Recently, I read a small piece in which someone was describing the virtues of his particular stream of the Christian tradition. Among the virtues he named was that his particular band of Christians were aware of their own “wretchedness” – which apparently makes them more aware of how merciful God is. Presumably because God cares about people (or, at least, this particular group of people) in spite of the afore-mentioned wretchedness.
Reading this reminded me of a sad legacy of much of Western Christian theology of the last few centuries that encouraged people to view themselves as, quite literally, wretched sinners who ultimately could not overcome their own wretchedness and whose only hope was that Jesus had agreed to save them despite themselves. It is a theological perspective that ultimately leaves human beings in a dismal state, a state that God, in his mercy, is willing to overlook. It is a theology that suggests to me that Jesus pretty much has to hold his nose in order to be in our presence.
It is impressive how deeply this perspective has permeated both the internal understanding of Christianity and the external image of our faith. We have generations of Christians who understand humility in terms of being aware of how wretched they are and who believe that to take pride in one’s self serves only to feed the ego and lead us into further wretchedness.
I find this perspective difficult to reconcile with the Jesus of the Gospels, especially when I consider my own experience as a human being and, specifically, as a parent. It is clear from all four of the Gospels that Jesus does not feel any need to hold his nose in our presence. In fact, Jesus embraced those whom his society considered wretched with a powerful and enthusiastic love. It seems to me that his message to those people was not, “You know, you all are really horrible people, and there’s really nothing you can do about it, but, hey, God is willing to rescue you (but that whole wretched thing isn’t going to go away, because that’s what you are).” On the contrary, Jesus’ message to these folks was how valuable they were, despite what their society told them. Certainly, they were not perfect (who is?). But the fundamental nature of their humanity was not wretchedness but infinite value and worth.
And, indeed, it is this very message that I would want to instill in my own children. While I certainly acknowledge their mistakes, I would never want them to see themselves primarily in terms of their mistakes or dysfunctions. I want them to be able to look past that and see their own value and worth. Far from being fundamentally wretched, they are fundamentally glorious. It would be hard to imagine anyone wanting to raise their children to think of themselves in any other way.
So if this is how we would wish our own children to think of themselves, then why would we imagine that God would want us to think of ourselves any differently? If we went about encouraging our children to think of themselves as fundamentally wretched and to think of their parents as tolerating them and being willing to care for them despite their wretchedness, those children would grow up with serious issues with respect to their mental and emotional health. To promote such an image of God has led to a great many issues among a great many people with respect to their spiritual health.
In John’s Gospel, God is defined in the simplest way: God is love. Love does not behold the beloved as wretched. Love does not merely tolerate others. Love sees the beloved in the best possible light and desires – passionately desires! – the best for the beloved. This is the love that God practices in Jesus. It is the love that we aspire to practice and to experience in our own relationships. To imagine that God aspires to anything less is simply wrong.