Imagine the conversation between God and Adam after Adam had sinned, seen himself naked for the first time (in more ways than one) and hidden from God. To the piercing question, “Why did you hide?” Adam replied, “Because I was naked”. Reading between the lines, we detect the subtext: “I hid myself, for one cannot come naked before God.”
Who told Adam that he could not come before God unless he was a certain way? Who would have told him, since God obviously hadn’t? Who could have told him that God is more interested in the way he looks than in his person? Who could have suggested this idea with such conviction that the same fear—that we cannot come to God as we are—has remained buried in our genes to this day?
This thought gave birth to paganism, with its rituals and purifications. It gave birth to legalism and to a Christianity without Christ and everything that a person’s attempt to save themselves means. From this fallacious thought arises, on the one hand, the spiritual exploitation of man and, on the other hand, their perpetual unhappiness and insufficiency.
Never, nowhere and by no means has God ever told anyone that they could not come to Him because they were naked. Never! On the contrary, He said, “Because you are naked, buy from Me—without money and without payment!” In essence, everything He said about it is encompassed in the words, “Whoever comes to Me I will never drive away.” No condition is added to the words “whoever comes to Me”, absolutely none. Whoever adds something to God’s words is “impersonating God.”
So, what must the one who comes to Him do? Nothing but to come! Besides, what could a person do in order to be received by God on that basis? And why would anyone want to do something if God has asked them to do nothing else but come as they are? Everything that goes beyond God’s Word “comes from the evil one!” The prophet Micah rhetorically asks, “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
In reality, the only thing God requires of me is my heart, as it is, and precisely because it is as it is: “My son, give me your heart and let your eyes delight in my ways”. “Your heart as it is—sick, evil, full of sin or deadly, suicidal lusts. Give me your heart as it is!”
When He called us to Himself, God never added anything about the need to be a certain way, about doing or not doing certain things. He always talked only about coming. There is no known case in which someone wanted to be received by God and was rejected because he was not in a certain way, or because he lacked one thing or another. After all, who but God could say, “I do not need a thing”?
This is, in fact, the most terrible argument that one can express—to not need a thing—and the second, similar to the first, is the belief that needing something deprives you of the privilege and right to come to God. God’s invitation is Your right and passport is God’s invitation, not your goodness or apparent holiness. God did not say anything like that; someone else always says it and, unfortunately, people believe it. That is why they continue to flee and hide from God. While God has never rejected someone because they were naked (and, I repeat, who is not naked?) all of us, on the other hand, have confessed about our coming to Him: “No one came back naked from those who sought You.”
An absurd death, an absurd alienation
What are the factors that keep people away from God and in the shadow of the fear of meeting Him? Who popularized these destructive factors and how are they promoted?
In 19th-century Austria, the extremely high maternal mortality rate after giving birth caused Dr. Semmelweiss, the director of the maternity hospital in Vienna, to wonder why the doctors’ desperate efforts to stop the scourge of death from puerperal fever, which mostly affected young mothers, seemed futile. Eventually, the source of the outbreak of infection and death was identified: the hands of the doctors fighting for life carried with them the unseen germs of death. “Wash your hands, gentlemen, when you come into the gynecology department after working on corpses! For God’s sake, I beg you, wash your hands!” Many doctors resisted his suggestion and refused to cooperate. But in the end, Dr. Semmelweis’s request was satisfied. When doctors washed their hands, the fire of death was extinguished and the percentage of mothers, pregnant women and patients returning home in coffins dropped dramatically.
However, the doctor’s request had touched the nerve of the Luciferic pride that sometimes accompanies the noble professions. The healers had been offended by the simplicity of the solution and the stupidity of the situation. How was it possible that they, the ones who were fighting death so dramatically, were accused of being the bearers of death? How was it possible that their very hands, revered and venerated in the service of life, would bring death? It was impossible! What an offense, what an insult! They could not come to terms with such a suggestion. As soon as the director died, the doctors resumed their direct run between the morgue and the gynecological consultation, and death returned, more furious than before and accompanied by seven other angels of Hades.
What happened at the Maternity and Gynecology Department of the General Hospital in Vienna is representative of the absurd process of man’s alienation from God. By imposing “heavy burdens”, by creating artificial barriers to those who want to come to God, the one who seemingly fights with devotion for the return of man to God is often the unconscious carrier of the virus that, paradoxically, leads to man fleeing from God. This is done by transferring the virus of conditional acceptance from paganism to Christianity: the belief that you have to do certain things in order to come to God, that you have to be a certain way in order to reach Him, that you have to give up this and that habit or practice and only then can you come to God!
Parents love the child if he gets an A grade, if he is clean and obedient; the church and society celebrate those with achievements, while emphasizing the uselessness of those without special accomplishments. The oft-heard message is that you have to be someone or achieve something in order to deserve acceptance. The child is familiarised with meritocracy right from the beginning of their first steps in life. Rarely, if ever, will they have a lesson in grace that teaches them that they are loved because of who they are, not because of what they are or are not.
A clue of the divine plan
Why is the divine commandment phrased “Baptize and teach” (Matthew 28:19), and not the other way around (“teach and then baptize”)? Could it be that the Lord wanted to avoid the very idea of merit? What is the answer of the gospel to the question: What prevents me from being baptized? Many things or one thing? Does the idea that, in order to be baptized, someone needs to deserve it, not float in the air like an atomic mushroom?
Why do millions of people stay away from God, some taking refuge in the drug of atheism? Which wholesome man would reject the offer of life and choose death? And yet, so many do, because steel and barbed wire blockades have been set up in the way of their return to God and, of the vast number of those who would like to cross the border into the land of God, only a very few survive these obstacles. God has received and still receives Adam and Eve naked and unclothed. The fig leaves, which they used to cover themselves, testified to their childish understanding of the magnitude of sin, its effects, and man’s tendency to try to save himself from his hopeless condition.
God received them naked, but did not leave them like that. Instead, He made garments for them to replace the aprons of leaves. The first words that God uttered in reference to their deeds were, and still are: “Strip them of the fig leaves!” Then He said, and it was so: “Put on the garment of the slain Lamb who alone is worthy to receive honor and glory and dominion!” Dressing begins with undressing, and if the undressing does not take place, the dressing will never happen. When he saw the Offering’s garment and compared it to the withered leaves lying on the ground, Adam whispered to himself: “I loathe myself…” This is called repentance, the acknowledgement that the idea of earning our salvation by our own merits is grotesque.
Chuck Collins records in a collection of pastoral confessions:
“I have come to see that there are really just two ways to preach: one is the gospel, the other is get-better messages. The first is based on God’s goodness; the second on self-improvement…. Get-better sermons…is moralistic advice in which a preacher mounts a pulpit to scold the people for not doing more or getting better.” The history of this preaching of the “gospel” without the actual gospel is only half-told: it not only alienates those whom Christ has called, but at the same time attracts people who have not been convicted by the Holy Spirit of their desperate need of a Saviour. In a very real sense, this preaching is antichrist! Those who practice it are those who confuse the morality and training that is necessary for both spiritual and civil life with the exclusive requirement of salvation: the Son. “Perhaps my biggest regret…is that for much of my 30 years of ordained ministry I have not preached ‘the gospel.’ By-and-large I have been a nice man standing in front of nice people, telling them that God calls them to be nicer. And just about none of it was life-changing.”
“We receive answers to our prayers not when we are given what we ask for, but when we are called to be what we can be by grace.” (Rabbi Morris)
The widow at the temple
The pathetic fruit of the hard work of attempting to accumulate merit is embodied by the woman mentioned in Luke 21, who for 18 years came to church bent over backwards and left the church even more bent. Her condition is an illustration of the complex of guilt placed on her, knowingly or unknowingly, which turned into the invisible chains and handcuffs with which she was bound. The chains would not let her go anywhere in the name of the Lord, and the handcuffs made her incapable of helping anyone in the same name. All that was expected of her was for her to let go of the two pennies in her hand and then go home where there was no ideal or work left to live for. The last two pennies were the last things required of her. The burden of guilt and insufficiency renewed with each new sermon weighed heavier and heavier. For a long time, she could no longer look at the sky, but only at the ground. She could no longer see the faces of people, but only their feet, trampling on each other. No rabbi could say, “Woman, you are freed from your helplessness!” However, where the naked rabbi was in perfect helplessness, Jesus said, “You are released from your helplessness!”
When I see this woman so happy, freely able to look up at the sky again, I think of all the years she was held down. I look at the synagogue leader with suspicion, but Jesus tells me that someone else was holding her down. What preparation did this crouched woman make for her encounter with the grace of God that is expressed in Christ? Not even a prayer said. And, if I think about it, she did not come to the Lord, but the Lord came to her. But what preparation did the blind man make? What about the leper? What was the attire of that woman who was caught in adultery? What diet did the thief on the cross have? What was his language? Did the Lord impose any condition on any of these people, and to many others like them, in order for them to come to Him, or for Him to come to them?
The plague of merit has invaded the meadows of God’s grace. “For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship”. Neither your merits nor the merits of the saints are of any use. They can work like alcohol, prevent you from feeling the pain in your soul for a while, numb your conscience for a while, but the disease will not heal.
Only God can say, “You are healed of your helplessness!” In these words there is no calming or anesthesia, but healing. There is no improvement, but rebirth: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” “Not by works, so that no one can boast.” What about Noah, Daniel, Job? No, nobody. “None at all!”
“Separate from Me (or ‘before you come to Me’) there is nothing you can do.” During evangelism training I was asked to present a stop-smoking course. I promised to do it after I had led the people to the Great Doctor, to the Liberator. There were many who would have wanted to quit smoking (we have no idea how much the enslaved man hates this vice in his life!) before the evangelistic campaign. After the campaign ended, we announced that our stop-smoking course was opening and we invited those who wanted to sign up. It was hard to find even one. Their vice had died under the preaching of Christ, who had set them free. I wanted to do this course after evangelism and not before, because I would never want anyone to put the gallons of defeat on their shoulders before coming to Jesus. It’s important to get rid of the disease, but the most important thing is simply to go to the doctor. “Seek first” shows that there is a priority even in doing God’s will. There is a first and a second. The first step is coming to Jesus and only then all the others that will be asked from us will follow.
“You can follow such conventions, you can even adhere to the noblest altruistic principles. But in the end, for the principles that you can’t die for as a martyr in need, it’s not even worth living every day. The existence of God and the hope of immortality are a strictly necessary faith, and the moral code must materialize from the authority of God, so that it cannot be shaken or altered.” (Gabriel Liiceanu)
Still, why are people marked by a total lack of power? Because “you do not have the love of God in your hearts.”… “If you love me, keep my commands.” This is the source of power and true change. Such is the heavenly verdict given to any attempt to please God before coming to Him.
You cannot love the One you do not know and have not yet come to. But also, you can’t know the real God and not love Him. How could you give the cold shoulder when you hear the words, “I have loved you with an everlasting love,”—that is, a love that has always been there and will remain forever? The thought of eternity and of eternal life originates here. This thought does not excite everyone. For many, it is a completely unattractive idea. A world that is sometimes tired of good or disgusted by evil would not want eternity, but death. Love, only love, is suffocated under the pressure of time and feels the need to break its entrapment. Love believes in eternity, “love never fails”. All will be reduced to ashes, but love will reign forever.
“With what shall I meet the Lord?” Jesus answers, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”