In part one we described the human proclivity for constructing personal identities for ourselves that are more comfortable and secure than it is to live free in God as protean beings before an indeterminate future. The following is an attempt to chart the way out of that temptation.
God is not taken in by our attempts to make ourselves good. He looks beneath our identities to the vulnerable self. He accepts us not as we might like, but as he made us, naked. If we are not willing to be seen as such, he waits, but he does not embrace a sham. Shams are sins to be forgiven, not retained.
Those churchmen are right who preach the compassion of God toward his people. However, they err if they equate God’s compassion with unqualified approval for our masks. God’s compassion entails change, smashing false identities. It is not an endorsement, but a cleansing. Luther was right when he said our putative virtues are sinful, to be washed away. The schoolmen were right when they said grace perfects nature; it does not sanctify the disguise in which we have covered it. Too often we confuse our selves with our shells.
The path to God’s mercy lies through repentance. People recoil from it, and it is easy to understand why. At some level they know that when the message does penetrate, it will be painful. Imagine hearing: Nobody really admires a con; in the end he makes a bad friend. Or: You are not as smart as you think; a beer bar was probably your proper milieu. Or: Your great ally Satan is already defeated. Or: You are not a bear, clutching your sack of straw, but an anointed daughter of Christ. Or: You look silly; go inside, put on a shirt, and get a leash on that dog. All these messages start with a negative. Each requires a repudiation of fakery before we arrive at joy.
The trick of seeing truthfully is to look through the surface, even our own surface, to what is underneath. This is not so strange or difficult as it sounds; we are already familiar with the idea, from Freudian psychology. But the Freudians are not radical enough; they think we are under the surface already when we are only discussing the structure that defends the surface. The subconscious is crust, not bedrock. The soul is both conscious and subconscious, madder and freer than either. When it knows itself well, defense is fatuous. It wakes up and slinks home embarrassed.
That embarrassment is our salvation. It is painful at first, but it is also a relief; for there is something at some level in us which remains permanently discontented with shams, which remembers God and regrets the loss, however painful the return would be. Eventually substitutes fail. We cannot remain forever unaware of the deeper knowledge, that we are running from ourselves. Our smile turns into a rictus; we find ourselves bored, unfulfilled. As one wise priest asks it: do you really think you can withstand the love of Christ through all eternity? No: eventually we must put away all the pathetic deaths we have embraced, and accept the one magnificent death and resurrection to which he calls us.
That call, kerygma, the proclamation of God’s reign, is the word which breaks through superficial appearances. It strikes the diseased ear in various ways: as impertinence, as cruelty, absurdity, or mere irrelevance—often enough, it is so outlandish it cannot be heard at all. Speaking Gospel is like blabbering nonsense at a noisy party. People nod indulgently, smile patronizingly, or laugh. Either they do not admit, or they do not know what they are hearing.
The Gospel is this: your true identity is in God, whose love is the most fundamental fact of existence. His primeval self-offering, the Creation, lies behind everything, and puts our artifice in perspective. He lets us groom it, mark it off with boundaries, and pretend for a time to own it. But God sustained this patch of ground before we got here, and he will continue after we are gone. Human love, the grooming we apply to the surface, is not perfect, not always healthy, sometimes forlorn or desperate, sometimes even perverse. However, none of it would exist at all, unless he created and sustained it, lovingly, from aforetime.
Jesus is God’s personal self-offering. He embodies God’s desire to restore us to our true life. He is waiting for us to Get It. We say he died for our sins, but it is not about some specific wrongs of ours. He dies to get our attention off ourselves. We have so trivialized and banalized our lives that we fail to see the power of his death as satisfaction. It is not about payment, tit for tat; it is about the depth of love which God bears toward his people. It is not a classical legalism, a balancing of accounts. It is shrieking hyperbole, a keening grief: “God so loved the world! that he . . . !”
God’s compassion consists of this: his determination that we shall know him, and therefore ourselves, truly: innocent of labels. It is pointless to acknowledge the identities we throw up in his way: deliberate sinner, moral high-roader, even Christian. He neither condemns nor approves our contrived personas—sad, ironical holdovers from a time when we did not know ourselves. He does not even bother to brush them aside, but keeps coming to get us, wading toward us through the suffocating atmosphere. He will not be deflected from the heart of the matter: I am your God and you are my people. Though you kill me, I will keep coming for you.
Before now, we mentioned a painting, Resurrezione, by Piero della Francesca. In it, Jesus is a powerfully built peasant, stepping out of the sepulchre; not flying, but climbing, tired. His eyes have circles under them, he looks straight at the viewer. His side is still bleeding. He has been to hell and back, not stopping to dress his wounds. It has not been an easy struggle; the outcome was by no means assured. He is mortally spent, yet resolute in mercy.
By grace such as his we shall at last have a real identity, not separate from the Christ, but baptized into his death and resurrection. Our wills will be in concert with God’s, and we shall be free, because we shall have chosen life.