Love covers a multitude of sins. It is love which frees us, which liberates us from the deterministic habits of sin. When we look at someone in and through the eyes of love, we see what is good and true in them; we don’t judge them, we don’t condemn them: love cannot condemn the beloved. We would rather die and suffer in the place of our beloved than to see them condemned. When we realize God is love, we understand how God loves us, and why the cross is the ultimate expression of God’s love. Jesus died so that we do not have to, so that we can see the end of all such judgment. We might be sinners, we might be the worst of the worst, but it is truly sinners who God seeks after, the lost sheep who need to return home.
The story of the prodigal son is the story of the loving father, the story of God. The father could have condemned his wayward son when his son returned home. Instead he came out to his son with joy. Everything was forgiven. The son was lifted up and taken out of the mire he had made for himself. It was the other son, the one who was so self-righteous, who believed he was good, who believed he deserved everything his father gave, who had to come to understand that love cannot be contained, that love can be given to many without it diminishing its value.
We, too, are called to look to the lost with such love. When we are told to pray especially those most in need of God’s mercy, those who are the most deserving of condemnation so that they can be restored to innocence through the grace of love, we are shown how we should treat sinners. We are to look at them as people in need of love. It is not that there is no sin, but it is that the path out of sin can only come when the sinner encounters love. The sinner condemns themselves. God seeks not to condemn but to save, and so God desires us, too, to love the sinner, to see them as they could be if they are restored to innocence. We must look to the image of God in the sinner and not to the mire they have put over that image to hide it from the world.
The way we have been led to treat sin, the way we have been led to see it in a purely legal sense, has hurt our appreciation of the problems of sin and of the value of grace. Yes, the law has value in the sense of helping us understand the contours of right relationships, of what brings us away from God, but when we think of it in a legal sense we do not appreciate or understand how it is we ourselves, in our sin, who hurt ourselves and bring in our own condemnation. Hell is self-made. It is for this reason, many, such as Philip K Dick, can understand God as love, God as savior, but yet still have a difficulty in understanding the nature of sin. “The conception I have is that God loves man and assists him out of that love. Man cannot demand that love as his due, but he can count on it by faith.” This certainly is correct and is a fair assessment of grace – grace comes to us to heal us due to God’s love. That love is something God gives freely: it is not something which we can demand of God. It is because we have come to see God as love we can hope for such love – but we cannot demand it.
What then. Is everyone saved? We do not know. It is not something which can be forced. God’s love embraces all, but we must be willing to accept it, to embrace it back for it to lift us up. This is why, even if PKD is unable to appreciate the problem of sin, he understands the problem of self-righteousness:
We can’t merit God’s love. If we think we can, we never accept it. By being self-righteous, we have been caught up in sin, where we idolize the self. That sin leads us to abandon God like any and every other kind of sin. Thus, when we read PKD questioning sin, he is right to question it in the legalistic sense, but he fails to understand that it still is sin which leads one away from God’s love. God’s love embraces us in the gutter – he descended into hell – but God still gives us freedom, free will, and we can still turn our backs from him and turn in on ourselves if we wish. The self-righteous as well as the determined sinner share this in common. He is right, though judgment is to be had, this judgment is the revelation of one’s ultimate choice to oneself. The assistance and love which God gives allows us to move beyond the judgment, beyond the judicial inquiry, but only if we open up to accept it. If we join with it, if we unite ourselves to God’s love, we are indeed beyond the judgment – and we enter into eternal life. If we say yes, then the outcome is as PKD describes: “The court sat, the books were opened, and what prevailed was a saving, overriding love.” But in order to accept, we must accept where we are at, we must accept being lifted up, we must accept the light of truth about ourselves. We must accept that we need that help.
This is what joins the self-righteous and the determined sinner together – what, in the end, makes them one and the same: they see no need to accept love. And without love, they can’t have beatitude, for that is what one gets when one accepts such liberating love: God.