Naughtiness – Good for the Soul?

As Claire sat listening to her friends’ patter, troubling thoughts crossed her mind. The accounts of their turbulent love lives sounded rich and juicy. Yes, some of her friends had cried on Claire’s shoulder when their marriages had fallen apart. But it seemed as if they’d become stronger, wiser people through having to rebuild their lives.

‘I wonder’, thought Claire, ‘what I’ve gained through being a faithful wife and trying to be a good person, to live like a Christian. Can it perhaps be true that it does people good to break the rules once in a while? Perhaps this makes people more compassionate, less judgmental of others, more colourful in their personality?’

Last week, after attending a painful funeral, I relaxed by watching the heart-warming film Philomena. Judy Dench plays an elderly Irishwoman who teams up with former newscaster Martin Sixsmith to search for her missing son. Philomena tells how she became pregnant aged 13 and was sent to a convent to give birth and to nurse her tiny child. One day, after her Anthony turned four years old, she watched in horror as he was taken away, sold to a couple from America. As she frantically shouted and screamed from the courtyard, a young nun, Sister Hildegard, harshly ordered Philomena back inside. The story is essentially true. This was over fifty years ago but Philomena has never stopped thinking about him and still celebrates his birthday.

As they travel around the USA, Martin and Philomena learn to understand each other. Despite her teenage ordeal, Philomena has remained a devout Catholic and now has a grown-up family. She tells him how much she enjoyed her teenage fling. Martin, an atheist, makes scathing remarks about Catholicism and guilt. Why should God create sex and then forbid people from enjoying it?

I won’t spoil the story for you, but it turns out the convent have consistently covered up their abuses including denying all knowledge to those seeking lost relatives. The film ends back in the convent where Martin confronts Sister Hildegard, now wizened with age. In an angry exchange, she tells how she, unlike Philomena, had taken a vow of holy chastity and lived a clean life. Fallen women must take the consequences of their sin. It’s clear that there’s a secret agenda – that she is jealous of Philomena’s life experience. And then, in a beautiful act of grace, Philomena turns to her and says,

“I forgive you.”

I’ve been reading the difficult-to-understand book of Romans and have greatly appreciated Tom Wright’s study notes [1]. St Paul teaches that God’s Law (the Ten Commandments etc.) is there to highlight Sin, but it can’t save us from Sin. If, like the nuns in the convent, your life is based around your effort to live a holy life, you won’t please God. You’ll make yourself miserable and – besides –what pleases God is Faith, not self-effort. Faith in Jesus.

 Paul explains that, when someone places their faith in Jesus, they identify with his death on the Cross. They ‘die to Sin’. Then, they rise again with Jesus to a new life of joy, purpose and victory over the habits that previously enslaved them. God has declared them ‘in the right’, free to live as God’s children and to enjoy his good gifts [2].

You could ask Jane to tell you about the strict, religious young man she dated in her student days, who wouldn’t let her buy an ice cream on a Sunday afternoon. Yes, I was full of evangelical zeal but hardly a model of freedom and joy. Towards the end of my time at Uni, I kept rubbing up against annoying people who said they’d been ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’. They had a confidence, a sense of wonder and a power that I didn’t. They lived by Faith. One day in July, I stopped resisting, and Jane and I asked the Holy Spirit to fill us, too. I had an overwhelming sense that there was nothing I could do to earn God’s love and approval. It was a free gift. Pure Grace.

So, what’s the conclusion? That we’re free to have a good sin?

At about this time, I went to live over the summer with several similarly minded young people and enjoyed rediscovering my faith. I became friends with a young woman I nicknamed ‘Milly Molly Mandy’, who’d come to faith after becoming seriously involved with drugs. Molly’s conversion story was much more dramatic than most, but she wasn’t finding it easy to recover from the damage that had resulted from her old lifestyle. For example, she was plagued with nightmares. It taught me that Sin wasn’t to be tampered with; it does have consequences. God’s Law is there to protect us.

I believe God’s pleased that Claire, and also I, have avoided the all-too-common pitfalls of living ‘soap opera’ lives. I think he values faithfulness very highly. It’s just that we need his Grace every bit as much as ‘fallen’ people like Philomena and Molly.

Passion, romance, adventure…all of these are God’s idea, and they work best within the safety of the framework he has provided. Perhaps it was true that Claire’s friends became more compassionate, merciful, and colourful through making mistakes. But aren’t these qualities that Jesus creates within us in a much more wholesome way as we follow him – by Faith?  

      John Hearson

  1. Tom Wright, ‘Paul for Everyone Romans Chapters 1-8’
  2. Romans Chapter 6 is headlined in the NIV, ‘Dead to sin, alive in Christ’.

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