Tonight I had dinner with some lovely young writing majors at the college where I work, and of course, talking about their senior projects made me think back to my own. “It’s interesting,” I told them. “I wrote about having OCD, although at the time I didn’t know that’s what it was. In my senior project, I called myself ‘a skeptic’ and someone who ‘didn’t understand grace’ when really– a couple years later– I’d be diagnosed, and all of this would be so clear.”
And here, for your viewing pleasure, is a piece of work from my senior project. (I can’t believe it’s been 8 and a half years since I read this at my Capstone presentation!) (Oh, and P.S. Don’t judge my writing too critically– I’ve grown a lot!)
If You, Lord, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with You,
That You may be feared.
Grace Beneath the Line
There are people who live the scripture verse that instructs, Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, harassed by the pressure to perform. I am one of them. A rotting offering in my hands, I seek God, knowing my gift is sour but too insecure to approach with empty palms.
We who are this way step lightly and with caution through days of deliberation. We twist beneath blankets from fear carried over into sleep, hoping all the while that God is not like us, hard and without mercy. Often we’d rather stay stagnant than move at all, rather close our eyes to the search than squint at a Savior we don’t know—fearing unseen wrath. And we wonder: What if He sees us and turns away His holy face? So we continue inching our way, working out our salvation. With fear. With trembling.
With much trembling.
Last summer at camp, I was the volunteer counselor whose voice cracked and split at the faculty meeting, disturbed by the nature of the game Kierstin explained to us all. A mock heavenly judgment at Pine Haven Christian Assembly in Park Rapids, Minnesota—an activity called “Heaven and Hell”—was intended not only to make the campers think but also to unsettle them with fear.
I knew that Kenny was rolling his eyes behind me, the 20-year-old Target operator, as he said, “It’s just a game”—to me—but while looking ahead at Kierstin, who had planned this controversial activity without a thought of its controversy, now looking helpless and unsure behind the lodge’s wooden lectern.
“Well, maybe we could …” she started.
“No,” said Kenny firmly. “The game is simple. It’s good.”
The game would last 24 hours, during which 20 counselors would defend 10 assigned worldviews—2 counselors for each—while the campers searched for a view they agreed with. When the campers asked us for the Truth, we’d spell out the worldview we were assigned as best we could, try to persuade them, as someone would in real life. Once the kids found the worldview they agreed with, they were to sign up on that counselor’s list.
Troubled with lying to the kids even in the context of a game, I muttered, “It just kills me to think that they’ll ask for the Truth and I’ll give them a lie.” My title of counselor afforded no comfort in temporary deception.
They gave me a real saved-by-grace-through-faith-in-Christ worldview to endorse to keep me pacified and participating.
The following day, only the names collected on my created page—along with another counselor’s twin list—would be welcomed into “heaven”—the right side of the chapel. Those not found in that pretend Book of Life—folded into squares in the back pockets of jeans—would depart to “hell”—on the left.
I’d known Phil for nearly a year; he was a skinny, artistic kid who played bass guitar and drums and who sent me e-mails clever enough to be published. He wore glasses with thick black rims and grew his dark blonde curls long “to look like a rock star.” Still, this witty, intelligent boy was far less than confident when he asked me to write his name on my worldview’s list. After some private calculating, some dialoguing with counselors, and a lot of camper “evangelism,” he added his name to my paper—the action that would “save” him—but even the next day as we all stood in line for pseudo-judgment, Phil looked worried.
Since the campers were to enter the chapel to “approach the throne” one at a time, the procession of casual teenagers curved itself down the rock path from the chapel toward the mess hall. Phil and I were at the line’s end, discussing thoughts on acne, baptism, and poetry.
Phil pushed his glasses up his nose and put his hand through his hair as he carelessly handed over a piece of paper to amuse me. I laughed at his comically malicious thoughts about loud boys in his cabin, but my compliments dropped to the ground in the warm, wet air.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Yeah. No. I don’t know. Jackie … we’re going to heaven, aren’t we?” His
gathered eyebrows told of sincere concern even though he smiled. It was an honest question although he referred only to the action inside the chapel, swallowing campers whole as we spoke.
And because I knew the answer, I smiled softly at his worry and asked, “Well, did you find the Truth?”
“I think so,” Phil said, frowning at the path, “but I’m not sure. You know. Tell me. What’s going to happen in there?” And he looked up and nodded at the white building collecting bodies the way the afterlife would someday collect souls. Phil pressed his mouth shut firmly, and my heart hurt with a huge love for this boy whose fear was so real.
Why did Phil doubt? Why did he fear even a game’s rendition of hell? Christians accept Jesus; we are saved; then, so often, we doubt that the God we love really loves us back. A pastor I know once asked my Bible study, “Do you think your name is written in God’s book in pencil?” and I rutted my brows in my forehead because I lived as if I believed in a God who stands ready with eraser poised over my name if His flitting eyes came to rest on the dark places in my mind. Even David the God-chaser spoke, “Take not your Holy Spirit from me.”
But scripture tells also of grace, of mercy, of a Jesus who’s gentle and of a Spirit
who stays. If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.
What parts of life pervert pictures of the Christ who promises never to leave nor forsake into One whose mind changes every moment I sin or sing? I may be born guilty, but I am looked on in love; yet some malicious, hot voice asserts it’s a love that keeps strict record of wrongs.
Sunday Schools, churches, parents, camps—when they teach that Jesus doesn’t like sin, do they inadvertently emphasize sinner?
Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat.
At age seven, I thought of dirty words in my head, running to my mother while hitting my forehead, confessing, “Bad thoughts! I’m thinking bad thoughts!” I was terrified that these tiny seeds would overgrow my entire mind until I was so engulfed in sin that the Lord of my Sunday School would shake a divine finger at me and bar the gates to His heaven.
But even worse was the fear of lying. I knew that lying was sinning and that God hates sinning, and so to protect my heavenly innocence, I wouldn’t answer questions. “Jackie, what do you think?” “I don’t know.” “Jackie, what’s your favorite color?” “I don’t know.” All this in an attempt to ward off what would amount to lies if I were to change my young mind. And in doing so, I lied. My favorite color was purple.
This is the life of a neurotic Christian skeptic who has yet to understand grace.
At eleven, I wondered if I loved God—and even how to love God. But I knew, too, that this was wrong and assumed that hell would drink my soul greedily if I died in that state. I sang the inserted words want to in “I Love You, Lord” quickly, and I still have that pillow with its circular tear stains, evidence of pain that stayed quiet so I wouldn’t wake my sleeping sister. I cried nearly every night from fifth grade to eighth.
Then, at age sixteen, I labored with a heart hostile to the atheism that desired to hold it, fighting doubt alternately wildly and weakly, drinking communion juice that tasted like acid, hearing hypocrite! hissed in my ears that craved the voice of the God I questioned. Fear. Its claws ripped into my brain, and to drive five miles into town was terrifying. I distrusted thoughts of heaven but felt hellfire like a razor to my throat, escalating the intense horror of death. To pass a car, I’d hold my breath.
And then, at twenty, I died. I went blank. I read Matthew 12’s passage about the unpardonable sin, feared I had committed it. Unalterable guilt prescribed in red. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come. And how is one to live without the hope of heaven? What of quiet mutterings questioning the Holy Spirit’s work? What of the testing of the spirits? What of bad thoughts? Are they the equivalent of bad words? Certain condemnation. Sadness to sickness to bitterness. And the hostility hardened my heart to a rock. Now I loved God and believed He was real, and that made it all worse.
Then a pastor sat me down at Caribou, my own personal purgatory, where Dave promised me that there were no black holes in Christianity. I wasn’t expecting his condemnation, but I supposed that he wouldn’t be able to take me far enough in the opposite direction and that his failure to explain the road to heaven to me would leave me scratching at my eyes in the burning blank room I was locked into, severely calloused at this milestone so far down the path of destruction.
But is this really life? Maybe this is the continual death. The hell on earth—but still with a vague, far-off hope.
Until now—it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come. Ah! Even a quick glance at holiness broke me into an Isaiah much too ashamed to cry out, “Woe is me!” In His dazzling, overwhelming beam, all of my sins were laid bare before those eyes and mine. To see—even for a second—God’s holiness is awesome and horrible because it shows that I am ugly with guilt for everything and anything.
But has He not blood-colored vision? Dave reminded me of all the other scriptures of promises undeniable. Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. We will know by this that we are of the truth, and will assure our heart before Him in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart and knows all things. And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life. There is weight on my side. Many scriptures tip the scale.
Or maybe there is no scale. I am a neurotic Christian skeptic who has yet to understand grace.
It’s still hard to believe Dave sometimes. We get so scared about what happens “after.” But I’m learning how to trust the Lord’s promises in other places, how to read Matthew 12, sleep in peace, and then—the next morning—exhale a deep and quiet breath and read Matthew 13. In faith.
“Jackie … we’re going to heaven, aren’t we?” Phil asked. And now I wonder if his thoughts were only of the chapel’s game. At the age of 17, my own mind had already a vertical focus.
The Judgment Day game was meant to shake the kids, to make them realize the importance of what comes next, to realize how awesomely narrow the road to eternal life really is, but maybe they already know. Maybe they’re already crushed beneath the weight of the stone at the Savior’s tomb, which their sins helped prod into position. Maybe they’ve forgotten that omnipotence rolled it away, and that love, mercy, and grace in bodily form walked barefoot from that grave to find them where they wander—in the corners of locked houses, on their beds that fill with tears, on the road to Emmaus, or at the tables of Caribou Coffee.
Maybe we all need a reminder of saving grace—or a friend to point us to that reminder: He who has the Son has the life. I want to collect Phil and all the others in my arms and weep with them—tremble—for the uncertainty that burdens some of us even daily. I want to hold them while they struggle against the Stealer of Hope. My arms are available, but I know the Lord’s are stronger, and His hands cup themselves beneath the taut thread we creep to heaven; then that slight path lies sagging on His wide, wide palms, and the curve of them keeps us protected from the fall.
Work out your salvation with fear and trembling … if we dare to read further, we find our assurance. Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.
Yes, Phil, we are going to heaven. We have to trust that.