Sunday, February 26, 2023

Why Should a Living Man Complain?

It was a day in late September, over twenty-four centuries ago, and the trumpets blared in Jerusalem, which was beginning to finally look like a city again, now that Governor Nehemiah had finished overseeing the rebuilding of the city walls. Those trumpets set in motion a signal, from town to town to town, that called the people of the surrounding countryside into the city, gathering into the square at the Water Gate in the new city wall. Under the comforting warmth of the September sun, the governor invited an aging priest named Ezra to unfurl the scroll of God's sacred Law and read it out to the people (Nehemiah 8:1-2).

During the hours they listened, I'm sure that the stories and promises and warnings they heard couldn't help but remind them where they'd been in the last century. For a century and a half before this moment, their ancestors had been in this land, violating God's Law with utter abandon. In pursuing their great human journey, they'd been headed in precisely the wrong direction, fleeing God with gusto. Time and again, the Lord had sent them grave difficulties, bombing the wrongful path before them, all in attempts to provoke a course correction, a reversal back toward light and life and peace. And as things got more painful, one might have hoped that a wayward nation would reconsider its ways. But, by and large, it didn't. It hightailed it faster toward doomsday.

To them, God had sent a great prophet, Jeremiah, full of tears and woe. And even though Jeremiah kept his hands clean of the sin he saw relentlessly around him, he suffered intensely alongside his sinful brethren. Reflecting during the catastrophe, Jeremiah recounted his pains but considered that “it is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.... Let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults” (Lamentations 3:27, 30). After all, “who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it?” (Lamentations 3:37). All the things that were happening to them had been sent by God – even the wicked cruelties of Babylon had been steered their way by him, albeit for their own eventual benefit, as a discipline. “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” (Lamentations 3:38). As Job said, “the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away: blessed be the name of the LORD (Job 1:21). So, asked Jeremiah, “why should a living man complain – a man! – about the punishment of his sins?” (Lamentations 3:39).

Well, those people in his day did receive the punishment for their sins, and had no right to complain when taken captive to Babylon. Now they were back and had finally rebuilt, despite opposition from Samaritans, Arabs, and Ammonites – and even the injustice within Jerusalem itself. And so, on the east side of the city, the people streamed in through the new Water Gate to hear the Scriptures read to them. For hours, Ezra read out the commandments of God (Nehemiah 8:2-3), as the Levites translated and expounded (Nehemiah 8:7). The people heard condemnations of idolatry and immorality, of injustice and oppression. They heard the feasts and the fasts, the sacrifices and the sabbath. They heard the aggrieved love of a faithful God for his faithless nation. And they heard how important it was for “a man or a woman” who “commits any of the sins that people commit by breaking faith with the LORD to “realize his guilt” (Numbers 5:6).

Which is exactly what happened in the square by the Water Gate that day. Confronted with the Law of God as a standard, the people listened for hours, not as if it were an abstraction unrelated to them, but they compared their history, their biography, with what they heard. They applied it to their conduct. Their applied it to their conscience. It pierced through their hearts, because they opened their hearts enough to let it in. And the word of God did its work in them. They examined their hearts and lives in its light. So “all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law” (Nehemiah 8:9). And throughout the holidays that followed – first the Day of Atonement, then the Feast of Booths – they came back again and again to hear more, examining their own hearts day by day (Nehemiah 8:13-18).

So far this year, we've talked about how, as human beings made in God's image and likeness, we're on a journey. It's the great human journey, and it's meant to lead us to the face of God. Seeing him as he is, we'll become like him in ways we can't even begin to imagine. The beatific vision will be the fullness of eternal life, as we share God's own life as completely as a creature can – and that is heaven. But we can't get there under our natural powers, much less as those powers are handicapped by sin. We must be born again. Grace not only cleanses and regenerates us, but it installs supernatural powers like faith, hope, and love into us; and putting these into practice moves us toward our goal, under the Holy Spirit's directing guidance. And since that journey is one of relationship with God, we talked about the conversation we have with God – our side, in prayer, and his side, in his word, such as in the words of Scripture that Ezra read to the people.

A few Sundays back, we heard a bit about how righteousness and holiness are necessary if we're ever going to reach the face of God, and how that means that it isn't enough that God's grace has installed these supernatural powers into our lives. Rather, we have to cooperate with his continued grace in the use of those powers. But sin is the opposite of cooperating with God. In sin, we act against these supernatural impulses, loosening them or even casting them out of our hearts – both of which require remedies of varying strength. It's like dumping trash in your car's fuel tank, bashing the engine with a hammer, typing directions into your GPS with your eyes closed. It'll make you unsafe on the road, send you off the path you're meant to take, or risk something worse.

Jeremiah asked, “Why should a living man complain about the punishment of his sins?” (Lamentations 3:39). Why indeed should a driver complain that his suspension's getting wrecked when he goes offroading in a pockmarked minefield? The ride's very bumpiness is a warning to get back on the road, not to whine as you speed further into peril. But if not by complaining, how then should we react to God's course corrections while we're still alive and able? Hear these next words: “Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the LORD!” (Lamentations 3:40). In other words, assess the ground around you, recheck the map, compare it to the turns you've made, and shift into reverse to back out the way you came. For what does it mean to “test and examine our ways,” if not to reflect on our behavior and motives, as to whether they're on course, whether our lives and hearts are on course? Nine centuries ago, one commentator paraphrased this passage like this: “Examining our past and present life with great attention..., sitting in severe judgment on our action, let us return to the Lord...”1

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul saw himself as something of a latter-day Jeremiah (2 Corinthians 13:10; cf. Jeremiah 1:10). And when he writes his later letter to Corinth, the church there was in chaos, led astray after visits from pompous false teachers. For these puffed-up 'super-apostles' seemed so suave and assertive, and it made Paul's cross-shaped gentleness look like pathetic weakness in their proud eyes. So now, reports of their behavior have made Paul intensely anxious over the sins they've fallen into. Not only have Corinth's scandalous sinners still refused to repent of their licentious lifestyles (2 Corinthians 12:21), but Paul fears “that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder” (2 Corinthians 12:20).

So the gloves are coming off. Paul's giving his third and final warning, and “if I come again, I will not spare” the sinners in the church there (2 Corinthians 13:2). Rather, “in dealing with you, we will live with [Christ] by the power of God” (2 Corinthians 13:4). So before Paul reaches their doorstep with the unsheathed sword of church discipline, he urges them: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are [even] in the faith” – that is, test whether there's any of Christ's presence left in them that can provide a seed of restoration (2 Corinthians 13:5). What Paul's asking of them is to sit down and reflect while he's on his way – to make a careful assessment of their acts, their lives, their relationship to the Christ they claim, so as to identify in themselves the sin that Paul has seen, and to reach a place of them seeing it as God sees it. They should react to Paul's letter as the Jews did to the Law Ezra read: they should assess themselves in its light, weep where they find them mismatched, and repent.

But this isn't the first time Paul's told the Corinthians to examine themselves, either. In his earlier letter, we read how notoriously badly they behaved when it came to Communion, to the point that their hypocrisy was literally poisoning them (1 Corinthians 11:17, 30). Bringing all this unrepented sin and vice to the altar, cramming holiness into their filthy, venomous mouths, offending the body of Jesus under the twin guises of bread and brother, they “eat and drink judgment on themselves,” to the point some of them had gotten sick or died (1 Corinthians 11:29). Paul tells them that, even before they make it to church, they ought to scrutinize their lives, their attitudes, their hearts: “If we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged” (1 Corinthians 11:31). So “let a person examine himself, then,” and only after finding a clear conscience, Paul tells us, “eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28). Self-examination is a prerequisite to safe communion.

Now, at this point, we might wonder if self-examination is just for extraordinary situations – Israel confronted with generations of sin, Corinthians dropping like flies. But it's not just for the extraordinary. If we want to grow in our relationship with God, if we want to advance in the great human journey, living out this advice is a powerful tool for transformation. And Christians down through the ages have agreed. In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom pointed out to his congregation that Lent – this season we're in right now – is an awesome time for making real spiritual progress. But that progress can be lost, in Lent as throughout the year, if we don't set aside time for a regular examination of our heart and life. After all, don't sailors take stock of the ship's cargo? Don't captains keep a ship's log to chart their travels day by day, and ensure that the navigation makes sense in light of their destination, so they can correct course while there's time? But if they do that, said St. John, “much more is it proper for us to follow that procedure... by examining our conscience, scrutinizing our thinking, and considering what we have done right” – (or not right!) – “on this day, and what on that day...”2

Over thirteen centuries later, there was another John – John Wesley. Barely into his twenties, his mom wrote to him: “Dear Jacky, I heartily wish you would now enter upon a serious examination of yourself...”3 He took her words to heart and carried out a regular self-examination, day after day. And after his personal revival over a decade later, he organized the small groups that would be the cornerstone of the Methodist movement, and he had these penitent bands do self-examination out loud in groups every week, answering questions like “What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?”4 And in his classes, the class leader was to visit each class member once a week to help them examine “how their souls prosper.”5 The founder of our denomination was a member of just such a Methodist class near Ephrata. Our churches began, in many cases, in the form of class meetings.

So what does it look like to listen to Ezra, listen to Paul, listen to these great churchmen of generations past, and carry out a examination of our hearts and lives? A good place to begin is by thanking God, because everything we do ought to begin with thanking God for his goodness. Then, we can pray for God to help us call to mind our actions, good and bad, in the time period we aim to review. We can pray he'll give us insight into the motives by which we acted, and not just the excuses we've convinced ourselves of. We can pray God will let us really see ourselves as we actually are – the good, the bad, the ugly. And we can take a deep breath and keep calm and clear-headed, not letting ourselves get worked up or defensive, but taking a step back for a moment.6

Next, we can decide on a rubric to use. It doesn't usually help to just try to catch whatever comes to mind. We need to ask ourselves specific questions. Now, we could make up our own list of questions – a personalized standard, like John Wesley's 'scheme of self-examination,'7 or the relentless barrage that Francis de Sales put together.8 But classically, one popular rubric has been to use the Ten Commandments.9 Sit down and review your behaviors and heart attitudes with the Law of God, and you'll see why Ezra had the crowd crying!

Of course, if you keep to the letter, you can let yourself off the hook pretty easily – “Well, I never killed anybody, I haven't been stealing and committing adultery, I guess I pass.” Not so fast: Jesus digs deeper in his Sermon on the Mount, getting to the root. Another rubric that's been recommended throughout the ages is what we today like to call the 'seven deadly sins.' You know the ones – pride, anger, envy, lust, gluttony, sloth, and greed. Those are vices that beget all sorts of sins in our lives. Any one of us could examine our hearts and lives under those headings, investigating the ways we've allowed those vices to boss us around and control our attitudes and actions, or (hopefully) finding ways we've cultivated their opposite virtues.10

But, whichever rubric you pick out, use it. Hold it up next to you as you take a good, hard look in the mirror. Try to recall what you've done, what you've said, what you've nursed in your heart.11 Look at everything, but if it helps, identify one main area you struggle in – maybe impatience, maybe anger, maybe defensiveness – and prioritize that first. Francis de Sales drew an analogy with maintaining an old pocket-watch: “He who is careful of his soul ought to wind it up morning and evening... and at least once a year take it apart to examine all its dispositions, in order to repair all its defects.”12 Ignatius of Loyola suggested doing some level of examination of conscience a couple times each day, and keeping a record of your progress hour to hour, week to week.13

So how do we begin repairing defects? Well, the Law Israel heard Ezra read said: “When a man or a woman commits any of the sins that people commit by breaking faith with the LORD, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess his sin that he has committed” (Numbers 5:6-7). So that's just what they did. A little over three weeks after hearing Ezra read the Law, the Israelites got together again – and although it was October, it sure looked a lot like Lent. They all started fasting. They put dirt on their heads, just like the ashes we get on Ash Wednesday. They even dressed in sackcloth, rough and dark and depressing (Nehemiah 9:1). These are things Daniel did in Babylon, when reading Jeremiah made him realize Israel was still in the doghouse (Daniel 9:3). But what Daniel did as one man on behalf of a nation, Ezra led that nation's grandkids in doing as a generation of Daniels. Separating themselves from sin, they then confessed the sins they'd fallen into: “The offspring of Israel... stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers, and they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for a quarter of the day; for another quarter of it, they made confession and worshipped the LORD their God” (Nehemiah 9:2-3). That is, they admitted out loud, not just being sinners in a generic way, but they named names – they verbalized to God the findings of their self-examination, submitting a real raw report on the sorry state of their souls.

Just like Nehemiah's Judah, we can, if we wish, confess our sins in a group setting. After all, James writes that in certain contexts you should “confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16), and John Wesley said the bands he formed were designed to “obey that command of God” in all its intensity.14 Sometimes the early Christians practiced just such public confessions of sin. In time, it often became a more private affair between a person and his or her pastor, since Jesus told the apostles, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” (John 20:23). But regardless, confessing in public or in total privacy, these believers were confessing to God, making their own the psalm: “I confess my iniquity, I am sorry for my sin” (Psalm 38:18). With real contrition, they regretted the sins they confessed, and hoped on God's forgiveness and help. We're told to “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue” (2 Peter 1:5), and self-examination and confession are part of that effort.

And when we carry out our self-examination, when we read our lives and hearts in light of God's commands and the virtue we need if we want to be like him, we're going to find things to confess – maybe smaller things, maybe bigger things. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 John 1:8). So just confess it, lay it all out to God. Then ask his pardon, and commit to doing better, with the help of his grace.15 And here's the good news: he'll give it – the pardon and the grace. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). With self-examination leading to confession as a regular practice, not only can we understand ourselves better, but we can grow in righteousness, grow in virtue, “grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2), “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18), “grow up in every way into... Christ” (Ephesians 4:15), and so chart our way to the very face of God. May these logbooks, this maintenance, aid us there, in Jesus' name and by his grace! Amen.

Almighty and gracious God and Father, you who forgive sin even more readily than our foolish hearts so readily commit it, we turn to you and beg for your mercy.  We plead for your light to fall on our darkened minds, calling back to our remembrance all that has led us astray.  We ask you to help us see ourselves in your truth.  We confess before you that we are sinners.  Show us exactly where we are weak and where we are strong.  Show us where we falter where we tell ourselves we fly.  Unbury the broken bones in us that yet chafe with pain.  Guide us in searching ourselves, testing and examining our conscience and heart and life, and naming before you the sins we find.  Give us hearts that hate these sins as dirty ashes, that hunger and thirst for your righteousness in us instead.  This Lent, let our fasting hunger awaken that spiritual hunger, and lead us to true repentance, true amendment of life, from what our self-examination reveals.  Confessing our sins and our vices, we know, is our one great hope to find the forgiveness and help you offer, not because you have any obligation to, but because you love us even when our love for you (or even our love for ourselves) dies out.  Teach us where we must grow next, the place we must now be stretched as, part by part, we are stretched into the pattern of the image of Christ, in whose name we plead for your mercy and your grace.  Amen.

1  William of Malmesbury, On Lamentations 3.40-42.2, in Corpus Christianorum in Translation 13:289.

2  John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 11.7, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 74:146.

3  Susanna Wesley, letter to John Wesley, 23 February 1724/1725, in Charles Wallace Jr., ed., Susanna Wesley: The Complete Writings (Oxford University Press, 1997), 106.

4  John Wesley, Rules of the Band Societies, 25 December 1738, in Works of John Wesley 9:78.

5  John Wesley, The Nature, Design, and General Rules of the United Societies 3.2 (1742/1743), in Works of John Wesley 9:70.

6  Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises 43; Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life 5.3.

7  John Wesley, A Scheme of Self-Examination, Used by the First Methodists in Oxford, in John Emory, ed., The Works of the Rev. John Wesley (J. Emory and B. Waugh, 1831), 6:579-580.

8  Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life 5.4-6.

9  Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises 42.

10  Brant Pitre, Introduction to the Spiritual Life: Walking the Path of Prayer with Jesus (Image, 2021), 205-206.

11  Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises 43.

12  Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life 5.1.

13  Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises 24-30.

14  John Wesley, Rules of the Band Societies, 25 December 1738, in Works of John Wesley 9:77.

15Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises 43; Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life 5.8.

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