Faith is Not Behavior Control
Greetings! After an early-January hiatus, we’re back!
In the interim, I had a reminder how terribly churches have messed up people’s lives by turning faith into behavior control. This often happens at a young age, when we tell children, “Be good, because that’s what God wants.” Or even worse, we say, “Be good, or God will be angry…” Somehow “good” is always defined as what we want the child to do in that particular moment, so God becomes leverage to get them to obey us.
There are several problems with this:
1. We don’t end up teaching people about God as much as we end up teaching people about our morality, will, or power to enforce same.
2. God becomes a negative influence on people’s lives. They have to worry about pleasing God to avoid negative consequences. (In reality, this isn’t about God at all. We want them to worry about pleasing us and we’re willing to sell out God in order to get them to do so.)
3. Nobody is perfect. Inevitably the same people who hear that God only loves them when they’re good will end up doing something not good, thus God will not love them.
4. Our definitions of “good” are hopelessly inadequate. It’s presumptuous to even think we can fulfill complete goodness. Sure, we can sit still for 45 minutes in Sunday school, but can we create a perfect relationship with our neighbors or solve problems like world hunger or racism? Saying, “Be good for God”, we lower the bar of goodness so low that it doesn’t resemble God’s goodness anymore.
We do all of this in the name of getting someone to behave like we wish in a given moment. The effects last far beyond that moment, though. I know many adults who are quietly terrified that their lives don’t measure up and that God will condemn them to an eternity of punishment because they aren’t perfect.
Whenever your mind is tempted to say, “God can’t love me because I don’t measure up,” remember that God doesn’t work that way. None of us measure up. If that’s the standard, we all fail.
God loves us. That’s the common denominator that allows us to celebrate the good things and deal with the imperfections of life. Because God loves us, we can see ourselves and each other as beautiful even when we’re imperfect. Because God loves us, we can define ourselves and the world as more than the sum of our mistakes.
The voice inside that says, “God can’t love imperfect people,” comes not from the Spirit, but from people who want to use faith as a means to control your behavior. This is wrong. All faith schemes based on worry or fear fall terribly short. “Fear” of the Lord may be the beginning of wisdom, but it is not the purpose of wisdom. Nor is that kind of “fear” really what’s being talked about there.
Instead trust in the Lord lets us admit we’re not perfect while assuring us that our imperfections are not the center of the universe, nor of our relationship with it. We can exhale, stop worrying so much about ourselves and a wrathful God, and start worrying about how we’re called to care about and serve each other in these times.
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