In his 2007 introduction to Christianity, Tokens of Trust, Rowan Williams uses the Apostles Creed (particularly the ‘I believe’ articles) as a rough framework for discussing who God is, and why we can trust Him. A notable aspect of this book is the consideration of truth as not just something to be understood and accepted, but something that we are confronted with, and must learn to live in the light of. We meet truth most fully in Jesus Christ, and a large part of being a Christian is adjusting our habits and thought processes so that we may be more in harmony with who He is and what He stands for.
In the final chapter of the book, Williams reflects on where this lifelong process of becoming accustomed to the truth revealed in Christ and letting it change us will eventually end. If we are honest, most of us spend a great deal of time putting up defences against God’s grace, and this is why the transformation He would effect in us is such a long, sometimes frustrating task. When our lives come to an end though, the task of sanctification does not – the idea of judgement therefore, is a deeply unsettling prospect, but not for the reasons many would expect. Williams discusses our facing God in Pauline terms of ‘stripping away’ and being ‘clothed with Christ’s life’ (c.f.; 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, 15:53-4; 2 Corinthians 5:1-5), and sees the fearfulness of this moment in terms of such exposure:
‘Death means that something is removed that stands between us and God. But the hope is that if we have accustomed ourselves to living with Christ in this life something has been “constructed” that allows us to survive the terror of meeting the truth face to face: the truth has come to be, in some degree, “in us”, to use the language of St John’s first letter. At one level, we are left naked and undefended, with nothing of our own to appeal to or hide behind; yet we trust that we are gifted with the clothing, the defence we need.’
Tokens of Trust (2007), p.145, Canterbury Press.
The passage from 1 Corinthians 3 referenced above gives us the most vivid picture of this exposure that we must go through when confronted with Truth Himself. Saint Paul writes there that ‘each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done’ (v.13). I.e.; it is the very nature of being confronted with God and His truth that purges away anything that is not correlative with that truth – the meeting and the purification are in some way the same thing. To say that these two processes – confrontation with Truth and our purification – are aspects of the same reality, is not to deny that our final sanctification will at least feel like a progression of sorts.
But to be honest, to ask whether our purgation will be known to us as progressive or instantaneous, is perhaps to be asking the wrong sort of question. That we will meet Truth, and that we will be unclothed before Him; that our sanctification will be finally completed by a pulling away from all our self-interest and towards the central reality that has coaxed and called to us, but that we have all the while resisted – this is at the heart of what our final judgement will be. As Williams continues further on in the chapter:
‘The identities we have made, that we have pulled around ourselves like a comfortable dressing-gown or a smart suit will dissolve, and what is deepest in us, what we most want, what we most care about, will be laid bare. We are right to feel apprehensive about that, and we are wrong to brush away the sense of proper fear before God’s judgement, however much we dislike the extravagant or hysterical expressions of it that have characterised some ages of Christian history. To the degree to which we don’t know ourselves – a pretty high degree for nearly all of us – we are bound to think very soberly of this moment of truth…
…Think of all the moments when you have realised, “I’ve been deceiving myself, I don’t understand why I did that, I did more damage than I allowed myself to know” – these are painful times. Even more painful are those moments when someone else sets out to show you to yourself and you want to hide, you want to shut them up. The Eastern Orthodox Liturgy asks for “a good answer before the terrible judgement seat of Christ”. It is worth praying for, in the knowledge that such a “good answer” can only be provided for by the one who has promised to be our advocate, the truth in person.’
Again, our judgement is conceived in terms of an unveiling – an exposure of how much deceptive language and images we wrap around ourselves. We tell stories about ourselves that excuse the ways in which deep down we know we have fallen short of the truth that we have seen revealed in Jesus Christ – the truth that goodness and self-sacrificial love lay at the heart of reality – and fear the moment when all these attempts to justify our lack of love and our desire for self-justification will arrive. We also fear the fact that, as Williams points out, there is a great deal about ourselves that we just don’t know – and this fear contains the suspicion that there is a great deal that we also may not like.
Thankfully though, central to the Christian faith is the recognition that we can never provide a completely satisfactory ‘good answer’ before the judgement seat of Christ, and neither do we have to. After all, ‘those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick’ (Mark 2:17). We are all, in our inability to face truth and allow ourselves to be transformed by God’s love, desperately in need of a physician, and that same physician will be our advocate on the Day of Judgement. It must be our constant goal to cooperate with the grace that is offered to us, and to become more like the One who offers. But we must also remember that this is the same One who knows our weaknesses and knows the intentions of our hearts better than anybody else, even than ourselves, and He knows how much of the truth is in us. Jesus will speak for us on that day, and what little we have been able to lay upon the foundation which is His very self, He will unite to His person, that we may be saved, albeit only ‘as through fire’.