T. S . Eliot once wrote, ‘humankind/Cannot bear very much reality.’ Not that people hate or despise reality, or that people constantly pursue reality, but that, in the end, too much reality, about ourselves, the world, God, is all just a bit too much.
It is especially the Ultimate that is a problem for people: God. Prayer. Mercy. Judgement. Christ.
Hence much of church life, in typical human fashion, tends towards a moralism cloaked in religious language, with a ready arsenal of verses and well worn phrases designed to justify ourselves at the expense of others.
The Ultimate Reality though, God, is what almost every person who has ever lived is hiding from. We are in a precarious state of existence living daily between the ever present deservedness of judgment and the ever present gift of grace. Or to put it another way, we live suspended on the possibility of utter annihilation and the infinitude of divine care.
That’s why Martin Luther wrote in his commentary on Psalm 130: ‘Whoever, therefore, does not consider the judgment of God, does not fear; and whoever does not fear, does not cry out, and whoever does not cry out, finds no grace.’
Part of our ability to avoid the Ultimate is by pretending we no longer need to cry out, so we pretend therefore, we fear when we don’t which means we also fake how we have even considered the judgement of God. We simply can’t bear too much reality, so we fake it, and this of course means, we fake grace. A gross mistake. Why don’t we just paint a great big clown smile on God’s face?
Scripture must be our guide here. Not pithy devotional aids, but Scripture, the Psalms, the Prophets, the Gospels, the Letters and everything in between. It is the Bible that offers us a way out of our religious banality; it offers us a much more dramatic and interesting narrative, whereby prayer, worship and the presence of God leads us ever onwards into an awareness of our sins and the gift of repentance.
Brian Brock writes, ‘Without God’s constant forgiveness, we do not see our own sin; and without the exposure of our sins and our repenting of them, we remain in the deadening byways down which other gods have enticed us.’
So without grace we become Christianised Pharisees: blind to the mercies of God, paraders of our own righteousness and thus trapped in a pathetic world of our own making, pathetic yes; mediocre certainly. Grey, flat, one dimensional, airless, lifeless, godless.
Yet as Jesus repeatedly taught, it is the repentant sinner that goes away justified: ‘God have mercy on me a sinner!’ The true mark of Christian spiritual vitality is not the absence of struggle, a settled smugness about our superiority, but the exact opposite: the present reality and immediacy of prayer where we confess that if it were not for the mercies of God we would be dust and ashes.
A poem by William Countryman says just as much with much fewer words:
“Your choice of friends is broad
And (may we say?) unpredictable.
What did you see in Jacob?
Esau was bluff, hearty,
a man’s man – overconfident,
to be sure – even a minute
or two of seniority can grant
a certain status. Jacob’s
only accomplishments were to cheat
his brother (with Esau’s rash
cooperation yes) and deceive
his father. Piety suggests
you should have judged the scamp
and left him to stew in his guilt
till he repented. Instead,
you showed him by night the ladder
to your throne.”
I love God’s grace!