The gentle, old saint, with less than 48 hours to live, whispered to me, “I just wonder if I have done enough?”
The question made me sad. I hope I slumped only inwardly. I was disappointed — puzzled and letdown — that a lifelong believer could come to the final hours of life wondering if he had “done enough.” I wasn’t concerned about his eternal destiny, even if he was, at least to some degree. It didn’t feel like the time to give a full-fledged theology lesson.
I tried to craft a response that gently nudged him back to God’s grace in Jesus Christ, rather than correct his heterodoxy.
“It’s really always less about what we’ve done or haven’t done, and more about what Jesus has done for us.” I said.
I left feeling a bit dejected. Qualms about having “done enough” were obviously embedded deep in his soul. Is this really what a faithful member of my congregation has heard and taken in? Nothing there about God’s love? Nothing about God’s immeasurable grace and mercy in Jesus Christ?
“Have I done enough?” Really? Where did he get such a notion?
Encounters like this aren’t frequent, but neither are they altogether rare — unsettledness, lurching questions. And although they are usually presented as intellectual, theological questions in search of answers, really they are wounds of the soul in need of healing. I recall another old person who near death was disquieted because he couldn’t name a time when he had been born again. He hadn’t had a decisive or dramatic turning point in his life. Now it gnawed at him.
In these two cases, I was these persons’ pastor for a relatively short portion of their long lives. In talking this over with a wise mentor, he suggested that we can only guess what people have experienced along the way — from other pastors, from parents, from TV preachers, from who knows where?
“You have no idea, Steve, about the sort of severe, guilt-inducing religion a lot of people heard 70 or 80 years ago. You can’t consider yourself a failure because a parishioner seemed to believe salvation came by doing enough. None of us can fully erase an experience with a shaming Sunday School teacher or the memory of a hell-fire preacher.” My colleague went on to recall the communion liturgy he heard as a young boy and how its warning about “whoremongers” always caused him to lean in, wonder, and tremble.
Over the years, I’ve learned not to blame my pastoral predecessors. When you are still new in a congregation there is a tendency to be critical of the persons you’ve followed. How did this get so far out of hand? Why was this weird tradition allowed flourish? How come this vexing person was given such power and leeway?
But as the years pile up, those questions are slowly answered. You come to see that your “solutions” didn’t work either, and that the issues were more complicated than you originally thought. Maybe you also come to understand that in not too many years some younger pastor, your successor, will silently ask such pointed questions about you and your tenure at the church.
So I’m reluctant to put the blame for my parishioners’ deathbed doubts on some hardnosed preacher from the past. As much as I’d like to point the finger at Baptists and Pentecostals who make life-long Reformed believers, children of the covenant, feel inferior and inadequate by sharing their most recent conversion experience—that’s probably unfair.
What I think instead is that the Good News of God’s grace in Jesus Christ is not the stale and trite stuff we often suppose. Rather the Good News is so vast, so counterintuitive, so dynamic, it is hard for the human heart to absorb. Much easier to tally our brownie points and jockey for position. That’s why we repeat the Good News again and again, day by day, week after week. The hope is that we hear it enough, and we start to trust, and it makes a home deep within us. Then, when we are thrown into difficult times, on our deathbeds for instance, we might be a little less prone to ask “Have I done enough?”