to weep.” Yes, I can’t always weep - and that’s okay. Sometimes I just have to admit that to God too. And He will be merciful. He lived the perfect life I couldn’t. He felt the full weight of the sins that I all too flippantly dismiss. He sweated blood in the Garden on their account. His flesh was torn open for their consequences. And in these blessed wounds I find peace. From these blessed wounds flow that royal fount of David, the forgiveness of sins that covered me in Baptism and fill my ears and mouth and stomach in Word and Sacrament. “And grace, sweet grace celestial, will all its love display; and David’s royal fountain purge every stain away.”

To bring the post full circle, all of this ties in rather neatly into the sanctification debate. Even after I had my “confessional awakening,” I still struggled with the antinomian idea that I didn’t have to worry about holy living because it would all come naturally - good deeds would just flow from hearing the Gospel without any effort on my part. But...that didn’t seem to be happening. I didn’t see any change in my life. Where was the new man? I felt as if something was wrong with me for not feeling my sanctification, which was just supposed to happen all on its own. Have you noticed that italicized word elsewhere in this post? Yeah, feeling. The old evil foe loves to throw in the heresy of enthusiasm wherever he can, making us feel as if the true way to God is found in what we feel. The truth is that our feelings deceive us. God is found in the Word, not in feelings. God’s Word tells us that we are weak. Sanctification may be synergistic, but we are by no means pulling our own weight. God’s strength is what keeps us going. And it causes us to rejoice. “When in Your strength I triumph, for very joy I leap.”

God is found in the Word. So it is only natural to look to the holy Law of God to help us walk the path of righteousness. Yes, we should laud the Law for its third use. And if the third use of the Law is that of a guide, let us not forget that there is no greater Guide than Christ. He kept the Law for us perfectly. And because the Son of God has given us the right of heirship, it is okay to look to Him for guidance on how exactly we are supposed to live as sons of God.

2 comments:

  1. Well written, Mr. Baker. There's a lot of pathos in this post.

    You rightly identify the term "Real Christian" as a sort of cause of discomfort (a term I've come to dislike). Methodists and Wesleyans take this a step further, and try to use this guilt to urge the folks in the pews onto "Christian Perfection". Sure, we should strive for Christian perfection. But when you fall (as all sinners do), nobody should accuse you that "maybe you're not really elect and regenerate." That's extremely similar to the Lutheran pietism that has plagued American Lutheranism for a long time.

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  2. But if we honestly confess our sins, God will accept our confession, even if we are only trying to weep and not actually weeping.

    Oh, I have no doubt that God knows us and our deviousness through and through; for our Lord was (and is) as much the Great Psychiatrist (Jn 2:24), as the Great Physician.

    But maybe we could sheepishly attach a postscript to our "honest confession" of sin, now and then, along the lines of: "Lord, I'm trying to weep here ... mostly to impress myself as to how totally genuine and holy and golden I am, like Jerusalem. But I'm faking it. Actually, my lacrimal-ducts are drier than the bones of St. Bernard of Morlaix, or at least his Latin poems. At times, my mark-missings have caused me great pleasure and delight (like that reference to a dead language). In truth, my face is more white-washed, say like a sepulcher's exterior ... and not tear-washed at all. That's one reality, for sure. But mercy, please, and help me to remember than I am blood-washed, by my Savior through His cross-act, which act I have shared through the grace of Baptism. Pax et gaudium indeed!"

    Your (unworthy) servant,
    Herr Doktor S.S.P.

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