A recent Commonweal article by Lisa Fullman, associate professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, speaks powerfully to what our goals are as Christians. Although the specific subject of her article is sexual ethics, her discussion of the difference between focusing on the “don’ts” vs. something more affirmative is more broadly applicable. She writes:
The first word in Christian life is not sin, but grace, starting with the grace of being called into being and called into love by God. A focus on grace and how we respond to God’s invitation to love will include serious consideration of sin, but will go much further in the direction of excellence, and will lead us to ponder the heights of what is possible in our lives. We center our lives as Christians on Jesus’ vision of human fulfillment in the reign of God and the love by which we devote ourselves to its realization. The vision calls us forward to help us see what requires work in our current world.
This resonated with me because I think back to my early days in Catholic school. The way the Ten Commandments were presented to us were as a set of a priori rules one had to follow and the message we got was: if you want God to love you, this is how you will behave. Only in recent years have I come to appreciate that living one’s live in accordance with the Ten Commandments is a natural response to a love relationship with God. If one appreciates God’s unconditional love and falls deeply in love with God, certain behaviors naturally flow.
Sin is a reality and we can’t ignore it. But focusing exclusively (or even primarily) on what we are not supposed to do only gets us so far. We need to devote energy to deepening our realization of God’s incredible love for us, a realization that will naturally call forth in us a loving response to “God’s invitation to love.” Only steeped in that love is it possible for us to, not merely to do no harm/evil, but to to live to “the heights of what is possible in our lives.”