Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Return to me

Remember these things, O Jacob,
and Israel, for you are my servant;
I formed you, you are my servant;
O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.
I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud,
and your sins like mist;

return to me, for I have redeemed you (Isa 44.21-2).

Some times we live on the precipice of temptation to sin: it is a constant fight to keep from falling, to keep from distrusting God, to keep from succumbing to something we know is wrong. In difficult moments such as those, we may feel a certain powerlessness. There is a persistent whispering impulse within us to go in the wrong direction, and there may appear to be no tug in the opposite direction whatsoever. Occasionally we may even fall, regret it afterwards, but lack the palpable inner strength to effect a determined rupture with the past deed and to abort the nascent vice, to stomp out the embers before they grow into a blazing fire.

The passage quoted above from Isaiah is a fine treatment for the sickness I've described. It tells us a few important things to understand and to remember in moments of weakness in the struggle with sin.

In the first place, there is an emphasis on remember. The things about to be related are things you should already know, things you have already learned. Your current circumstances have clouded your understanding and have taken your consciousness away from something critically important. You are currently laboring under an illusion. And what is it that you've forgotten? That you are my servant, and that I formed you. God was intimately involved in your birth, in your existence for every one of its moments, and even in the formation of your identity. You are not your own person, free to do as you wish with the risk that your life falls apart and you descend deeper into vice. Far from it: you are a servant of God's, and this is what you really are above all things.

Because you are God's servant, he says you will not be forgotten by me. This addresses the problem of our sin in two ways. In the first place, he tells us that we are his servants and so we do not belong to ourselves. We are not free to go on in any old way that we wish. Paul gives a similar injunction to the Corinthians: you are not your own. For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body (1 Cor 6.19-20). We must dispel the illusion of autonomy and freedom of self-expression or self-formation from our minds. No, we are servants and we do our master's bidding. This is who we are; this is the identity given to us when we were bought with a price.

But there is a second point here, as well. The first point is a rebuke: you are a servant and you cannot do as you wish. But the second point is a consolation: precisely because you are my servant, and because I formed you, I will not forget you. Guilt subsequent to committed sin carries along with it a sense of abandonment by God, motivated by a conviction of personal unworthiness. We feel that we are not worthy of God, of his presence, of his favor, because of what has been done. All that is certainly true but it is only a part of the truth. Because we are not our own, because we have been bought with a price, therefore God does not leave us and abandon us. Because we are his servants, he attends to us and deals with our weaknesses and infirmities of the soul; he wants to see us get better, to assure us that we are his and that he will not cast us out. He does this by reminding us that we belong to him, and therefore we are his even if we sin.

He goes further, however, and he tells us that I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist. The problem which our sin raises, the problem of our unworthiness, has been resolved! Our sins no longer stand as barriers to our partnership with God because they have been dealt and done away with through the redemption of Jesus Christ. Upon him fell the punishment that brought us peace (Isa 53.5). This is the reminder given to us every time we participate in the Eucharist: we are greeted there by the body and blood of Jesus Christ, broken and shed for the forgiveness of our sins.

In light of all this God calls us back to him. Stay no longer in the guilt and paralyzing numbness of sin, he says. Return to me, for I have redeemed you! Don't allow the deceit of sin to keep you away from fellowship with the God who has done away with your sin and who created you, who formed you, and whose servant he has made you.