So what becomes of our boasts? There is no room for them. What sort of law excludes them? The sort of law that tells us what to do? On the contrary, it is the law of faith, since, as we see it, one is justified by faith and not by doing something the Law says to do. 

Romans 3: 27-8

Justification by faith sounds like something from the realms of theological controversy, the basis of the reformation in Christianity. Our reading of Paul’s letter to the Romans these days invites us, however, to reflect on our personal experience of sin, faith, and justification, and of the role they play in our lives.
Self-justification is a pervasive aspect of our behavior. To think about the times we speak ill of or gossip about others is to become aware that much of it is in service to justifying ourselves. We want others to recognize that the person we are at odds with is wrong, so that they will also recognize (and we be confirmed in the fact) that we are right. “And then he said this.” “Can you believe that she did that?” There is something in us that compulsively seeks to justify ourselves, that, in Paul’s terms, “boasts.” The need for self-justification provides much of the drive for our self-creation, the energy behind the face we present to the world.
We have, however, a much deeper longing than that for social approbation, respect, and confirmation. It is to know that we are loved in those places where we cannot love ourselves. As much as we long to justify ourselves before the world and ourselves, we also know that in a deeper place we suffer the deeper truth of our own fearfulness, inadequacy, and sinfulness. Even those human beings who seem to have no self-awareness of their own limits and vulnerability can be seen, on deeper inspection, to be engaged in a frantic flight from their own reality.
There is no question that we must devote ourselves to doing good and to moving against our tendencies toward narcissism and violence. However, if we are honest with ourselves and aware of our own spiritual potential, we know a longing for something that we can never attain through our own actions: a love that embraces us at the moment of our deepest failure and humiliation. What Paul, and Luther after him, called justification by faith is the belief and trust in such a love at our neediest moment. As children, we wanted to please our parents to make sure that they would keep loving us. What was much more important, however, was to experience their love for us when we did  not please them.
One way we can practice disposing ourselves to the experience of such a love from God is to attempt to offer such a love to others. We can attempt to grow in awareness of how dependent our love for others is on their gratifying of us, and when we experience our own natural anger or aversion when someone is not gratifying us, we can try to move toward them rather than away from them. We can give time to those we would prefer to avoid. We can engage more fully the person we tend to merely tolerate. We can discipline our ways of speaking that diminish others in our attempt to justify ourselves. Of course, the spiritual paradox is always that the very doing of these things becomes a source of self-justification. They can also, however, in their very difficulty and impossibility become an opening to the realization of the love of God for ourselves that is able to do in our regard what we cannot ever fully do for others.
Today is the Feast of St. Teresa of Avila. She is one of the greatest lovers in our tradition. For Teresa, the love of God for us asks of us not so much certain ways of acting as a submission of all we are to God’s way and will. We are to come to know God’s love by receiving all of our life as it comes to us trusting in a love that infuses it all. It is not exactly that we become justified by our faith, but rather that in faith we know of a love for us that is greater than all we can do and all that we lack.

Good Lord, what do you want of me,
What is this wretch to do?
What work is this,
This sinful slave, to do?
Look at me, Sweet Love,
Sweet Love, look at me,
What do You want of me?

In your hand
I place my heart,
Body, life and soul,
Deep feelings and affections mine,
Spouse—Redeemer sweet,
Myself offered now to you,
What do you want of me?

Give me death, give me life,
Health or sickness,
Honor or shame,
War or swelling peace,
Weakness or full strength,
Yes, to these I say,
What do you want of me?

Give me wealth or want,
Delight or distress,
Happiness or gloominess,
Heaven or hell,
Sweet life, sun unveiled,
To you I give all.
What do you want of me?

Give me, if You will, prayer;
Or let me know dryness.
An abundance of devotion,
Or if not, then barrenness.
In you alone, Sovereign Majesty,
I find my peace,
What do you want of me?

Give me then wisdom.
Or for love, ignorance,
Years of abundance,
Or hunger and famine.
Darkness or sunlight,
Move me here or there:
What do you want of me?

If You want me to rest,
I desire it for love;
If to labor,
I will die working;
Sweet Love say
Where, how and when.
What do you want of me?

St. Teresa of Avila, from In The Hands of God

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