Romans 14:23b “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”
Apparently Jerry Falwell was a really nice guy. Everybody said so in the wake of his sudden death—his friends and his enemies. He was genial, he asked about your mother, etc. I never knew the man personally, so that side of him was not evident to me. I saw only what I considered meanness—hurtful statements about entire groups of people that made it sound like Rev. Falwell had some sort of inside track to know the mind of God on all issues. I believe it will take decades at least to get past the damage he did to the image of what it means to be a Christian. And when you start talking about political damage, to my mind that will take at least a century to heal.
So, while I can sympathize with his family and friends in their loss of a loved one, I did not find grief within myself this week. But I did find a question that has nagged at me ever since my own shift from a position much like Falwell’s to my current, more liberal stance. How does God view those who do wrongly but who honestly believe with all their heart, soul, and strength that they are doing the will of God? It reminds me of the poem by T.S. Eliot entitled “Little Gidding” which has these poignant words:
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
That has certainly described things in my own life—times I was sure I was acting in defense of the Gospel, only to find when I rounded the next corner that my shining sword had been slicing through the children of God. Did Jerry Falwell have that realization as he rounded the corner of eternity this week? I don’t know. Maybe he was validated and I am the one who is now in the wrong.
Or maybe it is more complicated still. Maybe Paul is telling us in Romans that God will have mercy enough for both of us. Not because neither of us has ever sinned, but because both of us have acted out of the convictions of our faith. We have both honestly desired to do the will of God and have focused our lives and efforts on that goal. That’s not to say that once we meet God face to face that we might not have some repenting to do. Or maybe God has it set up so that we have to go to work to try to mend our wrongs in some way. Maybe Jerry Falwell has been assigned as guardian angel for Ellen DeGeneres or something. I’m not trying to say that God glosses over the pain we’ve caused to others.
But I do think Paul is onto something in saying that sin is better defined by the heart from which an action springs than the particular action itself. And whatever else I may think about Jerry Falwell, I do think his faith was sincere and his heart turned toward God. So in the end, even as I scramble to pick up the pieces of Christian faith that I think in many quarters he left in tatters, and even as I seek to reassure those he claimed were outside the reach of God, I wish him God’s blessing. To do anything else is also to condemn myself for those things ill done and done to others’ harm that once I took for exercise of virtue. So rest in peace, Rev. Falwell. And take good care of Ellen.
Grant us mercy, Lord, and help us to be merciful to others. Amen.
SpiritWalkers is available in audio as a podcast. Visit www.annerobertson.com/poddevotions.html to subscribe or to listen online.
My new book, God’s Top 10: Blowing the Lid Off the Commandments, has shipped. Order now on Amazon.com or check local bookstores.