Thursday, February 23, 2012

Sentenced to Life

Yesterday at an Ash Wednesday gathering someone made a comment that really struck me. It was striking in that "here's my Lenten motto" sort of way -- a little phrase that, in the greater context of my walk with God, packs a huge significance. And the phrase, itself of course with a context that renders it meaningful, was, "You have been sentenced to life."

Being sentenced to life was being contrasted with being sentenced to death, in the sense of being doomed to die. Hmm, what is the positive contrast to being "doomed"?

All of this touches, for me, on matters of the will. My sort of primal and unconscious  formation, theologically and philosophically, concerning the human will was confused from the get-go. For the first couple decades of my life I wallowed in a passivity that was rather severe. I was also enveloped in a kind of depression that made dealing in desires of any sort to seem totally meaningless. Merely wanting things to be different seemed futile, pointing nowhere. The most I could muster was a wish -- the sort of desire that is locked in a room with walls of thick glass, with no doors anywhere.

Theologically that was compounded in my younger days with a firm catechesis about the total inadequacy of human effort to reach God. Sola fide meant Christ's work was applied to me; His righteousness was to cover up who I actually am, like the famous snow on the dung heap, as Luther described it.

The question nagged me in my depressed, passive state -- if Jesus did and does everything for me, what's the point of living? Does anything I do -- any choice or action I might make -- have any real significance at all? And if not, why wouldn't suicide be an attractive option? If Jesus paid my price for heaven, why not just get myself there now?

It really took bumping up against an ultimate question like that to help kick start my ability to make choices for good. I couldn't, for example, choose to attend a Christian college because of benefits this environment promised, but I did choose it because staying in the State university on the course I'd passively drifted into seemed to have a suicide of one form or another in its short-term future. Yes, I did make a good choice, but only after driving with one wheel off the edge of the cliff for a time.

So -- sentenced to life.

Since those college days I slowly but consistently exercised myself out of this intense passivity. In short order (as I can see in hindsight) the Lord began to teach me an entirely new thing -- to cooperate with His grace. Grace had been an abstraction to me: an idea of how I was "made right" with God. Then, grace became an offer: as the song goes, "If you want it, here it is. Come and get it..." This was how I was introduced to the spirituality of the charismatic renewal. The concept that I could ask God for the Holy Spirit and receive something intangibly tangible (namely, the Holy Spirit) electrified my life (cf. Lk. 11:13).

But -- sentenced to life.

I had to learn to ask God for things and receive, but I also had to learn that God is not a gumball dispenser. Grace is not so much about getting things from God as it is about growing deeply attached to Him. For me, God has always used the things (or people... usually people) I've become attached to in some degree of a disorderly way to purify my attachment to Him, as well as to those things or people. But grace isn't even just about being tight with God. It's about our fulfilling His desire as He fulfills us -- and He thirsts for souls. His passionate love for His people thwarted by His people -- that is His pain which He asks us to alleviate through the intimate union of our souls with Him, our lives with His.

Sentenced to life.

There is a certain inescapable sense here, but it feels like the inescapable, magnetic, compelling drawing of lovers' hearts one to another in a passionate embrace. One cannot speak of force or coercion in any extrinsic sense at all. The only force at work for the human party is the force of the desire for the fulfillment in God for which we were in fact made. It is the Lord who is totally free and who works in us to will and to do according to His purpose (Phil. 2:13).

Sentenced to life.  I am captured by the Lord, totally caught up in Him. It doesn't depend on my work. I do not work for God's favor -- how laughable! But I am in it! I don't have to wonder whether tomorrow the Lord's presence in my life will fade away or fall into question, just like a prisoner on death row anticipates no surprises about release. I can, of course, walk away from life and my love and choose death. But I don't need to fear that I will destroy myself. When I'm in trouble, I just turn in my heart to my Lord, and His loving presence sustains me. Despite my weakness and sinfulness, the Lord holds me, strengthens me, forgives me as we walk together in the life to which He has brought me.

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