Some years ago, a young man came to me for confession. It was a difficult confession for him. He had been having an affair with a girl and she had become pregnant. For a series of reasons, marriage was out of the question. The pregnancy would, irrevocably, disrupt both lives; hers and his, not to even mention the life of the child who would be born. Being a sensitive person, he needed no reminders that he had been irresponsible. He made no attempts to rationalize, to offer excuses, or to escape blame and responsibility. He recognized that he had sinned. He also recognized that he had helped create a situation that was irrevocable, a certain ease and innocence had been destroyed, some things would never be quite the same again. He ended his confession on a note of sadness and hopelessness: “There is no way I’ll ever live normally again, beyond this. Even God can’t unscramble an egg!” What this young man was saying was that, for him, there would always be a skeleton in the closet. Ordinary life would, in its own way, limp along, but he would remain forever marked by this mistake.
Today we live in a world and a church in which this kind of brokenness and attitude are becoming more the rule than the exception. For more and more people, there is a major something to live beyond, some skeleton in the closet: a broken marriage, an abortion, a religious commitment that didn’t work out, a pregnancy outside marriage, a betrayed trust, a broken relationship, a soured affair, a serious mistake, a searing regret; sometimes with a sense of sin, sometimes without it. Sadly, for many, this comes, as it did for the young man, coupled with a hopelessness, a sense that something irrevocable has happened.
What we need today, in the church, perhaps more than anything else, is a theology of brokenness that relates failure and sin seriously enough to redemption. Too often, what is taught as redemption is little more than the strict law of karma: one chance per lifetime, salvation through getting it right, happiness and innocence only when there is nothing to be forgiven. We have too much fear; in the end, of God. Ultimately, we look at the scrambled egg, at our own mistakes and sins, and believe that the loss of a certain grace is irrevocable, that a mistake hangs us. Basically, we do not believe that there is a second chance, let along 70 x 7 chances, that can be just as life-giving as the first one.
I was raised in a Catholicism which was deeply moral. It took commitment seriously and called sin sin. It was, on most moral issues, brutally uncompromising. It asked you not to betray, not to sin, not to make mistakes. I have no regrets about that. In fact, I feel pain for so many today that are being raised in a moral relativism which excuses too much and challenges too little. However, if the Catholicism that I was raised in had a fault, and it did, it was precisely that it did not allow for mistakes. It demanded that you get it right the first time. There was supposed to be no need for a second chance. If you made a mistake, you lived with it and, like the rich young man, you were doomed to be sad, at least for the rest of your life. A serious mistake was a permanent stigmatization, a mark that you wore like Cain.
I have seen that mark in all kinds of people: divorcees, ex-priests, ex-religious, people who have had abortions, married people who have had affairs, people who have had children outside of marriage, parents who have made serious mistakes with their children, and countless others who have made serious mistakes. There is too little around to help them. We need a theology of brokenness.
God lets us live
We need a theology which teaches us that even though God cannot unscramble an egg, God’s grace lets us live happily and with renewed innocence far beyond any egg we might have scrambled. We need a theology that teaches us that God does not just give us one chance, but that every time we close a door, God opens another one for us. We need a theology that challenges us not to make mistakes, that takes sin seriously, but which tells us that when we do sin, when we do make mistakes, we are given the chance to take our place among the broken, among those whose lives are not perfect, the loved sinners, those for whom Christ came. We need a theology which tells us that a second, third, fourth, and fifth chance are just as valid as the first one. We need a theology that tells us that mistakes are not forever, that they are not even for a lifetime, that time and grace wash clean, that nothing is irrevocable. Finally, we need a theology which teaches us that God loves us as sinners and that the task of Christianity is not to teach us how to live, but to teach us how to live again, and again, and again.