One evening last week, I got to the door at the bottom of my block of flats, and a man was lying on the pavement who had jumped or fallen from a window or tree, while an assortment of passers-by were phoning to hurry the ambulance, or ringing door-bells trying to find a doctor.
Faith is a funny thing in a crisis, sometimes jerking into action, sometimes not. One evening when I was a student, and living in rooms on a stone staircase, I heard a loud crash as a girl going down the stairs in high heels slipped and knocked herself out. Her friend sprinted down the stairs and off to the porters’ lodge, and I sprinted up the stairs praying out loud and ‘laid a hand’ on her arm. At once she opened her eyes, then she sat up, and by the time the porters appeared, and then the paramedics, she was more or less alright, though rather embarrassed. It seemed like a supernatural coming back to life, though probably she was just stunned, and the slight touch on her arm was enough to wake her up: the two would look exactly the same to me. The important thing was that she was alright.
But between the girl on the stairs and the random man on the pavement I picked up an impression that if an injured person was moved in the wrong way then the situation would just get worse, and that people without any knowledge of first aid should just stay out of the way. I don’t have any first aid knowledge, and I don’t know the Russian words for phrases like ‘hang on in there mate’ and ‘the ambulance is on its way’. So I stood at the top of the steps, by the staircase door, praying for the random man from there, hoping the paramedics would come quickly, and thinking a variety of not terribly relevant thoughts such as “this kind of thing is only supposed to happen in ‘Inspector Morse’”.
There is plenty of scope here for retrospective unanswerable questioning, because apparently no-one else knew first aid either, or was willing to sit down with him and say soothing things and generally express solidarity. If we had known any first aid, would we have been able to save his life? If I had had enough Russian, if I’d had the courage to go and sit with him even though no-one else was and things were a bit messy, would it have made a difference for him to have someone there? Does it count as being with someone when you don’t have the first aid knowledge or the Russian or the courage but you’re praying from a distance?
If it had been ‘Inspector Morse’, I think Lewis would have been down the steps and on the pavement with him—WWRLHD? being a less overwhelming substitute for WWJHD? when probably either of them would have done much more than I did. Jesus, after all, could have raised the dead. But apparently I have less faith than the Toronto School of Ministry students who visited our house once and suggested praying for our recently deceased pet rabbit, and my praying didn’t get that far.
So we come to the question that made me think of blogging about all this.
Supposing that man had never in his life before accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour, were those few minutes after falling his last chance?
I had this thought at some point while the surrounding people were on their phones and waving away passing children. But even if I’d had the language, I don’t think I would have been saying to him, “Quick! Give your life to Jesus while there’s still time!” Prayer, yes; comforting words, yes; last-minute evangelism, no. It would have seemed disgusting.
And afterwards, when I thought about it again, all I could think was that God couldn’t not have compassion on someone lying so bashed up and pitiful at the bottom of a tree. He just wouldn’t. God couldn’t be less compassionate than an incompetent foreigner praying on the steps or a bunch of Russians waving their arms furiously in the street to show the ambulance where to come.
So where does that leave my theology and sola fide and all that?
So says Paul, and I do trust Paul. But if a man falls/jumps out of a window/tree before ever making such a declaration, are we supposed to think that he is only saved if he manages to believe in his heart at the last minute—if he has the time and the mental togetherness to think anything while falling through the air beyond “Oh no, I’m falling”?
I find such an idea impractical and unpleasant. It may be that in Brideshead Revisited the author can haul a character’s hand on a puppet-string so that he crosses himself on his bed while otherwise unable to move (this is my memory of that chapter, at any rate) but I can’t help but think that the real world must be in this respect less crass than that of Brideshead Revisited. One’s hope for the random man has surely got to be rooted in God’s nature. In other circumstances we’d call it blasphemous or idolatrous to trust not in God but in the chances of a man’s mind and heart being in a clear and faith-filled state. So here too we have to rely on God’s mercy, not in the likelihood or otherwise of someone thinking and feeling the right things between, so to speak, the saddle
and the ground.
Jesus knows what it is like to be so physically injured and so humiliated, though he didn’t arrive there in the same way. He is not only more compassionate than us by nature, but has by experience an affinity with the random man that almost certainly no-one else on the street had that day. That has to be important—that the cross was not a talisman, the little reproductions of which are our tickets to heaven, but a physical fact which means that there is a unity between Jesus and the random man, compared with which certain evangelical squawkings to the effect that Jesus Saves would seem somewhat ridiculous, like telling two experienced astronauts that space is big. Jesus is the Saviour because He has been there, not because He is the one whose actions provide the system whereby salvation can be attained if the correct things are believed and declared.
I know that the criminal on the next cross said “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” before Jesus said to him “today you will be with me in paradise”. But Jesus did also say on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”—which is quite different to “Father, forgive them, for they will believe in their hearts at some point later and repent and receive Your forgiveness”.
It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.
I don’t mean to say that I think we can all ignore Jesus and just trust to his compassion in a tight spot. That would be like Darth Vader saying ‘Come to the Dark Side, Luke… But only if it fits your schedule.’ The call to the shiny side is a call into the kingdom of heaven right now, not just the offer of a ticket to heaven later. Possibly I could quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer on this point instead of Darth Vader, but I’m only halfway through the first chapter of The Cost of Discipleship so I won’t. At any rate, if evangelism is not meant to be just handing out tickets, then maybe what God was thinking that evening about the random man was not, ‘Did he pick up his ticket?’
So there we are. Maybe that all makes me a heretic. Or maybe it is all stating the obvious. Maybe I have pinned my whole theology on the notion that real life is more like Star Wars than it is like Brideshead Revisited. More probably I have no rigorous theology at all: theology can be but is not necessarily where one lives between one Pre-Int Intensive lesson and the next. It is just helpful sometimes to say stuff and see where one ends up. Even Paul, who would not, I imagine, if pressed, actually have asserted that all human beings are on a scale of relative sinfulness with himself at the bottom end, nevertheless said that a truth about us and Jesus can be expressed with the words “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” So thank you for taking the time to read all this, if you’re still here. Your comments would be welcomed.
One thing I can confidently say is that I would very much like it if God would allow and help me to prevent the same thing happening to other people in future.
How deep the Father’s love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure
How great the pain of searing loss
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the Chosen One
Bring many sons to glory