Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Revealing Bad Theology in the Use of a Single Word

I didn't actually see the movie, but the phrase was used so much, and the clip played so many times, that everyone I know is familiar with it. In the movie "Jerry Maguire," Tom Cruise's character is apologizing for something (I guess you have to watch the movie to know what it is he's apologizing for). He says to her, "Hello," and then proceeds to give a long, drawn out speech that seeks to communicate to her his remorse. She simply replies to him, "You had me at 'hello'." A single word conveyed all that she needed to know. The entire speech and explanation of what he was thinking was not necessary. One word conveyed it all.

I think this is true in the use of another word as well. I think you can actually determine someone's bad theology through the use of a single, particular word.

When Job speaks of God, he does so rather casually. After all, he has no more reason, so he thinks, to speak of God as though He were present with Him. God is in heaven. God is at a distance. But when God visits Job in the whirlwind, even though Job is still sick and has that tendency to throw off all external niceties, he trembles instead. He was willing to speak about God in a casual manner, because he didn't really understand who God was and that he had been in His presence the entire time. His words are poignant to the reader who has just read Job go on and on about God's injustice toward him: "Behold, I am vile; What shall I answer You?  I lay my hand over my mouth. Once I have spoken, but I will not answer; Yes, twice, but I will proceed no further" (40:3-5).

Job does this because he recognizes three things he had not recognized before: Who God really is, who Job really is in light of God, and that God has been, and is, present with him. The reality of these truths now revealed causes Job to shake in his boots. It causes him to no longer speak so casually about realities that once seemed distant and speculative. He says again to God:

"I know that Thou canst do all things, And that no purpose of Thine can be thwarted. 'Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?' "Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know." 'Hear, now, and I will speak; I will ask Thee, and do Thou instruct me.' "I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear; But now my eye sees Thee;   Therefore I retract, And I repent in dust and ashes." (42:3-5)

It is the realization of who God is, who we are, and the reality of His presence with us that causes us to sober up. We can no longer act casually toward God, precisely, because our casual disposition was a product of our ignorance, not our maturity.

We often think the exact opposite. We think being casual with something means we have come to know it. We have come to know the person next door, so we no longer put on formalities. We are comfortable with them, as we realize, in whatever way we assumed they may have been as strangers, are no longer a threat to us. Our relationship has tamed that fear. So we think all relationships do the same. We think that God is nothing to fret about either. He's no big deal. He's my buddy, I'm just a smaller version of Him, and He lives way up in heaven anyway.

Hence, we can use His name casually. We can say, "God," "Jesus," "Christ," or one of its lesser stand ins, "Gosh," "Geez," "Jimmeny Christmas," etc. The use of these words are not just a matter of one's vocabulary. They are a matter of one's theology and disposition of the heart. If you still don't think so, let me ask you this, "If you died and came into the presence of God and His holy angels right now, would you be casually using His name as an explicative in His presence? Maybe you think you would. Job certainly was dogmatic about getting his day in court with God and making his case before Him. He thought if he only could address Him, he would say all of the things he said throughout the book. Yet, when he finally gets his chance, all he can say is that God is in the right, that Job himself is foul, and that Job's going to shut his trap now. So if someone still thinks he would speak in such a manner before God, he's simply one "who darkens counsel with ignorance" (38:2). The fact of the matter is that we would simply not "lift up YHWH's name for nothing," which is the literal translation of "saying the Lord's name in vain," and that includes anything that comes close to YHWH's name, and any other name we give to YHWH (i.e., God, Jesus Christ, Lord, etc.).

But there is another word that tells us that we have bad theology, and that is the word "hell." We're casual about hell because it's distant. We're casual about hell because it's just a speculation to us right now. But we're mostly casual about hell because it's linked to God's authority. In fact, those who deny hell, don't do so simply because they don't think criminals should be punished. This post by my friend Josh Lough makes a good case that most of us, who are sane, do ( ). The reason many reject hell is because it is linked to the presence and authority of God. Remove the concept of hell, and you have a tame comfortable God who is no longer a threat.

Why do we want to do this if we already know that criminals should be punished according to their crimes? Because we're the criminals. If you ask a drunk driver whether other drunk drivers should be thrown in prison. most of them will say yes. That's because they don't think they are drunk drivers. But if you ask if they should be thrown in jail for driving while intoxicated, the answer is usually, No. They think the law should excuse them, as they are not really that guilty. They don't want the punishment to be placed upon them. If the law said that everyone, without exception, who had any kind of drink and drove should be put in prison, they would protest that law, because it now would condemn them. We are the criminals, and as such, we don't like the concept of hell. We don't like the concept of a holy God who is wrathful toward sinners. We don't want the biblical God, we want our own tamed version. That's more comfortable, and our bad theology of who He is (a kind grandfatherly figure) and who we are (good people just making some mistakes) allows us to have Him our way.

But there is also the bad theology of seeing God at a distance. God is ontologically, morally, cognitively separate from us, as high as the heavens are from the earth and as far as the east is from the west. The Book of Job even states that He is so distant in this regard that even paradise and the angels are impure in His sight. It then asks, "How much more so is detestable and corrupt man who drinks iniquity like water?" (15:15-16).

But the Bible doesn't mean that God is up in the heavens in a physical sense. It uses heavens to refer to the unseen world around us. Sky and earth represent those spheres. The sky, i.e., heavens, represent the non-physical world, that which cannot be seen with the eye, as air cannot be seen. It could not be explored in the ancient world, so it made for a perfect symbol of the unseen world. As an aside, this is the same bad theology, the type that spawns either philosophical or practical atheism, that led the Russian cosmonaut to say that he didn't see God in space. Well, of course, he didn't. The Bible was never saying that you could see Him or that heaven was literally the sky. That's imagery used. We're told in Ephesians that demonic powers and fallen angels are in the heavenly places (Eph 6:12). What? Demons are in heaven? No, demons are in the unseen realm for which heaven/the sky stands as a metaphor. That's why the devil is called the prince of the power of the air. That's why the wind and the Spirit of God are described by the same word. But the Bible tells us that God is with us, in the world, around the world, beyond the world. "In Him we move and have our being," and "He is not far from anyone of us," so Paul quotes the Greek philosophers and applies this to God. The Bible presents God as continually in the world moving, creating, helping us struggle, and judging it. He is right there with you when you need Him, and He is right there with you when you casually dismiss Him with bad theology to use His name as common speech, and as you comfortably say the word, "hell," or even "hec," as ways to tame what was once scary to you as a child. But now maturity has set in, the type of maturity gained from a zookeeper that lets his guard down in the lion's cage because he's used to the lion not eating him. I think we've all seen the Discovery Channel long enough to know where such a casual attitude toward wild animals gets those who adopt it. And God is that wild animal. He cannot be tamed, and He is hungry for justice to be served, either through His Son or through the eternal damnation of the wicked, and your casualness toward Him is only prodding Him with an agitating stick to serve you up on His platter with greater urgency.

So God is much more holy than the theology of those who lift His name(s) in vain realize. We are much more deserving of punishment than those who would casually invoke words that should terrify us or cause us to treat them with fear and trembling realize. And this holy God with His fierce wrath upon YOUR evil is in the room with you now. He's at work with you. He's in the car with you. He is anywhere and everywhere. And He is right there beside you as you say what should make you pee your pants as though it were endowed with less meaning than the rest of the words in your sentence.The casual use of the word "hell" tells us one's view of God, himself, and his awareness, or lack thereof, of God's presence in the room. One would not joke about cancer in front of a woman whose beloved husband had died from cancer (or joke about it at all), because the reality of cancer in the person's life has made us sober toward the word. We don't shorten it to, "canc," or "can" or say, "cansher," to lessen the blow of the reality. The reality causes us to avoid saying it (and its euphemisms) casually altogether. But we don't have the same concern about "hell" because we're oblivious to the horror and reality of it. We're not sober-minded toward God. We're drunk on bad theology, and that causes us to say stupid things we would not say if we were sober.

So we need to sober up. We need to get some good theology at the foundational level. But we are able to see what you believe through what you say. As a man thinks, so he is. Whatever is in the mind of a man comes out of his mouth. His theology cannot be hidden even if he deprives us of a long explanation of it.

You might be uncomfortable with that, but there it is, a single word that was all that was needed for me to understand your destructive theology. In short, you had me at "hell."

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