As some of you know, I really rather enjoy word puzzles, most especially the cryptic crossword. Although I enjoy them, I don’t always succeed with them, but I enjoy puzzling over them and having a go. At least with a cryptic crossword, you know when you’ve got the answer right.
Another sort of word puzzle which I used to enjoy as a child, and still sometimes try in those puzzle magazines you can buy in airports and railway stations, is the one where a word changes into a completely different word in a number of moves by changing just one letter at a time. So to take a simple example, RAIN might become HAIR, by changing in the first move RAIN to PAIN, then PAIN to PAIR, and finally PAIR to HAIR.
Sometimes something similar can happen inadvertently on a computer, where you hit the wrong key, but because you’ve made a perfectly acceptable word, the spell checker doesn’t pick up your mistake. It’s only when reading through that you (sometimes!) realise that you’ve actually written nonsense.
This reminded me that some words can be very similar in spelling, but have completely different meanings, so that if you happen to get all the right letters but get them in the wrong places, you can totally reverse the meaning of the word.
I mean words like united and untied, listen and silent; violence and nice love; customers and store scum; honestly and on the sly; santa and satan, forty five and over fifty.
Another example is commendation. Using almost all the same letters but in a different order, you can spell condemnation which has the opposite meaning. Yet the two words are so similar in sound and structure, that it’s quite easy to confuse commendation and condemnation.
It’s even easier to confuse commendation and condemnation when using them in conjunction with the word God. Many people, when they think of God, immediately think of condemnation. That’s the way they’ve been taught to think since they were children, and the Church’s emphasis on sin has tended to reinforce that view. We’re all sinners, born in sin, and we all fall far short of the glory of God. Jesus told us to be perfect, just as God is perfect, and we never manage it, therefore we must be condemned by God. So a great many people, both within the Church and outside the Church, consider themselves to be condemned by God.
This is reinforced by the idea found in the Old Testament that anyone who happened to have a chronic illness or disability, or was poor or suffering from some terrible misfortune, was suffering because they were being punished by God. Anyone who enjoyed robust good health, was wealthy, or possessed impressive good fortune, was in God’s favour. Although Jesus strongly refuted this idea two thousand years ago, it has persisted to this day. People still think they’re being punished by God if misfortune befalls them, and their suffering is thus compounded by feelings of hurt and resentment and incomprehension as to why they should have been singled out in this way by God.
So, there are many people who automatically assume that they must be condemned by God, and as a result, have low self-esteem. What’s more, their low self-esteem prevents them from doing very much, in case they do the wrong thing. They’re terrified of getting it wrong, because getting it wrong has resulted in blame all their lives, and they are unable to comprehend that God could possibly be any different. They see themselves as no good, and therefore blamed by God.
God is seen as a bogeyman, a kind of threatening vulture who is just waiting to pounce on hapless human beings and punish them for their sins. And if God doesn’t get them in this life, he’ll certainly be waiting at the Judgment Seat with his black cap set firmly on his head, to pronounce eternal damnation on them.
Nothing could be further from the truth. We’re not condemned by God. It’s as though we’ve confused the words, because what God actually sees about us is commendation, not condemnation. We human beings are the pinnacle of his creation, and he delights in us.
Jesus showed what human beings can be like. He showed us what potential we all have and how incredibly wonderful we can all be if we follow his way. He even sent some of his followers out into the world to live that way, telling them to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, and drive out demons. They went in fear and trembling, without even the comfort of money in their purse or a sword to defend themselves. But the risk worked and they returned in great joy and delight, tumbling over themselves to tell Jesus all about their experiences.
But not everybody was able to follow Jesus. In the story of the sower and the seed, three-quarters of the seed never realised its potential. It fell on the path or on rocks or where the soil was too thin. Only one portion grew steadily and healthily so that it produced good fruit. But the fruit produced by that handful of seed, those few people, was abundant and amazing. And Jesus was quite right in his assessment of human beings, for according to John’s gospel, after he began to tell people that he was the Bread of Life and that they would eat his flesh, many people began to drift away, unable to stomach his radical ideas. The seed hadn’t found good soil in them.
So, where does the seed find good soil? I think the seed finds good soil in those who are filled with the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives life, a wonderful, exciting life of great freedom and great holiness. This is our destiny, shown to us by Jesus during his life on this earth. Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, only commendation. So let us rejoice at God’s delight in us.
As Charles Wesley’s magnificent hymn ends:
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in him, is mine!
Alive in him, my living head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.