Jesus didn’t die for the stupid things we do. He died for our sins. If I just call my sin ’something stupid I did,’ I’m not truly repentant.
Jim Berg, BJU Dean of Students
In my perceiving and (over)reacting to other’s rules (both spoken and unspoken), I remember my own. I’ve got a ton of them. I tell myself that I’m a good mom today if I read to my kids, if we get our Green Hour in, if we eat enough (any!) fruits and veggies, and if I don’t yell. And I’m a good wife if I manage to feed my hubby a nice dinner, if I keep the house picked up — vacuumed, dishes away, laundry folded — and if I have sparkling conversation ready for dinner. I’m a good person if I exercise, if I lose some weight, and if I walk the dog.
Sometimes I do these things fairly faithfully. But I’m no SuperMom — even if Gavin bellows, “MOOOMMMMMYYYY” every time he sees a Wonder Woman toy. I goof. I fail. I can’t even keep up with my own rules.
During the corporate prayers of confession at church, you know what comes to my mind? Stupid things. And I mean, things that are more attributed to my normal human limits, not my sin. The smocking projects that I haven’t finished. The terrible state of the too-often-washed downstairs carpet. The cucumbers I forgot about and let rot in the veggie drawer. Knitting mistakes. The dishes I left in the sink. The emails I haven’t answered. The rust on my tomato plants. The fitness program that I’m avoiding.
Tim Keller cuts to the chase on this one often when he divides us all between moralists and secularists. Either you follow corporate rules religiously or you express yourself shamelessly. Either you’re a neo-nomian or an antinomian. Either you’re the Prodigal that stays or the Prodigal that leaves.
And neither works. Both are as Godless as the other.
Martin Luther talked about it too. He compared the theology of glory with the theology of the cross. Theologians of glory push a “proper righteousness” that appears good and attractive. They are very busy but are puffed up, blinded, and hardened in their activity. On the other hand, theologians of the Cross feature what Luther reasons seems like an “alien righteousness” that appears evil and ugly. Since they feature God’s sovereignty over salvation, they believe much (instead of doing much). Luther sums it all up by saying that “the law says ‘Do this’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this’ and everything is already done.”
Now I’ve been eating, sleeping, and breathing fundamentalism for 20+ years. I was an earnest follower, a committed apologist, and a firm ideologue. On top of that, I’ve devoted my professional life to trying to explain the way fundamentalists talk, and I don’t believe I should stop now that I’m just outside its walls.
In order for fundamentalism to work, you have to live it inside and outside and upside and downside. My brother’s prof at Ohio State, when he heard the salary rate at BJU, used to say “You can’t get bad people for that little. That salary guarantees a certain ideological devotion.” So the whole system supports a fervent loyalty. And if their ethic reads everything as a fight and then the fight turns internal and interpersonal, you end up scratching and clawing to prove that you’re loyal and to make sure you’re on the “right” (a.k.a. powerful) side.
Another way to say all that is to say that fundamentalists are expert moralists. Pros. Prodigals that hang around for years working to earn the Father’s love. Articulate theologians of glory. Their earnest sincerity only enhances their commitment. They believe in some sort of cosmic reciprocity for every deed. They see God as a taskmaster waiting to give bonuses to the good workers and charge fines to the lazy ones. I say this as a former fundamentalist myself. The moralistic side of Keller’s equation was my life.
And it still is. Don’t get me wrong. I still feel the Pharisee in me. I’m just fighting it now. There’s really not that big of a difference between me 10 years ago and me now. I know the Apostle Paul understood since he was a recovering Pharisee himself — the chief of sinners.
And so while the secularists overlook sin as merely normal expression, moralists hyper-focus on mistakes and call them sin.
What the moralistic theology of glory does is no different than noodling the rules for a card game or emotionally bludgeoning a playmate for not knowing an unspoken rule about which Barbie wears what. UGH! It’s such hypocrisy. I’ve erected this terrific set of rules (which looks an awful lot like a Dumb-Things-I-Gotta-Do-Today list), and I judge my cosmic worth on my accomplishing those things. It’s all part of those lies that we Christians tell ourselves in our scramble to live impeccably moral lives. We think if we can just do X-Y-Z we’re okay, and we judge everyone — or at least ourselves — by that standard.
My rules are not God’s rules. Plain and simple.
Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults— unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.