“John, I counted myself so plain, so poorly made, no honest love could come to me! Suspicion kissed you when I did; I never knew how I should say my love. It were a cold house I kept!” *
These are the words of Elizabeth Proctor, a character from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which is one of my favorite plays in the whole history of the world for its portrayal of those hard moments in life when a person must choose something more difficult, more noble, and more self-sacrificing than he’s ever imagined himself capable of…
“It is a far better thing I do than I’ve ever done before” … I’m evidently feeling very literary.**
For being a primarily secular play that depicts the evils religion can and has wrought on this world, The Crucible is surprisingly sensitive and insightful when it comes to the individual’s battle for his own goodness and soul.
In the play, Elizabeth Proctor struggles to forgive her straying husband – not because she can’t allow for his imperfection, but because she never believed herself loved by him to begin with and never allowed her marriage to become a true and real romance. She didn’t trust John Proctor even before he cheated because she didn’t believe herself lovable. Although Elizabeth isn’t our protagonist, I’ve come to admire her story, because it’s so much closer to my own than John Proctor’s is. He knew himself to be a fraud from the very beginning because his sin was against the letter of the law, and obvious. Elizabeth lived self-righteously next to him because her vice was hidden – even from her; it was against the heart behind the law, and therefore, more difficult to identify; her sin was a crooked pride in self-loathing.
How often is this our story with Christ?
When I was a baby Christian, I was certain of my own value. I was a star athlete, honors-college kind of girl, and I believed that God wanted me. As I grew up a bit in my faith, I began to realize that I’m actually a wicked, selfish sort of girl, and I couldn’t believe anyone would ever want me.
And all of the theology in the world can’t mend that wound.
Because believing that God loves sinners is so much more difficult than the pamphlets portray. Believing Brennan Manning’s words of: “Ignorant, weak, sinful person that I am, with easy rationalizations for my sinful behavior, I am being told anew in the unmistakable language of love, I am with you. I am for you. I am in you. I expect more failure from you than you expect from yourself.”*** How could God possibly expect my failures and still love me. How can He not be holding it over my head. I write those questions without question mark because they are statements. They’re rhetorical, with the cynical answers embedded within them.
No Father continues loving after all the things I have (and we) have wrought in this world.
The forces of evil in this world are too great. Just last week, I discovered the news story of those boys in Ohio who raped a sixteen year-old-girl again, and again, and again. They peed on her, dragged her from party to party, videoed their drunken giggles about the situation, then dumped her on her parents’ lawn. And I can’t, no matter how hard I try, keep from seeing those boys’ faces in the faces of my students. I hear their sickening laughter in the quiet moments between thoughts.
And I can’t think of them as human… as anything but the embodiment of depravity. They are sinful little boys, who I don’t know, who didn’t do anything to me, but I want them to be punished. I want them to be taught empathy in an unrelenting manner.
How on earth could God love them? And if that’s my reaction to the sin of some kiddos I have never, and will never come into contact with, how much angrier must the King of all kings be! How much greater His right to unforgiveness and unmerciful justice.
Why, of course! Theology to the rescue! The substitutionary atonement of a spotless lamb makes it possible! In Him, there is an astonishing paradox of justice and grace! For God is so much higher than I am that His thoughts are not my thoughts and His ways are not my ways. For He is God.
But I write that with such “obnoxious familiarity” and “studied professionalism” that guilt fills the space between me and the walls until the air I breathe is thick, like butter.
And the only hope I have is a fearful prayer, not of “forgive me” because my theology tells me that I’ve been forgiven, but of, “Remove my guilt from me as far as the East is from the West, because I can’t escape it; it haunts me.” And while I treasure the hint of humility in that prayer, I also know myself too well. I have an unfortunately good mind that has yet to be tamed. It hates myself for not knowing what I know, because as I simultaneously see the simple solution to Elizabeth Proctor’s troubles, and yet, remain a sad replica of her.
*THE CRUCIBLE was written by Arthur Miller and the quote is from Act 4… line 200 ish.
**You should already know this one, but I’ll give it to you regardless. It’s from the end of A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens. I’m relatively certain the quote comes when one character sacrifices himself for another (possibly a man who was previously an enemy, but remember that I haven’t read it).
***These last three quotes come from Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel. You can find the first quote on page 174. The phrases “obnoxious familiarity” and “studied professionalism” are from 166.