The Empty Christian

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can admit to you that my wickedness is colossal. A part of my testimony is that I used to be a pretty bad drug addict. I will never forget one night, in a paraphernalia-packed Las Vegas hotel room, stumbling onto the side of a bed before God, and for the first time in my life, I actually wanted forgiveness. I just let go of my hate towards him because under such debauchery, I found something worse within me than the hatred I harbored for God: the pride that I harbored in myself. I let go of all of the seemingly unjust things God allowed upon me. God’s love, in the moments prior to my honest apology, was divine justice. In the moments after, it was God’s comfort. Either way, God’s love was unchanging and my response to His love became His decree. His judgment became Christ’s righteousness in me. Let me explain . . .

In Luke 7, we read what is, at least in my opinion, the most beautiful story in all of the Bible: when Jesus was anointed by a “sinful” woman. Short and sweet, Jesus is at a Pharisee’s house for dinner and a female prostitute hears about it. She is broken-hearted with her “sinful life”. So much, in fact, that she crashes this dinner party, bringing with her an alabaster jar of perfume (which was most likely around an entire year’s worth of her ill-gotten earnings), and, in bottomless sorrow, expressed her repentance to Jesus by washing his filthy feet with her own tears. She then pours this exorbitantly-valued amount of balm onto his feet, repeatedly kissing them. She had finally found what she was looking for: her forgiver.

This actually ticks everyone off; even Jesus’ disciples are confused when he doesn’t rebuke her. I try to have some sympathy for them. Imagine someone belligerently breaking into an upscale event, robed in rags, equipped only with everything they own as a present. Seems pretty sensible to give that a moment of pause. But she didn’t. That’s how much grace meant to her. But that’s not even the best part. As everyone in attendance is waiting for him to finally reject her, he, in good old Jesus fashion, decides it’s time for another Q & A. He asks, “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

Well, obviously, they answered the guy who owed five hundred. And then Jesus, being the rebellious guy that he was, actually insulted his host, saying, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.

That’s Jesus. That’s just how he was (and is). Any time that you feel like you can’t approach him, this is the story you need to reread.

With this striking narrative, we see what God is like.

In “Two Discourses on Friday Communion”, Soren Kierkengaard examines Jesus’ comment  . . whoever has been forgiven little loves little”, and comes to two interesting conclusions as to how this should affect the Christian: it is a statement of both judgment and comfort, depending upon how you view yourself in light of God’s love.

He begins his sermon with a prayer regarding judgment, saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, who did not come into the world in order to judge, yet by being love that was not loved you were a judgment upon the world. We call ourselves Christians; we say that we know of no one to go to but you- alas, to whom then shall we go when, precisely by your love, the judgment falls also upon us, that we love little? To whom, what hopelessness, if not to you! To whom, what despair, if you actually would not receive us mercifully, forgiving us our great sin against you and against love, we who sinned much by loving too little!”[1]

This comment is of a deep concern to me. Do we, like the Pharisee, reject God for being so loving? Are we actually afraid of God’s love? What if that very love was what became our most austere sentence? Kierkengaard thinks it is, writing, “ . . . love’s judgment is the most severe judgment . . . And what was that judgment? Surely it was this: love was not loved . . . If we want to learn to fear, then learn to fear- not the severity of justice, but the leniency of love!”[2]

So, when we are talking about judgment, we are talking about punishment, or at least denunciation. It is the common sense view of “eye for an eye”, it is what we, as fallen and fallible people yearn for and it is what we end up casting upon ourselves when we don’t want what God wants, which is love. In this behavior we reject love, therefore, we reject God.

What is most interesting (to me at least), is that God’s love, due to it being His very nature, is a default position which becomes our judgment or our salvation, and we are the ones who are left with the choice to justify God’s own verdict upon us. Kierkengaard writes, “It is self-inflicted, says justice, that there is no forgiveness for a person. Justice is thinking of his many sins, since it can forget nothing. Love says: it is self-inflicted- it is not thereby thinking of his many sins – ah, no, it is willing to forget them all, it has forgotten them all; and yet it is self-inflicted, says love.”[3]

So let me simplify what Kierkengaard is saying here: Those who are willfully ignorant of their own sins love little and bear a grudge against the nature of God, which is love. Whether wishing for judgment upon others or themselves, they are rightly enacting God’s judgment upon only themselves. But those who understand their own iniquity can understand God, and rightly enact God’s grace upon themselves. It is not a matter of God’s being love from either perspective, but their view of the natural outcome of the essential nature of love, which is forgiveness, which is God.

So if their central desire is for justice, they reject love, therefore God. However, if their central desire is for forgiveness, they can accept love, which is God. This is what made the “sinful woman” such a model for faithful Christian behavior. She knew that she needed a great amount of forgiveness, and, therefore, found a great amount of God, who is love.

In every passage in which the Pharisees were chided and in every passage in which the “sinners” were embraced, both were under an equal offering of God’s love. The Pharisees chose judgment, the sinful woman chose forgiveness and the acceptance of God’s love. In this, Kierkengaard found comfort. He goes on to write, “These are words of judgment, but they are also words of comfort  . . . I take comfort because the words say nothing about divine love but only something about mine . . . Oh what blessed comfort is in the deepest sorrow!”[4]

So, in that hotel room, God instilled this thought into me that I could not ignore: “I am greater than this.” At that point, the abhorrence I had for God was lifted and he finally had something to work with: someone capable of love. I became an empty vessel and, at last, found a capacity for comfort.

Straightaway, I began to feel an abnormal but comforting love for others, even when I didn’t like them. My shame became an ability to love others without prerequisite; there were no conditions of which one must fulfill in order to be shown God’s love in me. I remembered His grace and found an unanticipated amount of comfort in the thought that I was worse than everyone I met. It is a really backwards thing (if you’ve read my previous blogs you know my constant struggle with it) and I’m constantly trying to get back to my “sinful woman” moment. When I forget this moment, my love for others soon follows.

Yet, that memory is not always easy to reach. I want to return to my old sorrow, in hopes of finding more grace, yet in that grace I was offered love, which is unchanging, which is God. When I elect to not love others, I, by my own doing, refill myself with that which was emptied from me by God’s own doing, and reject my own self as a subject of forgiveness, which is simply a rejection of love, therefore, I reject God. It’s a battle between God’s nature and my distortion of that nature. I become prone to terms and conditions for the love I have to offer others, turning a life of love into judgment upon myself. It’s, at best, uncomfortable, and, at worst, terrifying.

Kierkengaard knew this fear well, writing, “Oh, but just as something that builds up is always terrifying at first, and just as all true love is always unrest at first, and just as the love of God is always sorrow at first, similarly, what seems disturbing is not always disturbing, what truly is quieting is always disquieting at first.”

I return to God’s grace like a taped-off crime scene, unaware that my present moment is an opportunity to choose between a life of judgment or forgiveness by the way I view and treat others. This is a measurement of my love for God Himself. When I don’t remember this, I become a mobile argument against love, therefore, an argument against God. I function as a Christian only in name, emptied of the attributes that ought to define the term “Christian”. While God is all the while love, I am either judgment or comfort.

No matter how hard I try, I always struggle between these options. I am saddened to admit that most of my friends would describe me as a “smart ass” (to which I usually reply, “But I’m still smart, though, right?”), but my Luke 7 minute cannot be completely removed from my mind. And when I remember it, I feel empty, but a good kind of empty. I can regain my “sinful woman” composure and let God back in.

“Whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” The difference between judgment and forgiveness, and between guilt and comfort, is the realization of the quantity and quality of God’s forgiveness.

So it’s not difficult to find that after all the “sinful” woman’s wrongdoing, she became the most appreciative of God’s forgetfulness; and, therefore, the most righteous one in the room, the topmost example to us all of God’s proficiency in love.

[1]KIERKEGAARD, S., HONG, H. V., HONG, E. H., & KIERKEGAARD, S. (1983). Two Discourses at Friday Communion. Print.

[2]KIERKEGAARD, S., HONG, H. V., HONG, E. H., & KIERKEGAARD, S. (1983). Two Discourses at Friday Communion. Print.

[3]KIERKEGAARD, S., HONG, H. V., HONG, E. H., & KIERKEGAARD, S. (1983). Two Discourses at Friday Communion. Print.

[4]KIERKEGAARD, S., HONG, H. V., HONG, E. H., & KIERKEGAARD, S. (1983). Two Discourses at Friday Communion. Print.

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2 thoughts on “The Empty Christian

  1. I think you and I have much in common. First, even when I was not a Christian and was just a housewife/philosophy student Kierkegaard was my favorite existentialist. Next, when I finally came to my senses I described it as gaining capacity. My heart had been so small. Third, I have always felt like that woman and a bit like the other woman by the well who had many husbands. And, most importantly, I believe our ability to sense the needs of others in our spheres and show them love is the key to all of this. . .to our salvation really much more so than our mistakes . . .our sins. We have to keep trying. Thank you for writing this. At some point I believe I will refer to it in one of my own blog posts as it is so finely written. If you have a mind to view my testimony it is a video clip at the bottom of my “About” page.

    Liked by 1 person

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