If you asked my wife if she thought I was an obsessive at heart she would immediately respond with a “Yes!”. For better or for worse, I am what Freud would call an obsessive. On a good day this prompts a deep desire to learn, to create and to love. On a bad day I become enmeshed in myself, my flaws, my sins and acquire a sort of tunnel vision that fails to see past myself. In my earlier years this could easily be remedied by going to the Scriptures and reading St. Paul only to have my existential angst dissipate by his words about justification in Romans 3 or throughout Galatians. 1 Timothy 1:15 was like music to my ears, as if they were specifically written not about Paul but about me, the chief of sinners though I be. Martin Luther was someone I could relate to which is why God made me a Lutheran, that I am sure of. Obviously, when God knit me together in the womb he predestined me to bear the name of another obsessive who I could obsessively project myself onto, but I digress. Nonetheless, I deeply understood his desire to find a gracious God in the midst of the fiery accusations of the devil and of my very own conscience. Thanks to the wonderful framework of Lutheran theology, I was able to find comfort time and time again in the Cross of Jesus.
Eventually, though, something began to change within me. Rather later than sooner I began to realize that my obsessive brooding did nothing for me or for the people around me. In fact, I began to realize that the obsessive searching of my black heart produced more anxiety within me, it was self-obsessed and quite wasteful. My focus was often inward when it should’ve been outward, a lot more outward. In an odd way I was sort of a narcissistic Christian which is quite the oxymoron.
Nonetheless, the sense that this was not a good thing drew me to the writing of scholars such as NT Wright and Krister Stendahl. It was Stendahl who argued that from Augustine onwards we in the West have been projecting “the Western question of an introspective conscience” onto the Apostle Paul. Thus, Stendahl writes, “Especially in Protestant Christianity…the Pauline awareness of sin has been interpreted in the light of Luther’s struggle with conscience.” Whereas we tend to be concerned with finding solace and comfort from a guilty conscience, Paul was actually quite confident when it came to his own conscience and standing before God. A simple reading of Phil.3:6 and Acts 24:16 proves this. For Paul the issue wasn’t how to find a gracious God but rather how the Gentiles were now to be included in the family of God through the Messiah Jesus. From Augustine to Luther to us we have failed to recognize this because the Jewish/Gentile problem is not one that we are familiar with. Thus, the words of Paul are interpreted to mean something else than what they were originally intended. The focus goes from God’s initial graciousness to our own sinfulness. It goes from drawing upon the faithfulness of God to his covenant with Abraham to drawing upon our faithlessness before we receive the grace of God. It goes from being drawn into God’s story of bringing the world to rights to drawing God into our story.
Ultimately, I write this because I find that focusing on my sin, my brokenness can end up being an exercise in narcissism. It doesn’t go anywhere. It’s important to be self-aware, to know one’s flaws and weaknesses, but it’s also important to be drawn out of ourselves. I sin all the time, there are things I wish I did better, but I am called to follow the one who knew no sin. I am not called to self-improvement or to a virtuous life, rather I am called to lose my life for his name’s sake. Rather I am not the center of the story, God is.
Here’s a link to the referenced Stendahl article.