Whenever the devil harasses you, seek the company of men or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing. Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all. So when the devil says to you: do not drink, answer him: I will drink, and right freely, just because you tell me not to.
― Martin Luther “The Life and Letters of Martin Luther”
You might not know it from the outside but I’m a mess; that’s not a celebratory statement, it’s just the truth. I’m a mess, but not based on my works. I’m a hard worker, from morning to night. If any one were to say anything to me it wouldn’t be: Work more!, it would be: I’m worried about you…you’re working too hard! I’ve actually heard that before. You wouldn’t necessarily call me a mess because I’m not a “mess”, at least not on the outside.
And that’s the problem, isn’t it?
I can cry: I’m a mess! But you might cry: Foul!
Because my mess isn’t (currently) external but internal. My mess is locked in my conscience, under the stern eye of a horrible prison warden that drives me on relentlessly. My conscience is easily pricked by the accusations of the devil and, rather than do what Luther recommends above, I actively try to prove those accusations wrong by my works. I’m a mess because of the chaos on the inside, the storm that wages violently, the guilt that drives me to fear sitting down, to do only my best, to care about/do everything. And daily I have to talk my own self down off a ledge with words of the Law and the Gospel; not only daily but multiple times a day. I am justified by faith in Christ apart from (both good and bad) works…
And this is the leveling force of the two words of Law and Gospel: we are all messes not purely based on the external state of our persons, places, and things; truly, we are messes because of what is going on with our consciences. And because of this, you and I both want that conscience soothed, to silence the voice of the internal, relentless, prison warden driving us with bullwhip and yoke. So we do what we know best, we’ll either try to work our way to virtue or we’ll try to make failure a virtue–but nonetheless, it’s a pursuit to justify oneself by works. I will either try to show the other “overachievers” how awesome I am (tell me how awesome I am!) to silence that relentless voice, or I will try to garner some camaraderie among the other “ne’erdowells” (my failure’s ok, right?) to silence it. Both approaches–which most of us vacillate between daily, if not hourly–are self-justifications because they’re centered around works. Both groups of people are looking for affirmation.
What we need–what our troubled, messy consciences need–isn’t affirmation from our peers but absolution from God. We need the Gospel; we need the Gospel of the justification of sinners. We need freedom; we need the freedom that comes from the words: You are forgiven from your self-justification, from your good and bad works. We need to be coaxed out, loved out, convinced it’s really safe to come out of our prisons because captivity is all we know and that’s safe; freedom is unknown and is risky. No one can preach too much freedom to the former captives–even when they are pushing boundaries, asking do you still love me now? Am I still justified by faith now? What about now? ….Annnnd…now? Because the answer is always: Yes, even now. I love you even now.
For messes like us, there is no such thing as moving on from or getting too much of the doctrine of justification, the proclamation of the Gospel, the pronouncement of absolution, because we are too dull to get it, too skeptical to believe it, too scared to actually leave our prisons behind. If push came to shove, most of us would rather try to sin less than thumb our nose at the accusations of the devil by drinking more, recreating more, joking more; captivity doesn’t shake off easily, captives maintain their captive mindset far long after they’ve been set free.
For messes like us, one-way love, freedom, and what Jesus has done on our behalf is too good to be true; thus, for messes like us there’s no such thing as too much love, too much freedom, too much Jesus.