The gospel is not as much about worthiness as it is about surrender. What God wants from us is not a million acts of virtue, but a million acts of surrender, culminating in one massive surrender of soul, mind, and body. When we have given up everything and are completely helpless to give ourselves anything, as we will all eventually be when we face death, then salvation can be given us.
And that is the key, salvation can only be given us. It can never be taken, earned, or possessed by right. Hence nothing we have or can accumulate in this life – fame, fortune, health, good looks, a good name, or even moral virtue, religious fidelity, personal sanctity, or the practice of social justice – tips God’s hand towards us. What tips God’s hands is helplessness, surrender in grace.
This idea is everywhere in the Christian and Jewish scriptures, but let me illustrate it with just one, clear example, the exchange between Jesus and the rich young man, complete with the subsequent reaction of the disciples.
In terms of a paraphrase, this is what transpires: A young man, rich in material possessions, approaches Jesus and asks: “What must I do to possess eternal life?” In Jesus’ reply there is a subtle, gentle correction that is often missed: “If you would want to receive life (you can never possess it) then go, sell all that you have, give the money to the poor, and come and follow me.” The rich young man, however, is not able precisely to surrender his possessions and declines Jesus’ offer. For his part, then, Jesus turns to his disciples and explicates the moral of this story: “It is harder for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.”
And the disciples are stunned: “If that is the case, who then can be saved? If that is the case, we are all hopeless to give ourselves salvation!” Ironically, even though the disciples’ reaction might seem rather limp and uninspiring, this is one of the few times in scripture where they get things right. They surrender, they admit their helplessness, and thus Jesus is able to tell them the real moral of the story: “For humans, it is impossible, but all things are possible for God.”
I suspect that all of us understand part of this: No amount of material or physical wealth will give us heaven. However, what Jesus is saying, and what is harder for us to grasp, is that no amount of virtue, either, will give us heaven. Heaven is given us not for anything we possess but when we surrender everything we possess.
C.S. Lewis, in his little masterpiece on heaven and hell, The Great Divorce, makes this point in a very simple way. He has a fantasy of some (ten) interviews between someone in heaven trying to coax someone not there to come to heaven. Each of the ten persons seeking entrance into heaven is blocked by some major flaw, pride, anger, idolatry, the incapacity to forgive, shame, lust, and the like. In each case, irrespective of the flaw, the person in heaven keeps telling the other: “All you have to do is to give me your hand and let me lead you there. All you have to do is surrender!”
All you have to do is surrender! For the first forty or so years of our lives perhaps this is not so true because we are still seeking to come to bloom. We are young and looking to grow and thus are like a flower that still needs to take in things in order to bloom and come to seed. There is then more place for assertion, ambition, achievement, for accumulating. The rich young man was still young. His case would be infinitely more tragic had be been an old rich man who declined Jesus’ offer.
In the ideal order of things, surrender is for the mature, for the flower that has come to bloom and needs to give off its seed. That is less true of us during the first half of our lives, for we are still building, but it becomes the deepest truth of the second half of life. After forty, understood religiously, life is not about claiming worthiness, or about building things, especially our own egos, but about getting in touch with helplessness.
Age brings us physically to our knees and more and more everything we have so painstakingly built up begins to mean less and less. But that is the order of things: Salvation is not about great achievements, but about a great embrace and, as C.S. Lewis puts it, all we have to do is surrender.