The gospel reading at my Monday mass was Luke 7:1-10, the story of the centurion whose servant is healed by Jesus without setting foot in his house. A line that the centurion says has become a key part of the weekly Eucharistic liturgy: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” There is something essential about that posture of humility for us to be able to encounter Christ authentically and receive the transformation that He wants to instill in us. I worry sometimes that Christians like me define ourselves so much against the overemphasis on human wickedness in fundamentalist Christianity that we end up having a blithe presumptuousness about Jesus’ grace in our lives which turns our prayer and worship life into a farce.
In a recent conversation with an adult layperson who has been Methodist for a long time, I asked what he thought was the most important theological truth that we should be teaching our kids. He said, “That God is everywhere and that He loves everybody.” On the one hand, these two statements are of course true. But they also exhibit the empty glibness that can overtake our denomination when we are too enamored with having a theology that focuses on God’s love rather than humanity’s sin.
I’ve been in some blogosphere conversation with a psychologist named Josh Morgan who wrote a post looking at the distinctions between what he terms “sin-focused” and “therapeutic” churches. Dr. Morgan shares his clinical experience with “psychic self-flagellation,” questioning whether it really benefits people in growing closer to God. He asks what it would look like to have a “healthy therapeutic church” that doesn’t validate our narcissism but rather instills an “authentic self-regard.”
So what does “authentic self-regard” look like? I think it means being able to stand in God’s presence with integrity. We lose our integrity when we make excuses for ourselves and repress our memory of the ways that we have mistreated other people instead of confessing our sins with genuine repentance and receiving God’s forgiveness and empowerment to change. The tricky thing is that we can also lose our integrity when we hide behind the posturing of tough sin-talk. People who put on a display of seriousness about sin sometimes do so as a means of hiding their personal sin behind a veneer of hyper-vigilant zeal about sin in general.
In any case, while it’s true that God is everywhere and He loves everybody, when we lack integrity, we cannot see Him or gain intimacy with Him. Even though He never leaves our presence, we are often not in His. When we lack integrity, instead of God’s love, we encounter His wrath, the silent rage of truth that haunts us with the shameful discongruity between who we tell ourselves that we are and who we have actually been. The way that the Bible usually talks about God’s wrath, particularly in the psalms, is in terms of God’s absence. The one thing that the Israelites dreaded more than anything was for God to hide His face from them: “How long O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire?” (Psalm 89:46)
God becomes hidden when we are presumptuous about His grace. His wrath is the palpable boiling in our subconscious that makes us restless when we know we aren’t right with Him but keep on pretending that we are. This doesn’t happen because God is a mean, picky tyrant. It happens because God is not only love (1 John 4:8), but also light (1 John 1:5), and light cannot avoid burning things that have not been prepared for its exposure, as Jesus attests in John 3:19-20:
And this is the verdict, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.
But the same light that makes us want to run and hide in a dark cave when we lack integrity is the warmth and beauty of authentic intimacy that we are constantly seeking in our relationships with other people. When we lack integrity with God, we do not encounter other people in their full humanity. They are merely so many pounds of flesh to be exploited for the various unsatisfying agendas we clutch onto.
The more that we have integrity with God, the more that other people become the vessels of God’s glory with whom we experience the ecstatic communion Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
We desperately need for God to enter under our roof. And it doesn’t matter that God is already “under our roof” in one sense, being more internal to us than we are to ourselves as the source of every atom in our bodies. For we will not experience God to be “under our roof” unless we are fully conscious of how unworthy we are for Him to be there and thus stop resisting the painfully therapeutic holiness of His perfect light.
It’s a completely different thing to say generically that God is everywhere and loves everybody and to have the personal experience of God entering under your roof despite your unworthiness. The first is a farcical platitude; the second is the most authentic solid ground that a person can possibly stand on. Hebrews 10:19-22 explains how Jesus’ cross gives us a confidence and assurance in pursuing intimacy with God that isn’t a whimsical farce:
Therefore, my friends,since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
As this passage demonstrates, Jesus’ blood does not serve the purpose of giving God a place to put His anger. Its purpose is to give us the assurance that God has done something with the violence that we have done to His truth, which is what He absorbs into the flesh of His Word so that we can be made into new creation. God is not an angry God; He is a truthful God. And that truth is a beast for us to tolerate. But Jesus is knocking at the door of our souls (Revelation 3:20). To open our souls’ doors to Him means recognizing that our souls need healing, and trusting that, if He only says the word, He really can heal them.