Being More “Mere” Part 4: In Which I Use the “S” Word

Sin.

 

There, I said it.  This post is about sin.

 

In case you missed it, this is the fourth post in my series on what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity.”  This series comes from a personal desire to reexamine the basic tenets of the Christian faith, the things that are at the core of what all Christians believe.  I’m using Basic Christianity by John Stott as a reference because I find Stott’s book to be, as the title suggests, very basic in terms of doctrine.  It’s not the Westminster Confession, and it isn’t Love Wins either.  It’s also not Mere Christianity, which most people are already familiar with.  It summarizes the doctrines that I believe all Christians hold in common, no matter our background, denomination, or theological affiliation.

 

So maybe it’s fitting that the first chapter in this section is one of the most controversial: the fact and nature of sin.  I know the word “sin” has become pretty loaded.  It conjures up images of fire and brimstone sermons, protest signs at funerals, scarlet letters, holier-than-thou looks of derision, abuse, hypocrisy . . . I could go on, but I think I’ve covered the basics.  A lot of people, including a lot of Christians, are uncomfortable with words like “sin,” “wickedness,” and “evil,” especially if they or someone they know has experienced some kind of ill-treatment from other Christians regarding that word – as my earlier sentence indicates.

 

I’d like to respond to that by referencing NBC’s hit show The Office, from season 5 episode 22.  ***SPOILER WARNING: This paragraph contains spoilers to The Office through Season 5.  If you want to avoid them, skip to the next paragraph.  If you’ve already seen it, or if you don’t care, continue reading.***  Andy has recently called off his engagement with Angela because she was cheating on him with Dwight.  Still hurting and very sensitive on that point, Andy begins to think Jim and Pam may be in a bad relationship too, and proceeds to see if he can figure it out.  Jim picks up on this and plays along, acting like Pam is controlling and making him miserable.  Andy takes all this seriously, and finally makes an announcement to the whole office to be nicer to Jim because he’s having a hard time.  Phyllis informs him that Jim has just been messing with him, which leads to a key exchange between Jim and Andy.  Jim says, “Two things I need you to understand.  One, Pam and I are very happy together. [. . .] And two, that stuff that happened with you and Angela is a bummer, and I know you don’t think you’re ever going to find someone else, but you will.  I promise you, you will.”  This statement tells us two things: 1) Andy’s pain is legitimate.  Nobody should be treated the way he was, and he didn’t deserve what happened to him.  2) Jim and Pam are not experiencing what he experienced, and Andy should not assume they are, much less demand that others do the same.

 

For many people, the word “sin” triggers past experiences of injustice, or feelings of shame and self-loathing, and other terrible realities.  It’s true that some people have been brought up to hate themselves or others because of sins (real or imagined), and it’s also true that some people can’t focus on their past without feeling a huge wave of shame that drags them down almost to despair.  To those people, I can only say, I’m sorry those things happened to you, and I’m sorry you’ve been made to think that way.  That isn’t your fault, and it isn’t the gospel either.  And maybe this post isn’t for you as much as it is for me.

 

However, as with Andy in The Office, I don’t think we can assume that the experiences some people have are the experiences everybody has.  For some people, talking about sin brings about the emotions I have already described.  For others, like me, it brings incredible relief and joy that I have been set free from my sins, that God looked at me, with all my scars and scabs and ugliness, and wanted nothing more than to take me into His arms and make me part of His family.

 

So when we talk about sin, I think we have to be aware of these two realities, and I think we have to be sensitive to both.  People who are relatively “undamaged” should recognize that people have been legitimately hurt by false teachings or an unhealthy overemphasis on sin.  A lot of Christians think we need to emphasize human sinfulness more because people don’t believe they are sinful.  Here’s a news flash: most people already know they sin.  They may disagree about what qualifies as sin, and they may or may not admit it to you, but chances are they are fully aware of their shortcomings.  You have to be pretty thick to think you’re perfect, and I’ve actually only encountered one person who claimed to be sinless (this person was a Christian who believes in the contemporary Holiness doctrine, the idea that once you’re saved you can no longer sin – very different from the original Holiness doctrine taught by John Wesley himself).  

 

On the other hand, people who have been damaged by the Church’s teachings in this area also should be aware that not all churches, and not all Christians, have had this unfortunate experience.  The doctrine of sin, properly taught and seen in its correct context, is extremely important to Christianity.  We need to know that sin is a real human problem, and that it is a personal human problem, in order to understand so much of the Bible, of Jesus, and of the world we live in.  And talking about sin does not necessarily lead to the shame and despair that many people have unfortunately experienced.

 

So I’m going to talk about sin, and I hope that I will be talking about it in the right way.  If I mess it up, I hope you’ll understand.

 

Christians have different ideas about why man sins or how sinful man is, but I think we can all look at the world – and more importantly, at ourselves – and agree that the way things are, is not the way they should be.  Call it brokenness, wickedness, rebellion, missing the mark, selfishness, immaturity, or any number of other words – the bottom line is, we are far from perfect.  In Stott’s words:

 

“Much that we take for granted in a ‘civilized’ society is based upon the assumption of human sin.  Nearly all legislation has grown up because human beings cannot be trusted to settle their own disputes with justice and without self-interest.  A promise is not enough; we need a contract.  Doors are not enough; we have to lock and bolt them.  The payment of fares is not enough; tickets have to be issues, inspected and collected.  Law and order are not enough; we need the police to enforce them.  All this is due to man’s sin” (emphasis mine).

 

What exactly is sin?  I’m not going to sit and make a list of every specific action that counts as sinful; that’s above my pay grade.  Suffice it to say that there are two “types” of sin, which Stott describes as a “negative” type and a “positive” type.

 

The “negative” type of sin is failure to do what is good.  One of the definitions for both the Hebrew and Greek words translated “sin” is “missing the mark,” as in shooting an arrow at a target and missing, or as in missing the correct path.  The idea is that there is a standard of goodness or rightness that we fall short of.  Every society, religion, and individual has standards of right and wrong.  Some people set the bar higher than others do; the funny thing is, no matter what your standards are, chances are you sometimes fail to live up to them.  Am I right?

 

The “positive” type of sin is doing what is wrong.  Stott writes, “sin is transgression.  One word makes sin the trespass of a boundary.  Another reveals it as lawlessness, and another as an act which violates justice.”  I like that last definition the best, because it includes things which I think we Christians often like to overlook.

 

Whether you believe in total depravity or tabula rossa, I think we can all see that the entire world is implicated in the above descriptions.  Moreover, I think we can all agree that we are personally guilty (another trigger word; substitute a different one if you want) of sin.  You can blame Adam or society or the devil, but ultimately the responsibility lies with each individual.  Sin is not merely external; it is inside us, like a cancer seeking to overtake and kill us from within.  Only by acknowledging this fact – by diagnosing the disease, as it were – can we ever hope to find a cure.

 

There’s a famous story about how the London Times once asked G. K. Chesterton to write an essay answering the question, “What’s wrong with the world?”  His response was brief and to the point:

 

Dear London Times,

 

I am.

 

Sincerely Yours,

 

G. K. Chesterton

 

Okay, so there was sin in the world before I entered it, and there will be sin after I depart, and I am not responsible for all the wickedness in the entire world.  But there is something very important about recognizing and admitting our own culpability in the problem of evil.  And the thing is, this puts us all on a level playing field.  Sure, some sins are more damaging than others, and some people may sin a lot more than others, and nobody likes the implication that they are “just as bad” as the Really Bad Sinners (and to be fair, there’ a biblical case against the “all sins are equal” idea).  But on the other hand, it also means nobody is better than you.  So anybody who claims to have it all together is either deluded or lying.  Hey, we have something in common!  We’ve got issues.  As the saying goes, “to err is human.”

 

In my next post I’ll move on to the next chapter of Basic Christianity, which deals with the consequences of sin.  No, it won’t be a discussion on the nature of hell.

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Being More “Mere” Part 3: The Goodness of God

This is part 3 in my series on basic Christian doctrine.  I’m using Millard J. Erickson’s book Introducing Christian Doctrine to outline God’s attributes, not because I think it’s the best book on earth but because its chapters on God’s nature are very clearly laid out and easy to follow (and because I own the book so it’s accessible).  This post discusses the moral traits of God, or God’s goodness.

The Goodness of God

 

1.  Moral Purity – A lot of people use words like holiness, righteousness, and perfection interchangeably.  This is fine as far as it goes, but there are actually differences between these words.  Perfection, for our purposes, can actually fall into the category of life, from the last post – biblically, the word “perfect” means complete.  God is not a work in progress, like we are; He is not in the process of improving.  He is completely whole already.  Holiness is another oft-misunderstood word.  The word “holy” literally means “to cut off” – set apart, separate, different from.  God is not like us; God is not like anything or anyone. This is part of what we mean when we talk about the transcendence of God (see my last post), the concept that God is other.  Read the book of Isaiah starting around chapter 30.  Righteousness is the one that refers to pure moral rightness.  God does not sin, nor does he tempt anyone to sin (James 1:13). There is some debate among Christians whether God gets to arbitrarily define good and evil, or whether there is an external standard of good and evil that God merely adheres to.  Erickson suggests something of a compromise – that there is an objective, inherent reality of rightness and wrongness in existence, but that it is part of God’s own essence rather than something external to him.  In my belief, this means God cannot do evil and call it good (like in Frost Nixon, when Nixon says an illegal act isn’t illegal if it’s the president who does it?  America disagreed).  Therefore, I think any doctrine of God which involves him doing something evil is probably a false or misinterpreted doctrine.  Just a suggestion.  Justice means two things; first that God always adheres to his righteous standards, and secondly, that he is the arbiter of justice, that is, he holds others accountable to his standards.

 

2. Integrity – This aspect relates to God’s truthfulness.  That means that God is first of all genuine – he is a real, actual being, not a construct or make-believe concept.  The Bible calls our God the “true God” (cf. Joh 17:3, 1 Thessalonians 1:9, 1 John 5:20, Revelation 3:7, etc.).  No matter how great Christianity sounds, it’s useless if it isn’t true.  Beyond that, genuineness means that God doesn’t merely seem to be the attributes that describe him; he actually is these things.  He’s not putting up a front, embellishing his résumé, or showing only the best side of himself.  He is in every way exactly what he claims to be.  Another aspect of God’s integrity is his veracity.  Veracity means that God doesn’t lie (Titus 1:2).  Hebrews 6:18 says it is “impossible” for God to lie.  It’s not just that God doesn’t lie; he actually cannot because to do so would defy his nature.  “But I thought you said before that God can do anything?” you say.  Can God do something that is contrary to his character?  Lewis says this kind of question is nonsense, existing in the same category as “can God create a square triangle?”  He says that with God’s omnipotence it is more correct to assert that God can do everything that is intrinsically possible – that is, everything that is consistent with his character.  Finally, integrity means that God is faithful.  In Erickson’s words, “God is true [genuineness], he tells the truth [veracity], and he proves true [faithfulness].”  God keeps all his promises (1 Thessalonians 5:24); he never goes back on his word (Numbers 23:19).  Again and again Scripture calls us to trust in God’s faithfulness, to believe that he will always keep his word, and to take comfort in this knowledge (Lamentations 3 is my favorite passage of Scripture for this reason).

 

3. Love – Many theologians believe that love is the most central attribute of God – that if you had to pick one word to describe him, this would have to be it.  In the classic novel The Hawk and the Dove by Penelope Wilcock, Father Peregrine points out that the Bible asserts “God is love” but never “God is justice” – there is a subtle but important difference between saying “God is loving” and “God is love,” and between saying “God is just” and “God is justice.”  The attribute of love is, I believe, central to the doctrine of the Trinity – and I know there are denominations of Christianity that don’t affirm the Trinity, but if God is love, that means he has always been love, even before creation. Love always has an object, and divine love is inherently selfless (or so God tells us – cf. Romans 5:1-12 and 1 John 4).  So before Creation, whom did God love?  Only the Trinity can attempt to answer this question with any satisfaction:  the object of God the Father’s love is the Son, and the object of the Son’s love is the Father (John 14:31).  God has always existed in relationship, within the Trinity.  And I’m not saying you have to believe in the Trinity to be a true Christian (in my experience, many people who claim to believe in the Trinity, when asked to define the term, give the definition of what we now call “Oneness” doctrine).  The Trinity, like Oneness, is man’s attempt to understand an incomprehensible God.  I just think the Trinity is probably the closest approximation to the real thing that we can currently think of.


One aspect of God’s love is benevolence.  This means that God is concerned about the well-being of those he loves.  As I mentioned earlier, this divine love is inherently selfless – it is for our sake that God loves us (Deueteronomy 7:7-8), not because he needs us to fill some void in himself.  God’s benevolent love is for all creation, not just for Christians; and his love is not just a feeling but moves him to action, so that he acts for the good of his creation (Matthew 5:45).  Another aspect of God’s love is grace.  Grace means treating people not the way they deserve to be treated, but the way they need to be treated (cf. Psalm 103).  Parents don’t love their children on the basis of what they deserve or don’t deserve; they love them simply because they are.  Mercy is the third aspect of God’s love.  It is closely tied to grace; another word for it is compassion.  God feels for us (Mark 1:41, Matthew 9:36, Matthew 14:14), and this feeling moves him to act on our behalf.  Finally, God is persistent.  Another word for this is long-suffering, or patient.  Another of my favorite passages in Scripture is 1 Peter 3, which talks about God waiting for us to repent, withholding judgment as long as possible.  God’s heart is always for reconciliation.  He will always forgive (1 John 1:9), just as he instructed us always to forgive.

 

On another personal note, I think God’s attributes have to be the starting point of our theology, and any conclusions we come to in our doctrine have to be consistent with our findings here.  If other doctrines call into question God’s goodness or his greatness, I think we have to reexamine those doctrines.  As we move forward in this series, let’s keep these traits in mind.  Next time we’ll start going through Stott’s book, Basic Christianity.

 

Being More “Mere” Part 2: The Greatness of God

So last week I started a series on the basic doctrines of the Christian faith, to focus on the common ground that Christians have rather than on the differences between denominations and traditions.  I’m going to use John Stott’s book Basic Christianity as a reference, but for today I have to go into another text as well.  Basic Christianity begins with an examination of the person of Jesus Christ, but the context is apologetic – that is, to prove that Jesus’ claims about himself were true.  It’s a very good internal argument for the deity of Christ, but the purpose of this series is not apologetics, but a reaffirmation of agreed upon doctrine.

 

I think that an overview of theology needs to start with God.  That makes sense, right?  So I’m going to write about God’s character, or to use the theological term, attributes.  Attributes are not descriptions of God’s actions or  emotions; they are essential aspects of His nature, as much as being human is to our nature.  This also means that everything God says, thinks, does, or feels comes out of these attributes and is consistent with these attributes.  I’m going to base these next few posts on the textbook Introducing Christian Doctrine by Millard J. Erickson for this post, mostly because it was my theology book in high school so I happen to have it on hand, and also because I think the way it breaks down the attributes of God is very clear and systematic.  

 

I should note that depending on what church you go to, the “list” of God’s attributes may not look exactly like this one, but basically this is what we all as Christians believe about God.  I’m not going to go verse-crazy with this, but I’ll provide a few references if you want to look them up. 

 

Erickson divides God’s attributes into two basic categories: greatness and goodness.  Greatness refers to God’s divine power, while goodness refers to his personal or moral nature.  Today I’m going to focus on the former because I don’t want this to be super incredibly long.  So without further ado – 

 

The Greatness of God

 

1. Spirituality – that is, God is Spirit (John 4:24).  He is not confined to a body as we are, and is therefore not subject to the limitations and restrictions associated with being a corporeal being.  The Bible often uses the word “invisible” to refer to the spirituality of God (John 1:18, 1 Timothy 1:17).  References to physical features of God – hands, feet, eyes, etc. – are not literal descriptions of what God looks like, but are anthropomorphisms.

 

2. Life – God is alive, full of life, the source of life.  God’s personal name YHWH (Exodus 3:14) is most likely derived from the infinitive verb “to be.”  One of the implications of this doctrine is that God was not created or caused by anything or anyone.  He has always been, and he will always be.  This is one of those concepts that will mess with your mind if you think about it very much.  Another implication of this is that God doesn’t need us.  God doesn’t lack anything or miss anything without us; he was perfectly complete on his own.  And that suggests that whatever motives God had for creating us were selfless rather than selfish – it wasn’t for his own sake but for our sake that he made us.  Lewis says that if God does need us, it’s because we need to be needed (Mere Christianity somewhere).

 

3.  Personality – meaning, God is a person.  Sometimes we forget this, especially when we start getting really deep in theological discussions. We start treating God like a concept, an idea, or a state of mind, rather than a personal being with thoughts and feelings.  This means that our relationship with him is, in many ways, a lot like the relationships we have with other people.  God’s not a machine that we can program or control or coerce.  We can also know him personally, and know about him.  I’ll come back to this in a bit.

 

4. Infinity – God has no limits and cannot be limited.  This refers to his omnipresence (without spatial or temporal limits, able to be present anywhere and everywhere, in any and every dimension, at any and every time – not only that, but he does not exist within time or space but outside them – another mind-boggling concept – because they are part of his creation), omniscience (He knows everything, not just in an encyclopedic way, but in an intimate, experiential way), and omnipotence (God’s power is without limit; he is capable of doing anything he wants to do).  

 

5. Immutability – Erickson refers to this as “constancy.”  God cannot, does not, will not change (Malachi 3:6).  Probably my favorite part of the book of James is where he writes that God “does not change like shifting shadows” (1:17).  This means what was true of God before creation is true now; what was true of God in the person of Jesus Christ was true of him in the Old Testament; what was true of him today was true of him in the garden of Eden.  This doesn’t mean that God is like a statue, stagnant and unmoving, but that his nature doesn’t change.  We don’t have to worry that God will someday be limited, or no longer living, or no longer good.  His character will always be the same.

 

A final note on God’s greatness is the tension between transcendence and immanence.  Transcendence means that God is beyond us, above us, unknown and unknowable to us (Jeremiah 55:8-9, Isaiah 6:1-5).  Think about this: the only reason we know anything about God’s existence is because God has revealed himself to us.  God has revealed himself to us in nature, in Scripture, in the Holy Spirit, and most of all by coming to earth in the person of Jesus Christ.  So while he is transcendent, God is also immanent.  He is with us (Isaiah 7:14); he works in and among us. My husband Justin wrote a great blog post a few days ago on God’s nature, and I loved what he had to say on this subject:

“This vastness is so incomprehensible to man that even with the Bible we’ve only begun to understand a pinprick of the vastness of God.  There’s always gonna be more to explore. [. . .] Despite all this vastness, we are not Deists, we believe God is Here, and Now, interacting with us, guiding us, ultimately loving us and wanting a relationship.  He is beautiful because He makes Himself knowable, and explorable, even now . . . while God is knowable, he is not fully known and never will be.”

 

Tomorrow I’ll look at the second half of God’s attributes – his personal or moral characteristics, if you will.

Being More “Mere” Part 1: Introduction

 

 

MY DEAR WORMWOOD,The real trouble about the set your patient is living in is that it is merely Christian. They all have individual interests, of course, but the bond remains mere Christianity. What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call “Christianity And”. You know – Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. 

 (C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Letter XXV)  

 

At my husband’s suggestion, I’m going to do a few blog posts that are on more serious topics than dinner recipes and seasonal decorating projects.  I’ve decided to do a series on the latter half of John Stott’s book Basic Christianity.  

 

 

At the risk of getting unto trouble by implicating persons I admire and respect, I’m getting a little tired of the divisiveness I’ve seen growing within the Christian Church.  By divisiveness I don’t mean the existence of different denominations; I’m actually okay with that.  I mean the current trend of taking sides on a variety of doctrinal issues and then each side lining up to shoot barbs at the other side.  And it’s not that the issues they talk about aren’t important – gender roles, sexual morality, the nature of man, theories about the atonement – these are all really big deals, and we should talk about them.  But I’m not happy that we’re talking about only these issues, and more specifically, I’m not happy with the way people talk about them.  If you’ve been around any of these topics, you know what I’m talking about.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you might want to keep it that way.

 

I opened with a quote from The Screwtape Letters, a fascinating and disturbing novel in which the elder demon Screwtape advises his protégé Wormwood on the proper way to tempt his charge, a human being who has become – much to Screwtape’s horror – a Christian.  Screwtape argues that Wormwood can neutralize Christians by separating them into different factions, allowing their faith to become no more than a platform for their true cause.  As long as believers are merely Christian – that is, as long as the most central aspect of our faith is Christ Himself, not some other issue (no matter how important or trivial) – the Church remains a force that the very gates of hell cannot overcome.  But if anything else takes Christ’s place as the Most Important Thing, our faith ceases to be the gospel that has the power to transform our hearts, our lives, and our world.

 

So it’s not that other issues are not worth discussing; it’s just that they can’t become the core of our faith – and when they become so important that it leads to the kind of bickering I’ve seen too much of lately, I think we need to take a step back . . . and maybe reexamine what it is that we have in common rather than focusing solely on what divides us.

 

You probably wonder why I’m not going to go through Mere Christianity since I’ve been referring to Lewis this whole time.  That’s a great book, but it’s also very long, and I think most of the people who will read this blog are already familiar with it.  Stott’s book is more concise and therefore easier to use for my purposes.  It’s a short (about 100 pages) summary of what the Christian faith is at its core and why it’s reasonable to believe it.  I’m writing this in an attempt to find and reaffirm the common ground that is shared among all Christians, to give us more to talk about than just what divides us.  At the end of the day,  “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6 NIV), and we should remember that.

 

I admit I’ve participated in a lot of the debates in the past, and I’m sure I will again in the future.  But for now, I think I personally need to let that go.  I want to get past the “us versus them” mentality and be more merely Christian.  This series, like this blog, is largely personal, a way for me to document my own process and growth.  If you’re in the same place as me, feel free to follow along and comment.

To be or not to be (careful)

I spent a lot of time online during what I call the Golden Age of Message Boards.  You know, before Facebook went public, long after Myspace was decidedly uncool, and shortly before texting became a global phenomenon?  A few years ago, message boarding was how people from anywhere around the world could communicate about any given subject, serious or trivial, for any length of time.  On the message board I frequented, most of the heavy traffic discussions were of the headier sort – theology, philosophy, ethics, politics (the latter of which I mostly stayed away from).  I learned a lot about other people’s beliefs, I became more certain of my own, and some of mine even changed as a direct result of the conversations I had with people way more intelligent or educated than myself.

 

In one such discussion, the subject of heresy came up, and I’ll never forget what one friend said: “Heresy is a conversation ender.”  It’s like what debate enthusiasts now call the “Hitler fallacy” – when one side of the debate makes a reference to Hitler or Nazism, the debate is over because the other side realizes that rather than trying to prove their point, they now have to prove they don’t support world domination and genocide.  There are certain words or statements that, once you bring them up, end the possibility of all future discussion.  “Heresy” is one of those words.  When you call someone a heretic, or label the belief they are defending heresy, you are saying there is no way you can respect or even listen to what they say.  At that point, why keep talking?

 

Fortunately, very few people use the word “heresy” in the conversations I participate in or silently follow (one of the things I learned from message boarding, actually, was the value of occasionally not participating), which is encouraging because it shows the Church has made some progress in getting along with its minority members in the last 500 years or so.  But I do see a phrase emerging in its place, for when one person wants to let another person know that what they believe is either heretical or very close to it, but doesn’t want to come right out and say so.  It’s the phrase “be careful.”

 

I see this when somebody defends a belief that is outside evangelical or fundamentalist Christianity.  I see it with nontraditional systems that seek to do away with established hierarchies or limitations.  And I especially see it with comments ending in question marks, to the effect of “What if the traditional model of church, or the mainstream interpretation of this Bible passage, or the popular doctrine of this subject, isn’t the correct one?” – “Be careful.”

 

Why is it apparently dangerous if a person asks questions about their faith, and why does it freak others out to the point that they caution them against doing so?  I grew up in a home that criticized other religions for prohibiting critical thinking and questioning the faith, but if that’s not allowed within the Church, how do we differ from a cult?

 

What is going to happen to a person who gives up the current popular doctrine in favor of one that was commonly held in the early church?  They may discover a deeper, more contextually appropriate understanding of Scripture that has been lost to modern readers.

 

What is so bad about a person trying to understand Paul’s statement “In Christ there is no male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free” in a contemporary setting?  Two hundred years ago, a lot of people probably told abolitionists to “be careful” lest they upset the God-ordained institution of slavery.  A lot of people probably said the same thing to suffragettes and civil rights activists in the 20th century.

 

Don’t get me wrong; I think we should be careful about many things.  We should give careful thought to how we use our resources (Haggai 1), we should be careful not to do good for the sake of our reputation (Matthew 6:1), we should be careful to do what is right (Romans 12:17), we should be careful how we build the Church (1 Corinthians 3:10), we should be careful not to make others stumble simply by exercising the freedom we have in Christ (1 Corinthians 8:9), we should be careful not to become prideful and thus fall into sin (1 Corinthians 10:12), we should be careful to live wisely and make the most of our time (Ephesians 5:15), we must be careful about falling into unbelief or disobedience (Hebrews 4:1), and yes, we must be careful of teachers and teachings that may lead us to hypocrisy or unbelief (Matthew 16:6).  In other words, we shouldn’t let any part of our life be thoughtless; we have to pay attention to what we think, who we believe, and what we choose to do about it.

 

But here’s the catch: that is exactly what a lot of these “unorthodox” people are doing.  Having grown up in the Church, having been told from early childhood what to believe and how to think, they – or I guess I should say “we” – have decided that is not a careful way to live.  We are reexamining our faith in order to make it stronger, more biblical, and more central to our lives.  This involves questions.  This involves branching out to different traditions, some old and some new.  This may involve reaching conclusions that are different from what we were originally taught.  And believe me – it’s just as scary for us as it is for the people watching us do it.  So yes, actually, we are being careful in how we go about it.

 

I started writing this post with the intention of concluding that “be careful” is just as much a conversation ender as the Hitler fallacy or the heresy card.  Now I’m thinking, it’s not so much that it’s a bad thing to say, but it’s not very useful.  Consider the following scene from my favorite TV show, The Big Bang Theory.

 

Sheldon is searching for a cricket in the shaft of the apartment’s broken elevator (long story – two long stories, actually).  Raj, watching from above, shouts down to him, ” Be careful!”  Sheldon replies candidly, “If I were not being careful, your telling me to be careful would not make me careful.”

 

We have good intentions when we tell people to be careful, but what are we really saying?  Do we mean “you are bordering on heresy here and need to stop pursuing this line of thought?”  Because not only is that a discussion-stopper, it might actually be you who is wrong.  Or do we simply mean “be careful in your exploration to thoughtfully examine what you read or hear, and to study the Bible and pray over what you are discovering?”  Because the person you’re saying it to might already be doing that.  More importantly, maybe the person you should be saying it to is yourself.  “Be careful” – I think we should all take these words to heart.

What I Learned from Blood Clots

Yesterday morning I received the phone call I’ve been dreaming of since March: “Your CT scan came back negative; your blood clots are gone.”  Although I’ve been taking warfarin for pulmonary embolisms for six months, waiting for the day I would be healthy again, I didn’t realize how strongly that news would affect me until I called my husband to tell him the good news and started crying.
Yesterday was a big day for me, and with that comes a certain amount of reflection on what the last six months have taught me.  This summer I was talking with Mark Roeber about my experience with pulmonary embolisms and this very question came up: what have you learned?  I’ve been thinking about it a lot since then, and it turns out there are a lot of things I’ve learned.  If you’re interested, here are some of them.


My body has limits.  As a dancer, I’ve been trained to believe that if I feel weak, I just need to work harder – that pain is weakness leaving the body (unless it’s joint pain; that’s never good).  When I got out of the hospital, I had to stop dancing for three months and drastically reduce my physical activity.  I would get out of breath just by talking a lot, and pushing through the weakness wasn’t going to help – on the contrary, my hematologist warned me that I could give myself a heart attack if my oxygen saturation got too low.  Sometimes you have to stop.  Now that my blood clots are gone, I hope that lesson will stick with me.


It’s okay to ask for help.  I am a Type A personality, a control freak; I don’t like feeling helpless, and I really don’t like asking other people to help me because then I feel like I’m mooching.  So being virtually helpless for two weeks after I was discharged was really, really tough.  But it gave me an opportunity to be blessed by people around me who cared about me.  My husband took over the grocery shopping and housework, and several families helped us out with meals.  That was humbling, but also very encouraging.  So if I forget later, somebody remind me that I can’t do everything; sometimes I need help.


God is faithful.  I’m not just saying that because I’m alive, because to be honest, not everybody comes out of these things alive, and I have to believe God is still faithful then.  The truth is, I don’t really know why I’m alive when so many other people die.  I’m told God has a plan, and I believe that, but I don’t think I’ll really get it until I can see the whole plan from a better vantage point.  Instead, what I mean by God being faithful was how he provided for my family and me during that potentially very scary day when I found out I had blood clots.  I am a worrier.  My mom is a worrier times ten.  My husband isn’t a worrier as a rule, but when it comes to me and my safety, he might be the worst of all of us.  We’re the kind of people who could easily be destroyed by the news that I had a life-threatening condition and could drop dead at any moment without immediate medical attention.  And yet, just before the news came, as I was sitting in the doctor’s office waiting for the results of my CT scan, I felt a sort of calmness come over me.  I felt quiet, and weirdest of all, I felt safe.  When the doctor came in and told me I had massive pulmonary embolisms, I was ready for it.  The peace that I had carried me through that week.  And perhaps more miraculous was my mom’s reaction.  She didn’t freak out.  I think she knew, like I knew, that it was going to be okay.  My husband wasn’t with me at the time, but he told me afterward that as he was driving to see me, a song started playing on the radio (I have Positive Life Radio on in the car all the time) which assured him that God would take care of me, and he was able to find peace as well.  I think God shielded us from fear that day; I think the way he protected our hearts was almost more amazing than the way he protected my body.

There will always be trials in my life.  This is the part that comes directly from my conversation with Mark, because at first when he asked about what I’d learned, my response was “to trust God.”  But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think that’s a very limited and not completely truthful answer.  It seems like there’s always something really stressful going on in my life.  Projects, injuries, a postponed wedding, financial woes, illnesses, family crises, you name it. After the storm has passed, I always marvel at how God provided for me and feel this huge sense of gratitude, and I realize He was there all the time and I didn’t need to worry after all because He was taking care of me, and then I think, “Wow, I really learned to trust God during that situation.”  If anybody at Belhaven looks up my oral presentation for my senior project, you will see that pretty much the whole thing is about how all the stuff that went wrong taught me that God was there for me and I could trust Him to get me through it all.  And yet, as soon as a new stressful situation enters my life, I go through the same process all over again – the fear, the anxiety, the sleepless nights all come back until I’m finally past the worst of it, and I look back and feel the awe, the gratitude, and the newfound trust.  Why do I seem to unlearn my lesson every time something harder comes along?  Maybe I’m just a really slow learner – maybe we all are, and maybe that’s why life is so long, because learning how to live takes a lifetime.  I’ve realized recently that deep down, I’ve been waiting for the time when my life will be stress-free because I will finally have arrived.  Either I will have learned not to worry because my faith in God will be so spectacular, or bad things will just stop happening to me.  And maybe I never thought that consciously or said it out loud, but I think that’s been what I’ve believed.  Someday things will be different; someday my life will be nothing but flowers, sunshine, and baking amazing desserts.  And as foolish as I sound for not figuring this out earlier, I’m just now starting to see that life doesn’t work that way.  To quote The Princess Bride, “Life is pain; everyone who says differently is selling something.”  I think maybe the trick is learning not to let that pain keep me from living.  Sooner or later, another stressful circumstance will come up, and it might be even scarier than being rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, or it might be a trial of the more everyday variety.  These things shouldn’t surprise me – I know that probably is not the feel-good message people are supposed to write about in blogs, but there it is.  There is a feel-good side to it, though, and that is this: in everything I’ve been through, no matter how trivial and no matter how serious, God has been with me and has carried me through.  Whether the storm was great or small, I came through it a little wiser, a little more mature, and a little more secure in my faith in God.  The next time something difficult comes up, I can look back and remember how God was with me in the past, and maybe that will help me hang on.


Every moment of life is a miracle.  Everybody who’s been close to death experiences this, I think; there’s something about coming face to face with your mortality that gives you a brand new outlook on life.  For me, it wasn’t so much a smack-in-the-face sudden reality – I mean, I wasn’t in an accident, I didn’t lose consciousness, I didn’t have a surgery, or anything like that.  So I never felt like I was close to death; in fact, except for the extreme fatigue, racing pulse, and heart palpitations, I felt fine.  The reality was, I had been dying for months and didn’t know it, and I’ll probably never know how close I came.  That sounds morbid, I know, but when you consider how many people die of undiscovered pulmonary embolisms, combined with my dancer instinct to work through the pain and the tiredness, and my aversion to going to the doctor, and the fact that I went to the doctor and was sent home with nothing more than a new inhaler prescription (thus increasing my reluctance to go back for a second opinion), the conclusion I come to is that it’s a miracle I’m alive.  But when you really think about it, isn’t it a miracle that any of us is alive?  Life is such a fragile thing, and our bodies are these incredibly complex machines composed of many different systems all somehow working together, and in spite of our centuries of research and scholarship, so much of it remains a mystery.  A life is like the flame of a candle that can be snuffed out by a small breeze – and we so often take our lives for granted!  I’m sure in the months and years to come this narrow-escape-from-death high will wear off, but when it does I hope I will remember that even though life is sometimes complicate, messy, stressful, and scary, it is also good and beautiful and precious.  And maybe, just maybe, that will inspire me to live more fully, to savor the moments, to make my time count. I guess I’ll just finish with a quote from Ruth Ann Shabacker:


“Each day comes bearing its own gifts.  Untie the ribbons . . .”