By Scott Keith –
A very interesting conversation resulted from my blog last week that I thought might be helpful to re-post in part for those who didn’t get to see it. This is a part of the ongoing discussion on the theology of glory verses the theology of the cross. Listed below are the original comment and my very long-winded response.
In light of the “Theology of the Cross,” what would you say to Will? Will is in his late 20’s, goes to church faithfully, and is a good provider. However, he has a curious habit of hitting himself in the hand with a hammer when he gets home from work (He imagines that he is hitting an aggravating co-worker). It would merely be a weird behavior if he were only hurting himself, but the pain from hammering makes him angry and he screams at his wife and kids. Sometimes he hits them, which only makes life more painful for everyone. He goes to his pastor. “Pastor, I have this weird, harmful, shameful habit of hitting myself with a hammer. It hurts so badly, I get really mad, and then I end up hurting my family. I KNOW it’s wrong, but I keep doing it. What can I do?” The pastor is truly gracious. He says, “God loves you and your family. You were washed clean in your baptism, and His grace is sufficient for you. You are forgiven, now and forever.” Will goes home feeling comfort, forgiveness, and love. However, 1 week later, he walks in the door after work, grabs the hammer, and smacks the hell out of his hand, his wife, and his child. He goes to his pastor again and repeats his shameful predicament. Pastor assures him that he is saved; ALL is forgiven, and go in peace. 1 week later, he hits his hand, wife, and child again. This keeps happening. Finally, he goes to pastor and screams “CAN GOD HELP ME? WILL GOD HELP ME? I NEED A ‘THEOLOGY OF HELP ME!!’ What can I do to stop doing this?” Will left the pastor fearful, confused, hopeless, and alone.
What help can be given to Will? Can God help Will to stop this horrible practice (can He help us stop any of the many sins we all commit)? How does the cross help him to stop beating up himself and his family? I don’t think he cares about ANY sort of glory at this point: it would be glorious sweet relief to have a peaceful, loving home. How does he do it? Is there a Theology of “Help Me!”?
I would first like to say that there are many reasons why people dip into self-destructive behaviors. Some of these reasons are psychological, some are socio-cultural, and some are physiological. Yet, I believe that all of these reasons can be traced back to the one problem that vexes us all. We are all, apart from Christ, slaves. We are slaves to sin, and the destruction it brings to our minds, our hearts, our culture, our bodies, and our lives. We are slaves to death because there is no hope apart from Christ. And finally, we are slaves to the devil because he would love nothing more than for us to find one more way to flee from freedom in Christ.
The term “theology of glory” is just a descriptive phrase; it is no more than that. This discussion has gone from theological to pastoral. This is where debates over minutiae give way to the caring of souls, and lives. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the character in your tale is still a slave, or at least believes that he is. Bondage is a scary thing. Bondage makes us believe that we have no ability or power to change anything; not our situation, not our perspective, not even our own actions. And this is true, because the bound slave really has no power. Bondage and slavery are not glorious, but they are still the theology of glory. The theology of glory is about running back to slavery rather than grabbing hold of freedom. The metaphorical “hitting oneself in the hand with a hammer,” is, because apart from Christ we are truly slaves, our go to position. This is sometimes manifested in sanctimony and false piety; sometimes in a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” self help perspective, and often times in self-destructive behavior. This is our struggle this side of glory. The bondage and slavery that we know, though they are horrid, are yet what we know and seek to return to.
The point is that Christ is not only our substitute and savior granting life in paradise with the Father one day; He is our freedom in the now! Freedom is release from captivity. Release from slavery. Release from bondage. Release from the need to hit oneself in the hand with a hammer every day in order to feel as though we have sufficiently punished ourselves for not being a good enough slave. Self injury often seems like that one bit of control we have left as slaves (to be self destructive), even if in the process we not only injure ourselves but also harm those around us whom we love the most. The point isn’t that the pronouncement of the forgiveness of our sins makes us feel better in the moment.
The point is that through proclamation our sins are forgiven, the chains are loosed, and we are free. The cross of Christ is not the hope of a future expectation of peace, but rather it is freedom now. The theology of the cross proclaims to you freedom from the need to self destroy because in it you have been destroyed and made new.
This side of glory, our lives will always be a struggle. We will struggle, as Paul notes in Romans 7, to be delivered from our self imposed bondage every day. We will continue to try to return to the shit-laden cesspool of our former and current sins. We will dive into that cesspool day in and day out expecting to come out with something other than shit. And so we will punish ourselves with a proverbial hammer to the hand. We will believe that it is up to us somehow and we will see that we do not measure up. Because we don’t, as slaves. We will cry with Paul the cry of all slaves: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Or in the words of another slave: “Is there a theology of Help Me?” As slaves in bondage to ourselves, to sin, to the wretched Law of God, and to the death that results, we have no answer to these hopeless cries. So we punish ourselves for not even measuring up to the bondage we know.
But, you asked another question as well. “What can be given to Will?” What can be given is freedom! What can be given is Christ! We can cry with Paul again: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” There is no mere help that is given to Will. Help is not enough for someone who is that bound to the Law, hopelessness, and self-destruction. Your friend Will does not need help, he needs death. Will needs to be put to death in his sin and bondage and brought to life in Christ. Brought to a life that is free. Brought to a life that is free from the need to measure up in any way because the Will who is a slave to that possibility never will. A slave cannot in any way earn freedom; a slave must be set free. So this day, I pronounce to your friend Will that I cannot help him. No mere man can give a theology of help to someone as destroyed as your friend Will. Instead, this day I proclaim to Will that he is free in Christ! He is free from slavery and the Law. He is free to no longer harm himself and those around him. He is free to love, and serve, and be free. He is free to get help for the extraneous psychological, socio-cultural, and/or physiological ailments that lend to his peculiar habit of hitting himself in the hand with a hammer. But now, he is free to get that help as a free man and not a slave. This help will be help sought in freedom of the Gospel and not bondage of the Law. He is free! And when your friend Will forgets that he is free and starts to hit himself in the hand with a hammer again, send him back to me and I will once more tell him that he is free. Free in a Christ who has put the slave to death and brought a son to life.