I did a difficult funeral this week. According to the news, a man was found dead in his car, and I was approached to do the funeral. It got me thinking about nature of death. Why do humans die? What is the meaning of that? How is that connected to the meaning of life? How can one of the most fundamental realities of what it means to be human show something of the truth of the Christian faith?
That is what we are going to explore today.
Believe it or not, humans at a genetic level are programed to die.
Believe it or not, there are animals that are not programmed to age and die.
There are animals that are functional immortal. Many turtles don’t age. What they look like at teen-aged years, fully grown, is exactly how they stay. No turtle dies of old age. They just don’t age. Why aren’t we overrun with turtles? Turtles die from disease and from predators. That’s it.
Immortal Jelly fish, aptly named, when injured, tell themselves to reverse age. When a tentacle is bitten off, they revert back to undifferentiated polyp, the goop that they were when they were born, and from there re-mature fully healed. Not only do they not age past maturity, they actually reverse age at will. Amazing isn’t it?
Ocean flatworms have near limitless regenerative capacity. It’s the X-Men’s Wolverine of the ocean world. Remember that scene from that weird Disney movie Fantasia where Mickey Mouse uses magic to cause brooms to become alive and do his house chores? They get out of control, so he starts hacking them to pieces with an axe, only to find that each piece becomes another broom. That’s what flatworms can do. Cut up a flatworm into a dozen little pieces, and it does not die. It regenerates quickly into a dozen clones of that flatworm.
All these animals do not process what is called “senescence” (that is your word of the day), which is the genetic capacity to age.
That’s right, humans, as with most organisms on the planet, are genetically programmed to age and die. This does not make a lot of sense from a purely atheist-materialist point of view. People before they discovered senescence thought that our bodies just wear out like my 2002 Honda Civic is slowly wearing out. They rust; they wear down; they break.
But that rests on the faulty assumption that our bodies are machines. But we are fearfully and wonderfully made. We have somewhere around 37 trillion cells in our bodies. Our cells replenish themselves often. Intestine cells every 4 days; skin cells every few weeks; blood cells every few months. Our bodies are remarkably designed to regenerate itself, but oddly, it is not that these processes wear out against their will as we grow old. Our genes tell themselves to stop.
If physical life is all there is and life is just survival – and more than: that survival of the fittest – the idea that our bodies are designed to age means that humans are essentially a failed species. We could have had the genes of the immortal jellyfish, but we don’t. Too bad for us.
On the other end, consider the tiny organism call a “water bear.” They are only about a few millimeters big, but they are functionally un-killable. They are immune to cold. They can stand minus 270 degrees Celsius (which near absolute zero). It can withstand heat well over boiling point. It can survive in the vacuum of space. It can withstand 6 times more pressure than the bottom of the ocean. It can withstand a dose of radiation several hundred times the lethal dose for a human being.
Yet, water bears ever live past 30. Their bodies, which are otherwise impervious, are designed to stop at 30 years old. Unlike turtles that never die from old age, only from predators, water bears only die from old age, nothing else.
All of this is bring us deeper into the mystery of our own mortality. We were meant to be mortal. God wanted it that way.
“We must all die; we are like water spilt on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again.” (2 Sam. 14:14)
One of the vital ways we can witness the truth of Jesus Christ in our world is by showing how Christian faith makes sense out of the fundamental realities we face as humans. In other words, by looking to our faith, we learn to be more human. When we look to our mortality, a vital part of our humanity – it is as universal a fact as all of us needed to eat and breath – it is really only best understood be the standpoint of Christian faith.
We live in a world that no longer understands death. Because it no longer understands death, it no longer understands living either. Richard Baxter once said characterized the Christian life as the art of dying well. That is learning our mortality and living that reality out in grace, walking with Christ.
Many of us live unaware of our own mortality. The poet Emily Dickinson wrote about this in her famous poem:
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
In moments where death is unexpected, someone close to us, that is when we are reminded that we are finite, mortal people. We don’t like this feeling. We assume we will live on indefinitely, which is of course, not the case.
So, lets do something bizarre this morning, and learn our mortality together.
1. Death as Limit
(a) If humans were created limited, a limited lifespan is good.
The notion that our lives come to an end is not in and of itself a bad thing. As the world was created, day turned to night. Each day ended. That was a good thing. Humans were created. We were created just as limited and finite as creation. Our lives, like the days of the week, were from the start limited.
This is important because there is no biological fact that links mortality to immortality. Plants and animals have been dying well before humans arrived on the scene, these we understand as innocent. God does not punish the leaves of a tree for making them turn and fall in autumn. Life is meant to be limited.
Immortality is found in God alone, this is why the narrative of Genesis chapter two places the Tree of Life alongside of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We don’t have immortality in and of ourselves, we never did. Immortality is our destiny, not our origin. God alone is immortal (1 Tim. 6:16).
In fact, this quest for immortality, any notion of immortality understood apart from God is highly dissuaded in Scripture. The serpent’s temptation was with the allure of immortality apart from God: “Surely you will not die!”
The mythology of the world around Israel is replete with heroes questing to find immortality for themselves by their great prowess whether the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh or the search for the Greek Ambrosia (the fruit that bestows divinity). What is all this but immortality by works, justification by works?
Israel rejected this. Humanity is created by God. We dare not assert ourselves as the Creator. So, the fact that our live have limits calls us deeper into dependence on the one who is unlimited. Our work presupposes God’s provision; our prayer presupposes God’s providence. We are dependent; God is absolute.
In fact, the limited age of humanity is seen as a means God uses to curb sin. As the demi-god-like Nephilim corrupted humanity, God restrains the life of humanity to 120 years (Gen. 6:3).
(b) Living forever in this life is never understood to be an ideal for God’s people.
Yet, we humans are still searching for it, not with religion as we would think of it, but with technology.
Even at the highest of the conception of a “good life” Israel shied away of thinking in terms of immortality. The biblical ideal for this life was a “ripe old age” or “full of day” where one walked with God. Job is granted life to 140 years (Job 42:17- that’s 20 years more than the limit, by the way).
There are efforts to cryogenically freeze individuals. Cryonics Institute charges just $28,000 (that cheaper than some funerals!) at time of death to cryogenically preserve a body, to be revived at some future date when it becomes possible.
Neuroscientist Kenneth Hayworth believes we will be able to transfer the human mind to a computer by 2110. That kind of feels like a movie starring Johnny Depp. I wonder how that will end up?
Technology has become the god and religion of the modern world: we place our trust in it like cave-people placed their trust in statutes of gold.
It is not a good thing. One thinks of the fiction of Jonathan Swift. In his book Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver discovers strange fantastic world that teaches him profound moral truths. One place he stumbles upon has a group of individual that have discovered a fountain of immortality. Tempted to drink of it, he then surveys the group, realizing that many of them are unthinkably miserable, clinging to the quantity of their lifespan at the expense of all quality. At this point, Gulliver pours out his cup of immortal water and departs.
He concludes that a short and good life is better than an infinite one.
(c) The limited nature of our lives remind us that life is a gift.
If life is a gift, there is a gift giver. Reject the giver, and we will become increasingly unable to recognize all life as a gift.
This notion of the goodness of life is growing increasingly in doubt. We face a culture of death. As I said, in forgetting the meaning of death, we have forgotten the meaning of life.
If life is just survival and pleasure or achievement, than means a lot of our lives are not worth that much. We are seeing suicide at levels that should equate them with pandemic.
According to Statistic Canada, “In Canada, suicide accounts for 24 percent of all deaths among 15-24 year olds and 16 percent among 16-44 year olds. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Canadians between the ages of 10 and 24. Seventy-three percent of hospital admissions for attempted suicide are for people between the ages of 15 and 44.”
We are facing a pandemic of meaninglessness in life. Worse still, our government as not been diligent to combat this. Our church was one of many that sent petitions that protested the assisted suicide bill, pleaded that at any rate, there needs to be a clause for consciousness objectors in the medical establishment. The Trudeau government did not even allow for that.
Now, anyone that faces suicide, especially in cases of terminal illness, needs compassion and support, but I worry assisted suicide makes a judgment call on the “value” of life. In Holland, which has had euthanasia laws for a while now, reports that some doctors now have recommended suicide to people with mental illness because there conditions are “insufferable.”
Where do we draw the line here? I don’t think we can. Should we see people with exceptional needs as having a lower value than those that are fully able-bodied and able-mined. Is that where we see human value? Christians see human life in the image of God, created with inherent dignity, such that to living in fellowship with people with exceptional needs is a joy, not a burden.
I think these laws for assisted suicide are symptomatic of a growing awareness that apart from God, we don’t know how to understand all life as having value, even in time of pain and difficulty. We care for people because all life as value; we allow ourselves to be cared for (a difficult truth for us autonomous modern individuals) because we cherish the opportunity to live another moment alongside God and God’s children in this life.
Because we have forgotten the meaning of our mortality, how we are designed for something, someone, more, we have lost the ability to live.
2. Death as Sin
Life as merely limited is good, but we are fallen humans. We are all born into a world where sin has had its way. So, we cannot think about death apart from its tragic, fallen state. Why is death sad? It is because of sin. “The wages of sin is death” says Romans 6:23.
This is important. God is concerned with our bodily well being, but there are things more important than the mere physical: seeking the kingdom of heaven is more important that food and clothing says Jesus. The opposite of this pursuit is death, true death.
(a) Sin is understood as death worse that physical dead.
This goes right back to the Garden of Eden. Notice that the warning of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is that you will “surely die” but it is not like Adam and Eve died as soon as they ate it. What did they do? They felt the shame of being distant from God.
God comes down and tells them the consequences of their idolatry: men must toil, but inevitably they will return to the dust, women have lost their primal equality with men, and just as the toil of men remind them of their mortality (their inability to be immortal) so also the reproductive cycles of women (it is a truth that we are less aware of since birth has become so much safer now). Their physical mortality is seen in light of their shame and idolatry. You have tried to be your own gods? You will fail. That’s the consequences.
Like I said, there is nothing wrong with being finite, limited creatures, but when we try to surmount our place as creatures, the true death is to live apart from God. Often the Apostle Paul talks about being “dead in our sins” (ex. Eph. 2:1, 5; Col. 2:13). This is important, the Bible considers any moment of physical life lived apart from God to be true death.
In all of this, Adam and Eve lose relationship with God in the Garden, and are exiled. This is an archetypal way of saying we all lose our innocence when we turn from God. We are all born mortal; we are all born into sinful existence, but there is a point that Christ never underwent but we do, a point where we embrace that sin for ourselves, and that is the point when we embrace true death.
This is where physical death and spiritual death are connected. Since we all have fallen and turned from God, the limit of our lives is seen with fear. This fear comes from understanding the limit of our lives through our quest for own immortality (which we will fail at, as our mortality reminds) and through our own disobedience.
The funerals that I have done where the person was not a very good person, have been the most bitter. There is unresolved pain on the part of their loved ones, regret and resentment. Death becomes the terminal reminder of the unfixed brokenness of their relationships.
Understood apart for God, the end point of our lives is anguish. The presence of a loved one’s life is now absent, a vacuum of meaning, propelling all the bizarre emotions of grief. Grief is a weird thing. You can feel happiness over the joyful memories of a loved one’s life, then sadness over them not being around anymore. You can feel gratitude over the gift of their life, then anger and guilt over the “what if’s” of not cherishing them more. The weird thing about grief is that you can feel all these emotions all at once. If you have ever lost a loved one close to you, you know what I am talking about.
(b) It is because of this pain of death that all people, Christian or otherwise, see death as an obstacle.
This is important because from a purely materialist point of view, we humans die and that is it. It is a biological fact, and if science is the only way to see the world, it is a fact that we just need to accept. Why is it preferable to live versus no life if both are biological facts? Why does life have any more value than things that are inanimate? There is no ultimate answer in that scheme. Like Is said, it is only through the lens of faith that the bitterness of death even makes sense.
Christians see death as something that does not belong in this world ultimately. We are mortal, yes, but God wants to bring us into something more than that, after that. It is then that death is seen as an enemy, getting in the way of the fullness of life God wants for us:
The dead do not praise the Lord,
Nor do any that go down into silence.
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
Or your faithfulness in destruction?
Are you wonders known in the darkness
Or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
It is natural for all people, Christian or otherwise, to fear death, but for different reasons. Fear of death has driven humans to do wonderful and terrible things. Wonderful things like build civilizations, organizing ourselves to protect ourselves from disaster, invent medicine, develop structures that ensure common good and well-being, etc.
It has also caused us to do terrible things. We have tried to find immortality apart from God. Men have deified themselves through technology as I just said.
Here is a question: what if scientists do uncover the gene that stops senescence, that stops aging? What if they are able to procure immortality? Does that render what we are thinking about null and void? Does that make God unnecessary?
Sadly, I think some people look to God as their “fire insurance.” They love God not because of who he is, but what they can get out of him. God is the cosmic “get out of jail free card,” the divine equivalent of death insurance. If that is your reason for believing in God, then ya, that would be a crisis.
But consider the prayer of St. Teresa of Avila: “If there were no heaven I would still love you; and if there were no hell, I would still fear you.” In other words, Avila calls us to love God because God is God. We do not love our children for what we “get out of them,” we love because of the goodness of love.
Refusing to love God, for any moment, is death. It is death worse than physical death. The greatest tragedy is not our lives coming to an end (our lives were at some point meant to do that), but the true tragedy is any life spent apart from God. That is death right now.
This is important for us now: Do we know that true life is living every moment with God here and now?
On the flipside, are you ready to get rid of the death in your life, the things that your have been keep from God, the sin in your life, and commit it to God? Are you ready to walk with God in a new way today?
This bring us to my last point..,
3. Death as opportunity
(a) We need God to reveal himself as a God that is with us.
We remind people of this often iat funerals. They might like the idea that God saves us or that there is an afterlife, they probably assume that from their religious upbringing that they have fallen away from. So, I recall them to the need to stand on revelation. We know our loved ones are with God because of how he reveals himself. God reveals himself to be love that is present to us in all the darkness of life and death: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death you are with me!” says Psalm 23. David knew this because he walked with God. David also says in Psalm 139:
You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
In Jesus, God is with us in our sin and death. God became flesh, God took on our humanity, even our mortality. He was not born, immortal. That is important as well. Humans were always limited and mortal, even Adam before he fell. How do we know this? Because even the second Adam was mortal. He did this to show us true humanity in the face of mortality. God loves us in all the moments of life.
(b) Jesus has taken on the wages of sin to bring us life.
Jesus gladly bore the curse of the law, the consequences of sin to show that God’s will for us is mercy and grace. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13).
As physical and spiritual death are connected, Christ gladly bore both at the cross. Whenever we think our lives are worthless, that we have done unforgivable things, that all we deserve is death, God tells us in Jesus Christ “I will gladly die your death to bring you life.” Thus we can say, as paul reminds us,
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
How do we know God loves us? Because he showed us that he would die for us. He loves us more than his very life. How do we know death is not the end? The Father rose Jesus from the grave.
The cross cannot be understood without the resurrection. Death has been defeated in Christ, because the Father raised up the messiah. In Jesus, something amazing has happened on Easter morning. God is present to us, even in our physical deaths, such that death has been disarmed. The cosmic nothingness of death was brought into the being of God and surmounted into the joy of new creation. Resurrection is the vindication of Christ’s life and death.
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15)
(c) This turns physical death into just another moment to walk with God
Do you know God is with you even in your darkest moments? Knowing this, walking with Jesus, knowing we have eternal life, reshapes our perspective on life such that we greet every moment as opportunism to walk with him.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life” says Jesus (John 14:6). Nothing else beside that is consider true living.
It is so important that Paul would even say, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Funny thing, I know a friend of mine in high school, who we went on to study together to be pastors. He put that as his quote in his high school yearbook. people were worried that he was suicidal.
That is not literally true, but metaphorically. In Christian life, we “die” to our old selves. “Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus,” says Romans 6:11. We die to our sins in baptism, to start living resurrection life, eternal life now.
Every moment you are dying, but I a good way, when you choose to embrace new life in Christ. Paul uses this metaphor, because it is hard. Giving up the past is hard. You have to leave it behind. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” says John 12:24.
(d) Death, the fear of death no longer stops us from doing what is right.
Death was the weapon of fear, used by tyrants to keep people in line. Death was the cause of fear, propelling Israel to seek immortality in idolatry.
In Jesus, death became a path to righteousness and true life. Jesus used the instance of death as a way of being faithful to the Father. Jesus used the instance of the oppressive Romans executing him, the instance of the Jews abandoning him, to show a way greater than hate, violence, and despair. As the murdered him, he prayed for their forgiveness, non-violent, self-sacrificial love for his enemies.
This is a similar calling we must take up.
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? (Matt. 16:24-26)
The great martyrs of our faith refused to see the fear of death as obstacle to witnessing for Christ. They became opportunities to be faithful no matter what. God gave his life for us, so how can be give anything less than our entire life for him? As the Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier (d. 1528) cried out as authorities burned him alive, “Truth is immortal.” He could have renounced his faith, trying to live on a little longer. Perhaps repent of that later, knowing Christ might forgive him. That would be to miss out, not on physical life, but true life: living completely with Christ, even to the point of the privilege – no other word will do – of bearing our own cross. This is the truth that is immortal. That is, knowing Christ and witnessing his truth, is worth far more than preserving our physical lives at the expense of faithfulness.
This is the truth that we must live. Whether we face physical illness, mental illness, disability, old age, or worse persecution and the threat of martyrdom. Living is for Christ and to die is gain.
Someone asked me whether I like doing weddings more than funerals as a joke. I said, that is not always the case. I funeral for a person who has walked with the Lord their whole life is actually really pretty. There life is so encouraging. It is a celebration of life.
For many people I know, death has already been defeated. They live joyously with the Lord such that whatever life brings them, including the end of life, is just another opportunity to love the Lord. It is here that the truth of the Scripture ring out
Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? (1 Cor. 15:55)
(e) So, we live in hope for the restoration of all things.
The earliest statement of Christian hope is in Acts 3:21: the disciples await God to return to restore all things. All that has gone wrong in this world, God promises to be put right again and then some. That is the total victory of God over sin that the cross signifies.
God promises to mature this world beyond death, to restore it into the universe he wants it to be. One day, Revelation envisions,
Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Rev. 21:3-4).
Some doubt whether God will do this, but we know that the God that brought this world into creation, has the capacity to bring it into New Creation. The God that defeated death in the resurrection wants to do something like this with all life. But God does not want to make that happen by just snapping his fingers. He wants to use his children, his way (self-sacrificial love) to bring this world fulling into his kingdom.
So, the question now is how will you live out true life? How will you live out true hope?
May you know the goodness of every moment spent depending on God your Creator
May you know that in Christ, God has defeated sin, death and the devil
May you trust that now, living out the power of the resurrection out now, awaiting the restoration of all things.
Amen, go in peace.
Some of the most important sermons a pastor can preach, as I have learned, are the ones that were written for himself. Today’s sermon was written for me. I needed this sermon this week. Undoubtedly, you might need to hear this word too.
In the 1930s, Hans Selye, an endocrinologist (that’s a doctor that looks at hormones in the body), was the first doctor to name perhaps a term that is sadly a pervasive term in our modern way of life: stress.
He was the first to realize that humans can have physical reactions to emotional worry. We are psychosomatic unities – that’s the technical way of saying that what happens in our minds and hearts effects everything else.
Before Selye, doctors treated people like machines. We are not machines. Selye found that worry can do all sorts of things: cause illness, abdominal pain, insomnia, etc.
I think Selye’s point implies the solution too: If worry over the world can cause physical stress, peace in Christ can bring us out of stress. What’s in our heads affects our bodies and what is in our hearts affects our heads.
As we rest in who Jesus is, we have peace in the face of worry.
What advice does Scripture give for those facing worry? Let’s look at Philippians 4:4–7:
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
1. “Rejoice at all times”
I will say it again rejoice! We need to remember that when Paul wrote this he was in prison, awaiting trial. Paul would eventually suffer the death penalty for being a Christian. He was not unaccustomed to difficult circumstances. He had a lot to worry about and nothing but time to worry.
In Acts 16, Paul is recording as being stuck in prison, beaten and threatened with death, and yet, he sang songs of joy. It bewildered the prison guards. Those prison bars could not contain his joy. Being beating for doing the work of the Gospel could not get him down. It brought him up.
Yet he says rejoice at all times. Why? Was it because Paul was such a positive person?
Jesus said to his disciples in Luke, “Rejoice because your names are written in the book of life.”
Paul similarly says, “because Jesus is near.” He is close to us.
For Paul, no matter what has happened or is happening, Jesus Christ has risen from the grave.
Jesus Christ is with his people in his presence and love.
Jesus Christ has given him eternal life.
Knowledge of our salvation means we can greet every moment as the gift that it is, even if it is full of challenges. Every moment, even the worst of moments, are still moments with Christ.
Worry fundamentally detracts from the truth that every moment is a gift.
“Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow; it only saps today of its joy” – Leo Buscaglia
2. In times of trouble, be gentle.
It says, “Let your gentleness be evident to all.”
Why would Paul go from talking about rejoicing to exhorting gentleness?
Anyone who goes through stress knows why: When you are stressed, when you have worry, you are irritable. You are on edge. Additional problems, even small ones, can push you over the edge. Then you dump your frustration on someone.
And so, Paul encourages us to be gentle. Our world, our lives our messy and unpredictable. That is why we need to trust God’s grace and that is why we need to be gentle with each other.
Perhaps you have a stressful job, so you bring the stress home. Perhaps you have a stressful family life, so you bring it to work. Perhaps you take your stress out on your spouse; perhaps it is on those that work for you. This is why Paul emphasizes having gentleness on everyone. If you have one person you treat as a whipping boy, that is not true gentleness.
Are you gentle to others when your stressed? Or do you use stress as an excuse to treat people worse? People are really irritable when they drive. They also in thought aren’t all that gentle to people that, for instance, cut them off. If I am driving somewhere, and I am running late. If I get cut off, I don’t know what it is, but I automatically assume the person that did that is just the worst human being in the world. Do you do that too?
Here is the thing. I’ve caught himself driving, whether I miss a sign or something, and accidentally cut someone off. I give myself the benefit of the doubt. “I hope they knew I was in a rush or lost or something.” That’s a double standard. Anyone ever thought that?
Our world, our lives our messy and unpredictable. That is why we need to trust God’s grace and that is why we need to be gentle with each other.
Why have grace and gentleness on others? Paul gives another reason: Jesus is near to us. Jesus is our cure for worry, bringing us to joy. Jesus is also our model: in times of worry, be gentle like him.
Why should you be gentle in times of great trial? Because that is how Jesus responded to the anguish of the cross.
The worry of being betrayed, of being tortured, of being put to death by the most excruciating means possible by that day, – all with the possibility that the greatest tragedy would be for him to seek to preserve his life and fail in being obedient to the father’s will.
Jesus sweat tears of blood in the garden. Yet, his response to an unjust arrest was to heal one of his attackers.
His response to false accusations was honesty and even silence.
In the midst of people killing him, he had the gentleness to pray for their forgiveness.
Jesus knows a bit about what worry looks like, and in that chaos he was truly and perfectly gentle.
Gentleness gets portrayed as a vice of the weak in our fast-paced world. Be a shark, a go-getter, not a push-over. Be ruthless and assertive, not humble and selfless. Gentleness is synonymous with the cowardly.
But there is nothing more powerful in the world than gentleness.
3. Don’t Worry…Pray
6 Do not be anxious [or don’t worry] about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God
I remember one of the worst times of worry in my life was just after my father died when I was in college. I felt lost. I could not find a job (he passed right at the beginning of the summer, when you go and hunt for student jobs). I was back on rent. I remember eating just cans of tuna for dinner, because that is all I had to eat.
I remember enrolling in school for the fall at Heritage College, and thinking to myself, if I don’t get OSAP, that is a government student loan, I don’t have a way of paying for my education.
I got a job working at Tim Horton’s night shift. That was kind of depressing too. I had graduated with my undergrad and beginning a master’s degree and the only job I could find was a Tim Horton’s night shift position. Night shift is either busy in all the ways you don’t want it: dealing with drunk people that wander in wanting coffee to sober up or it’s the opposite: It is mind-numbingly quiet. That made me worry about my future.
All of it gave me a terrible sense of worry. I remember working away always having this heavy felling in my chest. I remember not being particularly hungry because my stomach always felt wrenched. This is what stress can do, as I said. We are holistic beings and what happens in our heads effects our bodies.
I learned a few things about financial stress. First is that when you are stressed out about money, you realize just how little in your life is actually necessary.
The opposite of rich is not poor. It is simply enough.
Second, I was reminded of the blessings of community. When I was stuck doing these really lonely nigh shifts, one thing that was really nice was that I had a few other friends that worked nigh shifts at other places: grocery stories and at a hotel. We would get together. He didn’t do much since there is nothing open late at night, but we just had fun together.
We would go for walks and talk. Since I would sleep doing the day and be awake at night our days were nights. We would walk around at 3 or 4 in the morning. It almost felt like you were in an apocalyptic movie scene. The city was so still: not car on the highway. I ended up finding it very peaceful.
Third, oddly when we have nothing, we can have moments where we feel far from God. Where are you God? – but also closeness with Christ. Christ had nothing in this life. He was a traveling preacher that did not own any land. He lived in poverty. He merely trusted his Father.
It is bizarre, but we can greet difficult instances in life with a similar mentality. Oh shucks…now I have to realize that I was always completely dependent on God anyway!
Some situations of worry are merely situations presented to us to emulate Christ.
What do you worry about? What is your biggest worry? Can you accept that as an instance where – just like the rest of life – we are totally dependent on God anyway?
Do not be anxious [don’t worry] about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God
Now, I have learned as a husband that saying to my wife, “Don’t worry” does not really help when my wife is worried. It does not help to say to a sad person, “Be happy!”
Just saying you should stop worrying is often completely unhelpful. You can try to will yourself into not worrying. You can try to distract yourself, which is just suppressing worry that is still there. Or you can do something that dissolves the worry.
Paul recommends prayer.
Have you brought your worries before God in prayer?
Sometimes when I worry I forget to prayer. What is the use of prayer?
“…by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” It can be translated more literally as, “make known your requests to God.” That is an odd way of saying it. God is said to know what we need even before we ask, so why does Paul speak as if God does not know here?
Do you have important news and you realize there is a pecking order to who first should find out and how should hear it directly from you rather than someone else.
If my brother or sister found out Meagan was having twins through the grapevine, they would be insulted. Why? Relationship demands communication.
God knows what we need, but he wants to hear it from us. He loves listening to us. He wants to be close to us. He knows that the very act of committing that thing you are worried about to him in prayer, is itself a solution.
“The answer to prayer is prayer itself” – P.T. Forsyth
Often we come to prayer wanting the world to change, but then we realize prayer changes us.
If you want the world to be at peace, your soul has to be at peace first.
If you want the world to become more loving, your soul has to be filled with love first.
The only way your heart is going to be any different from the world that it is in is if it is in a restored relationship with God.
My dad taught me a saying, “When you start worrying, you stop trusting.” The only way to trust more first begins in praying more.
4. You will have peace
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
I love that image that this peace guards us. Like an umbrella in a rainy day, like a shield against arrows, God’s peace in us guards us.
I remember being stressed out in college about my father passing, about money and not having a job and not knowing what to do for school.
I distinctly remember sitting on the porch of the house I lived at. I remember praying and slowly giving every worry over to God. In the midst of all of it, I remember thinking, one way or another, I know I am good. One way or another, God is still good. One way or another, life is still good. One way or another, I will always keep following Christ’s way of goodness.
I remember feeling that peace that passes all understanding. I remember the heaviness in my chest lifting. It was like a pain killer just kicked in (only better!), it was so dramatic.
Have you experienced the peace of God that surpasses all understanding?
Like I said, it is only thought prayer. Have you given your problems over to God?
Have you committed to following him no matter what? A clear conscience is peace of mind. Paul says this peace will guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Paul is talking in the context of serving God here. As you commit to following Christ – knowing that this is better than any other way – I think you will know a certain peace of mind and conscience.
I am going to be a father to twins. Five kids.
There was a couple in my church in Bradford who had twins. I remember thinking, knowing that twins have to usually run in the family: “Jeez, I’m glad that won’t happen to me!”
Or we knew a family of five kids. I remember thinking, “Those people must be crazy.” I am going to be one of those people now.
I was at the house Tuesday, working on the sermon for this Sunday in my study, when Meagan called me from the ultrasound. She was really flustered. “Are you sitting down?” My heart sank. My immediate gut-instinct was that there was something wrong with the baby.
When she said, “we are having twins” I remember my stomach wrenching. I paced around my house bewildered.
I immediately texted my pastor-friend, Jason Tripp. Back in April, just after we found out that we were having a baby, but we had not told anyone yet, he texted me saying that he had a funny dream in which we were having twins. Isn’t that freaky? I had to ask him, “Did you happen to see any winning lottery numbers in the background as well?”
I had to ponder the meaning of all this. I was not so uncritical as to see it as a prophesy at the time, but perhaps God was just trying to warm us up to the idea in advance. God was just trying to remind us that this is apart of God’s plan.
That still does not stop you from worrying though.
Are we going to need a new van? How are we going to fit all these kids in our house? If it wasn’t noisy enough!
How am I going to balance work and home with Meagan?
Meagan had a midwife appointment right after that. Apparently at the midwife, the midwife told stories of woman who decided to have more kids expectantly getting chastised by their friends for not having abortions.
We live in that kind of age. But like I said, if our God is a God of life, then the most peaceful way of living is a way that embraces life. If life is a gift, in the biblical mindset, we cannot help but greet even unexpected instances of human life as something to cherish and celebrate.
It did not take long for my worries to turn to rejoicing. But it was not till later that night where peace really set in. I remember siting on my back deck late at night thinking. The stars were out. I was doing some reading. Reading often calms me down. The whole occasion continuously moved me into conversation in prayer.
I remember sitting there in the peace of the night feeling that peace that passes understanding.
You know what, with God, we are okay.
Father, I know that this gift of life is from you.
Father, I know that it is a blessing.
Father, I know that doing your will is the best way to live.
Father, I know you will take care of us.
That is how I overcame worry this week: Rejoice, be gentle, know that Christ is near, pray, and be at peace.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. – Romans 15:13
So, if you have been tracking with this review, I began by summarizing the story of The Shack and remarking how I simply do not see a lot that people should be upset about. It is robustly trinitarian, Christ-oriented, a free-will theology with forgiveness at the centre. It is a narrative written by a man who obviously does love Jesus, and has an amazing testimony of working to understand that through pain and suffering and brokenness.
In my second part, I noted that The Shack has gotten a lot of bad criticism. I think a lot of this comes from a mentality similar to the fundamentalist one I had, so I offered bits of autobiographical information where I noted the irony that much of what I thought was “conservative” in my more narrow tradition of upbringing, ironically, when I started reading broader in the tradition, was found to be unorthodox. Here we will explore some of the objections to The Shack to point that out.
Here we go… Allow me to put on my theologian hat, since technical objections warrant technical responses.
God as a mother: God appears as a woman named Papa. Some people lost their minds about this. However, the Bible does use motherly imagery, which I argue at length here. And it is important to note that if a mother’s love and femininity are good, they can and should be used to communicate God’s love and goodness. The same God is a shepherd, a warrior, a rock, and a fire. To refuse to use these metaphors undermines the goodness of women and replaces God’s love with patriarchy. Notably, there have been accepted teachers of the church, like St. Julian of Norwich, a gifted mystic, who records theological vision of God as mother in her Revelations of Divine Love. In The Shack, God appears as a woman, but that is because God appears to Mack, who had an abusive father, with the love that he already understood. By the end of the book, after Mack forgives his father, Papa appears as a father as well.
Non-hierarchical nature of the trinity: Some got upset at the idea that the trinity in The Shack is submissive to each other, Father to Son, Son to Spirit, etc. While Scripture does have the Father directing the Son, who in turn responds obediently, that is just one contour. Jesus is the Word of the Father, such that when you look at Jesus, you see the Father. Their identities converge. The Son has no authority but the Father’s, but the Father has no Word but the Son. John 17, one of the most clear passages of trinitarian relations in the New Testament, has Jesus saying that the Father is in him and he is in the Father. They glorify each other. It is reciprocal and reflexive, not one-sided. It is language of mutual possession similar to Song of Songs, “I am my beloved and he is mine,” or the mutual ownership of 1 Cor. 7:4. St. John of Damascus noted that the persons of the trinity are not individuals, but are persons through each other, thus an inherent mutually and equality is implied. Augustine and Athanasius both insisted what the one member of the trinity has and does, they all do together. This is enshrined in the Athanasian Creed. To depict mutual submission in the trinity, I think, is getting at the unity and mutuality of the trinity that the greatest trinitarian thinkers have affirmed.
Constructing a hierarchy between Father and Son is quite dangerous. It is often used to legitimate hierarchy between men and women, which is easily abused. Often, those that support this hierarchy also deny that there are women leaders in the Bible. It is very problematic when it comes to the cross as we will see, but it falls into a kind of sub-ordinationism. If God is God because he is sovereign and has authority, if you define God that way, then the Father has sovereignty and authority over the Son, effectively making him more “God” than the Son, which is why St. Athanasius resisted that so heavily. Does not the submission of Christ in his love, the tenderness of Christ on the cross show God as well? There is nothing the Father has that the Son does not. This also makes the death of Jesus, his weakness of the cross, a scandal to God. That is obviously a problem…
Not penal substitutionary atonement?: As I said, the unity of God in the trinity is very important. It is especially so for the view of the cross. Young wisely depicted the Father as having the marks of the nails. He is reminding us, perhaps unwittingly, of Augustine’s dictum: what one member does, they do together. Obviously not all of God died, or else there would be no resurrection, but the cross was a trinitarian act. The cross shows the entire character of God. If Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God, there is no God that can be known apart from the cross. Father, Spirit, and Son are cruciform love.
Young seems critical of what is called penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). Now, all Christians hold that the death of Jesus saves us from our sins, but there are many particular theories about how this happens. PSA is complex parsing of the atonement that emerged in the theology of the reformers like John Calvin. At its most basic, it holds that God had to kill a substitute, namely Jesus, in order to atone for sin. It is largely absent in the early church because they used other readings, notably a kind of ransom view. So, historically, there is more than one way to read the work of the cross.
Personally, I resist using language of PSA, not because there aren’t any passages that suggest aspects of it (like Gal. 3:13), but because the cross is understood by several metaphors and strands of logic, each valid: obedience, military , sacrifice, priestly, legal, ransom, economic, kinsman redeemer, etc. They are distinct but overlap, and offering one grand theory often sloppily forces the proverbial circle into the square hole. There is substitution imagery and sacrifice imagery that has nothing to do with punishment. In the OT, it is not commonly understood that the animal sacrifice (or grain for that matter!) is being punished in the person’s stead. If Genesis 22 has anything to say, it speaks more about God already in his mercy providing than God in his wrath needing something to punish. The sacrifice was not for God, but for human conscience (Heb. 9), cleansing guilt. Shedding of blood has everything to do with sealing an new covenant and cleansing, not necessarily punishing something. In Mark 2, Jesus is able to forgive sin by mere pronouncement, no sacrifice necessary, so the logic of crucifixion rests elsewhere.
I find there are a number of scriptural themes that PSA does not incorporate well. No one ever talks about how Jesus lifted up is a means of healing like the bronze serpent (John 3:14). It becomes extraneous. The fact that the cross discloses Jesus as the King of the Jews (God’s messianic identity), the Son of Man and Son of God, the true Prophet and Priest, all in event of the New Exodus, New Passover, the day of the in-breaking kingdom (Daniel 7), all that is shoved off as the husk to be peeled back to get to PSA. If it is skin and not backbone, why are these themes the very substance of the narrative in the four Gospels? The New Testament does not think in “theories.” It thinks in rich figures.
The Gospel of Mark fundamentally understands the cross as something Jesus’ disciples must do as well, which I find PSA often undermines (the cross is something only Jesus as sinless does). In Mark, Jesus is not propitiating God; he is giving a ransom to the dark powers, redeeming people from demonic slavery (Mark 10:45). And if the punishment of sin is merely death, there is no reason why Jesus had to die on a cross or be tortured. He could have died at home in his bed. Jesus is living out his teaching of becoming last for his disciples to follow, forgiving when sinned against in the most ultimate way, against the demonic forces of betrayal (the people/disciples), religious hypocrisy (the temple), and empire (Rome). It showed that God’s character and our character is not one where we inflict eye-for-eye, but turns the other cheek and blesses our enemies (this is central to Peter’s atonement theology in 1 Peter 2:20-25). This kind of love is the in breaking of the kingdom of heaven itself. Many conservatives miss that for the New Testament and the early church, unanimously, the cross was teaching Christians non-violence as the primary response to evil (see Ron Sider’s book).
Perhaps that is too complex for some. Let’s just stick with one reading. Young, I think, helps those that hold to a PSA word the doctrine more carefully (for an excellent modern statement of PSA, people should read Pannenberg’s in his Systematic Theology). Pop PSA too often makes God the problem, and no one should be happy about that. The cross came to heal us, not fix God’s wrath. The cross is not Jesus in his love saving us from the wrath of God the Father. Jesus is providing a way that we are not punished ultimately, yes, but it is not Jesus saving us from the Father. This severs God’s being. All of God is loving, including the Father, and all of God can be wrathful, including Jesus.
The Father did not abandon Jesus on the cross. This misunderstands Psalm 22, which is not about a sinner but about the persecuted righteous, the messiah, crying out to God for vindication (which the resurrection answers). This was important to the martyrs of the early church. The cross is the call to martyrdom (this is why Stephen’s stoning in Acts mirrors Jesus’ crucifixion in Acts), and the martyrs will enter eternal life. The Cross is Jesus’ way, God’s way, and also our way. It is the way to heaven.
God was fully present in Jesus at the cross. God was at one with sinners as the Son is showing the cross-shaped love of the Father for sinners. God in his love, one with Jesus, bore the penalty of the law, which was not functioning according to God’s will for it (so says Galatians – it was hijacked to only create condemnation, not grace). This tangibly shows that our sins were forgiven, that God loves sinners, and Jesus rose from the grace on the third day to show that the curse of death had been beaten. This is why the gospel has everything to do with the resurrection in Acts 13. So, here Young I think invites us all to word our doctrines of atonement better.
Religious inclusivism: The Jesus character in The Shack references how he is using all systems of religion and thought to being people to the Father. Some accused Young of pluralism. I think this is simple missional contextualization. God meets us where we are at, using the concepts we are used to. Think Don Richardson’s Peace Child.
If it is not that, I would insist, that some kind of religious inclusivism (that God’s mercy does extend beyond the bounds of the church) is completely acceptable. I would point out that religious inclusivism is implied in Acts 17, where Paul insists the Athenians are actually worshiping God already as the “unknown god” on one of their altars. Paul then invites them to put away idols and see God more clearly in Christ. He even quotes a pagan poet as evidence of this truth, that all people are God’s children. The Bible has an intuitive awareness that there are those that are outside the covenantal relationship with God that do in fact get it and do in some way participate in the kingdom of God, whether Melchizedek in the OT or the centurion in the NT. This does not undermine the missionary call of the church to make Christ fully known. While Christ is the only way, St. Justin Martyr, a second century apologist, held that if the Logos is eternal, ever-present, he is using all things everywhere to bring people into knowledge of himself. If they do not hear of Jesus explicitly, it makes sense that God, in his mercy, would judge them according to the amount of his truth they were told and accepted. There are, of course, difficulties with this view, but no more than the assertion that those who have never heard the Gospel will perish without any chance of believing. Call it liberalism if you want, but at the end of the day, inclusivism is the oldest view of the church, espoused by a man, one of the first public defenders of the faith, who also gave his life for the faith.
God as universal father: Central to Young’s theodicy is that God is a loving father to all people, trying to bring even Missy’s murderer to repentance. There are some that deny this truth despite it being explicit in Acts 17. Clearly they have never read Athanasius, On the Incarnation, who sees God universal fatherly love as part and parcel with the incarnation. I would argue this truth is the bedrock of Old Testament ethics and central to the Gospel as Paul sees it in Acts 17. I have argued for it at length here.
Universalism: The final objection I saw is that The Shack is universalist. This is true, not going to deny that. Young is a universalist, but I would point out that there are forms of universalism that are considered historically orthodox. Only one form was condemned at the Council of Constantinople. It was highly speculative and relativistic: “God will save everyone, so who cares!” There are noteworthy universalists that were upheld as orthodox like Gregory of Nyssa or Julian of Norwich. Norwich held to a hope that “All will be well.” It was a universalism of mere prayerful hope, which i think most of us do have, particularly at funerals where someone died under tragic circumstances. At the end of the day, we are all in God’s merciful hands, and we pray that the mercy we were shown as sinners will be the same shown to everyone else.
Nyssa is a more important case. Many western believers do not know him, but he was the most important bishop and defender of orthodoxy of his day; the “Flower of Orthodoxy” was his title. He confidently thought that universal salvation was the only logical possibility of God’s total victory over sin. He was not corrected because he was robustly biblical in his views and his doctrine lead him deeper into prayer, mission, and obedience to Christ. If we know a tree by its fruit, this sounds like what good doctrine should do! You might insist that there are passages in the Bible that speak about eternal punishment (he would insist that too), but what cannot be argued against is that Nyssa’s arguments were read and accepted by the community of the faithful. Their decision might be fallbile, of course, but the fact of their decision makes the interpretation plausible, the acceptable range of Christian faith. So entrusted was his judgment that he was a final editor the Nicene Creed (which notably says Christ will “judge the quick and the dead,” it does not say how!). Historical facts are historical facts. If orthodoxy is the historic bounds of what the creeds mean for acceptable reading of Scripture, there are versions of universalism that are and have been accepted.
Now, perhaps you do not agree with these readings, that is fine, Augustine would have probably hated Nyssa, but at the end of the day, both were accepted. That is the bounds of orthodoxy. Those that hold at the possibility that all may be saved and those that hold to the possibility of eternal punishment are both in those bounds. I would argue that both need each other to counter their extremes. We can never take God for granted, and we can never give up hope on sinners.
This is the scandal of evangelical orthodoxy: it has forgotten so much of this history and reflection on Scripture. It has forgotten the breath and beauty of what the saints have to teach us.
Sometimes the people pointing the fingers have three fingers pointing right back at them.
For sake of argument, take a hardline Calvinist like John Piper. Now I think this guy has character in spades, and I do think he is a legitimate Christian, a great preacher and teacher, but if we are going to play the heresy hunting game with historic orthodoxy, I often get confused at the free passes Calvinists give themselves.
Piper, like most Calvinists, is an overt double-predestinationist, the idea that God elects some to be saved and others not, without any choice in the matter.. While a type of universalism was condemned (and many may accuse me of splitting hairs when I say only one form was condemned), so also was a form of double-predestinationism. Double predestination was seen as undermining freewill and God’s love, something that all the fathers saw as the supreme characteristic of God. Augustine’s radical follower, Gottschalk, was condemned at a local council for holding this, whose decision was treated as universally acceptable. Calvin was highly influenced by this form of radical Augustinianism. Yet, Calvinists really don’t want to talk about this.
Piper has gone on to insist that since God is fundamentally sovereignty (not love as the church has universally held), God causes evil for his own glory. To me this is a perilous opinion. How is God holy if he causes evil? If God is in Christ and Christ is sinless, I have a hard time thinking God would commit a tragedy humans are bound by the Word of God never to do in order to be holy. Also, I have heard him say that he cannot recite the entire Apostle’s Creed because he does not think Jesus descended into hell. He has reasons for this (a peculiar reading of 1 Peter 3), but the matter rests: he cannot affirm even the most basic statement of Christian orthodoxy, yet all his pals are okay with this.
Why is it okay? Well, the Bible is able to correct what we think is traditionally orthodox, which is what I think he would insist. I would affirm that too, but that means the term “orthodox” can become molded by the wax nose of biblical proof-texts. In principle anyone who argues something with bible verses against a creedal norm cannot in principle be condemned. Arian had biblical reasons for his theology, so again, the definition of orthodox as a historical descriptor must be maintained, even if modestly. Perhaps Piper is biblical, but not orthodox. Is he comfortable with this? Or perhaps orthodoxy is being applied with an uneven standard.
Perhaps orthodoxy is more than words.
I bring this up to remind the reader that I do think both Young and Piper are legitimate Christians, both of which with their respective imperfections. I am merely using them as foils in the naive hope that one day we might all actually have grace on each other. Perhaps a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven would be to have people of each other’s ilk coming together and just saying, “I get where you are coming from. I do see Christ working in you.”
Perhaps propositional orthodoxy is just one tool to gauge and nourish our relationship with God among others. After all, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). The second part is perhaps most important and it is in the heart.
Yes, doctrine is important, but remember that Peter confessed Jesus to be the messiah, yet he was then rebuked because the deeper meaning of that for Peter was a notion where it was a scandal that Jesus had to go to the cross. His correct confession did not save him from denying Jesus. Only Jesus’ grace saved him in the end. Words can only go so far. Good doctrine nourishes relationship with Christ and living out Christ, but it cannot replace it. There is no verbal test for having a heart that follows Christ. Only discernment can see if a person has a heart of humility, love, and forgiveness.
I met Paul Young once at a conference. He is a remarkably down to earth and a genuinely, humble guy. He told us that a speaking engagement of his was protested by other Christians. In the heat of the day, some of them were fainting from the heat. So, he brought out some water to them personally. They did not even know who he was, so he struck up a conversation. He revealed his identity to them, and asked, “Is there a single person here that has read my book?” Not a soul. He kindly asked if they would at least do that. He did not have a problem if they disagreed, but he would hope that they at least listened. They shrugged. As he went inside, he heard them go right back to their angry chanting.
I know some people that have great “theology,” but frankly do not have a relationship with Christ. They honor God with their lips, but their hearts are far from him. I know some people that have the heart of Christ, following him daily, that frankly believe some pretty erroneous stuff. Personally, if pressed, I would take the later over the former. I’d take a Christ-like heart over a person with Christian ideas.
So, here is the scandal of evangelical orthodoxy, (it by no means applies to all evangelicals): a tradition that has often become so narrow and detached from the rest of historic Christianity, members of it anathematize positions that Christianity has long held. The obsession with being correct, its isolating and alienating mode, ironically, can deafen the ear and corrupt the heart, the true source of relationship with Christ and with others.
Don’t like the movie, The Shack? That is fine. It does have its cheesy moments. The book is not fine literature. Young is no Dostoevsky. Condemn it; refuse to read it; refuse to be open to what a fellow believer is trying to show you about Jesus, and frankly, you are missing an opportunity for a movie with a clear depiction of the Gospel to impact people. Your loss and others. But it is worse than that…
When it comes to The Shack, Paul Young might not have all his doctrinal ducks in a row (I wonder who next to God perfectly does), but it should be apparent that he does follow Christ and deserves the decency that implies. So many times Christians shun each other creating fractions in Christ’s body. We bicker while his body bleeds.
If to love a person in part is to listen to them, I know that the close-minded are often the close-hearted. If the summary of the law is love God with your entire being and love your neighbour as yourself, we have a lot of half-Christians.
As Paul tells us, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love” (Gal. 5:6).
Perhaps the scandal of evangelical orthodoxy is also the scandal of evangelical charity, a scandal we are all implicated in.
I have heard some really vitriolic criticisms of the movie, The Shack.
I am reminded of the parable of the emperor’s new clothes. A foolish emperor commissions new clothes to be made. They were invisible, a deception on the part of the tailors, but they tell the emperor that anyone who thinks they are invisible are foolish. So the emperor pretends he can see the clothes and scorns anyone that does not. On parade, an innocent child points out that he is naked, and the jig is up. The emperor realizes he is in fact naked.
Paul Young is that child, I think. The emperor is evangelicalism; his clothes the pretension to orthodoxy. Our children know our flaws better than anyone, and Paul Young, as a child of evangelical thinking, a pastor’s/missionary kid, is speaking from the inside. He is not an outsider.
Some of Paul Young’s testimony resonated with me. I was raised with a very conservative theological paradigm. I went to seminary, where we liked to joke, “Of course, we are fundamentalists, we just aren’t as angry as those other people.” But the truth was we were angry too. Anyone that held beliefs different from us, if they were significant, were wrong and worse than that, dangerous.
I have learned there is a big difference between “right belief” and “believing in the right way.”
Some of the biggest critics of The Shack have been Reformed Christians. Now, these Christians are our brothers and sisters. They often don’t recognize that, but that is on them not us. I’d prefer to take the high road. We have the same Gospel, just different particulars, but I would point out there are some particulars that I think are deeply problematic.
I do not speak as an outsider on this. In college, I loved listening to John Piper. I read Calvin’s Institutes and I thought Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology was the greatest contemporary work to put theological pen to paper.
Now, I think the only reason I thought that was because I had not read much else. Since then, I have read at least one systematic theology every year. For me I moved beyond some of my more ultra-conservative convictions because they fundamentally could not stand up to either the Bible, historical Christian thinking, or the phenomena of life itself. I’ll explain…
For Calvinism, since God elects some to salvation and others not, and there are those Christians that claim to be “Christians” (like those Catholics and liberals and people that watch HBO) but are not (grace was not enough for them), I had to be hyper-vigilant theologically. I found myself always angry and annoyed at someone’s theology, even disgusted. I did not want them to contaminate me. If there were people that were not Christians but thought they were, the only way I knew I was saved myself was to always keep articulating every question I had theologically, ever more precisely, and to stay away from those that differed (you can read more about my journey in learning to accept other Christians here). Questions over infra-lapsarianism or super-lapsarianism became faith crises as to whether or not I actually believed God was sovereign and therefore whether or not I was saved. Discussions like this all became slippery-slope arguments. Arminians denied God’s sovereignty; open theists God’s impassibility; egalitarians, God’s authority. I was very good a pointing out the proverbial speck in another, ignoring the proverbial log in my own.
I could not reckon with the fact that there were sincere, biblically-minded Christ-followers that did not think the same things as me. See, when I looked at a biblical passage, and had an interpretation I thought was by the Holy Spirit, I could not doubt that. Everything hangs on certainty. I have often said that a fundamentalist cannot ask whether or not they are truly wrong on a core issue of doctrine, because to do is to doubt God and to invite doubt about one’s salvation assurance. Self-fallibility is too risky, even if it is true.
In this scheme, I did not believe in justification by works, but that just meant I was saved by doctrinal works. I was certain of my salvation because of the correct ideas in my head.
This proves potentially fatal if you ever encounter an important yet ambiguous text, which was often in seminary, or change your mind, or just don’t know what to think. The Bible became a scandal to my own theology, whether it was the unsustainable idea of its inerrancy, the refusal to admit the existence of woman leaders, or passages that did not fit an impassible God. As I began to see some of my theological convictions being contradictory, I felt like I was losing my salvation.
In one summer, while that was happening, my “shack” occurred. My father died of cancer; my mother was also suffering from cancer. Several friends of mine went through severe moral and faith crises, which for their sake I will not go into (you can read more about the whole experience here). I was left penniless, working at a Tim Horton’s on night shift, wondering if all this Christianity stuff was even true.
I ended up having a remarkable shift where God encountered me in the abyss of my confusion. I realized that if God is love and God is in Christ, then my ideas of faith can fail, but God will still have me. It was a profoundly mystical experience.
That lead me on a journey to rethink my faith, since I suspected there was more to it than just one tradition that no longer nourished me. This is a hard thing to say to some of my Calvinist friends, who I do consider my brothers and sisters, but I find that this theology is so intellectually and biblically problematic that it induced a faith crises for me, yet still nourishes them.
Nevertheless, that summer I began to I read deeply. I went to the University of Toronto soon after where I got to study under so many different voices. In high school I was a fundamentalist, in college I moved to being a conservative evangelical, in seminary I felt like I was becoming increasingly liberal, in post-grad studies I read deeply in postmodernism and mysticism, by doctoral studies I found myself gravitating to the school sometimes call “post-liberalism,” which lead me to do my dissertation on James McClendon, a Baptist narrative theologian.
Along the way, I started reading church fathers, mothers, and doctors. These are the most esteemed thinkers and saints the church has looked to. I gravitated to the mystics: Dionysius, Nyssa, the Cloud of Unknowing, St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, and Meister Eckhart, but also Irenaeus, Aquinas, Athanasius, Anselm, and Augustine, etc.
One thing that I started noticing was that what I thought was “unorthodox” was widely held by those who were actively bound by creeds. When I told them about my upbringing, they looked at me recoiling, noting how unorthodox it was.
I found that, ironically, the narrow view of what I considered orthodox was actually not viewed that way by those who had read deeply in the tradition of historic Christianity and had strong conservative commitments to historic orthodoxy. What is “orthodox” here is the bounds of acceptable biblical reflection that the church over 2000 years has developed, using church fathers and doctors, councils and creeds. The sad thing was that the over-protective, arrogant, isolated, and suspicious mode of my past beliefs ironically made me closed to something the greater sweep of Christianity held to be appropriate.
Bonhoeffer once said that those that cannot listen to a brother or sister will soon find themselves unable to hear the word of God also. I think this statement is applicable.
Here lies the irony of those that criticize the “heresy” of The Shack. The notion that Young has moved beyond conservative evangelicalism is not abandoning orthodoxy; it is coming back to it!
I’ll explore this further in my next post.
The other day I got to participate in a showing of The Shack that our church, First Baptist Church of Sudbury, and Valleyview Community Church sponsored.
It happened in the beautiful Imagine Theatre Movie Lounge with its wonderful recliner seating (I am not being paid for that plug by the way – it really is nice!).
The Shack is a movie based on a book where a man, Mack, suffers the loss of his daughter. His daughter, Missy, is murdered, and he hates God for it. His life is beginning to unravel when he gets a card requesting his presence at the shack where his daughter was murdered, signed by “Papa,” the name for God his daughter used.
Mack goes to the shack wondering if the murderer is there, and Mack comes ready to kill him. When he goes there and finds no one, he lets out his anger at God. Shortly after in the woods, a man who we find out is Jesus, invites him back to the shack to have a weekend with the Trinity.
God the Father, “Papa,” is portrayed as female, a big black lady and the Holy Spirit is portrayed as an Asian woman, Sarayu. Mack is invited into fellowship with them. Mack is struck by the warmth of Papa, the relatability of Jesus, and the mysterious wisdom of Sarayu.
Mack learns that the Father is fundamentally love. Rather than seeing God the Father as distant and unforgiving, disconnected from Jesus – essentially being the thing Jesus saves you from – the Father is unified with Jesus, one in the purpose of loving humanity. The cross is the full disclosure of the love of God, all of God. Mack is surprised to see the mark of the nails on Papa’s hands.
Mack goes out to the garden and speaks with Sarayu. They begin digging a hole. Mack wonders why the garden is so messy and wild. The garden, Sarayu indicates, is Mack’s heart. Her work is wild and beautiful and creative and she is working in him, growing something that he does not understand right now.
A pivotal point in the journey is that Mack goes out on a boat. He begins to think about his pain and his loss, and realizes the boat is sinking into the dark waters. The sea is the primordial chaos of satanic sin, seeking to swallow him. The only thing that saves him is that he sees Jesus walking on the water towards him. He grabs a hold of Jesus and does not let go. After that is some, as I call it, “Christian cheese,” where Jesus and Mack goof around walking on the water. The point is theological: Mack admits that Jesus is the most accessible of the members of the Trinity.
Mack is taken to a cave where he is confronted with lady Wisdom. Mack angrily wishes God to smite the killer of his daughter. Wisdom invites him to sit in God’s throne and play God for a moment. Wisdom invites him to give judgment on who will live and who will die. Eagerly Mack sits, ready to pour out his ire on his daughter’s killer. However, Mack’s other two children are placed before him. Their sins are recounted, and Wisdom requests Mack to choose between them, who will be preserved and who will die. Mack is confronted with the fact that if God is a loving Father to all people, God still loves the murderer, despite his brokenness, and is working to save him just as much as all his other children, not wanting any to perish.
At this point, Mack is given a glimpse of heaven, and sees Missy enjoying the fellowship of Jesus. He realizes that God in his love has placed her in a place beyond the pain of her death, and this comforts him to know she is okay.
Mack begins to heal as he learns to forgive as God has forgiven him. In the process, Mack learns he has to forgive his father, who was abusive. Interestingly after he does this, Papa appears to him as a male. Mack needed healing to approach God as Father. Papa previously appeared as a mother to appeal to the love that Mack already knew. Now, Papa is about to teach Mack a new stage of forgiveness. Papa brings him to the place where his daughter’s body was hidden. Along the walk, Mack is confronted with the need to forgive his daughter’s killer. As Mack lets go of his hate, Papa then brings them to the small cave where the body is stashed.
They delicately bring the body back to the shack and Mack realizes that Jesus has been working on a beautiful casket for his daughter. They bring the casket to the garden, and Mack realizes that the hole he was digging with Sarayu was a grave to bury Missy in. Mack realizes the love the Trinity had for Missy is the same as his and that God was with her through all that she went through. They all have a little funeral service there together.
Mack leaves the shack with a new found love at work in him, which he uses to rebuild his fractured marriage and family.
The movie was wonderful: good acting and cinematics. It is a bit of a crier, with many emotional and touching scenes. Admitfully, a movie of this nature is hard to pull off. Depicting God as a character, let alone the Trinity as a black lady, a young middle eastern man, and a weird Asian lady, is hard to do with warmth. We expect either the comical Morgan Freeman of Bruce Almighty or the powerful austerity of the voice coming from the burning bush like in The Ten Commandments. To depict Mack engaging in a friendship with God, and to do so tastefully, is perhaps most difficult because we don’t often want to think about God that way.
The movie presented the love of God, the invitation to trust Jesus, the wisdom of the Spirit, the need to live out God’s forgiveness and love as a response to the problem of evil in perhaps some of the most clear and success ways I have seen in Christian cinema. I look at some of the crap out there in Christian movies, not to name names, but The Shack was frankly refreshing.
Now, some will say that this is just literature and others, the movie’s critics, point out that it is teaching theological convictions. Both are correct. My reaction to the theological themes of the movie, which I will take up next post, are same as the book. Several years ago I read the book curious as to whether it was “heretical” but was surprised by how much I enjoyed the book. My reaction is the same: “Am I missing something? Why are people getting angry at this?”
If you want to understand the book you really must listen to Paul Young’s testimony here. People need to walk a mile in Young’s shoes before casting judgment. In deed, as Christians I don’t think they can do that without listening to him. The Shack is a metaphor for his wrestling with God, as a man that was the son of missionaries, thoroughly indoctrinated in evangelical thinking. We would be wise to listen to the views of such an insider. Our children know our flaws better than anyone. His father abused him and taught him a theology of shame. Later in life he was unfaithful to his wife, repented, and sought counseling. The level of vulnerability and emotional insight in his testimony is staggering. The counseling was so intense that he almost committed suicide, but through it, he finally understood God’s love and grace. The book was written as a present to his kids, never intended to be published at the scale it has achieved. For any critic of Young, even if you disagree with his ideas, I would hope they would extend understanding on a person that shows us so much about how to follow Christ through suffering and brokenness.
As someone who is a person that saw abuse in our home (my mother’s husband to her), as someone who did grow up around emotionally toxic Christianity (my father was a pastor’s kid and his father abused him), this movie is highly therapeutic. As someone that has experienced a lot of difficulty, especially in my college years with my parents dying of cancer, while I will get into it more in the next post, this movie has forgiveness and faith at the center.
That is, I think, what the book is about at the end of the day: A man learning about the love of Christ through pain and suffering, propelling a person towards forgiveness. Am I missing something? What is wrong with that?
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:9-12)
Here is another thing about living in Canada. We are obsessed with identifying with our countries of origin.
My grandfather on my dad’s side was a Dutch immigrant. My grandmother on my dad’s side was from Georgia. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a fourth generation Canadian, whose family came over from Scotland over a century ago. My grandmother on my mom’s side was, I believe, born in Canada, but her family was polish immigrants that moved from Poland to England then to Canada.
Yet, for some reason when people ask me, where does your family come from, I say, “I’m Dutch-Canadian.” My last name is “Boersma,” which means “farmer” in Friesian Dutch. I can’t speak that language. I have never been to the Netherlands, let alone to the province of Friesland. I can really only claim this ethnicity in a minimal way at best.
This year my wife and I got the long form census from the government. Personally, I was very excited to get it. I want to be represented in the statistics. Then my wife filled it out without me. I felt cheated. Anyways. If I were to fill that out, I would say: Ethnicity: White or Dutch or something like that; Citizenship: Canadian; Religion: Christian.
This is how our secular-cultural mindset has taught us to think. Religion is just something that effects this small area of your life. It is compartmentalized. It is something that goes on in your head. It only relates to one aspect of your identity.
That is not how the Bible sees it.
There is something powerful about what Peter is saying here. But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation… Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
According to Scripture here how would we fill out the census?
What is your citizenship? I am a citizen of God’s holy nation, the kingdom of heaven.
What is your ethnicity? I am a descendant of Abraham. I am a member of his chosen people.
What is your religion? See questions (a) and (b).
What Peter is saying here is that because of the work of the cross, we are not just one religion. We are a new nation, a new people, a new ethnicity, a new family.
There is a fascinating dynamic in the Sikh religion that I think Christians could take a lesson from. When Sikhism as a religion broke off from Hinduism and Islam (it is essentially a kind of hybrid of the two), the began to forge their own identity.
Now if you know anything about Hinduism, it had a strong insistence on the caste system. You were born into a family associated with a particular profession of varying importance: At the top were nobles and priests, then soldiers, then various working classes. These classes were highly prejudicial. If you were born a farmer, you had to be a farmer, and you had to marry a farmer’s daughter. You could not become a priest or marry a priest’s daughter. Of course, priests entailed a level of respect that farmers did not get.
The Sihk religious leaders saw the oppression of the Hindu leaders over the people and tried to liberate their people from the caste system. They believed, similar to Christians, that all people are equal under God. In an effort to do so, they started removing their last names, which indicated what caste you were from, and replaced it all with the same last name. So, today, all Sikh men have the last name Singh (which means “lion”) and all women have the last name Kaur (which means “princess”).
Kind of neat in my opinion. I am not suggesting we all change our last names, but think about it this way:
What if on my driver’s license it did not say, “Spencer Boersma,” but rather “Spencer Redeemed-by-Christ,” (hyphenated of course), or “Spencer Christian.” Or something like that.
It would reiterate that our identity in Christ stands first and foremost.
In Revelation, Christians who preserve, it says, will have the divine name on their foreheads. That is a way of saying those that follow God are at one with his identity; they are extensions of his being, one with him.
Think about our identity that way.
Before I understand myself as Spencer Boersma, I understand that I am at one with the God who calls himself the I Am that I Am.
Before I understand myself as human, I understand myself as God’s creation.
Before I understand myself as male, cis-gendered, I understand myself as one with Christ.
Before I understand myself as White, Dutch, and all the other ethnicities a descend from, I understand myself as a child of the promises of Abraham, incorporated by faith not by works.
Before I understand myself as Canadian, I understand that I am a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.
In an early church letter, the Letter to Diognetus, Christians were described this way. “Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers.”
Every homeland, a foreign land, and every strange land, a homeland. That is how Christians live.
When you realize that you are first and foremost a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, you take the good parts of our culture and your leave the rest behind. You are ready to do anything, go anywhere, and be anything for the sake of Christ.
“I did not even know theologically that these people could exist.”
This is what a pastor told me as we sat chatting at his house for lunch after service several years ago. I spoke at his church and my message was on drawing close to the love of the cross. Recently a friend of mine then had came out to his church and was driven out. He went suicidal, and seeing the whole thing, I was outraged at those Christians. One of my points challenged them to stop their hatred and conditional love of sexual minorities and thus to truly embrace the fact that we are all justified by faith not by works.
I thought this would be a controversial sermon, but it was met with unanimous approval. One lady even came up to me and said, “Pastor, what a fine sermon. One day you will become the next John MacArthur!” I choose to take that as a compliment.
At lunch the pastor turned to me and expressed that he also felt challenged by what I said. He told me that he was doing door-to-door evangelism one day – God bless him! – and a person greeted him and let him come in. As he started talking, the person shared startling information. This person appeared female, but was actually “intersex,” meaning that while she appeared mostly female, she had both male and female genitalia. Neither she nor the pastor I spoke with shared specifics beyond that.
She turned to him and said, “Do you honestly think that if your church knew this about me that I would be welcomed in your church?”
The man sheepishly tried to respond, and as he did he looked around and saw the pictures of her family. She apparently had a lover, who was female, and they had a child.
Overwhelmed, he turned to her and said, “Honestly….nope, my church would freak out.”
So, he thanked her for her time and dejectedly left. And as he turned to me, he uttered a statement indicative of the grand mess the church with its uncritical beliefs has gotten itself into:
“I did not even know theologically that these people could exist.”
For him, he believed that there was male and female and that was it (which is a pretty bad way to read Genesis 1-2). If you don’t fall into those comfortably, it’s your choice, your fault. However, in doing so, his beliefs prevented him from not only reckoning with the basic facts of life: that intersexed people (and this is something different than transgender) exist and they were born with both genitals in some way. It also prevented him and his church from having grace on people it should have been showing grace to. He admitted to me with deep shame that his church was not prepared to love the unloved.
The way we talked about this person was a matter of ministry: is this person loved by God? Is there a place for her in our church? Those are the important questions of us as a church. However, people are talking about this issue in regards to politics…
Once upon a time our laws were blissfully naïve to the existence of the full range of the children of God. Women went to the bathroom that had a person with a dress in it; men to the one with a person in trousers. We are told that trans-people have always been around, and it seems like these people used the bathrooms that best corresponded to how they looked, and the watching world was none the wiser. If they did go to a bathroom that did not correspond to how they looked, they did so at risk of ostracization and even being beaten up.
Lawmakers did one of two things: institute laws that prevented trans people from using bathrooms of their current gender or institute laws that protected them, giving them the right to use the bathroom of their current gender. Either way, people were not happy.
Now, I am going to talk about a sexual topic today, which we have to say always makes people squirmy. Sexuality is a dimension of the human person that is closest to who we are at our most vulnerable. Therefore, we are the most guarded and sensitive about those topics.
Obvious proof of this: how many couples here even go to the bathroom while their spouses are in the bathroom with them? I don’t like to even with my spouse being near me, let alone another man, let alone anyone else. Thank-you very much.
There was an East Side Mario’s in Hamilton. In the men’s washroom, there were urinals. Anyways, I went to the bathroom there, and I found that the urinals were only about a foot apart. No barriers. Another guy came in. He obviously had to go. Came up to the urinal beside me, and started going. Our shoulders were touching. I couldn’t stop. He couldn’t stop. It was very traumatic for the both of us.
All of that is to say, matters like sexuality, we are more sensitive to. People naturally will get upset about these kinds of things no matter what people say. People make knee-jerk reactions based on their sexual-disgust feeling. Evangelicals are particularly susceptible to this. They are ironically “liberal” reading their experience of bodily shame into Christian ethics. Where guilt and shame-based preaching abides, evangelicals fixate on matters of sexual disgust as their core political concern, forgetting far more grievous social sins. I have heard evangelical pastors say really idiotic stuff like, “I am not homophobic; I just think the whole gay thing is disgusting.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted this when we visited the U.S. He thought evangelicals resembled gutter journalists, obsessed with what people did with their genitals to the neglect of all other ethics. I think that is more or less true.
So, keep that in mind, and now let me sketch out a timeline of this kerfuffle.
Most people don’t even know that the legal battle in Canada is a done deal. A transgendered person can use any public bathroom that they feel corresponds to their gender.
In Canada, in 2012, the NDP proposed Bill C-27, which amended the criminal code to protect other “gender identities.” If you remember the Conservative party was in power at the time. Over the next few years, it went through various readings, eventually being fully passed in 2013. What is interesting about his (and you can look up all the transcripts of debates and votes on the internet) is that the bill would not have passed if 30 some odd votes were not given by conservative MP’s. On most of the votes that happened on Mar. 20, 2013, the bills were passed by 150 to 130, give or take. The 20-30 votes that were needed to tip the bill into being passed came from the conservative party.
This means the party could have prevented the bill if its leader demanded uniformity (which he often did). This to me smacks of the lip-service conservatism that says it is pro-life but does nothing about it (Harper actually quashed his own MP’s from trying to talk about it), or in this case, says it is against a bill, but lo and behold, supplies just enough to get the bill passed, but not enough for it to look like the conservatives supported it.
I say that because I am very weary of any political party claiming to be the “Christian option” in this day and age. At least as far as I understand the conservative party in Canada, it does not seem like the definite traditional-Christian party anymore. It seems like a house divided at best. This does not mean the liberals are “the Christian” option either, or the NDP. Christians are called to affirm that Christ is King and all other politics authorities are secondary.
I find in politics there is very little integrity. Politicians refuse to admit their faults. They will argue their points, even if they know they are wrong. They will demonize their opponents to win. They often have ulterior motives: making a corporation rich or appealing to a voter base. For that reason, Christians should always keep politics at arms length. Only the kingdom of God will restore society, not a liberal utopia or conservative nostalgia. We are not going to build the kingdom of heaven by who we vote for.
At any rate, the Bill was met with interesting protests from trans individuals. Take for example, Brae Carnes (first picture below), who posted in male bathrooms, exposing the obviously problem of making all transgendered people go into bathrooms that did not match their identities. I don’t think any conservative would want a person that looks like the next two individuals in women’s bathrooms either.
The issue changes when it has a face doesn’t it?
I think intuitively when you see just how far transitioned these people are that it would not be a good idea to force them to go to the bathroom of their birth gender. But there are lots of transgendered people that do not look that much like their transitioned gender. For them, going to any public bathroom will still be dangerous.
Many conservatives did oppose the bill under the notion that it put women and children at risk. Potentially a predator could come into a woman’s bathroom and claim to be a woman, and refuse to leave. There are a handful of examples that show laws the protect transgendered people have been manipulated by sexual predators. For instance, a man claimed to be transgender, and used it to living in a woman’s shelter, committing acts of sexual assault. There are those examples.
Certain places in Canada installed gender-neutral, co-ed bathrooms. I remember using one of these bathrooms at University of Toronto. Apparently these bathrooms were quite unsafe. They certainly were awkward.
Then HB2 hit. While Canadians dealt with this debate rather quietly and civilly, as we often do, for good or for ill, but when things happen in America, it happens like singing a bad campfire song again: “Second verse same as the verse, a little bit louder a little bit worse!”
North Carolina passed the law allowing organizations liberty to enforce that a person ought to go to the bathroom of their birth-gender.
The company, Target, refused. They said, if you are trans-gendered, you can use whatever bathroom you feel meets the gender you feel. Note that they are merely exercising the rights that HB2 gave them.
Conservative family values lobbying organizations protested this and organized a boycott of Target of almost 1.1 million signatures. I think organizing a boycott like that is foolhardy. Even if you are morally outraged at Target, there are so many more immoral companies out there that Christians are not boycotting, so by doing this to Target, this portrays that Christians really have uneven standards.
Also, think about it this way: Would you appreciate a company refusing to sell to you if it knew your religious convictions? Lets say an atheist bakery refused to bake bread for church communion? We would be outraged at the pettiness. Yet this is why I cannot see those conservative Christians they would refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding as anything but petty.
In wake of this, two particularly disappointing things happened:
First is that there is a story of a woman, who had short hair and was athletic, was followed from the woman’s bathroom and harassed by Christians in a public place because they did not believe she was a full woman. Now Christians are the ones straight people need protection from!
Second, the leader of one of these family values political lobbyist groups, Sandy Rios of American Family Association, admitted in an interview that her organization actually sent men into women’s bathrooms to scare women and children into agreeing with her agenda. That is the height of hypocrisy. Her organization claimed to be about protecting women and children from men in their bathroom, yet they are the ones sending men into said bathroom all for the sake of their political agenda. What if one was, as they argued, a woman that was raped? Again, there is this odd necessity to now protect bathroom from Christians.
We should note that if this is true, the American Family Association has very likely put more men in women’s bathrooms than there are instances of sexual predators abusing transgender laws. While there have been instances of sexual predators abusing transgender laws, these instances are very rare. With good reason: How many times do you think a predator can get away with doing that? Predators need absolute secrecy, and it seems like only the really stupid ones would try to do that.
But given the whole debacle, the whole thing is really quite sad. Just plain sad.
Personally, I find the conservative politics the most abhorrent. It is mostly because Christians often back conservative politics, so there should a higher expectation of moral integrity, which is not there. But perhaps it is my own disappointment with the party I was raised to support. While liberalism worships sexual liberty in a problematic way, Christians who support conservative politics routinely come off as condescending and apathetic towards others. Evangelicals routinely ignore basic science on matters of gender. The persistently make one issue about another. Do conservative evangelicals really care about transgender people? Or do they just want their political sensibilities validated and codified?
They sound like they just want the church to flex its muscles and the world to bow down to them and wave fans at them for being so right. That’s probably most sad part.
Personally, I would rather say, “I don’t know but I care,” then be obsessed with have all the right answers, and coming off like I don’t care.
I know Christian pastors that harp on this issue and don’t even know a single transgender person. These pastors are not acting like the priests of Christ but acting like pharisees of the law.
Those that do this forget some very important facts. They read their Bibles, but not the book of nature. This much I do know about the science: There are people – less than 1% but that is still quite a bit – that are born with different configurations of gender. Some are born being physically male but have within them ovaries. Some are born physically female, but have within them testes. They often don’t discover this till years later, and then they understand why they feel “different.” Some are born with both genitals, believe it or not. Some are born physically male or female, but their brains are hardwired to be the opposite. There are all sorts of other examples like this.
When I hear of unique cases like this, I turn to God and reaffirm the strange but blessed diversity of God’s image in humans. He made us all; he loves us all; he claimed us with the dignity that belongs to his children. The more we lovingly draw close to others different from ourselves, the more we see the divine image.
If they are born that way, there is the unsettling truth that I could have been born that way too. So could you. We can’t control the circumstances of our birth.
I could have been born feeling like a female within, and being drawn to “girlie” stuff as my parents looked on with confusion and concern.
I could have had a disappointed father that always made me feel like half of a “true man.”
I could have been the one mocked in gym class change rooms as my peers invented new insults.
I could have been married with kids, trying to live a normal life, but never feeling like “myself” around them, or anyone else for that matter.
I could be the one dying of confusion, despair, and even self-hatred of why I am the way I am.
If this could be any of us, we must follow Christ’s command to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”
How would I want to be treated in public? Hopefully just to be left alone. What kind of world would I hope there be for me? Hopefully a just one. What kind of church would I hope there be for me? Hopefully a compassionate one.
What they go through could be what any of us could be going through, and therefore it is our obligation to care and do something.
I am amazed at how many people don’t get this.
I often ask myself: Why cannot people be more rational? Why can’t Christians particularly have empathy? Or at least discuss things with a least a drop of honesty and integrity. So, let’s try to do that.
Note that there are two major responses to this debate:
(1) Liberals have made it their goal to proclaim that all gender is fairly fluid and that choosing the gender that one feels is the best approach. This usually involves hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery. How that works, I am not going to get into here.
(2) Conservatives tend to ignore the existence of true intersexed people, and emphasize that there are many others that are plainly gender confused because of the break down of the nuclear family. It is nurture not nature. The person had an unstable childhood, so their gender is unstable. In those cases, recommending gender reassignment surgery is a bad option. It causes more harm to an already unstable person. The best thing a society can doe is get back to the stability of the “good old days.”
Who is right? I don’t think either side has it completely. Let’s admit that. When issues polarize, there is very rarely one perfectly right side.
Christ forbids the notion that there ought to be an “us” versus “them.” Eph. 6 :12 warns, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” I worry about those Christians that excel at making enemies of the people they are called to preach reconciliation to.
At least as far as I have read, gender reassignment surgery has been shown to relive the anguish of some transgender people, but also in many cases create whole new problems. I am not a psychiatrist, so that is all I can say. Whatever a transgendered person is going through, we know it is going to be difficult. We should be honest about that.
Now, bring in politics. What do you do when a person identifies as a woman, but was born a man, and wants to use a woman’s bathroom? Some say, “Let them if it helps them feel some modicum of security and peace.” Others say, “I don’t feel comfortable with a person of the opposite physical gender being in that bathroom. The laws can be abused by predators.” Again, both have a point, but neither side have it all.
There seems to be a bunch of concerns here that all Christians should have:
- Transgendered people are valued and should be kept safe from harassment.
- We need greater awareness for the existence of transgendered people and what they go through.
- However, the concern is also that in doing so, society promotes the notion that our genders are fluid, which could cause physiological harm to some that need more structure.
- Women and children could be put at risk by sexual predators abusing transgender laws
You will notice that liberals tend to prioritize (1) and (2) while conservatives prioritize (3) and (4). But, if you can admit that both sides are trying their best to uphold justice some way, I think we can have a better way of thinking about his whole debacle.
We cannot be satisfied with any law that does not protect all vulnerably parties. We don’t get to choose who we defend the dignity of, one way or another. We are called to defend all people’s dignity. All people, not some, not just your kids, not just transgendered people either – all are made in the image of God. Everyone is. We don’t get to choose who to care about. All deserve our love in how we talk, think, feel, and write policies.
So, what should a Christian do? Should we advocate for the laws to stay the same? That did not happen, and there should be a law that protects trans people. Should we advocate for the bathroom laws to pass uncritically that can be abused? No. I think there needs to be further criteria to how the bathrooms are used. Should we advocate new ones that can further allow transgendered people to get beaten up and harmed, protecting the churches prerogative over others? No.
Many say we should move to installing gender-neutral bathrooms that are fully enclosed. That is probably the way things are going to go, but that sounds expensive. I don’t think companies can accommodate every public bathroom being converted that way. There does not seem to be a good answer here.
I think the obvious response for Christians, when the law of the land does not reflect the perfect justice of God is to pray and trust and hope.
I recently read through 2 Peter. Peter is encouraging a congregation with the hope that Christ will return and one day the world will be ruled by God not people. So, he says,
“We are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13)
We are to live like exiles in a strange land, for we are citizens of a different kingdom.
This admits that the current situation does not have a comfortable solution that Christians should be happy about. If any law leaves a vulnerable party unsafe, we should not be happy about it. We need to continue to rethink, listen, and pray.
What does that mean? I don’t know. I don’t know the answers to many things in life. But as I said, I would rather say that I don’t know but care then that I know but come off like I don’t care.
I don’t know if I have a position, but I do know the posture: Christ. I don’t care much for politics, but I do care about the people. That is what we should focus on: the posture of Christ and the people in need of love.
I look at this world, and all I know is to cling to the love of Christ, the love he showed me, and the love I ought to extend. True religion is, according to the prophet Micah 6, “To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” The more I befriend people that much different me, the more I see Christ working around me. That is a humbling thing.
I know that politics is not the vehicle of the kingdom of God. The Gospel of our God loving all people, forgiving all sin is. Our world is broken, so we need to walk graciously in Christ, for our sake and others. There are broken people in it, like ourselves. If we are to love our neighbors, we need to listen to them and walk with them.
May you walk in the peace of Christ in this broken world, on this matter and all things.