On Migraines and Mercy

Andrew DeLoach
Monday, February 29th 2016
Mar/Apr 2016

Why don't you take a few Advil?" The glaring stare this suggestion produced told me immediately I had gotten something quite wrong. My instinct to help had so far been a good one. Now my presence in the room was a problem. Speaking again was unwise; anything but silent departure, imprudent.

People who don't have migraines don't understand what it is like to have one. I had no real idea until I witnessed it myself, and my ignorance led me to reconsider the times I had called my own headache a migraine. Suffering with a migraine can be debilitating; it incapacitates the body and overruns the senses so that sounds nauseate and light penetrates like a knife. As Joan Didion describes in her marvelous essay on migraines, "In Bed," a "headache of blinding severity" is only one of "an essentially hereditary complex of symptoms." One inherits this affliction, and it is not escaped but lived with.

Sin is very much like this. It is just as invisibly real as a migraine; I'm aware of it in ways that no one else can see or feel or experience. I feel my sin in acute pangs and concentrated aches in body and soul. Because of sin my heart is, as Luther puts it, "crushed to the point of despair." Keeping to the darkness, the light penetrates like a knife. Unlike migraines, however, sin is inherited not by a mere unfortunate segment of the population, but by every human being’a universal hereditary failure to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. Whether or not we feel it, and however we feel about it, it is a burden on each of us that, if ignored, "will in fact break us, will send us from this world to whatever happens afterwards, not as souls but as broken souls." (1)

Yet many today do ignore it or, at best, don't believe that sin is a serious problem. In fact, our culture has virtually abandoned the concept of sin and replaced it with a general class of socially inappropriate behavior. For some, sin is suffused with "the lingering scent of divinity"’it is an inescapably religious category’and is therefore incompatible with a nontheistic worldview. The pseudo-academic secular fundamentalism of "freethinkers," such as Sam Harris, addresses this dilemma by labeling as "secular sin" any bad behavior that transgresses important secular ethics. Experimental psychologist (and professed atheist) Steven Pinker has suggested that science indeed supports a secular version of sin. But even a focus on these sins is considered unwise. Terrorism, infectious disease, failing infrastructure’these are what Harris calls "our deeper interests." Religious sin is nothing but masochism.

While most of our culture is not interested in such a vigorous attack on sin, it is perfectly willing to ignore the significance of sin and redefine it as social impropriety. This new form of nihilistic "mass wised-upness," as George Grant called it, is more apparent than ever. Certainly, unarguably, the paramount contemporary sin is intolerance. To impose any stigma on one's chosen identity or to diminish one's personhood’these are no longer simply social anathema but are now judicially forbidden. Cultural furor has metastasized into jurisprudential cancer. Underlying this is the fact that our society is no longer haunted by any sense of personal guilt for objective wrongs. Absent consequences, one is inclined to excuse the behavior as acceptable, even repeatable. If I don't get caught, it can't be wrong. Yet this same lack of personal guilt is seemingly no barrier to ascribing fault to someone else. "Do what thou wilt"’but watch what thou sayest, lest one's feelings be hurt. And as it turns out, zealously guarding one neighbor's feelings from insult by another neighbor is exhausting. An entire pool of emotional lifeguards fosters an oppressive social anxiety.

But this anxiety is an insufficient proxy for sin. Though it is far removed from that existential "sickness unto death" that comes from true despair over one's sins, it is nevertheless a sign that sin is very real’in fact, inescapable. Redefining sin does nothing to solve the problem of sin. Calling a marital affair a "discreet encounter" does not prevent the harm and hurt it causes, and it certainly does nothing to make the problem go away. Focusing on the "deeper interests" of society does not alleviate the guilt of sin. Only a mass dumbed-downness prescribes Advil for a hereditary and fatal sickness. And the problem with seeing sin as a temporary malady (or worse, a social faux pas) is how easily we presume that one day we may improve and get over it. This puts the impetus on us and on our effort. Yet calling sin what it really is’an inherited condition of unbelief’forces us to throw up our hands and confess with Saint Augustine, "I am terrified by my sins and the dead weight of my misery." (2)

Indeed, Holy Scripture is replete with such confessions. "For I know my transgressions," David laments, "and my sin is ever before me" (Ps. 51:3). We stand accused and "our sins testify against us" (Isa. 59:12). Even more, we have hidden sins that we cannot discern and yet must confess (Ps. 19:12). If we keep silent, our bones waste away (Ps. 32:3). Clearly, we must know and grieve over the guilt of our sins. To be a sinner is to experience deep anguish in body and soul. Sin separates us from God, and it pulls us away from good and into denial and despair. Worse, to be a sinner is to be a captive to death, for sin is not only a sickness but spiritual death (Eph. 2:1). Ultimately, where this sense of sin is diluted, the price of redemption is forgotten, and as Flannery O'Connor notes, "Redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the actual life we live." (3)

In fact, we must be willing not only to call ourselves sinners but to be sinners, "for Christ dwells only in sinners." (4) It is precisely because we are sinners that we are commended to the mercy of God. None of our sins will stand in the way of his unqualified gift of grace. Everyone, even the worst of us, is someone for whom Christ died, and he did this while we were sinners (Rom. 5:8). Though our sins cry out against us, his blood, poured out for our sins, cries louder (Heb. 12:24). Our hearts have been broken by sin and crushed by the law, but now they look to Christ for forgiveness. "He first leads one into hell through serious pain so he may lead that one back out of hell with savory grace." (5) As with the "pleasant euphoria" that comes with the end of a migraine, so much more does the euphoria of divine mercy bring healing and rest. With forgiveness of sins come also life and salvation, and this is cause for celebration’for we sinners were dead but are alive again (Luke 15).

Our dear Lord Christ, who suffered for our sins…comfort and strengthen your heart in true faith. And do not be troubled any more about your sin. (6)
1 [ Back ] C. S. Lewis, "Miserable Offenders," God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 121.
2 [ Back ] St. Augustine, Confessions of a Sinner (London: Penguin Books,2004), 94.
3 [ Back ] Flannery O'Connor, "The Fiction Writer & His Country," Mystery and Manners (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), 33.
4 [ Back ] Martin Luther, in Theodore G. Tappert, ed., Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel (Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 2003), 110.
5 [ Back ] Johann Gerhard, Sacred Meditations, trans. Wade R. Johnson (Saginaw, MI: Magdeburg Press, 2008), 30.
6 [ Back ] Luther, 103.
Monday, February 29th 2016

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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