This is a guest post by Jonathan Sauder.
God Breaks Mirrors
We live in a world where narcissists can pontificate about their stunningly humble temperaments. But my own habits of closed-loop mirroring are perhaps a bit more devious. I am someone who “cannot bear being loved by someone whom [I] think believes that [I] do not deserve it.” This is how Clifford Williams (in Singleness of Heart, Eerdmans, 1994, page 99) describes devout resistance to grace. Unlike the narcissist, whose mirror is inflationary, mine is more religiously deflationary. But insofar as it sustains a spirituality of comparison, a sort of crude economics of self-referential morality, my concave mirror can cause just as much distortion of soul as anyone else’s convex mirror.
In the paragraph just cited, Williams says “Ingrained within us is a system of reward and punishment that is based on the concept of desert. When we do something good, we instinctively feel that we should be rewarded; when we do something bad, we feel just as instinctively that we should be punished (though we also want to avoid punishment). To set aside this system, as love does, is to violate this deeply implanted sense of moral order.”
I am convinced that much of my resistance to the gospel of grace is moral resistance. I find it hard to believe in a God who loves people I can’t respect. And this includes myself much of the time. When I am ashamed of myself, that is, when I fail to live up to my own standards or when others scorn me, I expect God to mirror my shame.
I laugh maliciously at those who expect God or the universe to mirror their pride. They offend my morality. In contrast to the convexly proud, I frequently moralize my own shame and focus on my own inadequacies. And here’s where the concave mirror pops up to protect me from grace. I assume that God is the sponsor of my moral system. Who is more moral than God? I rely on God to salvage my soul through the redeeming power of shame. I expect God to reflect back to me whatever is wrong about me. Then, together, we can fix the problem so that God can tolerate me again.
Emotionally (not intellectually), I find deserved love to be the only credible love. I experience unconditional love as wildly attractive, of course, but as it doesn’t conform to the pattern of my mirror, there seems to be something ungodly about it — something immoral.
I rarely believe Jesus. Oh yes, intellectually I concur with his notion that children experience God’s proximity more easily than the morally literate and the publicly humble can ever do. But emotionally, soulfully, I tend to reformat his gospel so that it doesn’t violate my “deeply implanted sense of moral order.”
What kind of person can dive into life soul first, expecting God and the universe to love them through and through? What kind of soul finds grace more nourishing than threatening? A child.
There are moments when my internal systems of salvation by comparison, shame, and pride are muted. Moments when I realize that the true God sponsors my soul but not my standards. When grace shatters my mirror. When God herself beams at me through stained (shards of) glass. There are moments when I dare to be as humane as God.
These moments are healing precisely because they are not under my control. I cannot summon them at will. But I can choose to stay alert to the many schemes by which I trick myself into rebuilding my mirror. And one of my most recurrent schemes is theological: I disguise my shame as God’s scolding holiness. I re-hang a mirror over the window of my soul so that in my own grimaces and frowns I can recover my old, familiar sense of self.
There is no single, fail-safe way to alert ourselves to our own self-isolating schemes. But, in conclusion, I would like to recommend one question to anyone whose schemes tend to be, like mine, grace-resistant theologies and stern images of God. Near the close of her 2010 book on Alice Walker (Palgrave Macmillan, page 145), Melanie Harris points out that Walker is not a partisan of one religion or another, but evaluates religious practices according to how life affirming and earth honoring they are: “She seems to ask whether the religious tradition or spiritual path leads to reverencing a God who loves you as much as you love and honor God.”
When my fear of God casts out love, God’s grace re-shatters the mirrors that shrink my soul.
— by Jonathan Sauder