Letter to the American Church – Chapter 14

Chapter 14

Justifying Ourselves

To attempt to justify ourselves before God is to wish to be God ourselves, which never ends well. And whenever we do this we fall into the trap of behaving a “religious” excuse. We pretend this is the safe path, just as the servant who has buried the talent pretends he is taking the safe path, but is really condemning his master as being hard. His lie is a religious lie.

But in all these cases we imagine we know that God is a hard judge, and we deal with Him as such. We cover ourselves with fig leaves and claim to believe certain creeds, or we say that we buried the talent so we wouldn’t lose it. But God sees our deeper motivation is satanic. It is to supplant Him and become Him ourselves. We attempt to manipulate Him with our actions so that it is we who are in charge and not God Himself. This is the path of dead religion, and religious scrupulosity is at its heart. The Pharisees would tithe their mint and other herbs, but their hearts were far from God.

But when we treat God as the hard judge in the parable, it is obvious we are living in fear of Him. We do not love Him but secretly hate Him. We believe that if we make the slightest mistake He will condemn us, so we do as little as possible (bury the talent) and certainly avoid any kind of sin or action we think wrong. But by living in this way we cease to live freely. We are in bondage.

In Bonhoeffer’s time, many in the Church had taken this path. They avoided trouble. For one thing they cooperated with the authorities, because Romans 13 seemed to make that unavoidable. It was not their job to argue with those authorities or resist them-and certainly not to work against them. They must be good citizens and let things happen as they happened.

But Bonhoeffer in his essay “The Church and the Jewish Question” made it clear it is very much the Church’s obligation to counter the state if the state’s actions are evil. God was calling His people to something far above merely avoiding sins and keeping their noses clean.

For most in the German Church, God was the “hard master” of the parable whom they feared and disliked. So their actions were calculated to give Him back His talent and be done with it. But Bonhoeffer clearly saw this was not merely wrong, but evil. It was not merely that the churchgoers of his day did not love God, but actually hated him. The difference between these views may be summed up by saying, “Being a Christian is not about avoiding sin, but about passionately and courageously serving God.”

So why do some keep silent at certain times or avoid certain subjects? Is it because they are afraid of making a mistake for which God will judge them? Many in the Church today have what Bonhoeffer might have called “theologically restrained objections” to coming across as political, or even merely to voting for a candidate whose demeanor doesn’t tick all the boxes they think necessary. For them, it is not about doing what they think is the right thing for all concerned-whether in how they vote or in other things-but is more about their own theological purity. In other words, they are not thinking about others, but about themselves. But they are not thinking about others, but about themselves. But they are doing it for “religious” or “pietistic” reasons.

Let’s take the example of a Gestapo officer coming to the door of a man hiding a Jew in his basement. Perhaps the homeowner is a good citizen who “doesn’t want any trouble,” but who, when the desperate Jew came to him, was not able to turn him away. He may have been afraid that someone would see him talking to the Jew, and perhaps it was safer to let him hide in his basement for a while than risk being seen talking to him. O course the Jew would not stay there, but for the moment, it was the best option.

But now comes the moment of truth. A Gestapo officer comes up the man’s walk and knocks on his door. The man answers and the Gestapo agent puts the question to him unadorned: “Are you hiding a Jew in your basement?” But wait, perhaps the Gestapo agent is craftier than that. He doesn’t wish to implicate the homeowner in this, and perhaps nudge him to lie. On the contrary, he wishes to show the homeowner that if he plays along with the government-whom he, the Gestapo agent, represents-then it will go well. After all, the homeowner is not himself a Jew. So perhaps the Gestapo agent asks: “Hs a Jew imposed himself upon you, and is hiding in your basement?” If that is the case, the homeowner is as much a victim as anyone. The Gestapo is there to help.

So the man has to make a decision. He goes to church and knows that lying is a sin-or so he has always understood. If he says there is no Jew in his basement, he will be guilty of lying; not only will he be in trouble with the Gestapo and perhaps be sent to a concentration camp, but he will be guilty before God, too. He must never lie! What would God make of it if he did? So to be justified before God-to be sinless in this matter-he tells the Gestapo agent what he knows as a fact. “Yes, indeed,” he says, relieve. “There is a Jew in our basement.”

In his book “Ethics”, Bonhoeffer gives the example of a young girl in school, whom the teacehr harshly asks, “Is your father a drunkard?” Bonhoeffer explains that in this case the girl does not owe the teacher any answer. She does not owe the teacher the “truth” of the matter because the plain facts o fit and the actual truth of it are two different things. She is under no obligation to dishonor her parents and give this prying teacher the dirty piece of information he wishes to ferret from her in the name of “truth.” So if she does not answer or even if she says no, Bonhoeffer says she is justified. Her “lie” is not the sort of lie even God would condemn. Far from it.

The homeowner in whose basement the Jew is hiding is in a similar situation. The Gestapo agent wishes to harm-or just as likely murder-the Jew. So the agent does not represent God, and any answer to his question must reflect the reality at hand. But if the homeowner views God as a “hard master,” his answer will not serve the truth. It will serve neither justice nor God’s purposes; it will serve the devil’s purposes. So if the homeowner tries to justify himself by “not lying” in answering this question, he delivers the Jew to his torturers, but feels it was the only option he had. After all, he could not lie, could he?

But again, God takes another view. God is not a moralistic fuss-budget or nitpicking God who is lying in wait. When we tell a lie for a larger good, He does not swoop in and say “Aha!” and condemn us. If we know who God truly is, we know that He is not against us, but for us. He is not Satan the accuser, looking for what sins He can find to condemn us. He is the gracious and loving God who sent His own Son to die so that we could be forgiven and saved. And when He sees us act in a way that is not calculated to protect ourselves but that is rather magnanimous and self-sacrificing for the sake of another, He rejoices-because in this He sees that we know Him to be not the hard master, but our loving Father in Heaven.

So for example, if we vote for someone whom others may criticize as being guilty of this or that, the real question is, did we vote for that candidate because we genuinely believed they would enact policies to help people, despite what some might think? Or did we vote or not vote because we were mostly concerned about what others would think of us? Were we thinking of ourselves, or were we thinking of others? These are the questions we must answer honestly.

Let me further illustrate my point.

The Story of Rahab

In the Book of Joshua we have the story of the two spies whom Joshua sends to Jericho, which God has commanded him to conquer. They go to the home of a prostitute named Rahab, who hides them. It is similar to the fictional story of the Gestapo agent we have just told. Rahab not only hides the Israelite spies, but when the king of Jericho sends his men to her house, she lies, saying that they have left-which they certainly have not.

We might think she was only doing this to save herself and her family; knowing that the Israelites were blessed by God and would certainly overtake Jericho. But even in this, we mistake the larger meaning. The author makes it quite plain that because she knew the God of the Israelites was truly God-and was with the Israelites-her actions are considered the actions of a woman of faith. That she is a prostitute who lies only underscores the point for us. If we think of God as a hard master and moralistic judge mostly concerned with whether we “sin” or not, we have missed the point and do not know God at all. A hard master and moralistic judge could never count a prostitute as worthy of his praise and blessing. That God is not God, but the devil. He is legalistically scrupulous on such issues, and certainly could not reward this woman for openly lying.

But as we say, the God of the Bible is not quite who we think He is. Of course He is against prostitution and against lying, but He is far more against those who are moralists and legalists because He knows they do not know Him. They do not know Him as a loving God, and therefore they do not love Him. In fact, they hate Him. So because of Rahab’s faith in the God of Israel, she is lauded both in James’s letter and in Hebrews 11, the famous “Hall of Faith.”

But it goes much farther than that.

For context, we should know that the spies who went to Jericho might well have chosen Rahab’s home to visit precisely because she was a prostitute, knowing this would be a place their presence would be easier to keep secret. But by standing boldly with the people of Israel-with the people of God-Rahab somehow stood with God Himself. So when Jericho was destroyed, not only was she not killed, but-according to the Scriptures-she actually lived with the Israelites for the reminder of her days. We must know they would not have allowed her to continue in her profession. So the only conclusion we can draw is that her act of faith-for such is called twice in the New Testament-enabled her to find complete forgiveness and redemption, so much so that God enabled her to be in the very genealogy of the Messiah of the world. It is an astonishing story and a perfect picture of the boundless mercy of the God of the Bible.

Can we imagine that we find Rahab’s name in the genealogy of Jesus? The God of grace and love is a God of such redemption as we can hardly fathom. He reaches out in love to anyone, and especially to those who know they are not respectable, who are not fooled into thinking they are somehow justified by their own behavior. So if our own view of God is too contracted and constipated to see that He reaches out to those whom we might loathe and think beneath, us, we only condemn ourselves.

The picture we have now is of a God who is not the pinched and moralistic religious deity some have painted him to be, but rather a God who has a wildness and unpredictability to Him. We may remember thatin C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia, we learn that Aslan-the Christ figure of those extraordinary books-is not tame, but wild. And he is good. But the goodness of Godis a wild and unpredictable goodness, infinitely far from the pious and “religious” tameness so many of us have mistaken for the real thing.

After all, He is himself a Person and not a set of rules or an algorithm. The Jesus who confounded the elite religious leaders of His day-but who made the simple crowds cheer-is that God. To those who worshiped that “religious” God of their own making, who was not God at all what Jesus said was infuriating and what He did enraging, which is why they knew they must kill Him. And in allowing them to do this, He infuriated and enraged them once and for all eternity, for in this way He defeated Death itself. It is this glorious Jesus-wild and unpredictable-who reveals Himself to us now and calls us to follow Him. Dare we do anything less? Shall we not trust Him? Will we trust Him? We were created to do that very thing, so to do anything less is to fearfully writhe away from the magnificent freedom He gives us and to find ourselves forever in chains.


One thought on “Letter to the American Church – Chapter 14

  1. Pingback: Preachers belonging to the Whore of Babylon calling Judeo-Christians the anti-Christ | From guestwriters

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