Project Canterbury

Selfhood and Sacrifice
The Seven Problems of the Atoning Life

Addresses on the Words from the Cross

By the Reverend Frank Gavin

Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1932.

IF HEAVEN and earth, dear Lord, Thy Passion felt,
Ah! How should I with love and sorrow melt!
Thy precious blood 'twas wicked I who spilt,
I grieved, I pierced, I nail'd Thee by my guilt.
Lord, to those very wounds I gored, I fly,
My hope of pardon in my outrage lie;
As Thy dear sweetest Mother saw Thy smart,
Then, when the sword went through her tender heart,
With weapon-love didst then anoint the blade,
It gently cured, just as the wound it made;
May I, in penitential tears immersed,
Contemplate Thee, my Jesus, whom I pierced,
And by sweet sympathy Thy anguish feel,
Deep wound my heart with Love, and, wounding, heal.

All praise to Jesus! who, lapsed men to free,
Hung on the painful, ignominious Tree.
Glory to Jesus! the whole mount replied,
Offended God, who for offenders died.

BISHOP THOMAS KEN, "The Passion," Wednesday before Faster, in his Christian Year.


"Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."--ST. LUKE 23: 34.

WHEN we try to see the world as good, we are immediately confronted with the problem of evil. Why is there not a "problem of good"? We are all aware that "good" is no problem; it is evil which makes the difficulty. The worst evil is not the evil that comes of natural things--fires, earthquakes, floods, and the like--but the evil which comes from men. How can the believer really adjust himself to the fact of sin, and continue to believe that God is all good, and that His universe means good and not bad?

The first word of our dear Lord from the judgment-seat of His Cross gives us His verdict on the sin of men which encompassed His death: "Forgive them . . . they know not what they do." This is a startling way to deal with human evil--to ask God's forgiveness for it, as St. Peter did: "I wot that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers" (Acts 3: 17). This is precisely the line of approach given us by our most advanced thinking today--that evil or what is called sin is but the result of blindness. We understand the parallel case in ourselves: "I never thought," we say, when we are confronted with some hideous and unforeseen consequence of our acts. "If I had only thought, I should not have allowed that to happen." Our own verdict on ourselves, when we are not too overwhelmed with self-reproach, operates in the range of our Lord's ideas: many tragic evils are the result of the lack of awareness. Blindness is the cause of many wrong turnings in life.

See how our Lord deals with the fact of sin. The most amazing thing in His attitude is the entire absence of blame. Think of it. When we suffer from others' failures, or wrong-doing, are we not prompt to impute blame? Whenever "things go wrong," is it not our instinctive act to saddle the blame on someone--usually not ourselves? Think back in the story of the life of our Lord and try to remember where He directly imputed blame to people who came to Him. There are many cases of people blaming themselves, but none where He assessed them. All true and effective condemnation, then, must be self-imposed. We cannot safely take on another's verdict on ourselves without demoralization. It is only when we are led to see the truth of our conduct in God's sight that we can be free for repentance. The "truth shall make us free" to repent. Ignorance precludes not only the awareness of our acts but the ready recognition of our blame-worthiness after they are committed. When the veil of our ignorance is rent and we see, then we can be sorry, for we now recognize the wrong done and can repent.

The way to think about and deal with others' delinquencies is one of the most difficult achievements in the art of Christian living. We honestly want to be just, and we may want to see things clearly. We find ourselves often confronted with the consequences of others' wrong-doing which greatly affect us. How are we to deal with the situation? Our Lord's method was, first of all, to detach the whole question from its personal connection with Himself. Then He saw it clearly from the others' angle. Then He, who saw clearly, knew that they did not see clearly. Finally, He prayed for their forgiveness to the Father. That is our program, and we may profitably consider these several steps in detail: detachment from self; seeing through others' eyes; understanding; forgiveness.

The first stage is really the difficult one--to strip off all references to self in our outlook on fact. It is the adult point of view, the attitude of spiritual maturity. The child sees the universe in terms of its own needs, likes, dislikes, assistance or hindrance to its own will. It proceeds quite simply to attach values to things by reference to the enhancement or frustration of its own pleasures and needs. It is a kind of labelling process--and the label serves a twofold purpose: it values and assesses, and it makes the sorted-out materials intelligible. There are facts in life quite apart from our verdict on them. The labels we stick on represent the values we attach. As we grow up we must learn to unstick the labels which at an earlier stage of life we distributed with a lavish hand, for after all they represent our verdict--and we have certainly outgrown the point of view of our childhood! When we are growing up our progress is shown by the readiness we display in removing labels; we try to learn to think rather than feel about things and people. Our labels are just records of our feelings. To continue to be satisfied with these monuments of our past experiences is to bind our future to our past. Many people never grow up emotionally, for they use outworn life-labels. They are content to keep the feelings of the child into the years of adulthood. Our first spiritual task is to strip off, then, the labels we've put on people and things, and to be content not to feel about them, but to see them. We must see them as they are and without reference to us.

Then we go on to apply the power of emotional understanding to them. We shall try to see and feel as they do. For the nonce we shall make an effort to look at the world through their eyes. And what a different world it will be, from that which we see through our own eyes! Patience and good-will will carry us on to achieve this. There will be a totally different set of emotional colorings to the facts of life than those which we have made for ourselves. We have a proverb which suggests this curious difference in evaluations: "One man's meat is another man's poison." What I hold dear, the other man rejects and repudiates with vigor similar to that I display in approving it! If I can see with his eyes I can have a true stereoscopic vision, and in consequence have an entirely new perspective on the case. When I see how he looks at things, I can perhaps achieve a step further. If I have come to the point of putting myself in his place, seeing the situation with his eyes, then I can go on to the next stage.

I can then understand why. Listen to a homely example. Your office manager is gruff and snappy with you, without any reason, so far as you can discover, in your conduct. You are resentful: "It isn't fair!" "What have I done that he should speak to me like that?"--and phrases like these crowd your mind, clamorous to be turned into speech. But later on in the day you discover that he has his worries too; that he had not slept at all the night before, that he was carrying a burden of anxiety the weight of which overmastered your own puny concerns--and that this was the reason for his gruffness! Then you say: "Poor fellow! I now understand, and am not hurt or offended. I deeply sympathize with him. No wonder he flared out like that. If I'd been in his shoes, I should probably have been unbearable!" When we can understand we are no longer offended. When we can see a fairly adequate panorama of the essentials in another's horizon, we shall not be irritated or hurt or grieved. We shall then be able to sympathize. Can we do more than feel sympathy?

Yes--we can express it in a way which will be effective. Once we have got rid of the self-reference of other people's unfortunate behavior toward us, and can understand and sympathize, we can in prayer refer the whole situation to God. We can by prayer take a hand in its solution. When we can relate a bad thing done by men to the God who is doing good, we have thrown into the scales our little force for good, our little antidote for evil, our bit of understanding to compensate for misunderstanding, our small contribution in the direction of creative activity to offset the futilities of evil. "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" illustrates the perfection of skill and deftness in dealing with unrepentant sinners.

We have been thinking only of the negative side of our Lord's First Word. We have considered how He came to be able to say what He did, what were the four stages of which His prayer for forgiveness is the outcome. Now we may well ask how it was that He came to look at "unrepentant sinners" in this way? Why did His mind and heart so move? What animated Him? How did it come about that He thus dealt with the situation?

Obviously our dear Lord is the supreme example of spiritual maturity. He was never once ill at ease. He was never taken aback, not once self-conscious, nor once lacking in courage. He was fully grown up. St. Paul gave a phrase to St. Irenaeus of which the latter made much--"the summing-up of all things in Christ." He was perfect Man, and so was neither inhibited nor repressed nor self-conscious. As a child He "increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man" (St. Luke 2: 52). He passed through all the stages and levels of our experience of growth, without stopping short and refusing to go further. God's invitation to us is always, "Friend, go up higher" (St. Luke 14: 10), but it is so hard to go up--even harder to grow up! As He is the example of Perfect Humanity let us study how a perfectly mature and adult person deals with this problem which so baffles us. We noted above, for instance, that He was not in the slightest degree inclined to assess blame. Most of us are so inclined. Why are we thus, and why was He so different?

When we blame others the act satisfies and feeds some starved instinct "which demands satisfaction. We discharge our distribution of blame on people, and by thus being censorious we feel as if a release has been effected and a balance achieved. It enables us to regain our poise and equilibrium. Let us look closer. Why do we so often indulge our proclivity for judging and condemning others?

There are two kinds of people who are most prone to condemn a sin in other people--those who are grievously tempted by that very sin, and those who are too proud to allow such "temptation." It has so often struck me that the vehemence of the denouncer of intemperance is attributable either to the inclination toward indulgence in that vice, or to a total absence of understanding as to why anyone should be subject to it. In both cases the act of denunciation and excoriation satisfies the same self-love: the resulting effect is identical though the prompting may be entirely different. If I am tempted to a sin into which I may often have fallen, it restores my self-respect to denounce it in others--it is a kind of moral compensation, a transfer of the account in my mental ledger from the debit to the credit side! If on the other hand I totally lack comprehension of the pull and attractiveness of some sin in other people, roundly to denounce and to condemn feeds my self-love: it is an assertion of superiority in both cases. Whether I am guilty or guiltless, when I condemn others I am most emphatically adding to my own self-esteem, bolstering up my pride, restoring or enhancing my superiority over others.

But our Lord was left cold by either motive. He who was "meek and humble of heart" sought not for means to promote His self-esteem. He was secure in His humility. He felt sure and so needed no reassurance. When we are uncertain we have to assert our claims. When we are insecure we advance our own case by assertion. When a man is not "sure of himself" he cannot afford to fail to be recognized as a "gentleman." One might almost say, in short, that any claim for self that has to be asserted is not valid! When we seek to claim, the very fact itself is almost certain evidence that we do not possess.

Do you remember the sublime passage in Philippians 2: 5ff where St. Paul inculcates the virtue of humility: "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in essential nature God, thought it not a thing that had to be grasped for to be equal with God?" The Greek word that I have italicized in translation has been turned into various English words, for it is awkward to put it into another language. The Apostle's meaning is, however, abundantly clear: our Lord's certain possession of His true nature as God required no defence, needed no claim, and consequently did not need to be grasped for--as it was already His. Therefore, He could risk all, since He could not lose what was His already by nature. What He was could not possibly be lost.

Is our self-hood, then, a genuine possession? Can we say of it that we "are" or "have" a self? If we only hold it as a piece of property over which we must be anxious lest it be stolen from us, it is not yet ours. What we "have" we may lose; what we "are" cannot be taken from us. When we are fearful of the risks we run by humility, by self-abnegation, by putting ourselves to one side, we are bearing abundant witness to the fact that we have not yet grown up--the "self" as inherited has not been made the true self. We must seek at all costs to protect that for which we have not yet established our indisputable ownership. Self-hood is, therefore, not an inheritance but an achievement: "by your steadfast endurance," says our Lord in St. Luke 21: 19, "shall ye come into possession of yourselves." When we have won or achieved self-hood, we are no longer fearful and uncertain. We no longer fear--and, in consequence, hate; we are no longer uncertain--and, in consequence, need not be assertive. Pride need not enter, since our humble trust in God is the surest warrant of our self-hood.

Our Lord as the Perfect Man was not moved in the face of injustice and agony to condemn. He was above that, because He was too humble. His absolute humility was the ground of a confident faith that made Him self-less. In His First Word He turns His attention to those who had brought about His death. In what He says He does not rebuke, threaten, or condemn. His perfect maturity enabled Him to detach Himself from them who had caused His crucifixion, to see their action from their own viewpoint, to understand and comprehend, and in the self-abnegating pity of His sympathy to pray for forgiveness.

Let us pray, then, for a deeper understanding of the art of dealing with those who grievously hurt us and do us wrong. It may be that such wrongs and hurts be purely imaginary; it may be that they are real. That is not so much the question, as: how may we deal with them? We must force ourselves to detach the persons from the wrong which they have done, or which we think they have done. Then we shall have God's reassurance that we are able to look at them detachedly and objectively. Then we can enter into their minds to see the situation in which they have had so large a share. With understanding comes comprehension, sympathy, and the disposition not only to forgive but also to present them before God as those needing His forgiveness because "they did it in ignorance." That is the Christian technique learned from the Cross. That is the way of Atonement, the oblation offered by each member of Christ the High Priest, for all of us share His Priesthood. As St. Peter writes: "Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ" (I St. Peter 2:5), and the author of the Apocalypse: "Unto Him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and His Father" (St. John 1:6).

Two final comments by way of supplement: (a) we must note that our Lord does not say "forgive them, for they know not what they do--and hence are not responsible." There is a half-truth abundantly repeated about us today, that since we do what we do under the impression that for some reason it is the "best" thing to do, we cannot help what we do at all. This is right so far as it emphasizes the element of ignorance in all wrong-doing, and as it suggests the inevitability of action from the things we perceive and are aware of. But it is wrong in its conclusion that men are therefore not responsible. To say this is to degrade and violate the very essence of our humanity, which is as great a mistake in principle as it is devastating in practice to demoralize men by telling them that they are entirely responsible for everything they do. We have our Lord's warrant for seeing how great is the element of ignorance and error in wrong-doing. But we have no warrant in either His teaching or practice for doing away with our responsibility for that portion of the area of moral maneuver in which we are free to navigate. Freedom, as He shows us, is but freedom to do the right. Being "tied and bound by the chain of our sins" we are not free. Freedom is an act of His grace and our wills--yet it is an achievement and a process rather than the act of an instant.

(b) We must note, too, that our Lord's way--His outlook, His method, and His conclusion--is the way of fruitfulness. Blaming, condemnation, and imputing sin to others leads to a cul de sac. There is no way out. He whose conscience does not condemn him is little disposed to accept the condemnation passed by some one else's conscience. It is only as we see Him in His beauty that fruitful repentance is elicited in us. The only effective condemnation is self-imposed. The only fruitful way for us all in the face of the wrongs and evils of the world is not to condemn, but to pray for forgiveness of those who did the wrong.

Let us begin, then, our application of the technique of the Cross by resolving not to blame, condemn, or denounce those who have wronged us. Let us eradicate the word of blame from our minds and hearts. Blame is, of course, conveyed very subtly: by gesture and attitude no less than by word and action. When we suffer wrong let us resolutely decline to bear resentment. The atoning priesthood in us must combat and overcome the poison within us of irritation, anger, resentment, and rebellion. It must free our truest selves to rise in Christ's power to the level of His victory on the Cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

Project Canterbury