Stress and justification by works

This passage here about stress is very plain and straightforward, but I have to admit, at one point it hit me like a ton of bricks.

We can start by considering some everyday problems of living, in order to discover the needs and intentions which give rise to them. Consider the problem of stress. Stress is pressure caused by the convergence of strong, conflicting claims upon the self. If, for example, a a person feels under the pressure of having to perform at peak efficiency in his work at all times, and also desires to be an attentive partner to his spouse and present parent to his children, he will almost certainly experience stress. How can he balance the strong, conflicting claims upon his time? Add to them his desire to have time for his own interests, and he will have a very hard time reconciling the demands. This is a type of stress that is familiar to many of us.

It is all the worse in a period like the present, when the law of capability is in force. This is the law that judges us wanting if we are not capable, if we cannot handle it all, if we are not competent to balance our diverse commitments without a slip. Who among us does not live under the dread sign of the law of capability?

In a commencement address, the columnist Ellen Goodman once described the Model Woman of today, somewhat along the following lines. She gets up at six-thirty in the morning and jogs five miles. At seven-thirty she cooks a totally nourishing breakfast for her husband and two beautiful children. By eight-thirty the children have left for school, her husband to his office, and she is on the way to her incredibly demanding job: she is advertising director for a major firm. All day long she attends meetings and makes important decisions. When she finally arrives home, it is quite late because she had to attend a board meeting for a community-service organization of which she is chairman. But she does not get home too late to fix her children a totally nourishing supper. She helps both of them with their homework and has meaningful good-nights with each. Yet she still has time to plug in the Cuisinart to prepare a gourmet, candlelit supper for herself and her husband. As the day comes to an end, the Model Woman has a totally fulfilling yet deeply honest sexual relationship with her admirably sensitive husband.

Under the law of capability the Model Woman, like any of us, is bound to sicken. We are all simply human. Stress, which takes innumerable forms in our lives and of which the law of capability is one, results from strong, conflicting claims upon the self. Ultimately, stress involves a religious problem. The problem underlying our need to reconcile conflicting demands is this: What establishes my identity? What IS my identity?

Many of us act as if the answer to this question were performance. If I can do enough of the right things, I will have established my worth. Identity is the sum of my achievements. Hence, if I can satisfy the boss, meet the needs of my spouse and children, and still do justice to my inner aspirations, then I will have proven my worth. Their are infinite ways to prove our worth along these lines. The basic equation is this: I am what I do. It is a religious position in life because it tries to answer in practical terms the question, Who am I and what is my niche in the universe? On this reading, my niche is a proportion to my deeds. In Christian theology, such a position is called justification by works. It assumes that my worth is measured by my performance. Conversely, it conceals, thinly, a dark and ghastly fear: If I do not perform, I will be judged unworthy. To myself I will cease to exist.

-Paul Zahl, Who Will Deliver Us?, p.9

My entire life, I’ve had the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith (versus justification by works, or “dead works”) driven home to me repeatedly. It is the heart of the gospel of Christ. And yet, how could I have acquired such a limited conception of it? You see, I’ve always seen “justification by works” as simply stuff we do to try to earn God’s favor, or stuff we try and do to “work our way to heaven” instead of giving up and relying on the work of Jesus. Most other religions are accused to living and dying by this method, in some fashion.

Here is the catch though, and the way that Zahl speaks of it makes it unusually clear: We use our dead works not just to justify ourselves before God, but also before others and especially ourselves. The pressure we put on ourselves to perform, our painful hesitancy to forgive ourselves when we fail – this is again the weight of the law pushing down on us, crushing us.

As Christians, we know that justifying ourselves to God is impossible and unnecessary. How quickly we miss the wider reaching implications though!

One rather incongruous situation comes to mind: In college, I took a Catechism class where we spent several weeks on the topic of “turning from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14). All the teaching and theology was sound. We read tons of scripture. But during this time, we were under an incredible amount of pressure to perform well and participate in church activities. If we didn’t show up for Saturday morning work crews, we got a phone calling asking where we were and wanting a pretty legitimate excuse, (for example, lying bleeding in the hospital). Getting in a fight with your roommate would get back around quickly to your small group leader and you were likely to get a talkin’ to. Despite being dressed up in spirituality, being buddy with the pastor or his kids was an effective and sought-after passage to climbing the social ladder. I don’t think any of this was at all unique to this particular church either. In fact, in many respects it was well above average.

What I’m getting at is that in this context, “justification by faith”, the heart of the gospel, was communicated and instilled in such a way that it was a doctrine only meaningful for eternal salvation. You don’t have to make Jesus happy to receive his love, but you still very much need to make everyone else happy, especially yourself if you want to get any love from them. In fact, putting a lot of pressure on yourself, (just like in the competitive business world or in the arts) was considered to be a good and even Godly thing to do. Yes, you rest in the Lord, but that’s only about going to heaven when you die. Right now, on earth, you had best pull yourself up by your boot-straps, “do hard things”, and kick some ass. The Holy Spirit will help you keep all the plates spinning.

No. I reject this now. It’s just more dead works. The gospel sets men free from that too. That’s why it’s a total scandal.