Evangelists make it sound so easy, don’t they? All that is needed in conversation with an unbeliever, they sometimes imply, is to bring them to a point of acknowledging their sin, and the door will swing wide for you to offer them forgiveness and cleansing from that sin. Not long ago, I had a conversation that didn’t quite follow the pattern…
I was talking to someone after an interfaith event who was asking lots of questions about Christianity. We quickly got onto the question of sin and far from being reluctant to admit that she had broken any of the ten commandments, she freely admitted that she had done things wrong and made mistakes, “But,” she said, “God understands that I need to make mistakes because that’s the way you learn and grow.”
Now I’m sure all the evangelists out there will know immediately what I should have said and how I could have led her to the point of salvation in three easy steps, but to be honest the response completely blind-sided me. We talked about God’s standard of perfection, but it just didn’t compute in her brain – it simply wasn’t a conceivable way for the universe to work. People have to make their own mistakes, she thought, that is the only way to grow to maturity, so God can’t possibly expect you not to do anything wrong; that simply can’t be his standard.
I don’t think she’s the only person who thinks like this. It is a huge cultural value for Western societies. In a recent sermon I heard, the preacher pointed out that even Christians will often say – particularly of teenaged children – ‘Well, you have to let them make their own mistakes, don’t you? They’ve just got to find their own way.’
“I think that’s utter rubbish,” the preacher said, “Because if I’m a loving parent and I can see which way my child is going and what’s at the end of that, I will do everything in my power to make sure they don’t go through that.”
Believe it or not, that is a radically counter-cultural, counter-intuitive statement. Not only does it smack of paternalism (a cultural boo-word for a people who undervalue fatherhood), but it offers a direct challenge to the belief that you are the master of your own destiny, and that it is only through self-actualisation that a person reaches his full potential.
It is not only a culturally-defined phenomenon, though, but is a feature of the sin nature – children resist their parents’ instructions and warnings, long before they have been exposed to Western cultural indoctrination. Even as Christians who affirm that God’s way is the only right way, and who seek to follow his way and his will, we can be tempted to reject the warnings and try the ‘broad road’ for ourselves.
One reason for this is that it looks so appealing. We may know that God’s way is the best, but in the buffet of choices, the sin looks far more appealing than the sanctity – we know we ought to eat the salad, but the sweets look so much nicer.
Another reason is that in our arrogance, we think that although this particular sin may have turned out badly for everyone who has gone before, we are different. I am stronger, better. I can handle it/make it work/keep it hidden. I can avoid the consequences, though none before me ever have. It’s the attitude of Westley leading Buttercup into the fire swamp in <em>The Princess Bride</em>. “We’ll never survive!” she cries. “Nonsense,” he responds, “You’re only saying that because no-one ever has.”
They do survive, of course – it wouldn’t be much of a movie if they didn’t – but Buttercup is burned, Westley is mauled by a Rodent Of Unusual Size, and both are half-suffocated by lightning sand. Are they better people because of their wounds? No, they’re wounded people, beaten down, exhausted, and less able to defeat the ‘forces of evil’ who await them at the other side.
This attitude to making our own mistakes is clearly born of arrogance, but so too is the first reason. When we are enticed by the glitter of the temptations we see, when we reject the salad and stuff our mouths with sugary treats, we are in effect declaring that we know better than God, that what he says is the best will not really satisfy us as much as the things we have been warned not to touch. Both reasons for going our own way are born of a view of ourselves which is higher than we deserve, and a view of God which is far lower than he deserves.
That is where I should have taken the conversation above: not to a discussion of God’s perfect standard, but of his perfect love. He is not out to recruit the wisest, most mature, most self-actualised people he can find to join his cause, he is longing to bring his children into relationship with him, and to give them the life they were designed for. He is not on the look out for those who have learned from their mistakes as ones who are worthy of his Kingdom; he is looking for those who will trust and obey him through faith in his word.
No loving parent wants his child to learn by experience that eating dog poop isn’t good for you, or that flames don’t feel as good to touch as they look. Experience may be the quickest, most effective, and most compelling way to learn, but love says it is not the best.
This post first appeared on ThinkTheology.
Picture Credit: ‘Play with Fire’ by Giandomenico Ricci (Creative Commons)