by Ronald Goetz
Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 20, 1980 pp. 191-192. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
God does not declare unto us our sin in order to destroy us. In the very moment he accuses us as sinners, we are already forgiven.
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven” [Isa. 6:1-7].
What if there really were a God? What if one day our eyes were suddenly opened and, for that moment at least, we were certain of God’s reality and his presence? What if we found ourselves in church one Sunday and our sacerdotal posturings were to be interrupted by the manifest presence of God? What if the symbolic veneer of our religion were peeled away?
It isn’t that we never experience religious fear, but isn’t our dread characteristically a dread born of unbelief, the secret terror that the analogical and symbolic character of our religious speech is but a cover-up of our embarrassment over the fact that we have only symbols and no proofs? At best, we are usually only half-believers. Isn’t it by some conspiracy of silence that we are able to hide from ourselves and from each other our doubts and the lies we tell about our having faith in God? Our religion is a ceremonial camouflage, and we dare not look beneath it for fear that, at root, it is supported by nothing; beneath it is only the Abyss.
However, what if all our symbols and myths, our ceremonies and dogmas were unexpectedly and suddenly exploded, and to our awful surprise, we could see beyond these human inventions to discover not the Abyss but the real, actual presence of the living God? Then we would really be in trouble, for our religion would, in one sense, turn out to be the evasion we always feared it was. But it would have been God and not our atheism that we were actually evading all along.
We could not bear to see the Lord “high and lifted up,” for are we not, at root, all atheists? Are our lives not lived as though they were insurance policies against the nonexistence of God? Or was it only ancient Israel that strayed so far, while we have progressed in godliness from those more primitive days?
For sinners, the manifest existence of God would be more difficult to endure than the chilling disclosure of mere nothingness. Most of us have managed to insulate ourselves against the numbing cold of nothingness. We may live on the edge of the Abyss, but we are not without our comforts. If, however, there is a God . . . ! If God is more than a winter pipe dream, an opium for coping on our way to annihilation . . . ! If God, terrible in his holiness, were ever to become immediate to us, then what would happen to us? We would become undone.
To be searched out, so that all our lusts, our little murders, our envies, our vanities, our avarice, our gluttony and, above all, our atheism were to be exposed. . . . If a whole life of betrayal were in a moment revealed to the One against whom all our betrayals are ultimately directed, we would go mad with shame.
We are all atheists. Atheism makes our sins bearable and committable. But if we knew there was God and we knew that he knew, and yet our meanness and spite and empty pride waxed unabated by this knowledge, as they always seem to do, the presence of God would be more than we could stand. Our sins would be as unendurable as they are inevitable if we could not retreat into our atheistic shelters.
For us to stand as sinners in the naked presence of the Holy God would annihilate us, “No man sees God and lives.” We could not bear to sin in his holy presence, and yet we cannot exist for even an hour except that we fall. Our own hearts betray us. Wasn’t it Pascal who said that if everyone knew the innermost thoughts of everyone else, there wouldn’t be five friends left on earth? What a relief it is that if God searches out the innermost thoughts of everyone, at least we rarely have to feel his scrutiny. How pathetic is the comfort we derive from the fact that he leaves us alone so often, just as though he never existed.
We aren’t always happy alone and sometimes, fearing the Abyss, we cry out, “Oh sweet Lord, I really want to see you, Lord,” or we pray, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done.” Beautiful sentiments, but what if our prayers were answered? What if he did come, as he did to Isaiah?
Isaiah, the young man in the temple, was, one supposes, “religious” pretty much as we are religious. He believed in God, in the abstract. But even the most fantastic theological abstractions can be believed and digested precisely because they follow logically from their own premises and appear coherent. It is one thing to believe abstractly that God knows all. That is quite abstractly reassuring because it is necessarily true. It follows from the Hebrew definition of God. But to experience that God knows everything, the whole shameful story with not one lie kept hidden — if only such a God were dead. How comforting is Christian atheism. A dead God leaves us to our worldliness and the accommodations we have made with death,
Then — and on this everything turns — the most surprising thing happens. One of the seraphim declared to Isaiah, “Your guilt is taken away and your sin forgiven.” When God exposed himself, and the light of that exposure permeated the very being of Isaiah, revealing all, showing Isaiah exactly why he deserved to die, Isaiah did not die; he was forgiven.
This is why, though we must acknowledge our sin, though in the presence of God we cannot help acknowledging our sin, we ought never to be morbid. Lent is a time for reflection upon our sin, but it is not a season of morbidity. God does not declare unto us our sin in order to destroy us. In the very moment he accuses us as sinners, we are already forgiven.
The fact that we are forgiven even before we are accused makes our sin all the more humiliating — to respond so badly in the light of such love. It all keeps coming down to the same thing; it is by grace that we live and move and have our being.