We’re nearing the end of this significant chunk of Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love dealing with the immensity of God’s love and the comparative insignificance of sin. Yesterday, we saw how we must remember that God’s love and peace live within us and, therefore, we are called to live within God’s love and peace accordingly. Chapter 39 ends with the assertion that God wants us to remember that love is the foundation of life and that therefore God’s love is always there protecting us. Right on the heels of this claim, Chapter 40 unpacks his protective power of love, particularly as it relates to repentance and the forgiveness of sins. And this is the topic of today’s post.
Chapter 40 begins:
And this is a supreme friendship of our courteous Lord, that he protects us so tenderly whilst we are in our sins; and furthermore he touches us most secretly, and shows us our sins by the sweet light of mercy and grace. But when we see ourselves so foul, then we believe that God may be angry with us because of our sins. Then we are moved by the Holy Spirit through contrition to prayer, and we desire with all our might an amendment of ourselves to appease God’s anger, until the time that we find rest of soul and ease of conscience. And then we hope that God has forgiven us our sins; and this is true.*
This is a remarkable statement, for a few reasons. First, it grounds the topic of sin within the context of our relationship with God. Irrespective of what we ‘believe’, we often act like our relationship with God is contingent on our behaviour. But as Julian points out here, and with the full support of the witness of the Scriptures, God is always faithful. God is always present with us, lovingly protecting us irrespective of how well we’re living up to our side of the relationship. The ‘want of love’ which Julian previously said was the cause of sin is entirely on our side, not God’s. Second, it claims that our recognition of our sins is part of this protective scheme by God. This is important because she says that, third, when we receive this sign of God’s love, we misinterpret it as God’s anger at us. And so we come to God in repentance, “to appease God’s anger.” But, if we follow Julian’s logic, that anger was never a problem:
- Our Perception: God loves us → We sin → God is angry → We repent to appease God’s anger → God loves us
- the Reality: God loves us → We sin → God loves us → We repent because God has lovingly shown us the error of our ways → God loves us.
This is not to say that there is no such thing as “the wrath of God” — a God of justice must by definition be angry at injustice. But it is to say that God’s anger has no bearing on God’s love for us. God’s love is not contingent on our ‘good behaviour.’ It is constant. For even if we break faith with God and one another, God never breaks faith with us. We see this again as Julian continues her thought:
And then our courteous Lord shows himself to the soul, happily and with the gladdest countenance, welcoming it as a friend, as if it had been been in pain and in prison, saying: My dear darling, I am glad that you have come to me in all your woe. I have always been with you, and now you see me loving, and we are made one in bliss. (Ch 40)
There is “pain and prison” in our sin, but it is a prison of our own making. God does not welcome us “from prison” but “as if” if we had been in prison. We are not welcomed because we have amended our ways or ended our state of woe; rather, God welcomes us gladly in our woe. God is constant and faithful; it’s just that in repentance we see who and how God has always been: “I have always been with you, and now you see me loving.”
So much of the problem is one of perspective. It’s not God that is changed by our sin or our repentance, but our attitude towards God. We have such a hard time imagining true, boundless, unconditional love that we turn God into an angry tyrant who wants to punish us, who must be appeased from his anger. But that is not how things work. Fear of wrath or punishment shouldn’t be what drives us to repentance, but rather awareness of God’s love and our own need to show love to others. As Julian concludes: “For the same true love which touches us all by its blessed strength, that same blessed love teaches us that we must hate sin only because of love” (Ch 40). Again, we aren’t to hate sin out of fear of punishment, but out of love, out of that desire to live our lives in healthy and whole relationships. All this is in keeping with the spirit of the New Testament, which is focused much less on avoiding sin than it is on cultivating good fruit. The questions that should drive our behaviour aren’t “Is this permitted?” but “Does this promote growth?” “Does this produce good fruit?” “Is this a sign of true freedom or a sign of ongoing bondage?”
And so, as we go about our day today, let’s try to keep this shift in perspective in mind. The life of faith isn’t about trying to get God on our side, but about realizing that God already is and always will be. If there’s a problem, the problem is not a lack of love and faithfulness on God’s side, but on ours.
* Unless noted, all quotes are taken from the long text of Julian or Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love as translated and set in Julian of Norwich, Showings, translated by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh. The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978.
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