Sin is Behovely

Lent is over — hallelujah — but its scent lingers. The first weeks of Easter […]

Eric Dorman / 4.26.18

Lent is over — hallelujah — but its scent lingers. The first weeks of Easter can be confusing. On the one hand, there’s jubilation, joy, a feeling of liberation, celebration. It’s all warranted. But after Lent, and especially after Good Friday, Easter feels a little out of place (which is fitting). After dwelling for several months on sin and contrition, we enter Easter with heavy hearts and distracted minds, and while we say with our mouths that Jesus is risen and that everything is accomplished, it’s just as easy to believe that Easter hasn’t done its work.

This past Sunday, Fr. Kenny Benge (prior at Church of the Redeemer, Nashville) gave a sermon (available here) in which he referenced one of Julian of Norwich’s most famous sayings: “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” It’s a comforting word and it reminds us that God will, one day, put all things right. The quote has popped up here and there in some great pieces on this very site — pieces that have fed my spirit and challenged my mind.

But Fr. Kenny reminded parishioners that Julian’s statement doesn’t begin with, “All shall be well.” It ends there, and the ending is most important, so it can stand alone, but the beginning is certainly interesting: “Sin is behovely,” Christ says to Julian in her vision.

Sin is behovely. That’s an archaic way of saying that sin is useful or necessary. Julian has just been face-to-face with Christ on the cross, encountering the reality of her own sinfulness: it beats and it whips and it mocks and it strips and it kills God. And Jesus, having endured this torture at Julian’s hand, says, “Sin is useful.”

Perhaps Julian is making a comment on the ontology of sin. That is, maybe she’s saying that sin and evil are necessary because, without them, we creatures would not be worshipping God in his fullness since God will not have displayed for us his justice in punishing sin. That was, in a sense, Jonathan Edwards’s view of evil. I don’t think Edwards is right, but I also don’t think that’s what Julian is saying (though, admittedly, I’m no expert on Julian).

There’s a common (and helpful) phrase one hears in Christian circles: “God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.” That’s true. God does the work of salvation from start to finish and you don’t bring any righteousness to the table. You don’t have to get yourself clean or sort yourself out. God doesn’t need your good works to accomplish his will in salvation.

But it’s not just that God doesn’t need our good works. He doesn’t need our bad ones either. In other words, God did the work, and that work is finished. He doesn’t need to be constantly reminded of why he did what he did. He accomplished it for all time. God puts our sins away from us as far as the east is from the west, and he doesn’t remember them any longer.

We as individuals, and as the church, do, though, need to remember.

Put differently: God doesn’t need your sins, but you do.

I think this is what Julian has in mind. Sin is useful in that it tells us the truth about who we are: sinners. It’s also useful because it reminds us who God is: savior. That is the essence of justification: the unrighteous declared righteous by grace alone. It’s also the heart of the Simul: we are at once sinner and justified.

Lent can be a time of crushing Law wherein we sit in our sins and beat ourselves up over what we have done and what we have left undone. That’s not what I’m advocating here. It’s not that we should wallow in our sins. It’s that remembering them is useful. God puts even our sins into the service of our justification.

Here’s a practical reflection, and nothing new: when we consider our own sinfulness — as Julian did — we can rest in the assurance that we’re staring at a beast that God has already killed. We have nothing to fear and nothing to hide. As Martin Luther says, we can look the devil in the face, admit that we are deserving of death and damnation, but then in the next moment affirm that Christ has already made perfect satisfaction on our behalf. Considering our sins stirs our affections for the one who kills the sin and rises for our justification.

This is not a magic formula. It’s not that remembering our sins always produces this or that reaction. It’s simply to say that God really has done the work that we can’t, and reflecting on our sinfulness is really just a way of reflecting on redemption. Our sins are now not that which condemn us but rather that which remind us of the sin-bearer. They are a tool, not to be celebrated in themselves, of course, but to be subjected to the sin-crushing grace of God. They have no authority where God has staked a claim.

My Lenten fast was a simple one — and I even picked something that would have been of benefit to me, which maybe defeats the purpose — and I still couldn’t keep it. I think I did it maybe 10% of the time, and even that’s a generous guess. My inability to keep the fast — or do the task or hold the line or however you want to say it — is partly what Lent is about.

Easter breaks in and Jesus says, “It’s okay. Come and enjoy the feast anyway.” And that’s a word I need to hear.

Lent is over, and maybe this is all somewhat out of place now that the penitential season has passed. After all, like I said before, Christ is risen and it’s time to party. In any case, I’m sort of looking forward to failing Lent again next year.

Sin is behovely.