So a couple of Sundays back, for reasons that aren’t important, I went to a Methodist church, which isn’t where I usually go. And it happened to be Aldersgate Sunday, which I’d never even heard of. The sermon included some narrative stuff about John Wesley’s ‘conversion experience’ at Aldersgate, but mostly focused on two sets of principles – manifestos perhaps if you like – of his. And they set me thinking, both on a personal level and a theological one. The first are known as the ‘four alls’, apparently:
All can be saved
All need to be saved
All can know they are saved
All can be saved completely
The second set quoted were these:
Do all the good you can.
By all the means you can.
In all the ways you can.
In all the places you can.
At all the times you can.
To all the people you can.
As long as ever you can.
Now the first one is potentially really tricky for me. Because that all need and can be saved is fine. (I probably wouldn’t actually use the term ‘saved’, but I’ll run with it for now.) But – I trust that I’m saved. I believe that I’m saved. If I was pushed ultimately to a yes/no decision, I would say yes, I’m saved. But ‘know’ isn’t really the word for my experience. There isn’t much blessed assurance about this. Wesley wrote about becoming certain that he did trust Christ for his salvation and that trust was not in vain. I wouldn’t say that’s in experience I currently have.
But where does that leave me? Faith (Hebrews 11:1) is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. We Christians (2 Corinthians 5:7) live by faith and not by sight. And I think it’s legitimate to take sight in those passages as extending not merely to all the physical senses but to all sensation. So I have to go back to Wesley and reflect: All men can be saved. The possibility exists for all people to come to union with God; apparently the statement is in part a riposte to double predestination. But that doesn’t mean all people will be saved. It’s not the same as universalism. And perhaps the only way to make sense of all being able to know they are saved is to treat it the same way only more so. It is possible all will know they are saved. But most will not, will not be given that emotional inner conviction of God’s welcome, any more than most will have the apparently sensual or para-sensual experience of God like what Saul/Paul had on the Damascus road. Maybe, if the general call is to live by faith, it’s not even desirable that most should have that experience. ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ (John 20:29). Either way, otherwise my persistence in faith without sensation, or at least with sensation substantially in the past, becomes a sign of inadequate spirituality rather than of loyalty. And that seems too devastating to contemplate.
What about doing all the good I can? Well, this comes down to human weakness. If you miss out the last line about carrying on as long as ever you can, then this would lead me to total burnout in about twelve months. I say that with total assurance because I’ve more or less tried it, with reservations and imperfect will, and ended up chronically mentally ill for my pains. To go all out would burn out very quickly.
That last line points to needing much greater subtlety than the impressive homiletic rhetoric of the sermon excerpt would suggest at first hearing. I am sure that God joyfully accepts all offerings of work to good ends earnestly made. But if we are serious about loving Him with our whole being (Mark 12:30, Deuteronomy 6:5, etc.), then we surely have to plan to be effective. And I am weak, in a very straightforward medical sense of the term though including mental and emotional strength as well as physical. It seems to me that I am obliged to do only the good that I can do today without exhausting myself so much that I am capable of no good tomorrow. Unless I am going to plan to take tomorrow off, which effectively amounts to doing no good tomorrow so that I can do more good today than I can sustain longer-term. And so on.
Unfortunately, this requires two great things: prioritisation of doing one good over another, and ability to rightly estimate one’s own capacity. As to the second, it is clearly unChristian to do less good than one is capable of (we’re right back at the Wesley quote); but it’s counterproductive to try and do more, that will only end up with collapse, having to withdraw from what you’ve committed to, being incapacitated from doing good at all. The first one perhaps requires more discussion. It is very common to come across the idea that each Christian has one particular vocation, and that this once discerned it is God’s will that we pursue that to, if necessary, the exclusion of all other good-doing (though obviously not to the point of sin). Now firstly I don’t think there’s any evidence for this. There are Scripture texts which might lean towards it but I think they only actually teach that we should do what we able and equipped to do well with commitment, rather than deliberately seeking to exercise a ministry for which we are basically unsuited or just ill-positioned for. Secondly, I am quite sure that we are never supposed to ignore a need we might easily fill, a good we might easily do, because ‘that’s not my calling’ – certainly not if we won’t significantly interfere with our major work by doing it and/or if no-one else is likely to do it for us. Finally, even ignoring the question of exclusivity, this idea relies on experiencing a fairly clear ‘call’. I want to go on record as saying I have experienced none such. My significant abilities – presumably topping that list are music and a way with language and literature – have reliably stumbled, faltered and produced nothing of overwhelming significance or even significant sustainability when used in directly divine service. My perhaps one really committed service of my neighbour – Street Pastoring – I had to pull out of because it just fitted too poorly with my frail health.
So not only must I estimate my own powers (or, perhaps more difficult still, my own powers and the grace the Spirit will give me) in order to judge how much I can do, I must also decide which things to prefer without any evident pattern to follow or rank of better to less good. Because there will always be more need than any of us can fill. A good thing, then, all in all, that in all Christianity doing good is a response to being approved by God rather than a method of earning His approval.