31 October 2011

Boundaries and Sin

I was born in 1957.  A year that, I am led to believe, was the peak year of the Baby Boom in the US.
Theologically, I think that my generation has a lot to answer for.  We were the babies born (in the US) at the height of post WWII affluence.  Not only were we looking forward to a level of economic prosperity that our parents - who grew up in the depression - only dreamed of, but we were also quick to throw off the shackles of institutionalism, bureaucracy and rigid social expectations.
Many of us, myself included, were raised in religious environments that emphasized how sinful and bad we were.  My stock joke - which really isn't all that funny - is that as a kid I thought the Gospel message was "Jesus died for your sins, so the Father has to let you into heaven.  However the Father is absolutely livid that He's been bribed like that because He hates you."
In reaction to this sort of theology, my generation responded in two ways.  Firstly, many simply left the Church and Christianity entirely.  Secondly, many of us adopted a theology of "cheap grace" - which I outlined in my previous post.  Briefly, "cheap grace" means that we give people the impression that just because God wants to forgive everyone (who repents properly), that God will forgive everyone regardless of whether they are sorry and regardless of whether or not they want to repent.
Another way of saying "cheap grace" is "no boundaries".
I like the "no boundaries" way of looking at the problem of sin because it brings the problem of sin and cheap grace quickly into focus.  
My generation often behaved as if boundaries didn't matter and we often didn't teach boundaries to our children.  No wonder the next generation is reacting in the opposite direction:  boundaries galore, including a lot of boundaries that make the love of God too narrow.
Human beings have a way of doing this.  Black-and-white thinking and jumping from one extreme to another.  If the boundaries I had were too rigid, then do away with them altogether.  If the boundaries you had were non-existent, then put in some rigid boundaries so that everyone knows where they stand.  If the punishment I received was too harsh, never punish anyone for anything.  If no one seemed to care what you did, then impose strong punishments so that the values you're upholding have meaning.
Some wise common-sense thinking will quickly help us realize that there is a more central position:  boundaries which maintain the values of love of God and love of neighbor which are enforced consistently and lovingly.
For the most part, it seems to me that that is the witness of Scripture about Jesus' behavior.  OK, yes, he knocked over the tables in the Temple once.  But in many stories, Jesus forgave the sins of an individual with compassionate understanding, warned the person to truly repent and to not repeat the sin and sometimes even healed them.
Generally speaking, having and enforcing boundaries does not require harshness on the part of the enforcer, it requires mainly consistency of enforcement.  Preaching about how much God hates us when we breech the boundaries isn't going to result in better behavior, it's going to result in a character-assassination of God, not to mention bad theology (God doesn't hate us).  Making up a lot of zealous boundaries like "God wants women to be subservient to men" or "God hates LGBT people" or "God will cast you out if you believe in evolution" doesn't result in better boundaries, it simply perpetuates bad theology.
Yes, sin is bad.  Yes, sin damages us. Sin can keep us in hell.  Sin estranges us from God.
The solution is good boundaries born from wise theology.  The solution is consistent enforcement of those boundaries.  The solution is compassionate, mature enforcement of boundaries.

Sin and Hospital Chaplaincy

Sin and Hospital Chaplaincy - a strange title?  Not from my perspective.

If you were to ask me what are the most important spiritual care tasks I perform, I would have to say that hearing patients' confessions is probably right up there at the top of the list.  Comforting and praying with patients is probably the most requested spiritual care task, but I think that hearing confession is one of the most important.

But isn't confession just for Catholics?  And how can a swingeing theological "liberal" like me hear confession when all I want to talk about is God's love and when I don't want to talk about God's condemnation of sinners?

Well, I'm here to tell you that confession is not just for Catholics.  You'd be surprised the people who want to confess their sins to another, embodied, human being.  Lots of Protestants want to tell you their worst sins when their lives are in danger and they want the reassurance of God's forgiveness from someone they see as God's representative.  (I believe all baptized Christians are God's representatives, by the way.  As my Baptist supervisor says, you can be a priest to any individual as long as that individual ordains you for service to them.)

So what does this theological liberal say when someone asks me "Do you think God will forgive me?"  My first question often is "I don't know. What did you do?"  I usually follow this up quickly with "I believe that God wants to forgive everyone, so if you're asking me if God will forgive you or that God can forgive you, the answer is yes.  But if you are asking me to assure you that God has forgiven you of a specific sin, then I need to know what the sin was but, more importantly, I need to know how you have repented.  You need to make things right not only with God, but with the person against whom you sinned, if that's applicable."

Tough stuff for a theological liberal?  And how does that fit with a theology of unconditional grace and forgiveness?

My theology of unconditional grace and forgiveness is my belief that God wants to forgive every person and that God will forgive every and any sin.  There is no such thing as an unforgivable sin.  There is no such thing as an unforgivable person.

But....unconditional grace is an entirely different thing than cheap grace. Here is an example of cheap grace: "God forgive me for being with a prostitute yesterday night and, by the way, you and I know full well that I intend to do it again."  Not only is this not repentance from a theological point of view, but from a simple human perspective, we all know in our hearts and our guts that this is not repentance.

We can run away from this fact all we want, but if you are a cardiac patient who is conscious and awake and you know that, medically, you might die any minute, believe me that you know darn well that this is not a repentance.  And that's probably why you're calling the chaplain in.

The patient asks the words "Will God forgive me?" and the answer to that is yes.  The question that the patient should be asking, however, is "Will I be able to benefit from God's forgiveness if I don't really intend to amend my ways?"  The answer to that is no.

So what happens to that cardiac patient?  If the patient dies without having had the opportunity to confess to his wife, to amend his life in faithfulness to his marriage vows and to demonstrate his repentance, will God have forgiven him?  I don't know.  And neither does anyone else.  This is why we leave judgements of the human heart to God.  God knows if a person is genuinely sorry and I believe genuine repentance is possible, even without having had the opportunity to demonstrate one's repentance.

The real tragedy of sin is that so many people live in the hell of unforgiveness for many years.  And if you visit a patient whose life is in danger and who wants to make a confession, you know that it truly has been hell.

18 October 2011

Directing hatred at sin is self-defeating

In my previous post, I admitted that I think that God hates sin but I stated that I'm nervous about the use of the word "hate".

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines hatred as:
a) Intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger or sense of injury; b) extreme dislike or antipathy
To put it crudely, is the Gospel message that God wants to punch sinners in the face? Or even that God wants to beat the daylights out of sin?  I don't think so.

For one thing, I think God is smarter than to constantly focus on what God doesn't want. I hold before you Creation for my evidence.  Creation is not a process of negating.  It's a process of of making all things new.  I also hold before you human psychology (we are supposed to be created in God's image, if you'll remember).  Psychologists will tell you that if you constantly tell yourself - for example - "no beer, no beer" what you're brain is hearing is "beer, beer";  ironically, you will be reinforcing the very behavior that you are seeking to stop.

Focusing on sin, even focusing on the destruction of sin, won't eliminate sinning.  It may very well increase sinning. 

This may seem a bit simplistic, but it's true:

If you're worried that this was said by the Buddha instead of Jesus or YHWH, I'll point out that the Great Commandment, is love God and love your neighbor.  Our "Prime Directive" is not about what to hate but rather about whom to love.

And, in God's wisdom, God somehow managed to put this "Prime Directive" into our sense of natural justice.  It's the central tenet in all major religions and altruism (loving one's neighbor) is also considered the highest ethical good by secular ethics.

15 October 2011

God Hates Sin

The topic of sin has been on my mind recently and I thought it might be good to blog about it.
I suspect that both friends and foes (as well as friendly foes) might be surprised to hear that I believe that God hates sin.  
However, I suspect that no one will be surprised to hear that I believe that God loves sinners.  Not just because that latter idea conforms to what you probably already think of my views.  But also because "God loves sinners" is a deeply Methodist doctrine.  A Methodist emphasis (although not a distinctive) is that we hold the concept of prevenient grace dear to our hearts.  In plain English, this means we believe God wishes to be in relationship with all people who have ever lived.
However, that doesn't mean that God likes sin.  On the contrary, sin is what keeps us alienated from God rather than in relationship with God, so it's a no-brainer that God hates sin.  So, yes, God hates sin.
It's not actually so much the concept of "sin" that worries me.  It's the concept of "hate".
What do you think of when you hear the word "hate"?   Each individual will probably hear differently.  
When someone says "I hate it when I ask you to do something and you ignore me" do you hear the other person simply saying "I'm coming here today with a totally neutral request to ask you to change your behavior" or do you hear some negative emotion behind that?
Now, let me ask you another question.  
How do you think that someone who has been physically abused by a family member would hear that sentence?  How do you think that someone who has been sexually abused by someone bigger and stronger would hear that?  How do you think that someone who has been emotionally abused by someone close to them would hear that?
What do you think that someone who has been abused hears when they hear the word "hate"?  What do you think they hear when they hear "God hates"?
And what's the relevance of my question?  Well, social scientists believe that at least 33% of women have been abused by someone close to them during their lifetimes and that at least 25% of men have also been similarly abused.  Social scientists also suspect that these numbers may be under-reported.
So, as Christians, do we really want to send the message that "God hates something or someone or even some action" to the 33% of the population who is hurting and most in need of healing?
I can hear some people now objecting that this is the sort of thinking that has led to the wishy-washy, anything-goes abandonment of values that got the world into trouble in the first place.  I think we can take a stance against sin without preaching "God hates" (behaviors or people) and I intend to address that in my next post.  
I'm going to suggest that both sides of this question are at fault:  both the law-and-order advocates as well as the advocates of passivity.  The problem is not that God loves sinners or that God hates sin.  
The problem is that human beings engage in black-and-white thinking and behave in reactionary ways.  Christianity is supposed to encourage wisdom, among other things, so I think it's the duty of Christian teachers to point to wiser ways of behaving.  Wiser than "That's OK, let's not have any rules or boundaries" and wiser than "If we make God look like a Tough Guy, people will be too afraid to sin."