It is easy to forget that those who feature in the biblical writings as authors or participants were flesh and blood people like us trying to make sense of faith “through all the changing scenes of life”. The psalmist for example captured the distress of his people forced into exile: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” (Present day refugees/asylum seekers have similar feelings.) Elijah the prophet, a man of courageous faith, suffered burnout and felt he had let God down: “They have torn down your altars and killed all your prophets, except me. And now they are even trying to kill me!”
In his poem The Chamber Over the Gate, Longfellow relives King David’s grief over the loss of his wayward son Absalom: “That old man desolate, /Weeping and wailing sore /For his son who is no more? /’O Absalom, my son!”
In these glimpses behind the pages of the Bible we meet real people who face challenges on their faith journeys and who at times struggle to hang on. We have a deeply personal example in Sunday’s epistle (Romans 7) where Paul, who always seems so strong and confident about himself, says this: “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” In this moment of candour Paul is, of course, not only speaking of himself but for all of us.
Any of us taking an honest look back over our lives will recall things said or done that we regret to this day. We may enjoy hearing Édith Piaf sing “Non, rien de rien/ Non, je ne regrette rien” (No, I regret nothing at all) while knowing that it simply isn’t true. The Confession in the Book of Prayer understands us well: “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.”
But in Evening Prayer (Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas), Pastor Jenkins believes that God sees us as we are: “We are not wholly bad or good /Who live our lives under Milk Wood, /And Thou, I know, wilt be the first /To see our best side, not our worst.”
Archbishop Rowan Williams explains in What is Christianity? “I see myself in faith as somebody who fails. I see myself in faith as somebody who’s loved. I see myself as somebody who is called, summoned and entrusted with responsibility, and I see myself as failing again. And I see the possibility of restoration and new beginnings. And at no point in that cycle am I allowed to see myself as an ultimate waste of space. I can see myself realistically; I don’t have to pretend I’m better than I am, I don’t even have to pretend I’m worse than I am. I have to recognise my limits, my nature as a growing being and as a being that makes mistakes. And the message is ‘Don’t panic.’”
This approach is consistent with what the Christian faith teaches about God’s concern for each one of us no matter how often we fail or how badly. Ordinary human relationships are built on the basis of liking the other person, how they look, how they behave, their culture and their values. God’s way is totally different in that he does not love us because we are good or nice or anything like that: God loves us, every bit of us, because God is good.
“The person you now are,” wrote American theologian William Countryman, “the person you have been, the person you will be – this person God has chosen as beloved.”