Monday, July 5, 2021

The "self-righteous humility" of constantly begging forgiveness

Shortly after I posted "Repentance, forgiveness, and damnation in the Fourth Gospel," the synchronicity fairies saw to it that I read this passage in The Mystic Passion by the late Roger Hathaway.

This is a serious matter, and I tell you that there is no virtue or nobility in playing the sinner's role, of beating the chest and crying, "I am a sinner". That is not a display of humility; that is a brazen statement to God that you identify with your old human nature and don't accept the forgiveness, that Christ couldn't have included you in the redemptive plan because your sins are too great, that God isn't great enough to make the atonement include you, but that you are great enough to atone for yourself and this show of humility is your offering.

See what an affront such hypocrisy can be? After God accomplishes the plan and announces to you that you are forgiven and free, you respond by saying, "No, not me; I have my guilt and I am hanging on to it; I will cry and wail and beat my chest and lash my back and crawl on the ground and walk with shoulders stooped and confess every Sunday that I am a sinner, and I won't give up my guilt."

You might respond to the above by saying you have sinned since you last prayed for forgiveness, and that each week there are a few more that should be added to the list, that forgiveness is something you must beg for over and over again, that God didn't forgive YOU "once and for all."

Listen again. What you have done this past week or year does not count, does not show on any list, is not remembered by God AT ALL. Like the New Testament says, "A Christian can do no sin." You are a new creation, a new person, God's perfect child, clean, pure, forgiven, holy, righteous, a saint! That is the way God sees you, -- unless you reject Him and insist on identifying yourself with sin.

Sin has unconscionably become a chief tool of religion, by which the priest/businessmen manipulates and exploits Jesus' sheep in order to maintain financial solvency and exercise fearful authority over them. The church (religion) has not accepted the concept of God's forgiveness "once and for all", and each Sunday has you confessing your "sins" and pleading for forgiveness anew. It acts no different than did the Old Testament church, under the condemning law. It is as though Christ never brought his message of good news that you are free. The church still views man as sinner and teaches its followers to walk with shoulders stooped, head drooping, shuffling along in a kind of sickening sweet, self-righteous humility that makes an observer want to puke. Now, think, is that debased religious posture any way for a forgiven child to stand before his Father who wants to see a smile, joy, appreciation, exuberance?

This puts into words something that I have felt for a long time -- the fakeness, yes, even the pretentiousness, of begging for forgiveness again and again.

In my years as a Church-Mormon, my understanding of repentance and forgiveness was that expressed in Doctrine and Covenants 58:42-43. "Behold," it begins, "he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more." But then it continues, "By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins -- behold, he will confess them and forsake them."

In other words, you are forgiven if you repent -- but repentance means, in part, never doing it again. So when you do do it again, it means you didn't really repent the first time and therefore need to repent harder. I have many memories of trying to do just that, of kneeling down beside my bed, trying my hardest to work up the "godly sorrow" I had been taught was necessary, and then, well, wallowing in it -- and praying, "Please, please, please forgive me, and this time I really, really won't do it again." Please pretty please with sugar on top? In order to muster up an adequate amount of redemptive guilt, I would review in my mind the tortures inflicted on Jesus by his Roman executioners and tell myself that each was somehow my fault, that the scourge and the nails and the lance and all the rest had been because of my own petty misdeeds.

Did God reject these mawkishly juvenile prayers? No, I don't believe that he did. But they weren't what he wanted, and it was hoped that I would outgrow them. True repentance is not an emotion any more than the pure love of Christ is an emotion, and obviously repentance doesn't mean never doing anything bad ever again. God would have designed this world rather differently if that was what he expected!

What is repentance, then? My current understanding is that repentance is confession. No, not confession in the sense of saying, "Bless me, Father, for I have committed adultery in my heart 700 times this week." Confession doesn't mean rattling off an itemized list of one's recent misdeeds to God or a priest. It means acknowledging sin as sin. The unrepentant are those who make excuses for themselves, who deny that their sins are sins and are therefore unwilling to give them up. Willingness is all; the flesh is weak, but the spirit must be willing. Daily repentance does not mean daily groveling for forgiveness like a beaten dog; it means reminding oneself what is good and what is evil, what is of God and what is not, and then going on with life, confident in the knowledge that "he that believeth is not condemned."

And yes, of course we should try to be virtuous and to sin less, but in the end no such projects can really succeed in this present life. They are not what repentance is, and they are not that on which salvation depends.

4 comments:

Francis Berger said...

I agree. This is a major theme in Berdyaev's work (taken from The Meaning of the Creative Act:

"From this tragic problem of Christianity there can only be one way out: the religious acceptance of the truth that the religious meaning of life and being is not wholly a matter of redemption from sin, that life must also have positive, creative purposes."

and

"God gave man the gracious aid of Christ's redemption which restored man's fallen nature. Through the redemption man's creative freedom is restored to him. And the time must come in the world for this creative freedom to be active. Man must create that for which he was redeemed . . ."

Berdyaev's idea was that redemption provided man with freedom from sin (obsessing over it, fixating on it), but that man needed to use this redemption to discover freedom for (positive, creative activity that draws out the divine aspects of man).

This makes sense to me. Otherwise Christianity becomes little more than a negative rearguard defense of one's salvation, leaving little energy or time for anything positive. I firmly believe that constant, slavish grovelling over one's sins is actually displeasing to God. I believe he expects more from us.


Bruce Charlton said...

That's my understanding too. I was helped to it be CS Lewis's The Great Divorce https://barnardsvilleumc.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/ebook-lewis-c-s-the-great-divorce.pdf ; where it depicts that everybody is welcomed into Heaven so long as they are able to consent to being cleansed of their sins. They must want to give them up - allow God to remove them.

On the one hand no number or severity of sins is too great for this to happen; on the other hand even a tiny little unacknowledged/ denied sin that is clung-to is sufficient to make some-one *prefer* Hell - reject Heaven and make the choice of Hell.

It is Lewis's genius to make my recognize and understand how this can - and does - happen all the time; even in ordinary everyday life. For instance, many people cling to their resentment against somebody or some group. That is what it means not to forgive, by my understanding.

Clearly, resentment cannot be part of Heavenly life, so it must be given up - but plenty of people really will not give up their resentment - it is, for them, the core of 'who they are'. If Heaven means giving up this resentment, then they would choose Hell.

Since I understood this, it has never mystified me that people would reject Heaven and choose Hell; although plenty of self-identified Christians have found this incomprehensible.

(None of this is in the Fourth Gospel explicitly - that I have noticed.)

Luke said...

Well, this is similar to my understanding as well. And I confess my debt to you, to Bruce and to Francis. Thank you for that.

Happy Fourth as well.

Mr. Andrew said...

I don’t know if there was a change in confessional teachings in the Catholic Church, but I haven’t encountered that overbearing misery of sin expressed. Confession tends to be short & sweet with occasional advice and some prayers said as penance.

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