This Lent, my mind has drifted to the first stanza from the hymn Amazing Grace:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind but now I see.
For those unfamiliar with the song’s history, the “saved a wretch like me” bit is an understatement. The author of the song, John Newton, was a very bad man for the first part of his life. He served as the captain of several ships engaged in the transatlantic slave trade. Even after he retired, he still invested heavily in the slave trade— until his heart was changed by grace. John Newton eventually became a Christian, an Anglican Priest, and a prominent abolitionist. His first-hand account of the horrors of the middle passage played a role in the end of the slave trade in the British Empire.
“That saved a wretch like me,” indeed.
But his late conversion, I imagine, was cold comfort to those thousands who he had already enslaved and taken to the new world–not to mention those thousands who never made it to the new world at all. For many people, it feels… wrong somehow that the guy who was directly responsible for the suffering of thousands should get to sincerely say, “I’m really sorry, I feel terrible,” write a pamphlet about it and get remembered as an abolitionist hero and great hymn-writer to boot. I would be willing to bet that most people in modern America, while they might be willing to forgive him in an abstract sense, would, even after his conversion, refuse to have anything but the most pro forma relationship with him. They certainly wouldn’t feel that he had earned the right to be welcomed back into society. I would bet even fewer people would be willing to tolerate his unrepentant colleagues.
God, it would seem, broadly agrees with this view. He is, we are told, a just God and cannot bear the presence of sin. For the same reason, many of us couldn’t be friends with a child abuser or serial killer, the feeling that your moral nature revolts at their very presence; God can’t be friends with people whose sinful nature disgusts God. Would you have dinner with Hitler? Go to the beach with a murderer? Get a drink with someone who scams old people out of their retirement funds? Heck, how many of you would be friends with someone who hadn’t taken any particular bad action, but you knew felt deep hatred and prejudice against a particular race, LGBT people, Christians, or members of your political party? If you, who is also a sinner, cannot bear the presence of slightly worse sinners, how can you expect God, who is without sin, to bear their presence? He must separate himself from sin by his own nature, “remove all the toxic people from his life,” in an eternal action for which our shunning of the wicked is a temporal shadow.
So what does this have to do with Lent?
First, Lent is the season where we remember that the love of God necessitates the wrath of God. If someone hurts one of your friends or family, and you aren’t mad about it, would you even care about your friend or family member? If God wasn’t steaming mad at John Newton, could he really be said to care for Newton’s slaves? Many moderns are uncomfortable with the wrath of God, asking why God can’t just forgive everyone. They know not what they ask. They are asking God to be friends with the unrepentant victimizers of his children; they ask God to be in a personal relationship with people who are hateful, jealous, debauched, dishonest, cruel, slothful, proud, lacking in any sort of self-control, and who wantonly continue to hurt the children, including themselves, who he loves. We have no more right to ask God not to be wrathful with sinners than asking a father not to be mad that someone is hurting his children.
Second, Lent is the season where we remember that, deep down, we aren’t fundamentally different from these sinners. I have been picking on John Newton, but he was, you remember, a product of his time. He didn’t just wake up one day and decide to be evil. As a teenager, he was kidnapped and forced into service in the British Navy. When he tried to escape, he was whipped eight dozen times in front of the entire crew and was later abandoned by his crewmates in Africa. Here, he has enslaved himself and sold to a local princess who treated him brutally. Eventually, his father sent a ship to rescue him, and he escaped back to England. How many of us, in those circumstances, would have done any better. Do you, dear reader, think you would have come out of that experience not at least a little evil? But yet, that does not make what he did okay. His circumstances do not justify his actions.
The scriptures say, “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) God couldn’t be in relation to an unrepentant John Newton not just because of what he had done but because he was the sort of man who could do those things. That should frighten us because if, deep down, we really aren’t that different from men like Newton, then maybe we also deserve God’s wrath.
This is a hard concept to absorb, so let’s try a slightly different angle. C. S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity that “one man may be so placed that his anger sheds the blood of thousands, and another so placed that however angry he gets he will only be laughed at. But the little mark on the soul may be much the same in both. Each has done something to himself which, unless he repents… will make the rage worse… If he seriously turns to God, [each] can have that twist in the central man straightened out again: each is… doomed if he will not.” What makes truly notorious men so unique is not their evil but their competence. 1920s Germany was full of men consumed with bitterness about the previous war, but only one of them, in addition to being hate filled, was also a good speaker. That is why we remember him as evil and not the others. Should God be angrier at Hitler just because Hitler was talented enough to have the chance to vent the anger that millions of others would have vented if they could? Would you want to be friends with someone who had a heart full of hatred but was too weak to hurt anyone by a lucky accident of history?
In Mathew 5: 21-22, Our Lord tells us that “you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” In verse 27, he says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” The Lord detests evil, and we, who are made in his image, also detest evil. The moral sense in you that wouldn’t want to be friends with someone hateful, even if they couldn’t act on it, or who would be a rapist, if they were in the right context, or who would be a thief, if they could only work up the courage, or who would be an oppressor, if anyone would sit still to be oppressed, or a supporter of slavery, if there was even slight social pressure to support slavery, is an image, a sort of reflection or copy, of the moral sense of God. In an eternal relationship with God, even the heart’s most well-concealed desires will eventually come into play. And God, if the morality he has revealed in our conscience is any guide, cannot be in relationship with that sort of being. Like two magnets, they repulse each other until God and sin, and anything to which sin is irredeemably attached, are eternally separated.
Third, Lent is the season where we remember what God has done to save us. God cannot tolerate the presence of evil. It makes him “feel” something to which our feeling of moral revolution and righteous anger are analogous. But God still loves us and wants us to be with him. So what can God do? That is the miracle of the atonement. God gave his own son so that our hearts might be changed, that we might be freed from our evil hearts. Even as Lent leads into Easter, an understanding of the Wrath of God leads us into an understanding of the Grace of God. The mystery of how or why God can do this is a tangent for another time, but for now, all we need to know is that he has. God has found a way to appease his, and our, sense of justice and moral revulsion at evil without giving up his, and our, love for humanity.
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.”
But it is a sweetness that can only be appreciated after the bitterness of repentance. Only when we come to understand that, deep down, we are bad people, who all good people, including and especially God, desire, and rightly desire, to cast out, do we truly appreciate God’s mercy. Only when I know that I deserve God’s wrath can I feel how amazing God’s grace really is. I may not be as bad a man as John Newton was, but as I grow to understand myself more, I understand more that, in my heart, I am not a person who a good God should want to be friends with. But yet he does!
This grace, of course, should spur us to repentance. John Newton knew God forgave him, and because of what grace had done for him, he was able to turn his life around. He started to live a little more like the man God would want to have in his kingdom. While this process of “straightening out” will only be completed in heaven, it still begins here on earth, not because we are trying to earn heaven, that is already taken care of, but because we recognize the perfect justice of God, revealed in scripture and in our hearts, and strive to make ourselves more the sort of things of which justice approves.
“I once was lost, but now, I’m found.
Was blind, but now, I see.”
Fourth and finally, Lent is the season we remember the implications of this grace for how we treat each other. Ephesians 4:32 says, “Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you.” We all, in our hearts, feel revulsion towards evil and those who commit it, and, as I have stressed throughout, this is a good thing that we have as image-bearers of God. But we, too, are targets of this sense of justice, and we have been forgiven by grace. So, for those of us who consider ourselves to have been atoned for by the blood of Christ, we should take this Lent to remember that, even as God has forgiven us, so we should forgive others. The standard we set for others ought to be isomorphic to the standard we set for ourselves.
These four reflections on Lent, first, that the love of God necessitates the wrath of God, second, that most of what separates us from the truly evil sinners we know God ought to condemn are external factors. That deep down we aren’t the sort of people a good God would want to be friends with, third, that God has found a way to change our hearts, starting in this life but coming to completion in the next so that both his love and justice can be satisfied. That fourth, this has profound implications for how we live our lives and treat each other, has been profoundly helpful for me. I hope they can be of help to you too.