Now here she sat with a contrite heart – not because she had sinned against God but because she was unhappy that she had been allowed to follow her will to the road’s end.
-Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter
As the Christian world has been absorbing the blow from Dinesh D’Souza’s very public, reckless folly I have been absorbed in the last few pages of a book that seems unlikely yet fitting for the moment. For weeks now I have been reading Kristin Lavransdatter, a 1920’s Nobel Prize winning trilogy by Sigrid Undset about a young woman coming of age in 14th century Norway. It is a phenomenal book for countless reasons, but mostly because it is such a deeply true, profoundly honest portrayal of a God-fearing, highborn woman whose life testifies to the fact that God in His sovereignty allows us to pick what we pick, for blessing or for curse.
From all we yet know of D’Souza it seems he has picked badly, choosing to leave his wife of many years to pursue marriage with a new woman and destroying his career and reputation in the process. Yet it strikes me that this very public, catastrophic choice is the one that draws our attention. It is attention-worthy, to be sure, and it is right that D’Souza be held accountable for this tremendous breach of public trust, yes. But the entire situation belies a broader, far more insidious epidemic. Many of us Christians – even many of our most esteemed leaders – lack both the understanding and the tools needed to make the routine, ordinary choices that are essential to building a sustained, faithful, flourishing life. Like Kristin, the main character in Undset’s novels, we are naïve about what our simplest of choices mean for us, yet we remain surprised when the culmination of those choices leads us into wayward territory like D’Souza, or to the unhappiness Kristin feels when her will is finally spent.
Several years ago I heard Paige Benton Brown, a tremendously gifted and well-known Bible teacher, teach from the book of I Samuel. I have a notebook full of notes somewhere in my perpetually disheveled filing system, but I will never forget one take away: Sin is its own worst consequence. Note carefully, she did not teach that sin is the means of consequence, which is how we mostly tend to think about sin and which proves true often enough. Instead Brown argued that we are ever-and-only faced with two choices: we choose to live in God’s world as it was designed and intended to be and we flourish, or we defy the parameters that lead to flourishing. At every moment of decision we are picking one or the other, there is simply no other choice on the table.
And I think this is one the more truthful accounts of life I have ever heard. In general, even if our theology suggests otherwise, when it comes to the practicum of real life, most of us carry an idea of sin that suggests if I choose badly, bad things will happen or a bad consequence will result. This is plenty true, of course, but this narrow view of sin can often deceive us into thinking if bad things don’t happen immediately or catastrophically I must not have picked so badly after all. Or worse, it amounts to no more than Christianized karma, the age-old heresy that declares I am master of my own fate.
Brown’s emphasis on a more biblical, more truthful account of sin instead makes sense of life as we actually live it. It accounts for the sad fact that all of us choose outside the parameters God has designed for our own flourishing countless times everyday, yet few of us bear catastrophe as a result, or at least not the catastrophe we expect or are likely due. It is far more likely in fact, that we will bear precisely that which our will is seeking for itself, perhaps even experiencing grace in the midst of it. It is a curious thing actually, but God allows us to pick what we pick, to reap that we sow.
At the end of Kristin Lavransdatter, Kristin reaches this profound but insightful conclusion about her own life, riddled as all of our lives are with terrible sin and tremendous grace. As she reflects, “Surely she had never asked God for anything except that He should let her have her will. And every time she had been granted what she asked for – for the most part. Now here she sat with a contrite heart – not because she had sinned against God but because she was unhappy that she had been allowed to follow her will to the road’s end.”
In this quiet, honest moment Kristin is clear-eyed about what her choices have meant for her. The unhappiness she feels is not the same deep remorse and shame she feels in betraying her father and her betrothed for the sake of an illicit love affair; it is distinct from the heart-rending grief and conviction she feels when she has been party to the murder of her lover’s mistress, or when her father lies on his death bed knowing all. In this moment of reflection she is not in despair as she is when she pleads for the life of her bastard child, certain that God will claim his life as punishment for her adultery. No, in this moment she sees clearly that God has allowed her to choose, that He has even been merciful to give her a husband and seven sons and wealth and honor in the community despite her foolishness, but that she alone is responsible for the unhappiness she now feels. She picked it.
Later, her life-long priest Father Eiliv echoes this sentiment as he gently corrects Kristin for thinking she can direct the will of her adult son toward what she believes is best for him:
“But you Kristin,” he said, turning toward her, “It seems to me that you should have seen so much by now that you would put more trust in God the Almighty. Haven’t you realized yet that He will hold up each soul as long as that soul clings to him? Do you think – child that you are in your old age – that God would punish the sin when you must reap sorrow and humiliation because you followed your desire and your pride along pathways God has forbidden His children to tread? Will you say that you punished your children if they scalded their hands when they picked up the boiling kettle you had forbidden them to touch? Or the slippery ice broke beneath them when you had warned them not to go out there?…
“Haven’t you realized yet, sister, that God has helped you each time you prayed, even when you prayed with half a heart or with little faith, and He gave you much more than you asked for. You loved God the way you loved your father: not as much as you loved your own will, but still enough that you always grieved when you had to part from him. And then you were blessed with good having grown from the bad which you had to reap from the seed of your stubborn will.”
Not unlike Brown’s wisdom, Father EIliv, and Kristin herself, recognize that there is a natural consequence for our choices –as natural as burns from a boiling kettle – and that these consequences are plenty painful even if the additional shame of crisis or catastrophe is put off for a time, or mercifully avoided altogether. It is this simple but widely encompassing view of sin that should be sobering to all who seek to safeguard against moral failures like the one we bemoan at present. Learning to be attentive to the little sins, to everyday choices and habits that breed destruction instead of flourishing, is beneficial for all Christians but it ought to increasingly become essential for those taking up public leadership or prominent platforms.
If sin is its own worst consequence, however, one of the deeper graces of my life has come in discovering the equal truth that faithfulness is its own reward. At my house we actually sort of live by this simple, ordinary, unexciting idea: “The reward for being healthy is… you get to be.” Here is the point: No one pats you on the back for doing the next responsible thing, even when it is really hard to do or feels downright grueling, which – I can attest – it mostly does. There is no applause. No one puts your face on a glossy brochure, or writes you a big fat check, or invites you on a speaking tour, because you yield to the natural constraints and confines of a faithful life. There is little celebration, actually, in once again deciding not to buy something you really want in hopes of keeping to a budget; to not take a trip or a gig so you can be available to a spouse, or child, or ailing parent; to scale back on commitments to have more time for personal discipline, or family, or reflection, or good old fashioned rest.
Likewise, spending exorbitant amounts of time and energy to resolve seemingly impossible conflicts with a spouse or child or friend; learning to know yourself better or how to relate more effectively with others; remaining chaste; keeping finances in check; having (marital) sex regularly; eating well and exercising; having regular family dinners; committing to a particular church or community despite its imperfections… these are choices that require intentionality, hard work, and energy to sustain. They are particularly hard because they are precisely the habits and choices that do not come naturally to our sin nature. We have to pick them with extra intention, with greater will than we do when we simply yield to sin. Yet most of the time there is no praise for these kinds of sustainable, ordinary choices, and the kicker is that it is sort of right that there isn’t. They are their own reward. And by this I simply mean, the fruit of a family well-loved is a well-loved family. The fruit of staying out of debt (or getting out of debt if you are still paying some off like me) is the freedom that comes from not being in debt. The fruit of staying put in the body and place and moment in which you are situated is to feel at home, to belong in the place and circumstance in which you find yourself. The fruit of resting is that you feel rested. It is ordinary stuff, this faithfulness business, but it is also as good as it gets. It is also what I long to see increasingly in the lives of more Christian leaders.
Debacles like D’Souza’s will happen, grievous moral failures will inevitably occur by leaders of every stripe, and these cataclysms will continue to be instructive. Yet they are perhaps not as instructive as Kristin ought to be for us. D’Souza focuses our attention on the worst-case scenario, the catastrophic flashpoint when all of sin catches up and destruction reigns, yet this view limits our understanding of sin and equally limits what we come to expect from our leaders – so long as they never get caught we will happily follow. Instead, Kristin shows us that we are allowed to pick for ourselves – even expected to – and that we are hemmed in and held accountable by even the most ordinary of our choices. For Christian leaders this means the bar is much higher than we have come to expect. It suggests that simply being articulate, or well-networked, or well-educated, or charismatic, is not sufficient criteria for sustained leadership, so much as also being able to maintain a regular life of flourishing in the midst of those great gifts. Learning to navigate a faithful life and also a public life is no small task, of course, but for those who prove capable are indeed worthy to be called leaders.
(Photo is from Nord-Sel, the Norwegian church that remembers Sigrid Undset’s story, with a statue of Kristin Lavransdatter in the cemetery.)
Kate Harris serves as Executive Director of The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture. She is wife to a very good man and mother to their three young children. She lives outside of Washington D.C. in Falls Church, VA.