God Calls Us to the Truth About Ourselves

By Joey Royal

I was very intrigued this past week by an advertisement I saw on the Internet. It’s a video advertising soap, and the advertising campaign is called “You are more beautiful than you think.”

The advertisement is about two minutes long, and it begins with a criminal-sketch artist who works for the FBI. This man’s job is to draw people’s faces based purely on a verbal description. The soap company hired him to draw portraits of several women. He was to draw two separate portraits of each woman based purely on description — at no point while drawing does he see anyone.

For the first portrait, the woman he is drawing is hidden behind a curtain. He asks her to describe every part of her face, which she does, and then he draws the woman’s face based solely on her description of herself.

For the second portrait, the artist draws that same woman based on the description given by someone else, someone who had just met that woman and spent the last few minutes with her.

The interesting thing was that the sketches of the women as they described themselves were harsher than the other drawings. When the two portraits were placed side by side, the second drawing for each woman — the one based on someone else’s description —was a much more flattering and much more accurate picture of that woman. The second portrait, the more attractive one, looked more like that woman.

The commercial was a powerful counterpoint to the unrealistic ideals that women in our culture are held to, but I think it also hinted at a central biblical-theological point. That point is simply that we have a distorted view of ourselves. This distortion certainly involves an unrealistic view of how we look, but it goes much deeper than that. I would argue that this distorted view of ourselves pervades our entire life, and that this distortion goes in two directions: First, we fail to realize how lost we are, and second, we fail to realize how loved we are.

This morning I want to go off the lectionary and look at one verse from Paul’s epistle to the Romans. I usually don’t preach sermons based on one verse, but this particular verse has caught my attention so deeply this week that I felt obligated to say something about it.

The verse is from Romans 11:32. It reads like this: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.”

Again, more slowly: God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

So my question, once again, is: What does this verse tell us about our distorted view of ourselves? And how can this verse help to correct that distorted view?

Let me start with the second part first: That he may have mercy upon all.

God has mercy on us. That’s the claim of this text. What does it mean for God to be merciful to us? It means that God persists in loving us and being good to us even though we don’t deserve it. Mercy is God’s kindness to sinning people. It means that God has every right to say no to us, but he doesn’t do that; he says yes to us. He is not against us; he is for us. That is God’s mercy — to continue to be our God in spite of anything that happens.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans he is arguing that God’s mercy extends to both Jews and Gentiles. This was the big issue in the New Testament Church: the relationship between Jews (“God’s covenant people”) and Gentiles (“people from a pagan background”), particularly their status before God. So Paul is arguing that God has the same kind of mercy toward everybody — to insiders and outsiders, to those within the covenant and to those outside it, to the pious and to unbelievers, to so-called good people and to so-called bad people.

And that means you too, and it means me. So the proper response this morning is to say, “That includes me. God has had mercy on me and God will continue to have mercy on me.” That’s the right response to this. What you don’t want to say is: “This is not meant for me. It’s meant for other people. God doesn’t have mercy on me.” Or, even worse: “I don’t need mercy and I don’t want mercy.” That would be the wrong response to this.

I said earlier that we have a distorted view of ourselves, and this text on mercy tells us that we don’t know how lovedwe are. We don’t realize that God has mercy on us precisely because he loves us. There is no other reason for God to do that. So as recipients of God’s mercy and kindness, we should live confidently and unafraid, and we should spread God’s mercy and forgiveness to others.

The obvious implication of this is that if God has mercy on us then he has mercy on others too, even toward people we don’t like. God even has mercy on our enemies. Maybe someone in your life has hurt you — God has mercy on them too. The text says God has mercy on “all” and I want to take that “all” seriously; that means we have no right to cut anyone out of God’s kindness.

So we need to treat ourselves as recipients of God’s mercy, but we also need to treat other people as recipients of God’s mercy. Just as we don’t know how loved we are, we also don’t know how loved others are.

So that’s the first distortion — that we don’t realize how loved we (and others) are. We don’t realize how vast and deep God’s mercy is toward us. But we must remember that if we receive God’s mercy, that means others get it too, in equal measure to us.

For the second distortion, I want to go back to the first part of the verse. The verse reads: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.”

The text says we are prisoners in disobedience. All of us, without exception, are prisoners before a God who knows exactly who and exactly what we are. All of us have a fundamental disorder — which the Bible calls sin — and this disorder imprisons us and locks God out. Sin affects each of us in unique ways, but we are all in a common predicament.

I find the language of “prison” especially illuminating, because it captures the biblical idea that sin is not just bad things we do; it’s actually a power that enslaves us.

And I think the language of being imprisoned is something we are all familiar with. People get caught up and snared in all kinds of things. We get stuck, ensnared. Some people are prisoners to grief, or depression, or anxiety, or despair. These psychological afflictions lock people up. Others are prisoners of resentment, anger, hatred, unforgiveness. Maybe someone has hurt you, or treated you badly, or betrayed you, and now your negative feelings for that person control your life. That too is a kind of prison, a way of being locked up. Maybe others are prisoners of habits or addictions or behaviors that are destructive to you and the people you love most. But you can’t stop. That too is a kind of prison. Maybe others are sick with a persistent illness, so that it feels like your body is your enemy. You feel like you’re a prisoner in your ailing body.

The point is that on our own, we are in deep trouble. There’s no way to get away from this. Now, the wrong response to this would be to exempt yourself, to say that this describes someone else much worse off than you. We can all point to other people, to more obvious targets, and thereby deflect this from ourselves. But the fact is there is no escape: God has made me and you and all of us “prisoners of disobedience.” Left to our own devices, we are alienated from God. And we don’t realize how serious and how deep this goes, and that’s the second distortion — we don’t know how lost we are.

Now, this may all sound quite dismal and hopeless. But I want to emphasize here that God’s intention is not to shame us or debase us. I said earlier that God is not against us; he is for us. That is especially true here. I want to draw attention to the words “so that”: “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.”

See, God offering us salvation, rescuing us from the trouble we’re in, is not an afterthought. Even when God turned us over to sin, he already did so with the aim of extending his love to us. When God left us to disobey, his arms were already outstretched in mercy toward us. Even at our worst, God was still our shepherd and we were his flock. Already he planned to gather us together in the name of Jesus.

And Jesus, of course, is at the center of all of this. Jesus is the name for God’s love for us. So God wants us to say yes to Jesus, knowing that God has already said an even bigger yes to us.

This is good news: That God knows the truth about us — we are prisoners of disobedience, locked into the many ways we avoid God’s love. Left to our own devices, we are lost and have no idea how badly lost we are. But it’s equally true that we have no idea how loved we are, because God in his infinite goodness has chosen to have mercy on us.

So, this morning, God is calling for a response from us. The right response to this is to say, “Yes, I am a prisoner of disobedience — that’s me.” But God doesn’t want to leave you there, and so he wants you also to say, “Yes, I am a recipient of God’s mercy — that’s me too.” God is calling you out of whatever prison you’re in so that we can live into his great mercy. God is calling us out of our distorted thinking into the light of his truth — that we are badly lost, but deeply loved.

The Rt. Rev. Joseph (Joey) Royal is suffragan bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada’s Diocese of the Arctic.

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