Are we playing at religion?

I’ve started reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity again. It is a dated book, but only in ways that are not terribly important. I find it a wonderful book. To the extent I can, I am going to share some reflections from reading through it, perhaps as a way to restore life to this moribund blog.

To begin, a quotation from the first section of the book:

God is the only comfort. He is also the supreme terror: the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from. … Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again. They are still only playing at religion.

One thing that strikes me about so much religiosity I encounter is how little it regards the “terror” side of the above equation. In the church, we seem unaware of the the fact that if God is ultimate goodness, and expects us to be good, we are in a bad way.

In his book, Lewis begins with two foundational claims. First, that we as human beings believe that there is such as thing as right and wrong. We have the sense that there is a way that other people ought to behave toward us — not out of mere social convention but because it is “the right thing to do” — and we are upset when people do what is wrong. Lewis’ second point is that we ourselves often fail to act toward others in the very ways we believe they ought to act toward us. In other words, we believe in right and wrong, and we often do what is wrong.

Of course, we often justify our wrong acts. We come up with lots of reasons why it is okay to cheat a particular person or institution, why it is okay to lie, even why it is okay to commit violence against someone else, but we do not rest easy in our justifications. Indeed, the fact that we feel the need to justify such actions is often all the proof we need that we know we have done wrong. You do not need to offer excuses for why you do the right thing, after all.

Lewis argues that the source of this sense of right and wrong  is God and this sense is itself evidence of God. (You can read the book to get the full argument. I am not doing it justice in this short summary.) At this point in the book, Lewis is not arguing for a Christian conception of God. He is merely arguing that we bear within us testimony to existence of a right and wrong that is beyond human creation and above our control. The vast majority of human beings throughout time have shared the conviction that there is a moral order, that a god or gods expect humans to live in accord with it, and that there are consequences for failing to do so. We long for those consequences for other people. We often reject the notion that they should apply to us. We imagine standing before God and inexplicably are not the least bit weak in the knees.

All of this leads me to ask, “How many of us in the church today are still merely playing at religion?”

How many of us have ever seriously contemplated the fact that if God stands resolutely against the wicked, he stands resolutely against us?

Sure, we have all our excuses. My wickedness, my selfishness, my sinfulness is not as bad as someone else. It’s not like I am Adolph Hitler. Or the wrongs I do are justified by some harm I have suffered or some defect that I cannot control. In the end, we tell ourselves, if God is good then that means he will ignore my sins even as he punishes the sins of others, the ones who really deserve it.

We wrap ourselves up in the comfort of God and refuse to the possibility that there might be some terror involved in coming face-to-face with a holy and good God.

We who remember what it felt like to dread having to confess to our parents some petty childhood wrong we had done think we will stand at ease in the light of God’s goodness without the least bit of worry or fear.

As Lewis says, we are playing at religion.

It is for good reason that the Bible tells us that the beginning of all wisdom is the fear of God. We should be afraid. We know our own hearts. Only if we have known the grace of holy fear of God can we truly know the grace of the relief and comfort from those fears. Yes, I am paraphrasing John Newton. I hope next time I sing his hymn, I do not gloss too lightly over that line: “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fear relieved.”

Advertisements

Making friends with God

No friend, no lover, no husband or wife, no community or commune will be able to put to rest our deepest cravings for unity and wholeness. And by burdening others with these divine expectations, of which we ourselves are often only partially aware, we might inhibit the expression of free friendship and love and evoke instead feelings of inadequacy and weakness. Friendship and love cannot develop in the form of an anxious clinging to each other.

— Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out

There are truths we believe but we don’t really understand.

Henri Nouwen’s words have been marked in my book since the first time I read them several years ago. But I have been coming to understand them more deeply since last September. Mostly what I have been coming to understand is how much I have directed my “cravings for unity and wholeness” toward others and how they treat me and speak to me. I have discovered holes in myself that I had been trying to fill with the uncertain kindness and love of others.

Failing that, I turned to a sense – an artificial one – of self-importance and accomplishment, which is just another kind of chasing after praise. I believed that — as Augustine says — our hearts are restless until we find rest in God, but I did not really understand it.

The requirement with finding that sense of unity and wholeness in God is that you have to be well-acquainted with God, which means time devoted to silence and prayer and disciplines of the Spirit. It is not something you can rush through. Ten minutes – or five – with today’s devotion in the Upper Room is not doing it. It is the spiritual equivalent of sending someone a Happy Birthday post on Facebook. You did it. There is even evidence that you thought of the other person. But your life is no deeper for having done it.

As Eugene Peterson has written more than once, pastors of all people are prone to confusing being busy about God-talk and church work with spending actual time with God. Preparing sermons and praying in public and making pastoral calls are good, honest religious work, but they are all on the clock. Friendship with God develops before and after you punch the time clock.

This morning, I was pondering a passage from 1 John when Nouwen’s words came to me.

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2:15-17)

The apostle’s words are not as gentle or even speaking to the same exact point as Nouwen’s. He is issuing a warning, but the ground is similar, I think. John also speaks to us of the ultimate inadequacy of misdirected love. The love is misdirected because it aims toward the wrong thing, and it is misdirected because it is that clinging, needful thing that we often call love because our words are imprecise and we are so good a lying about our own intentions.

I think I am coming to understand this truth more fully. I have much more to learn and much more to do. God is a good friend. He waits patiently for me. I am grateful for that.

Purity and justice

See how each of the princes of Israel who are in you uses his power to shed blood. In you they have treated father and mother with contempt; in you they have oppressed the foreigner and mistreated the fatherless and the widow. You have despised my holy things and desecrated my Sabbaths. In you are slanderers who are bent on shedding blood; in you are those who eat at the mountain shrines and commit lewd acts. In you are those who dishonor their father’s bed; in you are those who violate women during their period, when they are ceremonially unclean. In you one man commits a detestable offense with his neighbor’s wife, another shamefully defiles his daughter-in-law, and another violates his sister, his own father’s daughter. In you are people who accept bribes to shed blood; you take interest and make a profit from the poor. You extort unjust gain from your neighbors. And you have forgotten me, declares the Sovereign Lord. (Ezekiel 22:6-12)

I was reading Ezekiel last night. Chapter 22 grabbed my attention in more than one way. In the latter part of the chapter when it talks about God’s wrath refining Israel like silver, I thought of John the Baptist and Jesus. I wonder if they had this chapter in mind when they preached.

But it is the quote above that opened up a question I wanted to share with you.

In the passage above, God lays out a list of offenses including things we divide into different categories. Some are things we might call concerns with purity — ritual or personal — and some are things we might call justice issues.

Jesus does the same in his preaching. The Apostles do as well.

It seems like we tend to separate these things. You find churches where the emphasis falls almost entirely on the need for us to purify our hearts and conduct. You find other churches where the emphasis falls almost exclusively on care for the poor and vulnerable.

Righteousness in the Bible strikes me as involving both things.

How do we hold these two things together and so honor God?