Lenten Reflections on Restlessness and the Gospel

“Properly speaking it is Gospel when it preaches Christ; but when it rebukes and reproves and gives commands, it does nothing else than destroy those who are presumptuous concerning their own righteousness to make room for grace, that they may know the Law is fulfilled not by their own powers but only through Christ, who pours out the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

They who interpret the term ‘Gospel’ as something else than ‘the good news’ do not understand the Gospel, as those people do who have turned the Gospel into a law rather than grace and have made Christ a Moses for us.”

-Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans

An Anthropology of Restlessness

The Lenten season calls us to reflection in our hearts and bodies about what we cling to and rely on for our day to day existence. These things often look different than we otherwise would like to believe. It is not so much “you are what you believe” rather it is you are what you love. The rhythm of our days seek to shape us into certain kinds of people for specific kingdoms. This is based in the fundamental truth as human beings, we are first and foremost desiring beings. As James K.A. Smith observes:

“We are what we love, and our love is shaped, primed, and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut and aim our heart to certain ends.” (Desiring the Kingdom, p. 40)

Liturgical practices, for Smith, is the various habits embedded in our daily existence. “Habits (precognitive dispositions) are formed by practices: routines and rituals that inscribe particular ongoing habits into our character, such that they become second nature to us.” (Ibid, p. 80) Moreover “the way we inhabit the world is not primarily as thinkers, or even believers, but as more affective, embodied creatures who make our way in the world more by feeling our way around it.” (Ibid, p. 47) If we understand ourselves first as primarily “lovers” before we are “thinkers” we will have to re-evaluate what it means for us to be influenced since we often believe that ideas are the way in which we are most heavily influenced. Take an example from Perelandra, the second novel in C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy:

“As long as what you are afraid of is something evil, you may still hope that the good may come to your rescue. But suppose you struggle to the good and find that it also is dreadful? …Here at last was a bit of that world from beyond the world, which I always supposed that I loved and desired, breaking through and appearing to my sense: and I didn’t like it, I wanted it to go away.” (Perelandra, p. 19)

We suppose we love God and ultimately claim to desire Him, but what if a small amount of God and His holiness appears before us (whatever that looks like I’m not sure) and we shrink in horror that it is not at all what we had supposed? I will contend that the Lenten season gives us the space to reflect on the habits and rhythms that shape our days, and ultimately our hearts. If we continually participate in the consumerist narrative of work, consume, sleep and repeat we will be in a continual state of restlessness. The Gospel is good news for us, the Gospel is the good news of rest in a restless age.

Rest for the Restless

For Martin Luther, everything depends on a merciful God and not on someone’s will. The debates about freedom of the will are endless, and at times verge on out living their usefulness as it pertains to reflections on faith, but we must be cautious when we speak about the conversion of someone from a non-Christian to a Christian. Much of the language used, especially when we talk about the nature of free will, often becomes contentious because we tend to give into the modern notion of certainty about the things we believe. We over conceptualize, place the emphasis on one thing (human choice) or the other (God’s choice) and when we reduce the issue to either tends to distract us from the truth of God’s unconditional action towards the human race.

Karl Barth, in his second volume of his Church Dogmatics, writes about God’s love as love that is ‘concerned with seeking and creating fellowship for its own sake.’ (II.2, p. 276) This love is an outpouring of God’s abundant goodness He is in Himself. Perfect Triune loving fellowship and in ‘loving us, God does not give us something, but Himself; and giving us Himself, giving us His only Son, He gives everything. The love of God has only to be His love to be everything for us.’ (Ibid) Barth further elaborates that ‘God’s love is not conditioned by any reciprocity of love. It is also not conditioned by any worthiness to be loved on the part of the loved, by any existing capacity for union or fellowship on his side…the object of the love of God as such is another which in itself is not, or is not yet, worthy of this His pleasure.’ (Ibid, p. 278) Here Barth is getting at the point I want to make: God’s love is unmerited and unconditional towards us, and we find it fully realized in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is the action of God that saves us, not anything we have done on our own part. Our salvation is truly secure not in our cognitive recognition of it, nor is our belief in our belief what secures us, but the objective work of Christ fulfilling the promises of God secure our salvation and reconciliation.

Peter Leithart in his book ‘Delivered from the Elements of the World’ has a chapter titled “Justified by the Faith of Jesus”. In it he explores Paul’s use of the term justification. He writes ‘in contrast to some standard Protestant soteriologies, though, Paul treats this judgement not as a mere verdict of “righteous” that is the basis for liberation, but as itself an act of deliverance… sinners have the righteous status of Jesus himself by faith, by trusting in Christ and entrusting themselves to the Father, by self-abandonment and loyalty to their Savior.’ (Delivered, p. 181) Leithart here wants us to grasp that justification is not merely a legal status change, it is not ‘merely a matter of ordo salutis or application of redemption; it is also, and most fundamentally, an event in the historia salutis. “Justification” occurred two thousand years ago.’ (Ibid, p. 183)

In this season of Lent as we seek to abandon the habits and rhythms that are forming us for another kingdom, and abstaining from eating or drinking certain kinds of meat or alcohol, let us reflect on the goodness of God coming in Christ out of the abundance of the Triune communion seeking us out to give us Himself, which is to give us everything.

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