I sang in a 70-voice girls’ choir from about nine to twelve-ish. We worked hard and gave good performances. We had a couple different instructors during that time, but the one I remember most vividly was Mrs. F. Mrs. F was short with close-cropped black hair and glasses, and she was not to be messed with. She was tough and biting and witty. She made us stand for prolonged periods of time (which resulted in a couple of fainting episodes—possibly why we ended up getting a new instructor?) Anyway, as I said, she was not to be messed with. I remember we did the Point of Grace song “When Love Came Down” one Christmas, and she played us the recording to give us a feel for the song. Afterwards, she said, “Now, when you sing it, I don’t want you to sound like you’re in labor, okay?”
But my favorite memory is of a particular arrangement of “Amazing Grace.” For some reason, the word “wretch” had been replaced by the word “child.” Mrs. F was having none of that. She instructed us thus: “Say ‘wretch.’ SAY IT! Wrrrrrrrretch!” We happily complied, because it was fun.
It still is a fun memory. However, in hindsight, I now realize that silly arrangement was just one small manifestation of a much larger cultural shift within the church. A cultural shift from thinking of ourselves as “vile,” as “wretches” and “sinners,” to “feeling good about ourselves,” feeling significant and important, perhaps even worthy of the cross.
The truth is, guilt has a place, a very crucial place in our salvation. The message of “feeling good about yourself” is shallow and doesn’t present the full wonder and yes, hope of the gospel. Should we tell ourselves that we are worthless? No, but we are unworthy. There’s a difference.
I once read a sermon by Tim Keller about abortion, then some comments on the sermon that made me think about this. Most of the sermon was a standard case for the sanctity of life—good arguments, good usage of reductio to show how once we devalue life in the womb, we devalue life outside as well. But he felt a need to stick in a paragraph at the end about people who’ve had an abortion, and this was his exact wording. He’s been sketching out what the ideal church community would like on this issue:
…The women who have had abortions, and the men who have helped them have abortions, would not feel like scum, because James 3:9 says you don’t disdain, you don’t demonize, you don’t curse, you offer grace to everybody. You see if we believed in the image of God and say abortion is wrong, we wouldn’t make women who have had abortions feel terrible, like scum or something. And we wouldn’t be single issue people, we would be for all of the poor and all of the weak and all of the marginal. And we would be a very unusual community, wouldn’t we? Now let’s be that.
Brushing aside for a moment Keller’s predictable but still insufferable jab at “single-issue people” (read: people who think that the direct, commercialized slaughter of innocent human beings might be a little more urgent of a problem than the fact that somebody has a low-paying job), let’s focus on this whole issue of “feeling like scum.” For now, we’re also setting aside the highly questionable interpretation of James to mean that we should never ever say that somebody (anybody) is just un-qualifiedly evil or working in the service of the devil. We’re just talking about the question of how to deal with couples who’ve had an abortion. Keller wants to say that it’s bad for them to “feel like scum.”
Now think about this for just a minute. Suppose a man bullies his girlfriend into having an abortion against her will. After the procedure is over, he doesn’t feel a hint of compunction. What would you say is the state of his soul at that moment? Not that great you’d probably say, and you’d be right. But what if instead he does feel compunction, and what if he finds that guilt gnawing at him in the wee hours, keeping him up at night, filling his thoughts until he’s so overcome with the weight of his crime that he feels, well, like scum. Now what’s the state of his soul? I think you’d agree he’s moving in the right direction, because at least now his eyes are opened to his sin. Now he’s in a place where if you came and offered him the gospel, he’s far more likely to embrace it because he has already grasped his need to repent. Now he sees that he has to be rescued from something.
It’s a little more complicated for the women because circumstances of an abortion can vary so wildly. On one hand we have women who are as cold and calculating as they come. They relentlessly stuff down their consciences, have abortion after abortion, and meanwhile serve as activists for the cause to try to get other women to follow their example. Again—as far as receiving grace is concerned, they’re not looking good. But then on the flip side you have the women who are so young that they’re essentially at the mercy of what their friends and relatives decide is best for them. Sometimes these women will weep and resist all the way to the clinic, but they’re essentially forced into an abortion. Now for those women, I do agree that it’s hard to hold them morally culpable. Their friends and family on the other hand…
But what if you have a woman who fell somewhere in the middle? Maybe she was under some pressure, but she also was telling herself that this was the best choice. In the end, she walked in and submitted to the murderous procedure of her own volition. But it’s been years, and she’s never forgotten it. She feels… well, like scum. Once again, let me repeat that this is a good sign. This woman is actually closer to the kingdom than the woman of a thousand abortions who won’t even listen to the pro-life side.
Now, am I saying that the moment somebody new walks into our church and we find out they’ve had an abortion, we blurt out, “Wow, you sure are scum”? No, because we don’t know all the circumstances. However, if you have the opportunity to get to know these people better, you can tell where their hearts are. Maybe they’re already on the road to repentance, but then again, maybe they’re not. Maybe they’re “pro-choice Christians” who still don’t think they’ve done anything wrong. Maybe their consciences are so warped they even feel “a sense of peace” about it. What do you say then? Maybe some conversations trying to steer them towards a fuller understanding of how horrible abortion is might not be such a bad thing. Could it potentially make them “feel like scum”? Yes, and you should pray it does, for their immortal souls’ sake.
Where is the beauty in the promise that Jesus can make the vilest sinner clean if there are no vile sinners to be made clean? Where is the thankfulness in the declaration that Jesus has saved a wretch like me if I wasn’t so very wretched to begin with? Pure white shows up most startlingly on the black canvas of our sin. As long as everything is shades of grey, there can be no moment of grace. There is only confusion and stumbling.