Say "Wretch" One More Time

Say "Wretch" One More Time October 5, 2012

I sang in a 70-voice girls’ choir from about nine to twelve-ish. We worked hard and gave good performances. We had a couple different instructors during that time, but the one I remember most vividly was Mrs. F. Mrs. F was short with close-cropped black hair and glasses, and she was not to be messed with. She was tough and biting and witty. She made us stand for prolonged periods of time (which resulted in a couple of fainting episodes—possibly why we ended up getting a new instructor?) Anyway, as I said, she was not to be messed with.  I remember we did the Point of Grace song “When Love Came Down” one Christmas, and she played us the recording to give us a feel for the song. Afterwards, she said, “Now, when you sing it, I don’t want you to sound like you’re in labor, okay?”

But my favorite memory is of a particular arrangement of “Amazing Grace.” For some reason, the word “wretch” had been replaced by the word “child.” Mrs. F was having none of that. She instructed us thus: “Say ‘wretch.’ SAY IT! Wrrrrrrrretch!” We happily complied, because it was fun.

It still is a fun memory. However, in hindsight, I now realize that silly arrangement was just one small manifestation of a much larger cultural shift within the church. A cultural shift from thinking of ourselves as “vile,” as “wretches” and “sinners,” to “feeling good about ourselves,” feeling significant and important, perhaps even worthy of the cross.
The truth is, guilt has a place, a very crucial place in our salvation. The message of “feeling good about yourself” is shallow and doesn’t present the full wonder and yes, hope of the gospel. Should we tell ourselves that we are worthless? No, but we are unworthy. There’s a difference.
I once read a sermon by Tim Keller about abortion, then some comments on the sermon that made me think about this. Most of the sermon was a standard case for the sanctity of life—good arguments, good usage of reductio to show how once we devalue life in the womb, we devalue life outside as well. But he felt a need to stick in a paragraph at the end about people who’ve had an abortion, and this was his exact wording. He’s been sketching out what the ideal church community would like on this issue:

…The women who have had abortions, and the men who have helped them have abortions, would not feel like scum, because James 3:9 says you don’t disdain, you don’t demonize, you don’t curse, you offer grace to everybody. You see if we believed in the image of God and say abortion is wrong, we wouldn’t make women who have had abortions feel terrible, like scum or something. And we wouldn’t be single issue people, we would be for all of the poor and all of the weak and all of the marginal. And we would be a very unusual community, wouldn’t we? Now let’s be that.

Brushing aside for a moment Keller’s predictable but still insufferable jab at “single-issue people” (read: people who think that the direct, commercialized slaughter of innocent human beings might be a little more urgent of a problem than the fact that somebody has a low-paying job), let’s focus on this whole issue of “feeling like scum.” For now, we’re also setting aside the highly questionable interpretation of James to mean that we should never ever say that somebody (anybody) is just un-qualifiedly evil or working in the service of the devil. We’re just talking about the question of how to deal with couples who’ve had an abortion. Keller wants to say that it’s bad for them to “feel like scum.”
Now think about this for just a minute. Suppose a man bullies his girlfriend into having an abortion against her will. After the procedure is over, he doesn’t feel a hint of compunction. What would you say is the state of his soul at that moment? Not that great you’d probably say, and you’d be right. But what if instead he does feel compunction, and what if he finds that guilt gnawing at him in the wee hours, keeping him up at night, filling his thoughts until he’s so overcome with the weight of his crime that he feels, well, like scum. Now what’s the state of his soul? I think you’d agree he’s moving in the right direction, because at least now his eyes are opened to his sin. Now he’s in a place where if you came and offered him the gospel, he’s far more likely to embrace it because he has already grasped his need to repent. Now he sees that he has to be rescued from something.

It’s a little more complicated for the women because circumstances of an abortion can vary so wildly. On one hand we have women who are as cold and calculating as they come. They relentlessly stuff down their consciences, have abortion after abortion, and meanwhile serve as activists for the cause to try to get other women to follow their example. Again—as far as receiving grace is concerned, they’re not looking good. But then on the flip side you have the women who are so young that they’re essentially at the mercy of what their friends and relatives decide is best for them. Sometimes these women will weep and resist all the way to the clinic, but they’re essentially forced into an abortion. Now for those women, I do agree that it’s hard to hold them morally culpable. Their friends and family on the other hand…
But what if you have a woman who fell somewhere in the middle? Maybe she was under some pressure, but she also was telling herself that this was the best choice. In the end, she walked in and submitted to the murderous procedure of her own volition. But it’s been years, and she’s never forgotten it. She feels… well, like scum. Once again, let me repeat that this is a good sign. This woman is actually closer to the kingdom than the woman of a thousand abortions who won’t even listen to the pro-life side.
Now, am I saying that the moment somebody new walks into our church and we find out they’ve had an abortion, we blurt out, “Wow, you sure are scum”? No, because we don’t know all the circumstances. However, if you have the opportunity to get to know these people better, you can tell where their hearts are. Maybe they’re already on the road to repentance, but then again, maybe they’re not. Maybe they’re “pro-choice Christians” who still don’t think they’ve done anything wrong. Maybe their consciences are so warped they even feel “a sense of peace” about it. What do you say then? Maybe some conversations trying to steer them towards a fuller understanding of how horrible abortion is might not be such a bad thing. Could it potentially make them “feel like scum”? Yes, and you should pray it does, for their immortal souls’ sake.
Where is the beauty in the promise that Jesus can make the vilest sinner clean if there are no vile sinners to be made clean? Where is the thankfulness in the declaration that Jesus has saved a wretch like me if I wasn’t so very wretched to begin with? Pure white shows up most startlingly on the black canvas of our sin. As long as everything is shades of grey, there can be no moment of grace. There is only confusion and stumbling.

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  • This is a great piece. Thanks for writing it! One thing though, I’m pretty sure Keller would agree with your final points#

  • I grew up singing “At The Cross” constantly, but usually only the chorus. I never knew the verses until the GVB recorded it, and I was surprised to hear the line, “Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?”
    A worm?!
    Truth be told, there are words out there who probably better describe what I have been, but to repeat them here would be inappropriate, and to put them in a gospel song would probably get me kicked out of some churches, but you are right. Guilt IS an important step in salvation. If we didn’t feel guilty about what we’ve done, then we wouldn’t be REPENTING. There’s a difference between repenting for our sins and simply acknowledging the fact that we’re sinners.
    A lot of modern churches offer “bulk” alter calls, where the pastor encourages individuals to “pray this prayer,” wherein they admit that they are sinners, they acknowledge the fact, and they ask God that He love them anyway. Well….God DOES love you anyway, but unless you repent and turn from your sinful ways, you’re simply using salvation as a “get out of jail free” card.
    Perhaps this is my hellfire & brimstone upbringing, but unless you are convicted, you have no reason to stop sinning. It’s the equivalent of a child who gets caught drawing on the wall, says, “I’m sorry,” then keeps drawing on the wall. They’re only sorry because someone called them out on it, not because they truly feel guilty.

  • Thanks for commenting Jonathan. Great last name. 🙂
    Even if Keller would in principle agree with my very last paragraph, the problem is that he doesn’t seem to be making the connection to practice. And I know for sure that we are very far apart on issues like “demonizing the enemy” versus compromising with the political left.

  • Preach! 🙂
    I read a lame article about this on a website called the Rabbit Room, which is basically an online community of artistically gifted but kind of flaky musicians, writers, etc. Jason Gray is a rising CCM musician who contributes there, and he wrote a piece about “the man in the mirror” and how we can never judge because judging comes from a place of self-righteousness, and that’s always bad. He said that he heard somebody refer to John Edwards as “a snake” for dumping his wife for another woman, and this offended Gray. He actually went so far as to say that we should never call ANYBODY a “snake” or some similar epithet, because all of us have the potential to be just as bad. And I’m going, “Really? So I can’t say that Hitler was an evil megalomaniac, because you never know, one day I might just up and decide to kill 6 million Jews too?”

  • Melissa

    In the United Methodist hymnal, the words “such a worm as I” have been replaced by “sinners such as I”. As you see, there is a tendency for the UMC (of which I am increasingly reluctantly a member) to candy coat salvation and shy away from terminology that might “alienate” a so-called Christian whose sense of conviction is a little on the shallow side. A feel-good accommodation for those folks who can’t quite accept their inherent depravity (as Oswald Chambers might put) isn’t going to be much appreciated when those same people find themselves staring at the spectre of eternal damnation while standing before the judgment seat of Christ.

  • Gray would be only half right. We shouldn’t judge others, but we are perfectly capable of judging ourselves. I think what many people forget is that “Judge not, lest ye be judged” doesn’t flat out say, “Don’t judge.” It says, “If you’re gonna judge, you better be ready to face the heat yourself!! Most of us are not able to face that kind of heat (God knows I have plenty of dirty laundry that I’d rather not have aired), so by default, it becomes, “Don’t judge people.”

  • But there are lots of situations where it’s entirely appropriate to judge others. What if you’re a pastor exercising church discipline? What if you’re firing an employee? What if you’re punishing your child? What if you’re breaking off a relationship? What if you’re suing somebody in a court of law? For that matter, what if you’re a judge in a court of law?
    We have to make judgments in this world or we won’t survive more than a minute, and sometimes that does involve judging other people. That’s part of what it means to be cunning as serpents. I read the verse not as ultimately saying, “Don’t judge people.” Ultimately, I think it’s saying, “Look, everyone is going to be judged at the end of time. So when you make your judgments, don’t forget to keep that little fact in the back of your mind, okay?” And of course I think there can be times where we judge people wrongly, or we become control-freaks, etc. But we have to exert wise, thoughtful judgment, constantly. And we’re also perfectly able and allowed to recognize when somebody is just evil and not feel any compunction about saying, “You know what, that’s an evil person and I’m going to fight everything he stands for with all my might.” Like our President, for example (may his name and memory be erased).

  • Lydia

    In Matthew 7:1, the “Judge not that ye be not judged” verse seems to be expanded upon by the following verses about removing the beam from one’s own eye before trying to remove the mote from one’s brother’s eye. I would say that is somewhat helpful for interpretation, because the beam and mote verse seems to be talking about a person who is nit-picking someone else while he has some much bigger problem of his own.
    In Luke 6, the “Judge not that ye be not judged” verse is a little more isolated, but it is followed by, among other things, “Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven.” This in turn reminds us of Jesus’ parable about the man who won’t forgive a much smaller debt than the one he has just been forgiven of, and how this gets him in big trouble.
    So in both cases we probably shouldn’t think of a sentence like, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” in total isolation. Whether we think of it as related to setting our own house in order and getting other people’s faults into perspective or as related to being willing to forgive others, in neither case does it need to be taken to be saying that we should not draw conclusions about others’ moral characters.
    It’s important to remember too the proverbial character of these sayings. For example, there is the “turn the other cheek” injunction, which when taken as some sort of literal, unqualified, isolated statement sounds like it is ordering all Christians to be absolute pacifists. Or “take no thought for tomorrow, what ye shall wear” could be taken to mean never to buy clothes when they are on sale. And so forth.

  • JSR

    I would think being called a sinner is pretty bad…
    The problem lies within the modern church. Being a sinner has no shame, it’s just something most professed christians expects everyone to be. To me, there is nothing worse than being a sinner. Sin seperates people from God (Isaiah 59:2), how much worse can you get?

  • Of course, that’s true. But you have a very good point in that the term “sinner” has sort of been cheapened and devalued in the (perhaps we should call it “post-modern”) church. I think the reason is that they figured out they could use it to get away with stuff. “Now, now, let’s not hold anyone to a standard, they’re just sinners after all.” Or “Hey, why you judging me, I just sin differently than you!”

  • Samuel

    As to the judging issue, it has to be viewed in the correct context. Being judgmental or critical of someone for the sole sake of bringing them down is different than using Biblical principles to point out error or discern how things ought to be. Churches today (and especially leadership) have become far to timid and long suffering of sin. The New Testament is clear on how to judge what someone is doing or not doing and how to handle these issues.
    In Eph 5 Paul talks about walking in love and being imitators of God. Then after getting into detail about what is proper and not, he continues in v11, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” In his writings to Titus he speaks about how to deal with trouble makers. (v10) “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him.” In both these examples judgments have to be made and acted upon. There are numerous other examples that show we have a duty to identify error, call it out and deal with it as such.
    Again, this is not mean spirited but in a way that shows a tough love. This is the only way to maintain the precepts that God has ordained we walk in.

  • Exactly. There are many passages where Paul is literally talking about “cleaning house.” In Jewish culture there’s a regularly appointed period for cleaning EVERYTHING in their houses—I mean carpets, furniture, sinks, kitchen implements, cupboards—everything. I believe it’s making sure everything is ritually purified. So Paul had that in mind when he talked about the church. The church must be purified of corrupting influences. If you come with the intent of repenting, that’s one thing. But if you’re making like the kitty-cat who don’t know whether he’s in or out, you’re out.