Monday, May 23, 2011

Accidents and Sovereignty

Learning the truth about the sovereignty of God was another portion of theology that helped shave away a good portion of my Fundamentalist heterodoxy. I think most Fundamentalists would say that they believe God has control over everything, but everyday Fundamentalist practice usually belies that stated belief. For example, when I was in Fundamentalism, I was frequently taught that God needed my “complete surrender” in order to work – if I were not, He couldn’t use me. I was unable to make any major (or even minor) decision without agonizing over whether it was “God’s perfect will” or not - because if I made the wrong decision, God’s ability to use me was seriously in jeopardy. I had to be very careful about my standards and who I associated with or whose advice I listened to, because if I wasn’t vigilantly keeping myself from those “sins”, then I might not hear God’s voice. Subsequently, I would fall out of His will and protection with no way to regain it.

What a nutty system, eh? What a weak and wimpy being I thought God was. How powerful and in control I thought I was. I know. It’s shameful.

The truth is, God is much more powerful than I am. My decisions, even (especially?) bad ones, cannot frustrate His goals. His actions do not depend on my ability to soul-search, agonize, and confess every tiny thing – he overrules the decisions and actions of all, and accomplishes His will.

The latest correction to my theological compass with respect to this doctrine occurred recently when I was in a relatively minor car accident. Intellectually, I knew that this accident wasn’t a surprise to God, and that He was in control. My struggle, however, was guilt over the event. It was crushing, and frankly, I was nearly suicidal afterwards. Nobody died or was seriously injured – why was this guilt so intense? I finally realized that the cause was another vestige of my heterodox fundamentalist theology working its way out.

Let me explain.

I am normally a very safe driver. I am obsessive about not tailgating, about paying attention to the cars in front of me, and braking early. Yet I, the good driver, rear-ended someone. Me!! I, of course, felt so sorry for the person in front of me, but this guilt was overwhelmingly out of proportion to the relatively minor nature of the accident.

My difficulty was that I found it easy to believe that God is sovereign when I have little or no control over a catastrophic event. When a tornado or a flood or a hurricane comes through, it’s not your fault. It just is. But when an accident is your fault – where is God’s sovereignty and goodness then? And most of all, where is His forgiveness? How can he forgive me when it was something I caused? I found myself hung up on the fact that I didn’t deserve to be forgiven for this.

Wait a minute. What? What did I just say?

When is forgiveness *ever* deserved?

How weak I thought God was. How cheaply I was treating Christ’s atonement. I thought I could accept (and even deserve) God’s forgiveness for sins that resulted from my selfishness or pride or any number of other issues yet couldn’t accept His forgiveness for a brief moment of inattention that just happened to have significant consequences this particular time.

In Fundamentalism, since I was working so hard to not sin, when I did sin I was devastated and had difficulty accepting the forgiveness of God. Why? Because deep down, I really felt I deserved God’s love and forgiveness because I was working so hard. And when I failed, then my reason for getting God’s forgiveness and love failed also.

Yes, the accident was my fault. I was a distracted, inattentive driver, and it was wrong of me. I have been distracted and inattentive before without running into someone, however. That long line of cars is unusual at that intersection, especially on a Saturday. God’s sovereignty used my distraction to accomplish what was for me that day. I am responsible. But God is sovereign. And God forgives because it is His nature to do so and He has provided the means to do so. So when He opens my eyes to my sin and I cry out to Him, he freely applies atonement. He does all the work, and I can rest in that.

Outside of Fundamentalism, I am no longer worshipping my ability, I am worshipping God; only outside have I begun to hear teaching that spends more time on what God does than what I do. And the changes that come from learning correct theology are dramatic.

Friday, May 13, 2011


Following a confession of the sin of Fundamentalism, a discussion of the doctrine of sin (hamartiology) is in order. Why? Because correct hamartiology shattered a great deal of my fundamentalist heterodoxy.

As a Fundamentalist, I had the concept of sin all wrong. Sin was something outside, something out there in the world. Something I avoided. Something I confessed and God forgave of course, but still treated as something I “fell into” and then crawled back out of. Unfortunately, this view of sin is completely backwards.

How so? Well, rather than reinvent the wheel, I will instead provide two excerpts from a friend of mine's explanation that was a prime mover in my journey out of Fundamentalism. (Read her entire discussion here)

1. Sin is not a THING.

It doesn't "exist" as its own entity somewhere, rubbing off like black tar on "good things" ... so that we can simply keep ourselves away from the tar.... Sin is a twistedness, a perversion, a brokenness, a falling short. It exists only as the perversion of what is good....

2. and more precisely & biblically, sin exists IN ME. Not in objects. This point is well established in orthodox theological literature.

Paul writes in Titus that "to the pure, all things are pure." Jesus says in Matthew (and He was speaking in that context of physical things, and in a conversation with the law-loving Pharisees), it is not what goes into a man that defiles him, but what comes out from the heart that defiles a man. Jesus locates the problem of sin within humans, not outside of them. We are "drawn away by our own lusts and enticed" (James 1).

Jesus then goes on to name a representative short-list of sins as His examples. His "going in" examples were food (reminds me of Paul's meat discussion). His "coming out" examples are all sins of the heart -- envy, hatred, lust, etc.

The sin problem is INSIDE ME. This is foundational to biblical thinking. As soon as you define any particular thing as sinful, you've missed the point.... because we must agree that God Himself sees all things yet does not sin.

We sin because we are sinners.
The sin is not in the object.

Heterodoxy leads to bad practice, and I believe nowhere does that bad practice exhibit itself more clearly than in the Fundamentalist concept of “standards”.

A wide variety of “standards” exist in fundamentalism about a number of outward issues. For example, some feel that it is unbiblical for a woman to wear pants. Ever. Even in the house or to bed as pajamas. On the other extreme, there are those who have no issue with it at all. In the middle, one might say it’s best reserved for activities such as horseback riding or hiking, but shouldn’t be worn as everyday wear and certainly never to church.

You know what always bothered me about that? Essentially the same logic is being used to arrive at the extreme view (“taking the higher ground”) as the more moderate view. If a woman puts a pair of pants on at the wrong time (from ever to just at church), she’s now in sin. And let’s be honest - the extremist is actually more true to the logic that got the moderate halfway there, because what gets defined as “the wrong time” is completely arbitrary. When I was deep in Fundamentalism, I knew in my heart that the extremist was a little nutty, but could find no intellectually satisfying reason why other than that I just felt there was something wrong about “taking it that far”.

The “something wrong” was this error in hamartiology.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Confession

First order of business – an apology. The first step in recovery is to admit you have a problem, right?

Well, I have a problem. A big problem. And I’m so very sorry.

I’m sorry I was ever a Fundamentalist.

Now, my Fundamentalist friends who read this will recoil in horror when I say these things. I’ll probably be called bitter, misguided, divisive, etc. But really, this is my mea culpa. This is my owning of my sin. The sin of Fundamentalism, and my repentance from it.

So, what is Fundamentalism? At the risk of being a little disingenuous, I’m not going to spend too much time on the definition. It’s supposed to be a term that merely means you believe that what the Bible says is true, and usually fairly literally. However, there is a wide segment of mainstream Christianity that would qualify based on that definition but would be rejected by Fundamentalists. The short answer is that if you don’t know what a Fundamentalist is, then God in His great mercy has spared you. If you do, you need no definition, because you know exactly who I’m talking about. And boy, was I ever one.

So, in the great Fundamentalist tradition of being painfully specific about my sins so God can forgive them (because only when you have done that can you receive the full blessing of God and can stay in His will, but I digress...):

Forgive me, for I have sinned.

I’m sorry I traded moralism for Christ.

I’m sorry I sat under preaching that was largely devoid of Christ and the Gospel and didn’t find it heinous.

I’m sorry that I went along with blaming the victim rather than the perpetrator in ways both subtle and horrifically obvious.

I’m sorry I strained at the gnats of “standards” while swallowing the camel of failing to defend and care for the poor and vulnerable.

I’m sorry that I thought guilt was an appropriate motivator.

I’m sorry that I told people what was right for them to feel, rather than addressing their hurts.

I’m sorry that I thought homosexuality was always a choice.

I’m sorry that I ever thought it was ok in the United States of America for your employer to tell you where you can and cannot go to church.

I’m sorry that I thought it was acceptable to pay an unfair wage because a business is a “ministry”.

I’m sorry I worked at a camp that promoted severe emotional manipulation of young people, that failed victims of abuse miserably, and that consistently treated women as inferior in both word and deed.

I’m sorry I went to a college that maintained and defended racist policies, treats the disabled as second class citizens, holds double standards for the genders and leaders vs rank-and-file, is misleading about its accreditation, and takes advantage of the trust of good people.

This list is disjointed and incomplete, as I could list a thousand other things. But then, what would I blog about, eh?

So walk with me. The journey is painful, but God’s grace rains sweetly as you go, and He makes the desert bloom.