Back in 2021, I wrote a series based on the idea that we need to normalize sin without minimizing it. My premise is that so many people have a knee-jerk reaction against talk about sin because it’s been blown out of proportion: When we hear someone say, “I’m a sinner,” we hear “I’m a wretch who’s full of shame and guilt,” when what it should really mean is “I’m a fallible and finite human being and therefore most of my interactions with the world around me don’t hit the mark, and so whether intentionally or not, my actions hurt others and impair relationships, and I need to do what I can to set things right.” Julian of Norwich was thinking along similar lines when she determined that “sin is nothing” (Ch 11, short text), that it has “no kind of substance” (Ch 27), and that God will make “all things well” (Ch 31). Sin has real consequences in the world, but those consequences can never override God’s love. But, humans being as we are, this can lead some of us to think, ‘Hey, if sin is nothing, if we are under grace not the Law, then we can do whatever we want, right?’ Paul faced this problem in his own teaching (see Romans 6, for example), and Julian recognized it too. Today I’d like to look at how Julian heads this type of argumentation off at the pass and how she argues that God’s love is not an excuse to go on sinning.
In chapter 72 of Revelations of Divine Love, she reaffirms her earlier commitment to the power of God’s love over sin. In fact, the chapter as a whole is in some ways a synopsis and reassertion of what she said in that big section from chapters 27-40 and in the parable of the servant from chapter 51:
So I saw how sin is for a short time deadly to the blessed creatures of endless life, and always, the more clearly that the soul sees the blessed face by the grace of loving, the more it longs to see it in fullness, that is to say in God’s own likeness. For even though our Lord God dwells now in us, and is here with us, and embraces us and encloses us for his tender love, so that he can never leave us, and is nearer to us than tongue can tell or heart can think, still we can never cease from mourning and weeping, seeking and longing, until we see him clearly, face to his blessed face, for in that precious sight no woe can remain, no well-being can be lacking. (Ch 72)
Sin is important — it is “deadly” and rightful cause of “mourning and weeping, seeking and longing” — but is nothing compared to the wonders of God’s love and the promise of salvation. She continues:
And in this I saw matter for mirth and matter for mourning — matter for mirth, that our Lord, our maker is so near to us and in us, and we in him, because of his great goodness he keeps us faithfully; matter for mourning, because our spiritual eye is so blind, and we are so burdened with the weight of our mortal flesh and the darkness of sin that we cannot see clearly the blessed face of our Lord God. No, and because of this darkness, we can scarcely believe or have faith in his great love and his faithfulness, with which he protects us. (Ch 72)
The Gospel is matter for mirth because God has not only acted so powerfully on our behalf but also is present within us and we in God, united in faith. But it is also matter for mourning because our spiritual blindness causes us not to see that God’s love is at the heart of all creation and so we sin because we act out of fear and scarcity and self-protection rather than out of God’s love. Both things are true and in order to properly engage with God and with the world, we need to hold both sides close to our hearts in equal measure. A few chapters later, she returns to the theme:
All of this familiar revelation of our courteous Lord is a lesson of love and a sweet, gracious teaching from himself, in comforting our soul. … [But i]f we are moved to be more careless about our way of life or about the custody of our heart, because he we have knowledge of this plentiful love, then we have great need to beware of this impulse, should it come. It is false, and we ought to hate it greatly, for it has no resemblance to God’s will. (Ch 79)
The point of all this is that we need to remember both sides of the equation. We can’t become so obsessed with sin that we fall into shame and think of ourselves as wretches beyond the mercy of God, for that would miss the whole heart of things, which is God’s expansive, infinite grace and love. But neither can we forget the reality of our sin and its real consequences; we can never use God’s love as an excuse for sin or carelessness.
* 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.