by Greg Prout
By Greg Prout, February 4, 2014
Nothing robs a person of the “abundant life” more than the doctrine that this life is only a preparation for the next, that now is simply a training ground for the hereafter, that everything has value only as it relates to eternity. Raised and nurtured in this dualism where “now” is subservient to “then,” often creates a person overly concerned about her current performance and in how it buys her a ticket over there—heaven—then. Self-centeredness gussied up in religious fervor ushers you into a feeling of “holy endeavor,” of doing the Lord’s work. A person becomes obsessed with their spiritual development, always wondering if they are “good enough” to gain entrance through the pearly Gates. Is God happy with me? Am I safe to save? Heaven becomes an enterprise of religious calisthenics, character development becomes holy self-absorption, and we become spiritual Narcissists.
NO is the tool fundamentalism employs to create separation from and distortion of the society God came to save. Fundamentalism believes its NO to culture pacifies God’s hot anger at our fallen selves. NO says you cannot find authentic God outside of or apart from Church dogma. Growing up in this negation environment was called “present truth.” Though lifeless, it was all that mattered, like growing up and never being able to leave the house; the neighborhood was off limits.
My childhood was confined by two negative factors structural to my development. One was the finances of an alcoholic. My father’s alcoholism and his spotty work experience often left our family in jeopardy of paying rent or buying groceries. It was not uncommon to hear “No, you can’t do that, or buy that; we don’t have the money.” “No, you can’t go there; money is short.” Our struggle with basic finances created a small world with few ports and fewer embarkations to the outside world. Dreams were my only escape from NO.
But significantly more crippling, like the old Chinese practice of binding feet, were the religious attitudes and beliefs that shaped my upbringing. NO was the “thou shalt not” to life on earth. The Church held a strong belief that God was displeased with our culture at large, and just about everything our culture produced was dangerous or wicked. The number and frequency of religious prohibitions was proof. Negation of culture and separation from it were foundational to our church’s mission. The God we worshiped loved to say NO; loved to keep us caged, held down, and locked away in spiritual ghettos free of contamination from the outside. Cultural expressions like the cinema, novels, long hair, certain fashions, playing cards, dancing, most music received the NO. Worshipping on the wrong day, eating the wrong foods, failing to have morning worship, the admonition to witness, etc., were also NOs employed to promote our love for a Savior that died to set us free. Freedom defined not by what you were liberated to do, but by what you should not/could not do.
Our religious community was an isolation ward from which we asserted the destiny of the world hung on our eschatological views. The world must come to us. We proclaimed “No” from the mountain tops and expected society to come running. Meanwhile, irrelevancy and “ho-hum” showed up.
If you subscribed to these religious prohibitions and rules, and embraced the NO devotedly, you were esteemed a person every other sojourner should emulate. Developing in such an environment created a worldview anemic and shriveled; everyone outside was a prospect/suspect to save or shun. Subtle was the air of superiority such exercised beliefs engendered, implying those who believed differently were less enlightened and in need of our heavenly interpretation. We had the truth; they subscribed to something less, something wrong, something errant. They were deceived and our objective was to enlighten them, or warn them, and lead them out of Babylon into the green pastures of our rarefied NO. If we failed to witness about our wonderful God, guilt was our reward. Warning others was a precious admonition; more NO. Our gospel: you can become like us and be saved, if you believe the right doctrines: ours.
Our love had an agenda. We loved not because love is the true reality in which to live; we loved either directly or by implication to make others reflect us, to replicate our spiritual identity. Somehow introducing them to a God of love was insufficient, too simple. More was needed. Producing Adventists marching in unison and conformity superseded the simple “believe in the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved…” (Acts 16:31). Such is the nature of fundamentalism: it believes it alone has the truth and all must pass through its gates to find God. Fundamentalism views everything before it’s time as inferior, or “partial truth,” and everything in the future as suspect and deception. Adventist fundamentalism possesses the keys and has the controls; your destiny depends on its authority. And it is a lie.
We had a prophet who told us how to believe, what to believe, and yet encouraged us to think for ourselves; a nagging contradiction, not unlike condemning the Pope for setting himself up as God on earth, while in his place we ordained our prophet.
Explicitly, we were told not to judge, quoted verses supporting that claim, yet by inference we judged everyone, especially those who used tobacco, alcohol, ate meat, wore make-up, dawned jewelry, worshiped on Sunday, swam on the Sabbath, attended movies, etc. We declared Life apart from Adventism is not life at all.
Our high standard of conduct aside from being tyrannical, set us up as arbiters of right and wrong over our neighbors, even though we pretended to express our judgments tactfully in love. We loved to quote our prophet who wrote about Jesus denouncing the Pharisees with “tears in his eyes.” It gave us courage to stand up for truth and point out another’s sin; however, tears rarely graced our cheeks. We judged, blatantly or quietly, with conviction, denouncing “outsiders” by our holy truths. My mother told my father that God would not go with him into the bar, that somehow our broken behavior would sully God’s holiness. That seemed to fly in the face of the Incarnation I had come to know.
Our eternal life, though preached as a gift from God, was practiced with much uncertainty. Many sermons were delivered questioning whether we were saved or not, and was it possible to know. ‘If you died tonight, where would you spend eternity?’ was a favorite question. Anxiety loomed over our final destination, and though told we were saved by grace, and not of ourselves, we were reminded our behavior played a decisive role in our redemption. We believed a befuddled gospel. Was salvation by grace or not? I grew up confused.
Though we believed God was omnipotent, it seemed our puny will could thwart the loftiest intentions of the Most High God; even the Almighty appeared to bow at the altar of our will. I was told this is how “love” works. Sometimes I wondered who was in charge: God or our consent. Salvation was reduced to an opportunity dependent on our volition. Jesus forgave soldiers crucifying Him without their volition, but the rest of us are not so fortunate.
Then I met Jesus, the YES of God; a dream come true. The greatest discovery of my life was learning salvation was accomplished by God, without my assistance; that He is a God of mercy and grace. Like nothing else, realizing God’s love opened the gate of my religious kennel and told me to run free. For too long I lived in tension—salvation was about Jesus and my free choice; about Him and what I can do; about what He did and how my decision can make it efficacious. Certainly, love exists in freedom in our imperfect world, but are we short-changing God’s great cosmic act on the Cross by insisting its impact is determined by our fallen self? I wonder.
God in Christ on Calvary is the story; we do not share the stage, but we are gifted its glory. It is not about my power of belief or my free choice, or my behavior and religious performance; it is about Jesus and His grace. Some call this “cheap grace.” There is nothing cheap about it; it cost the Son of God His life, which He gladly gave so we could live. He was/is YES to life. That is “good news”! He has reversed the hell created by Adam. He is the star of our show; His name is on life’s marquee. The Bible is about Him and His love for humanity. We are not the subject; He is. We are the direct object in the sentence, the ancillary character in the story, a derivative, and yet He adores us.
I am here to love others as He loves me, and the Now is vital, for NOW is where His Kingdom of love resides. Tomorrow has been purchased by His life and death and resurrection, and it is as certain as His compassion. His love is the air I breathe, His forgiveness the ground I walk on, and His grace my Eternity. I have earned nothing; He has given me everything.
“God…who saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.” (Italics supplied), 2 Timothy 1:9. YES!