I sometimes wonder about the statements of conviction we make. I’m firm believer in making very few commitments quickly while making damn sure you always keep the ones you do make. But absolute statements, declarations, and manifestos are some of the most easy things to say. They role right off the tongue and theological books are full of them. For example, I offer this statement:
I would rather die than end up unfaithful to my wife; I would rather die than deny by a profligate life what I have taught in my books; I would rather die than deny or disown the gospel. (D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990], 120).
Based on this, I think only two conclusions about D.A. Carson are possible. Either he is far more mature as a Christian and a person than I shall likely ever be (which is certainly possible) or he is just making sentimental statements that make for well-selling evangelical devotional books (which, I think may also be possible, but I hope, less likely).
Now I’ll just be honest here, I would damn well rather cheat on my wife and deal with the horror that would unfold from that than get killed. Certainly I know that wouldn’t be a moral act in any sense, but I know good and well that if someone put a gun to my head and presented me with that alternative that I’d most likely cave. Maybe I’m underestimating the power of my own affections here, but I don’t think so. I’d certainly rather live at variance from my writings than cease to live. Disown the gospel? I think on something that stark I might have a chance, but for all I know I’d end up going through a series of denials and recantations not unlike the Anabaptist martyr Balthasar Hubmaier.
Now certainly I agree that in all of the examples that Carson offers I agree that we should rather die than give in to such forms of sin and compromise. And maybe Carson has had experiences in which these convictions have been tested. I have not and as such I feel very uncomfortable making statements about myself with such boldness. I fear such statements tends very quickly towards bravado and reflect a sort of fanciful self-construction. Or at least I know that that’s what I’d be doing if I made those statements.
Do we not end up conjuring up notions of our own indefectability with statements like this? We seem to implicitly claim to have come to some sort of indubitable self-knowledge and are certain that we are the kind of persons who above all would never do this. Is not the message of the gospel often that we will indeed do exactly this? Does not the message of gospel constantly remind us that we are the betrayers of the truth? Statements of the sort that Carson makes seem to bear within themselves a grammar that is inappropriate to the whole discourse of Christian discipleship. To say something like “I would rather die than deny the gospel” is often really saying “I am a person who cannot be shaken and I know it.” Such statements sound far too bold for me. “Even if everyone else deserts you, I will never desert you!”
I for one am terrified of death and can’t stand acute pain in the least. (People, if the persecution starts you all need to go into hiding immediately. I am going to break fast if the torture starts.) I have no confidence in my ability to become a faithful martyr of the Christian confession. I cannot imagine writing down in a book that I would rather die than disown the gospel. I do not find the resources of moral certainty in myself that Carson seems to find within (Let me emphasize, I hesitate to impute duplicity to him; I just know what those lines would mean if I were to write them). If I were to make statements about my own moral resolve on the basis of the gospel I don’t know any other way to state them than in the interrogative: “Can these dry bones live?”
I wonder if a truly biblical spirituality should perhaps avoid the indicative mood altogether? The indicative makes statements about the reality of the present, but the faith of the resurrection is premised on the horror of the past and the promise of the future fracturing the givenness of the present and suffusing it with apocalyptic hope. A faith that lives between promise and hope exists in the linguistic mode of supplication, of trembling, of desperate hope in the future of the one who has promised that his Life will be the end of all things. We are called, not into moral certitude and self-confidence in our development as Christians, but rather to the wild patience of those who follow one who always remains beyond our grasp.
We must begin, not with an assertion of our own indefectability, however well-founded our confidence might be. The mystery of salvation includes the claim that those closest to Jesus often refuse to be found alongside him in his sufferings. We must begin, rather in the assertion of our radical defectability. Only then can we embrace the hope that lies precisely outside of ourselves in Christ and the promise of his apocalypse. “If we are faithless he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.”