“Christendom has had a series of revolutions,” writes G. K. Chesterton, “and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”
Oh, yes, and a God who “so loved the world” that he truly did “give his only Son” both to pardon and to empower.
The pardon had to be real. The power had to be real. Why? Because humanity’s problem was real. Put simply, our problem is that none of us measures up. We all foul up, and we must deal with the reality that not one of us lives up to his or her own standards, much less to the standard of right and wrong woven into the fabric of the universe.
Oh, and it is. Pick a modern philosopher or guru—they’re a dime a dozen—confidently proclaiming that right and wrong are just human constructs and he or she is above all of that. Then watch his reaction as his new car gets stolen or keyed, or if she becomes convinced that her publisher is cheating her out of the royalties promised to come from her trendy book in which she declares that absolute right and wrong do not exist. Almost any kid on any playground knows better. Fair’s fair, right’s right, and the converse is true, and kids know it.
So do we. And we are often far from right in attitude and behavior. How do we deal with the dissonance when we fall short? We can probably find any number of folks to comfort us with the idea that we just need to get comfortable with the “fact” that good and truth, right and wrong, are easily adjusted to fit our need. If on this Thursday, we prefer two plus two to equal five, we can just conveniently pronounce it to be so. But deep down, we know that up is up, no matter how we feel about it, and down is down, even if we’d prefer it otherwise.
We don’t fall up, we fall down. We fail, and, yes, we might as well use the word, we need forgiveness. We need it from those our failures have hurt. But we also have a lurking feeling that our failures and sins cut into this world’s moral fabric more deeply than we might like to think. Our sins are more than locally consequential.
Our attempts at changing truth and reality fail. Granite is not malleable. Our struggles to forgive ourselves fall flat. We make lousy gods. Our efforts to gut it out and lift ourselves into perfection by will power only serve to show us how imperfect and weak we really are. (God grant that we learn that before we drive ourselves crazy and our loved ones away.)
Just at the birth of this new year, I saw these words on a sign near a busy street. I’d not have been surprised to see them elsewhere, but this was on the sign of a church purporting to point people to Christ: “A new year. Another chance to get it right.” Were they completely unaware of how idolatrous and anti-gospel those words actually are? Did they not know that they’d just relegated Christianity to the self-help section of a bookstore chain, shoved the gospel into a shelf beside a bunch of fad diet books? Many are the schemes and the religions of the self-help variety peddling the moonshine that we humans can eventually work hard enough, smart enough, efficiently enough that through our own effort, we’ll “get it right.”
But this sort of self-delusion is nothing new. Our ancestors sought a way to “appease” a violated universe and its “gods.” Render worship “to whom it may concern.” Offer sacrifices of all sorts. Do some sort of penance. But the focus of your “religion” is ultimately on you. Pick a god who agrees with you that digging out of your grave is all up to you.
Some of the “gods” were (and are) laughable. Isaiah the prophet made merciless fun of idolaters who would pick a nice bit of wood, a piece that wouldn’t quickly rot or easily topple over and could be fashioned into a “god” to worship. Yes, if the termites didn’t get it or the wind didn’t blow too strongly. The same prophet laughed at idolaters who would cut off a branch, heat themselves with part of it, cook a meal with another part, and save a part to carve into an idol.
We laugh. And then we head over to the “self-help” section of the bookstore or to the latest seminar of the most popular “success” guru. Maybe we baptize the search with religion and pick one with rules we think we just might keep if we just keep trying harder. Human-centered religions and self-centered gurus are always available for us to fall down and worship. (But so, thank God, are churches who worship Christ as Savior and Lord.)
Or we just worship humanity, or bow down to science, or worship our own comfort. We act as if we can control and explain everything if you just give us enough time. We valiantly try to ignore the largest and most important questions of life and its purpose, assuming that if we have enough stuff and a massive net worth, we won’t have to consider questions about real value.
Oh, we’ve got plenty of paltry gods we build and worship and hope to appease. We offer modern sacrifice and pay a heavy price to fool ourselves into thinking we’re not paying at all.
There is a genuine way out of the grave. Real pardon. Real power. But it comes completely from outside of ourselves.
The fully human Son of God could literally suffer and die and completely identify with us, knowing real hunger and thirst and pain. The fully divine Son of God could literally take all of our sin and guilt on himself and truly away, as only the truly divine could do.
Fully human. Fully divine. And completely loving. For real pardon. For real power. Nothing less is enough to get us out of our graves and raised with genuine joy and life-giving grace and hope. The cross matters. Easter matters.
So, we have exactly what we need. Not self-help and self-centered snake oil. Not human-centered “faith” that just helps us redecorate our graves and tries to teach us to be content with the stench and decay. We actually have a God who “knows the way out of the grave.”
You’re invited to visit my website, and I hope you’ll take a look there at my new “Focus on Faith” Podcast. At the website, just click on “Podcast.” Blessings!
Copyright 2023 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.