If I had to choose a least favorite hymn, it would probably be “It Is Well With My Soul.”
As a child, I would sometimes sing this song at school or at a summer camp at the Baptist church. My understanding of this song was that lots and lots of bad things will probably happen to you, but you should still be glad as long as your soul is OK. Since this song reads like a list of awful things (sorrows like sea billows, Satan buffeting, etc.) I also interpreted that last verse “the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend” as a bad thing. After all, the songwriter said, “Even so, it is well with my soul.”
Although I understand the theology of this song better now, I’ve never been able to shake to connotations of my childhood. Whenever I hear it, I am gripped with a sense of sorrow and of fear.
When I was a child I believed in Christ’s return the way I believed in the rising sun. I took for granted that it would happen. I expected it at every moment. Whenever the sun burst through the clouds after an afternoon storm I would turn my face to the sky, heart racing, wondering, “Is this it? Is He coming now, riding on those clouds, shining like the sun?” and I would be filled with fear.
In elementary school chapel I sat with my classmates in my scratchy plaid jumper and white oxford shirt and listened to our principal explaining judgment day. On that day, she said, all of our worst sins, even the ones we thought no one knew about, would be displayed in front of the whole world. For people who weren’t believers, this would be a horrible day, but for Christians, this would be a great day because after the whole world had watched that movie reel of our very worst moments, Jesus would step forward and erase the tape.
These words were meant to encourage belief, but they filled me with terror. I chewed my fingernails down to the quick while I imagined everyone I knew watching a video of my sins. I wasn’t comforted by Jesus erasing the tape. I was too busy panicking about everyone knowing I peeked at my spelling book for just a minute during the last test. And even at that young age, my fear worried me. Did this mean I wasn’t really a Christian? If this was meant to be a great day for Christians, then why was I so afraid of it? Shame pounded in my temples as I sent up fervent prayers to combat those of generations of saints, “Please, Jesus, won’t you tarry just a little longer?” I pleaded.
When I was in jr. high and high school I encountered a new theology of judgment. Judgment, I heard, was for the wicked, not for those favored of the Lord. When Christ returned in all of his glory, he would separate the righteous from the unrighteous like grain from chaff or sheep from goats. We need only worry that we were counted among the righteous.
On the surface this was comforting since Christ was my salvation. But over time, righteousness became equated with our good works. It was Christ’s righteousness that counted, but the only evidence of that was my actions. There were a dozen interwoven reasons why I was a perfectionist, but on a spiritual level, it was because I feared judgment – first and foremost from my church community and eventually from Christ himself.
I was a model child. I had perfect grades. I helped around the house. I babysat my sisters. I didn’t listen to secular music and I didn’t watch PG-13 movies. I never smoked, I never drank, I never even held hands with a boy. I didn’t even have a curfew to break because I was never out late enough to warrant one. I served in the youth group. At sixteen I was in charge of a whole cabin of girls at church camp who were only a few years younger than me. I played violin for the worship band. I ran the school’s mission team doing local and international outreaches. I can’t remember a single time that outright disobeyed my parents.
And yet, I was wracked with guilt for all the ways I failed. When I was sarcastic, when I used a disrespectful tone with my parents, when I was impatient with my sisters, when I lied because I was afraid of getting in trouble, when I got in a car accident, when I said mean things to make people laugh, when I tried to make myself feel smarter by making others feel dumb.
With a theology of judgment where God was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and my actions would determine which character I ended up with, how could I possibly think about judgment without fear? How could I ever be good enough to feel secure in my righteousness?
When we say The Apostle’s Creed we affirm that, “He will come to judge the living and the dead.” For most of my life I didn’t know how to rejoice in this judgment. I didn’t understand how this could be part of the good news.
But then grace broke in. And grace came in the words of Augustine.
See, Augustine had a different idea about this. He said what if judgment isn’t about God separating the righteous people from the wicked people? After all, who of us is 100% righteous or 100% wicked? Aren’t we all a mixture of both? What if our lives are like two plants that grow up side by side – one good and the other bad – and as they grow, they intertwine so much that you couldn’t separate the bad one without damaging the good one?
When asked about their biggest regrets, many people will say something like, “I don’t regret anything because even my mistakes were things that helped me to grow.” Our lives are full of both glory and suffering and sometimes the two are so closely linked that we can’t separate them even in our own minds. Sometimes our worst mistakes or experiences ultimately lead us to some of our best moments.
Augustine says, What if God lets the good and the bad grow up together for a time and judgment is when he separates them, once and for all, at the end?
We cannot perfect our lives. We cannot expunge all the evil that exists in the world. But maybe THAT’S what judgment day is for. Maybe it is about God extracting the bad, the evil, the sin, and the brokenness that is woven into our lives, and throwing it to the fire, leaving our lives perfect and whole. Wouldn’t this be the best thing that could ever happen to us? Wouldn’t this kind of judgment be the cause of great rejoicing?
Maybe judgment isn’t about shame. Maybe it isn’t God projecting a film of all our failings on a jumbotron. And maybe judgment isn’t about God choosing to bless some and judge others. Maybe judgment has nothing to do with our works of righteousness.
Maybe judgment is our deliverance. Maybe judgment is when we can finally stop wrestling with sin, when we can stop experiencing brokenness, when we can finally be pure. Maybe judgment is the greatest grace of all.
This essay is a little excerpt from the book I’ve been working on writing. I hope it’s something you could connect with!