I'll call him "Bert". It wasn't his name, but I don't want any one thinking I talk out of turn. He was a very old man I knew once. He was a member of one of the congregations I served, and he was in his mid-nineties when I met him. He always told me wonderful stories about his life when I visited him. They would inevitably end with Bert saying, "Life goes on, just the same." It was an odd saying, and he said it in a peculiar manner, and it sort of summed up his philosophy of life as an elderly man. Life was just one long story, with small changes here and there, but nothing seemed to make big difference once it was past. He expressed the same attitude as he looked forward to the future.
Listening to that old saying came to mind as I considered this newsletter article. What Bert was dealing with is what I have chosen to call "the ordinariness of Life". After a time, we all confront the fact that our lives are generally ordinary, sort of 'every day', not spectacular and not an exciting thrill ride all of the time. Every life has it moments, of course. Some of those moments are good, and some of them - the more common kind of excitement - are not, but life does go on, just the same, day by day for most of us most of the time.
I suspect it is that reality that pushes people towards extreme sports and makes drugs tempting for others. They want something different, something exciting, thrilling, stimulating. A really spooky horror movie will shake it up for some people, at least for a time. Others like speed or the sensation of rushing toward a very real potential of danger. There is a thrill connected to facing death and surviving. For the bold and the young, the extreme sports often provide that, and for the older and less confident, the vicarious experience can provide a taste of it - the thrill, the adrenalin rush that takes us out of the ordinary for a moment.
But nothing healthy will take us out of the ordinary for very long. That is where the Walter Mitty types come from. They escape from the hum-drum, daily crush of the ordinary into a world of fantasy in their heads where they are the winner, always facing something exciting, and always coming out on top. The excitement isn't as real as doing things in real life, but then again neither is the danger of failure, injury, or death. Besides, taking a trip in your imagination is a lot less expensive than airfare, wardrobe and tools for a great adventure in the distant parts of the world - or in the distant parts of the galaxy!
There are those who find the ordinariness of life to be just their cup of tea. They are not in the majority, I suspect. Some such people have had their fill of adventure and thrills, and they are content to have a quiet life. Others are Christians who have found that rare blessing described in 1 Timothy 6:6, Godliness with contentment is great gain. Such people are truly blessed. Contentment with life, particularly with an non-remarkable, day-by-day, ordinary life is rare and precious, and it is a gift of God. For most, a quiet, unremarkable life is a burden.
This oh-so-common condition of mankind also colors our perception of religion and stands in the way of the Gospel for many. After all, "Chief of Sinners, Though I Be", is a great hymn and enjoyable to sing, but doesn't really ring true for most of us. My life is so ordinary and my sins are so tepid, compared to things I can imagine (or even read about in the paper) that I can sing it and pretend, but I don't feel like the greatest of all sinners! I don't go about doing awful things to other people. I don't steal from stores or private homes. I work at being honest and decent. I know that I am a sinner, I just don't have any sense of being a "great sinner". So, the Law doesn't bite so terribly hard. The ordinariness of life can blind me to the spiritual reality of my sinfulness, because I don't feel special in sin any more than I do in so many good ways.
I hope the reader understands I am using the first person here as a literary device. I am not describing myself. I am acutely aware of my sins. The "I" of the previous passage was not meant to be me.
If one does not sense their guilt and sin, grasping the Gospel can be much more difficult. Understanding what is being said in the Gospel is not hard, but applying it to one's self is. How can forgiveness be all that important if I am not really much of a sinner? People suffering from this disability find worship to be a non-essential in their life. The Lord's Supper is a nice custom, but not all that fulfilling if I do not grasp the value of forgiveness. Luther wrote in the Catechism, "For the words 'for you' require all hearts to believe". If one doesn't have any real awareness of their need for forgiveness, the 'for you' part is difficult to comprehend.
Just as common is the Christian who finds that their sins are spectacular in one way or another, and wrestles with the 'for you' because they are acutely aware that they do not deserve or merit the grace of God. Spectacular sins don't have to be great in the eyes of the world. They simply need to be serious in the eye of the sinner, or repeated, or seem to be something that the believer should have put behind them long ago, and the awareness of them is sharp and painful in the mind of the individual. Hearing the Law preached will tweak the conscience of the sinner, and the certainty that the sin should have been done away with by now will haunt the sincere believer. How could God forgive such as me, the troubled soul will ask. I have long believed, but even now I cannot resist, and this sin arises in my heart and mind. How can my faith be sincere? How can I be the sort that receives the gifts of God? How can God forgive me? Again!
Here the ordinariness of life confronts the individual with the temptation to stagger at the promises of God because the individual is both no one special, and somehow uniquely worthy of disregard by God for reason of continued sin or repeated sin or what appears to the mind of the guilty as evident failure to be or become what is expected of the true believer. The temptation boils down to the notion that once one is sincere in faith, they put away sin, or at least the common, lighter forms of sins that have afflicted the specific sinner. Once a believer, we must measure up somehow and begin moral reform. It is the common message of most public preachers, and is heard and read among Lutherans as much as any group.
This notion is due, at least in part, to the natural longing of the child of God to put away sin and live a holy life before the Lord. No one is naturally immune to the temptation to thinking that they are outside of the grace of God, not even preachers who have faithfully taught the Gospel for years. Repentance includes the sincere intention to amend one's sinful life and serve the Lord in righteousness. When that temptation encounters the truth of sin and its power even among the regenerate, the devil seizes the opportunity to accuse the believer of failure, or of not measuring up, and of not meeting the standard required for continuing in the grace of God.
Of course, there is no standard. Just faith. God sent His Son to seek and to save the lost. He did not come to establish a new set of rules or set up the new standards by which one becomes fit for salvation. We begin unfit for salvation, and God rescues, redeems and forgives us. But we don't become fit for forgiveness. Neither are we cleansed of sin, so that it has no further influence over us. We are redeemed from its power to destroy us or drag us into hell, but until death, it infects our very flesh and we are in a constant struggle over sin and its baleful influence over our thoughts and words and deeds.
The ordinariness of life suggests that nothing great is happening just because we are not constantly amazed and thrilled to the core of our being by what we are experiencing. It is the lie of everyday life. Every day we are involved in the cosmic battle between God and Satan. But, it is every day, so it doesn't seem like something special is happening. Nevertheless, we are involved in something earth-shaking. The world around us in on one side, our enemy's side, fighting to knock us off our faith. It will attack violently one day and then tell us, the next, that there is nothing going on, and if we think there is, it is all in our heads.
The world wants us to believe there is no truth to any moral standard, and then accuses us of hypocrisy and immorality if we violate anyone's morality, not merely our own. The world tells us that there is no such thing as a God in one breath, and then tries to persuade us that all of life is sacred and significant - animal life, plant life, the life of just about anything or anyone except the life of the child of God. Our society tells us, for example, that there is nothing more precious or significant than a child, that everything is to be done 'for the children', and then defends the wholesale slaughter of legalized abortion. Nothing is sacred, and yet everything is. There is nothing to the concept of true holiness, they say, but whatever it may be, we are assured, we, personally, are not fit or qualified.
Everything belonging to the world around us is aiming to lull us into security and spiritual sleep, and, at the same time, to convince us that we have missed the boat and fallen short in some crucial way. All that we see is on one of two sides, either it is serving to encourage and sustain us in the faith, or it is at war with our faith and certainty and aimed at destroying us and bringing us down as collateral damage in the war between God and the one whose name means "adversary". Our lives are filled with greater tension and action than a "Mission Impossible" movie, all nicely disguised as a bland and ordinary life, a life compared to which every other life seems more exciting. We don't see the truth because we are looking for the flash and dazzle of the world, and not focused on the Word of God as we should be.
Of course we do not feel fit for forgiveness. God has no reason to continue to forgive us or to keep His promise of salvation that can be found in us or our feelings or our fitness. His reason for forgiving us is found on the cross of Jesus Christ. We were still His enemies and hated God when Jesus died. Until He caused us to die in Baptism and be born again to a new and living hope in Jesus Christ, we were lost and condemned, without God and without hope in this world. God doesn't forgive us now because we have started to live up to His standards. He forgives us now because Jesus died on the cross in our place and for our redemption. Our salvation doesn't depend on the quality of our faith. We are the ones that Isaiah the prophet was speaking about when he said, "A bruised reed He will not break, And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish."
The promise of God is that our sins are forgiven on account of Christ. He did what He did because of who He is, not because of who we are. In fact, we are who we are because of who He is, except for our sins. We can take credit for them, and we must. Our salvation, our continued inclusion in the people of God depends completely on Him. For He delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. It is just that we cannot feel it or sense it in any of the ordinary ways. We don't have the sensory apparatus necessary for it. We have to take God at His Word.
Of course, He has not left us to our own devices there. He has provided us with signs, like Baptism, which accomplishes what it promises and does not merely point toward something. Then there is the Lord's Supper, where He feeds us, and proclaims to us and others the Lord's death on our behalf, and cleanses us and equips us for life in this world as His people. And He has given us one another, those ordinary seeming people around us at worship and in Bible Study. Those other ordinary people are also fighting the cosmic battle, and they are given to us to comfort and encourage us, and for us to serve, comfort, and encourage in the battle. Oh, yeah! And then there is the Word of God itself for us to read and hear and study and believe.
The thing is, we have to keep our theology straight. We are forgiven. We have been redeemed. We rest completely in His grace, that undeserved favor of the Lord, the new attitude of favor in God towards us, sinful men, for Christ's sake. We cannot allow our flesh, or the world, or the devil to preach a different theology to us that says we must earn it or deserve it. Sure, we want to be good and holy and such, but the only time we get fully there in this world is by imputation, when God counts Christ's righteousness to our account. By grace you have been saved, through faith, it is not on account of yourself, it is the gift of God. It only feels ordinary!
Yours in the Lord,
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