The Nameless Devourer
Mike (my campus minister) recently gave me this incredibly insightful article from the Hedgehog Review. The author, Wilfred McClay (a history professor at the University of Oklahoma) makes a really compelling case about a phenomenon you’re probably intimately familiar with, even if you don’t necessarily know it by name:
We live, McClay argues, in a society more wracked by guilt than any other society in history:
“In a world in which the web of relationships between causes and effects yields increasingly to human understanding and manipulation, and in which human agency therefore becomes ever more powerful and effective, the range of our potential moral responsibility, and therefore our potential guilt, also steadily expands. We like to speak, romantically, of the interconnectedness of all things, failing to recognize that this same principle means that there is almost nothing for which we cannot be, in some way, held responsible.”
He goes on to illustrate the claim:
“I can see pictures of a starving child in a remote corner of the world on my television, and know for a fact that I could travel to that faraway place and relieve that child’s immediate suffering, if I cared to. I don’t do it, but I know I could. Although if I did so, I would be a well-meaning fool like Dickens’s ludicrous Mrs. Jellyby, who grossly neglects her own family and neighborhood in favor of the distant philanthropy of African missions. Either way, some measure of guilt would seem to be my inescapable lot, as an empowered man living in an interconnected world.”
We’re all aware that things aren’t as they’re supposed to be. We know that we’re not quite who we’re supposed to be. If someone were to put the thoughts that ran through our head on a daily basis on a billboard, we’d immediately pack our bags and move to Syberia. We know the world definitely isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. Heartbreak, famine, war, violations of human rights – they’re just wrong.
But when we try to do something about it, we run into this “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario that McClay observes. Our good efforts actually end up heaping more guilt on our heads. No matter what I do, I can’t help everyone, and I usually I can’t even help people in the way they really need it. I’m not enough.
The worst part of our situation is that in our post-Nietzsche, post-Freud culture, we’ve lost even our vocabulary to express guilt. Guilt, after all, is a problem with your relationship to something else – you owe someone something. But Freud said that guilt was an accident of biology and sociology, and Nietzsche said that God was dead, and so the West struck both terms from our cultural dictionary. These days there’s nothing to owe and no one to owe it to.
Now the only word we can use to describe our position is shame. “There’s just something wrong with me.” Everyone feels that, when they’re honest. But really, they’re two sides of the same coin: shame looks inward and says “I’m not supposed to look like this,” guilt looks outward and says “I’m supposed to be like that.”
Even though we’ve repressed the categories of guilt, responsibility, and God (even in the supposed “Bible Belt”, these categories might be expressed on Sunday but have no operative power for the rest of the week) we have not actually managed to escape them. Julian Barnes, in his book Nothing to be Frightened Of, describes the sense of wrongness that often strikes us in our most honest moments:
“Only a couple of nights ago, there came again that alarmed and alarming moment, of being pitch-forked back into consciousness, awake, alone, utterly alone, beating pillow with fist shouting “oh no Oh No OH NO” in an endless wail, the horror of the moment – the minutes – overwhelming what might, to an objective witness, appear a shocking display of self-exhibitionist pity. An inarticulate one, too: for what sometimes shames me is the extraordinary lack of descriptive, or responsive, words that come out of my mouth. For God’s sake, you’re a writer, I say to myself. You do words. Can’t you improve on that? Can’t you face down death – well, you won’t ever face it down, but can’t you at least protest against it – more interestingly that this?”
This is what Charles Taylor describes as the “haunted” quality of Western society, the acutely felt absence of the god we threw away – a void that seems unwilling to be filled in, to leave us alone. Paula Fredriksen says “the biblical god… seems to have taken up permanent residence in Western imagination… [so much so that] even nonbelievers seem to know exactly who or what it is that they do not believe in.”
So everyone, regardless of if they have a name for it or not, is struggling to answer the accusations of a guilty conscience. We can’t get rid of them any more than we can get rid of those echoes of transcendence – or the feeling that there’s supposed to be transcendence – that Barnes describes. So we try to medicate. Some do it by working as hard as they can at something – career, school, even religion – to try and satisfy the voices. Others (as McClay observes) try to find a loophole in playing up their status as the victim – “It’s not my fault, look how I’ve suffered – you can’t hold me accountable.” Everyone is busy trying to escape.
I see this in college students all the time. Ironically, this sense of desperation is the thing that compels some students to stay at the library all night and others to stay at the bar all night. They’re both looking for someone to say “It isn’t true. You’re ok.”
But even if you literally find someone who will tell you that, the insidious mutterings of a shameful, guilty conscience don’t quiet down.
This, McClay argues, happens in part because we have exorcised the idea of an economy of sin from our vocabulary and minds. No one needs to be forgiven because there is no sin. No one has to atone because no one needs forgiveness. No payment is necessary because there is no debt. Nietzsche hoped this would lead to the abolition of guilt; instead it has transformed it into an unnameable, silent devourer of our souls.
The Story of Abraham
The story of Abraham starts in the 12th chapter of Genesis and runs through the 25th – so a little more than a fifth of the book is devoted to him. In the beginning, Abraham is called Abram. He doesn’t know God, he lives with pagans. But God calls him out from everything he knows with a simple promise, “Go, and I will make of you a great nation.” And Abram goes.
This first act of faith is almost immediately met with failure. As they journey through Egypt, Abram tells his wife, Sarai, “If they know that we’re married, they’ll kill me so they can take you. Pretend you’re my sister.” On the surface, this doesn’t look like that big of a deal. Abram is just being shrewd, right?
Well, not really. God has already promised that he’s going to bring him, safely, to another land. He’s promised that He’s going to make him into a great nation. So what Abram is actually saying is “Sarai, this god isn’t really going to protect us. We need to be practical.” He’s calling God a liar.
In spite of this, God makes a covenant with Abram, giving him a new name, Abraham. He swears by Himself that He will give Abraham a nation of children, that everyone will be blessed through him. In this midst of this conversation we have the famous declaration, “And [Abraham] believed Yahweh, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”
What’s the very next thing that happens? Abraham and Sarah decide that there’s no way God can come through on that promise. Sarah is just too old. So she gives him her handmaiden, Hagar, to have a child with. It’s a disaster, Sarah and Hagar hate each other, and eventually they send her and the child away.
That’s a second time Abraham just says “God can’t do it. He can’t keep his end of the deal. We gotta help Him out.”
In response, God comes back and says “You’re going to have a son, he’s going to come from Sarah, and I will make him into a great nation.”
There’s the story of Lot, of Sodom and Gamorrah. And then as Abraham is still journeying, right before Isaac is about to be born, he runs into a powerful king name Abimelech. You know what he says to him?
“Sarah? Oh yeah, she’s my sister!”
Abraham has seen God deliver him out of this exact situation. He’s seen God cause a woman who was way too old to get pregnant get pregnant. He’s seen Him literally rain down hellfire and brimstone and destroy two cities. But he still says, “I don’t know if the Lord is going to keep his promises.” That’s three strikes. He should be out.
Instead, Yahweh delivers them from Abimelech, and Isaac is born. God never abandons him.
What’s that Got To Do With Anything?
I tell the story like that because sometimes we’ll just gloss over stories in the Old Testament. Sometimes we make the patriarchs out to simply be paragons of virtue (they’re not) and other times we just don’t understand what’s going on. But every story in the bible is significant – both because they are true and because they are meaningful.
How does the story of a man who lived 4000 years ago have anything to do with the modern, guilt wracked West?
Paul also records an abbreviated story of Abraham. In the fourth chapter of Romans, he says this:
“In hope, [Abraham] believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was counted to him as righteousness.”
Now, if you’re like me, you’re tempted to ask, “Um, Paul? Did you even read Genesis? No unbelief made him waver? What are you talking about?” But it’d be ridiculous to say that Paul was making a mistake or had forgotten about those other pieces of the story. Paul had been a rabbi, “a Pharisee of Pharisees.” We know that he would have had at least the pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) literally memorized.
He hasn’t forgotten. He’s telling us something.
Paul’s letter to the Romans plays out like a court case. The first three chapters of the book are the prosecution of the whole human race, and they contain some of the most crushing words ever penned. Paul says that everyone knows the truth, and everyone suppresses it in unrighteousness. That even the religious people – anyone who’s ever said the words “That’s wrong” – stand condemned by their own standards. “No one is righteous, not even one.” Jew and Gentile have earned the wrath of a holy God.
In other words, Paul’s saying that all those crushing accusations – the constant, overpowering guilt – it’s not an accident of biology or sociology. It’s the truth.
But thankfully Paul doesn’t stop there.
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law… a righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
This is something radically different than all our ways of attempting to quiet our consciences. It doesn’t play the victim and say “There’s nothing wrong with me, it’s not my fault!” But it also doesn’t say, “Earn this! Fix this!”
Every waking hour of the Westerner’s life is spent trying to justify himself or herself. But Paul says “Listen, the only way you’re going to be justified – to really have things made right – is through faith in Jesus. He did the things you were supposed to. He paid the penalty you were supposed to pay. And because of that you can be clean.”
Look at Abraham’s new story. If we just consider what he he did, we’d be right to call him a blasphemer. He say to God with his actions, “You aren’t who you say you are! You can’t do it.”
But Paul, telling the story of Abraham’s life in the context of what Jesus has done, says “Abraham is spotless. There’s not a trace of his failure. There’s no more sin. Not because he did something good; only because he believed God.”
Our Story, Too
Paul then goes on to tell us:
“the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for Abraham’s sake alone, but for ours also. “It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
If you’re like me, you’ve got a story that, if someone told it in the way I just told the story of Abraham – you know, only highlighting the flaws – you’d spend the rest of your life hiding from society. How can there ever be relief for people like us, when we know that the voice of our guilt is right? We can try to do better, but, as C. S. Lewis said, “No man has ever known exactly how bad he is until he has tried very hard to be good.” We can try to deny that there’s anything wrong, but we know it’s not true.
Paul says Jesus justifies us.
“Justification” is a word you’ve probably heard a lot if you’ve spent any time in Christian circles. It means two things happen: first, Jesus takes away all our sin, and second, he gives us his righteousness. There’s nothing you can do to earn it, it’s received by faith alone.
That’s the Christianese way to say it. Here’s what it really means:
The only perfect man who ever lived – the one who always loved the poor and always obeyed his parents and never blew up at anyone he loved and gave himself for everyone and defended the helpless and opposed the unjust and was full all the time of grace, mercy, and truth in perfect balance – he looked at you, the sexually idolatrous, angry, spiteful, petty, immature, greedy, proud, unjust, rude, hateful, fake, needy you.
And he said “I love you.”
And because he loved you he paid your debt. That guilt you’ve been trying to work off? The constant feeling of being lacking? He paid for it. It literally cost him his life.
And because he loved you he said “When God looks at you he’s going to see me. The perfect one. His son.” That’s what Paul’s talking about when he said “it’s counted to us”. The Father looks at our record and he sees Jesus’ perfect life.
Like Abraham, your story changes from “The False” to “The Faithful.”
He loves the real you. Not the you in your daydreams – the one who’s always on top of work and the social ladder. He loves the one who still feels like a failure, who doesn’t do anything the way they planned, who is still daily struggling to even believe he really loves you. He loves the you who wakes up thinking “I can’t believe I did that again.” He loves the you who never gave him a reason to love you.
And because he switched your stories – not you – there’s nothing you can do to lose that. That’s justification. You can stop trying to prove yourself. You can stop trying to find a loophole for your guilt. There is a way you can be right with God.
That’s the only medicine for the shamed, guilty world we live in. It’s the only way we can have peace. There is nothing to do except believe.
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy, and eat! Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”
Note: This is the first article in a series I’m doing on the three governing principles RUF seeks to communicate: the truths about Justification, Sanctification, and Scripture. More to come!
Prayer Update: Students are about to come back (or move in) here in a day or so! Please pray that God will bring people from all sorts of backgrounds, ethnicities, and experiences to hear about and know Jesus! We’re going to be having bible studies on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and Large Group on Wednesday, and we need prayer for everything we do!