It's not just OCD. It's human nature

Martin Luther's opponents accused him of taking the easy way out when he proclaimed the message of Jesus and Paul that we are saved by grace through faith.  But faith, as Luther never tired of pointing out, is never easy. It's believing what one cannot see while rejecting what appears to be obvious. It's holding on by letting go. It's exactly what Hebrews 11: 1 calls it: "the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen." Moreover, it's trusting God for something our fallen human natures really don't want: a righteousness that comes from outside of ourselves, that we have done nothing to deserve, which we are powerless to obtain by anything we do, and which has as one if its most essential prerequisites a recognition of one's own unworthiness and helplessness.

It's not just people with OCD who have trouble with faith. It's all of us sinners. We all want, in Bonhoeffer's phrase, to "stand before God and say, 'I have done my duty.'"

We may reduce that "duty" to what we think is a very little thing, like believing. But faith is anything but easy. In fact, humanly speaking, it's impossible. It's a miracle which God creates and sustains in our hearts from moment to moment. It's looking away from our own sinful hearts and our own weakness and inadequacy to the righteousness which Jesus tells us is to be found in Him.

OCD keeps bringing our gaze back to ourselves. It motivates us to fret over our own lack of the very thing which Jesus tells us over and over that we will always lack in ourselves, and must find in Him. But it's not just our brain chemistry we're fighting here. We're fighting our fallen human nature, a sinfulness we share with the entire human race. We're fighting our inbred resistance to the idea that we're helpless. We're fighting our prideful resistance to the idea that we're not only unworthy but that nothing we can say or do will make us worthy. And perhaps most difficult of all, we're fighting our all too human need to believe what we can see, what we can grasp, what we can touch and taste.

There is nothing so impossible to a fallen human being as to trust that something is true that our senses and even our common sense cannot verify, which in fact seems to fly in the face of everything we can sense and observe, upon which everything depends- and yet for which we only have Someone else's Word. And that remains true even if that Someone is God Himself.

Martin Luther writes in his House Postil (book of family sermons) for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity the following meditation on Matthew 18: 23-35:

It's a simple thing to mouth the expression “forgiveness of sins” just as it is a simple thing to repeat the basic truths of Christian doctrine. Ah, yes, if all we had to do was to mouth the words! The problem is that when it comes to putting that expression into practice, we don’t know the first thing about it! You see, it is such a tremendous truth, a truth that I am to believe wholeheartedly, that all my sins are forgiven, and that by faith I am righteous before God. Oh, what a marvelously astounding righteousness this is! How totally different this is in contrast to the righteousness of this world as proclaimed by all its lawyers, intellectual giants, and philosophers! For they all reach the same conclusion, namely, that righteousness must be an inner, inherent characteristic of the human heart and soul. But this Gospel lesson teaches us that Christian righteousness is not a universal characteristic of the human heart which all share. No, Christ is teaching us that we become righteous and are freed from sins through the forgiveness of sins!

When we hear that we have been promised forgiveness of sins, we really cannot grasp that, and take this position: I have committed this and that sin; to pay for them I will do thus and so, fast “x” number of days, say “x” number of players, fund “x” number of poorhouses, and pay for all my sins. It’s because human nature is proud and always wants to be in control, pulling its own water bucket from the well, wants to have the honor of laying the first stone, of being Number One. That’s why this is a majestic message of divine wisdom: We must believe that our righteousness, salvation, and comfort lie outside of ourselves, namely, that we are righteous before God, acceptable to him, holy and wise, even though there is nothing within us but sin, injustice, and stupidity.

Human nature is defenseless against a bad habit; it cannot avoid an awareness of sins and yet cannot believe in pure grace and the forgiveness of sins. If you have developed this skill, of not seeing what you do see, and of not feeling what you do feel, then let me tell you something about nobler and more majestic. But I warn you, it will take you a long time to develop this artistic skill! For this business of faith in the forgiveness of sins is just as if someone were aiming a loaded gun at your face and was ready to pull the trigger, and yet you are to believe and to say, “Not to worry!”

So you see, fellow scrupers, it's not just OCD we're fighting when we struggle with the immensity and sufficiency of God's grace. We're also struggling with our own sinful natures. All of us fallen human critters want to be saved because we're worthy of it. But none of us are. That's why grace seems so unnatural and unlikely and difficult to believe in. And yet it's all free. It doesn't depend on us.

The Gospel isn't the promise of what God WILL do IF we do this or that, or don't do this or that. It is the proclamation of an objective fact- what God HAS done in Christ. The Good News we proclaim is just as true for everyone whether they believe it or not. The only question is whether they will trust it, and thus benefit from it.

That is not merely hard. It is impossible. As Luther says, it's disbelieving what is in front of our very eyes and believing instead what our every instinct warns us is false. We should not be discouraged when we find that we are unable to do this. Quite the contrary, in fact. That fact only serves as a reminder that we need to depend on God for our sufficiency rather than trying to supply our own.

Faith, when all is said and done, is not so much a being full of something as it is being empty and knowing that we are empty, and trusting God to fill us.  The paradox is that faith is relying on God rather than on ourselves to supply what is lacking even in our faith.

When doubts assail us, instead of trying to make ourselves believe or despairing at our failure to do so, we need to look once again at that thing which remains true no matter how false it seems, which always remains outside of us and yet our most fundamental reality, and which we are powerless even to trust or to appeal to on our own. Our prayer must always be that of the distraught father in Mark 9:23-24: "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!"

HT: Pr. Georg Warnecke


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