On Satan's Scylla and Charybdis
I know of a man who feels responsible for his own mother's death. It seems she had a heart condition of some kind, and he recommended that she undergo surgery. This particular procedure had a high success-rate, but there was some small risk of death. Unfortunately, in this case, the patient didn't make it, and the son is burdened with guilt.
I don't know much else about this fellow. I know he's angry much of the time. I imagine him trapped in an interior web of claims and counter-claims, of self-recriminations and self-justifications. He reconsiders, again and again, the good sense of that advice he gave, and he hopes that this might somehow assuage his guilt. But, of course, it doesn't. No, no, it was clearly very bad advice, and there is no justification. And so he swings between futile attempts to justify himself on the one hand and a helpless sense of guilt on the other.
But he's really not so different in kind from the rest of us. I've been talking a lot about poverty of spirit lately, and I keep coming back to the idea that poverty of spirit is exemplified by the words of the famous hymn, "Nothing in my hands I bring." In this fellow's case, I think a lot of people would try to encourage him by telling him that the advice he gave his mother was essentially sound, and it wasn't his fault that his mother turned out to be one of those few, those one in a hundred, that don't make it. In other words, his would-be comforters, seeing that he hovers between self-justification and self-condemnation, throw their weight behind the former, for it seems much the better alternative.
But the thing is, he will never be convinced. A death like this haunts us. Accuses us. And we cannot battle the Accuser with self-justifications, no matter how much encouragement our friends give us. All that is nothing more than red-meat for the Evil One. He loves it. There will always be a chink in that armor that he can take advantage of. I am not for a moment suggesting that this fellow's advice to his mother was sin for which he needs to repent. I am saying it is an instance of the bind that life puts us in--our best intentions seem to lead astray, even cause hurt, and we are left with this turbulent struggle in our conscience between the will to justify ourselves ("But I meant well . . .") and the consciousness or our failure ("But look how it's turned out . . .").
I'm calling this the Devil's Scylla and Charybdis. No victory, no life, can come by either of these routes, and we cannot deftly steer a course between them. We cannot navigate these waters. We are not legendary Homeric heroes. What then are we to do?
There is another way. It is simply to stand before the Cross and say with the centurion at Golgotha, "Surely this man was the Son of God." (Mark 15:39) This is the breakthrough, the breakout, the victory. The way up is the way down.
Chapter 8 of Romans describes a life we would all like to live, a life of ultimate triumph, a life without condemnation, a life of walking in the Spirit, in which all things actually work together for good, and in which nothing can separate us from Christ Jesus our Lord. But it should always be remembered that this pinnacle Christian life begins with the heart-cry of Paul at the end of the previous chapter. "Oh who shall save me from this body of death?"
And it should also be remembered that this cry is not simply a description of the "starting place" of our salvation, when we were born again, but for Paul it is a description of the Christian's properly continual mindset. The re-recognition, every day, that without Jesus we are done for.
Somewhere else (1 Corinthians 1:18) Paul describes the people of God as "those who are being saved." Not, you'll notice, those who are saved. Those who are being saved. It's a present-tense, day-by-day reality. Our salvation is worked out every day. We go back to the cross, claiming no right, making no plea, in recognition that only here is freedom. Only here is the turbulent interior storm settled. Only here is peace.