I worked with a pastor a number of years ago who from the pulpit shared about the pain he had experienced as a kid being teased for his name. With the innocent malice that is the unique characteristic of childhood, the boys of his youth had twisted his name ever so slightly into the simple nickname “trash.” He recalled always being chosen last for teams at recess, being left out of the huddles as boys discussed sports or girls because who wanted to play with “trash?” Adolescent boys run in packs, and as he spoke, he recalled always feeling different, left out, on the outside of the group the other boys had formed, looking in. That sense was further amplified when puberty set in and the girls began casting furtive glances at all the other boys, passing notes to them at lunch or admiring them with giggles in the hall or on the play yard. Oh, they were more than willing to be friends with him, their sympathy for his outcast condition was even occasionally accompanied by righteous indignation on his behalf when he endured teasing, but they simply had no other sort of interest in him. They did not see him as “one of the guys,” which heightened his sense of being little more than “trash.”
As he spoke, his pain was obvious, though the events he recounted were forty years in the past. He told his story with such vividness and so many anecdotes that we could all picture ourselves in his place, feeling the loneliness and sense of isolation that had been his lot as a child. His reason for sharing such intimate details of his life became obvious as his sermon crescendoed to its climax and this normally placid, quiet man, this man who had endured the appellation “trash” not only as a child, but for all the years he had carried those voices around in his head, pounded the pulpit, and shouted, “God doesn’t make junk!”
His emotion was palpable, and each of us for a moment saw the world the way he saw it, each of us felt as he felt, felt the righteousness of his declaration and the healing balm it was for his and our own troubled souls. In that moment, we were all willing to accept his interpretation of the events, and finally, believe as he believed…
Which kept us all from noticing in that moment that from a Biblical standpoint, he was absolutely and totally wrong.
In the past, to describe something as authentic meant that it was genuine with regard to some external, objective standard. “I know it says ‘Rolex’ on the tag,” someone could reasonably be expected to ask, “but is it authentic?” We now live in a world where the word “authentic” has come to mean how sincere or self-revealing a person is. In response to someone’s sharing an experience of deep personal moment, people can be heard to say, “Man, that’s real,” and by saying it they mean primarily that the perspective the person just shared carries the emotional freight of something truly and deeply felt.
That word ‘perspective’ in the last sentence should clue us into the fact that what is usually meant by the word ‘real’ in modern parlance is not what scientists might refer to as “real,” an object or event to which everyone has equal access because it is there to be examined by everybody. Rather, what is often meant is a psychological event that by definition only one person can have access to. In the older usage, what was ‘real’ was what we could all experience, could all taste, touch, measure, or evaluate, and so could all verify. In the modern sense of the word, what is “real” is what is most intensely private, a thing whose truthfulness can only be certified by sharing in the emotional response of the speaker.
The trouble with using this method of determining truth is that there is nothing as obviously transitory, nothing as potentially deceptive as how we feel. How many times in your life have you felt rage, indignation, envy, or fear that you later realized was totally misplaced? Though it is harder for us to recognize because we enjoy experiencing them so much, our positive emotions can be just as inappropriately placed, have as their object a thing unworthy of them. We have all had the intensely painful experience of discovering that a friend was false, a lover not who we believed them to be, a deeply held and life-shaping conviction erroneous. When that happens, if we are honest people, it is with intense pain and self-recrimination that we discover that those positive feelings we had for that person or principle gave rise to energy and actions on our part that in hindsight we know were completely without foundation or merit.
In practice today, the older “objective” way of speaking about what is real and the more modern “subjective” sense get mingled together, muddling our thinking and making us less able to address the problems that confront us. This confusion of categories and boundaries is so common in our culture that we barely notice it any more. Whatever political party you ascribe to, we are treated at every political convention to anecdotal stories about this or that person’s particularly challenging history, and we are encouraged to believe that after hearing about their experience—particularly the emotional component of it—we have a better grasp on what made their lives so miserable and how we can best address those problems. If you are no follower of politics, the nightly news offers thinly veiled editorializing in the same way. What do they call the pieces they run? “Stories.” Anyone who has taken a fiction writing 101 class can tell you that what drives a story is not facts, but conflict, emotional drama. That is what keeps us interested in what is happening, but when it comes to complex matters, it is not necessarily what best forms our judgments.
The confusion of his very “real” emotions for what is “real” in an objective Biblical sense is what gave my friend’s preaching its power. In fact, his words were so potent, the charm they cast so enchanting, that in my own case it took nearly a decade of Bible study, theological formation, and intense self-examination to break the spell. My friend’s sermon created a feeling of sympathy in all of us who heard it. Each of us for a moment felt as he did, and so when he offered us an interpretation of those events that gave him relief, we felt that relief too, so that in addition to however objectively satisfactory his framing of the events was, we also had a powerful emotional inducement to accept his understanding of the events. At precisely the moment when our psychic pain had in sympathy for him reached its peak, he declared, “God doesn’t make junk!” “Amen!” we might have shouted if we were not Lutheran with a peculiarly Germanic sense of propriety. “God doesn’t make junk? Whew! That is a profound relief! Let’s sing a hymn quickly, before we think too deeply about that.”
Right now, even if you can see the point I am trying to make about how deceptive emotions can be, you may be balking at what I am clearly implying are the implications of that for the central point of my friend’s sermon. We live in a world where the chief barometer of a person’s stability and mental health—the chief gauge of how well they are doing—is self-esteem. We are supposed to love ourselves unconditionally, no matter the flaws in our moral character those around us can clearly see or what our own intimate knowledge of the dark contours of our souls reveals to us. We are deemed wise if we choose our friends carefully, but sick if we evaluate ourselves using the same kind of strict criteria.
What the emotion of my friend’s sermon kept me from noticing for so long was twofold. First, it kept me from noticing that even using the subjective evidence of my own self-knowledge, his argument was false. If I believe in God at all, I know that God makes junk, because God made me. God made me, and I know how much junk there is inside of me, junk that, sometimes despite my best efforts and sometimes because for the moment I do not care about being good, far too often comes out in my words and actions, adding to the junkiness of this messed up world.
This is at least one approach to understanding the doctrine that Christians have classically referred to as “original sin.” Though various theological traditions have interpreted that doctrine differently, what we all agree on is that the condition of original sin is absolutely inescapable and absolutely universal. I have not only been hurt by the sin in the world, which causes me to do hurtful things to others: If I am honest with myself I have also at times done wicked or hurtful things in the full knowledge that they were wicked or hurtful—and simply because they benefited me personally. We live in a world that has been cursed by our wickedness, and in spite of all the good things I may do on a given day, I also daily to add my own bitter drop to the ocean of the world’s sin.
If I do not see this about myself, I am simply not being honest with myself. That is what is really real about me, quite apart from any emotion I may have about why I do what I do. It is true both from an honest psychological perspective and from an objective Biblical perspective. In the Biblical narrative, only three characters are clearly created without being mired in the inescapable quicksand of sin. Two of those characters—Adam and Eve—through their aspiration to “be as God” create the mess I have just described as original sin in the first place. The other is unstained by sin and does not sin but, according to the book of 2 Corinthians, becomes “sin so that we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21)
All this is to say that the good news according to the Bible is not that “God doesn’t make junk,” but that God is apparently in the recycling business. The good news is not—as many romantic philosophies have had it—that we are born into this world unstained and pure, tabula rosa, but rather that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8) Since the fall of our first parents and the marring of God’s original intent for humanity, original sin has ruled our destinies. That rather than wiping the slate clean and starting over, God continues to make new people when the condition they will necessarily partake in is so short of His express desire for us is a testimony to God’s love and forbearance, not as some people would have it, a case for the unreasonableness of His character or demands. God’s love is shown in His unnecessarily extending Himself for those who curse, blaspheme, and crucify Him.
God is in the recycling business, recovering what should have been lost and making it fit for good use again. If I have any self-esteem, this should be the font from which it flows. My self-esteem should not spring from knowing God as my Creator, for this is equally true of every scoundrel, villain, and murderer who has ever walked the face of the earth. This is why we say in the service of Holy Baptism, “we are born children of a fallen humanity.” Rather, my self-esteem should come from the revelation of the cross, from knowing God as my Redeemer, from knowing Him as the One who unnecessarily endured pain, humiliation, suffering, shame, and death that I might be taken off the scrap heap and made into something precious. In the final analysis, though, that is not really self-esteem. That is Christ-esteem.
God makes junk, for God made me. God loves junk, for God loves me. God saves junk, for God saves me.
Praise to you, O Christ!