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Premeditation

Pssst…I have a secret:

I don’t believe in predestination.

At least, not exactly the way it’s usually taught.  The way it’s taught, it comes across more like premeditation.  God has a plan, mapped out since time began, and everything in our lives pretty much happens because God wants it to.  God has hand-selected the people He wants in His Heaven, and the billions of other people are expendable.  God knew that when He created them, but did it anyway.  God intentionally puts horrible things (cancer, bad accidents, poverty, and the like) in our lives either because He’s testing us (a la Job) or because He is “strengthening” us for the journey.

I know that is, to some extent, an exaggeration.  But it isn’t much of one.  And I simply can’t buy into it, for several reasons.  First, I see it as a pretty big contradiction to claim that God wants all people to be saved, then say that He has chosen only some for that purpose.  The fact that we don’t know who they are is supposed to motivate us to bear witness to all, that the chosen few will hear and come to the table.  I find it has the exact opposite effect.  After all, why should I worry about it, when God obviously knows who will be saved?  Nothing I do will really make a difference; if I fail at it, God will find some other way.  He’s magic like that.

For the record, I don’t believe that I have no responsibility.  But I also don’t think it’s quite so set in stone.  I think we’ve adapted and misinterpreted some key passages.  God may know who is and isn’t saved, and it may or may not be according to the same criteria we use.  We are likely to get to the next life and be rather surprised at who we see–and who we don’t.  For that reason, we do need to reach out, in both word and deed.  Jesus said they will know we are Christians by our love; I don’t think he just meant that we’re nice to insiders.

Second, I have serious doubts about the idea of God causing or ordaining terrible things just for the purpose of making us stronger, developing character, or encouraging trust.  God can, and will if we allow it, use all things for good.  But that isn’t the same as causing it.  There are horrible things happening everywhere.  We, as believers, have a responsibility to be part of God’s work here on Earth.  He wants to use us to bring relief, peace, love, and joy into the world.

Third, I have a problem with the way we seem to think God is in every detail.  News flash: God does not care if you have steak or chicken for dinner tonight.  There is this really, really awful song that has gotten a lot of play on Christian radio lately: This Is the Stuff, by Francesca Battistelli.  There aren’t really words for how much I hate this song.  It isn’t just that her voice is so whiny.  It’s that the song itself is whiny.  To me, this is like sticking my fingers in my ears and going, “La la la, I can’t hear you.”  The whole song is about little annoying things happening throughout our days and how God uses them to shape our character.  It’s the absolute most self-centered song I have encountered in a long time.  It reminds me every time I hear it that among many people who call themselves Christians, there is a sheer denial of real suffering in the world.  If the worst you can say about your day is that you misplaced your car keys and phone, then you need to consider yourself very, very blessed.  Don’t worry about whether God is “using” those annoyances to make you a better person.  Because if you’re still dwelling on that, trust me, you’re not becoming a better person.  Leave the car keys, go turn on the news or open the paper, and then consider ways you can really make a difference in this world.

Love Hasn't Won Yet

Two things are driving my thoughts today.  First, there is a post going around on Facebook something like this:

I believe in Jesus Christ and have accepted Him as my personal Savior. One facebooker has challenged all believers to put this on their wall… In the Bible it says, if you deny Me in front of your peers, I will deny you in front of My Father at the Gates of Heaven. This is simple… If you love God and you are not afraid to show it repost this… Just copy and paste… No shame here

There are several things wrong with this, but I will only highlight what should be obvious: God isn’t going to refuse to allow anyone into His Heaven based on whether we have copied and pasted some text into our status updates.  Not only that, the Bible verse in question actually states that you have to actively reject Christ in front of other people.  I doubt that a failure to repost constitutes active denial.

Hold onto that thought for a few moments.

The second thing is that Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, is now on sale.  Now, I have not read the book yet, so this is not a post reviewing it, discussing Rob Bell’s ideas, or taking a side.  I plan to actually read what he has written before I make any kind of statement about the book.  Sadly, that does not seem to have stopped nearly everyone from having an opinion already.  In case you missed some of the controversy, you can start here.  You can also check out Bell’s video promoting the book here.  What bothers me is the complete unwillingness on the part of some Christians to read for themselves and consider Bell’s words.  Some people appear to be taking perverse pleasure in condemning Bell for his apparent universalism and for “leading the flock astray.”

Which brings me back to my first point.  The same thing that drives people to lash out at someone like Rob Bell is behind whatever motivates people to post implicit threats of Hell in their Facebook statuses.  So that leads me to ask this question: What are we so afraid of?

What are we afraid would happen if we let go of Hell?  Do we fear that the “wrong” sort of people might be found in Heaven?  Or are we really just afraid that any form of universalism negates our own faith?  That it wouldn’t matter at all if we believed, or stopped believing, or never believed at all?  Are we afraid that it means that Jesus didn’t really die for our sins?  Similarly, what do we gain from a belief that only certain people (namely, ourselves) can enter into God’s presence?  What do we gain by the assumption that the vast majority of humanity, past, present and future, must spend eternity in conscious torment?

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I am not trying to answer those questions here, although I do address the issue of Hell in another post.  I merely think that we have to ask them of ourselves, on both sides of the equation.  We don’t have to have all the answers, because how, not what, we think about the big questions will motivate our behavior.

In the meantime, perhaps we can refrain from placing labels on people we don’t know personally or whose works we haven’t read.  Or at least stop reposting status updates that don’t reflect the real love of Christ.

Which Christian is the Real One?

I’m wrapping up my thoughts on the most frustrating conversations I experience in Christian circles.  Today, I want to deal with the idea that we will know they are Christians by their denomination.

There is nothing anyone can say to justify thinking that any particular denomination has it right, while all others have it wrong.  There is no way to defend the belief that one branch of Christianity is superior to all others.  Similarly, there is nothing I could say or do that would change the mind of someone who believes he or she knows the mind of God and the heart of another.

No matter how many times I hear the message that a particular kind of Christian is “unsaved” because of denomination or doctrine, I simply cannot swallow that line.  When we have to box God in, when we narrowly define His standards for salvation, we unknowingly box ourselves in, too.  I’ve seen this happen.  We start to think we can’t have friendships without strings.  Every relationship is based on whether we think a given person is “saved” in the manner we deem appropriate or acceptable.  Every conversation produces another chance to evaluate the beliefs of another or a way to sneak in our version of Jesus.  We simply must see every person we meet as someone who is potentially going to Hell unless we intervene.  Sadly, this includes the majority of people of certain types of church.  (In my circles, it’s usually the Catholic church that gets the heat, although Orthodoxy gets its share.  Occasionally, it extends to certain Protestant denominations, but that is rare.  It seems as though the going assumption is that Protestant churches all teach the “correct” path to salvation.)

I would rather that my relationships be lower pressure.  When I stopped feeling like I had to convert everyone, I began to really enjoy my non-Christian family and friends much more.  I also found they were more interested in my faith when it didn’t feel like a sales pitch.  I also enjoy many of my Christian friends more, because we no longer feel the need to compare notes or compete for the most (as one friend put it) “notches in the side of our ‘Saved’ trucks.”  Instead, we can focus on being the kind of people Jesus would want us to be.

Real Christians Part 2

I’m going to pause here to tell a story that I think fits well with yesterday’s post about fear-based conversion.

I don’t generally like to talk about my kids on this blog.  I have a separate blog about being a mom.  There are a lot of reasons for that, which I won’t get into here.  But I wanted to tell this story because I think it’s a fitting example of why I feel so frustrated with the concept of the “real” Christian.

Back in October, our church held a special baptism service.  This isn’t surprising, it’s a Baptist church.  For the uninitiated, that means that we don’t baptize infants or young children, only adults who have stated belief in Jesus.  I actually have no problem with this; in fact I agree with it.  I think that it’s important for people to make their own choices about matters of faith, including whether or not to engage in the rites of a particular religion.

Anyway, My son, age 7, wanted to be baptized.  I was hesitant, as I think he is very young.  I would prefer he be at least an adolescent, to be certain that he isn’t making a choice because we his parents said so.  But my husband felt that it would be acceptable if he really wanted to do it.  So I reluctantly agreed.  I checked with our church and was told that generally, they don’t baptize anyone under age 10.  But if he was able to make a clear statement of faith, then they would consider it.  The children’s ministry director sent us a list of questions to ask our son, to find out whether he really understood his faith.  I have to admit to being uncomfortable with some of the questions, but my husband went over them with our son and said that he thought he was ready.

Our son met with the children’s ministry director, who asked him the same questions.  In the end, she determined that he was not ready for baptism.  Her reasoning was that he did not seem to understand the “role of his own sin” or the purpose of salvation.  He apparently told her that he needed to “be a good person” in order to go to Heaven (presumably rather than that he needed to just believe in order to be saved from Hell).  He also didn’t seem to be quite ready to explain just how he came to be “saved.”

I admit that I was a bit relieved, on several levels.  First, I didn’t think he was ready anyway.  Second, I’m glad he wasn’t just spitting back the correct answer as learned in Sunday school.  He’s a deep thinker and I believe he has a better handle on the meaning of salvation and faith than many of the supposedly “mature” members of our church.  For him, all that’s important is that God loves him and he loves God.  Yet at the same time, I was bothered by the fact that the people at our church, in a position of authority or not, believe they have the right to decide whether my son is a “real” Christian.  Afterward, I was talking with a friend from another church about what had happened.  He knows our church (and is somewhat unimpressed with it).  He said, “For the record, I wouldn’t want to be baptized at your church.  Don’t worry about it.”  I was strangely comforted by that.

In the end, what was off-putting about the whole thing was that even though my husband and I know for certain that our son believes, the church deemed him to be something other than a “real, true Christian” because they have a pretty narrow definition.  Tomorrow, I will explain more about that and how damaging it is to our collective body of Christ when we try to apply that kind of label.

Will the Real Christian Please Stand Up?

A few days ago, I posted about the most frustrating conversations that I have had with other Christians.  None of them are new to me, but I’ve seen a resurgence of those discussions in recent months.  Today, I’m talking about the third conversation, identifying what Slacktivist says some evangelicals call “real, true Christians.”

Defining and identifying “real” Christians depends on several pre-existing assumptions on the part of the Christian doing the defining:

1) There is a literal place called “Hell,” in which people experience eternal conscious torment after they die.

2) God’s default location for dead souls is Hell.

3) Rather than being saved for something, people need to be saved from something–namely, Hell.

4) Only certain people will learn the secret to escaping punishment, while the rest will be eternally excluded.

I’m not going to get into addressing the first assumption.  It’s enough to say that I simply don’t buy the concept of Hell as it’s taught and presented by evangelicals.  I believe this concept came not from the Bible, or historical Judeo-Christian belief, but from Milton and Dante.  It’s fictional.  How fiction came to be taught as reality is beyond my scope of knowledge or understanding, but I’m sure that a good Google search would turn up plenty of information.

I do want to address the second assumption.  It has never made any sense to me whatsoever that God intends all humanity for the scrap bin unless we do or say some particular thing.  This doesn’t seem to me to fit either the image of a loving Father or the actual Biblical text.  Before someone gets their knickers in a knot over that, let me explain.  I don’t read anything in the Bible where the text says that God will put people in Hell (or allow them to go there, if you think that sounds nicer) unless you say, do, or believe something that will change His mind.  That idea is an interpretation based on several texts pieced together and likely evolved over time.

The third assumption, that people need to be rescued from Hell, only matters if you agree with the first two assumptions.  I actually wonder how anyone could ever be a real, true Christian under those circumstances.  I don’t think a decision made out of a certain sense of fear is necessarily stable.  Yesterday, my children were taught in Sunday school that they “deserve to be punished” because they do “bad things” every single day.  Next week, we who teach Sunday school are expected to encourage the children to “ask Jesus to be their forever friend.”  How many of them are going to choose Jesus because that sounds better than being punished forever?

Frustrating Conversations

In the last few months, I have had a number of conversations with other Christians that have left me shaking my head in disappointment.  I suppose I always hope that people will actually consider the beliefs they hold dear, examining them to be certain that they understand why they hold those beliefs.  Yet I am often left feeling somewhat deflated when I discover that most people just don’t think that deeply, even when they say something is very important to them.

The three most recent discussions I have found myself involved in are repeats of similar conversations I’ve had over the years and cover three of the main topics some Christians see as a kind of barometer of the faith.  In other words, if you have the right opinion about those things, then you are clearly a “real” Christian.  Inevitably, they go something like this:

Conversation A

Person: The world is going to Hell in a handbasket, society has become so immoral.  We accept terrible things, like the “homosexual agenda,” abortion, and fat people.

Me: Um…this is the human condition.  People do bad things.  It’s not worse now, just different.

Person: We need to return to the values of the 1950s.

Me: You would like separate lunch counters?

Person: No, but you have to admit, it’s much worse today.

Me: Really?  Well, what about things like slavery or the Crusades or the Nazis?  There’s a lot of racism and genocide in history.

Person: Well, we still have all those things.  But now we also have men who want to marry each other.  And also fat people.

Me [realizing this person has a particular view of the world and is shaping his opinions to match]: Never mind.

Conversation B

Person: The Earth is really only about 10,000 years old.

Me: Scientific discoveries seem to indicate something different.

Person: Science doesn’t know everything.

Me: True.  But how can we explain what science has discovered?

Person: God made the Earth LOOK much older than it is.

Me: Why?  Why would God want to trick us like that?

Person: So that we would take the Bible on faith.

Me: Ok, how does that strengthen our faith?

Person: I don’t know, I guess God just wants us to believe Him instead of trusting our own observations.

Me: That doesn’t make sense.  I feel more drawn to God knowing He made all these wonderful things, including dinosaurs.  I think it’s really cool that our part of the world used to be a tropical sea!

Person: But God wants us to just trust that His Word, the Bible, is the only truth we need.  He wants us to pick Him over science.

Me [realizing this person isn't able to give a concrete reason]: Never mind.

Conversation C

Person: People who are [Catholic, Orthodox, non-Evangelical, emergent, social justice Christians, etc.] are not really saved.

Me: Why not?

Person: [gives various reasons, usually some variant of "they don't believe in salvation by grace through faith alone"]

Me: Are you sure about what “they” believe?

Person: Yes, I grew up in that tradition.  I know everything they ever believed and can recite it to you verbatim.

Me: So everyone from those traditions or beliefs is not actually a Christian.

Person: Well, no, I’m sure some of them have found their way to faith.  But most of them just don’t understand their faith or what they’re supposed to believe.

Me: Not unlike most people within our tradition.

Person: I’m sure there are people in our tradition who don’t understand, but that isn’t most of us.  It is most of them.

Me: Ok.  Even if that’s true, are you certain that we’re right and they’re wrong?

Person: Yes, because the Bible says so.

Me: You know they say the same thing about us, right?

Person: Yes, but we are actually correct, unlike them.

Me [realizing this person has preconceived notions that can't be addressed in this conversation]: Never mind.

———————————————————————————————————————————————

There you have it.  I’ve been having similar conversations on and off for the last 20 years.  It doesn’t offer me much hope.