The Maverick Philosopher on human wretchedness

Over at the Maverick Philosopher‘s blog, there’s a great new post inspired by Blaise Pascal. It’s short, so I’ve reproduced it in its entireity, go here for the original.

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Blaise Pascal (1623-1662):

“Man’s greatness is so obvious that it can even be deduced from his wretchedness, for what is nature in animals is wretchedness in man, thus recognizing that, if his nature is today like that of the animals, he must have fallen from some better state which was once his own.” (Pensées, Penguin, p. 59, #117, tr. Krailsheimer)

“What is nature in animals is wretchedness in man.”  That is a profound insight brilliantly expressed, although I don’t think anyone lacking a religious sensibility could receive it as such.  The very notion of wretchedness is religious.  If it resonates within you, you have a religious nature.  If, and only if.

Man’s wretchedness is ‘structural’: man qua man is wretched. Wretched are not merely the sick, the unloved, and the destitute; all of us are wretched, even those of us who count as healthy and well off. Some of us are aware of this, our condition, the rest hide it from themselves by losing themselves in Pascalian divertissement, diversion. We are as if fallen from a higher state, our true and rightful state, into a lower one, and the sense of wretchedness is an indicator of our having fallen. Pascal writes that we “must have fallen from some better state.”  That is not obvious.  But the fact remains that we are in a dire state from which we need salvation, a salvation we are incapable of achieving by our own efforts, whether individual or collective.

How do we know that?  From thousands of years of collective experience.

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Improving graces

John Newton, the captain of a slave ship, became a Christian and a prominent Evangelical preacher. Reflecting on his own spiritual state and transforming power of God’s grace in his life, he wrote the following:

I am not what I ought to be — ah, how imperfect and deficient! I am not what I wish to be — I abhor what is evil, and I would cleave to what is good! I am not what I hope to be — soon, soon shall I put off mortality, and with mortality all sin and imperfection.

Yet, though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be, I can truly say, I am not what I once was; a slave to sin and Satan; and I can heartily join with the apostle, and acknowledge, “By the grace of God I am what I am.”

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The profound honesty of his declaration is too beautiful to mar with commentary, so I won’t add anything of my own. I’ll simply end with Newton’s own response to God’s grace, which was to worship and glorify Him with these magnificent lines:

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Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d!

Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

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Related posts:

Forgive us our sins

Serious, not fanatical

Modelled behaviour

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Forgive us our sins

Following on from the post about daily bread, I want to look at another line in the Lord’s Prayer. Matthew 6:12 says this (all passages from the NLT):

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and forgive us our sins,
as we have forgiven those who sin against us.

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In Matthew 6: 14-15, following immediately from the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus warns us:

“If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.

This is not saying that God’s forgiveness is contingent on our forgiveness of others: rather to accept His forgiveness we must first acknowledge our own need for it, and that we hold that need for forgiveness in common with all people. God does not forgive us because we forgive others: He offers forgiveness to all of us. But accepting His forgiveness requires that acknowledgement. In the Gospel of Mark we see this message reinforced (Mark 11:25):

“But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too.”

God’s forgiveness of us is not the reward for our forgiveness of each other, but to accept His forgiveness our hearts must be open to it.

Paul takes up this theme of “forgive because you were first forgiven” in his letter to the Ephesians, where he writes (Eph 4:32):

Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.

The emphasis is on the forgiveness that we should extend to others as a response to what Christ has already extended to us. Similarly, writing to the church in Colossae, Paul says (Col 3:13):

Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.

Note how these passages turns our human perspective of justice on its head. We are not told to forgive others so that God will forgive us, we are rather told that God has already forgiven us. We have done nothing and can do nothing to deserve God’s forgiveness, but he offers it before we can even ask. Our response must be to forgive others – not because they deserve it, but because God has shown us greater mercy and forgiveness.

This is intensely humbling. In the midst of our feelings of anger and indignation at wrongs done to us, we are reminded that we have all equally fallen short of God’s standards. We are reminded of how far He was willing to go to forgive us and seek reconciliation, even though it meant sending His only son to his death.

Expanding on this theme, Jesus told a parable which is recorded a few chapters later in Matthew 18:21-35:

Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”

“No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!

“Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.

“But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.

“But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.

“His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.

“When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened.  Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.

“That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”

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Related posts:

Daily bread

Serious, not fanatical

Why the suffering?

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Serious, not fanatical

I’m reading Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God. In a section on Pharasaism – and its modern analogue, the overbearingly judgmental and self-righteous Christian – he writes:

“Many people try to understand Christians along a spectrum from “nominalism”at one end to “fanaticism” at the other. A nominal Christian is someone who …does not practice it and perhaps barely believes it. A fanatic is someone who is thought to over-believe and over-practice Christianity … The problem with this approach is that it assumes that the Christian faith is basically a form of moral improvement.”

This is profoundly important, because it underlies much of the misunderstanding that crops up whenever we talk about “morality” in a Christian context. It is often pointed out that non-Christians can live in accordance with high moral standards, and I agree with that completely. (For some related thoughts on relative moral standards inside and outside the church, see my recent post).

Keller goes on to point out that the judgmental and self-righteous attitude observed in Pharisaic (or fanatical) believers is ultimately rooted in an idea of justification through right-living, or (if you’ll pardon the Christian jargon), a doctrine of “salvation by works”. But this is not the essence of Christianity. The fundamental message of the gospel is that we are saved through grace, not through our own efforts, and because of that we have no reason to be proud of our own moral standards.

This is a deeply humbling message. We understand by the doctrine of Grace that our personal moral behaviour will always fall short of God’s perfect standards. Therefore we have no right to judge others by comparing their behaviour to our own lives.

Keller continues:

“The people who are fanatics, then, are so not because they are too committed to the gospel but because they’re not committed enough.

“Think of people you consider fanatical.They’re overbearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive and harsh. Why? It’s not because they are too Christian but because they are not Christian enough. They are fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, empathetic, forgiving or understanding – as Christ was. Because they think of Christianity as a self-improvement programme they emulate the Jesus of the whips in the temple, but not the Jesus who said “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7). What strikes us as overly fanatical is actually a failure to be fully committed to Christ and his gospel.” (emphasis added)

Commitment to Christ is not a set of options between which we can pick and choose. We need to go all the way and let him rule our lives completely – we can’t just observe from the outside and try to emulate the bits that we like. True transformation can only come from indwelling of the Spirit, not from self-motivated imitation.

Modelled behaviour

The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.”

The line above is oft-quoted and, I believe, captures elegantly a fundamental truth of Christianity. Rather than a mechanism for personal improvement, the Christian doctrine of Grace states that we are fundamentally unable to meet God’s standards through exemplary living.  Oh sure, there will be improvements in our characters as our relationship with Christ deepens. But such improvement must be measured from the baseline of our personal starting point, not an arbitrary societal average.

As Timothy Keller writes in The Reason for God:

“The mistaken belief that a person must “clean up” his or her own life in order to merit God’s presence is not Christianity. This means, though, that the church will be filled with immature and broken people who still have a long way to go emotionally, morally and spiritually.”

Keller later makes a related point:

“It is often the case that people whose lives have been harder and who are “lower on the character scale” are more likely to recognise their need for God and turn to Christianity. So we would expect that many Christian’s lives would not compare well to those of the non-religious.”

This got me thinking about models of behaviour. (Hey, simulation modelling is what I do – it’s not always easy to separate work from the rest of life!)

If we assume that:

1. Christianity is true

2. Relationship with Jesus improves our character and behaviour

…but also that:

3. Spiritually and emotionally broken people may be more willing to recognise and accept their need for God’s grace.

…then I believe that we can arrive at a theoretical model which accounts for much of the observed behaviour in the Church. I see Christians who are broken and unethical, but I also observe Christians who are magnificently good, generous and loving. All of these are consistent with this framework.

Of course, I don’t for one second imply that this proves anything, and my belief that Christianity is true is totally unrelated to this line of reasoning. But I do think that it has a certain amount of explanatory power for the observed state of the Church – and for my own status as both a flawed human and a follower of Christ…

Why the suffering?

So, last night we were discussing Jesus’ death and our need for an atoning sacrifice, and I heard the question: “Why couldn’t God have forgiven our sins without Jesus dying?” I attempted to answer it first from a theological perspective: God cannot be capricious or inconsistent. He cannot tolerate sin, and sin carries a penalty of death. To forgive it out of hand would be to ignore the needs of justice, and to act whimsically, which is inconsistent with His character.

So far so good.

But looking at it from a human perspective, I think there is perhaps another layer to the line: “For our sake he was crucified and died.” Because from a theological perspective, surely the only requirement was that Jesus died? But he didn’t just die. He was subjected to the most excruciating, torturous death possible, a practice so horrific that even the famously depraved Roman Empire eventually outlawed it as excessively cruel. I guess the central question here is:

Why did Jesus have to suffer?

In the human mind, suffering is often perceived as even worse than death. Death is ultimate, but from this side of the veil we don’t ever actually experience it. Sure, we experience the pain and loss of a loved one dying, but that’s as close as we come. The worst thing that we personally experience is physical suffering. And I think perhaps the suffering of Jesus on the cross was not for the sake of the Law, or for God, but for us.

We need to understand that this forgiveness that we are offered is a really big deal.

We need to understand how much it cost God to offer us this reconciliation to Him.

We need to see how much God loves us.