Bad Theology

Getting Pumped for Judgment Day: From Fundamentalist Fear to Extraordinary Grace

If I had to choose a least favorite hymn, it would probably be “It Is Well With My Soul.”

As a child, I would sometimes sing this song at school or at a summer camp at the Baptist church. My understanding of this song was that lots and lots of bad things will probably happen to you, but you should still be glad as long as your soul is OK. Since this song reads like a list of awful things (sorrows like sea billows, Satan buffeting, etc.) I also interpreted that last verse “the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend” as a bad thing. After all, the songwriter said, “Even so, it is well with my soul.”

Although I understand the theology of this song better now, I’ve never been able to shake to connotations of my childhood. Whenever I hear it, I am gripped with a sense of sorrow and of fear.

When I was a child I believed in Christ’s return the way I believed in the rising sun. I took for granted that it would happen. I expected it at every moment. Whenever  the sun burst through the clouds after an afternoon storm I would turn my face to the sky, heart racing, wondering, “Is this it? Is He coming now, riding on those clouds, shining like the sun?” and I would be filled with fear.

***

In elementary school chapel I sat with my classmates in my scratchy plaid jumper and white oxford shirt and listened to our principal explaining judgment day. On that day, she said, all of our worst sins, even the ones we thought no one knew about, would be displayed in front of the whole world. For people who weren’t believers, this would be a horrible day, but for Christians, this would be a great day because after the whole world had watched that movie reel of our very worst moments, Jesus would step forward and erase the tape.

These words were meant to encourage belief, but they filled me with terror. I chewed my fingernails down to the quick while I imagined everyone I knew watching a video of my sins. I wasn’t comforted by Jesus erasing the tape. I was too busy panicking about everyone knowing I peeked at my spelling book for just a minute during the last test. And even at that young age, my fear worried me. Did this mean I wasn’t really a Christian? If this was meant to be a great day for Christians, then why was I so afraid of it? Shame pounded in my temples as I sent up fervent prayers to combat those of generations of saints, “Please, Jesus, won’t you tarry just a little longer?” I pleaded.

***

When I was in jr. high and high school I encountered a new theology of judgment. Judgment, I heard, was for the wicked, not for those favored of the Lord. When Christ returned in all of his glory, he would separate the righteous from the unrighteous like grain from chaff or sheep from goats. We need only worry that we were counted among the righteous.

On the surface this was comforting since Christ was my salvation. But over time, righteousness became equated with our good works. It was Christ’s righteousness that counted, but the only evidence of that was my actions. There were a dozen interwoven reasons why I was a perfectionist, but on a spiritual level, it was because I feared judgment – first and foremost from my church community and eventually from Christ himself.

I was a model child. I had perfect grades. I helped around the house. I babysat my sisters. I didn’t listen to secular music and I didn’t watch PG-13 movies. I never smoked, I never drank, I never even held hands with a boy. I didn’t even have a curfew to break because I was never out late enough to warrant one. I served in the youth group. At sixteen I was in charge of a whole cabin of girls at church camp who were only a few years younger than me. I played violin for the worship band. I ran the school’s mission team doing local and international outreaches. I can’t remember a single time that outright disobeyed my parents.

And yet, I was wracked with guilt for all the ways I failed. When I was sarcastic, when I used a disrespectful tone with my parents, when I was impatient with my sisters, when I lied because I was afraid of getting in trouble, when I got in a car accident, when I said mean things to make people laugh, when I tried to make myself feel smarter by making others feel dumb.

With a theology of judgment where God was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and my actions would determine which character I ended up with, how could I possibly think about judgment without fear? How could I ever be good enough to feel secure in my righteousness?

***

When we say The Apostle’s Creed we affirm that, “He will come to judge the living and the dead.” For most of my life I didn’t know how to rejoice in this judgment. I didn’t understand how this could be part of the good news.

But then grace broke in. And grace came in the words of Augustine.

See, Augustine had a different idea about this. He said what if judgment isn’t about God separating the righteous people from the wicked people? After all, who of us is 100% righteous or 100% wicked? Aren’t we all a mixture of both? What if our lives are like two plants that grow up side by side – one good and the other bad – and as they grow, they intertwine so much that you couldn’t separate the bad one without damaging the good one?

When asked about their biggest regrets, many people will say something like, “I don’t regret anything because even my mistakes were things that helped me to grow.” Our lives are full of both glory and suffering and sometimes the two are so closely linked that we can’t separate them even in our own minds. Sometimes our worst mistakes or experiences ultimately lead us to some of our best moments.

Augustine says, What if God lets the good and the bad grow up together for a time and judgment is when he separates them, once and for all, at the end?

We cannot perfect our lives. We cannot expunge all the evil that exists in the world. But maybe THAT’S what judgment day is for. Maybe it is about God extracting the bad, the evil, the sin, and the brokenness that is woven into our lives, and throwing it to the fire, leaving our lives perfect and whole. Wouldn’t this be the best thing that could ever happen to us? Wouldn’t this kind of judgment be the cause of great rejoicing?

Maybe judgment isn’t about shame. Maybe it isn’t God projecting a film of all our failings on a jumbotron. And maybe judgment isn’t about God choosing to bless some and judge others. Maybe judgment has nothing to do with our works of righteousness.

Maybe judgment is our deliverance. Maybe judgment is when we can finally stop wrestling with sin, when we can stop experiencing brokenness, when we can finally be pure. Maybe judgment is the greatest grace of all.

***

This essay is a little excerpt from the book I’ve been working on writing. I hope it’s something you could connect with!

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Learning to Trust the Church Again: a really long post about coming out of a bad church situation and learning to believe in the goodness of the Church again

This past Sunday was a celebratory day in the Dunn household.  It was Jonathan’s final day of work at Starbucks in Raleigh. Not only was this exciting because he has a new job and no longer has to make coffee for picky customers 6 hours a day, but most importantly because he will no longer have to work on Sunday mornings. Ever. Since arriving in Raleigh two months ago, there have only been two Sunday mornings when Jonathan was not working (despite requests not to…don’t even get me started.) Because of this we have been making slow progress on our search for a church, but now we are hoping it won’t be long before we are involved somewhere. We are (shudder) hardcore church-shopping.

I hate the term church-shopping. I hate the idea of church-shopping. I firmly believe that the purpose of the church is not to meet all of our needs, to entertain us, or to cater to all of our preferences. The church as an institution is here to facilitate believers living as representations of Christ to one another and to those in their community. A church should facilitate spiritual growth in individuals as well as corporate growth as a community. This requires active participation by the congregation. And since the congregation (and the leadership) are made up of fallible people, there is no way that any church can escape imperfections. And yet, past experience has taught me that, universal imperfections acknowledged, not all churches are equally sound. Not all churches are honoring to God. Not all churches are a nurturing and healthy environment. So the idea for Jonathan and I is not to find the perfect church, but to find a healthy church and a community we can share life with, even if we don’t love everything about it. A church whose growth and development we can become a part of. People we can love and be loved by.

As we’ve begun to explore churches in Raleigh I’ve been surprised to realize how much my past experiences in the church are carrying over into our search for a new one. In some ways, Jonathan and I are on exactly the same page. For us, the most important things we are looking for in a church are biblically sound teaching and a community we feel we can really be accepted into. But in other ways, our different faith backgrounds and particularly my experiences in the church I was raised in have really affected the way I view the church.

The church I grew up in was mid-sized, but growing fast, charismatic and non-denominational. From that church I had more or less been led to believe that people in non-charismatic traditions were in a spiritually dry place and were not passionate about their faith. I actually had really well-meaning people caution me when Jonathan and I started dating that his Presbyterian background could result in us being unequally yoked because of our different beliefs about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. When I got to Wheaton, and particularly after Jonathan and I started dating, I encountered people from all different denominational backgrounds, many of whom were very passionate believers who understood things about Christianity that I had never even considered and were from mainline Protestant backgrounds. These were people who were excited about their faith, they just didn’t express it in the emotional way I was used to seeing. Not only that, but I found that while I had assumptions about them being dry and passionless, the prevailing attitude was that emotionally expressive, charismatic churches lacked depth and substance. Suddenly I was the anomaly.

Over my years at Wheaton it became clear that some of the things I had been taught in the church I grew up in were just plain wrong. Not just differences of opinion or a different interpretation, but bad theology. Worship had become a concert given by the most talented people under the guise that we were “pursuing excellence”, appearances were more important than real relationships, and the concept of “spiritual authority” led to abuse in the leadership. The church declared itself to be a “family,” but there were very strict rules for how the members of the family were expected to act. The teaching was that this church was God’s family and that any deviation from the way that church was running things was rebellion against God himself. If you disagreed with something that was said from the pulpit, it was up to you deal with your sinful inability to handle offenses. In words, no one would ever have said, “This is the perfect church,” but in practice, anything that was contrary to what the pastor wanted or said was rebelling against the “spiritual covering” God had given us in our church and pastor. Although they hadn’t started out that way, sermons had subtly changed to focus on what God can do for you or on how obeying God “opens to door for his blessing” which led to the underlying idea that if you hold up your end of the bargain, God will hold up his and that if you are not experiencing God’s blessing perhaps you need to be more obedient in some area of your life. Imagine the pressure of believe that God’s goodness is conditional based on your own goodness. Yikes.

As I grew in my intellectual knowledge of Christianity and my understanding of who God is I started to identify some of these things. I was startled by how many lies and unhealthy attitudes had been ingrained in me and the ways they came out in the way I thought about God and the world. As I began to identify these things, the result was that I started to push against anything that reminded me of the church I had grown up in. Not just reminded me theologically of it, but reminded me of it at all. For example, I somehow got the idea that because the church I’d grown up in had had amazing musicians and singers leading worship which eventually led to a “concert” like atmosphere, that truly holy worship must necessarily be really crappy music. 🙂 The church we attended at Wheaton had a  worship team made up of a rotating group of volunteers, many of whom were not the best singers or musicians, and the music they chose was more often than not CCM music from the late 80’s and early 90’s. It wasn’t the best quality, but it was heartfelt.

Part of my rejecting the tradition I’d come out of resulted in my becoming highly critical when it came to sermons and teaching. While I think it was good to come to a place of examining what was being preached in the light of Scripture and not just accepting anything that was spoken in a church, in some cases I actually became overly critical to the point that one small thing I wasn’t sure about caused me to reject an entire message or service. I was afraid of being deceived, but ultimately what happened was that I became too critical to receive much of anything. I would spent the entire service on the defensive, looking for something I disagreed with. I had started out on one end of the spectrum and then, like a pendulum, swung wildly the other way.

Gradually, through two very genuine and god-honoring churches we attended in Wheaton and in Naperville I began to understand how God can work through an imperfect church and speak into our lives, even when the worship isn’t the most beautiful or the sermon is less than riveting. And in the same way, I shouldn’t reject a church with a very talented worship team or a very engaging pastor just because that is similar to the church I grew up in. The key is not rejecting anything out of fear or accepting anything out of ignorance, but instead trusting that the Holy Spirit alive in me will direct me and that I can fully trust him, even if I’m not sure about a particular church service.

The churches we went to in Wheaton and then Naperville were both very stoic in terms of being expressive in worship and very conservative in terms of their theology. In a strange way, these traditional, conservative churches have really been a stretch for me. Because I grew up in an environment where people were very expressive in church, a service that is very quiet and worship that is very stoic are actually as uncomfortable to me as loud worship with people jumping around is to Jonathan. Because everyone is quiet and still I feel conspicuous if I clap or lift a hand. I feel that my expression of worship will distract those around me, whereas in an environment where people are generally more expressive, no one is going to notice if I sway to the beat. Through those experiences though I have learned firsthand that just feeling uncomfortable does not mean something’s wrong. Being out of my element does not mean I should shut down and reject everything I hear. And in the same way, being somewhere that I am more comfortable doesn’t make everything right.

By God’s grace I believe I am now in a position where I can see both extremes of the pendulum and am praying that God will help us find a healthy medium. I want to be able to trust where I see God working and to be able to receive with discernment but without fear. I would love to find a place that I can worship expressively and still be taught the challenging truths of the gospel. I want to find a place that serves the community and allows Christ to be the most attractive feature rather than displays of opulence, but that is concerned with being relevant. I want to be an active part of the miraculous, living body of Christ without fear of being hurt or rejected or deceived. That’s far more important than what the music sounds like or how entertained I am by the sermon or how technologically savvy the illustrations are.

So, in a very long-winded way this is me saying, OK, Lord, whatever you have for us, I am ready to receive it. My sails are flung out wide, let your winds guide us where you want us to go!

Ask, Seek, Knock: Questioning God and Explaining Circumcision to a Four-Year-Old

I’ve found myself asking a lot of questions over the last few days and weeks. As we have started looking for jobs and a new place to call home I’ve been asking God and asking myself what I should pursue and what things are important in choosing a new location. I’ve also been asking a lot of questions about God and about faith. My small group discussed hell at our last meeting (just, you know, your typical casual Friday night conversation) and it raised so many of the questions that I’ve been grappling with over the past several years about God’s goodness, his plan for creating the world, and why he allows so much of what happens here on earth. And as if it wasn’t hard enough to be trying to figure out all of my own great questions about life, a large part of my day job lately has been trying to answer other difficult questions on the level of a four-year-old. Here’s a sample of a few conversations I’ve had with Sami over the last several weeks.

Me (reading from the Illustrated Children’s Bible): And on the eighth day they took the baby to be circumcised and they gave him the name Jesus

*side note: why the heck would you feel the need to include that in the Illustrated Children’s Bible?!

Sami: What’s circum-skied?

Me: Ummm….it’s a special sign between God and his people?

Sami: Do I have it?

Me: Ummm…only boys had it (No, I am not even about to get into female circumcision)

Sami: Do they still get circumsigned?

Me: Yes….

Sami: Where?

Me: At the hospital when they are born

Sami: Does Dylan have it?

Me: Yes…

Sami (completely out of the blue): I am so glad that Abraham Lincoln helped the brown people. What did he help them do?

Sami: I would never drive my car to hell! (also out of the blue)

Me: Well, that’s good, but you know, hell’s not really somewhere you can drive to.

Sami: Well, where is it?

Me: It’s kind of like heaven because you can’t go there while you are still alive on earth. Only souls.

Sami: A long time ago they used to put people in boxes when they died and put them in the ground.

Me: Well, they still kind of do that

Sami: Will they do that to me when I die?

Me: Probably. But you won’t need your body anymore because you will be in heaven with Jesus so it won’t matter. (Talking quickly so she doesn’t freak out about being buried)

Sami: I’m just really worried about my friend Olivia

Me: Why?

Sami: Because she moved to Bloomington…what if she dies there? She won’t be able to go to heaven.

Me: I’m pretty sure people who live in Bloomington can still go to heaven.

Sami: Why did God make the bad people? (Perhaps there was a context for this one in her mind, but it was very unclear.)

Or, my personal favorite conversation:

Sami: How old are you?

Me: I am about to be 23. (This was right before my birthday a few months ago)

Sami: Maybe when you turn 23 you’ll get taller

Me: I don’t think so. I think I’m pretty much done growing taller.

Sami: That is so sad! Why would God do that?!

(Note: I am 5’3”. I’m no giant, but I’m definitely not the shortest woman she’s ever seen)

Me: I don’t know Sam. Maybe he just likes short ladies.

Most of the time, I just want to look at her and tell her honestly, “I really don’t know! Stop asking me questions!” But instead I do my best to think of an answer that is true to the best of my knowledge and is also on her comprehension level. (A challenge, believe me, because Sam is often not the quickest at connecting A to B.) It can be difficult (although admittedly hilarious) to try to answer these questions, especially since I am not her mother and I don’t want to explain anything to her in a way her parents wouldn’t agree with, but ultimately I think it’s important for her to ask questions. I think it is OK for her to want an explanation for things or to admit that she doesn’t understand something and to ask for help.

A few days ago my husband and I were discussing the failure of the evangelical church to communicate this very thing. I have never been to a church service (particularly the church I grew up in) where anyone expressed that it is ok to question scripture, doctrine, or even God himself. The general view seems to be that questioning is the opposite of faith and a very slippery slope towards losing your faith altogether. As a result the evangelical church has formulated pat answers to complex and difficult questions about faith, God and Christianity. (For example: “Why did God allow the incredible devastation of the earthquake in Japan?” “God is sovereign, so it must be a part of his bigger plan that we can’t see right now.” Technically true, but incredibly unsatisfying.) Frankly, I am of the opinion that if just asking some questions about Christianity were enough to make me lose my faith, perhaps it wasn’t worth having in the first place. On the other hand, choosing to ignore the questions does nothing except create shallow (or blind) faith.

I think asking God questions is as much a part of having a relationship with him as giving thanks and singing praise. I know that I can’t understand everything and there will never be a point at which everything makes sense to me. I am ok with that. But I am hopeful that if I keep asking the questions, God will answer me the way I try to answer Sami—giving me just enough for my comprehension level—but with infinite gentleness, patience, and compassion. “For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Mt. 7:8) But you know what happens to those who don’t ask/seek/knock? They build themselves a little lean-to beside the mansion’s doors and then spend their lives convincing themselves that the house of sticks they built is the real thing.

How God Screws Up Algebra

I recently read a status from a pastor at the church I grew up in. It was reminding people to come to church believing for miracles as they brought their “miracle offerings.” Having grown up in this church I know that the “miracle offering” is a yearly event where the pastors encourage people to bring in offerings “in faith” and see what God does in their lives as a result of their obedience. Then throughout the campaign (my term, not theirs) they share “success stories” of people who gave and were blessed unexpectedly (often financially.) I will allow that I have not been in this church for 5 plus years and things may have changed in how this is approached, but the point is not to attack this particular church, it’s to expose this particular branch of bad theology and how it has affected me.

This makes me sad. While I certainly believe that God is all-powerful and delights in doing miraculous things in our lives, a “miracle offering” for a “miracle we’re believing for” just feeds an unhealthy and unbiblical view of God and how he operates. It is the “if…then” mentality. It reduces an amazing, dynamic relationship with a living God to an equation… “If I do x (give money, serve here, pray harder, etc) God will do y (bless me financially, bless my family, answer my prayers, etc.)” One of my best friends is a mathematician. She’ll tell you that empirically, this type of equation should work every time. But use God as one of the variables and it screws up everything. God is not a puppet to be manipulated by our actions. Our sole motivation in giving, serving, praying, worshiping should be about how we can lay down our lives for the king of glory and allow ourselves to be used however He sees fit. When did it become about what we can get out of it?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t believe that God wants to bless us. He does. Scripture is full of passages that say exactly that. And I also believe that our obedience to God is crucial. BUT…the blessings we receive are still unmerited and undeserved. They are not the reward we receive for our good behavior. They are gifts lavished upon us by a God who delights in us, even though we could never earn them. I can think of no greater example than this, that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Our obedience to God should be out of our love, devotion, gratitude, etc. not out of the hope that we can force God’s hand of blessing because we’re keeping our end of the bargain. This is kind of a parenting basic. If your kid only obeys you if you bribe them with candy, you have a problem.

I honestly find it really freeing to have moved away from these kinds of beliefs. (And my family is no longer in that church, by the way.) This kind of thinking put so much pressure on me to always do the right thing so that I could be sure of God’s blessing. Talk about a skewed picture of the grace of God! It’s not that I thought my salvation was dependent on my actions, but I certainly thought God’s blessings were. And it also led to a tremendous amount of guilt. It caused me to take responsibility for things that were often not my responsibility. If you follow this line of thinking through, it not only implies that our actions control God’s blessings, but also that if I was struggling or not sensing God’s abundant blessings it must be because I had not done the right things. If I changed my input, I could get the output I wanted. Not that I ever would have verbalized it that way (nor would this church.) But still…

Old thought patterns are difficult to break and I sometimes find myself slipping subconsciously back into this mindset. I’ve found myself doing it about our potential move to a new part of the country this summer. Without being tied to a particular grad school, we are essentially free to move anywhere we want. It’s very exciting to get to choose, but I’ve found myself growing anxious. I’ve thought What if we move to the wrong place? What if we pick a spot and it ends up being the wrong decision and we are miserable? Then we only have ourselves to blame. Somehow, in my subconscious I had taken over that mindset that it was all up to us. That we had to select the perfect place and if we failed, God wouldn’t be there for us and we’d only have ourselves to blame. As though we were in control.

A few days ago I was having a conversation with my mom about my younger sister. She is graduating from high school in May and deciding on a college. It has been a particularly stressful decision for my family. She was a scholarship to a school that, on paper, is everything she ever wanted in a college, but she just never felt right about going there. My mom especially has been struggling to figure out what will be the best thing for her, but has just felt unsure. In a God-inspired moment in my conversation with her I said, “Mom, remember that there is no place Maggi can go that God is not already there. It’s not as if you are looking for the place where God is so you can make sure Maggi follows him there. The Holy Spirit is living inside of her. He will be with her wherever she goes.”

As soon as the words came out of my mouth I knew I had said them because I needed to hear them. Just change the names around. There is no place Jonathan and I can go that God is not already there. The Holy Spirit lives inside of us.

For my friends wrestling with uncertainty (and who have made it all the way through this post), I hope this is as comforting to you as it was to me. There is no place you can go that God is not already there. You don’t have to look for the place where God is and follow him there. The Holy Spirit lives inside of you and he will be with you wherever you go.