Much in-depth phone conversation over the weekend, with two younger and beloved spirit-sisters, Meg and Pearl. Both of them are facing Biggies, but the Biggies are different, not just in this world's ways but in the Kingdom's ways as well.
Meg, sadly, has done wrong. She knows it too. The wrong she did is partly moral, but (more scarily) legal, and she has been caught and is facing civil and possibly criminal penalties. This is really scary stuff, the more so since Meg's crime (such as it was) was simply looking for comfort in a horribly uncomfortable situation. She abused prescription drugs. The only person she has harmed in this is herself, really. But the word "drugs" elevates her ordinary sin into hot-button self-righteousness territory, the territory of unfettered and uncomprehending judgment, where there is no mercy and zero tolerance. Meg may yet pay far, far more than she should, given the circumstances.
Meg is unhappy with herself, and she's scared of what's going to happen, but she's also dead certain of something fundamental: that God knows why she did what she did, and how she now feels about it, and that God has mercy for her wrongfulness and love for the pain that brought that wrongfulness into being. Each and every one of us screws up, and God knows it, and knows why, and knows how we got to be where we are now, and God is inclined to look at us mercifully as long as we're prepared to admit that maybe we need a little mercy. Meg knows that, at a deep and important level.
Pearl's circumstances are very different. Pearl was in a wretched marriage with a troubled, unpeaceful man, and she got herself out (as well she should have). She is now seeing Jay, a very, very good man who loves her and is prepared to wait until she's ready and work with her. He loves her children. He's not pressing her for anything she can't easily promise right now. He's giving her commitment with no strings attached. He's willing to give her time. (Someone should clone this one.)
And yet Pearl's conscience kicks in, big time, and Pearl's conscience is not a healthy thing, but a holy terror. It is merciless. It sees her as a sinner, who will go to hell for sure. It pulls up every scrap of Biblical reproof she can muster--and being a good conservative evangelical Christian she knows 'em all. Every bit of condemnation about divorce or adultery comes ringing through her conscience, loud and clear. I've never met anyone so accomplished at self-proof-texting. She hasn't yet had sex with Jay? Doesn't matter. She's still an adulteress in her heart, cf. Matt.5.28. Either she dumps Jay and goes back to her awful marriage or she's bound for hellfire and damnation.
Pearl's conscience is aided and abetted by her family and church. Her family keeps quoting Malachi: "For I hate divorce, says the Lord." Her church's only solution to marital breakdown is reconciliation--which, to Pearl, feels like heading back into death from life. Pearl has a sound, growing, increasingly joyful healthiness, which some of us are encouraging--but she keeps bellyflopping back into spiritual terror. If she goes to another church, one with a more reasonable approach, her family, church, and conscience will all jump her and pound her into applesauce her for "backsliding". She can't win, she can't break even, and she can't quit.
As someone once observed, everybody's got a theology: the question is whether it's any good. Meg's theology is sweet and sound. It doesn't pretend that the wrong didn't happen, or that it was insignificant. Meg still has to take responsibility for her behaviour and must face the consequences--although it's reasonable to hope that the law will be truly just, instead of vindictive.
Pearl, on the other hand, has the kind of theology I'd like to take out behind the barn and shoot, metaphorically speaking. It's a theology of control and (above all) fear--fear of a vindictive God, always checking for faults and failings. This is a horripilating God, a Big Brother God, always watching, always prying, with a view to seeing the worst and sawing a person off at the ankles. This version of God is jealous and righteous and very, very easily pissed off. And the healthy, growing part of Pearl looks at this version of God and says "This can't be right." But then, her conscience says, "You're just trying to let yourself off the hook."
I wish I could put these two women in the same room for a couple of hours; I can't, because they're in widely different places. I wish Meg could tell Pearl that God grieves over Meg's wrongdoing and over the suffering that Meg may have to endure, but Meg still feels God's loving presence with her. If the worst happens and Meg goes to jail, God will be with her there too. Meg knows that God's interest is in forgiving, not condemning, that God is just, and real justice has in it understanding as well as right thinking --in fact, you cannot separate them out. Meg knows that hell isn't a place where you get sent because you've done something wrong: it's a state that you put yourself into because you've turned away from God.
I will go out on a limb here, and God, please forgive me if I'm wrong. Of all the types of wrong-doing that we abhor and that make God weep, haven't we missed one big and obvious thing? Yes, adultery is wrong; yes, illicit drugs are wrong; yes, it is wrong to commit murder, or steal, or exploit people. But preaching bad theology is a sin too, and a large and serious one. How does God feel about our misrepresenting God, to the end that we can have power and control over people, that we can judge and condemn them in order to feed our own self-righteousness, our own greedy egos? How does God feel when we take bits of the Bible and use them to tear at others' hearts and minds, or use Scripture to beat another person up--claiming (of course!) that we're "telling the truth in love"? When we harm others, or drive them away from faith because faith and reason are completely contradictory, when we predict their damnation, how have we spread the Gospel? and what sort of Gospel is it that we've spread?
I have this notion: when each of us reaches the mercy seat, at which we face God and get God's views on what we've done with our lives, there will be some people who God picks up by the scruff of the neck and looks straight in the eye, roaring, "And you preached WHAT in My Name???" I do hope so, anyway.
Meanwhile, I'm praying like crazy for Meg, which is about all I can do, and Pearl calls me when her proof-texting side starts beating her up. She's getting there. It's going to take a while.