“My theory is that God already knows everything [about me] and cannot be shocked.”
That is the confession of John Updike, one of the most prolific and arguably the most insightful chronicler of the lives of Americans in the last half of this century. In his six books of poetry, seventeen novels, eleven collections of short stories, five books of essays, six books of poetry and hundreds, if not thousands, of book reviews and essays for The New Yorker and other magazines and journals, Updike has described in startling and sometimes glaring detail our moral, religious, emotional, sexual, and psychological lives. As Charles Dickens captured the social life of England in the last century, John Updike has captured the interior lives of Americans in this century.
Among all his writings there is this one relatively slim book that is both autobiographical and confessional that he wrote ten years ago, when he was 57. It was in that little book, aptly titled, Self-Consciousness, that he wrote: “My theory is that God already knows everything [about me] and cannot be shocked.” And then he continued: “…only truth is useful. Only truth can be built upon.” “…only truth [about ourselves], however harsh, is holy.”
How we gain and handle the truth about ourselves is not a topic we warm to. But it is one of the questions raised in those two readings, psalm and gospel we just heard and sang.
Paul raises the question most explicitly when he revisits a favorite topic. God’s law compels us to become honest about ourselves.
Unless a person has become morally numb, one cannot read or hear the Ten Commandments, as we did just a few minute ago at the beginning of this liturgy, with their direct, clear, unequivocal instructions to not cheat others or be driven by envy, to not hurt parents and spouse, and deny that we break God’s commandments every day.
At another place in this same letter to the Romans, in the fifth chapter, Paul writes: God’s law reveals our sins.
We are pretty complacent with ourselves until we measure ourselves against anything higher than our own regard for ourselves or the position we have achieved with others.
But at some point, a healthy person wants to stop playing games with herself or himself. One sign of maturity is the growing desire for self-honesty.
At some point, if we are to mature, we must admit to ourselves and confront those passions that drive us, those habits we seem unable to break, the words we speak that cause such pain over and over and over or the words we withhold that also cause the distinct pain caused by silence. “Only truth is useful; only truth can be built upon, only truth [about ourselves], however harsh, is holy.”
By the end of his practice, Carl Jung estimated that he had seen hundreds of patients from virtually every first world nation and many others. Among the conclusions he reached about human nature is this: “…the patient does not feel himself accepted unless the very worst in him is accepted, too.”
Under the cover of night a good man comes to Jesus. He is a person far more pious than most. Indeed, he is a religious leader in the community. But something is missing. All of the ideas about religion and his experience of God so far in his life were no longer complete, satisfactory. Perhaps he was on the brink of realizing that he was at one of those times in his life when all that he had relied on was no longer working for him. He knew instinctively there had to be more; perhaps Jesus knew what it was.
“What must I do to live again, really live,” he asks Jesus. Jesus replies, “You must experience God as you have never experienced Him before. Then you will feel as if you are living for the first time. You will be certain that you will be in God’s presence forever.”
Nicodemus is stunned. How is such a thing possible. ‘I am a mature person, a leader in the community,’ he thinks to himself, ‘a person who others will tell you has followed God’s law scrupulously. What can you possibly mean there is yet another experience of God I must have if I am to live?’
Then, referring to His coming execution lifted high up on the cross, Jesus denotes the kind of experience of God that can take us into a whole new relationship with God: For God so loved the world, He gave up His only Son….
There it is! The experience of God’s complete and total love for us—demonstrated in an act beyond words on Good Friday—has a life-changing power. It is nothing less than the power to enable us to reach a level of self-honesty with God that we can achieve in no other way. Therapy can be helpful to many to understand ourselves better. But as one of the founders of modern psychoanalysis concluded: “…the patient does not feel accepted unless the very worst in him is accepted, too.” Our experience of the love of God through Christ gives us the unique opportunity to find and admit the truth to ourselves about ourselves, truth that “however harsh, is holy.” Knowing first-hand, personally, God’s complete, thorough forgiveness and love is the only certain way to change, to new life.
Acceptance of God’s love for us makes it possible to confess all our failures. Now we can acknowledge the ways we daily hurt those we love the most by our petty impatience, the short cuts we take in our most important relationships. Then we can also begin to acknowledge the ways our negligence and self-centeredness contribute to the suffering of others in your community, our nation and world. That level of self-honesty is the first step towards maturity and it is the first step toward change, real change. The words Jesus chose were the best: it is like being born again.
Once upon a time, a little girl who lived in a small rural village in the Philippines started telling her parents at breakfast that she talked to God last night. Sometimes she would report various things He had said to her, but usually she would just say that they had talked. At first, the parents were charmed by the way she so confidently and causally discussed her nightly conversations with God. But after several months, they because a little concerned and told their parish priest. At first, he too smiled at the child’s matter-of-fact descriptions about talking to God nightly. After almost a year, the priest and parents took all this more seriously. The priest made an appointment for the girl, her parents and he to visit the archbishop in Manila. Finally, the time arrived for them to make the trip to the capital city. They arrived and went immediately to the archbishop’s palace. He had been briefed about the girl’s claims and thought he had a plan. “When they arrive”, he told his secretary show them in right away; this will not take long. They entered his spacious office. He came from behind the huge desk, greeted the adults and knelt down on one knee before the little girl. “So, he said, “I understand you talk to God every night. “Yes,” she nodded and said at the same time. “every night.” “Well, you expect to talk to Him tonight,” he asked. “Yes I do,” she said plainly. “I have a request,” the archbishop said to the little girl. “When you talk to god tonight, I want you to ask him, what were the sins to which I will confess today.” They all left his office.
The next morning they all arrived back at the archbishop’s office at the appointed time. After they entered his office, the archbishop again knelt down on one knee to address the little girl. “Did you talk to God last night,” he said right away. “Yes, she answered simply. “And did you remember to ask God what were the sins to which I confessed yesterday?” Again she said plainly, “yes.” “And what did God tell you?” “He told me to tell you that He had already forgotten them.”
For God so loves the world that he loves you and me, warts and all. He knows everything there is to know about you and is not shocked. The need for confession is not to inform God, it is to admit to ourselves what God already knows and has already forgiven and forgotten. This is life-giving news. It gives us the opportunity for the kind of self-honesty that is required if we are to mature emotionally, psychologically, socially, intellectually, morally, spiritually. It is also the best chance we have got to change, a fresh start. What else do you call it but being born again?