I haven’t seen Clay for years, but despite my poor memory for names and faces I’m not likely to forget him. Late ‘twenties, returned college dropout, determined to do better the second time around. Comfortable with friends, uncomfortable with classmates. Heavy guy. Slight limp. Looked like he’d had some hard knocks. Spoke apologetically but intelligently in class. Quiet voice with gravelly edges.
I liked him. He was also my greatest failure. We were two weeks into the semester when he showed up at my office.
“Professor, I gotta talk with you.”
I waved him in, wondering at the melodrama. “What do we gotta talk about?”
He sat down on the chair in the corner, by my desk. “I gotta tell you that I’m getting scared.”
Was he putting me on? I asked him, “Why are you getting scared?”
“Because you’re scaring me. See? I’m shaking.”
He held out his hand, and sure enough, it was trembling. There are lots of things that can cause a hand to tremble. I could picture Clay shaking from a hangover, or not enough sleep. But he said that he was scared.
“How am I scaring you?”
He replied, “It’s Aristotle.”
“How is Aristotle scaring you?”
“In this book of his he keeps talking about virtue.”
I lifted an eyebrow. “So?”
“It’s making me realize that I haven’t led a virtuous life.”
As I realized that he was on the level, the truth of the moment sank into me. But you have to know something about Aristotle to understand what passed through my mind.
Wisest of the pagans, Aristotle did teach about virtue. Without courage, justice, frankness, self-control and all the rest of the moral excellences, he said that no one can be happy in the full sense of the term. If you hadn’t led a virtuous life and weren’t happy, and then you read Aristotle and realized that he was right, you might well be depressed about all the years that you had wasted. But you wouldn’t be afraid. Aristotle would merely tell you to start learning virtue. As wise as a pagan could be, yet he knew nothing about “working out your salvation in fear and trembling.” For all his wisdom in other matters, he didn’t know God from a hatstand.
Could I have been the cause of Clay’s fear? Scripture says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. I do tell my students that I’m Christian; it’s my custom to make mention of the fact on the first day of the semester because they ought to know where their teachers are coming from. But this semester I hadn’t said a word about my faith. On the first day, I just forgot, and another suitable moment had never come.
So it seemed that Clay was right. The trigger for his fear wasn’t my faith, and it wasn’t me. It was Aristotle. This amazed me. The gospel of John teaches that the Holy Spirit came to bring the world conviction of guilt concerning sin and righteousness and judgment — but I had never thought He might use a pagan to do it.
Around this time I began to tremble myself. Not in my hands. In my heart.
Clay was waiting for an answer. I hesitated. He wasn’t a former student; he was under my authority now, this very semester, in this very course. I had to be sure that he wouldn’t feel pressure to agree with me just because I was his teacher.
“Are you asking me how Aristotle would advise you to live?”
“No. I understand that. I’m telling you that I’m scared.”
“I can speak about that, but not as your teacher. I can only do it from the perspective of my faith.”
“Would you do that?”
“Are you giving me permission to speak man-to-man?”
“Yes. That’s what I want you to do.”
“All right. Look.” I made as though I were lifting something from my head. “I’m taking off my professor hat. Nothing I say here represents Post-Everything State University. Nothing you say here affects your standing in the course. You’re free to say anything you want.”
“I want you to speak from your faith.”
I looked at him a moment longer. “Clay, I think you’re experiencing what the New Testament calls the conviction of sin.”
He took in a breath and let it out. “That must be it.”
“Because I said so?”
“No, because it fits. You don’t have any idea. I’ve done a lot of bad things.”
“Everyone has. Paul says ‘All men sin and fall short of the glory of God.'”
“Not like me.”
“Just like you. Has anyone ever explained the Gospel to you?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Gospel means Good News. The Gospel is the message of Christianity. The Bad News you know already — that’s why you’re scared. We make a mess of things. It’s not God’s fault — He didn’t make us that way — but we’ve been rebelling against Him from the beginning. We’re guilty, and we’re broken.”
“That’s the Bad News?”
“That and one other thing. We can’t forgive ourselves and we can’t fix ourselves.”
“What’s the Good News?”
“God offers to forgive us and fix us and bring us back to Him. He can do this because He’s taken the heat for us already. That’s what the Cross is all about.”
“I know that Jesus died on the Cross and that he was supposed to have risen again, but I never understood why.”
“When Jesus was suffering on the Cross, He was taking the burden of our brokenness, our guilt, and our separation from God on Himself. That’s why I said he took the heat for us. And then He arose from death to new life. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Clay said. I went on.
“The Gospel — the Good News — is that if only we believe what He did and trust him as Savior and Lord — that means as Rescuer and Boss — then in some way, what He did counts just as though we had done it ourselves. He died on the Cross, and we die to our sinful selves through Him. He rose again, and we rise to a new life through Him. So if we turn to Him, we don’t have to be scared any more.”
I paused. “Do you believe all this?”
Clay said “Yes.”
“Dear God,” I thought, “the fruit is ripe and dropping off the tree.”
I asked, “Then do you understand what you have to do?”
“Do you want to do it?”
After a few moments of silence, Clay said, “No.”
Inwardly I was staggered. How could you believe it and not want to do it? The words of James came back to me: “Even the demons believe — and shudder.”
“Why don’t you, Clay?”
“I believe what you said, Professor Theophilus. But God couldn’t forgive me.”
“Why are you different than other people?”
“You don’t know what I’ve done.”
“There is nothing God can’t forgive, if only the person turns away from what he has done and turns to Christ instead.”
“Professor Theophilus, that’s easy for you to say. You say it because you haven’t lived the way I have. You’re a good man.”
“That’s not true. On my own I’m a sinful man. If you see any good in me, it’s only because the power of Christ has been healing me. I may not sin so often or so obviously as I used to, but you didn’t know me before I knew Him, and you don’t really know me now.”
“No, you’re a good man,” he persisted. “You’re probably married and have kids.”
I conceded that this was true.
“I just live with a woman,” he said.
“Jesus forgave thieves and prostitutes,” I said.
His voice dropped to a murmur. “But there have been — abortions. And other things.”
“I was a wreck before turning to Christ,” I replied. “Just through my teaching, I’m probably responsible for more abortions than you are. If I can be forgiven, you can.”
“No. I’m not good enough to be forgiven.”
I saw that he was leading me in circles. This was when I should have prayed for help, but I didn’t. Instead I tried to redirect the conversation myself. I said good things. They just weren’t the right things.
“When you say that,” I asked, “aren’t you missing the point of forgiveness?”
“It’s because we aren’t good enough that we need to be forgiven in the first place. The idea of being good enough to be forgiven gets it backwards. Forgiveness can’t be earned.”
“You mean it’s like a gift?”
“I mean it is a gift.”
He chewed on the idea. “I see that,” he said, “but I’m too bad to be forgiven. God can forgive other people, but I’m beyond the limit.”
“Clay,” I said, “there’s something fishy here. You want me to think that God’s standards are too high for you, and it’s true that we don’t reach them; that’s why we need His forgiveness. But when you say you’re too sinful to be forgiven, aren’t you really saying that God’s standards are too low for you?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean He’s willing to forgive you, but you won’t let Him — as though your standards were higher than His. Believe me, Clay, you can’t be more holy than God is.”
He said nothing.
“Besides, God Himself says He is ready to forgive you. You said a few minutes ago that you believed it. Have you changed your mind already?”
“No. But I’m different. He didn’t mean me.”
I shot my last bolt. “This idea of yours that everyone can be forgiven except you — isn’t it just pride? It’s as though you were the King of Sinners, as though your power to sin were greater than His power to forgive. He paid the ultimate price, but for you alone it wasn’t enough. Do you see what an insult that is to Him?”
Finally Clay spoke, but only to return to an earlier point in the conversation. “I’m not virtuous like you are, Professor Theophilus. God can’t forgive me.”
I knew he was stonewalling. I think he knew it too. We spoke for a few minutes more. He thanked me for talking with him, then left.
That was eight years ago. I used to bump into him around campus. We’d always stop and chat, but not about God.
I know what I should have said to him that day. In prayer afterward, God made it obvious to me. Being too sinful to be forgiven was just Clay’s pretense. He didn’t really think he couldn’t be forgiven; the real issue was that he didn’t want to be. It would have required giving up his sins, and allowing God to change him.
But I should have been praying that prayer while the conversation was still going on.
I’ve learned to be a more prayerful witness. And God has forgiven me. But I pray that He will stir up Clay to seek a better witness than I was.
I wonder whether Clay still uses his guilt as a barrier against unwanted mercy. I wonder if he still finds security in being scared.
And I ask God to show him the grace that He once showed me.