by Jeremy Egerer 7/18/16
Richard Baxter, whom I consider to be the greatest of the Puritan ministers, once wrote in The Reformed Pastor that the likelihood of a deathbed conversion was extremely rare. The reason that he knew this was simple. A lot of people on their deathbeds simply refused to die.
The almost immediate results of a return of health were a departure of the fear of God and the torments of Hell; and the overwhelming majority of the people who’d so recently confessed their penitence, 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 falsely converted. Nearly everyone is sorry when they’re hurt by themselves; and everyone is looking for forgiveness when in sight of a penalty. An experience of pain is the first hint of an experience of sin. If wisdom is known by her children we can say the same of folly; and if we believe there is nothing to suffer, we almost always believe there is nothing to consider sinful*.
A natural interest in a conversion without effort and a life without holiness led many people, 300 years after the arrival 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, wielding the threat of excommunication, required absolute Godliness after a baptism, refused to be dunked until he was about to die. 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 a transformation could happen without discomfort.
But a grown man ought to have his heart frequently broken — by himself. There can be 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 have 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 insufficiency and the ugliness of regret have never been enemies except to the most disgusting of sociopaths and weaklings; and our tendency to want to love ourselves at the expense of our salvation may be popular among liberal women and mentally defective 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 inseparably connected to a desire to change for the better.
Shame is the natural result of our idealism, and humility is the stepping stone to perfection. The moment we’ve imagined things could go any better is the moment we’ve become cognizant of our making 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; reserve your adoration for things that are adorable. Be brutally truthful with yourself — and then you can be said to love yourself truthfully.
Jeremy blogs at Letters to Hannah. He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.