Over the years as a pastor, I’ve found that most theological difficulties and misunderstandings boil down to a couple of things:
1. We assume we know how God operates instead of examining and learning.
2. Our assumptions tend to fall into a rut, carved out by our own need and the culture that surrounds us.
When it comes to our relationship with God, most of us are cars driving in blind darkness on a country lane. We don’t have a really good idea which way to steer. When our wheels find the ditch at the side of the road, it gives us a sense of security and location. So we drive with our car in the dip and assure the other passengers, “I got this! I got this!”
Every once in a while, as opinions and culture shift around us, we find out that the ditch we’re driving in doesn’t work. Sensible people would turn on the headlights and try to figure out where the road is going. Instead we pull out of the rut, correcting the other direction until our wheels find the ditch on the other side of the road. Then we drive along happily in that one until our culture changes again.
Seldom do we remember to ask the important question: Is this road even going in the right direction?
You can see this phenomenon at work when people discuss how God views us as human beings. The old-school response was legalistic and cranky. “God is judging you. You’d better be good for Jesus or else you’ll be condemned!” This gave rise to insular, judgmental churches full of holier-than-thou people. At some point we figured out this was wrong…mostly when the children of those people left the church in droves. Then we pulled out of that ditch and drifted towards the other side until we landed at, “I’m OK, you’re OK, and God accepts everybody just as they are.”
The right-hand ditch wasn’t true even for a moment. We are not saved by our own goodness. If we could have been good enough to earn salvation, we would not have needed Jesus in the first place. Judgment is folly. It only leads to us condemning ourselves.
The left-hand ditch is not true either. God does love us. Saying that he “accepts us just as we are” discounts both our imperfection and any transformation that comes through our relationship with God. If I’m already OK “just as I am”, then (again) why did Jesus come to save me?
Here you see the essential problem. We don’t need Jesus in the right-hand ditch, nor do we need Jesus in the left-hand ditch! They’re just different versions of the same mistake. That’s a pretty good sign that this road is leading the wrong way. No matter how many times we bounce back and forth between its ditches, or even if we end up in between, we’re still not going to end up in the right place.
We have to stop finding comfort in the ditches and start upping the headlights a little so we can figure out where the road’s going. Studying scripture, listening to others, being challenged by the world, and praying all help us remember that we’re not the center of the universe…that we need more than our own assumptions to get us through. These disciplines are vital in the life of faith. They don’t save us, but they help us understand how someone else is.
None of us will ever fully comprehend God, or our path, completely. That’s no excuse for driving in the dark and pretending, finding security in being predictably wrong instead of opening to the possibility that God is transforming us and the road ahead of us each day. Churches, and the people who comprise them, need to stop digging deeper ditches and start shining light on the matter, that we might all find ways forward that are inspirational and true rather than destructive and self-confirming.
--Pastor Dave 208-362-1112 / firstname.lastname@example.org