In G. K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown” stories, Father Brown is a curious and engaging little priest who often finds himself cast in the unlikely role of detective.
In one story, a friend visiting with Father Brown is describing to the clergyman a strange new religion, one of the popular sort that in 2016 is still very strange and still very popular for no very strange reason. It is, he says, “one of those new religions that forgives your sins by saying you never had any.”
No surprise, that kind of “religion” then or now is the sort where faithful followers often claim, loudly and religiously, to believe in no religion and in no particular God, by which they usually mean that they find it most convenient to worship the god under their own hat.
When Father Brown’s friend goes on to remark that the “new religion” claims “of course” that it can cure all manner of physical diseases, the little priest/detective asks simply, “Can it cure the one spiritual disease?”
Smiling, his friend asks, “And what is that?” And Father Brown replies, “Oh, of thinking one is quite well.”
The little priest/detective has detected this pivotal truth from at least two sources.
First, from Scripture. In his Letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul says that he writes to tell readers how they may obtain the “righteousness of God.” He spends the first three chapters showing us why we need it, and in Chapter Three hammers his point home no fewer than three times. No one is “righteous” apart from God. “All have sinned.” All have “fallen short of the glory of God.”
Secondly, Father Brown has not been living life with his eyes closed. Looking inside and looking outside, he knows that every person has within himself more than ample proof of a “sinful nature” that wants its own way more than it wants God’s—or anyone else’s.
He knows that humans are not creatures who, left to themselves and given all the advantages of a good upbringing, a nice environment, and a fine education, will naturally become nicer, kinder, gentler, and more likely to play fairly with others. Naturally, they are not nice. Humans are not angelic beings whose haloes just want a little straightening and shining up; humans are fallen creatures badly in need of redemption. Real healing comes, not from raising their inherent goodness to a higher level, but when they lower themselves to receive God’s gift of healing for their inherent fallenness.
Yes, the worst spiritual disease is “thinking one is quite well.” Ironically, it’s this “high” and terminally naive view of humanity that has so often opened the door for utter inhumanity. Evil never reigns more completely unchallenged and cruelly than when, blind to the evil inside ourselves and the human race, we fancy ourselves far too advanced, intelligent, and enlightened to see recognize humanity’s need for real healing from outside of itself.
Ultimately, we must choose to trust the Creator or to naively trust fallen humanity. The latter folly ends up being very cruel indeed.
A little priest told me. And he’s right.
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Copyright 2016 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.