Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Awful Daring of a Moment's Resistance

“He felt, too, that he was utterly weak again, that he was carried along by a peculiar outside force, that it was not he himself who was running, but, on the contrary, that his legs were giving way under him, and refused to obey him.”
— Dostoevsky, The Double

On the suggestion of Mitzie I borrowed Jonathan’s copy of The Normal Christian Life, by Watchman Nee. It’s full of simple truths that I have never learned. He explains how the Christian is faced with two apparently insurmountable difficulties in his search for God: individual sins, and the fact that he possesses a nature which allows those sins. The first problem is remedied by the blood of Jesus—Jesus’ blood flows over them and takes them away. I don’t understand how, exactly, but at this point the only thing that matters is that it does.

But that leaves the problem of our wicked flesh, whereby those sins occur. And this problem God apparently solves by crucifying us with Christ. I remember that verse I memorized in Bible Drill, though I can’t say I ever understood what it meant until now: “For I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me; and the life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loves me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

What this appears to mean is that the flesh is dead, and that the Christian life is not a process of trying to please God, for that would be to live in the flesh, but to let Christ live within us. Nee even goes so far as to say we need to declare that from henceforth we will never again try to do anything for God. CHRIST does everything. What a radical thought. I’m sure others will be less impressed than I am (since in retrospect this seems to be the whole of Christianity, and half our songs are built around it), but I find it surpassingly profound. I’m willing to venture that I’ll become the leading proponent in our circle of “Let’s stop trying to please God!” theology. I love this. I could sit and meditate on it for days and days—and have, in fact. From now on, when anyone comes to me with a problem, I will direct them to Jesus. I mean, it’s hard for me to conceive how I could have missed this my entire life. The ENTIRE purpose of Christianity is letting JESUS live through us. We don’t do ANYTHING. We love Him. That is all we do. We love Him. We center our lives around loving Him more. I want God to give me a softer heart; I want to sit before Him every day in prayer and explore the depths of His kindness and brilliance; and that’s ALL He requires—that we rest in Him; that we look upon Him; and in so doing, HE changes us into His likeness. We don’t do a thing. I can’t explain to you enough how enormous this is. Yet, since I live, let Jesus wear the crown. The Bible is suddenly inconceivably immense. I’m realizing I know NOTHING about it. Now it makes perfect sense, how people always tell you we’ll be reading the Scriptures for the rest of our lives and beyond. It’s an infinite book, in part because we’re almost infinitely blind. I love it; absolutely love it.

* * *

So I think I might have figured out how all this started. It began with a question. I’ve noticed that in the last two chapters, there were pointed mysteries involving seeming inconsistencies of character which eventually led me to some deeper truth. For example, at the end of what is now the third chapter, I asked myself how two people such as me and Corey with so little in common could have ever been the friends we were; curiously, God led me to reread my favorite “Father Brown” story, “The Hammer of God,” which involves two men who are brothers, a priest and a drunkard. Both share an obsessive love of beauty—though in the priest’s case, this manifests in an absorption with Gothic architecture, in his brother’s case, with women and liquor. Both are corrupted by their obsession, in some interesting ways.

Now in writing the fourth chapter, I ran across a similar question involving [[Miranda]]. I noticed that I was both fascinated by the similarities between us, and repelled by them. At lunch I chided Booth and Corey for comparing us to one another; then I made a thirteen-page chart listing every instant where she quoted me unknowingly. Why the contradiction?

It involves something which I’ve hitherto avoided discussing in every single draft of my novel (of which there have been about five or six at this point). You see, I sensed that God was using [[Miranda]] for a very specific purpose in my life. But I wasn’t entirely certain what this purpose was. I thought it was probable that He wanted us to be married, because when you’re sixteen, that’s the only the purpose you know. But, here’s the strange thing about it—I didn’t want to marry her. I protested against it. I went even further than that: I rebelled against it. I remember one Wednesday night when Booth and I drove to church together, and on the way we fell into a discussion, as we tended to do, on the purpose of [[Miranda]] in my life. Booth told me all these coincidences had been “providentially arranged,” and that he felt [[Miranda]] was “just like a big present from God” (because that’s the way Booth talked back then). I told him I didn’t like the idea; it seemed creepy and weird. I was fascinated by the similarities, but no one wants to marry their identical twin. “I mean, it’s bad enough that we talk and act alike, but we even have the same face!”

But then we arrived at church and the moment we stepped into the room, Krystal Cervantes was speaking about God’s will for your life, and pleading with us not to resist Him, and imploring, imploring us to surrender in those moments when we heard Him calling us, however hard, however steep, the road might seem. And Booth turned and looked at me and he had that sage, knowing look in his face which he wore so often, always with the most un-self conscious sincerity, and he clenched his fists into a ball and said, “We must join with Him…”

It confirmed my suspicions, which I know I had been feeling in one way or another since the afternoon of Doppelganger Day: God wanted me to marry [[Miranda]], and I didn’t want to marry [[Miranda]].

Yet when I read back through my Journal, in particular my Journal from that afternoon (the thirteenth day of school), I find that I was flightily fascinated with her. You have to understand, it was genuinely creepy. I would say something to Booth, and then three hours later, she would say the exact same thing to me. This happened on probably two dozen occasions. As I mentioned in the chapter, I told Booth I wanted us to start a rock band and name our first album, Life is Beautiful; not more than a few weeks later, [[Miranda]] mentioned in passing that if ever she had a band, she would title her first album Life is Beautiful. She started a “Current Events” binder in which she collected news clippings. She would sit in her desk and read and take notes. I told Booth I thought it was obnoxious being compared to another person every single day—only to have [[Miranda]] make the exact same complaint, word for word, later that afternoon.

And in reading my original Journal entry from Doppelganger Day, I can see I delighted in the fantastical possibilities. Maybe she came from a parallel world! Maybe she was my long-lost twin. Maybe God had given me the chance to see what I would be like if I had been born a girl under different circumstances.

What makes this even more complicated, and scarily affirming, is that all the ways in which we ended up being different, I now realize, are ways in which we were actually the same. At the end of the first trimester, she revealed herself to be shallow, manipulative, vindictive, legalistic, cruel, and self-righteous—someone who used her friends with no great love, and then got rid of them the moment they began to cause her problems—someone, in short, exactly like me.

Yet when (as God had forewarned me would happen) [[Miranda]] turned wicked, my immediate reaction was not to think, “Oh, perhaps these are all problems I have as well.” No, rather, I thought to myself, “Oh, perhaps we are not as similar as I imagined.” Which, as I realize now, was entirely wrong.

And I could see now, for the very first time, what had been [[Miranda]]’s true purpose: to reveal those sins to me, to show me the wickedness of my own heart, to hold the mirror up to the face of the Gorgon, as it were, because I couldn’t see those sins in myself; it required another to show me.

And I asked myself, how did I miss the lesson? If that was God’s intention, then how did I miss it?

And then it all came together…

The last seven years of my life have been a gradually, incrementally-escalating series of judgments from God, each designed to show me the extent of my own legalism and wickedness. With each year that passed, the judgments grew more severe because I was so blind and obtuse, I could never figure out why my life was so dismal, and I had no friends. [[Miranda]] was the beginning of that. God sought to show me in the cleverest and coolest way possible what I looked like to others (because of course I wasn’t the only one who had noticed the similarities; others argued with me over it, when I denied them). It had NOTHING to do with doppelgangers; that was just my mystical construction. Of course [[Miranda]] and I are different people, but it was all in the appearances. He allowed me to see her in such a way that she unfailingly reflected me.

Yet at the same time, it was a judgment. And I sensed that God had a purpose in showing me [[Miranda]], but I knew not what it was. I thought the purpose was marriage, but it was actually judgment (not that the two are always necessarily mutually exclusive).

And this is what I did: I stared at that chart during fourth period on September 2, on Doppelganger Day, and I thought to myself, “God wants me to marry [[Miranda]],” and my heart immediately said, “NO.” It willfully, violently, flagrantly resisted the will of God. It’s entirely possible for a person to resist the will of God while being in some measure mistaken about what that will is. I was resisting His judgment without knowing it. And then, to make it worse, I implicitly rejected it by immediately retreating into a fantasy world, of doppelgangers, parallel universes, and time-travelling twins. This is HUGE. Tyler has always maintained that something happened that day that propelled me into a fantastical realm, a realm of surreal, twisted, fantasy escapes, and ultimately into the demonic. THIS is what happened. I rejected God. I rejected Him by telling Him I didn’t want to marry [[Miranda]], and then I rejected Him by creating a mythical world to inhabit where I wouldn’t have to marry her, because she was my sister from another galaxy/time. (Isn’t that intense?). Is it any wonder, is it merely a coincidence, that no more than an hour later, I was physically attacked by a demonic spirit in the computer lab?

And that act of rebellion made it easier to resist Him the next time; and then the next… so that by the time I finally arrived at the point where I would have realized, “Oh, [[Miranda]] has all these sins, and I probably have all these sins as well,” my heart was too hardened and too blind to see it. And so I ran on, from judgment to judgment, sliding all the while ever deeper into the demonic and the dark fantastical.

So, let this be a lesson to you, whosoever you be who read this blog: Don’t ever resist the Holy Spirit. Even if you don’t like what He appears to be telling you, even if you’re eventually proven wrong about it, never, ever say no to Him. His purposes are good; His ways are sound; and He will never lead you astray.

Trust Him.

Friday, December 10, 2010

"A Weak, Poor Lamb to Appease an Angry God": Escape from Mt. Sinai, Part IV

[[ Note: This is the fourth in a many-part series on overcoming the spirit of legalism and religion. In the first part I delineated the symptoms of a legalistic heart; in the second, looked briefly, though not for the last time, at the psychology of Pharisaism, and delved for a moment into the conflict at the heart of the Protestant Reformation. In the third, I explained how holiness is a result, not a requirement, of fellowship with Christ ]].

We left off in the previous blog post by asserting that not only salvation, but sanctification, through the strife of our own efforts, is an offense unto God—leading rather to perversion than to holiness. Dr. Marshall goes even further than this, declaring that the law itself is an occasion for sin:

The law is so far from healing our sinful corruptions, that it proveth rather an occasion of sinful motions and actions, in those that seek salvation by the works of it. This cometh to pass by reason of the power of our natural corruption; which is stirred up and rageth the more, when the holy and just law of God is set in opposition against it; so that the fault is not in the law, but in our own hearts… Corrupt nature is contrary to sincere obedience, as well as perfect; and, if we make it the condition of our salvation, sin will take the same occasion by it, to become exceeding sinful in its motions and stirrings.

Again, there is no corruption in the law itself; rather, the law draws out the corruption in the human heart, by opposing itself to the carnality of weak, frail flesh. This is evidently what Paul meant when he said, “Is the law sin? Certainly not! I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire” (Rom. 7:7-8, NKJV).

Here I always thought Paul was saying, “I would never have known what to do, and what not to do, unless I had been given these helpful instructions called ‘The Law.’” Which is very nearly the opposite of what he’s actually saying. You see how a person suffering under the bondage of Religion will warp even the most grace-exalting passages of Scripture to mischievous ends; and you wonder at times why the Bible, though undoubtedly the most majestic, most sublime of all books, seems so dull and mundane—it’s because the filter of Religion has eliminated all the conflict, all the sin, depravity, and grace—wholly stripped them away, and in place of the story left a long set of rules with a single, uninterruptedly monotonous message: “Be good, and God will love you.” Wrong! Wrong, wrong, wrong!

I say to you, throw off the yoke of slavish fear and fretful striving—take upon yourself the yoke of Christ—the easy yoke of rich, deep-hearted fellowship with One who willingly gives all—and the contours of the Scriptures will open before you in astonishing richness. He will give to you the hidden manna (Rev. 2:17). Thomas a Kempis makes a profoundly true statement in The Imitation of Christ: “The more a man is one with You, and the more he is gathered together in You, the more he understands without labor high secret mysteries, for he has received from above the light of understanding.”

What Paul is actually saying in this passage from the seventh chapter of Romans is that the weakness and filth of the flesh will fester inside of us, un-manifest, unknown, until the law draws it forth. Thus the law was established, not to give us a means whereby we could attain the holiness of God, but to expose our lack of holiness, and our need for redemption.
Marshall goes on to say:

The success of legal doctrine upon the natural man, is according to the proverb, ‘Reprove not a scorner, lest he hate thee’ (Prov. 9:8]. Rebuking a madman is the way to enrage him; and such is the natural man in spiritual things… We find, by manifold experience, that though men be generally addicted to the principle of salvation by works, yet multitudes of them hate all strict preachers of true holiness, because they are a torment to their consciences.

I can attest from experience that nothing will draw out the corruption in a carnal person’s heart more quickly than the presence of true holiness. We can witness this demonstrated, most plainly, in the example of the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, who, having been given the law by Moses, immediately indulged in the most lewd, riotous, rebellious acts. Yet Moses spoke with God face to face, and came down from the mountain, not in sin, but, as it were, transfigured—his countenance literally glowing with the radiance of God. What made the difference? It was this, that Moses, though receiving the law from on high, dwelt in fellowship unbroken with the Godhead during his forty-day sojourn on the mountain; while the Israelites knew only the terrors of the fire, the tumultuous quaking, the thunder of the voice, and the irrepressible emergence of the wayward flesh—which, abhorring the burdensome strictures of the law, and fearful of the judgments decreed for transgressors, ran headlong into sin.

And this is the reality at the very heart of legalistic striving—that, not finding in God the grace, love, and mercy He ostensibly possesses, we behold in Him only a frightening despot, a fierce, tyrannical, controlling, malevolent, all-powerful deity, pitiless and cunning, “in selfish holiness demanding purity, Himself impure,” who will vengefully destroy us if His wrath is not appeased. And secretly we hate Him—who would not? But not seeing any other means of eluding the fires of hell and enjoying the fruits (though hollow fruits they seem) of life everlasting, we expend our frail strength in half defying, half attempting to evade Him (to evade, and not delight—for there can be no notion of delighting such a heart).

And what is the result of this inner instability and dissension, Marshall may tell us:

If these legal zealots be forced, by strong conviction, to endeavour the practice of spiritual duties, for quieting their guilty conscience, they may possibly be brought to strive and labour earnestly, and even to macerate their bodies with fasting, that they may kill their lusts; but still their lusts are living, and strong as ever they were, and do shew forth their enmity against the law of God, by inward fretting, repining, and grudging at it; as a grievous taskmaster, though a slavish fear restrain their gross outward actings… Their hearts swell in anger and manifest hatred against the law, yea, and against God and Christ, and they can hardly refrain from blaspheming him with their tongues. And when they are brought to this horrible condition, if God doth not in mercy discover to them the way of salvation, by free grace through faith alone, they will endeavour, if they can, to sear their consciences past feeling of sin, and fully to abandon all religion; which hath proved such an insufferable torment to them; or, if they cannot sear their consciences, some are easily prevailed with by Satan, rather to murder themselves, than to live longer in the hatred of God, the spirit of blasphemy, and continual horror of conscience. This is the pestilent effect of the legal doctrine upon a carnal heart, that doth but rouse up, and terribly enrage the sleeping lion, our sinful corruption, instead of killing it… For my part, I hate it with perfect hatred, and account it mine enemy, as I have found it to be. And I have found, by some good experience, the truth of the lesson taught by the apostle, that the way to be freed from the mastery and dominion of sin, is not to be under the law, but under grace (Rom. 7:14).

That freedom will be the chief end and discussion of the following post.

"You are Not Under the Law, but Under Grace": Escape from Mt. Sinai, Part III

[[ Note: This is the third in a many-part series on overcoming the spirit of legalism and religion. In the first part I delineated the symptoms of a legalistic heart; in the second, looked briefly, though not for the last time, at the psychology of Pharisaism, and delved for a moment into the conflict at the heart of the Protestant Reformation ]].

When last I left off, we were engaged in a close reading of the fifth chapter of Walter Marshall’s Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, which provides as clear a picture as was ever painted of the inner machinations of works-based religion. A few pages further along into the chapter, he makes this crucial point:

“The difference between the law and gospel doth not consist in this, that one requireth PERFECT doing, the other only SINCERE doing; but in this, that the one requireth DOING, the other NOT DOING, but BELIEVING for life and salvation. Their terms are different, not only in degree, but in their whole nature.”

Here we find another cunning and deceitful subterfuge of legalistic thinking: It invariably masquerades as a doctrine of grace. In this day and in these times it would be altogether too easy for Satan to come out and forthrightly proclaim that the work of the cross was in itself insufficient to atone for our sins, that we stand every moment on the brink of annihilation, and that only the most mortifying acts of penance and contrition can appease the burning wrath of God. For who would believe that? We are Lutherans, all.

Yet here’s what he tells me: “You’re right; you’re absolutely right. You cannot earn redemption. I’m as much a Protestant as anyone,” says Satan. “Eternity is yours now. But how will you keep it?”

And so I find myself having this conversation with myself a hundred times a day:

Q: He’s right, you know. You have your salvation; now what will you do?
A: Well, surely not nothing. Nothing would be contemptible and lazy and ungrateful, and would likely only lead me further into sin. Right? So I have to do something; that’s decided.

Q: What is the purpose of the Christian life?
A: To strive after holiness, surely.

Q: And what is holiness?
A: Why, the doing of things that are right; the avoidance of things that are not right. Purging your heart of its wickedness through fasting, prayer, and obedience. Commitment to the precepts of the Word.

Q: And why do you do those things?
A: Because without holiness no man shall see the Lord. Because only the pure in heart shall see God. Because otherwise how will I persuade Him to answer my prayers, grant me His revelations, and visit my bed in the night with the sound of His voice?

Q: Do you really believe that it’s your obligation to persuade God to do things through the force of your goodness?
A: Well, not when you put it that way. But I have to find some way to earn His attention… I mean, look at my friends, how He loves them…

Q: Earn? Did you just use the word earn?
A: Did I? I meant, win his attention… win it, not earn it…

Q: Practically, what’s the difference?
A: Well, you can’t earn anything, of course, silly; it’s all freely given. But He won’t hear my prayers and reveal to me the joy of His presence if I don’t create a holy habitation for Him in my heart.

Q: Boze, why do you suddenly look so sad and dejected?
A: I… I don’t know. I feel great!

Q: Well, you don’t look great. You look angry.
A: But I’m not angry, I promise!

Q: Oh, it’s understandable. I would be angry too if I thought God loved my friends more than me, that He was more willing to visit them with light and warmth and joy and revelation because they had proven themselves in all respects better Christians than I was, if I thought the Christian life was nothing more than pressing a button a hundred thousand times until you were finally given a pellet, and then doing it all over again the next day, and doing this every day of your life.
A: {{ Sobs }}

Oh, where to begin? Holiness is the result, not the requirement, of fellowship with Christ. Dr. Marshall speaks of those who “would heal themselves, and save themselves from sin and pollution, by sincere obedience. They lay their own obedience lowest in the foundation of their salvation, and build the enjoyment of Christ upon it, who ought to be the only foundation. They would sanctify themselves before they have a sure interest in Christ; and going about to establish their own righteousness, they do not submit themselves to the righteousness of Christ [Rom. 10:3-4].”

What I have been earnestly and zealously attempting to do in attaining the favor of God through hard-earned purity of heart is called “salvation by works of the law.” It is an offense unto God—of all offenses possibly the greatest—because it renders not only the cross, but Christ Himself, of no effect (Gal. 5:1-3). This is the literal truth. “You cannot hide the soul”—and, over time, it occurs to you that something is definitively lacking in your Christian faith. It troubles you, and you ask yourself questions—questions like, Why do I never read the New Testament? Why do I always skip over the passages about the crucifixion when I read the Gospels? Why does everyone else always get so emotional about those passages? Have I been missing something all these years? Why am I strangely attracted to Judaism? How do I know so much about God’s wrath and judgment? Etc…

Moreover, it is no true path to holiness. The only way to holiness is found through Jesus—resting in the presence of the Son of God, through faith, not works—in confident assurance of His goodness towards you—believing, in short, that He is, “and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). Salvation by works of the law is actually contrary and destructive to the true means of holy practice. Those means are: the realization of our reconciliation with God by justification; our knowledge of our everlasting happiness; and of our sufficient strength to will and to perform every duty—all of which is only to be found in Christ, by union and fellowship with Him, through faith (not a right of procurement, but an instrument only, like the hand that reaches up to take its nourishment from its provider).

However, Religion makes these practical means of holiness the means and cause of abundant life, when the reality is that that life, having already been placed inside of us, is the actual cause of holy practice. In other words, Religion asserts that holy practice is necessary before fellowship with Christ can be attained; when fellowship with Christ is the only way to true holiness. It tells us, says Marshall, “that it is presumptuous to take him as our own

until we have performed the condition for our right and title to him; which is another kind of saving faith, otherwise called sincere obedience. By this devised conditional faith, Satan keepeth many poor souls at bay, poring upon their hearts for many years together, to find whether they have performed the condition, and whether they have any right to Christ for their salvation, not daring to venture to take him as their own. It is a strong partition-wall, that will certainly hinder the soul from coming to Christ, until it be thrown down, by the knowledge of salvation by grace, without any procuring condition of works.

So that then, as I did, we become frustrated, irritable, angry, hypocritical, and powerless against sin. This is the very progression which the apostle Paul describes in the first chapter of Romans—a passage which we (or at least I) typically relegate to the category of “passages about non-Christians which don’t concern me.” But look at what he says here: “Although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21, NKJV). Again, one of the most readily discernible, most pernicious effects of a spirit of religion is the near-continual recurrence of ingratitude, “that marble-hearted fiend”—for why be grateful when you’ve earned your way yourself? These verses may apply to a Christian no less than an unbeliever. What is the ultimate effect of resistance to grace? He tells us a few verses later: “Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies… For this reason God gave them up to vile passions” (vs. 24, 26). Remember now, this is the mercy of God in correction; though of course, if you live a life of works, not grace, it will be hard for you to see the mercy in His judgment. God gives us up to vile affections that we might remember from what a height we have fallen, and repent (Rev. 2:5). In His kindness He allows us to see what our lives would be like were we left to ourselves in our hardness of heart. He loves us too much to let us throw away eternity so lightly.

Salvation by the works of the law is a perverse, corrosive doctrine, which will leave us in more sin than it found us, through the futility of attempting to war against the flesh by means of the flesh. It’s like trying to climb a mud slope to escape a pit; you simply cannot do it, any more than Christian could escape the Slough of Despond on his own, without the aid of Help, and Steps of Grace.

The paragraph that follows might easily have been written for the sake of Ignatius of Loyola—or for me:

Those that endeavor to perform this sincere obedience… shall never be able to perform SINCERELY any true obedience by all such endeavours. Though they labor earnestly, and pray fervently, fast frequently, and oblige themselves to holiness by many vows, and press themselves to the practice of it, by the most forcible motives, taken from the infinite power, justice, and knowledge of God, the equity and goodness of his commands, the salvation of Christ, everlasting misery, or any other motive, improved by the most affectionate meditation; yet they shall never attain to the end which they aim at in such an erroneous way. They may restrain their corruptions and bring themselves to many hypocritical performances, whereby they may be esteemed among men as eminent saints; but they shall not be able to mortify one corruption, or to perform one duty in such a holy manner as God approveth… And what a disappointment… when, after all this ado, the remedy is found to be as bad as the disease, equally unserviceable and destructive to that great end for which they designed it; and that it hath an antinomian effect of operation, contrary to the power of godliness.

Spirit-less, Christ-less rending of the flesh will only lead you deeper into sin. You cannot hide the soul.

Anatomy of a Pharisee: Escape from Mt. Sinai, Part II

“O Lord, I am not worthy
O Lord, I am not worthy
Only say the word”
— T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

[[ Note: This is the second in a many-part series on overcoming the spirit of religion and legalism. In the first post, I defined the spirit, explained the nature of the evil attendant on it, and related my own history with the struggle.

In this post I shall begin to examine the psychology of a works-based faith, and briefly relate how the conflict between grace and works was played out in the Reformation and Counter Reformation ]]

So then, after nearly two weeks of waiting, as I studied and worshipped in the Prayer Room at six on the morning on the day of my twenty-fourth birthday, I finally found it.

The key—the answer to all of my questions—a thorough and perfect dissection of the legalistic heart, the manifestations of Religion, its origins, its symptoms, the peculiar mechanics of the love-frightened mind—and, what was more—a way out. A light shone on my path. I saw a door open in heaven, and the sudden possibility of deliverance.

But there was more to it, more, much more even than that—as I shall explain in due time.

I had been reading Andrew Murray’s little book, Abide in Christ, and I noticed that at the end of several chapters he referenced an obscure but apparently incredibly helpful work entitled The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, by a Puritan divine named Walter Marshall. Curious, I looked it up on Google Books—though it had lately been reprinted, I immediately sought out the older scan—and whilst perusing the table of contents I was struck by the title of the fifth chapter: “Those that endeavour sincere obedience, as the condition to procure a right and title to salvation, and as a ground to trust in Christ, do seek salvation by the works of the law.”

That sounded like something that I might have done; so I clicked on the link and began reading—

And was immediately thrust into another dimension—a dimension of inescapable TRUTH!

Look at how the good doctor begins his indictment:

The most of men, that have any sense of religion, are prone to imagine, that the sure way to establish the practice of holiness and righteousness, is to make it the procuring condition of the favor of God, and all happiness.

Why, that sounds great!
I thought.

This may appear by the various false religions that have prevailed most in the world.

Immediately, I came crashing down to earth.

He goes on to explain how, not only the idolatrous practices of the heathens, and the absurd, mortifying rituals of the Eastern religions, and the terrified servitude of the Muslims, but the over-zealous work of many a professing Christian, is warped and corrupted by a paralyzing fear of God’s judgment which takes not into account, nor even sees, the measure of His love and grace through Jesus.

This creates a sort of paradox in the soul. You see, being at the deepest levels profoundly aware of the sin and ingratitude and cunning and cruelty and hatred and evil that infests our hearts, knowing that we have fallen so short of the standards God demands, we persuade ourselves that He will treat us lightly if we only do the best we can. We are so horrified of the sin in our members that, strangely, we overlook it, evade it, treating it as a light thing. “Because our own consciences testify that we often fail in the performance of our duties, we are inclined, by self-love, to persuade ourselves that our sincere endeavours to do the best we can, shall be sufficient to procure the righteousness of God.” This suggests, among other things, that there is a direct connection between religious striving to procure the favor of God, and thereby to avoid the dark fires of judgment, and evasive inability to acknowledge wrong—because we seek to shore up our elaborately-constructed and laboriously-sustained self-image when we fail in our performance, not grasping the reality that already and forever we have attained God’s unmerited pardon and favor.

So we strive all the harder, though always in vain, against evil, while at the same time pretending that the evil isn’t really there, or isn’t quite as bad as we suppose. Inevitably, this creates a split in the personality, whereby delusion and hypocrisy develop.

Having established all this in the first few paragraphs, Dr. Marshall proceeds to lay out a complete psychological profile of the religious, works-based personality:

[They] are not brought to hate sin as sin, and to love godliness for itself, though they be convinced of the necessity of it to salvation, and therefore they cannot love it heartily.

Only in the last six or seven months have I discovered that it’s possible to loathe and rebel against sin for reasons other than its arbitrary wrongness. Frequently people would ask me, Why is lying wrong? Why stealing? Why would it be wrong to give your Jewish friends up to the Nazis if they asked? Or, even more personally, Can you explain why it’s wrong to spend the whole time reading when you go to visit someone else’s house? Can you think of a reason it might be wrong to pace upstairs all night when everyone is sleeping down below? And, well, it was just… wrong. Right?

Then, during the summer, Tyler made the important discovery that “The worst thing in every sin is that it is against God” (as someone, I think Tozer, phrased it), that everything is relational, and sin is wrong because sin is relationally hateful. This revelation was inexorably, inalterably realigning. It would seem the law is not an arbitrary set of right and wrong commandments; but a guidepost on the path to love. “Love,” said the apostle Paul, “is the fulfillment of the law” (Gal. 5:13-14). But that was too high, too unattainable for me. I tried to understand what I meant when I told people sin was relationally hateful to God. Did it hurt Him? Was it possible that God had feelings? Could He feel as a man felt? Could He be moved as a man? Did He yearn in pity? Was He grieved like us? If I pricked Him, would He bleed? If I smote Him, would He weep? The record of the Scriptures seemed to indicate that He would—and, certainly, that’s what I was supposed to think, so I thought it—but I could not understand.

The only means they can take to bring themselves to a hypocritical practice in their old natural way, that they may avoid hell, and get heaven, is by their works. And their own consciences witness, the zeal and love that they have for God and godliness, their self-denial, sorrow for sin, strictness of life, are in a manner forced and extorted from them by slavish fear and mercenary hope; so that they are afraid that if they should trust [in] Christ for salvation, by free grace without works, the fire of their zeal and devotion should be quickly extinguished, and they should grow careless in religion, and let loose the reigns to their lusts, and bring certain damnation upon themselves. [They thus] preach little or none of the doctrine of free grace, but rather spend their pains in rebuking sin and urging people to get Christ and his salvation by their works, and thundering hell and damnation against sinners.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. I remember being irritated with Tyler a few months ago because, when I glowingly tried to narrate the life story of Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits and leader of the Counter Reformation, he immediately interrupted me to note, “This person sounds very religious.” I admit, in retrospect he does sound very religious. That might, in fact, be putting it lightly. The following passage is taken from the chapter on the Counter Reformation in The Story of Civilization, Volume VI, by Will and Ariel Durant:

An old woman directed him to a cave for shelter. For some days he made this his home; and there, eager to surpass the saints in asceticism, he practiced austerities that brought him close to death. Repenting the proud care that he had once taken of his appearance, he ceased to cleanse, cut, or comb his hair—which soon fell out; he would not trim his nails or bathe his body or wash his hands or face or feet; he lived on such food as he could beg, but never meat; he fasted for days at a time; he scourged himself thrice daily, and each day spent hours in prayer.

Apparently in the midst of his torments he received visions of the Trinity and Virgin, who helpfully explained such matters of consequence as how God could be Three Persons in One, and how He had created the world—but nothing on the cross, or redemption, or grace. I scanned through the rest of the chapter to see if he ever experienced a Lutheran flash of insight, but it seems unlikely: “From the experience of this struggle, almost a year long, he designed the Spiritual Exercises by which the heathen flesh could be subdued to the Christian will.” Alas. It is an unbroken story of self-mortification and self-glorification, right up to the end.

Now at last I think I understand what made the Reformation so important; exactly how much was at stake in the war between Luther and Calvin and the cardinals and popes; and something of the truth of the mystery contained in those words, “By grace, through faith.” Somehow the abiding reality is obscured beneath the avalanche of bloodless abstractions which our high schools teach us. It might have proven more beneficial, if, for the sake of posterity, the Reformation had rather been labeled, say “The Revolution of Grace,” and the Counter Reformation labeled, “Revolution Against Grace.” At least then, you would know right off what you were getting yourself into.

I had been drifting towards Catholicism (and even Judaism, of a sort) for well over a year now; it seems hardly a coincidence that in the rest of this chapter, Dr. Marshall brings the fury of his whip down on the Catholics every time he gets a chance. “The texts of Scripture which [works-based believers] usually [employ] [as a pretext for salvation by works], are either contrary to it, or distant from it; as they might learn from many Protestant interpreters, if their affection to a popish tenet had not blinded them.” Ha!

Carl Trueman, professor of historical theology and Church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, sums it up admirably in this newly-posted meditation on the importance of the Heidelberg Cathechism:

At the pastoral heart of the Protestant Reformation lay the doctrine of assurance, the idea that every individual believer could know—indeed, should know—that God was gracious to them. This was critical because, as the Reformers rightly saw, it lay at the heart of the Christian life, a life which was to be marked not by works done in a servile manner in the hope of thereby earning God’s favour, but rather by works done out of gratitude to God for his grace, and in a spirit of confident freedom…

Of course, we need to understand that the assurance of which the Heidelberg Catechism speaks is not the kind of assurance so common in our Christian culture today: the idea that God is a kind-hearted, sentimental chap, that fallen human beings are not really all that bad after all, and that at the end of the day everything will turn out for the best. Not at all. Reformation assurance is Pauline assurance: in ourselves, we are utterly lost and undeserving; but in his glorious grace, God himself has overcome the mountain that was sin and, against all hope and expectation, delivered us through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, a deliverance that is made ours by grace through faith.

It is not for nothing that the saints, heroes, and reformers went to their deaths defending what seem to us abstruse and esoteric remnants of forgotten theology. The subtlest nuance in a person’s thinking, if left unexamined and unaltered, will affect the whole rest of his life. In the deepest, and gravest, and most fundamental sense, what we think is what we are. In determining the course of our thoughts, we determine the world.

"Near the Ending of Interminable Night": Escape from Mt. Sinai, Part I

“The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility. Humility is endless.”
– T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
(“East Coker”)

[[ Note: This is the first in a many-part series on overcoming the spirit of legalism and religion. In it I will define the religious spirit, explain the nature of the evil attendant on it, and relate my own history with the struggle. ]]

Well, I’m twenty-four. I’ve been looking forward to this year with irrepressible anticipation for some time.

My birthday? Better than I had ever expected.

Did I get everything for which I asked?

I did.

But in order to explain to you the manner in which that occurred, I need to talk about some hard things. I have had what’s called a “spirit of religion” for most of my life. It is a mindset rooted in shame, fear, and distrust, at the core of which is a near-unassailable conviction that I can make myself pleasing to God if I only try hard enough for long enough. It denies the reality of the cross and the totality of grace. It manifests in busyness, over-work, distraction, evasion, freneticism, overly-grandiose performance-based religious acts, irritability, anger, and sometimes outright cruelty towards others.

Given this, you’d think it would be fairly easy to identify. It is—for those who don’t already have it. And for those who do, it’s blinding. Pride forbids them seeing, even for a moment, anything that threatens their elaborately-built and stubbornly-sustained self-image. Jesus told the Pharisees, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore, your sin remains’” (John 9:41, NKJV). Yet—and here’s the trick—anyone befriending such a spirit will be likely to insist, “That can’t be me; I’m very aware of my sins. I don’t think I’m better than everyone else; in fact, I think I’m worse!” The other half of Pride is Shame. As Rick Joyner notes in his pamphlet on “Overcoming the Religious Spirit,” and as I’ve experienced again and again in my personal life, any time you attempt to confront a person living a life of works-based righteousness about the evils of Religion, they can easily slip out of it by running in the other direction—through wild acts of prostration, through theatrical attempts at redemption, through overly-earnest, near-excessive apologies. Then, if you confront us about that, we go back in the other direction—into pride, into anger, into hatred. Yet on the surface, it looks great—and it feels great; it looks like nothing more than an over-abundance of zeal and compassion for others. Yet it is altogether vile—murderous, hypocritical, and self-consumed.

Oh God, have mercy.

If at this point you’re still questioning whether or not your life is under the control of a religious spirit, here are a few potential indications:

(1) When you read the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14, you find yourself defending the Pharisee’s prayer (for example, I once tried to argue [without much success] that the Pharisee is actually acknowledging the grace of God in his life when he says, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men…”);

(2) You find yourself nodding along in agreement with the lyrics to the Smith’s song, “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet Baby”: “You just haven’t earned it yet, baby / You just haven’t earned it, son / You just haven’t earned it yet, baby / You must suffer and cry for a longer time…” (Seriously!)

(3) The whole time you’ve been reading this entry, you’ve found yourself thinking of people you know who really MUST read this;

(4) Or you even make it all the way to the end of the article, and vaguely it occurs to you, “This is a definite problem in my life; I ought to look into it more deeply.” Then you never think of it again. You might even forget you ever read it. This is an indication that the stronghold is particularly strong. I’ve done this. If it happens to you, then you should know that the situation is almost certainly chronic.

I’m journaling this entry for my own sake; blogging it for that of others. In scanning the Internet seeking assistance in defeating the religious spirit, I found only the aforementioned pamphlet by Rick Joyner. It’s likely that at some point, somewhere in the world, some other poor soul will be confronted with the reality of utmost evil in his life, and not know where to turn for help, and if he does, perhaps my own experience and reading may provide some spark of hope.

So for seven weeks now I’ve been actively resisting, and attempting to destroy, the spirit of religion. I was making hardly any progress, though, until Thanksgiving, when for two whole days I hid inside a cupboard to evade the distractions that were beginning, anaconda-like, to strangle me lifeless. In the end I decided that, whatever the possible merits of such an approach, it was probably feeding Religion; there was a definitive whiff of theatricality and self-mortification about it; yet it accomplished what I wanted, and when I emerged from the cupboard at last on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I was much less distracted. I could hear God again—with astonishing clarity.

Whilst hiding in the cupboard I had read selected sections from Andrew Murray’s book Abide in Christ, in particular the section from Day 18 on “Stillness of Soul,” in which he describes how the believer’s one duty is to rest in Christ. “Above all,” he writes, “there is the unrest that comes of seeking in our own way and in our own strength the spiritual strength which comes alone from above. The heart occupied with its own plans and efforts for doing God’s will, and securing the blessing of abiding in Jesus, must fail continually. God’s work is hindered by our interference. He can do His work perfectly only when the soul ceases from its work. He will do His work mightily in the soul that honours Him by expecting Him to work both to will and to do” (pp. 120-121, author’s italics).

I immediately thought of a verse God had pointedly given me at the beginning of this journey seven and a half years ago, during my last year of high school: “In returning and rest shall you be saved; in quietness and confidence will be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). (As it happens, this was the epigraph of the chapter). At the time, I had received this as an exhortation to refrain from telling anyone about the strange things that had happened, and continued to happen—thus filtering a loving command to shun striving and labor into an invitation to embrace paranoia and self-protection. In a cold blast of clear-sightedness I suddenly realized that virtually every treasured remembrance of a word spoken in that season had been a gentle but unyielding warning to avoid the very legalism and distrust through which the words were filtered. What else had He said? Through Mike Saladino He had warned me, “You need to hide My Word in your heart; that way, when the counterfeit comes by, you will recognize it; otherwise, it will get you.” Yes, it was an invitation to shun sorcery—but only in part. Religion was the true counterfeit which at that point was only beginning to manifest in a prominent way, after three years of near-silence—works-based legalism, which Rick Joyner and Walter Marshall have both labeled “the enemy and counterfeit of all true religion.” And all this time I had thought He was speaking of poor Marina!

And then, from the same sermon, Zechariah 4:6—long one of my personal mottos: “‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord.” Oh, if only I had understood what that meant at the time, it would have saved me years of failure, years of grief, years of heartache! Are you beginning to see a theme in the words He spoke?

Then last, and not least of all, the great prophecy He gave me at the end of that year (December 2003): “The world has a wrong understanding of what it means to be a hero. A hero is not characterized by his wit, cleverness, or strength, but by the level of his surrender to Me. You and your friends will be examples to the world of what a hero truly is.”

When finally I arrived at this, remembering, I laid my hand across my mouth. So it was true. That prophecy was true. It must have been, because it demonstrated a level of understanding years beyond my age—for, obviously, I still didn’t get it!

“God talks to me,” I said slowly, into the untrammeled darkness of the stairwell. “I can hear His voice!” (In the Spirit I honestly imagined I could see angels throwing confetti at the belated revelation).

Then something must surely have lifted, for in the days that immediately followed I could hardly fail to hear it. He was everywhere I went—and speaking constantly, unless of course I made it clear to Him I didn’t wish to talk. Whiles I was still in the cupboard He lovingly, patiently explained that there were three concentric layers of distraction circling like an asteroid-belt of space junk round my heart. The first was external—books, the Internet, novelling, anything else I could get my hands on; the second was inward, the distractions of the mind—my near-continuous thinking about politics, trivia, music, movies, celebrities, popular culture, which erupts in my speech with unmitigated persistence and renders me a nuisance and a bore to almost everyone I know.

Then, once I had surmounted those two barriers, I ran across a third—a sheer, cold wall of resistance, tight and constricted, like a clenched fist. I realized that I didn’t want God. I realized I harbored not a little the anger and venom I had so vociferously warred against in Corey—rebellion from His plans; resentment of His purpose. I began to see how, in a very real sense, though I honored Him with my mouth, my heart was far away. I was the wife who in the course of a long marriage grows bitter, and grudging, and distant, towards her warm and loving husband. I was the son who hates his father, but couldn’t even give you a reason if you asked him. I was Eustace Clarence Scrubb—before he turned into a dragon—sulky, pretentious, condescending, fearful of Aslan, incontrovertibly convinced that his friends are leagued against him in a secret conspiracy of shared hatred.

And I began to see how much I hated hating—specifically, how I hated the manifest hatred of loneliness, alienation, evasion, and self-martyrdom. I could see where it had brought me—to the bottom of a cupboard, unlit by the sun, friendless, foodless, on Thanksgiving Day. I realized this was all my fault, and that no one had brought it on me but myself. I could see that where God was, there was light, and joy, and fellowship, and warmth, and love, and food, real food, and all the things I lacked here in this self-created pit—this tiny Tophet. And he sent forth his servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding; and they would not come. Again, he sent forth other servants… Again and again, He had beckoned. It was not because of Him that I was here. He had not been scheming ways to drive me to the utmost point of misery for years. It was never His intention to hurt me.

But it was someone else’s.

There in the darkness I could feel him—as plainly and closely as though he was right there beside me. It was a feeling I had not felt with such strength, such conviction, since high school. And I realized that he wanted to destroy me, just because—because hatred does not understand love, because misery envies the happiness of others, because in his own pride and pretension and self-glorification and love of the darkness he had separated himself from all that was good and pure and real and loving in the world, in God, and there was no redemption, nothing but ossified grandeur, perpetual self-pity, and isolation unending—eternally alone in a bed he had laid down for himself, burning in a torment that roared from within, outside the very gates of a city where dwelt myriads of bright, shining people, happy and alive.

And I suddenly knew that I hated it, all of it—hated all the evils to which I had clung in my rebellion against God—hated the loneliness and the darkness and the terror of night and the horror in horrifying things and the willful pretension that asserted its own superiority over love, and romance, and friendship. I was no longer lying on the floor of the Katzen’s, eight other people above me, wildly declaring, “You’ll never have love, or friends—and I feel sorry for you!” I had become the very person to whom I was speaking—but a ray of light still shone, there was still hope for the future, I could still feel the pain of longing, numbed and choked and almost blotted out although it was, and I wanted it, and with everything in my power I just wanted to throw myself at the feet of Jesus and say, “Please, receive me back again. Please, take me back. I will become a hired hand…” But could I even mean it if I said it, and if so, for how long? I was as wayward as the prodigal son, but as proud, as lofty, as his brother. I was drifting towards a world without hope.

At the end of it all, I began a poem which reads, in part:

Thould’st shun a bear
Because I could not stop for love
Thould’st shun a bear
Because I could not stop for faith
Thould’st shun a bear
Because I could not stop for grace
Thou hast broken,
Thou hast broken me asunder

Thou liftest me up on the whirlwind,
And dissolvest my substance.

Yet for the first time, I was beginning to trust Him. He had smashed all my bones—but only to rebuild them. He had rent my heart in pieces—but only, in the end, to save my soul.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Terrors of the God-haunted Man: A Slacktivite Response

Welcome, all Slacktivite friends!

[[ Note: Last night on the Slacktivist blog, Fred Clark wrote the latest in a long series of posts - stretching back to the early 2000s - in which he critiques the "Left Behind" novels from a literary, theological, and human perspective. He noted how, in mainstream Christian end-times theology, the wiles of the Devil and the purposes of God are so intertwined, that to oppose the one is to incur the wrath of the other. Add to this the terrifying and apparently arbitrary suffering devised by the end-times God in a schemata removed from its biblical context of righteousness, judgment, and hope in a final restoration of all things, and you create a God more diabolical, and frankly more scary, than the Satan whom Christians are taught to believe they are incapable of resisting. Reading this and feeling profoundly inspired, I immediately wrote the following post]]:

FRED! Thank you! This post is inspired. It comes as a revelation for me personally. Let me explain why.

{{ wondering if he should finally come out or not… hmmm… }}

Okay! Well… I grew up a pre-millennial dispensationalist. I read all the Left Behind books as soon as they came out—all but the last one, which, for one reason or another, I could never finish. I absorbed its theology without question, though somewhere along the way I abandoned pre- for post-tribulationism. I attended a small, squabbling, continually splitting Southern Baptist church.

Beginning on the first day of my last year high school, I found myself in the midst of some pretty improbable circumstances. As I had been nervous about returning to school, my best friend Booth decided he would try and calm me down by making jokes about how awful everything would be—e. g. “Watch, they put you in Criminal Law!” “Watch, ‘Brian’s schedule is so messed up there’s no fixing it, and he gets put in Daycare class!”—all of which happened, along with others I’m leaving out—and when, on the second day of school, we experienced a campus wide blackout, on the day of the Great New England Blackout (though we lived in Texas), in the midst of a long rant “Mr. Peggleston” had been delivering, since the beginning of class, on the idiocy of New York’s electrical system, and not more than a minute after Booth leaned over and said, “Watch, the lights suddenly go out!” my friend “Brian” and I decided there was something strange and supernatural afoot.

We began seeing omens everywhere—moths, ravens, ambulances, doppelgangers, numbers, and so on. Before very long, we had managed to convince ourselves that we had foreseen a terrible accident, the afternoon before it happened. I had a long and convoluted series of visions describing the events of my second trimester, all of which came to pass in a manner I still struggle to explain (even during the two or three years in which I was a closeted agnostic during college, this bothered me, and none of the rational explanations, such as confirmation bias, seem sufficient).

Shortly after the beginning of second trimester, “Brian” decided he wasn’t a Christian—that he hated God, in fact, and me. But I called my friend “Lucius,” who lived far away, and with whom I hadn’t spoken since the end of the summer, and learned that he had been leading a parallel life—e. g. he could hear voices whispering, temptation to sorcery was everywhere, demons were trying to possess him, he thought he might have channeled one of the languages of hell, etc. I asked him why all this was happening, and he essentially said, “It seems the Final Battle is approaching, and both sides are gathering their key players.”

I told no one he had said this—it was preposterous, frankly—but then, a few weeks later, my friend “Marina” took me discreetly aside and said, “Boze! I think I’m called to be a Major Player in the Final Battle!”

Yet I soon found out she was understating her own particular role in that event. She wrote me a long letter in which she revealed that she was destined soon to meet, and then to marry, the Antichrist himself, and that he would die at her hand. “Can I deny this fate and give it to someone else?” she lamented. “And if I do, will there be someone to answer my call? Am I the only one who can achieve this end? I need to talk to someone, but no one but you believes me.”

So, naturally, during the Christmas holidays, I made the mistake of introducing her to Lucius. If you’re ever in this sort of situation, please, don’t ever, ever do that. It was a very troubling meeting, for a number of reasons—Marina seemed to anticipate what Lucius would say, and Lucius said he could see three demons circling around her, whispering lies in her ears, and shortly after the meeting Lucius confided that he felt they were destined to fight to the death, and Marina admitted that her voices had informed her that Lucius was the Antichrist.

Great. So one of my best friends was now convinced that the other was, literally, Satan incarnate, or would eventually become so, and increasingly, the other friend seemed to think so himself, and even LIKED the idea—though I had told neither one the suspicions of the other! How??! And up until the end of the summer, I had had a pretty normal life. Yet now I appeared to be living something from a Frank Peretti nightmare.

Then Booth, who all the while had been watching from a distance with an air of skepticism and amusement, suddenly started hearing heavy, evil-sounding breathing in his room… so I gained another ally… Like me, Booth began to suspect that we really were living in the end times… Up until now it had been just a theory, an abstraction, but suddenly it was real, and I couldn’t escape it…

And school—school descended into all-out chaos… “Brian” spoke seriously about wanting to rape another student—he threatened another girl with a baseball bat because he claimed she had stolen his kitten—fights broke out everywhere—Mr. Peggleston began making incredibly creepy animations using pictures of his students, and running through the room with scissors, and petting plastic iguanas while lecturing, and teaching from the floor, and giving long speeches in class about the problems he had with his wife (this was shortly before their divorce)—numerous students were suddenly claiming the ability to read auras, or to feel presences, or to see shadows, or to glimpse on the lips of another person what that person was really thinking when they spoke—I had a particularly terrifying series of out-of-body experiences…

And who knows what it all meant? Mr. Peggleston eventually claimed, when we confronted him about it at the end of the year (Christmas 2004), that he had orchestrated much of it for his own entertainment—that he had been prodding us, needling us, with his speeches on numbers and symbolism, to test our reactions—though I think even he was surprised, and alarmed, when it blazed beyond his or anyone else’s control.

And this is where we come to Fred’s post. Shortly after Mr. Peggleston’s confession, on Christmas morning, I suffered a devastating emotional collapse, precipitated by discovering that a “prophecy” I had made about a friend the winter before, had actually come true during the time frame I had initially predicted; except that, since I hadn’t known this at the time, I had concluded that I was a false prophet, and no one could see the future, and gave up my faith. And now here it was again, roaring back to life. Once again, I could never escape it. I might have been crazy; I might have been right; but I could never know, one way or the other, and either way, it would always defeat me. I could never put it out of sight for very long.

For nearly six years now, and particularly in the last six to seven months, I have been asking myself what it was that provoked me to collapse so badly. Socially, emotionally, spiritually, I was incapacitated for some time. In writing out the events that led up to that moment, I’ve gathered some glimpses—been compelled, for example, to surrender altogether my belief in the teachings of John Calvin regarding election, now discovering only for the first time how pernicious their effects, how the image of God they produce in the heart is arbitrary, cold, impersonal, remote… then, too, yesterday on my birthday I discovered that for twelve years I had been living in a legalistic, works-based framework that exacerbated that perspective to an unassailable degree…

And now, here is Fred, with another piece of the puzzle. A huge piece, in fact. Friends, this is a near-perfect example of the power false theology possesses to distort, and even to destroy, the minds of its adherents. Let’s examine it in more detail.

“But here the authors have drained all the suspense and tension out of these diabolical job offers by reassuring readers ahead of time that it's actually God's divine plan for Buck and Rayford to sign on as helpful members of the Antichrist's team. It may be just what Nicolae wants, but it's also just what God wants, because here in Tribulation Force, God and the Antichrist want exactly the same thing.

“This is a central problem with the plot of this story that the authors are unable to resolve, or even to address, because it's also a central problem with the theology on which the book is based. For most of the next seven years of our story, Nicolae Carpathia's evil agenda and God's purportedly beneficent agenda overlap. God and the Devil are working from the same script, and it becomes impossible for our heroes to oppose the Devil because to do so would be to interfere with God's foreordained plan.”

He’s right; he’s absolutely right. Though in fairness, the authors do take a brave, confusing, and half-hearted stab at this at the midpoint of the series, in the novel Assassins—four or five different characters separately conspire to kill Nicolae, at the same time, because they all know that the Antichrist is prophetically destined to be murdered in Jerusalem—and then, three days later, to rise from the dead. Strangely, if memory holds, there is not a single conversation anywhere in the entire book where one character says to another, “Wait, why are we doing this? Are we actually trying to help him get indwelt by Satan? I mean, wouldn’t it be better to try and outwit him by thwarting his attacker? Thus, you know, preventing the prophecy and permanently keeping him as Normal!Nicolae?” But no… they all fire their guns at the same time—Nicolae dodges them all, and is slain by a sword…

This flaw in the author’s theology is more evident there than at any other point in the series. Because once you have the characters begin to ask those troubling questions, you’re essentially forced to admit that in attempting to prevent the Antichrist’s death—not from the kindness of their hearts, but to prevent SATAN from taking over the planet—you’re actually hindering the work of God.

It’s possible to imagine this situation unfolding in a manner that doesn’t involve God and the Devil conspiring together for dominion of the planet. For example, you could say that as people multiply and increase on the earth, the potential for evil is multiplied, as we witnessed in a number of the more terrible events of the twentieth century. And you could say that because God is full of compassion, and because He so honors the dignity and free will of man, He refuses to force them to turn and accept Him. He doesn’t then ordain, or instigate, the debauchery and violence of the Tribulation—on the contrary, He permits it, for a time, that humankind might see the dismal state to which it is reduced when it willfully and flagrantly rejects the all-embracing grace of God. You could then say (as is argued in The Christ Clone Trilogy, for example), that in doing so, God would be allowing a remnant, repulsed by the violent, orgiastic excess of the new world order, to realize the depth of its need for redemption, and repent. I love that idea!

But traditional PMD theology is much more superficial, less concerned with substance—or redemption. Only now am I beginning to realize that the possibility of Christ’s return as it is normally taught in our churches doesn’t thrill us with the promise of glorious hope, as it did the apostles, who were suffering near-constant persecution, who were always half a step away from bodily annihilation, who had already witnessed their loved ones sawn in half and torn apart by lions—the hope of a world in which righteousness was rendered, in which suffering had ended, in which tears were wiped away—forever. A hope, in short, that makes God GLORIOUS. No, rather, it is the cheap titillation of actual suffering and death that excites us—of getting to see people torn asunder, smashed, and ripped apart—not, however, by the Romans, but by God.

I will say this: I realize now that God is righteous. I believe His judgments are righteous, and not only righteous, but full of tender mercy. For those of us who believe in, and teach, the return of Jesus, that is the spirit in which it must be viewed. But until we can see the heart of mercy at the heart of judgment, we will continue to do exactly what Fred is warning against—what I have done—attributing unrighteousness to God; smearing Him with vile slanders; rendering Him in His designs and motivations so unstoppably malignant, so dementedly, incontrovertibly evil, that the evilness of evil is clouded, and the goodness of good is unseen, and we live in a world without hope.

This creates a problem on the basic level of “what happens next?” Our band of supposed resistance fighters aren't actually allowed to resist, making them seem dull and directionless. They cannot do anything so they do not do anything. Our heroes cannot be active agents in a drama because there is no drama -- no conflict -- just a melodrama in which they are pawns and victims of events that will occur no matter what they do or say.

But on a deeper level, it also makes God seem like a cosmic jerk who is, essentially, indistinguishable from Nicolae or Nicolae's boss. If Nicolae even has a boss other than God himself. All of the persecution and tyranny Nicolae will soon be inflicting on humanity, we're told, is God's will -- the divine plan for the End Times. And as bad as everything Nicolae does may be, it's actually a lot less painful and deadly than the evils to come that will be wrought directly by the hand of God.

With the two of them working in concert, it doesn't seem like the Antichrist is anti-Christ at all -- he's Christ's servant, playing his ordained role in God's great plan. Every evil deed Nicolae has in mind is what the "prophecy" says will happen and therefore it is what must happen and thus -- and this is where we fall through the looking glass into a warped and bizarre alternate universe -- it is what ought to happen. This traps readers and heroes alike in an insane world where the purported moral obligation of good people is to facilitate evil, to ensure injustice, oppression and suffering, to clear a path for the Devil and all his works.

Once again, we begin to see how inherently Calvinist is pre-millennial dispensationalist theology in the substance of its teaching—strange, in a way, because most of the major leaders of the current PMD movement are evangelical non-Calvinists. Yet the God they espouse is a Calvinist God. He cruelly and arbitrarily inflicts inexorable judgment on the earth—and not only that, but there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. Thus PMD believers tend to be as fatalistic in their outlook as Calvinists—which might be unfair to Calvinists, in fact, because the majority of Calvinists that I’ve known have been self-consciously non-fatalistic, while I can’t say the same for the majority of end-times believers.

As I can attest from my own life, this creates gigantic problems. Because what you’re essentially saying is, “Jesus is coming back… and He’s SCARY… and there’s nothing anyone can do!” And so you now have—God as horror movie villain. Not only that, but omnipotent, omniscient horror movie villain. This is problematic on two levels. First, and especially given the fantastical nature of most PMD thinking, it creates a terrifying and intolerable universe, no rules, no impossibilities, no limits, simply sheer, unmitigated power. You have no security in such a world. Ideally, God should be your security, if you’re a Christian, and He isn’t—He’s a nightmare. You never know what might happen. He could rip you out of your room at night and fling you into space. He could fling you straight into the sun. What are you going to do about it? Satan becomes a mere sideshow distraction. You become hypocritical and evasive, pretending—and perhaps truly believing—that you love and honor Jesus, that you want to give Him your life, your heart, your soul forever, but really, you’re only saying this because YOU DON’T HAVE A CHOICE! He’s God, He’s evil, and He WANTS you! None of which is true, but you THINK that, and you might not even know that you think it, but you do, and you’re hiding it from yourself and everyone else, and your whole heart is pitted against Him in a war that, frankly, you can’t win—not because God will destroy you, but because ultimately, you’ll collapse from the sheer weight of the pretense, and the war in yourself.

Secondly, particularly when you implicitly believe God is evil, inexorability is not an attribute you want to give Him! I let out an audible “WOW” when I read what Fred wrote here: “There is no drama—no conflict—just a melodrama in which they are pawns and victims of events that will occur no matter what they do or say.” Oh, the number of times I’ve felt that—the number of times declared it aloud! I would only amend it to note that, stated so abstractly, it can’t give a full sense of the horror—and hatred, boiling, bubbling hatred—in which such a person lives his or her life. You wake up in the morning, you cook your eggs, you brush your teeth because God so wills it. Are you called to be a prophet? You are? That’s great! Who told you? God did? Amazing! Do you want to be a prophet? What’s that you said, I couldn’t hear you… no, no, you’ve gotta speak louder… oh, you said you don’t really want to be a prophet… but, oh, you know you can’t help it. Why not? Because God is infinitely cleverer and smarter than you, and He knows your every move and will find some way to trick you into doing it, whether you want it or not. You cannot beat Him. It is like trying to beat a computer at chess—and He is the Chess Master.

I tell you the truth: Life—the simple act of living—for an apocalyptic, fatalistic, prophecy-haunted, God-terrorized person, is a small piece of hell. You continually feel like Neo in the second Matrix, when he comes face to face for the first time with the Architect and discovers that his creator has designed, and ordained, every move in the game. The only difference is, Neo still has choice, and you have none. Your choices are all God’s. You are nothing more than the glove that fits around His hands. If God reveals to you that He intends to wreak destruction on the earth, first of all you don’t have a framework for understanding what good He might provoke from such an act, because you don’t know grace, or love, or anything but wanton, arbitrary judgment; secondly, you sense that you might be involved in preparing said destruction, and you tell Him you’re in till the end, but all the while you’re secretly thinking of ways to undermine His will—a sort of saboteur against the cosmos. And you can’t admit even to yourself what you’re doing because you know God reads your thoughts, you know that before ever there’s a word on your lips He knows it altogether, and you know that if you even so much as verbalized in your head that you were playing Snape to His Voldemort, He would either destroy you, or worse—He would laugh, knowing better; knowing how easy it will be to circumvent your puny and pathetic plans for His own ends. And all the while resentment increases inside you, and you become a torment to yourself, your family, your friends, you feign the formalities of worship but you don’t really mean it, you spend your days running away in evasions and distractions, you can’t even sit still for a moment because you know that if you did, He would get you, and you can’t let Him get you, no matter what it takes, you must resist… but in fleeing this demented, diabolical, wrong image of God, you’ve completely shut out the real One—shut out light, shut out hope, shut out depth—you begin to waste away into nothing, so earnestly you war, so hopelessly you flee, from Love Himself.

And all the while, God is really there—not forcing; not cajoling, even; simply waiting. Waiting for the moment you exhaust yourself and give up fighting. Waiting for the moment you realize you’re no good alone. Waiting for the horrible, glorious day when you look around on the wreck of your life—all the broken vows, wounded friendships, time lost, feelings trammeled, days of vanity and nights of torment, all the pride scorn pretension hysteria self-martyrdom theatricality selfishness loneliness alienation hatred cruelty in which you live—and see Him standing there, beaming, radiant, not angry, not cold, not controlling—there is no manipulation in that face—but possessed of a fierce, and tenacious, and relentless tenderness. And He says, in essence, “Come inside. The table is laid. The others are all eating. They would really love to have you back. And… so would I.”

O my soul, go in with Him. You’ve been laid low for far too long. Lay down your useless arms and surrender. Go and learn where peace, and bliss, and fellowship, and warmth, are found—who Jesus truly is.