The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
February 13, 2022
Dolly Parton, who identifies as a “spiritual not religious” person, summed up the dominant theology in America today. It is that we all must “save ourselves”. For, she said, everyone has it within them to “find peace and do others good”, and anyone can by themselves make their life what it should be. God is optional.
Some years ago, an article in The Atlantic cited evidence that, while Americans are losing their trust in government, religious institutions and so-called “experts”, they trust in themselves and their efforts as much as ever. Americans believe in self-help.
Most of us, if asked to describe sin, would first refer to bad actions such as cruelty or injustice. On further reflection, we might also mention underlying bad attitudes such as bigotry or selfishness. While the Bible says that sin leads to such evil, it also describes sin primarily as a fundamental orientation in life in which we, to attain our goals, look first and foremost to ourselves. Sin is basically indulging our preference to make our way on our own, with or without God.
The desire to depend on ourselves more than on God is evident in the Fall of our spiritual fore-parents Adam and Eve. They disobeyed God’s commandment and ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because they didn’t want to wait on God to tell them what they needed to know. They wanted to be self-reliant, take things into their own hands, and figure out life for themselves.
Thus, the crucial choice in life is about where we rest our ultimate reliance. This scripture says our decision about our final dependence determines our life. Will we trust ourselves or God most of all?
Today’s scripture says that those “whose hearts turn away from the Lord” “trust” in human capabilities, while those who make God their mainstay “trust” in divine capabilities. The first orientation, this scripture says, makes people like spindly desert shrubs in “parched places”; the second, like verdant, fruitful trees whose roots reach out to drink deeply from the stream’s waters. Both kinds of plants deal with the same deadly drought and fierce heat. But the first are cursed by their decision to draw upon nothing but what they already have at hand; and the second are blessed by their decision to avail of help from beyond themselves.
Our foolish tendency is to keep thinking that, if we can just be at our best and do our best, we can make for ourselves a life that’s more than good enough.
We are at our best, and we do our best, when we love. Having love in our heart is therefore a danger at the same time it is an advantage.
Yale scholar Simon May wrote a book entitled Love: A History. In it he calls human love our “new god”. In the chapter, “Love Plays God”, May writes, “Human love…is now tasked with achieving what once only divine love was thought capable of: to be our ultimate source of meaning and happiness.” May contends that we’ve changed the Bible’s statement “God is love” to “love is god”. Tied up in that illusion is an overestimation of our capacity to love well enough and long enough to overcome our inherent weakness and selfishness. The illusion denies the reality of how easily we betray our highest potential or promise.
In her book Waiting for God, Simone Weil compares those deep into this delusion to people who constantly take standing jumps with the thought that, if they keep practicing and increasing their vertical leap, one day they won’t fall back down to earth but will ascend all the way up to the heavens. As they persevere in this effort of self-improvement, they reach their hands ever higher but they never open their hands on the chance that someone above might grab hold of them and pull them up to otherwise unattainable heights.
Weil notes that, no matter how hard or long we try, we don’t have it in us to travel very far vertically. Our best is not all that good. Our only hope is that Someone beyond our reach would reach down to us and raise us up to where we couldn’t arrive unaided. That is our only hope; and our only contribution to realizing our hope of being raised up like that is that we keep looking up and opening up our hands.
Of course, lest this picture of being lifted up into a higher life suggests a merely mystical process between the single individual and God, let us recall how much God loves to have His children share in His work and help one another in collaboration with Him. So, since none of us can lift up our lives much by ourselves, we get lifted up by both God and His friends; and, once we are so lifted up, we can in turn assist Him in lifting up others.
What’s so bad about sin? To sin is to give in to the self-flattering illusion that we can rise high enough all by ourselves, and that illusion makes us unwilling to avail of God’s decisive help. To repent and to believe is to give up on self-reliance and to give ourselves over to God-reliance in trust of His ability and eagerness to work miracles of grace for us!