God And Suicide

“The man who kills a man kills a man
The man who kills himself kills all men.
As far as he is concerned, he wipes out the world.” – G. K. Chesterton

I am not Catholic, but I formed a very firm belief growing up: If a Christian (or anyone else, for that matter) commits suicide, they will go to Hell. That was just the rule; God didn’t like suicide, so if you took your own life, you were going to spend your eternity in endless torment. Period. End of story.

Today, I’m not so sure anymore.

———-

I’m not sure if this is due to my depression or personality or selfishness or just outright sinful nature, but my relationship with God always seems to be in a state of perpetual flux. I grew up largely afraid of Him, knowing that if I didn’t “get saved,” I would be doomed to eternal damnation. Despite singing “Jesus Loves Me” a billion times or attending every vacation Bible school in the county every year or seeing those painted pictures of the meek and mild Jesus, I was convinced God was not someone I wanted to cross. I suppose I was right, in a way. The fear of the Lord, after all, is the beginning of wisdom.

From there I moved on to firmly believing God was real and that Jesus was His one and only son. Once I realized what Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross of Calvary meant for me, I developed a sincere appreciation for what he had done. That appreciation gradually morphed into a genuine affection, which was then assaulted by years of well-meaning Christians manipulating, bullying, and using me. I know that sounds harsh, but it’s true. I came to believe God didn’t really like me very much and merely tolerated my existence because He had to. It was a miserable place to be.

In recent years, I’ve come to understand grace better. I don’t constantly worry about my every sin sending me to hell anymore. I don’t think God hates me anymore. I’m even developing something of a compassion for those struggling with sin, which my early version of faith simply had no tolerance for. At the same time, though, Christianity sometimes feels more like a set of rules I am destined to never keep fully, even though that is the point of grace in the first place: We will never be good enough on our own. That is why Christ’s sacrifice was required. Still, the notion of constantly failing sometimes weighs on me. I mean, can’t I get it right just once…?

———-

Still, despite some of my struggles and misgivings about my faith, the notion of a graceful Father and Son has taken hold of me as of late. I’m beginning to believe His grace extends far beyond where I initially thought it did. Sometimes I think I might be becoming a little too comfortable with the concept of grace. I mean, this is still a God who does not let everyone into Heaven, no matter how good they’ve been. He demands allegiance, but He asks for it in love. It is a strange combination, and it is not one I claim to understand fully.

Circling back to the topic of suicide, one of the more common arguments I hear for those who commit it going to Hell is that it breaks the sixth of the Ten Commandments – Thou shalt not murder. The logic here is that if someone kills themself, they have in effect committed murder against their own person. Therefore, instead of saying “He killed himself,” you could say “He murdered himself.”

This argument doesn’t really hold water, though. If breaking the sixth commandment will cast you into Hell, what about the ones about lying or stealing? People covet stuff all the time. Is that an automatic ticket to Hades? Apparently not, as many people who covet things are still recognized as being Christians. In fact, murderers were put to great uses in the Bible, most notably in the case of Saul/Paul.

I suppose, then, that perhaps it is the person killing themselves’ relationship with Christ that is the key part of this equation. Unfortunately, this is nearly impossible to know. Attempting to figure out if someone is “truly” a believer is like trying to figure out what a dog is thinking at any particular moment of the day. You may have an idea, but you really don’t know. Only that person and God know. Someone might say the evidence here is in the fruit, where a person chose to check out rather than have faith in things getting better. Suicide is the ultimate lack of faith, they might say.

I think they’re wrong.

———

Here is where my problem with the “Everyone who commits suicide goes to Hell” theory lies: I’m not so sure a loving God, who is compassionate and kind and just, would look upon a person who has been abused or molested or is chemically imbalanced or has never been able to grasp happiness of any kind in this world and condemn them to the pits of Hell forever if they reached a moment where they just couldn’t take it anymore and decided to end their own life.

Don’t get me wrong. I certainly don’t think God smiles upon the practice of suicide. In fact, in every instance in the Bible I can think of where one of his representatives in this world wanted their life to end, He very directly provides them a reason to keep on living. I believe He does have a purpose beyond the pain, and I believe He desperately wants everyone to embrace life and not throw in the towel. To ever call God an advocate of taking one’s own life would be madness.

As we all know, though, God’s intentions and our actions do not always coincide with each other. Even though He wants His children to succeed, they fail. In fact, they fail spectacularly sometimes. This must grieve Him, as it would any father. If one of my children were ever to commit suicide, though, would I stop loving them? Would I hope for their punishment because of what they did?

What kind of father would I be?

———-

In the end, even after all of my rambling, there is no definitive answer to the question I have posed here. None of us can be completely sure of where the soul of someone who commits suicide finds its final resting place. Whereas the Quran very specifically forbids suicide, the Bible is strangely vague about the subject. In fact, the Bible is vague on a great many things, as if God wanted us to figure things out on our own rather than be mindless robots in His service.

Perhaps vagueness is the point on an issue such as this, though. Perhaps the hint of doubt, uncertainty, and fear of what might happen if we went through with the act was purposefully left there by God to keep us from going all the way. I mean, what is scarier than Hell? We have to know that whatever torment we are facing here would be magnified a hundredfold in Hell. The lake of fire becomes a safety valve in this instance. What’s going on now may be bad, but it couldn’t be as bad as that.

For the moment, I am choosing to believe that the person who succumbs to the temptation of suicide does not automatically go to Hell. The more I come to know people who have wrestled with the concept of it and have been touched by it themselves, the more I realize life is harder for some than for others. Some constitutions are sterner, some shoulders broader, some wills more unbreakable. God bless the strong people. The weak people need you. need you.

———-

The great Christian apologist C. S. Lewis has inspired me more times than I can count over the course of my life. This man observed intense grief and wrote about it eloquently in his book “A Grief Observed.” I’d like to conclude with a quote from that work:

“You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth of falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?”

 

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Tuneful Tuesday: Set Me Free

Mark 5:1-20 English Standard Version (ESV)

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones. And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. And crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he was saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name isLegion, for we are many.” 10 And he begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now a great herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside,12 and they begged him, saying, “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the pigs; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the sea.

14 The herdsmen fled and told it in the city and in the country. And people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 And they came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had had the legion, sitting there,clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. 16 And those who had seen it described to them what had happened to the demon-possessed man and to the pigs. 17 And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their region. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.

Not Enough?

I turned 40 years old in April of this year, and we all know what that means: I’m at that age. When the eyesight starts to fade a little more. When the physical prowess begins to decline. When the luster of the job begins to wear off. When, theoretically, half of a man’s life is over, which means two dreaded words…

Midlife … crisis.

midlifeI actually do plan on writing about this subject a little more in-depth here in the future, but for this particular post I only introduce it to bring up a line I noticed in a book I was recently reading: Men in Midlife Crisis, by Jim Conway. I checked the book out of a local library just before Christmas, and, unfortunately, I didn’t get to finish reading it, but what I managed to get through was quite insightful. In fact, I may have to add it to my own personal library at some point in the future.

As expected, the book contains plenty of discussion on affairs, a hallmark of many men’s midlife periods. I’m certainly not going to explore that subject here, but I was struck by something Conway wrote about it. Observe the following paragraph on attempting to end an affair:

I have helped both Christians and non-Christians through the painful disengagement process. None of these people has been willing to disengage simply because of the clear moral teaching of scripture – “You must not commit adultery.” Nor have any of these midlife men been convinced to disengage because of obligations to their families or previous commitments. It is my experience that people are only ready to disengage from an affair if the dissatisfaction level rises high enough so that the couple feels there is greater stress and less satisfaction than what they had hoped for.

A local Bible teacher who passed away earlier this year used to have a saying: God plus nothing equals everything. There’s the principle of sola scriptura, the sufficiency of scripture. There’s even an old Southern Gospel song that says, “When Jesus says it’s enough, it’ll be enough.” What gets us to Jesus and draws us into scripture, though? There has to be some breaking point where we just say, “Okay, I’ve had enough. This is just not working anymore. I’m done.”

I’m not trying to say that Jesus cannot lift us out of any situation, or that scripture is somehow not sufficient to instruct us on how to live our lives correctly. God, after all, parted the Red Sea and formed man from the very dust of the Earth. In many instances of life, though, we have to come to a place where we decide the path we are on is vastly inferior to the one He wants to take us on. We have to see in real life that our decisions aren’t working and our habits are harmful to us and we need to make a change.

It almost feels blasphemous to even suggest it, but sometimes what works isn’t enough. Sometimes the strain of what is not working has to become so great that we are spurred to action. Things have to become intolerable sometimes to make us want to change. I wrote here Friday about the insanity of how I stubbornly refuse to give up certain habits that only worsen my depression. I’m beginning to notice a life principle here: Getting sick of a situation or a behavior is often the only way to begin the process of getting rid of it.

So as the new year rapidly approaches, if you’re hearing that tiny voice in your head saying, “This isn’t worth it anymore,” maybe you should give it a listen. It might be prompting you toward the answer that really is enough.

Christmas Is For Losers

I have a difficult time letting my children watch Peanuts cartoons. “What?” you might be asking. “What kind of problem could you possible have Snoopy and the gang?” Well, it’s quite simple, really: The other kids treat Charlie Brown like crap most of the time, and I don’t really want my kids thinking it’s okay to talk to other people that way.

charlie brownThere was this one time, though, when all the other kids came together and were actually nice to Charlie Brown. It happened one Christmas. You know the one. Charlie Brown was in charge of buying a tree for the school’s Christmas program, and he came back with a glorified twig. After a stern lecture from Linus, the gang decides to give Charlie Brown’s tree a makeover, and Christmas cheer is felt by all.

That seems to be the theme for most Christmas stories: Somebody gets heckled or cheated or messed around with, but by the end of the story everything comes together for them (See: Bob Cratchit.) In real life, though, the downtrodden don’t always get the breaks in the end. For someone suffering from depression, it’s very easy to look around a room and think everyone has it more together than you do. Better jobs, better relationships, better social skills, etc., etc. It can make a person want to find the nearest hole and hide in it.

If you’re thinking that just because your Christmas is rushed and hectic and not going according to plan, however, it should be pointed out that the “first Christmas” wasn’t exactly the most organized event either. Think about it for a minute. A baby was born in a stable. People are taking off to other countries because of dreams. Everyone is crowding into town for a census. There’s chaos happening everywhere.

And then there are the people. You have a carpenter who just found out his fiance is pregnant, and the only explanation he has is “It’s God’s son.” You have a young bride-to-be who would have been dumped, save for another dream intervention by an angel of the Lord. The first group of people called upon to visit the Christ child was not teachers or scribes, but sheep-herders called in from the fields. Really, couldn’t God have picked a little better cast for this?

Depressed people have a tendency to think of Christmas as a time when everyone has it better than them. They have difficulty going to parties or attending family gatherings or even facing the holiday because they feel sort of ashamed of where they are in life. They should be happy. It’s “the most wonderful time of the year,” right? When they don’t feel joy during a season which is specifically set up to provide it, they get a double-dose of guilt.

In reality, though, Christmas is practically tailor-made for the losers in life. Jesus, the whole reasonjesus understands for the holiday, was born in a stinky barn. Then he ended his life on a cruel Roman cross. He understands what it’s like to be on the low end of the totem pole. He understands what it’s like to be an outcast. He knows anxiety because he sweated drops of blood. The whole reason he came down, and the whole reason we have a Christmas today, is because Jesus went looking for the losers – the depressed, the anxious, the lonely, the afraid, and the addicted.

Some people may have more finely-decorated homes, flashier presents, and better-looking families, but everyone has Jesus on Christmas Day. Even Charlie Brown.

Gray

You do what’s right. If you don’t do what’s right, you’re wrong. Plain and simple.

It sounds like a noble and upright philosophy, doesn’t it? What could possibly be wrong with that? It’s ethical, it’s truthful, it’s, well, right. Good people do good things, bad people do bad things. It’s neat, it’s tidy, and it makes life so much easier to navigate.

Except it doesn’t. Especially if you apply it to yourself.

I only recently stumbled across the term “cognitive distortion.” In short, a cognitive distortion is cognitive-distortionsthe term given to the way our minds can convince us certain things aren’t really true. They’re mostly used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions. We lead ourselves to believe cognitive distortions help us make sense of things, when in reality they usually only serve to make thinking even more difficult for us.

I use the words “us,” “we,” and “our” here to refer to those who have developed cognitive distortions as a result of depression or some other mental illness. Of course, the trick with a cognitive distortion is being able to recognize it, which, ironically, lies at the heart of how such faulty thinking begins in the first place. Whatever distortion is in place just becomes natural over time, so the impetus to correct it starts to disappear. It’s just sort of there.

So I’ve been a guy who believed in justice, in people living out what they say. One of my favorite sayings of all time has been, “If I go out to lunch with you and you’re nice to me but rude to the waiter, you’re a rude person.” The middle ground is where ethics get violated, where virtues get compromised, where hypocrites breed. There can be no gray area; life is black and white.

This particular cognitive distortion, I’ve come to find out, is known as polarized thinking. It’s a tricky one, because it seems so well-meaning on the surface. In reality, though, it’s a sure-fire recipe for perfectionism. If I expect this high of a standard in others, I should expect it in myself as well. If I think John Doe is a bad guy because he says cuss words, I’d better not be saying them either. Doesn’t matter if John Doe does a hundred other good things every day; I’ve honed in on a negative entrenched within the positives. Likewise, my positive traits never outweigh my negatives. One dark blot corrupts the entire picture.

The-Perfectionists-Guide-to-Results-LoI’ve always believed in absolutes. I believed I could separate the bad bosses from the good ones by whether or not they hosed their employees. Notice I didn’t use the word consistently, though. I could separate the hypocrites from the real Christians by how badly they sinned. Notice I didn’t take repentance into consideration. This was how I was going to live with integrity and virtue.

The only problem was I left myself no room to fail. I either failed or I succeeded; there was no middle ground. I took scriptures from the Bible that talked about how if even a small part of the law was broken the whole thing was, and I magnified them one-hundred-fold. I either did everything right or I failed utterly. I judged my performances so harshly that eventually the negative connotations began to seep into my soul.

I’m not just doing things wrong. I am wrong.

I’ve been challenged lately to break this pattern of thinking, but it’s so ingrained in me. I’m petrified someone is going to see the “real” me, the one who not only isn’t perfect but is actually pretty despicable a lot of the time. I keep hearing that the things I find so unappealing about myself are pretty common in most guys, but I don’t believe it. They couldn’t be as bad as me, could they?

It’s been a long day, and I plan on writing more about this in the future. I’d like to close with a little revelation I had just this week about the level of righteousness God expects of us.

In Matthew 5:20, Jesus says that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This verse has terrified me for years, because I’m not even close to that level. For some reason this week, though, I saw this verse in a different light. Jesus was constantly critical of the scribes and pharisees for attempting to display a level of righteousness they hadn’t truly attained. The only way to achieve true righteousness would be through Christ, and that could only happen by admitting sin and weakness, not by touting strength.

I’m imperfect. I don’t always get it right, but I don’t always get it wrong either. I’m gray, and I have a feeling you probably are, too.

 

The Journal & The Confessional

I once dated a Catholic girl in high school, but I think the only real experiences I had with the Catholic church involved a youth group meeting and an Ash Wednesday service. Oh, and I gave up potato chips for Lent one time – which is actually much more difficult than it sounds.

The point is, I know next to nothing about the Catholic faith. I have some vague notions of Hail Marys and sacraments and sainthood, but none of it really jibes with what I believe the Bible says about Christianity. I also don’t believe it’s necessary to be absolved of your sins by a priest, since the Bible describes Jesus as our high priest. None of this means I dislike Catholics or think they’re going to hell; I just don’t agree with all of their practices.

The one aspect of Catholicism that has always intrigued me, however, is the confessional. The Bible does state that we are to confess our sins confessional“one to another,” but sometimes it’s difficult to be sure whether what you say to just any other person will stay between the two of you. Plus, you usually have to look them in the eye. There’s something strangely appealing to me about going into a small room, face obscured by a divider, and being able to bare your soul to a human being who is bound by his position not to tell anyone else what you just said.

On second thought, it’s not that strange at all. It’s freedom.

Some things are just very difficult to say out in the open. They’re either too shocking or too embarrassing or too troubling. The fact remains, though, that they are there, somewhere inside us. Our responses to these issues often become muddled. We either present them with halfheartedness to others because we don’t want to look bad or we just stuff them down deeper and deeper inside our souls. In either instance, they don’t fully come out, and we’re usually not strong enough to carry them forever.

So the priest exists for the Catholic, and I suppose the counselor or psychiatrist exists for many others. What happens, though, when there are no listening ears you’re necessarily comfortable with? Someone once suggested to me that I begin keeping a journal of my thoughts. This type of journal would work more as a diary – no one would see it but me. I’ve tried for a while to pass this blog off as my “journal” … but it’s just not enough anymore.

I need a confessional.

Hello-Kitty-Summer-Fruits-Strawberry-Lock-Diary_700_600_3Z89VI suppose as long as I don’t go out and purchase a Hello Kitty diary with a padlock I’ll be able to treat this as an adult endeavor. Fact is, I’ve always viewed journals as sort of a juvenile thing, even though some of the greatest historical writing on record has come from the journals of astounding men. The purpose of my doing this isn’t to hide all my dirty little secrets, but rather to try to understand where certain thoughts come from and have a record to look back on.

Oh, and it’s also to hide things. Sort of.

The Sacred And The Profane

I tried to be good. I really, really did. I white-knuckled the bar until I thought I would bend it in half. I looked around, formed an interpretation of the standard, and did my best to live by it.

And now I’m kind of tired.

rules-for-allBefore anyone gets alarmed, this is not one of those “Here’s Why I Left Christianity” posts. I am still very much a Christian. I still believe Jesus Christ is the son of God and that he died on a cross and was raised from the dead three days later. I believe his blood washed away my sins and that he has made me a new creation. I believe the Bible is the holy word of God and that it contains the words of wisdom needed to live a joyful and fulfilling life. As the late Rich Mullins once sang, “I believe what I believe.”

The older I get, though, I’m beginning to realize the very real danger of turning Christianity into such a rigid, unyielding, methodical set of rules that it somehow ceases to be transforming, redemptive, or powerful. Such an emphasis can be put on “doing the right thing” that we begin to run the risk of never know exactly what we should be doing. Following the script becomes the most important thing, and the specter of self-condemnation is ever at the door. It’s not so much a falling from grace as it is simply giving it up in favor of an impossible standard.

I lived a lot of years around people who abused the concept of grace. They basically turned it into a license to treat people however they wanted and then turn the other person’s hurt back on them by accusing them on not extending grace to them. It was messed up, but it made me rigid as far as the rules were concerned. I sure didn’t want to be like that, so I adopted the hard line. The only problem was, I still sinned, and since I was so bent on keeping the rules, I beat the crap out of myself every time I broke one. That’s what the serious Christians did, I told myself.

I have literally lost track of how many times I have cleaned out all my “secular” music, only to replenish all of it within a couple of years. I purged all my movies I deemed unacceptable, but, you know, Marvel’s The Avengers was pretty cool, so… I stopped cursing … well, except for when I got really mad or when I wanted to make a point or when I was alone in the car or…

And I felt very, very guilty about all this for a very, very long time. No, actually, I felt ashamed of all this. Guilt would describe how I felt about committing these heinous infractions; shame would describe the loathing of who I was as a person who couldn’t seem to get it right.

I still believe grace can be carried too far, but I’m also beginning to believe the leash may be a little longer than I thought it was. I let a word go ron burgundyhere and there, sometimes accidentally, sometimes not. I have the dialog from a large chunk of the movie Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy memorized. “The Humpty Dance,” by Digital Underground, is on my iPod. Do all these items added up sound like a formula for biblical wisdom? Possibly not. Do I get a certain level of enjoyment out of them, though? Um, yeah. Yeah, I do. More joy than I got out of attempting to live like a pharisee, that’s for sure.

The question becomes, then, where to draw the line? Is this all a sign that I’m loosening up and living a little or am I gradually sliding toward oblivion? I’d like to think it’s the former more than the latter. One of the effects of depression is how it can paralyze your decision-making abilities, and two stone tablets carved full of rules on your shoulders doesn’t help this any. As someone recently said to me, whatever decision you make is yours. Whether it’s good or bad, you have to live with the consequences. But, in the end, it’s yours.

I am not a thrill-seeker. I’m not looking for danger. I’m generally a nice guy. I want to be a good Christian and a good parent and a good husband. I would like to do all that while I’m alive, though, and not some hollow shell that’s forgotten how to experience the joy of life. It’s a process I’m still walking out, trying to determine the line between the sacred and the profane. It’s probably a line more people are walking than would care to admit.

The Righteousness Of Christ

0916141037In case you’re not familiar with it, this is the Personality Assessment Inventory, a 300-plus item survey designed to evaluate a person’s mental condition. Actually, it’s a little more clinical and technical than that, but the official definition of the P.A.I. contains enough psycho-babble to actually drive a sane person crazy, so I’ll stick to layman’s terms here. I’ve filled it out a couple of times, and I’ve been struck both times by the simultaneous depth and ridiculousness of some of the statements it contains.

The way the P.A.I. works is, a person is given a list of statements and then asked to rate them as “false,” “somewhat true,” “mainly true,” and “very true.” I’ve always thought the P.A.I. contained an excessive amount of questions concerning alcohol and drug use, but since I’ve never had a problem with either of these I may not notice their importance. There is one statement in particular, however, that always grabs my attention: I deserve severe punishment for my sins.

As a Christian, I feel as if I’m supposed to mark “false” based on the following reasoning: Christ died for my sins, and the punishment for them has been removed. I’m pretty sure, however, that both times I’ve filled out the P.A.I. I’ve filled in the circle for “very true.” To be honest, I’ve always felt like I was going to be one of those people who only got into heaven because I asked Jesus into my heart and God would therefore be required to begrudgingly take me in. When I saw the word “righteous” in the Bible, I knew it wasn’t talking about me; I was sinful, and I knew it.

Thinking this way can obviously suck a lot of the joy out of the Christian life. I constantly compared myself to others, judging my life based on what their lives appeared to be like. I didn’t know if they struggled with anything or not. They looked good on the outside, said all the right things, and knew all the right scriptures. I’ve always felt like an impostor, someone who would be kicked out and disowned if anyone ever caught wind of what was actually in my heart. Obtaining righteousness became a goal to me, and I could never quite reach it.

And then, for some reason, like a bolt from the blue, I realized something yesterday: I can’t reach it.

“For our sake, He made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” I could never do anything to attain the righteousness necessary to stand before God. His mercy and grace is a gift, and I could never earn anything from Him. If Jesus’ righteousness is standing in for me, then, and I could never do anything obtain righteousness on my own, wouldn’t it stand to reason once I had it that I couldn’t do anything to lose it either? Is it possible that because of Jesus I am actually made righteous by him, no matter what I do?

I’m not advocating sin here, nor am I trying to give myself a free pass for any transgressions I may committed. What I am trying to grasp is that I … am … righteous. Those righteous people the Bible talks about? I’m one of them. “There is now no condemnation…” Even typing this, I’m fighting it. “I deserve severe punishment for my sins.” Thing is, I actually do deserve it. Someone stepped in, though, and took it for me, and when God looks at me He sees the sacrifice, not the sin.

I’m only sharing this because during the countless sermons and church services I’ve sat through and the hours of programs and CD’s I’ve listened to, I never thought of righteousness this way before. I’m sure many of you are shaking your heads and saying, “Duh, I’ve known all this for a long time.” Well, I haven’t. I’m still not sure I understand it fully. I need to get this in my soul, though. One of the hallmarks of depression is guilt, and not understanding righteousness produces heaps of it. I’ll say it again: I need to get this.

am righteous.

am righteous.

am righteous.

Doing It For Ourselves

Question: What is the chief end of man?

Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.

It’s so easy to pick on the Osteens. From the Texas-inspired drawl that creeps into their speech from time to time to the weird plastic-y shine on their faces to the way they fumble over questions about Jesus being the only way to heaven, Joel and Victoria Osteen are practically sitting ducks for anyone with a beef against prosperity gospel teachings and the fall of biblical doctrine in the United States. And, quite frankly, most of the time they deserve what they get, in my opinion.

Thanks to the wonders of YouTube, Victoria Osteen has been drawing a larger-than-usual amount of fire this week for remarks she recently made to the congregation of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. Just to let what was said speak for itself, here is a transcript of her exhortation:

“I just want to encourage every one of us to realize when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God – I mean, that’s one way to look at it – we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. That’s the thing that gives Him the greatest joy. So, I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?” 

Oh, my gosh, they just make it too easy sometimes, don’t they? (And I say they because Pastor Joel is standing right beside his wife, smiling the entire time, while she’s saying this.)

Everyone from Albert Mohler to the pastor at the church down the street have been teeing off on this one all week. I did actually come across a few apologists attempting to clarify what Victoria said, but c’mon. There’s no theologically sound argument for this kind of logic. Yes, God does bring us joy in the morning and peace that passes all understanding, but He never promises happiness. All of our joy is to be found in Him, a fact that’s stated over and over again in the Bible.

There’s no way I would attempt to try to defend such remarks, but I’ve been wondering if maybe all the furor isn’t so much over what the Smiling Preacher’s wife said so much as that she may have inadvertently unveiled a sort of ugly truth about the church today.

We don’t go there to worship God. We go there to feel happy.

I used the pronoun we there because I’m not going to pretend I haven’t done this myself. “Gotta recharge the batteries. Let’s go to church!” I mean, I’m going to go sing songs and listen to a sermon, but what I really want is to feel better. Judging from the fact that Lakewood is the largest Protestant church in the United States, it would seem plenty of other people want to feel better, too.

Is it wrong for people to want to feel happy? Well, I don’t know. I think the Bible draws a pretty clear line between joy and happiness. Joy operates irrelevant of our circumstances; happiness is an emotion that hinges nearly entirely on our circumstances. I would wager, though, that there are an awful lot of people out there besides the Osteens who show up Sunday morning looking for happiness than those who show up seeking joy. I believe that’s why so many staunch theologians are up in arms over Victoria’s remarks. They know she’s wrong, but they also know that she’s peddling what more and more Christians are looking for.

This could wrap around into the “Did the Osteens create us or did we create the Osteens?” debate, but I really don’t care to get into that right now. What I think these recent remarks should do is cause each one of us to look at ourselves and ask a very hard question: Do I play at worshiping God to make myself feel better or do I offer Him authentic and real worship simply because of who He is? This could be an example of God using all things for good. If not, well, at least there’ll be a bunch of happy people running around, right?

 

Sins vs. Mistakes

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” – Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

I hear the word “mistake” used a lot these days. Thing is, I don’t think many people are using the word correctly.

Take Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, for example. By now, most people know that Rice knocked his wife out and dragged herray rice from an Atlantic City elevator (Thank you, TMZ.). He would later apologize and call the incident “the biggest mistake of my life,” but I don’t think his wording is quite adequate. I mean, to me a mistake would have been aiming for her stomach and hitting her in the head. Taking a swing, well, that doesn’t accidentally happen.

As far as wording goes, I don’t believe a “mistake” is something that can happen deliberately. For instance, if I decide to drink a bottle of tequila and get drunk, my inebriation is not an accident. It would be poor judgement, but the alcohol wouldn’t have accidentally spilled into my mouth. I would have put it there. In fact, the Bible refers to drunkenness as “debauchery,” which leads into a very uncomfortable three-letter word…

S-i-n.

I have only recently begun to understand what this word actually means. To put it more accurately, I’m gradually realizing what Jesus dying for our sins really entails. For years, this is how I thought forgiveness works: If I commit a sin by mistake (like cutting someone off in traffic accidentally or something), God is cool with that because I didn’t know what I was doing. If I knowingly did something wrong, though, I would suffer dire consequences because God does not take kindly to His rules being broken. Thus, any bad circumstance that occurred in my life must be my fault because I can’t … stop … sinning.

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Okay, I like that verse. I always say that the apostle Paul wouldn’t have spent so much time telling all those churches to stop doing bad stuff unless, well, they were doing lots of bad stuff. And these were the Christians he was writing to, not the heathens on the street. It would appear, then, that God stands ready to forgive a Christian if they sin, whether it is on purpose or not.

But…

“No one who is born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he hasbrennan been born of God.” This scripture is not so reassuring. There are countless stories out there of alcoholics who poured all their liquor down the drain the night they got saved, but there are also those stories of people who continued to struggle with addiction for the rest of their lives (Brennan Manning, author of The Ragamuffin Gospel, would be an example of this.). Did the second group not really get saved? If they confessed every time they got drunk, were they still covered? I’ve never been drunk, but I’ve done plenty of other dumb things since becoming a Christian. What does that mean for me?

To be honest, I’m still struggling with the answer to that question. I look at the story of Peter in the Bible, and I see forgiveness written all over it. In fact, Jesus even told Peter how he was going to sin. Peter didn’t accidentally not recognize a photo of Jesus that night; he deliberately and purposefully said to the crowd, “I don’t know the man.” You can’t inadvertently lie and say you don’t know the son of God when, in fact, you do. If Jesus could have mercy on Peter after that, it would stand to reason that deliberate sins could be covered.

Regardless of the answer to this question, though, the key point I’m trying to make is that sins should be owned. They shouldn’t be reclassified as “mistakes” because they’re usually not committed accidentally. And if they aren’t owned and confessed as being deliberate acts – no matter how awful the judgement may be – then they can’t ever be dealt with properly.

john newtonThe mistake would be to think I’m not the kind of person who would do that kind of thing, because I obviously was. We all are, and that’s why we need Jesus so desperately. As John Newton once said:

“I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”