Rev. Harrison Goodman
Cutters see something most of us try very hard to ignore. Sin has to be paid for in blood. It’s always been that way. For all the platitudes we spout to people who self-harm, they still see through to that truth. Christ knew it, too. So He bled and died for the sins of the world. It doesn’t need to be your blood. Christ already spilled His for you. At least, that’s what I told Tom. He found comfort in it for about a day and a half. Then he cut again.
He told me later. His shame was so heavy his head was bowed. Maybe he figured if I couldn’t look into his eyes I wouldn’t see the real issue: fear. It didn’t work. “I believe this stuff, but I’m not better. Why?”
So I laid my hand on his head. I spoke the only words I had that could help. “In the stead and by the command of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, I forgive you this and all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
It’s too easy to read this as a story about failure. We’re taught faith alone saves us. It’s just that sometimes we forget what faith looks like. For some reason we usually try to paint a picture of it with the Law. If you really believed, you’d behave. If you really believed, you’d be better. That changes how we expect to deal with God. If we can just be better, it stops being about us needing Him after we believe. After that, we should be doing stuff for Him.
Except, Jesus tells some people “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). Those people aren’t unbelievers. Why would they sacrifice to what they don’t believe in? This is for us sinners. Mercy. Not sacrifice. We don’t measure faith by the sacrifices we make. We measure it by the mercy given to us. The Law can’t name us Christian. Only the Gospel can do that. Tom isn’t a Christian because he behaves. He’s a Christian because he has received mercy from Christ.
Don’t get me wrong. I wish Tom didn’t cut. I hate knowing he hurts that much. It would be better if he didn’t. But this goes deeper than the razorblade. Underneath the symptoms he wears on his arms, there is a condition we call sin. That’s what needs to be fixed. Only mercy can fix sin. Not sacrifice. The condition won’t go away by sacrificing in abstaining from something we want to do. The condition won’t go away by sacrificing in cutting our bodies. Help comes from mercy, not sacrifice.
That help isn’t measured in your success or failure any more than the blood paid for sins is measured in what you spill from your arms and stomach. It’s measured in Christ. All of it. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” He bled and died. He gives mercy.
Are you done needing Jesus? The short answer is no. Our Catechism gives us the long answer. Christian life is being united with Jesus in His death and His resurrection every single day. Christian life is baptism. Baptism indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. “Better” isn’t measured in us conquering our sins on our own. It’s measured in Jesus’ innocent suffering and death that saves us. That never changes.
The only off switch for sin is death. So Christ died. In your baptism, you will too. Every single day. Jesus says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Just mercy. It’s not your job to conquer sin on your own. It never will be. It’s Christ’s job. “Better” comes from where Christ promises to work. All of them are easy to overlook. Baptism is just water and God’s Word. It still raises us from death every single day.
The one we really struggle with, though, is the idea of vocation. That God actually works through sinners to accomplish things. God actually preaches through sinful pastors. God actually loves through sinful parents. God actually heals through sinful doctors. God works through sinners, even sinners who don’t always do their job perfectly. God is so committed to this that He works through them for good anyway. He’s promised to do so. It rarely looks all that impressive, but that’s okay. Jesus was pretty unassuming, too. He still conquered sin, death, and the power of the devil by His death upon the cross and then He rose from the dead. Unassuming isn’t so bad.
Tom felt so burdened that he cut into his own flesh. So Christ drowned that sinner in the water of his baptism, to raise him up in righteousness and purity. Tom received absolution. Tom talked to his parents. They didn’t deal with it perfectly, but God worked through them anyway, and even forgave them, too. Tom started to get help. Better wasn’t found in a pledge he made. Better wasn’t found in a single moment in time. Better was found in Christ. Better is delivered in all the ways Christ works, every day, until we finally see the fullness of what better looks like in the resurrection.
Rev. Harrison Goodman serves as pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church, Carroll, Nebraska.