After one of my children suffered the first of a series of panic attacks, Lisa was the first person I called. As an emergency room doctor, who has practiced calm in a thousand crises, she could be counted on for steady, soothing rationality. As a sufferer of diagnosed anxiety, as well as a mother to two anxious children, she could offer practical advice. But most importantly, as my friend, she could be trusted.
Lisa, however, is not a Christian. I do not hide from her that I am a follower of Jesus, and she does not hide from me her self-assured agnosticism. And though our religious beliefs differ, many of our personal values don’t. We are raising our children to be honest, self-sacrificing, and kind. We prize the flourishing of our families over material success. We believe in contributing to the common good in our school community, neighborhood, and city.
In fact, though I might wish to say that I enjoyed a moral “edge” over Lisa because of my Christian faith, I can’t. Lisa is a lovely human being. In many ways, I want to be like her.
When ‘Wretch’ Doesn’t Seem to Fit
After I became a Christian in high school, it seemed easy to assume the moral superiority of Christians. Christian teenagers (at least the serious ones) didn’t smoke, drink, or have sex before they were married. As an adult, however, the lines blur. The categories fail. Many of my non-Christian friends and neighbors don’t easily fit the snarly, selfish caricatures of the godless. They are good neighbors and good parents. In Lisa’s case, they are great neighbors and admirable parents.
And this evident morality leaves me a little stumped in terms of evangelism. What does it look like to share the gospel with friends who fail the obvious narrative of “wretch,” a term with which converted slavetrader John Newton described himself? If I am the student—and my non-Christian friend sometimes the teacher—have I failed my heavenly assignment from God? Shouldn’t I be better than them?
On (Not) Being Good
There is an obvious theological answer to these questions: “None is righteous,” the apostle Paul writes in Romans 3:10. Even the most morally upright person, Christian or non-Christian, falls short of God’s glory. In fact, the gospel exposes the depths of my depravity—that of all the pedophiles and pornographers, drunks and derelicts, I am chief sinner among them (c.f. 1 Tim. 1:15). And maybe this is the biggest difference between Lisa and me: not that I outperform her in virtue, but that I outrank her—by virtue of gospel self-awareness—in vice.
The gospel doesn’t make me better. But it does make me eager to admit my debts and deficits, grateful to receive God’s good gifts from whomever’s hand they come.
On Agreement (and Disagreement)
Without an addiction or adultery to abandon, Lisa is not the ideal candidate for a tent revival meeting. She is just the kind of “good” secular person Charles Taylor describes in his introduction to A Secular Age. She’s among those who “strive to live happily with spouse and children, while practicing a vocation which they find fulfilling, and also which constitutes an obvious contribution to human welfare.” As Taylor illustrates, modern secularism is not always explicitly amoral or immoral. It can actually be deeply principled. What makes Lisa’s morality different from mine (and other Christians’) is its final reference point: her morality is a “self-sufficing humanism . . . accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing.” Unlike me, her moral dictum is not, “Thy will be done.” Instead, Lisa obeys a self-derived, self-defined law: “Let humans flourish.”
A short example to illustrate: last year, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled to legalize physician-assisted death, and Lisa strongly favors the policy change. With human flourishing as the ultimate moral good, she sees no reason to prolong the suffering of the terminally ill, who wish to die. I, on the other hand, do not support physician-assisted death, even while I do not want human beings to suffer (and simultaneously pray for improved access to palliative care). My desires for human flourishing are constrained by divine prohibition: “Thou shalt not kill.”
Lisa and I deeply disagree about what constitutes the “right” in terms of physician-assisted death. But we are strongly agreed that the right should be sought. To understand the role of Lisa’s moral conscience, even in deriving an opinion anathema to Christian faith, chastens my impulse to see her “secularism” as simply pragmatic or, worse, unscrupulous.
Freedom of Confession
Several weeks ago, we came to the corporate and private confession of sin in our Sunday liturgy, and our pastor began his introduction with a wink: “It is the practice of Christians throughout the centuries to publicly and privately confess their sins to God—which might seem strange, considering that we are better than everyone else.” The congregation nervously laughed, recognizing their hubris in his humor.
Confession, in the middle of church, is one way we learn to think rightly of ourselves. We don’t have to be better than our non-Christian neighbors and family, friends and colleagues. We just have to be the forgiven and the faithful, willing to proclaim the gospel even to the “good” people who earnestly strive to follow their moral code. Confession also reminds us that sin is not just “wrongdoing”: it is “right-doing” borne from a crooked conscience subject to treasonous desires and misguided judgment. We confess our sin because, in good conscience, we are capable of doing great evil.
Confession, as a gospel act, reminds us that Christianity isn’t an improved-upon morality to peddle but a call to follow Jesus of Nazareth, whom the church throughout history has witnessed as the crucified, the resurrected, and the returning. That call is both an acceptance and an abandonment. As C. S. Lewis explains in Mere Christianity, “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.” To be a Christian is to relinquish self-will and moral self-confidence.
As Christians, we confess our sins and receive the amazing grace that saves the wretch—as well as the respectable.