Oswald Chambers asked his readers, “Are you humble enough to come to Christ as sinners?”
It’s a strange question. On the surface, it may not even produce a ripple in our thinking. It’s Christianity 101: We’re all sinners and Christ died for us. Now we can join in the community of the faithful and hold our heads up at Christmas gatherings while we eat deviled eggs and prime rib.
But Chambers is talking about the man who has seen his own wretched wickedness in living color. This man is in trouble with the Owner of the universe and has nothing he can give to make it right. All he can do is come squirming up to the bench and say, “I don’t want to die, Lord.”
I picture a battered rogue, smarting from a hundred shenanigans gone wrong, penniless and out of options. His eyes are full of misery and dread. He steps forward to ask God for help and forgiveness like a thief requesting money from a person from whom he has just stolen.
Such a scoundrel as this would seem to be audacious, greedy, shameless — anything but humble. What gall for him to think he can even approach God after everything he’s done. He has been self-serving and ruthless; he’s preyed upon the naive trust of the young, taken everything that wasn’t nailed down, trashed the virtue of girls he had managed to charm. After all that, he has been heard cursing God for his privation and the well-earned contempt of his fellows.
Now that he has used up all his wiggle room and “the cords of his sin hold him fast” (Prov. 5:22), now he comes to God? Where was his remorse before, his sense of shame, his feelings for the people he hurt and swindled, his desire to set things right with his Creator and with his fellow men?
In the 1994 film With Honors, a Harvard University honor student, Monty (played by Brendan Fraser), befriends a homeless man, Simon (played by Joe Pesci), who is dying from asbestos poisoning. Monty tries to help Simon obtain social services and patch things up with his estranged son. But there is an obstacle. The dying man may have no worldly goods, but he still has pride. He resists the idea of finding his son to seek reconciliation because in order to obtain it he must approach his son as a pitiful failure, hat in hand, grubby from head to toe. He will have nothing to offer his boy, now a man with every right to be angry for his father’s breach of duty, which has orphaned him.
Which of us wouldn’t pale at the thought of going through with such a painful undertaking as this? And Simon is no different. As he has said to Monty, “I’ve got to pay my own way.” This is coming from a disheveled vagrant who has ironically been “paying” for proffered means, blankets and lodging with pages of Monty’s senior thesis, the only copy of which has fallen into his hands by a bizarre mishap.
Simon’s situation is redolent of self-centered humanity’s imagined arrangement with God whereby we pay our bills, look after our children, refrain from committing the more egregious sins, give occasional gifts to the poor, volunteer from time to time, and practice tolerance and kindness, particularly around the holidays. After living this way, we believe we are good people. We’ve paid our dues, stood on our own two feet and can sleep well at night. Never mind that our time, talents and treasures are all given to us by God, right along with our strength of resolve and the moral capital we most likely got from our parents, without which we would be lying, cheating and stealing with the rest. As Paul wrote: “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Cor. 4:7).
With regard to our moral destitution, God isn’t rubbing it in our faces. As unpleasant as it may be to acknowledge our predicament, it is necessary for the purpose of truly understanding what God has done for us in Christ. For many, it is essential for repentance and enables them to sincerely reach out to God with all due urgency. Some people seem able to see the bankruptcy of their odious natures (which we all have) without ever traveling far on perdition’s road. I don’t know how. All I know is that there is a distinctive fragrance that accompanies the brokenness of the mature Christian. There is a conspicuous absence of pride and judgmentalism and a cascade of love, gratitude and joy. This is the human soul that has come to God as a bare-naked, trembling sinner—and come away a beloved child of God.