Judgment is the defining theme for Romans 2:1-11. Paul, unfortunately, muddies the mercy waters by defining our life’s “works” are the basis for how we will be judged. Consequently, God’s kindness as our judge, something Paul painfully attempts to spell out, gets pre-empted. Not blaming Paul. It’s our nature to slide into fear before trust.
The bottom line from Paul is that God is kind. We don’t hear those words, though. When Paul talks about the kindness of God we fret over his anger instead.
Over the last two hundred years “works” messes up the discussion. It is a tired and worn-out subject in theological circles. Debate over doing good works as proof of our faith has certainly exhausted every congregation of believers. That proving ground of being Christian (doing good works as a natural consequence of our faith) belongs to the discussion about works, of course. It’s just not what we hear. We hear that if I sin after falling in love with God then God must hate me. He’ll surely have to punish me!
I imagine the most exhausted will abandon faith altogether. Whether we sin or do good is a self-manufactured moat circling our faith and hindering our access to heaven. We just can’t get past it.
Works are those things we’ve done in our lives with either bad or good intentions. How can we not believe that the bad stuff we do drown us? Well, it certainly drowns out God’s relationship to us if we believe that God can’t handle our miserable sinfulness. That fear engulfs us with paranoia.
Look at it differently. Judgment “according to our works” isn’t what most of us think it is. No matter how careful theologians and people of God explain the unmatched mercy of God, which is the obvious attraction for eager repentance, the gathering storm of God’s wrath rumbles on our horizon. We see dark clouds ahead, a rising, fatal sandstorm of vengeance. We forget that such obsessive worry is clouding out God.
We can hide. We can absolve ourselves. Not to any substantive success. In truth, we can’t run away from sin. The only solution to sin is God’s mercy. Worse, with or without God we’re still woeful sinners in our own eyes. The idea of God repeatedly forgiving and restoring requires that we trust God. That’s the real problem.
We might “know” intellectually that God has the energy, patience, and resources to deal with our continually increasing litany of bad behavior. It’s beyond our capability to embrace his kindness and unfailing love for us without fear. Our mistakes, lies, and cover-ups all too clearly reveal our guilt.
How do we accept that God is always forgiving us? We do accept that we will be judged. That’s not so hard. Forgiveness and judgment live together with God. God’s kindness is the clue, the character of God that he offers in both. Without God’s kindness, we are almost required to fix guilt by ourselves. We want to make it all up to him by being good.
Inevitably, dang it, we will mess up again.
God is considered by many believers, and even by most non-believers, as a necessary construct of retribution. Someone has to be keeping a record. Rationally, we calculate that our failures will overwhelm us and suffer God too much.
This does not get better as we age. Further developments in our spiritual life reveal more and more holy rules of perfect living. We see clearly the better ways to live but to no avail. We cannot adhere to perfection with precision. The rules are good, too. We know that, but we just can’t live up to them.
Our sins stand out as a collected set of indefensible awfulness. They pile up in a mound visible to anyone who looks closely. Some of us (not me, thankfully) have photographic, deeply impressed memories of everything bad we have done. I pity those who can never forget. While each day we add to the list of crap thrown onto our mountainous history of sin, we get practiced at rationalizing or dismissing them. Memory freaks, though, live with a daily journal of their lives down to the tiniest of details. I have trouble remembering where I put my reading glasses.
A purposeful review of my sins, like the Lenten liturgies, reminds me of my disgusting past. A daily Ignatian examination, called the Examen, does the same thing, which may explain my reticence to daily remember it.
A third group has given up on the problem of remembering our sins altogether. They deny the existence of sin. All of life is random and faultless. They must toss out our free will. If no free will, then we’re not to blame. Magic! If we purposely do something wrong, we’re likely just programmed to do that. Their logical solution is constant reprogramming. It’s not your fault. It’s just bad programming.
Whether photographic-inclined or tragically forgetful, we come at our problem of sin with trepidation and fear. Even those who consider themselves blameless do the same. Why else do they mask their fear of sin with such obfuscation?
This fearful calculation of God as judge a real. It is, though, the reason to turn to him, not the reason to hide. There’s something about God that we’re forgetting. He’s not an executioner. He’s our redeemer. Yes, God judges us. He also loves us. It may feel contradictory, but it's not.
Paul explains that waiting for our judgment on the last day is a losing proposition. We forget there is a God here right now. We’re mired only upon ourselves, holding off going to God in order to fix ourselves first. It won’t work. If we do the measurements of how good we are, rather than let God mold us into good, then we force God into only an executioner. We see him waiting for us with a giant Thor-like hammer to wield upon our heads.
We have a good reason for thinking this. “By your stubbornness and impenitent heart, you are storing up wrath for yourself … the just judgment of God, who will repay everyone according to his works.”
We’re not going to win the argument that God is not a judge with that verse.
Every one of us has gone through a period where we’ve tried to weigh our two piles. The good stuff and the bad stuff. We can’t rely on our ability to correctly identify the items in each stack. The best we can hope for, in our approach, is that those really big good things outweigh the innumerable tiny bad ones.
Our measurements cannot be assured. We live our lives with regret, anger, and regurgitation of worries that regularly haunt us. The words from scriptures just won’t go away for those of us who believe God runs a rueful court. “… wrath and fury to those who selfishly disobey the truth and obey wickedness.” Again, we're stuck on God's judgment as a one-time, court-held event.
Theologians offer in-depth arguments about mercy and judgment. They’ve covered this subject with intimate detail, weighing every part of life on the scale of sin and lawlessness against goodness. Quite often, their discussion resorts to loopholes. We do this too. The loopholes are terrific salves to our worrying selves. We conclude that sin is due to the devil’s temptations; brainwashing by cultural and media controls; reverberations from the traumas of war; and a host of unabated sexual deviations which destroy both love and lives. Sin is due to folks doing all that stuff, not us! We’re collateral damage.
Fault, blame, and judgment. Yuck. Egregious sin triggers further sinfulness. Yet, as we blame others, we end up blaming ourselves too. We’re inflicting others as much as they do us, for goodness sake. Paul hammers at our personal involvement in sin by calling the passing of judgment on others just another wickedness. “Do you suppose, then, you who judge those who engage in such things and yet do them yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God?”
I know the choice between doing what I am supposed to do and doing something that satisfies me. The better path isn’t really any more difficult than the selfish one, though. God urges us to do something better while stuck in the whirlwind of uncontrollable opportunities to sin. Turn to him. Will we be judged? Most certainly. Daily judgment, however, is a whole lot different than a life of sin without God.
Repent, and grab onto God with both arms, Paul explains. Turn to God by asking why we disregard God’s offerings. “… do you hold his priceless kindness, forbearance, and patience in low esteem, unaware that the kindness of God would lead you to repentance?”
It’s a typical Pauline vehicle — reveal God through our dismissal of God. God brings us kindness, forbearance, and patience. Nothing we do stops this giving from God. Paul calls these things priceless. We can’t afford to buy such things, and God gives them to us freely.
Kindness quells chaos. God’s kindness cuts through all of evil’s dastardly divisions between us. Forbearance means restraint. God tolerates the most heinous of acts — from rude and arrogant temperament to wild-eyed violence. God allows us to exhaust ourselves when we lose our tempers, like a loving parent who corrals a child, or a trainer who slowly tempers a horse. And finally, God has patience. He waits for us to come back to him. He waits, and waits, and waits.
The kindness of God leads us to repentance. Do you see it? God does not bring a hammer. He brings us kindness and correction. He isn’t waiting for our judgment day to attend to us. He’s here, right now, at every second of our lives. He obliterates our piles of bad stuff on a daily basis.
Rather than fret, hide, and regret, Paul tells us that we should repent, and then immediately begin to seek eternal life. Eternal life is a trinity of glory, honor, and immortality. All we have to do is concentrate our behavior upon that, often.
It’s not the final judgment that God wields, but kindness right now. A daily reckoning with God burns away our sins. He leads us to be good people, fruitful sons, and daughters, even as we sin. That’s a whole lot better way of living our lives than worrying that God will deal with us after he's finally tracked us down.