The Church and the Idolization of Youth

“We have to do something to save our youth!” “We are losing too many of our youth!” “If we do not change our worship our young people will leave the church!” “We have to listen to our young people or they will not listen to us!”

On and on it goes. From what I hear the church is being strangled to death by a fear of young people leaving its membership. Preachers are hired and fired not on the basis of their wisdom and maturity, but on the basis of their attire and hair style. Churches want a “new voice” that will appeal to the younger generation. By some accounts the church is in a full blown panic over the fate of today’s youth.

It might be a shock to some, then, to discover that back in the early days of 1930-33 a young German theologian set out to address this very issue. More than just about anyone in his generation, he was acutely aware of the crisis of youth – especially in a world that was literally crumbling around their feet. His generation, and especially those younger than him, were clamoring for the church to heed their demands, to change its stodgy ways, to conform to a “new” reality. Rather than approach the problem from the cloistered cell of some ivory tower, this young pastor went to work among the poorest of the poor in his city. The young men who were placed in his care were far more familiar with violence and prostitution than the parables of Jesus. When they threatened to wreck his classroom, he would put records of “Negro spirituals” for them to listen to. When his young charges were ready for the ceremony of confirmation, he realized they had no decent clothes to wear. So he bought enough material for each to have a suit, and paid for a tailor to make them one. He was no ordinary youth minister. He did more than teach. He washed feet.

So his words carry far more weight than some ivory-tower theoretician. I share that because he prepared what have been labeled as eight “Theses on Youth Work in the Church.” It is unknown when he wrote them, but probably before 1933. I share some pertinent excerpts:

  1. Since the days of the youth movement, church youth work has often lacked that element of Christian sobriety that alone might enable it to recognize that the spirit of youth is not the Holy Spirit and that the future of the church is not youth itself but rather the Lord Jesus Christ alone. It is the task of youth not to reshape the church, but rather to listen to the word of God: it is the task of the church not to capture the youth, but to teach and proclaim the word of God.
  2. Our question is not: What is youth and what rights does it have, but rather: What is the church-community and what is the place of youth within it?
  3. . . . It is only within the church-community that one can pass judgement on the church-community.
  4. The church-community suspends the generational problem. Youth enjoy no special privilege in the church-community. . . God’s spirit in the church has nothing to do with youthful criticism of the church, the radical nature of God’s claim on human beings has nothing to do with youthful radicalism, and the commandment for sanctification nothing to do with the youthful impulse to better the world.
  5. The Bible judges youth quite soberly: Gen. 8:21; Isa. 3:5; Jer. 1:6; Eccl. 11:10; 1 Pet. 5:5; 2 Tim. 2:2 et passim.
  6. Church youth work is possible only on the basis of addressing young people concerning their baptism and with the exclusive goal of having them hear God’s word.
  7. It may well be that the youth have the right to protest against their elders. If that be the case, however, the authenticity of such protest will be demonstrated by youth’s willingness to maintain solidarity with the guilt of the church-community and to bear that burden in love, abiding in penitence before God’s word.
  8. There is no real “church association”; there is only the church. . . Every church association as such already discredits the cause of the church.

[Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Theses on Youth Work in the Church” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 12. Berlin:1932-1933. ed. Larry Rasmussen, trans. Isabel Best and David Higgins (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009) 515-517.]

The language is somewhat stilted, and the ecclesiology (baptism, etc) is Lutheran, but the theology is solid. I am constantly amazed that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9) and that questions that the church is asking today have been asked (and answered!) many times before. We do not have to re-invent the wheel. What we do need to do, however, is to listen to the wisdom of ages past. But before we can do that we have to have the humility to accept that people who lived before us were actually smart enough to answer the questions.

Lord, save us from the sin of idolizing our youth.

** I am indebted to the work of Andrew Root, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014) for providing an in-depth examination of Bonhoeffer and his ministry to young people. If you are interested in serving young people in an authentic way, or if you are just interested in the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I highly recommend this book. I think it will change your view of how the church is to hear, and to minister, to young people.

What Are We Left With?

I got to thinking the other day. What started it was the ever-present demand by those who want to re-construct our understanding of biology (and especially of the roles of male and female) to eliminate from Scripture any reference to gender differences and the roles attached to the separate genders. So, if they cannot explain away certain passages, they just eliminate them as being the uninformed opinions of bigoted males – the apostle Paul being the chief culprit. It the author of a particular passage was a male chauvinist homophobe, then we do not have to listen to anything that he said, or wrote.

So, in the spirit of this line of thinking, I got to thinking – why stop there? Let’s continue and remove any language that can be deemed to have roots in a patriarchal society. Let’s purify the Bible of any semblance of male superiority. That would mean excising all references to God as “Father” and Jesus as a male. In fact, let us be done with all the male/female binary language in the Bible. Eve should not be singled out as the “mother of all living,” as that reduces her to a mere object for male dominance. In fact, the language extolling any kind of human attraction and love needs to be cut out – think of the horrid descriptions of the female body in the Song of Solomon!

While we are at it, let us not forget to eliminate any references to a hierarchal/dictatorial culture. The chief offender here is any idea that God or Jesus could be “Lord,” as that is the pinnacle of a repressive society. The warrior language is especially galling – who wants to worship a God who wields swords and who commands his people to utterly destroy their enemies? Gone also will be any views “from below,” – words like obey, or submit, as they merely work to institutionalize systems of dominance and power.

Let us not forget that the people who first received the Bible were highly superstitious, and so to purify the Scriptures it is also incumbent upon us to remove any references or suggestions regarding the supernatural. This would include cutting out all the references to spirits, (including the Holy Spirit), demons, miracles – and even prayer itself. Closely related, since these people are considered to be “pre-scientific,” let us be done with all the incorrect and misleading language – all that talk about the sun rising and setting, the four corners of the earth, etc. Think of all those silly metaphors in the Psalms that compare thunder to the voice of God, and the majestic human to a smelly sheep. Surely we can do better than that.

The only question I have after we do all of that is this – what are we left with?

You see, when we (our 21st century culture) start editing the Bible to fit the world in which we live, where do we stop? If we want to eliminate certain verses from the pastoral letters or the Corinthian letters, why limit ourselves to just one segment of our society? When we proclaim that “Jesus is Lord” we are making a politically subversive statement: we are bound to obey Jesus as our supreme leader, not some elected official. In reality that is far more offensive than stating that males and females have been given different gifts and ministries in the church! Yet, because we have so neutered the word “Lord” in our language, we can sing about Jesus being our lord with sublime expressions on our faces and utterly miss the significance of what we are saying.

I have to be careful here because I too have wrestled with the question of what are timeless truths and commands within Scripture and what is culturally limited. There are many questions for which there are no easy answers. But my anxiety and my questions cannot overturn what basically amounts to 4,000 years of accepted teaching and interpretation.

Standing under Scripture is difficult, because it cuts against every fiber of my rebellious nature. I don’t want to submit to certain texts because it means that I am no longer the master of my life. It means I have to uproot the idols in my life and return Jesus to the center. Idols are idols precisely because we love them and are comfortable with them. Removing them is painful for those very reasons.

But if we no longer have God at the center of our life, what are we left with?

An Essay

“On the Moral Condition of the United States, and the Social and Political Pressures which Prevent it from Improving.”

After yet another example of mass-murder I believe it would be safe to say that there is no one in the United States who would deny there is a serious, and perhaps even systemic, moral problem in the United States. Yet, in spite of this virtually universal acceptance of the reality of the problem, there is an equally universal lack of understanding of the cause of the problem, let alone how to repair the problem. Solutions are usually presented along the lines of liberal / conservative; Democrat / Republican, but even within these disparate and hostile camps there is not much agreement. What follows is obviously just one person’s opinion, but I also believe it to be based on solid theological and sociological foundations.

The root source of our moral collapse in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is the Constitution of the United States, and the closely related document, the Bill of Rights. Designed to be a hedge against the totalitarian regimes of the dictatorships of Europe, these documents enshrined the basic tenets of secular humanism and rationalism, both held in check by the veneer of a “Christian” worldview. That is to say, in both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the individual human is the ultimate reality; but the documents are so infused with deistic, and intentionally latent Christian, language that the conservative nature of the primarily Christian culture managed to subdue what we can now see is the inevitable outcome of these documents.

When the Constitution and related founding documents are read through the lens of at least a formally “Christian” understanding, the pervasive individualism and rationalism are muted. The deistic “creator” of the Bill of Rights is naturally assumed to be the Creating and Redeeming God of the Old and New Testament. “All men are created equal” easily becomes “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” What is so quickly overlooked is that in 1776, slaves of any race were not considered to be fully human, therefore not “men.” Neither, it should be pointed out, were women, who were denied the freedom to vote. But, while the documents themselves were not Christian, those who interpreted them were at least nominally Christian, and the force of biblical morality gave the documents at least an appearance of divine approval.

All of this evaporated when the United States shed the illusion of being a Christian nation in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In the new millennium the ability of biblical morality to restrict the inevitable results of the secular humanism disappeared. Now we can clearly see the fault lines of the founding documents of our country. When the individual is the supreme and final judge of morality – of even such basic human characteristics as his/her gender – why is is it a surprise that such a human can wantonly kill dozens of other citizens because of a real or perceived slight in his or her childhood? When the power of a community to discipline – and even physically remove such a person through capital punishment – is removed, there is no recourse for that community to discipline such deviant behavior. Even worse, when the fruit of secular humanism fully ripens, even the desire for such discipline evaporates. This is not a hypothetical statement. Even today there are apologists who speak for the monsters who murder children in their school rooms, suggesting that it is the very idea of communal boundaries that explains such deviant behavior (“he can’t be held responsible – he was abused/bullied/repressed”).

There are those who suggest that what is needed to reverse this trend is to re-establish a Christian identity for the United States. I simply do not see that cat crawling back into the bag. There is simply too much political and sociological pressure to maintain the hegemony of the individual to allow that to happen. In other words, we have become what the founders of our country destined us to become, even though they would be horrified to know what became of their grand experiment in human governance. We can argue until the cows come home by themselves about whether the Constitution is a living or dead document, about a literalist or a dynamic interpretation of the law, or of a dozen more questions. But until we understand and accept that the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, are simply human documents, and display all the frailty of every other human document, we will never have the ability to overcome the trajectory of our increasingly narcissistic and violent culture.

There are, of course, a number of issues that relate tangentially to this question: our seemingly pathological love affair with increasingly powerful weapons of personal destruction, our equally pathological unwillingness to effectively enforce laws which, at least theoretically, could circumvent some instances of mass-murder, and our innate refusal to accept any responsibility for our own feelings of anger and hate.

We are, of a certainty, all fallen human beings.

Is there a political solution? Perhaps, but as I see it that would involve a new  constitutional convention in which the existing Constitution would have to be radically altered to give the community (whether it be the nation, the state, or each community) far more authority that it currently has (basically, the justice system would have to be created from scratch, and the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” would have to be replaced with a concept of justice as a pure and impartial search for truth). Frankly this is a ridiculous fantasy, as in, it just is not going to happen.

So, is there a religious, or better yet, a faith solution? Yes, and it is here that I revert to my understanding of Barton W. Stone, David Lipscomb, and many others. Their view of the world was decidedly eschatological, and some would say apocalyptic. They knew, or at least believed, that the thoughts and plans of mankind were only evil, and that humans were not going to think or legislate themselves out of the mess that they thought and legislated themselves into. In sharp distinction from the millennial optimism of Alexander Campbell, they believed that all human governments were, and are, inherently opposed to God’s rule, and Christians should in no way, shape, or  form, put their trust in such systems. In the words of Jesus, Christians are not to cast their pearls before the swine of secular government, whether it be a monarchy or a democracy. In the face of such hostile governments what is a Christian to do? Exactly what the New Testament taught: pray for such governments in that they allow for peaceful existence, pay whatever taxes or dues are mandated by such governments, and beyond that to love the Lord your God and serve Christ’s church with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. This meant feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the poor and imprisoned, and striving in every way possible to demonstrate the presence of the Kingdom of God on earth. Imagine what would happen if every Christian church believed, and acted, as if God, and not the government, is in charge. If Christians do not believe it, why should the world?

The solution to our narcissistic, and increasingly violent, culture is not to be found in the passage of more laws. It is not to be found in the proliferation of more, and more powerful, weapons. It is not to be found in turning our Constitution into an idol. The solution to this problem is to be found in the crushing realization that we cannot solve this problem. We are the problem, and until we are transformed into the image of Christ, the problem will never be solved.

The Strange Words of Jesus

Some meditative thoughts following my daily Bible reading for today –

If you attempt to keep up with modern trends in American Christianity (as I feebly do), you are aware that today there is a great deal of talk about being spiritual, but not necessarily religious. (This distinction screams for a post on definitions of words, but that will have to wait for another day). What I want to point out is that the very use of the term “spiritual” as is used in today’s vernacular is so utterly opposite of what Jesus demanded. You see, today we can be “spiritual” and not give up anything – in fact, being spiritual means that we get to have, and get, and get, and get, and get. Being spiritual means we are healthy, wealthy, and wise, and any sign of infirmity of mind, body, or bank account means that we are just not spiritual enough. There is just far too much “J” in this concept, and that “J” stands for Joel Osteen and not Jesus.

Just look at how the word is understood: churches that grow are spiritual, churches that stay the same (or, heaven forbid, shrink) are worldly. Athletes that win the Super Bowl are spiritual, athletes that are perennial cellar dwellers are worldly. Preachers that “grow” churches are spiritual, preachers that labor in small, nondescript congregations are worldly. Yikes! – Jeremiah was the poster child of worldly failure!

Now, understand – I am not promoting apathy. Some churches that shrink do so because they are worldly. Not every athlete on a losing team is spiritual. And some preachers are failures because they have sold their soul to the world, and congregations can sniff that out.

But I am only too aware of congregations who grow by leaps and bounds because of the star status of their preacher, not because of spiritual health. I am only too aware that some athletic teams win because their system is built on cheating and rigging the game, not on the depth of their spiritual acumen. Some preachers climb the ecclesial ladder by kissing feet – not by washing them.

Three times in Luke 14:25-33 Jesus specifically said that certain people could not be his disciples. Read the passage – certain people could not be his disciples! People who love fame and popularity, people who refuse to walk in the shadow of their own death, people who cannot renounce their own importance – these people cannot become, or remain, disciples of Jesus.

There are all kinds of markers for what Americans consider to be a life of spirituality. Strangely, I see very few of them consistent with what Jesus considered to be markers of spirituality.

It just seems like every day I want to climb the ecclesial ladder. Every day I want someone to recognize my brilliance, my importance. Every day I want to have someone say – “wow, look at him – he must be spiritual because of what he has.” And, virtually without fail, I open my Bible and I read where God says, “Argh, you have it all wrong again! You climb higher by descending lower. Listen to my Son.”

I want to be spiritual in my quest to be a disciple, but I hope that no one thinks that I am spiritual. Because, I think that if someone thinks that I’m spiritual, I have probably become an enemy of the one who is my master.

Standing Under Scripture

If you have been reading the last few posts (my “Uncertain Inferences” series) you note that I have been illustrating how we can look at a passage of Scripture and deduce, or infer, that something is true when, in fact, it is either not true, or at least the certainty of our inference is indeed “uncertain.” You may disagree with me on one or more of these issues: that is fine – by no means am I claiming infallibility. However, you better have more solid scriptural evidence than I have presented to bolster my case if you want to convince me. I am passionately opposed to perpetuating error just because it happens to be popular.

What all of this boils down to is our approach to Scripture. One of my most favorite professors stressed to his students that we stand under Scripture, we do not stand over it. When we stand under Scripture, we submit to its message, listen to its modes of communication, and seek to obey what it directs. In the 21st century, that means we have to unlearn as much about reading Scripture as we have to learn how to read Scripture.

As just a few examples, consider these: we (and I speak as an American, although much of what I say can be shared by other Western cultures) think linearly. Point B follows point A, and point C follows point B. Time flows in a straight line. Result Y is directly related to cause X. When we read Scripture, we automatically impose that way of thinking on the text. We think that is the way Abraham and Moses and David and Paul and Peter must have thought and acted, because that is the way everyone around us thinks and acts.

Philosophically we are basically Platonists. The world is made up of the ideal and the material. The material is somehow corrupt, whereas the ideal is perfect  – how many times have you heard the phrase “true love?” Our Platonic worldview is especially seen in our view of “heaven.” We have a view of disembodied “spirits” or “souls” flying around on little clouds in some nebulous realm “up there.” We base virtually every decision we make on some form of scientific “truth,” and yet we pray on Sunday mornings for “divine guidance.” These are all grand-children, or step-grand-children, of Plato’s understanding, and we are so immersed in that thought that to think otherwise is to be branded as a heretic.

Yet, when we enter into the very different, and we might even say strange, world of the Bible we see that so much of what we consider to be the only way to view things is NOT the way the biblical writers viewed them. Their world did not always follow a direct cause and effect pattern. Time for them was not always linear – sometimes it was, and sometimes it was cyclical and sometimes it was significantly disjointed. Abraham and Moses and David and Paul and Peter lived in a world where paradox was more common than consistency. And while Jesus and Paul and Peter lived in a world influenced by Plato and Aristotle, their thinking was more in line with Abraham and Moses than with the Athenian philosophers.

Perhaps nowhere in the Bible is this difference in thinking more profound than in the type of literature we call “apocalyptic.” This is the very strange world where beasts live that have seven heads and ten horns, where the sun goes dark and the moon turns red. We, as good 21st century Westerners, read those passages and immediately we think in “literal” terms. We start trying to figure out how ten horns can be divided onto seven heads – we start trying to calculate when solar or lunar eclipses must have occurred to give the biblical writers their “literal” reference. In so doing we utterly, totally, and completely miss the point! By forcing our worldview (literal, linear, and scientific to a fault) onto a mostly Hebraic, and sometimes Persian, and sometimes Egyptian, and sometimes Babylonian, and sometimes Greek, and sometimes Roman worldview, we destroy not only the method, but we destroy the message as well. What we are doing when we do that is we are standing OVER the text, not standing under it.

The problem is that this is the way we have been taught to read the Bible ever since we were very small children. We read a passage, made a modern day application, and moved on. We were never taught about Egyptian or Mesopotamian creation myths, or about Hebrew poetry, or about Zoroastrian dualism because our teachers knew little or nothing about those topics – and they did the best they could understanding that they had not been taught about those subjects. When I was a small child I searched the maps in the back of my Bible for hours, knowing that somewhere in those maps I could find Santa Fe, New Mexico, and my beloved Pecos river. We did not even have a globe in our classroom so that the teacher could show us just how far Bethlehem was from Santa Fe.

Please understand – I am not criticizing my teachers. They did the best they could with what they knew, and I might add that they did a remarkable job with those flannel boards and little sand boxes where the battle of Jericho was fought again and again with striking realism. But I do want to shine a light on a serious problem – what was adequate, and perhaps appropriate, for elementary age children is pathetically inappropriate for grown adults. We must grow beyond flannel boards and sand boxes. As we mature in our understanding we have to learn that the world of Abraham, Moses, David, Paul, Peter and every other biblical writer was vastly different from our own, and if and when we impose our way of looking at reality onto their way of describing their reality, we distort and even misinterpret Scripture.

Genesis is not a scientific textbook. Job is not a guide to astronomy. Revelation is not a road map of the future. Jesus spoke in parables because of, not in spite of, their open ended conclusions. It just seems to me to be the height of arrogance for us to say that we know everything about everything in the Bible when we are separated almost two millennia from the youngest of the biblical writings. We, who claim to be people of the book, must be the most careful and humble when it comes to speaking from that book.

Standing under the Bible means we have to get on our knees, not stand on a soap box. It means that we have to ascend by bending lower.

[Note: this post was edited to better reflect our Platonic worldview.]

The Head and the Heart

So far in 2018 I have been posting a flurry of articles, mostly planned and even a few written in the last weeks of 2017. These posts come from a deepening sense of uneasiness both within myself and with what I see transpiring within the brotherhood of Churches of Christ. As I have said repeatedly, the Churches of Christ are my spiritual home, and extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the church there is no salvation). There is just one church of Christ, and I want to be a part of that church.

My uneasiness lies in this: for far too long and for far too many of us (myself included!) the focus has been getting the head stuff right. We argue endlessly over issues which are matters of human reason – can we have separate classes for Bible study, how many cups can be used in distributing the Lord’s Supper, can we have an attached “fellowship hall,” if women can pass the communion trays “side to side” why can’t they pass them “front to back,” can we raise our hands in prayer or during a song, can we use the church treasury to send money to an orphan’s home, can we hire a preacher, youth minister, involvement minister – and if we do, what do we call them. The list goes on and on and on. While I would suggest that the answers to those questions vary in degrees of importance, I will flatly say that Jesus did not die for any of those questions. The fact that any of those questions (among the dozens not given) have divided congregations is a huge blot on our fellowship.

What really terrifies me are the passages in the New Testament that should make us ashamed of our petulance. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20). “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'” (Matthew 7:22-23). “Woe to you, scribes and  Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:15, all references from the ESV).

I never want to discount the head stuff, the rational part of our faith. But I am only too aware of the trap of becoming so locked into our head that we lose sight of the heart. Maybe that is why I am so drawn to the prophetic books of the Old Testament. In them we see time and time and time again how God disciplines the people of Israel for focusing on getting the rules right and completely missing the point of the rules. Was this not the major point of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees?

The “mystics” and contemplative fathers had a saying, or rather an image, that they used, and which I think has great value. They talked about “descending with the head into the heart.” This is illustrated somewhat clumsily in the posture of kneeling for prayer. While kneeling, and with the head bowed, the head is either parallel to, or sometimes below, the heart. It is not a perfect image – but it is still a powerful one.

That is what this blog is intended to be all about. I am, for better or for worse, a head guy. I’m so right-handed and left-brained it is pathetic. But I believe God has blessed me with some profound gifts, and being left-brained is as much a gift as it is a hindrance, and I want to glorify God by using my logic and my reason.

That being said, I just feel a growing sense of dread that God is looking down at all our reason and logic and rationality and is simply furious. Can we not learn, after 2,000 years, that the church is more valuable, and more important, than whether we have pews or chairs, or whether there is a coffee pot in the classroom, or whether we even have a classroom at all?

Lord, have mercy on us, miserable sinners.

I want the church to ascend higher. I want us to attain the calling to which we have been called. I want the church to be the pure bride of Christ who longs for and prepares the way for his coming. In order to do that, however, we are going to have to learn how to descend – descend in to the heart, descend into humility, descend into submission to God and to one another.

Let us ascend lower.

The Myth of Unconditional Forgiveness (3) [Uncertain Inferences Series]

Stated plainly, I do not believe that God teaches we are to forgive people unconditionally. I do not believe God does so, and I do not believe we can justify doing so from the Bible. I wrote in my last post that I believe there is a very selfish reason why we hold so firmly to the idea of “unconditional forgiveness.” We just do not want to be confronted by our own failure, and so in order to excuse our own weakness we simply choose to “forgive” everyone else and defend our actions with a very pious sounding argument.

There is yet another reason why we are so firmly attached to the idea of unconditional forgiveness. We simply do not understand the depth of the consequences of human sin. If we really took the time to reflect on our sinfulness and rebellion, I just do not think that we would be so cavalier in our dismissal of the biblical teachings regarding forgiveness.

Ponder for a moment the God’s reaction to sin in the book of Genesis. Consider Isaiah 64:6, and if need be, research the meaning of “filthy rags” or “polluted garment.” Ask yourself what Paul was trying to communicate in Romans 1. Think about why he warned the Thessalonian Christians about the coming “day of wrath.”

Read Jeremiah 6:14-15, 8:10-12, and Ezekiel 13:1-16. Could it be that when we blithely and sanctimoniously “forgive” we are actually repeating the actions of those whom the prophets so soundly condemn? Are we not coming dangerously close to fulfilling the words of Isaiah 5:20-24?

Why did Jesus have to die if God can, and indeed does, forgive unconditionally? It seems to me that the most obscene injustice this world has ever seen would have been the cross on Golgotha if God simply looks down on our little peccadilloes and wipes the slate clean with a brush of his divine eraser.

Others have written far more eloquently describing this false forgiveness. I offer just one example:

Cheap grace means grace as doctrine, as principle, as system. It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven. . . The world finds in this church a cheap cover-up for its sins, for which it shows no remorse and from which it has even less desire to be set free. Cheap grace is, thus, a denial of God’s living word, denial of the incarnation of the word of God. . . Cheap grace means justification of the sin, but not of the sinner. . . Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, p. 43-44.)

I mentioned in my first article that those who believe this myth have not committed some serious theological crime. In one sense maybe that might be true, but in another sense maybe I myself was being too glib, too forgiving. The myth of unconditional forgiveness is itself rather innocuous, but it leads to a denial of the gospel. If we are forgiven unconditionally, then Jesus’s death itself becomes, as I said above, obscene.

Although I am not a psychologist, I also believe there are some serious psychological repercussions when we buy into this myth. When we suggest that we are forgiving unconditionally, we are attempting to perform spiritual gymnastics that only result in the short-circuiting of a process that God had instilled deep within the human soul. We humans are designed for community, for relationship. Our first relationship is with God, and second with other humans. When we expect God to forgive unconditionally we are telling him that our sins do not matter – he just needs to “get on with life” and wipe the slate clean. When we do not expect, or demand, that others acknowledge their sins agains us, we are denying them the opportunity to unburden their soul – to admit their own failure. This is a critical point so often overlooked – we as humans have a very deep need to be able to admit we are wrong, and to be forgiven of that wrong, so that our relationships can be healed. “Unconditional forgiveness” sounds so wonderful, but in reality it actually prevents what it is supposedly designed to do.

So, what do we do in the very real world where many of those who hurt us have no intention of asking for our forgiveness, or who have died and therefore cannot ask for our forgiveness? Can we forgive them?

In a word, no. As I said in a past post – we do have the ability to surrender the will to get even. We do have the ability to pray to God, to surrender our hurt feelings, to not let the sun go down on our anger. I believe in the practice of writing letters to be placed inside caskets letting go of the hurt and anger. I believe in punching pillows or sweating our frustrations out. I also believe very firmly in the ability to pray the imprecatory Psalms – the Psalms that ask God to exact revenge on those of our enemies who refuse our efforts to make peace. But we must remember to allow God to exact that revenge.

This is NOT forgiveness, however, and in no manner, shape, or form should we disguise it as such. Forgiveness is two individuals, or groups, that have be separated by a real disruption of relationship, who come together for the purpose of healing that relationship. The offended party offers peace, the offending party acknowledges guilt and asks for forgiveness. The offended party accepts the apology and extends the forgiveness, and the two parties reaffirm their love and acceptance of each other. This is biblical – from Genesis to Revelation. This is putting the words of Jesus into practice. This is the act of ascending higher by climbing lower. Anything less is just not biblical.

It is a myth.