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Misplaced Guilt

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Guilt often misleads us. We think that we ought not to fail, that we ought to be competent at whatever we undertake, that we ought to anticipate what will happen and be prepared for it. The things we berate ourselves for are our incompetencies. But only God is all-competent.

Jesus showed us what a good person is like. A good person is totally dependent on God. Jesus did only what he saw his Father doing. He always left outcomes up to God and just did what he knew was right. From a human perspective, his life was a failure. Executed for insurrection, he did nothing of lasting note except persuade his followers of something really insane—that he was God’s unique Son. Yet his life and death and resurrection have transformed the world.

God does not consider our failures as important as our disobedience. Again and again in the bible, he demonstrates his displeasure at being disobeyed. And disobedience arises from distrust. It was so when the Serpent tempted Eve. She doubted the goodness of God’s purpose in prohibiting the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is so now whenever we don’t do what we know is right because we fear the repercussions. One essential part of Jesus’ teaching is that God loves us and treats us as his own children. He taught us to trust God so that we would have the courage to obey him. The repentance he demands is not for our failures but for our disobedience and the distrust it springs from.

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Witness Protection Program

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I don’t think of myself as a strong witness for Christ. When I’m among people who are likely unbelievers, I tend to play it safe when the topic turns to religion. There are a number of reasons for this. Partly, it’s just habit. I’ve grown used to avoiding religion discussions. When I was a child, I didn’t want to be labeled. In fact, I had an inordinate fear of it after being ridiculed as a pansy or a goody-goody. As I matured, this fear turned into an unwillingness to be misunderstood. I would remain silent because I thought the people I was with would not understand what I said.

How unlike Jesus! He repeatedly said things that confused not only his opponents but also his closest followers. When religious leaders asked him by what authority he drove merchants and bankers from the temple grounds, he replied, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it again.” The leaders were taken aback. The temple had been under construction for almost 50 years, how could this man claim to be able to rebuild it in only three days? On another occasion, he told his listeners that they would have to eat his body and drink his blood. “For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink,” he explained. Talk about saying things that were ripe for misinterpretation! Yet Jesus said nothing to clarify his meaning.

What was the result? The Jews called him a crazy bastard. They vilified him. He was labeled and called names. He didn’t seem to care.

One thing I’ve recently noticed, however, is that I don’t have a problem discussing religion online. In person I shy away from religious discussion, but on my blog and in my Facebook posts I often choose religious topics. I’m not sure why. I know, for example, that people are often less civil online than in the real world. But talking God-talk online is somehow easier than in real life.

Perhaps it is the perceived distance. Even though hardly anyone reads my blog except friends and family—at least as far as I’ve been able to determine—I have the sense that when I commit words to the ether that anyone who reads them is far away, separated from me by a virtual chasm that cannot be crossed. Perhaps it is that written words can be meticulously crafted. When a topic comes up in conversation, I may be glib, but I cannot be well-researched. Whatever the reason, I feel somehow safer expressing my views online than I do in person. Being online acts for me as a kind of witness protection program, giving me a comforting illusion of safety.

I consider this a flaw in my character. I need to be the same person in real life as I am online.

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Love and Fear II

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After the last post on Love and Fear, I got several comments on my Facebook page. One from my niece, Raine,  raised some interesting questions. She wrote:

What a lot of facets of love and fear!

Chad says that God only desires obedience because obedience is the end-result of love (at least, I think that’s what he’s saying). This doesn’t make sense to me. At all. It seems to me that by saying that he is saying that the things that God requires of us, the things that we are to obey are then also beside the point. That those things don’t exist for their own sake, because they are right and wrong, and God is a righteous and just God. But that those things then are only a way of proving love.

Chad also says, “However, this is my experience of obedience that is gained by fear: it is half-assed. I see it all the time in the soldiers under me. If they are given a task they do not wish to complete, they may not moan or gripe. Instead they do the minimum. They fulfill the letter and only the letter of the orders they are given. As I understand it, Jesus urged us to look to the spirit of the law and not just the letter. This type of obedience can only come from someone who is acting out of something more than fear.”

In my experience, as a child when I did something out of fear of punishment, I did it far more diligently then when I did it simply out of a sense of obligation. I was completely thorough, knowing that my work would be inspected.

I would still be afraid to do the minimum in a situation where I am obeying out of fear, unless that minimum was a clearly defined, easily pin-pointed line. I would be afraid that my minimum wouldn’t be quite enough to avoid punishment.

But besides that, in a situation where someone is doing the minimum required to avoid punishment all the punisher has to do to get more out of them is raise that standard. God’s standard is perfection. God’s standard is obeying the spirit of the law not just the letter.

It seems to me that Chad is talking about a disrespectful fear, a fear where the person who is afraid does not like or respect the person they fear, and they are internally rebelling (and externally rebelling as far as they think they can get away with). This probably happens a lot amongst us humans. However, I do not see how anyone could fear and disrespect God. Doesn’t fear of God inspire great respect? We know that God is omniscient; if we fear him, we must respect him, because we cannot be disrespectful behind his back or internally. Fear of God requires respect. Fear and respect require complete obedience. Complete obedience means doing everything good and everything right.

Maybe the problem is that people do not have enough fear of God. They think that because of grace they don’t have to try as hard as they should, that they can get away with doing wrong and still be forgiven. More fear would overcome this problem; more fear would inspire more obedience, more obedience would inspire more love (because obedience necessarily requires a deeper and deeper knowledge of and relationship with God; you cannot obey God without getting to know him more, and you cannot know him more without loving him more) and as love became perfected, fear would no longer be necessary.

My last thing has to do with Chad’s first paragraph which talks about love of oneself being the basic human condition. This brings to mind a question that I have long had. The Bible says (in Ephesians 5:29) that no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it. But aren’t there a lot of people who hate themselves? And a lot of people who starve themselves or cut themselves or engage in other self-harming behaviors? I guess I must be missing something; I’m just not sure what.

I’ll start with the last question first. When Paul says that no one ever hated his own body, he is talking about common experience, not about pathologies. People who engage in self-destructive behaviors would probably have been regarded as demon-possessed in Paul’s day. In fact, Mark tells us that the Gadarene demoniac “would cry out and cut himself with stones” (Mark 5:5). Yet even such a man retained a desire for his own comfort and happiness. Pascal wrote that all men seek happiness. Everyone does things that are consistent with what they believe will lead to their own happiness or lessen their pain. Those who starve or cut themselves are often attempting to alleviate some intense emotional pain through self-inflicted physical pain.

With regard to Raine’s comments on love and fear, I think she gets it exactly right. In fact, I would argue that fear without respect is not really fear at all. The “half-assed obedience” Chad talks about comes from insufficient fear. If his soldier were really afraid of disobeying, his obedience would not be “half-assed.” It would be meticulous.

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