Early in my Christian journey, I often struggled with understanding why Christ had to die for our sins. This was something that believers would say to me that I had a very difficult time grasping, and when pressed, they often had a difficult time answering.
“What does that mean exactly?” I would ask. “Why did He need to die for my sins? I mean it sounds great that He loves me so much that He’d be willing to give His life, but why exactly was that necessary?”
Over the years, as I began to come to terms with the damage my own sin caused in the world, in my relationships, and in myself, I slowly came to an intuitive understanding of why some way of repairing the damage of my misdeeds needed to exist. But to be honest, I still didn’t understand very well why Christ needed to die to do this. His death and resurrection certainly seemed the ultimate example of total self-donation, but I still did not grasp at more than surface level “how” it repaired, or began to repair, the damage done.
Recently, I think I’ve begun to understand this a bit better. It started with a homily I heard in which the priest was discussing the story of the fall. What he focused on in particular was the intimacy of the relationship between God and Adam & Eve in the garden. He pointed out how they walked and talked together in the garden in friendship with one another.
This got me thinking. When we rightly see this relationship as it is, rather than terms of the master/slave mentality we all fall into sometimes, maybe we can begin to understand their sin for what it really was. It was a betrayal. Adam and Eve betrayed God and were unfaithful to the relationship they had with Him.
When one is betrayed, only the betrayed person can actually forgive, and reconcile with the other. The betrayer may be heartily sorry, may be committed to never betraying again, but unless forgiveness is extended from the betrayed, a reconciliation cannot happen. Only the offended party can truly repair the breach.
The closest analogy I can think of is marital infidelity. Indeed the Old Testament is rife with the language of Israel’s sin as being infidelity to God, so it seems a fitting analogy.
In this case, the offended spouse must give up something in order for reconciliation to be possible. That something is a bit of themselves. They must give up their justified hurt and anger. They must die a bit to themselves by once again exposing themselves to the other in a way that might just end up with them being hurt again. They must make themselves vulnerable and put their heart in their betrayer’s hands.
This is, I imagine, exceedingly difficult, and requires a level of selflessness that is astounding. To give one’s self again to the one who has betrayed you. That is real selflessness. That is a sacrifice of a part of one’s self.
And the worse the betrayal, the larger the rupture in the relationship, the larger the sacrifice must consequently be.
So, in the fall we have the ultimate rupture, the ultimate betrayal. It is the betrayal of the creator, by the created. It is the betrayal of the very source of life and love. It is the betrayal of the most fundamental relationship in the life of man.
How can such a betrayal be reconciled? I can imagine only one way which makes sense. The betrayed in this case must be willing to make the ultimate act of self denial. The ultimate act is to give our entire selves, our very life, in service of repairing the breach that has been made by the betrayer.
And so maybe we can begin to see the need for the crucifixion.
This is the act of God putting Himself entirely in the hands of those who betrayed (and continue to betray) Him. It is God utterly dying to Himself in order to forgive, to reconcile and to heal the breach made by that betrayal. It is God putting Himself in our hands again knowing full well that we may (will) betray Him again.
This is probably kid’s stuff to those who’ve been at the spiritual life for a while, but it was helpful to me in gaining a deeper understanding of His sacrifice, and so I share it in hopes it might be helpful to someone else.
A while back fellow convert, regular commenter and occasional guest blogger Steve G. emailed me with some thoughts on a long period of darkness that he experienced. His reflection was so interesting and thought-provoking that I just couldn’t keep it to myself, so I asked if I could share it here. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with Steve G., I highly recommend checking out some of his other writing here.) Here is what he wrote:
It’s amazing, but the darkness that I have been under for at least half a year now suddenly and nearly miraculously has begun to lift. It’s in part contributable to just getting healthy, finally getting some decent sleep with the relief of the sleep apnea, having lost 30 pounds, and that kind of stuff. But the real turning point came just within the last week, and I thought I’d share it with you briefly in case it’s any help:
Firstly, the fertile soil of it was laid down by the fact that I’ve finally again (after several years of slacking) begun to attend the daily noon Mass, across the street from where I work, for the last month or so. The gift of the Eucharist has been a great consolation of late.
Anyway, as I’ve been struggling through that darkness, I’ve been as faithful as ever (more if I am honest) in prayer, spiritual direction, and spiritual reading. As I said earlier, this period has really driven me into the arms of Jesus on all those fronts. But one morning as I was reading another small section of Pope Benedict’s book Jesus of Nazareth, and I stumbled on this little passage:
“Man lives on truth and on being loved: on being loved by the truth.”
This seemingly simple passage gave me a real jolt. It came from the fact that it immediately changed my perspective of the relationship with God on its head. We (I at least) are constantly so focused on our part in the relationship — Am I praying enough?, Am I praying correctly?, Am I doing enough?, Am I good enough?, Are my thoughts on God and his presence (or seeming lack)?, and so on. Everything we view is from our perspective and how we feel about and view Him and the relationship. It can be downright self-centered if I can accuse myself.
This passage forced me for a moment to think about the fact that He loves me (vs. how I feel about Him). That really, He is the motive force in the relationship, not I. Pope Benedict says, peace only comes from being loved. And of course it is in that being loved by the source of all love, that we then love Him and others in return. But again, it is HIS love for us that is driver here, not our efforts.
How often do we think about that? How often do recall how much we are really loved?
I know that I occasionally say it (He died for me, He gave himself up for me, etc.), but do I really ponder that and what it means? I know that I don’t do so nearly enough, if at all.
To stop and ponder that, and to try to keep it in mind first (even before my own feelings and actions if possible) was a real wake up call. If He who IS, truly loves me, what should I fear? Why should I not trust? Why should I be anything other than at peace? If He truly loves me, and I believe it, He holds me in the palm of His hand, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well…regardless of what comes.
This perspective has begun to bring me great peace of mind.
I know that the living out of this still is the challenge, but for what it’s worth, this has really been helpful for me to keep in mind. His love for me, for us, rather than focusing so much on myself and my own love for Him. If I can live within the former, the later takes care of itself.
by Steve G.
[Regular commentor Steve G. had some great thoughts to add to my post about bringing peace to my household, so I suggested that he do a guest post. You can see Steve's other guest posts here -- scroll down to see the full list.]
I can’t help but continue to see all of this in the context of Gordon Neufeld’s attachment theory concepts [summarized in this post], and I think his approach holds the key to understanding the way we should approach such things.
Going back to Neufeld’s book, he argues that what we’ve done in modern society is traded relationships/family as the foundation of society and culture for economics. I think the utilitarian economic underpinnings of modern society have caused us to shift our way of thinking to one of ‘getting things done’ rather than doing things as part of what works for the good of the family.
Let me give an example of what I mean. I am usually the one who cleans up after dinner in our household. I put all the dishes in the dishwasher, and then get to scrubbing pots and pans. After that we all sit down for treat time, and hopefully some playtime after. For a very long time, I’ve approached this with an idea towards efficiency. I want to get this done and out of the way so that we can get to the ‘fun stuff.’
This put me in the position of feeling like anything that distracted me from the goal was a nuisance. Little hands pulling at my shirtsleeves, little voices asking if they can have their sweety now…these were things that were getting in the way of my getting finished and often left me feeling aggravated by the time I was done.
Well, one day after listening to one section of Neufeld’s Power to Parent DVD series (which I HIGHLY recommend) where he was describing life in a traditional town (Provence, France), he talked about how the entire meal time from set up to clean up is a structured routine that everyone participates in. He actually referred to it at one point in religious terms as the ‘liturgy of daily life.’
It dawned on me that maybe I should be looking at this (washing up), not in the economic like terms of efficiency, but in terms of relationships. I wondered what I would change if I did that. So, next day, I told the two oldest (7 and 4) that a new routine for mealtime clean up was going in place (I started modestly to keep it doable). I said that we were going to work as a team to do the clean up, and then after that we’d all sit down to treat time (i.e. treat time wouldn’t come until we were done).
Everyone would be responsible for bringing their own dishes into the kitchen, where I’d rinse, then put in the dishwasher. For pots and pans, I’d wash then hand off to oldest child for drying, who’d then hand off to middle child who would put the pots away — the youngest is still a bit young for this.
I tried to look at it with an eye towards enjoying spending time together rather than with an eye towards getting it done.
It’s amazing what happened…unexpected conversations, laughter, joking, and fostering of a team attitude just to name a few, and of course it took a good bit longer. But most importantly, well…it actually became enjoyable. I was hanging out with my boys and we were working together. No, it wasn’t as thrilling as taking them to Disney on Ice…but in very important ways, it was actually better.
Yes, some days there is grumbling about it. Yes, some days when I feel tired the temptation is there to just do it myself and be done with it. But as we build it into part of our ‘liturgy of daily life’, it gets easier. The ‘liturgy’ and structure does the hard work for us and it builds the relationship at the same time.
Neufeld argues very persuasively in the DVD series that in modern society we are approaching discipline the wrong way. He accurately describes how we are constantly ‘parenting in the incident.’ We think of what tools we can leverage to get our kids to behave as we desire, we are constantly reacting to what they do, should we spank or not spank, should we use timeouts, etc. All at the same time trying to meet all the other obligations as parent, spouse, etc. that we have. It’s exhausting.
He argues that we should be setting our family life up differently and uses a phrase that has haunted me since I heard it. He posits that the best way to discipline is to ‘impose order through structure and ritual.’
We should mirror those traditional societies where the potentially roughest times of the day (getting ready in the morning, meal times, bedtimes, etc.) are more or less scripted out in a sort of family liturgy. We should let the structure do the work of imposing discipline/order on the family members (ahem…including the parents at times…no?), rather than constantly battling through all the episodes of the day and putting out fires.
Now I don’t suggest this to argue that some kind of rigorous military schedule be imposed. Rather the key to any structure of life for a Christian family is what Jennifer taps into as the peace of the family, and what Neufeld would describe as focusing on the good of the relationships involved. My own formulation follows the two great commandants: does this help us know, love and serve God, and know love and serve one another?
I think that if we can begin building these kinds of structures and rituals into our life (bit by bit because until they take hold they require effort themselves to maintain), always within the context of how they nourish and support the familial relationships, rather than how many items get checked off our list, we will be doing ourselves and our children a world of good.
After all, isn’t this how God parents us? He gives us the church, the sacraments, the liturgy to draw us closer to him. He imposes order through structure and ritual…through HIS family liturgy.
Any spiritual director worth their salt will tell you that in order to grow closer to God, in order to foster our relationship with Him (our father, our parent), that we need a daily routine, a rule, a liturgy (call it what you will) built around fostering our attachment…our relationship with Him.
Doesn’t it make sense that our own parenting and family life, as imperfect as it will be, would follow the same model?
Since Steve doesn’t have his own blog, here is his contribution to the Group Writing Project:
Initially I felt left out on this post. I come from a broken home where my most vivid memory from childhood is sitting at the living room window, looking out on the dark night, and watching my father carrying his suitcase to his girlfriend’s car for the final time.
One of my greatest shocks was as a teenager, proofreading an essay my mother had written, discovering where she talked about the fact that she’d nearly aborted me.
My childhood was filled with a lot of moving from place to place, a fair amount of violence, and an unimaginable amount of emotional abuse.
It’s probably not a surprise that overall, my memories of my childhood are not particularly fond, and even those which are dear, are tinged with a sense of sadness…of what might have been.
One of the most beautiful things about entering into Christ’s love is the reality of the healing that begins to take place. One of the greatest gifts I’ve been given is that despite the pain, I’ve been able to truly forgive my parents.
I’ve been able to attempt to see them as the fallible human beings they are, to try to understand what crosses they bore that led them to make the choices they did. That has been transformative in my life.
It even gives me the ability to find three things that they did right.
1. They gave me life. This should go without saying, but in the modern Western world it does not. When a husband and wife are already on the verge of divorce, their relationship is already horribly broken, and they find out they are pregnant, they’ve got a ready excuse to eliminate such an unwanted problem. They didn’t use the excuse.
Despite all the mess of their lives, they still saw me as worth bringing into the world. For that, I am thankful beyond words.
2. My mother loved me without conditions. She was negligent, she was irresponsible, she moved away to another state when I was only 13 and I saw her only a couple times a year. Nonetheless, she somehow managed to convey to me that she loved me whether I was good in school or not, whether I was a star athlete or not, and regardless of my ‘accomplishments.’
Her love was not performance or behavior dependent, and as little as we saw each other during my teen years, when we did, she conveyed a deep sense that she was just happy to be around me and accepted me for who I was. This was a great gift she gave me and it has served me well in the relationships I’ve participated in throughout my life.
3. My Dad gave me a love of reading. One of those memories from childhood that was fond was dad taking me on a regular basis to the library. When I asked him a question about the moon, or any other topic I was interested in, it was off to the library we went. I loved having my own library card. I loved bringing a stack of books home to read. I loved it because it was one of the few tender times he provided. It engrained a deep love of reading in my being. Later, when I needed it, books would be my refuge and escape. As an adult, books would be crucial to bringing me into the love of Christ. My love of reading is another gift from my parents, and I thank them for it from the depths of my heart.