In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
This holy season of Lent is an excellent time for a thorough spiritual check-up that’s more eternally important than our annual thorough physical check-ups. Hebrews 4:16 teaches us that God offers us His “Grace to help in time of need:” Lent is a good opportunity to look at our “need” itself, and see why we need God’s gracious help.
The simple answer is, human sin, our least-favorite three-letter word. I don’t presume to know about your sins, but I can and by Scripture must wrestle with mine – and my first line of defense against facing up to my own sin and sins is usually, “I can’t help it.”
“I can’t, I couldn’t, help it:” how often have I used this ‘poor me’ deceit only to promptly complain [like Hamlet when he was shirking his responsibility] “How all occasions do inform against me!” Even hotels that slip copies of USA Today under my door – last month I saw a front-page story whose sub-head arrested me: “Lawbreakers are Responsible, Not Society, says Psychologist Stanton Samenow.”
Now there’s news! After decades of learned professors blaming crime on everything and everyone except the criminal, here’s a Yalie author of thick tomes, with years of psychiatric private practice and eight years serving a mental hospital for people diagnosed as criminally insane, declaring that, “Criminals cause crime: not bad neighborhoods, inadequate parents, television, schools, drugs, or unemployment.” The occasion for the news story was that he’s just published yet another book supporting this thesis and, better, reporting that in six years’ work with hardcore repeat-offenders about 1/3 if them have gone straight – results no one else and no other method has approached.
So what’s Dr. Samenow’s radical “new” method? He calls it The Psychology of Responsibility, meaning briefly that “Each one of us is responsible for his or her own actions and failures to act.” Sounds like “we have left undone those things we ought to have done, and have left undone those things which we ought to have done…” A revolutionary notion indeed, when USA Today will print that “Freud, the man with an excuse for everything, is dead – and criminals, says Dr. Samenow, know the difference between good and evil, and choose evil.”
Now, I’m neither a criminologist nor a psychologist, neither a lawyer nor a judge, I’m no expert in those areas, but I can speak from some book-learning and a lifetime of personal experience about sins and Sin, I can testify that reading this article once again sweeps away all my alibis that “I can’t help it.” I can’t certify that ‘criminals cause crime,’ but I do know that when I read those words my heart and mind understand them and tell me “Lige, sinners commit sins.”
Today’s readings (and all the rest of Holy Scripture) forbid me the oldest dodge – and I do mean ‘oldest,’ old as the Garden of Eden, where Adam blamed Eve and God, Eve blamed the serpent, and the snake laughed while all the angels wept, not only at the sin of disobedience to God but also at the compounding sin of trying to dodge responsibility for that sin.
In today’s Gospel Matthew 4:1-11 Jesus is tempted, tested, by Satan (the Greek word means both), Jesus who was fully human as well as fully divine, human Jesus was offered three opportunities to achieve ‘good’ results by bad means – Jesus said “No” – wherefore Hebrews 4:15 can assure us that “We have not an high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tested/tempted as we are, yet without sinning.” As we just sang in Hymn 55, “Tempted and yet undefiled.”
Jesus said ‘no’ to sin: what’s my excuse for saying ‘yes?’ That “I’m only human?” God save and deliver us all, that’s not the answer, that’s the problem! “Lawbreakers are responsible,” say Dr. Samenow, “Criminals cause crime” – I nod assent to such third-party generalizations until I realize they mean that I cause, choose and commit my own sins of commission and omission.
That’s not what I want to hear: I want to get credit for any good that I do, but I want to blame anyone, anything, other than myself for any wrong that I do – as if I could kid myself into blaming my car for speeding. How does this differ from some convict patient telling Dr. Samenow that “I couldn’t help robbing that man, he was asking for it, he shouldn’t have been wearing such a fine suit that told me he had money.”
Nope, it won’t wash: the whole Bible, and Jesus in the Wilderness, and my own common sense, all make it clear even to me that “I am responsible for my own actions.” My mind accepts this truth though my devious ego resists it, rebels against God who only presses my sins upon me so that, in order that, He can then forgive me my sins, heal my self-inflicted wounds, repair what I’ve broken in others and in myself, make me experience His vast overwhelming love for even me. The secret, you see, is that God must convince and convict me of my sin before I can know His forgiveness: if I think I’ve done nothing wrong, then I can’t be forgiven because I can’t repent because I can’t admit that I’ve done anything for which to repent.
The love of God can never heal our aching hearts until our acknowledgement of our own sin has broken them open to be able to receive His forgiveness and Grace – like a clenched fist, a clenched mind isn’t open, can’t receive His gifts – God’s Grace can never lift us up until His judgment has driven us to our knees. Our only way to receive His “grace to help in time of need” is to accept and admit our needy state. “I’m only human?” The power of God can never make us more than ‘only’ human, fit for His eternal Kingdom, until the scathing mercy of His wrath enables us to admit that we have been living as less than fully human.
Any time is a good time for God to invade our rebel hearts – as He must, if He’s to rescue us from our self-destructive self-indulgence, self-satisfaction, self-delusion – but Lent is par excellence the season for the battering-ram of His Word to breach our walls of “self” so that His mighty love can pour through as a cleansing flood. “Behold,” as we heard from Second Corinthians 5:2 on Ash Wednesday, “Behold, now is the acceptable time – behold, now is the hour of salvation.”
So now remember Ezekiel 18:31, and please do read the whole of chapter 18 concluding “’Why will you die, O House of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone,’ says the Lord God, ‘so turn, and live!’”
in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.