When people email me, they almost always include some line that goes “please don’t check my spelling” or “I know I’m terrible at grammar” or “I hate emailing an English teacher.” It is interesting, especially considering that I have always been a bad speller myself and that the sort of work I do has little to do with pedantic proof-reading or nit-picky grammar. My family, friends and, perhaps more naturally, my students are all afraid that I’m secretly examining every word they write, every phrase that leaves their fingers. But I assure you this is not the case: I never pay any attention to spelling or grammar in the emails I receive. It seems inappropriate ― a reduction of an interpersonal exchange to frequently ossified rules about phonetics, prepositions, and punctuation ― to even think about such things when reading a friend, loved-one, or even student’s email.
Over the past three days I’ve marked hundreds of pages of student writing. As I finished the final paper and uttered a (sincere) “thank God that’s done!”, I was struck by the similarity between the fear that people have in writing me and the fear that many people, myself included, feel about God. When I pray ― and when I don’t ― I sometimes fear that God is analyzing and weighing everything I say, checking it for its spiritual grammar and its theological correctness. Many of my friends who are not people of faith express a similar fear about God: that he is scrutinizing every instant of their lives, looking for the misplaced comma, the misspoken word, the dangling modifier, or the good work left undone. And so, they avoid him like some of people I know avoid emailing me.
This fear is, perhaps, somewhat well founded. It is cliché, but no one is perfect and, so, we naturally fear that the perfect God sees our mistakes, our errors and judges them with his red pen, making note of each and every imperfection…But, that isn’t how I react to my students work or to the letters of friends. No, I rather enjoy hearing from them, enjoy the interaction regardless of a misspelled word.
While I don’t want to suggest that the extreme and staggering evil that people are capable of is the equivalent of a squinting modifier, I am reminded of Father Zosima’s comment to a young woman who came to him for confession. After hearing her confession he tells her, “If even I, a sinful man, just like you, was moved to tenderness and felt pity for you, how much more will God be.” If I (and all the other English teachers I know out there) actually don’t read emails looking for the mistakes that family and friends might be making, why do I have such an uncharitable view of God, imaging him as the divine corrector, red-pen in hand, ready to mark, to judge, to fail me.
While the Christian faith is often portrayed as an exercise in judgment and nit-picky morality, this isn’t the picture of God that the biblical text reveals. God is holy but he is not out to get us. He is deeply concerned with our lives and loves us. Such a theological statement may seem childish, but when Karl Barth, (one of the 20th century’s most important theologians) was asked to sum up the most profound thought of his 14 volume work of dogmatic theology, he paused for a moment and said: “Jesus loves me, this I know.”