"This spiritual cycle was depicted in a devotional story that came my way by e-mail. In it a young mom was reflecting on her tendency to grump and gripe, such that one day even her toddler said he didn’t want to be around her. “I wish I could make a whole-life resolution” to do better, she said, but she knew that she would inevitably fail. “I’ll make lots of bad choices, I’ll sin a lot more. My heart is heavy with this reality.”
Then, turning to the hymn “And Can It Be,” she quoted the line, “No condemnation now I dread.” Because grace has been poured out on us, she explained, we no longer have to feel burdened by our inevitable falls. We can go on trying and failing and forgiven, comforted by the limitless nature of God’s grace.
Most of us modern-day Christians will nod at this story; it sounds so right and so reassuring. But let’s imagine we could hand this e-mail to a Christian of another era, perhaps from the fifth or sixth century, living in the Middle East. We’ll call her Anna. As she reads over this anecdote, she’s perplexed by the sudden turn at the end. Oh, plenty of it sounds familiar: being grumpy, having failings, wanting to do better. She has three kids herself, and a husband who runs a busy olive press. Some of these stresses are timeless.
But how does “No condemnation now I dread” address that situation? She wants real help to change, not just consolation. And she expects that real help, through Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit. For her, this story omits that practical hope, and trails off in anticlimax.
One thing about the anecdote particularly perplexes Anna. Why is this mother mainly concerned with condemnation? For Anna, the problem is not so much the final reward of sin, but the natural daily result of it—the way it distances her from God. Her whole life is a journey toward union with God, and nettling daily failures are like rocks in the path, hindering her from drawing closer to this great love. Sins are all the little actions and inactions that serve our selfish impulses and that can be so hard to resist—even, ahead of time, hard to detect. Anna gets frustrated with these failures, not mostly because they earn a future penalty, but because they block her today from what her heart desires: to see the glory of God reflected in the face of her beloved Lord Jesus.
Just fixing the final-condemnation part won’t solve her problem. Resigning oneself to continual failure, then stamping “Debt Paid” at the end of the bill, sounds like a depressing prescription. What Anna wants instead, and what she expects, and what she steadily progresses toward, is a truly transformed life, where sin is being conquered every day.
So for Anna it’s not gloomy dread of condemnation that’s the problem. Sure, that’s what our sins deserve; yet God desires not the death of a sinner, but that we turn from our wickedness and live. His seeking, saving love is beyond question. At church Anna’s husband, Theodore, a deacon, chants prayers emphasizing God’s unceasing mercy. Many of her church’s hymns conclude with the line, “For you alone are the lover of mankind.” God the Father is likened to the father of the prodigal son, someone whose forgiving love is never ending, never deserved. Anna and her fellow worshipers see themselves as the harlot who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, or the thief on the cross, who did nothing deserving yet was “saved by a single glance” of Christ, as one hymn says. So God’s seeking, saving love is something Anna never has to doubt.
No, the problem isn’t with God, it’s with her. God continually calls to her, but she doesn’t always want to listen. His love is constant, but she doesn’t receive it consistently, or sometimes even willingly. This is because God’s love is a healing love, and healing isn’t always comfortable. It heals in a surgical sense, and the scalpel can hurt. It’s more comfortable to avoid those times of authentic confrontation with God, which can rattle us so deeply."Those unfamiliar with Frederica should know she is Orthodox and that comes through strongly in this book. But it's time we stopped letting labels prevent us from learning from each other. Pick this book up and give it a try.
The Illumined Heart is a paperback from Paraclete Press with 111 pages and sells for $12.95.