“The news of the resurrection is not a disclosure of human potential.” – Fleming Rutledge
“For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.” Romans 11:32
During the pandemic, I started doing ridiculously brief workouts to help with sleep and anxiety. I read a single article online stating 10 minutes of exercise is helpful and just went with it. This is not an approach that I advise for most things. Brief side note, folks who smile while they work out are creepy, like those people in Florida who dressed up as clowns and stood by the road after dark. During these miserable contortions, one of the instructors would triumphantly shout, “You are stronger than your circumstances and your pain!” I wouldn’t have noticed the line, save for the fact that we were living through a pandemic. I imagined her screaming through full hospital rooms at people attached to ventilators, “You are stronger than your circumstances and your pain!” Silence… The sound of ventilators and heart monitors. A sigh from an exhausted nurse. Shiny, helpful proclamation of hope? Not really.
It might be low-hanging fruit to pick on overly optimistic fitness instructors (especially when you have benefitted from their video). But I hear the same narrative about being strong repeated throughout our culture. It wouldn’t irritate me so much if it wasn’t so inescapable. It’s a message that seems hopeful, but only when things are going very well.
When I am struggling through a workout, wanting to believe something inspirational while exercising and employing it as an all-around life philosophy are two different things. I can kick my leg a few more times, but my life is still very much defined by many things that I have little to no control over. While getting in shape is good, feeling a little bit better and having a little bit more energy does not mean my body won’t one day fail. It does not make me stronger than mortality. It does not make all of the cumulative mental issues that I struggle through evaporate. The human condition is not negated by a better sleep schedule, exercise, or mental tricks. All these solutions are temporary and can easily be unraveled by unforeseen circumstances. I am very much subject to my circumstances and pain. In fact, I can only actually see through a filter that is defined by those things. The same is true for every person.
Enter Lent. The season that encourages us to exclaim with Paul, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” The assumed answer offers hope because the answer is “not me”. Even if I were able to overcome the deficiencies that I am aware of, there would still be a looming gap between who I wish I was and who I actually am. That gap would not disappear even if I were oblivious to it.
Lent is a stark acknowledgement of human limitation.
I went to an Ash Wednesday service to say with a crowd “we have not loved God with our whole heart or loved our neighbor as ourselves.” It is mournful, but there is something lovely about a whole room full of people stating something true. It is even more lovely when it is a truth that is often culturally rejected. Moreover it seems churches no longer start with this presumption.
The disciples ask Jesus what they must do to be doing the work of God. Jesus replies, “Believe in the one God sent” John 6:28-29. The issue with the question “What should we do…?” is that it negates the reason that Jesus is there in the first place. What the disciples have failed to understand (what all of us misunderstand) is that doing is very much part of the problem. The answer of Christ is a diversion away from personal performance. We reconfigure good into a word that only applies to ourselves and people who make choices that are identical to our own. When “good choices” referencers our own choices, we begin to craft strange ideas about how other people should be transforming into a person identical to ourselves. Our idea of “saving” becomes more about cloning. This is how church cultures become incredibly insular and inaccessible to all but those who can present the cleanest (re. most financially stable) performance. While some of what is good will have commonalities, doing good is unique and specific to each individual. Just as a whole room changes when you remove a single person from it. 1
Along the same lines, Jesus gives an unusual response when the rich young ruler refers to him as “Good Teacher.” “Why do you call me good, no one is good except God alone” Mark 10:17-27. The rich young ruler misses the point entirely, informing Jesus that he has never done anything wrong…ever. To stand before God with a smirk and accomlishments is the heart of hubris. It is our blind assumption of perfection. But somehow this is the cycle we repeat.
The trick of self-righteousness is that in doing good, we begin to reject mercy. Grace becomes far too lenient when you are winning. Grace becomes entitlement. The entitlement then becomes a story about personal willpower and fortitude, which is a different thing than a God who resurrects the dead.
I struggle with the answers that Jesus gives. He subverts all of the narratives that I have been given. When I was young, faith was conflated with willpower. The lines blurred and God became the God of those who “help themselves.” As I grew up, the idea that the whole cosmos was governed exclusively by my ability to make better choices became a message of outright damnation. In the wake of a pandemic and turning forty that message causes full-blown panic attacks. It’s horrific when God’s mercy directly corresponds to how much of a smiling superhero you believe yourself to be.
Lent is a balm for the exhausted. Lent…. the gospel… are good news. Both appeal to people who feel insufficient. The world is composed of people who are all needy regardless of whether they can state the truth or not. It implies that the boundary lines are always in flux based on loss and mortality. While you might not feel like you are not in need now, the train is only ever on its way into the station.
The idea of Lent as a time for being good blinds us. Lent (in part) is about the self-destructive stuff that we are blind to or can’t will out of our lives. The good I give is always going to be linked to personal pain and character flaws. The good and the bad are braided together for the time being. Even my best attempts at kindness contain something else, they can be tinged with condescension, or colored with quiet and unacknowledged pettiness or small hatred. It is about the death that is hidden and embedded into the cycles of a fallen world, even the things we assume to be good. While this doesn’t exempt anyone from trying, it does lend a humility to the whole endeavor that would be absent otherwise.
After a lifetime of observing my own failures, a nation’s collective failures, and our utter incapacity to grasp how nearly impossible it is to change even small things that we don’t like about ourselves let alone other people, I like hearing about a merciful savior.
If I am my only hope, there is no hope.
I think we are supposed to rest in this discomfort during the season of Lent. While we are capable of profound acts of love, those most often occur when we recognize and have mercy on the helpless state of another because we recognize the same condition in ourselves. We don’t reach out because we are nicer, better people. We reach out because we recognize a mutual need for one another.
Some people live through whole seasons of hopelessness. Some entire lives are saturated in it and not for lack of faith or because they just weren’t trying hard enough. It is our lack that draws us toward one another and toward God. When hope runs out, faith becomes desperate.
In the church, we are often framing prayer as something that only awful, pathetic people need. We hide it away in dark back corners like we are apologizing for offering something so outdated, sad, and useless. In a building with a cross on it, we often talk about saving ourselves relegating Jesus to a background character (but still such an important minor character!) in our perfect victory march of “Transformation!” TM. The way that most American Christians seem to distance themselves from the cultural shame of needing a savior, is through the constant use of variations around that specific theme. In framing ourselves as saviors we isolate ourselves from the very thing that draws us into relationships with God and others.
The only moments of hope that I have managed to extricate from my church experiences almost all revolve around prayer in relationship. It is about something larger descending to be among flawed individuals and shaping the way we see one another. The transformation occurred when it wasn’t a cute, manageable objective. It changed the house where I live into a home that I could share with others. It is those small, warm places where grace is granted space to quietly shape a heart.
Acknowledging our own limited vision regarding what will fix the world is not despair. It is not laziness to long for a savior to rectify the pain that we cannot reach or fix in both ourselves and in the world. It is not laziness to observe how so many of our solutions end up backfiring and causing even more damage, even when we ached for the best results. It doesn’t negate our personal responsibility toward one another, to be honest about how often our best motives are corrupted from our hearts outwards. It breaks down the illusions that turn love and mercy into a hollow performance of those things rather than the things themselves. The heart of any action is what gives life to that action. The heart always matters and it is okay for that to be terrifying. If you are honest with yourself it should be. Fear in the face of holiness is an attribute of saints.
The reaction of Simon Peter and the reaction of the rich, young ruler are opposites. Luke 5:8
Those seemingly dreadful realizations are an offer that I do not always want, but what I need and what I want are always different things. I see through the lens of my circumstances and my pain, just like every other struggling individual.
The hopeful message of the Gospel is not that we are raised out of death by the merit of having tried a little bit more than other people (that’s not good news, it’s a free workout video). The work of death on the cross is a direct response to all of our fallen cycles of trying to fix the world with a broken lens. We misunderstand the word sin when we frame it as a manageable and small problem that a person can simply will themselves out of with more optimistic thinking or a few helpful tips. It coats all of the systems that run the world. It is hopeful to believe in a God who works life out of death. It is more helpful when you can see the death in yourself and call it what it is.
1 The last episode of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill goes more in-depth about the strange cult of personality that American churches can lapse into.