I love the word “postmodern.” I love the ideas and debates that go on about which way our culture is heading and how we can learn from where we have been. I love the shift in our methods of presenting the Gospel to people who might not have listened before. I love the fact that the Church is beginning to actually embrace diversity in its idea of what a Christian looks like. I love the idea that many voices of American Christianity are calling for a more global view in our approach to sharing the Way. Something, however, concerns me just a bit.
As in all movements, whether cultural, social or spiritual, there always seems to be a pendulum effect. It seems as though whatever is the flavor of our day, our human ways always tend to either run as hard as we can toward it, or as hard as we can away from it. Thus, the pendulum swings heavily in one direction or the other.
No doubt, on both ends of the spectrum, there are many people whose dedication and sincerity are pure and unquestionable. Ideologues on both ends are only trying to push the envelope in the direction that they feel most passionate about; but, doesn’t Ecclesiastes 7:18 tell us, “It’s best to stay in touch with both sides of an issue. A person who fears God deals responsibly with all of reality, not just a piece of it” (The Message)? My fear is that many outspoken people who are both decrying postmodernism and embracing it are taking this to extremes when it comes to the mission of sharing the message and love of Christ.
Growing up in the ultra-conservative Deep South in the late 1980s and early 1990s, my church experience walked a fine line of hellfire and brimstone-laden sermons and guilt-inflicting teaching that led me to feel as though God had me at an arm’s length away, no matter how hard I wanted to get to Him. My own salvation experience occurred after a traveling evangelist talked for 40 minutes about how hot hell is.
Over the years I have questioned myself about whether I wanted Jesus that night, or simply did not want to burn forever. The next eight years, I kept hearing that I was saved by grace, but it was as though I was being taught that I remained saved by how few sins I committed in a week’s time. I can barely remember anyone explaining to me the idea of a relationship with God. I do, however, remember being told how much I disappointed God with my sin. The picture of God I had as a result of these things was a wrathful God for whom I’m not good enough.
Today, however, things seem to have shifted greatly. While there are still pockets of people who teach similarly, more and more churches are embracing a picture of a loving God who is seeking out those who are seeking Him. Many churches in the last few years are even designing their services and programs with the seeking person in mind. Some pastors and teachers are even going so far as to remove all references to sin from their messages so that no one will be offended and turned off from the Gospel. Some authors are even going so far as to suggest that all that matters is that someone tries their best to know God and do what they can to help creation be a better place. The picture we are being left with is a loving God who has no requirement for salvation.
So what is the problem with these two pictures? The problem is that they are extremes. In both cases the pendulum has swung too far in one direction. Of course, in a perfect world, the pendulum would be a plumb line all the time, and everyone would have a perfect and accurate picture of God; but, then, where would the hope of what’s to come lie? Remember that Paul says we see God only as though we are looking in a dirty mirror, and that only after this life will we know Him as He knows us.
The problem is not that the pendulum has moved at all. That’s the great thing about God’s Word. It leaves a lot of unanswered questions about what our exact beliefs about every single subject that will ever come up should be. Obviously, our means of salvation by grace is non-debatable, but as for the means of communicating that message, we have room on either side for the pendulum to swing. And that is okay. The problem comes when the pendulum swings so far in one direction that the other direction is completely out of the picture. We must allow God to help us discern an essential balance between the two, and we must be willing to accept that our ideas may not always the best for every situation.
So which virtue of God should be the one we preach to a world that is more spiritual than ever? The answer is both. Love and wrath are both parts of our God, who encompasses all virtues. The balance between the two must not only be taught, but also shown in the way we live our lives of worship. This delicate balance is hinted at when we are told in Ephesians to approach God with “freedom and confidence,” and also when we are told in Philippians to work out our salvation with “fear and trembling.” Which one is it, freedom and confidence, or fear and trembling? Both.
[Jay McGuirk is the student minister at West Side Baptist Church in Harrisonburg, Va. He enjoys helping shape the lives of middle school, high school and college students.]
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