God’s work and Human work

This is part two of my reflection on Walter Brueggemann’s Finally Comes the Poet.*  You can find part one here.

It is vitally important that we come to acknowledge our residue of ache, so that we can come to a place of real healing.  Without acknowledging that guilt and alienation (residual ache) color our relationships with one another and with God, we live in denial – a denial that keeps us from experiencing the full joy (that is also the hard work) of giving and receiving love from one another and God.

We try to pretend that everything is “ok.”  We put our best efforts forward in front of other people and on social media.  I do it too.  Very seldom (if ever!) do we post pictures of our kids fighting, messy rooms,  or write about the emotional wreck we are after a fight with our spouse, the worries we have that a loved one is drinking too much, that we are spending above our means etc…  We also are loathe to admit when we have been in the wrong, when we feel unworthy, when we can’t measure up.  This pressure to present ourselves as perfect leads to guilt – not just over sin(s), but about EVERYTHING!  No, everything is not ok.  No I am NOT fine.  How often have we longed to say that, but stifle ourselves?

“It is folly to imagine that modern people do not struggle with the reality of guilt and the yearning for healing” (p. 31).

Dr. Brueggemann asserts that residual ache can only be dealt with once we acknowledge the following (p. 32):

  1. God notices our sin
  2. God takes it seriously and responds with anger and indignation
  3. God takes it seriously and is grieved and is “beset by profound disappointment”
  4. reparations are required


“The residue of ache is dealt with by sacramental action that mediates to us God’s own life given toward us”(p. 32)


1.  Try as we may to hide our sins and imperfections from others, try as we may to carry on as usual as if everything is fine – we can’t fool God.  God SEES.  God notices.  God knows us better than we know ourselves.

2 & 3.  In some traditions it might seem strange to think of God as angry with us, in other traditions it might seem strange to think that God can be grieved/disappointed/sad.  I see that both characteristics flow from God’s immeasurable love.  God can certainly be angry with us – but this is not God as an angry judge itching to condemn – this is God angry because God loves us and wants more for us than sin.  I love my husband and children with all my heart, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get angry with them.  But because I love them, my anger is accompanied by disappointment and sadness.  If I didn’t love them, I simply wouldn’t care.  God is sad/disappointed/grieved, because God LOVES.  When we focus only on God’s anger, we miss God’s compassion.  When we focus only on God’s grief and sadness, we miss God’s power and righteousness.  Brueggemann stresses that God’s anger and anguish always go together (p. 32).

4.  Brueggemann looks at Matthew 5:23-26,

“So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and then remember that your brother [or sister] has something against you, leave your gift before the altar and go, first be reconciled to your brother [or sister] and then come and offer your gift.”

“Jesus asserts that the making of reparations precedes offering to God.  Neighbor is the prerequisite for communion with God”(p. 34).  This is a serious statement.  It packs a punch.  It tells us we cannot sweep our actions towards our neighbors under the rug.  Jesus says, “FIRST be reconciled,” THEN come.  Notice Jesus DOESN’T say, “When YOU have something against your brother, go and make THEM do the reconciling.”  This isn’t about the wronged demanding justice.  This is about the guilty stepping forward and saying, “I did it, I’m sorry.  What can I do to make it better?”  Wow.

5.  Then Brueggemann looks at Hebrews 19:19-23.  The prelude to this text is realizing that no amount of human reparation will ever be enough.  We are left hopeless to make it better.  “Therefore GOD must intercede.  It is God’s self-giving love, God’s yearning, God’s care that deals with the residue of human ache”(p. 35).  God intercedes by the “blood of Jesus”(Heb. 19:19).  Jesus “does what we cannot do for ourselves”(p. 35).  “God’s way with us emerges out of God’s deep love that cannot stand by while we die of the poison” of guilt and sin(p. 36).  This comes as a huge relief because in the end we cannot possibly make reparations for all the wrong we’ve done to one another and to God.  We all “fall short”(Rom. 3:23).  If reparations were the complete prerequisite for relationship with God, then we’d all be doomed.  Oh, how we need the blood of Jesus – the One whom we proclaim to be “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”(John 1:29) – the lamb sacrificed for our sins on the cross.

However, the fact that we are ultimately driven to the cross does not excuse us from reparation.  God’s divine work does not “get us off the hook” from the human work of reconciliation.  It is dangerous to emphasize one at the expense of the other.  Brueggemann warns of “cheap grace” and “works righteousness.”

“Unless this news is artistically presented, the ideology of liberals will only hear social responsibility and reparations.  Unless there is artistry in articulation, the ideology of conservatives will only hear ‘blood atonement’…. I propose, then, that good preaching must address the quarrelsome contradiction among us concerning worship and ethics, priest and prophet, worldliness and sacrament…”(p. 38-39).

It’s a daunting task to try to balance these two in preaching.  There is work we must do, yet we can’t do it all – so we cling to the cross and beg for mercy.  But receiving mercy doesn’t excuse us from doing the work we can.  We must, we can’t, we beg.  We need all three. (Lutherans can be particularly vulnerable because of our emphasis on “grace alone.”  It’s true we can’t earn our way to heaven, but even Luther taught that good works were an indispensable part of the Christian life.)  Human work does not save us, but human work is what we are called to do through divine mercy.

Each Christian expression has their own sacramental actions that help mediate God’s action in Jesus.  In more liturgical traditions there is baptism, Holy Communion and Confession.  Through these actions we acknowledge numbers 1, 2, and 3 above – then God’s love and grace and mercy are proclaimed in word and deed.  We leave these sacramental actions freed and made new.

questions to ponder:

  • How can I make reparations for particular actions/things about which I feel guilty?
  • How can I bring the rest to God?
  • How do the sacramental actions in my tradition help me to let go of residual ache?

*Finally Comes The Poet:  Daring Speech for Proclamation.  Walter Brueggemann, Augsburg Fortress:  Minneapolis, 1989.


3 thoughts on “God’s work and Human work

  1. Pingback: Restoration of Communion | Pastoral Ponderings

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  3. Pingback: Personhood | Pastoral Ponderings

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