I was at Barnes and Noble the other day, browsing the “Christian Inspirational” section, when I came across a book titled “unChristian.” Interested, I pulled it off the shelf and started to read.
The authors had interviewed a number of people, some of whom considered themselves Christians. They asked these people what being a Christian actually meant to them. Right living made the top of the list, and loving others fell down toward the bottom… but at least it made the top five.
And that’s what disturbed me: In the first place, Christians thought that Christianity means living a certain way. Behaving. Being a “good person” and not cheating on tests in school. In the second, nowhere on that list did I find the idea of loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength – that thing that Jesus said was *the* most important thing.
Now, I’m that guy who always asks that irritating “why” question. People tell me I should love God, I ask them why. Not to be smart-alecky, but because the Why is important to me. The why is important to me because I didn’t used to know the why. We “should” behave because we love God, and we “should” love God because He loved us first… and I tend to forget this and end up either going through the motions or doing whatever I darn well please. The Why question is THE most important question to me. Why should I obey God? Because I love him. And why should I love Him? *smiles* Because He loved me first. A (to me) awesome, stunning, life-changing truth.. that I forget on a disturbingly regular basis.
I wonder sometimes if I’m the only one who missed the “God is love” bandwagon. It seems like whenever I talk to another Christian about God being so amazingly loving and kind to us, they often have more to say about Him, and how good and gracious He is than I do. A pastor friend of mine said that he “totally got that” and “didn’t struggle at all with that,” and another friend told me that he didn’t often mention it because he considered it a given. What have I missed?
Fundamentalism’s best-kept secret
Last thursday night, I was at a friend’s house (I’ll call him Peter) for a Bible study. Peter pointed out that my siblings are anxious to leave home because of my dad’s perceived “hard-handedness.” He claims I have been influential in this, particularly in my attitude toward our dad.
My friend said that disturbed him because the Bible says that we are to “honor thy father and mother.” He lectured my brother and me for about an hour and a half on this, with irrefutable proofs and scripture verses, telling us all the reasons and places it was commanded.
I talked to him afterward about how hurt I was that my dad was treating me a certain way because he viewed me as disrespectful. I had been, of course, but that’s beside the point. I have tried on many occasions to honor my dad, and in the end, usually ended up in an argument of some kind. (Note how well I paint myself). But that’s not the point. Peter and I talked for a long time about what it’s like to suffer for sin – even sin that’s a long ways in the past.
Then he invited me to his church. I laughed and tried to think of a polite way to turn him down. You see, Peter goes to a fundamentalist Baptist church – the kind that I tend to stereotype. I told him that it seemed to me that churches like that seem more interested in the what than the why of obedience to God.
He looked confused, so I explained. Conservative-type churches, like the ones I spent most of my most malleable years in, tend to be very heavy on works. Obedience. (And making sure you really, really mean it when you say the sinner’s prayer. ‘Cause if you don’t, you’ll probably need to say it again next week. And if you didn’t laugh, you probably went to a grace-oriented church).
I explained how churches like the one I’m currently attending are very big on grace. On the goodness of God. On how God believes in you, God loves you, and God has great plans for your life. I didn’t notice it at the time, but they’re a little light on the obedience angle.
Peter looked at me strangely, then went on to give me the most amazing testimony of the incredibly awesome things God has done in his life; the consequences of some sins he’s committed, and how God has very graciously forgiven him, and even taken back some of what sin took away, and blessed him far beyond what he deserves. He told me about the amazing blessings of obedience and showed me in some ways how, in some cases, obedience to God not only brings reward, but the resulting lifestyle is in itself the reward!
And that, my friends, is conservatism’s best-kept secret. I bounced back at him some of the things I’ve written in previous blog entries about how God loves us, cares for us, how He can take something as awful as the day that we now call “good friday” and turns it into resurrection Sunday. How God is unbelievable, even disturbingly, good. How God is my refuge, and my strength, and my hope when the world is falling apart. How literally no matter what happens, I can hold onto Jesus and He’ll get me through. That, and much, much more, is conservative Christianity’s best-kept secret.
how i learned the best-kept secret.. and then forgot it
With one glaring exception, I grew up in fundamentalist-type churches, and I don’t remember hearing a whole lot of messages on the goodness of God. Most of them have been emphasizing ways that Man can be good. Or at the very least better. Seldom have I heard them discuss why we should bother.
When I discovered this incredible secret at a more grace-oriented church, I was eager to share it with my friends from conservatism. Much to my amazement, I discovered that many of them already knew it, and believed it passionately. Even the pastors, who I hadn’t noticed ever preaching about the goodness of God, turned out to be even more passionate about knowing that God is good and does many good, gracious, and kind things to ill-deserving sinners. That’s why I refer to it as a secret. You can find it out, but you must look. If you don’t look, you’ll never know. I almost didn’t.
So I went back to this church where my conservative friends went, trying to offer a kind of reformation. I guess I sort of went as a secret agent of God’s goodness, underhandedly sneaking in the belief that God is a good God, and a loving God. That He’s a God so loving, in fact, that if He existed in Hell rather than in Heaven, his very presence there would cause the blazing pits of Sheol to exceed the glories of heaven in desirability. I did not know this God before my grace-oriented church taught me about grace, and I was eager to share Him with my conservative friends.
Then something strange began to happen. As I sat under conservative teaching for longer and longer, I began to slowly buy into it. I bought into the belief that God is good, but that God’s goodness is not the point; the point is loving him above all else, and forcing yourself to be obedient, and being more passionate about God than anyone else.
Once this was accomplished, the enemy of my soul only had to cut off the one and only place left that I could see the love of God, lived out beyond all reason and imagination: my first love broke up with me.
I was defeated. Defeated doesn’t begin to describe it. Devastated comes closer, but still doesn’t do the feeling justice. I wasn’t even sure I believed in a God who loved. How could a God who loved do THIS?!
I wandered, strayed, and generally fought desperately to believe that God could love me. I wondered if He did, and if it made a difference if He did. I had taken His love for granted, and it had destroyed me. I had not valued His love enough. And I could no longer go out and infiltrate a message, secret-agent-style or not, that deep down in my soul, I didn’t even believe anymore.
As a result of the breakup, I returned to the “grace-oriented” church. I thought I knew God loved me, but I’d missed how many of the people there were my friends. Maybe it was just my wounded heart crying out from every week having to see the girl I was once sure was going to be my wife and now knew never would be – by her own choice. And in a horrible way, by choices I had made that I never knew would cause anything so awful.
I felt alone in the world, and I knew that God said it’s not good for man to be alone. I did the only thing I thought possible: I returned to the place where I’d first seen God loving me.
“Grace-oriented” Christianity’s best-kept secret
I discovered something at my “liberal” church. Much to my surprise, I realized that I didn’t really want my kids growing up in the “liberal” church I’ve been going to. Not only that, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted the woman I eventually marry to come from this kind of a grace-over-works background. In reality, I would prefer that people believe like my liberal friends and behave like my conservative friends.
So then, liberal Christianity’s best-kept secret is truth. Living like Christians. Good works. That one thing that Christians surveyed said was “most important.”
Paul and James kind of sparred about these two apparently contradictory viewpoints. Paul joyfully affirmed that there is absolutely no condemnation for those who are in Christ – that faith saves. Which is true. And James rather skeptically (as I see it) says, “You’ve got faith, eh? Show me your faith without your works, and I’ll show you mine through my works.”
The Baptists and Methodists like James a lot. They desperately want to shape people up. The radicals like me like Paul a lot. They know that people who love God eventually start to look like Him. I personally appreciate Paul’s writings more. But I wish my liberal friends would give James a listen, and start living out their faith! (That wasn’t intended to be a call to action, rather a voicing of my own frustration – and one with which my dad would agree – particularly regarding me!)
Honestly, when I think of how I’d like to raise my kids, I want them to be good kids. I want them to be works-oriented, and live good lives… but I also want them to know that God loves them. If I had to choose between the two, I would start them off in a very conservative church… and then later move to a more relaxed kind of church – the kind that preaches grace and God’s love. I’d prefer a church that teaches both equally.
grace AND truth
John, in John 1:14, describes Jesus as being “full of grace and truth.” In verse 17, he says that “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Paul talks in Ephesians 4:15 about speaking the truth in love, and back in Solomon’s day, his advice to his sons in his day and in ours was not to permit kindness and truth to leave you – tie them around your neck, “write them on the tablet of your heart.”
This is the strange balance. As one pastor I know of (conservative, if anyone’s counting) used to say, Truth without Love is harshness, and Love without Truth is compromise. I do not wish to compromise, and I have grown up under truth with little apparent love mixed in, so I know well the danger that harshness poses.
the solution – what to tell the next generation, and why it matters
Perhaps I am using a proverbial M-16 to annihilate a housefly, but I don’t think so. I believe that this point cannot be emphasized too much. Truth, and love. Neither without the other. This is so crucial. I wonder sometimes who I would be today had both been instilled in me, but love more so. I am the next generation.
The songwriter Asaph wrote these lyrics:
We will not hide them from their children,
but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done.
He established a testimony in Jacob
and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our fathers
to teach to their children,
that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and arise and tell them to their children,
so that they should set their hope in God
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments
So as to avoid giving the impression that these were just some words some guy wrote, I should tell you now (if you haven’t figured it out already) that God thought that song was worth putting in the Bible.
But do you see? Do you understand? The meshing of Asaph’s song? God established not only a law, but a testimony – and not only a testimony, but a law. He commanded BOTH to be taught to the next generation. He says “That the next generation… should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments.” That is the heart of what I am trying to say. Not only say, but understand. Can you see yet? The pattern is like this:
Tell your children
-The glorious deeds of the Lord and His might
-The wonders that He has done
-The testimony (Wikipedia calls it a form of evidence obtained from a witness who makes a solemn statement or declaration of a fact. I call it talking about the good that God has done.)
-The law He appointed in Israel.
seeing a pattern yet? God is good, He’s done great things… and He gave a law. watch again.
That the next generation might know….
-that they might set their hope in God
-and not forget the works of God
-But keep His commandments.
Asaph wrote another song, a kind of famous one, called Psalm 78. (Unique title). In that song, he talks about how he noticed all the wicked people getting rich and getting off the hook for the bad stuff they’ve done, and how good deeds seemed to go unrewarded, and how bad people got what good people were supposed to. Then, after his assessment, comes this astounding line:
If I had said, I will speak thus,
I would have betrayed the generation of your children.
What was he saying here? I think, in my humble opinion, that he knew instinctively what should be told to the next generation. That good pays off, that right wins, and that obedience is unbelievably rewarding. Also that sin is evil, and causes pain, and, in the end, destroys you. That God isn’t sitting idly by, even when things seem to indicate otherwise. This is what you must tell your children.
God told the Israelites when they first came out of Egypt to remember this night. To tell their children about how God was gracious to them – but how the Egyptians died. Grace – and truth. God was very interested in what the Israelites told their children. He spoke of the law: hang it everywhere. Talk to your kids when you leave for work, when you come home, while you’re walking… tell your children about My goodness. (-David Schell Memory Paraphrase. You’re welcome).
This is what you must tell the next generation:
You must tell them that God is love and that God is holy, taking care not to overemphasize holy or to underemphasize love – or vice versa.
That God will judge, but that He is merciful. Being careful not to overemphasize one or the other.
Why does it matter? Because my generation is slipping away from the church, one disillusioned person at a time, when we believe that Satan has a better life to offer us. And because when too much attention is given to grace, we think, like Paul warns the church at Rome, that we can live however we like and “God is gracious, we’ll go on sinning and get even MORE grace!” Grace without truth, like truth without grace, is extremely dangerous stuff. It matters because a whole generation of Christian young people are either dumping Christianity… or accepting Christianity and living just like the world. It is imminently important.
Because another generation is already being born, and my generation is about to become their parents.
What will we tell them?