The Son of God did not become man, die, and rise again so that we could walk a tightrope over hell.
The intrepid traveler arrives on a remote, tropical island and is greeted by primitive natives who inexplicably receive him as some kind of royalty. He's celebrated, worshipped, treated to an exotic feast, bathed in fragrant springs.
All too soon does our hero realize, however, that he is only being fattened and basted for the feast, for at the center of this island of adventure broods the active volcano, which the islanders fear as a terrible god. To appease the wrath of this fire-breathing mountain, the natives bind the adventurer to bamboo poles and carry him to a harrowing and often comically evaded plunge into the smoking magma.
This oft-repeated gimmick usually encourages us to view this adventure from the eyes of the visiting traveler, but I wonder what it must be like for the natives? How can they stand it, living their whole lives in the shadow of (what they believe is) an all-powerful, always-angry being? A being which exists only to quench its own thirst for dominance, that constantly craves appeasement and waits with eagerness for one slip-up, one neglectful moment against which it may bring a swift and brutal judgment?
How can they live that way?
How can I?
You Can't Obey
"Burnout" is the ultimate bane of the good Christian. Have you ever stopped and wondered, "Why am I doing this? And is it worth it?" I heard a prominent author once say this is a sign you are about to lose your salvation. Others have said it's a sign you weren't saved in the first place.
How can I get tired of following Jesus? How do I get angry at God when I know He loves me so much?
As frustrations, resentment and accusations against God surface in my heart, the first truth I realize is that love is missing from the equation. Maybe I don't know about His love as deeply as I thought I did. I doubt God and I fear Him (in a bad way); on some level I don't recognize or trust Him. Therefore, what could I have been doing except trying to appease Him, to bargain with Him, to stave off His anger?
I grow weary with God, not because His promises are false, but because I don't really know Him. I know some other god, this twisted amalgamation that is passed on through generations and given to each of us through bad theology, unhealthy relationships and the faultiness of our own understanding.
This is the volcano god. You're scared into obeying him for now, but no matter how frightened you are of him, you will get tired. You will resent him, and that resentment will find ways of expressing itself.
And maybe—just maybe—that doubt, resentment and anger is a gift.
God the Hostage-Taker
The pastor at a church I once attended did an entire series on how we (Believers) are all "sinners in the hands of an angry God." That's right: we are still just sinners and God is still mad.
His biggest pet-peeve was all this "God loves you" stuff he believed narcissistic Americans didn't need to hear, since we love ourselves so much already. What we needed, in his view, was a little hellfire, a little self-disgust and shame.
A couple times he quoted some saint (although I would hesitate to put that label on whoever said this) saying that God sees each of us in our sin as a filthy, wretched spider dangling over hell by a single thread, one that could easily be snipped should the spider give reason.
In a different year, a popular author came to a another church I attended. He offered a lesson on the "sin that leads to death" (1st John 5:16) and how easy it was to commit it. A lot of Christians had sinned away their salvation without realizing it, he said, and God told him never to pray for those people. Forget the mercies-new-every-morning garbage; when you're done you're done. He didn't really explain what the unforgivable sin actually is; I think to find out I had to buy his book.
One more gem. There was once a young engaged couple—or so I was told—who gave into temptation a few short weeks before their wedding night. To make a long story short, this poor decision somehow culminated in their falling stark-naked down a flight of stairs in full view of their family and friends, disgraced and humiliated. They cancelled their wedding and each lived several dismal years of working through the shame.
The moral: They got what they deserved and God will make sure it happens to you (if you disobey).
These tales are just an excerpt from an encyclopedia of negativity that's been employed to keep my generation in check. Pastors and teachers and authors have detailed to me the myriads of ways we can cut ourselves off from God, lose our prayer privileges, cancel out our gifts, squander our inheritance.
The motivation for seeking God and obeying Scripture has so seldom been His goodness and trustworthiness, and so often been about the angry hand He's supposedly saving for the day we step out of line.
How much are the steps in my walk of faith motivated by fear? And, is it holy fear to be frightened of what God will do to me if I don't measure up? Is it even helpful fear?
I have a confession: I've never obeyed the volcano. Not fully, anyway. The threat of its terrible eruption and the heat of its spew has been a deep, visceral force of fear in my life—and yet it's never been enough motivation.
The funny thing about that kind of fear is that it only inspires you to look like you're doing what it requires. You'll do the minimum of what the volcano requires and no more. After a while you might even convince yourself you're deeply committed, but you're not. That's the relationship you have with someone who has a gun to your head. You are not a son or daughter, not even a servant. You're a hostage.
I don't know all the ins and outs of salvation theology. I just can't believe, though, that the Son of God became man, died and rose again so that you and I could walk a tightrope over hell. I couldn't build a relationship with anybody who either gave up on me or made me start from scratch every time I screwed up.
If I am just a filthy sinner in the hands of an angry god, forget it. I have no virgins to throw to the fire. If, after all that Jesus did for us, God is still angry, there is no hope anyway.
God the Celebrity CEO
A bestseller recently informed me that I am a "God-promoter." That is my identity, my purpose in life. I am here to make God more famous, to get other people excited about and devoted to Him. The minute I start making things about me, I have lost my grip on God's will for my life. God loses interest in people like that (people with needs and desires) real quick, so the book said.
Everything is about God's glory. That's why God does what He does—glory is all He wants. I saw a church marquee once that read: "Jesus didn't die for you; He died for God's glory."
What is glory, anyway? Is it giving God grander and grander compliments? Is it slapping His name on everything we do? Is it trying to market Him to the masses through knock-off entertainment? Is it wallowing in self-flagellating musings about how depraved and wretched we all are?
I know. Whenever something goes right in your life, you're supposed to say, "That wasn't me; that was God. I had nothing to do with it."
In a previous article I mentioned that I don't think God is so stuck on Himself, and yet you'd think He is. You'd think that in every word, action and interaction His sole concern was being the center of attention, collecting the maximum amount of accolades, making sure nobody else even thinks of getting in His limelight. If you do, volcano.
I recently saw a blurb on Facebook about a churchgoer who complained to their pastor that they weren't "getting anything out of worship." The pastor quickly rounded on the dissatisfied congregant with a hard truth: "You're not supposed to get anything out of worship. It's not about you."
Supposedly, in the Victorian era it was of very low priority for a wife to enjoy sex with her husband. In fact, she ought to just forget about it because that part of the relationship was all about him.
I don't think the idea would fly today—at least not in Western culture. If a woman today complained that she no longer found sex pleasurable, or has simply lost her desire, wouldn't a competent doctor or therapist try to figure out what was wrong and remedy the situation? Wouldn't restoring that connection for her be important, especially to the husband? I can't imagine a loving husband saying, "Hey, it's not about you, anyway."
So if the Bride of Christ loses the spark, what would her Promised do?
Maybe this particular congregant just needed to get over their hang-ups about musical style. Maybe they didn't fully understand how to enter into connection with God through worship. Maybe they were going through something soul-shaking, and needed a different kind of personal touch from God that doesn't happen in corporate worship.
We don't know, because the pastor never found out. He was armed at the hip to shut down anybody who wasn't playing along.
Funny how people believe that the God who taught us that love is attentive and other-centered, doesn't boast, keeps no record of wrongs, etc., would not love that way Himself. Frankly, if God is so stuck on Himself, we really don't need to be transformed to become like Him, do we?
Standing on the Beach
So I'm standing on the sandy shore, taking one last look at the dark and gloomy volcano that casts its shadow over everyone and everything on the island, its crest aglow with the threat of destructive retribution.
Could I really say goodbye and set out to sea, and call myself a Christian? Haven't I always been told that a good Christian stays right here and joins in with everyone else, doing everything we can to appease the mountain?
But I can't please the volcano. I can't because I don't love it— because it never loved me. A volcano is never satisfied anyway, not until it spews out every last bit of its wrath. That's the only thing that relieves the pressure, and I can't stick around for that to happen.
If I'm going to have hope and a future and a God I can know and love, I'm going to need Him to have dealt with His wrath already. That's not a demand—how could I make one?—it's just the way it has to be. If He won't do it, who then is it up to?
And I'm sorry, but I'm just not interested in working PR. I'm a terrible salesperson. The most effective ones are those who thrive on their own influence, who are skilled at using their charisma to coax, convince and intimidate people into getting onboard with them. They're the ones who bring in the big numbers. They may not care why or how, but they'll get it done.
I'm starting to think God's first desire isn't for me to promote Him, but to enjoy Him. Just between you and me, I believe that's the real reason He made me: to taste and see that He is good. And I think that, if I know God was good, not because that's the image I'm supposed to project but because I'm making a lifestyle out of encountering that reality, I'll end up promoting Him, anyway.
The most genuine advertisement, after all, comes from the satisfied customer. Even though word of mouth works so much smaller and slower than big-ticket marketing, God never chose quantity over quality.
Besides, they say I need to get over my "consumerist" attitude, and it doesn't help me to be treated like a corporate minion.
There's no practical way off the island. You don't think the volcano would provide escape boats, do you? But Somebody's calling me out over the water, regardless. If I keep my eyes on Him, I think I can make it.
So long, volcano.
Copyright 2009 Mike Ensley. All rights reserved.