Richard Baxter, a minister I consider to be the best of the Puritans, once wrote in The Reformed Pastor that a deathbed conversion was most likely fake. The reason he knew this was experience. He would visit lots of people on their deathbeds, get a profession of faith from them, and then lots of them refused to die.
Once most of them got healthy, hell seemed further off and God got less scary. Then, almost like clockwork, the people who'd sworn off all sin were found only weeks later drinking to excess and debauching their neighbors. None of this is difficult to believe, from either the pastor's perspective or that of the false converts. Nearly everyone's sorry when they're hurt by themselves, and everyone wants forgiveness when they're in sight of a penalty. An experience of pain, whether mental or physical, is the first experience of sin. If wisdom is known by her children we can say the same thing about folly; and if we believe there's nothing to suffer, we almost always believe there's nothing to consider sinful*.
|Richard Baxter, master pastor|
The appeal of a conversion without effort and a sainthood without holiness led many people, 300 years after the birth of Christ, to postpone their baptisms until the very last minute. The Emperor Constantine, knowing that the complexity of politics and the simplicity of saintliness were oftentimes mutually exclusive, and that bishops, having the power of excommunication, required absolute Godliness after a baptism, refused to be dunked until he was near death. This popularized an already unChristian notion, complained about by Augustine (if I remember correctly, in his Confessions), that salvation could be purchased by ritual, and that transformation could happen without discomfort.
But a grown man ought to have his heart broken frequently -- by himself. There's no sign of health greater than an energy to get you into trouble, and no sign of a conscience greater than a sleepless night over it. If you've never woken up at 2am over something you've done -- maybe even a word you let slip that signified your cowardice or your dishonesty or your infidelity -- and you've never spent the next hour or two in agony, finally reaching the momentous occasion when you realize you've got to be different, then you've never learned what it means to be great.
Nobody can be a saint unless he experiences the desire to shave his head and sit around in sackcloth** (whether he actually does it or not); and nobody will ever get better unless he hates who he is. The pains of shame and regret have never been enemies except to sociopaths and weaklings, and our tendency to want to love ourselves at the expense of our salvation may be popular among liberal women and other mentally ill people. But to a vigorous, dynamic, progressive mind it's the food we feed on, the hour of absolution -- of transformation -- almost of rebirth. Our secret baptisms ought to be frequent, maybe weekly; maybe nightly. Penitence ought to be popular. Self-loving and self-loathing ought to be one and the same, and our desire to love ourselves should be inseparable from a desire to improve.
Shame is the natural result of our idealism, and humility is the stepping stone to perfection. The moment we've imagined things could go better is the moment we've realized we've made them worse. A world without cowards is a world without heroism. A world without disappointment is a world without champions. Do you want to feel better about yourself? Ask yourself instead how to be better. Spit in the face of praise without praiseworthiness and reserve your adoration for things that are adorable. Be brutally truthful with yourself -- and then you can be said to love yourself truthfully.
Orthodox Jews are the best example of my principle: that sin and fear
and pain are all linked. They hate pork and polyester and other
things that have absolutely nothing to do with morality -- except in
one regard, which is that God said He'd wreck them if they didn't
avoid them. Thus they avoided them like the plague; and anyone
who happens to like them is considered "unclean," and quite
possibly dangerous. Adultery and gumbo were thus ranked in the
same class of atrocities, and the Jewish people, due to this
disconnect, were set up to deal with the Pharisees -- a class of
moralists who ignored real-life cause-and-effect, and placed all
their hopes in an insensible legalism.
**Last week I passed a Lutheran church with a reader board that said "be you" – a message fit for the apostles and prophets. These liberals always want you to be yourself – if by being "yourself" you mean that you're openly gay. There's been no sermon, so far as I'm aware, about loving yourself if you're a Republican. And what do you preach about after delivering a "be you"? Simply put there's nothing left to preach. All other sermons run directly against this sermon. A smart man knows "be you" is either all sermons or none of them. Even more likely than this, it's a lie intended to glorify everyone the pastor likes – and make the pastor look like she's loving.