One of the things I have been astonished by in my six years of parish ministry are the varied ways that self-hatred imprisons us and perpetuates our propensity to sin. The work of “self-examination” called for in Lent becomes a sort of obsessive rumination about one’s very own being, rather than about the work of seeking God.
Herein, I think, lies the real problem when we’re seeking to follow God faithfully: rather than asking the questions (“Who is God?” or “Where is God?”), we begin with the assumption that our lack of faithfulness dictates God’s “movement” away from us. This perspective is problematic: it cannot but lead us to try and hide away those things about ourselves that separate us from receiving grace and being transformed by it.
The third chapter of Genesis describes the universal condition of humanity and its fall from grace:
They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself. (Gen. 3:8-10)
Notice that God does not send down upon them lightning bolts and fire. Rather he calls to them: “Where are you, I am seeking you, I desire to be in relationship with you, where did you go?” And how does Adam reply? “I was afraid of you because I was naked; and I hid myself.” Adam rightly realizes he has rejected his life with God and, in so doing, that he and Eve are, as Paul puts it, “dead in … trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Of course, along with this death of what they are comes knowledge of their own shame.
Notice that when Adam and Eve attempt to remedy their situation, to “undo” the shame of having stripped themselves of their very lives with God, God does not leave them still naked in meager loincloths. Instead, God clothes them with “garments of skins.” This is not merely clothing in some animal fur. The skins are a means of recapitulation: restoring to fruitfulness the gift of procreation for the extension in time of life given for the purpose of glorifying God (Gen. 3:15-20; cf. Gen 1:28). This very “way” of God is embodied by him in sending the Son amongst us to take on willingly our nature, our flesh, our “skin,” and to offer willingly satisfaction for sin on our behalf in order that we might be reconciled to the communion God desires with us.
The work of reconciliation is God’s alone of course, and most of us cognitively recognize this and would most certainly want to doctrinally affirm it. But our thoughts, words, and actions so often betray another belief altogether. Many of us, if not regularly, at least occasionally — just like Adam and Eve — seek to make figurative fig leaves for ourselves so that we can hide away from facing who we really are before God. My experience, while spending time with folks in the parish and in the city in which I seek to plant a new congregation, is that most people believe that if God knew the depth of depravity, the hideous and distorted inclinations, the things thought or perhaps even done in supposed secret, the things we believe make up “who we are,” then God would abandon us; God would in a sense “run away” and leave us mired in our own depravity.
To maintain self-respect and a sense of dignity, even if built on sand, we spend our time justifying our broken ways of engaging ourselves and one another, insisting that our own failures or our own frustrations are the other’s fault, and proclaiming our innocence and the “right” to do as we please for ourselves.
Knowing these things deep down, the darkest things by which we’re tempted and sometimes the things that order our thoughts and actions, “Why,” we might ask, “would God stay with us?” If we could get away from ourselves, we most surely would, wouldn’t we? These dark places of our minds — so rarely shown in full form to others — these are the core of our self-hatreds. “Run away from me God,” we might say. “I do not want to hurt others, I do not want to hurt you, and I do not want you to reject me so just run. Please, dear God, run before you find out what is truly inside me and cast me into ‘the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” (Luke 13:28).
On the first Sunday of Lent we heard about Satan’s temptations of Jesus. The root of Satan’s temptation was to draw Jesus away from obedience to God, from doing what he knew was right. And what is right? This we heard in our readings this past Sunday: it is the life of going about from town to town, bringing and bearing judgment all the way to Jerusalem: “I must go on my way today … for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.” Jesus “set his face” to Jerusalem as all the Scriptures tell us: to Jerusalem; to the heart, that is, of corrupt religious leaders, of hypocrisy, of unfaithful servants, of doubters, of betrayers, of killers. Jesus came amongst us and remained to the end. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you!”
To be sure, Jesus was tempted to run away from this. “Take this cup from me,” he says to his Father (Luke 22:42). And yet he remains with this rejecting, rebellious, destructive city that has turned against God over and over again without ceasing; he remains with this city, and it cost him his life. God in Christ goes to Jerusalem because he loves those whom he has made.
This is a critical thing to understand as we continue in this Lenten season. For to the extent that we fail to grasp this, we will remain firmly planted in the figures of Adam and Eve, making excuses for our sin, hiding ourselves away, fearful that our confession will drive God away and that we will be left with a flaccid life, a barren life of loneliness and despair. We must recall that in Christ, God in his mercy came to us and restored to us our skin of procreative life (Gen. 3), gave to us flesh enwrapping our desiccated bones (Ezek. 37:1-14), gave to us his Spirit that we might be driven again and again to the true bread (John 14:13-81; cf. Heb. 9:14), to the pinnacle (Luke 4:1-11), to the Cross of obedience (Luke 23:44-46; cf. Phil. 2:8). We must remember during this Lenten season of confession that in Christ God came to us as our refuge (Deut. 33:27; Ps. 46; Isa. 25:4; John 5:24), overcoming the falsity we too often project and live as if it is the very substance of our being and meaning. He came to us in order that we might have the assurance to confess, to repent, and to receive his grace and be transformed by it. This is God’s unsurpassable love poured out for us (1 John 4:10), giving us the hope of eternal life with him (Heb. 10:22). Our God is the one who alone laments over the sinner, not fleeing, but rather coming into our midst to reconcile us to him.
The featured image is “Hen and chicks” (2008) by Wayne Noffsinger. It is licensed under Creative commons.