There are various applications in our culture directed towards “feeling good about ourselves.” In contrast to being shamed and condemned it is an improvement. But it also misses the truth of things. Pretending that everything is ok does not make it so. There is within this, a kinship to the Penal Substitution Theory of the Atonement, in which God agrees to see us as righteous (because of Christ’s sacrifice) even though we are not. The faith of the Orthodox speaks of a true transformation, a righteousness that is truth because it is.
God is the author of our being – He deals in reality, not in fiction. The great weakness of legal/forensic models of sin and salvation is their failure to think in terms of reality. If sin is a legal problem, then its problem is not within itself but within some legal understanding that exists elsewhere. In the state of Tennessee, possession of marijuana is a crime. In the state of Colorado, it is not. Both are fictions. Pot itself is not “legal” or “illegal,” it is just pot.
I have been working my way through an interesting book, Robert Meagher’s Killing from the Inside Out. He is a Catholic theologian examining Just War theory. However, his approach is not one of examining the ideas of Just War. He examines, instead, the actual effects of killing and war in the lives and psyche of soldiers. His work consistently reveals the emptiness of Just War Theory to account for the actual experiences of human beings. War is not a legal problem; it is a matter of life and death.
Meagher spent some years interviewing soldiers. He notes the sad phenomenon of the suicide epidemic among our war veterans. In one chapter, he quotes a sad note left by one soldier for his mother:
Mom, I am so sorry. My life has been hell since March 2003 when I was part of the Iraq invasion. . . . I am freeing myself from the desert once and for all. . . . I am not a good person. I have done bad things. I have taken lives. Now it’s time to take mine.
Meagher uses the term “moral injury” to describe the wound carried by such veterans. They have acted against their own moral compass and find it difficult to live with themselves. This analysis, unfortunately, subjectivizes something that is quite objective. More than a “moral injury,” sin is an ontological wound. It haunts us because it is real. It is the madness of Lady Macbeth’s, “Out! Out! Damn spot!” tortured by Duncan’s blood that she imagines to always be on her hands.
It has been commonplace in American military chaplaincies (at least as I’ve come to understand them) to use Just War Theory as a means of supporting soldiers in the spiritual problems that surround their actions. “If you had not killed him, he would have killed you.” “You’re protecting the lives of our citizens,” etc. Such legal justifications are revealed as ineffective against the “moral injury” that Meagher describes. The same could be said of the whole of the moral world when conceived in legal terms.
I will suggest a primary text for considering our true, ontological transformation:
But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2 Cor. 3:18)
St. Paul does not equate beholding the glory of the Lord as a reward for a life well-lived, or as an imputed righteousness at the end of our journey. He is describing something that is taking place at this present moment. When we are properly directed towards God, we behold the face of Christ. We see two things: Christ’s face (the truth of Who He Is), and our own selves (the truth of who we are). That encounter often provokes something like shame within us. The emptiness, brokenness, and sinfulness of our lives, when seen for what they are, make us want to hide in His presence. But as we turn our eyes back to Him, there is a slow cleansing, healing, forgiveness, and filling that take place. This occurs because, standing before His face, we are in communion with Him. Who He is begins to heal who we are.
Two passages from St. John’s first epistle come to mind:
But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 Jn 4:7).
Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (1 Jn. 3:2)
To “walk in the Light” I take to be synonymous with “beholding His face.” “Blessed are the people who know the joyful sound! They walk, O LORD, in the light of Your countenance.” (Ps. 89:15) To see Christ “as He is” I take to mean in the “fullness of who He is.” St. Paul notes that our present sight of Christ is “dim.” We do not see Him clearly because of our own brokenness and sin. This requires that we return again and again to the face of Christ. This is the slow, patient work of repentance. We cannot do it quickly – to see His face in that manner, all of a sudden, would be to die.
As noted earlier, to see Christ is also to see ourselves. Everything is revealed in the truth of its existence in the presence of Christ. St. Paul uses a very rich image of judgment:
For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. (1 Cor. 3:11-15)
That which lacks reality (sin, darkness, etc.) will disappear in the face of reality (described as “fire”). That which is real and true (the truth of who we are) will be refined. The false is lost, the true is saved.
This fire already burns among us:
“I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Lk. 12:49)
This “fire” is the presence of Christ in the fullness of its truth. The writer of Hebrews combines this image of fire with the image of shaking:
…whose voice then shook the earth; but now He has promised, saying, “Yet once more I shake not only the earth, but also heaven.” Now this, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire. (Heb. 12:26-29)
In both, it is the impermanent (hay, wood, stubble, the unstable) that are removed. It is the less-than-real-and-true that are burned and removed. If this imagery is placed into an ontological context, we see it as a purification, the destruction of sin and everything that distorts our being and existence.
The “moral injury” of a soldier is merely one example among ever so many. He carries his injury and sometimes feels as if the injury is greater than himself, that his life has been overwhelmed. The damage done cannot be healed through the various legal fictions we extrapolate into our world. Something must be changed, removed, shaken, consumed in the fire of God’s love. I have long loved the imagery in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. It paints sin in ontological terms. On the one hand, sin reduces our reality, leaving us ghost-like and thin as smoke. Sometimes sin is even seen as a ghostly lizard that whispers and controls every action. In his book, forgiveness is a matter of moving deeper into heaven, of becoming more real, more solid.
I imagine that many read his work as a metaphor for the legal/forensic forgiveness of sin. That, it seems to me, would be a very sad reversal. Lewis’ imagery is more expressive of the ontological truth than any amount of forensic reasoning. Sin is real and its effects are real, regardless of how we might reason about it. There is nothing for it other than to submit ourselves to Reality itself.
This theme resounds in the poetic words of St. Simeon the Translator that form part of the prayers in preparation for communion:
O Lord, now as I approach Holy Communion, may I not be burned by partaking unworthily. For you are fire and burn the unworthy, I pray cleanse me of all sin.
Of Your mystical supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant; for I will not speak of Your mystery to Your enemies, neither like Judas will I give You a kiss; but like the thief will I confess You: remember me, O Lord, in Your kingdom.
Stand in fear, O soul, as you look upon the deifying Blood for it is fire and burns the unworthy. May the divine Body sanctify and nourish me. May it deify my soul and wondrously feed my mind.
You have sweetened my longing for You, O Christ and transfigured me with Your love. Let my sins be consumed in the immaterial fire and grant me to be filled with Your joy, that I may rejoice in both and glorify Your coming, O good One.
How can I, the unworthy one, enter the radiance of the saints? For should I dare to go into the room, my clothing betrays me for it is not a wedding garment and I will be bound and cast out by the angels. But, O Lord, purify the stains of my soul and save me, for You are the Lover of mankind.
Master, Lover of mankind, Lord Jesus Christ my God, may these holy things not be for my condemnation, for I am unworthy. May they be for me a cleansing, sanctification of both soul and body and for assurance of the life and kingdom to come: for it is good for me to cling to God and to place my hope of salvation in the Lord.