Why Fear is Incompaible with Faith

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A long time ago I wrote a paper called "How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?" I wrote it because I was really struggling with the whole hell thing, and frankly found the way my fellow evangelicals were dealing with it was really insensitive and hurtful. The big issue here is fear, and how Christianity often intentionally cultivates and breeds fear in people.

I recently got a letter from a reader who is struggling with this herself. She tells a story that I'm sure all of us are familiar with,
I recently went to a Campus Crusade event and the guy speaking told a story about how he was in a fraternity. One night his "brother" told him he was feeling down because he had just broke up with his girlfriend, and the man sharing his testimony was saying how he was going to share with his friend about Jesus but was going to wait until later that night. Well long story short his friend died that night in a drunk driving accident. He never said his friend went to hell but he essentially insinuated it by explaining he had the answer and the urgency in sharing the gospel.
The example is actually pretty subtle compared to some of the hellfire presentations many of us I'm sure have heard. The message is only "insinuated" as she says. Yet despite this, it nevertheless plants a seed of fear that has devastating effects, as she goes on to explain, 
"This put me on a trajectory of fear, knowing that my family and most of my friends in my sorority could die in a car accident as well and they could go to hell because I didn't tell them" 
As a result, she says she has "become consumed and scared with the concept of hell." I'm sure that was the intent. After all, if you are consumed with the fear that people are going to hell this will result in a person who is active in evangelizing, right? So why is fear wrong? If the danger is real, shouldn't we cultivate fear?

Absolutely not, and I'll tell you why: If there is one thing I have learned it is that fear is toxic to the soul. Love and fear cannot coexist. Either love will push fear out or fear will push out love. That's why John says, "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear... The one who fears is not made perfect in love" (1 John 4:8). 

To put it bluntly we have a choice between the way of Jesus which is love or the way of the devil which is fear. Fear leads to violence. Fear shuts out love. Fear kills the soul. Fear debilitates and paralyzes. Because of this, being motivated by fear is never good.

This is true regardless of whether there is a legitimate reason to fear or not. People are afraid they won't have enough, and so they steal and kill and dehumanize. People are afraid so they trust in violence and power and guns. When they do that, they are not trusting in the way of Jesus, they are not trusting in love. Fear is un-faith. Fear is anti-faith, anti-love.

So if that's true, why is it that so many Christians cultivate fear? Their concern is that if we don't stir up fear in people then no one would evangelize. But the opposite is in fact the case.  People stop evangelizing when it is fear-based because that's what fear does, it debilitates. Additionally, fear as a motivation to come to God simply does not work. It plants shallow roots so the person who is with God because of fear does not stay (who wants to stay with someone they are terrified of?). In contrast, when the bond is based on love then it can grow deep roots that will last.

Now let's talk about sin and hell: I don't mean the trivial "did you ever tell a lie" nonsense. I mean real harm, real brokenness, real hurt. Do people do really hurtful and horrible things to each other? Yes, they certainly do. Are people hurt and broken? Yes, more than you know. Abuse is real. Rape is real. Starvation is real. War crimes are real. In short, there is a "hell" right here that many people are in the middle of, and that matters, and we should care.

This idea of hell right now is vital because it means we need to care about people's lives right now, and not just about life after death. I believe in that, too, I hope for heaven with all my heart, I long for eternity. But life here matters. People matter. That's why Jesus spent all his time caring for people and their very real needs. When we have a theology that makes all of that a waste of time then we suck the life right out of life. Your life matters, and the life of others matters, too. If we don't see that then we are not loving.

We therefore do need to help people connect with God's love when we can (and that includes caring for their material needs). But if we really want to do that then we need to do it through real relationships. You can't address those kinds of things by handing out a pamphlet. It needs to be deep and real. And it needs to be motivated by love not fear. Love heals people, it makes them come alive. Fear is what drives people to do all sorts of profoundly hurtful things, it is what makes people shut themselves off from love.

The problem with the whole fear-based "if you don't tell your friend about Jesus they will get hit by a truck tonight" argument is that it puts a pressure on us that is really God's alone to carry. It is not our job to save people, that's God's job. It is our job to simply love them as best we can. We need to trust God to save people. But instead we have this messed-up idea that it is all up to us, and God's hands are tied, and because of some ridiculous technicality (not saying a particular prayer, not formulating the doctrine of the Trinity just right, not being born in the right Christian country) they will be tortured forever and ever in an eternal holocaust camp, and it is 100% up to you to prevent the whole thing. That is completely absurd, and frankly it's abusive. It puts us in God's place, placing an insane burden on our necks. How could you love or trust a God like that?

So let's talk about trusting God. The bottom line is that if we are going to trust God, then we need to be able to trust that God is not going to just shrug while the people we love go to hell. We need to trust that God cares more about this than we do. If we are troubled by the idea of people going to hell, that is not because we are "doubting" but because we have the same heart for the lost that Jesus does. That voice of protest in us is Jesus in us. That is God's love in us. God is not less loving than us, God is unimaginably more loving than we are. Paul prays that we would really get a hold of this.

"I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us be the glory." (Eph 3:17-20)
Read that again slowly and really let it sink in. We are to be rooted in love. A love that is so much wider and longer and deeper than we can possibly imagine. And that love is the basis for trusting that God can do "immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine." That is who we are trusting in. That is what our God looks like. That's why Jesus repeatedly said to people "do not be afraid."

Let me conclude with this: People often ask after reading my paper on hell what my "answer" is. First of all, here is NOT what I am saying: I am not saying "God is really loving, and so when people are in hell it will be for their own good." Hell is not good, and God does not want anyone there (whether that means people who are suffering right now or in eternity). Love cannot tolerate hell.

What I want to suggest is that we have a reason for hope. That hope is based on two solid foundations:

First, God's love revealed in Jesus shows that God wants to break everyone out of hell. God loves all of us. As 1 Tim 2:4 says "God wants all people to be saved." That is God's deepest desire.

The second factor is that God is able to save us. The reason I have hope for this is the cross and resurrection. The cross shows God's amazing way of overcoming an unsolvable problem in a crazy upside down way that no one could have imagined. It shows that God can find a way where it seems impossible. It shows that God's love is able to overcome death and hell. It shows that death is not the final word.

So based on those two things together I think we have a solid reason for very real hope. I hope that God is loving enough and creative enough to break through to us in our stupidity. Now, this is a hope, not a certainty. In this life certainty is something we rarely have. What we can do is trust and hope based on the evidence we see. So this is no a baseless hope that amounts to wishful thinking. It is a hope based on he solid ground of who God is in Jesus and what God did in Jesus. In the end it's about trusting God, trusting in love. That hope allows me to love without fear.

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Sin, Guilt, and Psychology: What I Wish All Pastors Knew

Saturday, March 08, 2014

(This article originally appeared in Sojourners)

"Whatever happened to sin?" This complaint is one frequently heard from conservative pastors lamenting that no one wants to hear about sin in a society increasingly repelled by the idea of guilt. We have come to associate guilt today with negative ideas like "guilt-trips," and with feelings of shame. As a result, when the subject of guilt and sin are brought up, our defensive walls go up, too.

This is not just true for liberals or progressives, it equally applies to conservatives, and in fact is simply a characteristic of all human beings. When we feel accused, we react defensively. That's simply a fact of human nature across time, and across cultures. So while conservatives bemoan what they have disparagingly labeled a "culture of victimhood" where everyone can identify as being hurt, but not face up to being the cause of hurting others, this in fact equally applies to conservatives just as much as it does to progressives, or anyone else for that matter. The fact is, all of us find it easy to condemn the other, and tend to see ourselves as innocent victims. Consider for instance how often conservatives portray themselves as being marginalized by society (Fox's annual make-believe "war on Christmas" comes to mind here). Again, this reaction of defensiveness is simply a common human defense mechanism that knows no ideological boundaries. We are all (ahem) guilty of it.

Negative feelings surrounding the idea of shame and guilt have thus become something we are acutely aware of today. Mark Galli, in an article in Christianity Today, notes how this shift has also affected the church:
"It is no coincidence in a society where we imagine ourselves mostly as victims of social or biological forces, in a culture increasingly illiterate in the language of guilt, sin, and personal responsibility, that Christus Victor is winning the day in the Christian world ... for some reason, when the Christus Victor theory is extolled by Protestants today, personal sin and guilt take a back seat ... at least for today's Protestants, it has an uncanny tendency to downplay a sense of personal responsibility, which in the end, sabotages grace."
The immediate context here is the subject of the Christus Victor view of the atonement, which is something I have written about extensively. However, the deeper issue that Galli is addressing here is the widespread societal shift away from a focus on guilt, instead seeing this as something negative and threatening. It's an insightful and intelligent article with some very valid observations, but is Galli correct in his claim that our cultural shift away from the language of guilt goes hand in hand with a "downplay of personal responsibility?"

Our culture's shift around its relationship to shame and guilt can be traced to the broad influence that psychology has had on Western culture over the past century. That is, the reason we have become so sensitized to guilt and shame today in our culture comes from the practical insights of psychologists: As they worked to help people face their hurtful and dysfunctional behaviors, psychotherapists observed that their attempts to help were often met with resistance. Early on Freud referred to this phenomenon as "denial," but regardless of the terminology we use, this is a dynamic therapists have recognized over and over and again because it is, quite simply, one of the most basic elements of human psychology: When we feel threatened we get defensive.

As a result of this dynamic, psychotherapists have found that people actually have struggles on two simultaneous fronts: One struggle is with their negative behavior patterns that hurt themselves and others. The other struggle is the feelings of shame and self-hatred that often accompany these. In fact, the two are frequently intertwined in a destructive spiral where feelings of shame lead to doing things to dull that emotional pain, which then lead to more feelings of shame, and round and round it goes.

As a result of these insights, we have become increasingly aware of the harm that shame and self-loathing can do to us. Consequently educators today learn not to tell kids that they are "bad," but to instead say things like "we don't do that," because we understand the damage that comes from shaming people, and in particular small children. In other words, if our culture has become sensitized to shame, this is actually a good and healthy thing, rather than a problem to bemoan. On the contrary, rejecting feelings of shame and worthlessness, while at the same time taking personal responsibility for our lives, is a clear moral advance.

It also must be said that religion — and here I mean in particular my own religion of Christianity — has often been guilty of exacerbating the problem of shame, rather than helping people break free of it. I say this as a confession, as an admission, as one on the inside attempting to humbly and honestly face what we as the church have done that has hurt people. The fact is, the promoting of shame in the name of religion is demonstrably not good and healthy. As shame and vulnerability researcher Brene Brown explains, "Shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, eating disorders, suicide, violence, and bullying." Yet shame — not the idea that we do dumb things, but the idea that we as people are bad and unworthy — is often championed as going hand in hand with defending the faith. How many of us grew up singing the line of Issac Watt's famous hymn "... for such a worm as I" or reciting prayers echoing those of Charles Spurgeon when he exclaims, "I feel myself to be a lump of unworthiness, a mass of corruption, and a heap of sin, apart from His almighty love?"

The general loss of such sentiment in our culture fuels the frequent lament of many conservative preachers that we are "a culture increasingly illiterate in the language of guilt, sin, and personal responsibility." But again, is it really true that the loss of shame automatically goes hand in hand with a loss of personal responsibility? As far as psychology is concerned, nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, taking hold of one's life is the very cornerstone of recovery and mental health. However, in the face of people's defensive reactions, the practical question psychotherapists find themselves faced with is this: How can we help people to honestly face the things they do which are hurtful, without adding fuel to the fire of shame and self-hate in the process? How can we get to personal responsibility in the context of acceptance and love, rather than making people worse by promoting condemnation? 

The answer they have discovered is that people can only really open up when they feel safe and accepted. This insight is somewhat counterintuitive. Our fear is that if we unconditionally accept someone, this will be taken to mean we are condoning all their hurtful behavior. Don't we need to make it clear that we reject their sin? If we accept people as they are, wont they take this as a license to do whatever they like?

What psychology has found, however, is that when people feel safe and secure, accepted and loved, it is in that place of acceptance that they are finally able to open up and share their vulnerabilities, their hurts, their fears, and their failures. Ironically, it is when we don't focus on sin and guilt, and instead focus on unconditionally loving and accepting people just as they are, that the stage is set for repentance and remorse to actually take place. Creating that "safe-space" of unconditional acceptance allows us to dare to be real, to really open up, to face our darkness together with courage and honesty.

Understanding this dynamic allows us to get past these walls we all put up, and instead get to a place where grace can truly flow. It means getting to real and deep relationships, to healing, and, yes, to repentance and personal responsibility, too. My prayer therefore is that more pastors would learn about these dynamics of basic human psychology. At the end of the day we find psychology is not at all opposed to a healthy faith or morality; it's simply a tool that allows us to understand what is going on in ourselves and others so we don't get stuck there.

When you get right down to it, what it really takes to practice all of this is faith. Not faith in a particular set of doctrinal or creedal statements, but faith in the original sense of the word — as relational trust. That is, we need to actually trust that love is powerful enough to reach a person in a way that fear or threat or condemnation simply cannot. That's what grace is all about.

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