Occasionally people knock on my door or hand me a tract on a street corner or strike up a conversation with the aim of asking, “Are you saved?” Even before I believed in the salvation of every person, I always answered with an enthusiastic yes. Often, rather than sharing my elation, my inquisitors would look me up and down with a dubious eye and ask another question. The second question varied depending on the person. Many asked, “Have you repented of your sins and accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior?” Some asked, “Do you belong to a Bible-believing church?” Others asked if I’d been fully immersed or baptized in the name of Jesus or filled with the Holy Spirit and spoken in tongues. My salvation hinged on how I answered their second query. Those most aggressive about determining my salvation were also most certain what it meant to be saved. They knew the sole formula. Claiming to be a Christian was never enough. I had to subscribe to their specific explanation for the human condition, the activity of God, the means and purpose of salvation. If not, I faced damnation.
Gulley, Philip; Mulholland, James (2009-03-17). If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person (Plus) (p. 155). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
We humans, and that includes everyone who is or has ever been in the church, put so many conditions on God’s grace where he seem to have put none. Putting an emergent twist on this topic, this has been the case for most of the church’s history. One theologian believes “X” and another believes “Y”. If they aren’t overpowered as a heretic then the church’s belief becomes “X+Y”. Over the ages this has resulted in a belief code that is almost as long at the U.S. tax code. Much about the church has become what to believe rather than what to do.
I spent several years trying to sort all of this out. There are literally hundreds of published theologians around today and I studied many of them. In some ways they are kind of like expert witnesses at trials. If you just look enough you can find one who will testify as the the truthfulness of whatever you want to believe. During those years of study I became overwhelmingly frustrated in trying to discern what God was really like. It was not until I heard a whisper telling me to not be concerned about what the theologians said but instead to listen with my heart and soul.
At that point I learned a valuable lesson and that is that God just can’t be defined by human logic or understanding. Mine or anyone else’s. The theologians throughout the ages are simply men like you or I who have an opinion which they hope will garner them some authority with the body of Christ and praise from men. They like everyone else want to leave a legacy behind so they make up this or that rule or belief to add to all the others before them. Do they do this with a belligerent intent? For the most part I don’t imagine so.
As a result we, as one of the 39,000 different versions of church, have piled belief and rules one upon the other where God had put only two. As the quote above inferred every version of Jesus’ church they have the sole formula for salvation. God in the person of Jesus made it pretty simple and that is to love God with everything you have and to love your fellowman. It couldn’t be simpler than that. Why have we allowed so many since Jesus’ time to pile on so many other things?
Am I saved? If I believe in the agape love and grace of God then I can give you an emphatic yes as an answer. If I live by the piles of accumulated beliefs that answer is not so simple. I think I will choose Jesus’ simple words instead of man’s complicated ones.
I am saddened by how many people are afraid of God, projecting their negative experiences with parents and the Church onto God. Often we’ve reinforced these false images of God. I assured Susan her Father in heaven was different from her earthly father. I could tell she wanted to believe me but still hesitated.
Susan asked me, “What if you’re wrong, and I believe you and go to hell?” I replied, “Do you really think God would damn you to hell for overestimating his love?”
Susan didn’t leave our church. In the following years, she cautiously opened her heart and mind to the notion that God could speak to her and she could experience him directly. But more than that, as her awareness of God’s love increased, she began to suspect God felt about everyone the way he felt about her. She began to believe something beautiful about God.
Gulley, Philip; Mulholland, James (2009-03-17). If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person (Plus) (p. 46). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition
I too grew up with the fear of God’s wrath. It frightened me even at an early age. The Susan mentioned here was a member of Mr. Gulley’s church who was struggling with the difference between God’s wrath and His grace. She feared that if she did not fear God enough that he would send her to hell. She was afraid that God would punish her if she gave herself totally over to his grace. Mr. Gulley had to convince her that even though something bad had happened to her doesn’t mean that God caused it to happen. Susan had grown up in churches that were heavy on “hell and damnation” and light on grace.
I know there are a number of denominations who emphasize God’s wrath. They treat God as this fearful being who spends his time damning people to an eternity of hell. Some say if you curse, drink alcohol or even dance that God will come down on you hard. To me these denominations seem to totally ignore Jesus of the New Testament and his unending love for each of us.
To me it is totally unChristian to ignore Jesus’ agape love so that those in authority can control the behavior of their congregations but that is just what seems to be happening in too many churches today. While Jesus had some pretty stern words for the clergy of his day he also showed his love for everyone else. Especially those who sinned the worst. I suspect that most of the “wrath” preaching is one from personal power rather than the love of God.
We will continue on with the topic of being afraid of God in the next post.
“How can you believe that God’s grace isn’t sufficient, that many of God’s children will languish in hell forever, that they’ll never be restored to their Father, that evil will claim victory in so many lives? How can you believe that?”
Gulley, Philip; Mulholland, James (2009-03-17). If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person (Plus) (pp. 89-90). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Some think the idea of universal salvation is a new thing but in reality it goes back to the founding fathers of the church. Origen and Gregory of Nyssa believed in the salvation of all people. But of course we know that the champions of God’s grace were often silenced by future theologians especially by those who followed King Constantine several hundred years later. Much like the old saying that “history is written by the victors”, much of Christian dogma was written by those who charged their opponents with heresy and got that claim to stick.
As I have mentioned before I am still wrestling with the idea of universal salvation. It is easy to show with pride how I am saved while so many are damned to hell for eternity. Like the return of the prodigal son I don’t want to admit that some who have led totally broken lives will somehow sit alongside me in God’s presence.
In the end I simply will not diminish God’s grace in order to sustain the belief of God’s wrath. I want to finish the post with some final words from the book that took hold of me and shook me.
I insisted we were free to reject God’s grace. It never occurred to me that God might be free to reject our rejection.
Who is more powerful God or human will? I think I know the answer to that question….
Some Christians believe that absolutely everything that happens in your life was totally planned by God and is His will. They cite a verse here and a verse there to back up their claim. I am one who is a firm believer in free will so I am not going to put all the mistakes I have made in this life on God’s back. If God is totally responsible for everything that has happened in my life then I really don’t have any choice in the matter. That seems a strange way to rationalize life to me.
I am just not one to believe that serial killers are the way they are because God planned it that way. Or as one firmly defeated candidate for the Senate from my State said that children born from rape is God’s will. Blaming God for all our troubles both personal and corporate is an easy way to shirk our responsibilities in matters. We can always say “it is God’s will so I can’t do anything about it”.
Don’t put it all on God. That and the belief that we have no responsibilities relative to being a Christian are the two major pitfalls of some versions of His church today. Those who say Christianity is a something for nothing religion are seriously missing the messages of Jesus and in the process are seriously polluting His words. Another very damaging belief is that since I am a sinner God doesn’t expect anything from me. He thinks of me as a worthless piece of snot but loves me anyway. The more I heard this message the more nauseated I became. God did not put us here simply to sit back and let grace flow over us. He intends us to live a Godly life as he showed us through Jesus.
Being a follower of Jesus Christ is definitely not a something for nothing proposition! In fact it is really a fundamentally life changing process when we actually take it to heart. Putting all our problems and all our bad decisions on God’s back is a giant cop-out….
Despite recent trends the U.S. is still pretty much an inclusive society. As the saying on the plaque at the Statue Of Liberty goes we welcome all others to our shores. The resulting diversity is in my mind one of the primary reasons we have been such a strong and prosperous country. Elitism is by definition exclusive. It wants more and more for a smaller and smaller portion of society. It celebrates that fact that more than half the wealth of this country is in the hands of the top one percent of the population.
The advantages of inclusiveness and diversity are equally true for our religious institutions. Unfortunately most religious organization are exclusive. When they can’t even agree within themselves about something they call “religious” they far too often split over their differences. Each of the currently 39,000 different versions of Christianity today go out into the secular world to proclaim that they alone have it right when it comes to God. But then again, many don’t actually go outside their doors with any seriousness. Instead they tell us to come and see them and if we jump through all the right hoops and proclaim the right beliefs then they will let us join their group. To me that pompous attitude is not the message of Jesus. Jesus didn’t put conditions on his welcoming tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans and such; he welcomed them all without conditions.
I realize the above words are somewhat critical. No, they are actually very critical! This criticism did not come lightly upon me; it evolved for many years of observation and study. I have come to truly mourn the fact about what much of Christ’s church has become. Thank heavens I have also been exposed to an evolving Christianity that has allowed my view of Christ to grow and not die as a result of this all too common church exclusiveness.
I have been exposed to numerous authors who tell me a different story. It is a story of celebrating Christian diversity. It is a story of getting back to the words of Jesus and putting all the various man-made beliefs about him on the back burner, and in some instances completely off the stove. It is about welcoming all people to our midst. It is about actively going into the community to be our brother’s keeper. It is about being a Christian instead of just proclaiming certain belief, man-made beliefs. It is not self-focused but is about helping others.
My religious evolution was somewhat similar to when I went deaf. Before I met others who were deaf I was convinced that I was the only one out there. Before I was exposed to the other side of Christianity, the inclusive version, I was very distraught about what I saw in the church. Now I have hope for the church of Jesus. Will some of the current church institutions step away from their practices of exclusion or will they be simply sidelined to an ever decreasing minority? In some ways I really don’t care as there is now an alternative on the horizon to take their place if they stubbornly insist on the pompous belief that they are the only true Christians out there.
The emergent church movement gives me hope that the messages of Jesus will not be lost to mankind. All of Christianity will not be deemed irrelevant to the world and discarded. The idea of actually following Jesus will be resurrected, or I might say rescued, to return as a mantel of morality in this world.
Since this is the first post here in 2013 I pray we all make a new years resolution to not embarrass God!!
We followers of Jesus seem to think that our self-proclamation that we are Christians doesn’t affect anyone but ourselves. But in reality making that claim and then not living up the actions necessary to show the world that you follow Jesus embarrasses God. It makes him look bad when everyone who knows you to be a Christian see you doing things that are definitely not Christ like.
The primary way that someone comes to be a follower of Jesus is not by a sudden mysterious urge to read the Bible but instead by observing the good examples of others and asking “what makes this person different?”. Most simply see the Bible as a very old book written centuries ago that has little to do with the world today. They learn about Christ through you and how you act!
But the trouble with this is that there is almost no difference between how you, a self-proclaimed Christian lives your life, than anyone else. In fact if we look hard enough we can see that Christians actually take marriage less seriously than non-Christians since statistically Christians divorce more frequently than the population as a whole.
When Christians insist that science is wrong about so many aspects of life they embarrass God. God continues to give us scientific revelations about life including the recent advances in DNA but many Christians seem to want to deny scientific findings. As an example some stubbornly insist that the earth is a mere 6,000 years old when even with a cursory look around us we know it to be otherwise. When we effectively ask our guests to our services to check their intelligence at the door we embarrass God. We not only embarrass him we make him irrelevant in the eyes of many around us. Instead of wanting to know more about this God that we pray to they could care less.
When we squabble incessantly with each other about what we are supposed to believe about him we embarrass God. We are currently divided into over 39,000 different factions each claiming to be the only ones who know the “true” God! How can anyone make any sense of what being Christian means when we can’t even agree among ourselves. More shamefully when we discipline, reject , and shun those in our midst for simply praying with those who might not proclaim exactly the same beliefs as us we embarrass God.
Let’s face it many “Christians” today embarrass God by their actions or maybe more seriously their lack of actions. When we proclaim that being Christian is all about what we believe and nothing to do with what we do. We embarrass God when we continuously split over the most petty things.
It will take a paradigm shift in our understanding of Jesus and his messages to turn us around. I think the current emergent movement is just such a thing. How long will the shift take is anyone’s guess. All I know is that we have to quit embarrassing God by our words and inactions and get on to doing what he told us to do. That is the only way we will ever point others to Him.
Lets all make a very serious attempt to not embarrass God in this new year…..
As I have mentioned in previous posts Luke Chapter 6 is at the heart of the Bible as far as I am concerned. Lets look at some of it starting at verse 27.
“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
These are some very hard words when we take them literally! Jesus gave us many messages through parables, stories, and such. Sometimes that is difficult to understand. Why didn’t he just come out with a set of rules instead of constantly telling us stories. I think part of the reason for that is because he knew that two thousand years in the future we would still be studying his messages and they needed to seem relevant to that time and all the time before and after.
When I look for the underlying message from the above words I think Jesus was trying to tell us that we are not to have a retaliatory attitude. In other words he was canceling the Old Testament verses about an eye for an eye. Even though he claimed he only came to fulfill scriptures, Jesus seemed to take several Old Testament rules off the table during his ministry. When God said vengeance was his I think he really meant it. It is not up to us to take revenge on others who we deem has done us wrong. God will do that; maybe not in this life but certainly in the next.
Of course, like so many other messages from Jesus the final sentence above is the one that attracts all the attention. Like the story of the sheep and the goats where Jesus is talking about “being” Christians instead of jut mouthing the words, we often ignore the verses we don’t like. Many have turned sheep/goats story into being about beliefs instead of actions. Yes, there are messages hidden within many of Jesus’ word but we should not immediately discount the possibility that he might have also meant them literally.
For most of us it would be extremely hard to turn the other cheek or to not try to get back what others take from us. But I think the underlying message in this instance is that we should not give much priority to the “things” we own. They are just things and are not that important in a true Christian’s life. Being our brother’s keeper is a hard thing to practice in this world but that is what Jesus insists if you espouse to be a Christian.
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless and pray for those who mistreat you. Don’t fight back, give to anyone who asks. These are hard lessons to learn. May we all struggle daily to try to live up to them.
I came across an article entitled Sheer Christianity in the November 2012 Sojourners Magazine that moved me. I want to tell you a little about it and quote some of the inspiring words. It is by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson who is the general secretary of the Reformed Church of America. I have to admit that I don’t know much about this organization. Here is a quote that got me to thinking about the issue. The article is basically about another article in Newsweek cover story entitled “Christianity in Crisis”
My sense is that people are leaving organized Christianity because it has left behind the radical message of its founder. It has been a long and continuous struggle….
The church confesses him as risen Savior and Lord. But then, so often, it tries to domesticate him, explaining away those sharp, demanding edges of his compelling words, and finding theological excuses for not following his radical ways. We call upon people to believe “in” Jesus. But question is whether we “believe” Jesus…..
The more articles I run across about this the more I am surprised that what I discovered several years ago was not as outlandish as I had imagined. When I sat down over four years ago and concentrated on the words of Jesus I discovered that his messages were not what I was hearing from the church congregation that I then belonged. Twelve years ago, as a condition of membership in that church, I was required to stand in front of the congregation and cite a bundle of various beliefs about Jesus. It didn’t strike at the time but all of those “pronouncement of beliefs” had little to do with the what Jesus told us to do. Instead were just things, mostly man-made, that I was required to believe about him.
From that point on for the next eight years I heard the common theme that I am a miserable person but God loves me anyway. I was told that if I felt like it I could say thanks to Jesus by my actions but those actions were totally optional. At the time that was convenient in that being a Christian, at least in that denomination, didn’t interfere with how I wanted to live my life. About the only thing required was to show up in the pews once in a while with a donation in hand and when I died I was assured that I would go heaven. Pretty easy stuff, or at least that is what I was lead to believe.
But, as I mentioned above as I seriously studied into the words of Jesus I discovered that, contrary to what my church told me, being a follower of Jesus meant everything changed. I was to live my life as Jesus taught me. His words were very clear about that. The story about the sheep and the goats took on an entirely different meaning than what I was taught all those weeks in the pew. I was told that the sheep were believers and the goats were non-believers. In reality I learned that, as Jesus said, the sheep are those that take care of the least of these and the goats were those that ignored Jesus’ words. So, as the quote above says many congregations today have domesticated Jesus. How sad is that????
I live in Indiana which is pretty much a red State. Senator Lugar, who was our long-time representative in the U.S. Senate was defeated in the primary by Richard Mourdock who proudly announced that he is a loyal Tea Party candidate. His stated view on compromise is when the Democrats finally come to agree with everything Republicans want! I really haven’t been paying much attention to his campaign but I imagine he is a Christian fundamentalist of one flavor or another.
Here is a quote I just came across :
Mourdock could see both fade after telling a live television audience that when a woman becomes pregnant during a rape, “that’s something God intended.”
Initially I, like probably many others, was shocked by his statement. God intended the rape and pregnancy to happen??? But then I remembered that there are Christians out there that believe that everything that happens in this world is God’s will. I imagine that Mr. Mourdock is one of those people as are many in his Tea Party group.
They say that everything that happens is God’s will as nothing can happen without God wanting it to happen. Thankfully there are also many who take a different tack in this area. They, and I am one of them, say that God gave man free-will and all of the pain and suffering in this world is a result of that action, it is not God’s plan but the consequences of man’s decisions. To put all of the evil that happens in this world on God’s back is insane to me. I’m sure God mourns these actions more than any of us do. God is love and evil is simply no part of his being.
Although God’s will is betrayed as a somewhat dark character in some of the Old Testament stories/myths Jesus Christ gave us a clear personal definition of what God’s will is in the New Testament. He told us it is God’s will that we love God and love each other. That according to Jesus wraps up the total meaning of God’s will. He wants us to love him; he wants us to treat each others as we want to be treated.
Jesus also gave us clear examples of how to do God’s will. It is to be our brother’s keeper. It is to love God, not fear him. Jesus’s opening words to his ministry gave us exactly what God’s will is for the inhabitants of this world:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” – Luke 4:18
God does not will evil to come to us and he certainly didn’t cause a person to rape another in order to create life. Yes, there is evil in this world in many different degrees and forms but it is not from God.