There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night — having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was — a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree. We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden. Such was my heart, O God, such was my heart — which thou didst pity even in that bottomless pit. Behold, now let my heart confess to thee what it was seeking there, when I was being gratuitously wanton, having no inducement to evil but the evil itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error — not that for which I erred but the error itself. A depraved soul, falling away from security in thee to destruction in itself, seeking nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself. -St. Augustine, Confessions, IV, 9.
One of the realities of being a semi-regular correspondent with an audience returning day after day looking for something new from your pen is the fact that you will be writing during all the various states of the human experience. Christian writing on the internet has the tendency to sound as if it is always coming from the warm glow of the study, with drippings of devotional gold appearing on the page after hours of prayer and meditation. I’d judge that to be, almost universally, a myth, and I’m not much on mythologies in my Christianity.
There are times that one may be writing out of boredom, other times out of emptiness or despair, and even holding onto the crumbling edge between faith and unbelief. There will be times I will write from a season of joyful usefulness and other times I am writing in the slop of my own sinful pigpen.
That would be today. Reporting live and in person from a week that contained some of my biggest sinful binges this year, I’m Michael Spencer. Your Internet Monk. (Two hours from any priest to confess me and the Baptists will just tell me to take two church services and I’ll feel better next week.)
When I tell anyone that I have shocking sins, they are generally shocked. I am the one who is supposed to speak about shocking sins, but whose sins shouldn’t be shock-worthy. The implication is, of course, that the audience actually has a list of “shocking” sins- running a drug cartel, frequenting prostitutes, rooting for the Yankess- that come to mind when I say my sins are shocking. If I said, “I was a rotten husband,” they would sigh with relief. Thank God. Nothing serious.
I was a rotten human being for most of last week. I was also sick. Probably with H1N1. I just dealt with it, but the day I was most miserable was also the day my wife needed me to be the most attuned to her needs and helpful to her.
Calvinists love to preach that we are dead in trespasses and sins, and that’s a true and important component of the Gospel. What is unfortunate is that rather than letting the metaphor be, well….metaphorical, i.e. the life of God is not in us, well meaning enthusiasts try to make being dead the only significant fact in human experience. As is so often the case these days among the theological class, the failure to let all the Biblical images and metaphors live together without having a “there can be only one” party has serious pragmatic results.
The Bible uses disease and sickness as metaphors for sin from cover to cover. (In fact, given its prescientific interpretation of illness, sin is often seen as the cause of illness.) Sinners are sick. Fallen humans are diseased.
What’s interesting about this is that when we say someone is “sick,” we are often eliciting compassion and understanding. Rarely are we saying that a person is responsible for themselves and what they do in the same way they would be if they are healthy. Sickness is….an excuse.
Of course, metaphors have a focus and that is true with saying we are diseased and Christ is the great Physician who “comes to heal the sick, not the healthy.” Sin as sickness is one of the ways we understand what is happening in Jesus’ healings and miracles. Isaiah said that we are healed by his sufferings. All our diseases were placed on him says the prophet and the Gospel.
I’m glad about what I come to know about Jesus’ attitude toward me as a sick person. In a 1983 column, Dr. John Piper explored the sickness metaphor as an image of the community of Jesus. About Jesus as the great Doctor and ourselves as patients he said
Christ is walking among us. Not because we are so much fun to be with but because he loves to make house calls on patients who glory in his medical expertise. He is not partial to the healthy. But he has a special fondness for the homeliest, weakest, sickliest patients whose eyes sparkle when he enters the room….What a motley sanatorium we are! Paralyzed, clubfooted, humpbacked, pockfaced, nearsighted, cancer-eaten! But there is life at Bethlehem! The Doctorâ€™s here! Heâ€™ll touch any sore without a flinch. And O, how it soothes. He spends time. He talks. He looks you in the eye. He takes your elbow when you rise. He asks how Jake is doing. He promises heâ€™ll be back. And he comes!
Actual, physical illness amplifies the greatness of God’s compassion, and it also illuminates my wretched sinful condition. In illness, my sinfulness takes on cartoonishly monstrous dimensions. I become the Godzilla of sin.
By mid-week, I was miserable, feverish and feeling as if I’d been hit by a bus. These are the flu symptoms I recognize from the few times I’ve had the flu.
My first- sinful- thought is that I cannot miss work. I’ve never missed a class for being sick in 18 years. I’ve never missed a day of work for being sick, including being in my room to meet families on Family Day….when I had Chicken Pox. (I covered them in make up.) I’m feeding my idol of being essential, irreplaceable and absolutely necessary.
See. Shocking. It’s Halloween.
Mid week my wife needs me to be in charge of matters on an important day. I’m willing, but now that I’m sick, I’m doing everything with the attitude of a captured and tortured prisoner of war. Nothing is too small for me to immediately think of myself as the only person of worth on the planet. When she needs me to be attentive and sensitive, I am…..to me and the flu. Of course, I season this with some classic verbal idiocy, whining and pouting so that my sin isn’t just ordinary, but especially cruel.
I’m almost worse than useless for the situation we have to deal with that day and I make the whole matter far more stressful for her. Of course, all I can think about is the flu that seems to be settling into my chest.
And then, as my final performance, I come home and go to bed…..in order to get up the next morning and act as if the whole focus can now be off her and on me and the flu.
The next day, I’m supposed to help get the house ready for visitors if I feel better. I can barely make it to work, and when I come home, I crash again, offering no help. My flu eventually causes a change of venues for the visitors- my daughter’s home- and I am left alone to recover. I’m dimly aware that it must be hard to like me when I’m sick and as I start to feel better my suspicions increase that my wife, who has treated me as any sick husband should be treated and with more kindness, probably should have smothered me and blamed the swine flu. No jury in my county would convict her.
Sin and sickness. Sinners and sick persons. Jesus loves us as both. That’s more than I can comprehend. Because in my illness I am short-sighted, self-consumed, uncaring toward others, hyper-sensitive, dictatorial and immaturely manipulative. Once I’m over it, I want to put all my rotten behavior in the “Well, I was sick” file, but even I can’t entirely buy it.
I’m just a sick, rotten, selfish jerk. With a lot of repenting to do and a lot of sin to confess.
Sometimes, really, the Gospel seems too good.
But then, when I’m not sick, I’m still a sinner. I live in ways contrived to excuse my sin, avoid the truth and keep up a religiously acceptable front.
It takes the swine flu to show me, and remind me, that with just a small push, I’m very comfortable living in the mud.
Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment. Set us free from a past that we cannot change; open to us a future in which we can be changed; and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image, through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.