Samson and Agonistes
I don’t know how to express the balance and I certainly haven’t found it in practice. I think the difficulty is real and enduring because the situation is complex. Despite the claims of the gurus and popular writers some things just aren’t easy to unravel! [Don’t you get sick of the endless river of advice books that are a mile wide and an inch deep?]
How much time should I spend mulling over my sins? How much time should I spend mulling over and lamenting my sinfulness? If we take Paul’s advice and forget the things that are behind will we too quickly rise from our mourning and too cheerfully press on? If we spend too much time in the last half of Romans 7 (I’m not pretending to give what I think is its thrust) will we be too introspective? There’s David who inwardly grinds his bones over his sin and irritable Job who wants to know why God would make such a big deal over his sin (presuming, in the first place, that he had done something wrong)—which of these two has the right stress?
In Milton’s Samson & Agonistes the fallen man is approached by his father Manoah who tells Samson that he is trying to negotiate his freedom. Samson will have none of it because he brought all his trouble on himself and deserves what he is getting—his mind is on his terrible wrongs. His father thinks the sinner has his blind eyes too much on himself (the offender) and how bad he is, rather than on the God he has offended. Might Samson now be guilty of the sin of pride by being,
Over-just and self-displeased
For self-offence more than for God offended.
Was he being too just in refusing to accept forgiveness? Was he more offended at himself than he was offended for God? There’s something too holy about a man (or woman) that keeps insisting that he can’t forgive himself. I wouldn’t presume to say there aren’t exceptions to the rule, but who do they think they are, God? Should we think that they see their sin more truly than the Holy Father sees it? Does their holiness surpass his so that somehow, while he might be willing to forgive, they think it unforgivable? Do we take it more seriously than God does? And even in relation to one another, when we have sinned against one another, is there not the temptation to choose to live without forgiveness rather that be under obligation to the generous grace of the one we’ve offended?
And—maybe I’m making too much out of all this—if we’re slow to humbly and gladly accept forgiveness are we not saying that we’re content to have the gulf between us? Does that not show that we think little of the relationship we will not have restored by forgiveness? If the one we’ve offended is willing, eager, anxious even, to have the matter dealt with and out of the way so that the relationship can deepen and purify what am I saying when I turn down the offer of free forgiveness?
Ah, yes, that may be the case in other situations, but my sin—it is special, not like the sin of others. It’s the worst possible and resists even the tenderest affection and the most generous heart.
Hmmm...maybe we need to take ourselves less seriously.
Once in a saintly passion
I cried in deepest grief.
O God, my heart is filled with guile
Of sinners I’m the chief.
Then stood my guardian angel
And whispered from behind,
‘Vanity, my little man,
You’re nothing of the kind.’
But if they’re doing wrong who will not forgive themselves, what are they doing that bully people into thinking they’re unforgivable? That make it nearly impossible for self-scalded sinners to believe they should expect forgiveness? That make it excruciatingly difficult for sinners to ask for forgiveness?