415. sin, sex, and marriage (part 4) — the purpose of sex

I ended the last post in this series stating that much of the world inside and outside the church both have an inadequate understanding of the purpose of sex and because of that, a lot of confusion and harm is occurring. I also stated that if we can understand the God-given purpose of sex then we can define sex, talk about how to engage in it in a God-honoring way, and talk about how to minimize harm/abuse.

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Image by Cinzia A. Rizzo

Defining Sex — Sex as Mutually Pleasurable Act

One of my favorite books about the theology of sex is Christine Gudorf’s Body, Sex, and Pleasure, and one of her key ideas is, if the purpose of sex is no longer procreation (because of the acceptance of contraceptive use), then the purpose of sex must be pleasure. I mean, why else are so many people wanting to have sex if not for the pleasure it brings? One illustration Gudorf uses to support this idea is the fact that

the female clitoris has no function save sexual pleasure — it has no reproductive, urological, or other function in the body… If the placement of the clitoris in the female body reflects the divine will, then God wills that sex is not just oriented to procreation, but is at least as, if not more, oriented to pleasure as to procreation.1

As I stated in the previous post, once you understand what something’s purpose is, you can definite it and discern how to use it properly and safely. Given that, if Gudorf is right and the purpose of sex is pleasure, then I propose defining sex as a mutually pleasurable intimate act. But is there biblical support for this definition?

Gudorf’s example of the clitoris is an argument from natural theology, but Song of Songs is an entire book of the Bible dedicated to the thrills and pleasures of partnered sex.

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Image by Herr Olsen

The language of the book is dream-like. It’s full of lush metaphors and its precise meaning and structure are notoriously difficult to pin down. But here are a few examples highlighting mutually pleasurable intimacy.

He brought me to the banqueting house, and his intention toward me was love.
Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples; for I am faint with love.
O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me! Song of Songs 2:4–6

Although it’s transparent to modern readers, a number of contemporary biblical scholars highlight the erotic subtext here. Richard S. Hess:

The metaphors and symbols of this poetry imply that the drinking house may refer to a particular place where the lovers meet, one that is private and embodies the sensual pleasures of lovemaking already suggested by the image of wine (Song 1: 2, 4, 6).2

Tremper Longman:

She needs sustenance and calls for raisin cakes and apples. The emotion of love can overwhelm a person psychologically, and the physical rigors of lovemaking can wear a person out. The context does not make it clear whether one or the other, or perhaps more likely both, is meant. Raisin cakes and apples may provide more than physical sustenance and may have been understood stood to be aphrodisiacs.3

And take a look at this scorcher:

My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him.
I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt. Song of Songs 5:4–5

Hess:

The central theme of this passage is this pleasure, or more precisely its expectation, that the female lover yearns for. The myrrh, in an olive oil compound, might well represent a physical oil that exudes from the flesh of her hands. However, it also expresses fervent love and desire.4

Leave it to a (male) biblical scholar to suck all the erotic force out of a passage like this. To really get to the core meaning, we need to hear a woman’s reading:

This sounds like a woman who is quite comfortable touching her genitals and appreciates her own sexual response as she yearns for her lover. This does not sound like a woman who kept her fingers away from her own dripping honeypot before inviting the “thrust” of another’s hand.5

That’s more like it!

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Image by Javier Enjuto

Defining Sex as Mutually Pleasurable Act – Sex on a Spectrum

The problem with the word “sex” in the phrase “it’s a sin to have sex with someone before you’re married to them” is that sex is understood as a line or boundary. If you cross this (never adequately defined) line, you’ve had sex and therefore sinned.

But if you’ve ever been to a Christian youth event where the topic of sex gets discussed, you’ll almost always hear the question, “where is the line? How far can I go with my partner and not sin?” At this point, the person leading the group starts to squirm and hem and haw and say something unhelpful like “instead of thinking about where the line is, maybe it’s best to stay as far away from the line as possible.”6 And that’s an answer that shuts down conversation because what else is there to say?

In contrast, if the church can talk about sex as something God gave us to bring a profound sense of mutually intimate pleasure into our lives, then instead of thinking about sex as a line that can’t be crossed, we can think of sex as a spectrum that we move along.

Because there are different kinds and levels of pleasure one can experience. Holding hands with a partner is one sort of pleasure, kissing is another, and the percussive thrill of orgasm is yet another. Each experience brings a different level of pleasure and vulnerability, and if Gudorf is correct in her assessment that God’s purpose for sex is pleasure, then the fraught, unhelpful question, “are we having (sinful) sex or not,” morphs into a number of interrelated questions that invite curiosity and conversation: “what sort of intimacy are we sharing? Are we both comfortable and enjoying what we’re doing? Is what we’re doing honoring to God and our-selves at this point in our relationship?”

And from the point of view of the church, instead of saying, “stay as far away as you can from an ill-defined sexual line that we won’t clarify for you,” defining sex as a mutually pleasurable intimate act makes room for a much broader, more vulnerable conversation — one that encourages inquisitiveness and honesty. It reframes the topic so that the church can teach people how to talk to one another about intimacy, mutuality, consent, and pleasure as relational, embodied elements related to sex.

To Be Continued.

[POSTSCRIPT]

I know I said that once a thing is defined, we can also think about how to use it properly and safely, but I’m going to address how that plays out in the context of sex and Christian ethics in the next post. Because to do that well, I want to reintegrate what I’ve previously written about sin and marriage.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned!

[END POSTSCRIPT]


  1. Christine Gudorf, Body, Sex, and Pleasure: Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1994), 65.  ↩
  2. Richard S. Hess, Song of Songs (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms) (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), Kindle Edition.
  3. Tremper Longman, Song of Songs (NEW INTERNATIONAL COMMENTARY ON THE OLD TESTAMENT) (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001), 114.  ↩
  4. Hess.  ↩
  5. Christine Marietta, *Turning Inward: Essays on Finding God in Female Sexuality (Self Published, 2016), 30.  ↩
  6. Which is still useless advice beause if the line isn’t defined, how can anyone know if they’re staying away from it?  ↩
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408. transaction theology part 3 — the process/open theism alternative

[PREFACE]

New Year’s is my favorite holiday of the year. I love the feeling of a new beginning — as if a cosmic reset button just got pushed. I love that it’s a time to take up new decisions. That said, New Year’s Resolutions have never worked for me and I think it’s because taking on a new project/commitment for an entire year is too big of an ask.

This year, I’m going to try something different. Instead of making a new year’s resolution, I’m going to try on monthly resolutions. It feels less daunting and I’m able to scale or change the commitment as needed.

All that to say, my resolution for January is to get back into blogging. And I intend to begin by finishing up a bunch of old multi-part blog post series that I never closed out. They include:

I plan to go in reverse cronological order so this week, I’ll be finishing a post I started almost five years ago about the problematic nature of what I called “transaction theology.”

Happy New Year, y’all and to paraphrase one of my favorite songs, “it was a long December but there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last.”

[END PREFACE]

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I began this series talking about something I called transaction theology — the idea that God works in a quid pro quo fashion. If you do A, B, and C then God will do X, Y, and Z. This is a dynamic often seen in the way some Christian leaders talk about tithing. If you tithe then God will bring blessing into your life.1

In the next post, I showed how this theology sometimes leads to an unfortunate cycle:

The pastor lives a certain way and begins to see all the good things in their life as a result of this faithful living. And so they teach their congregation that if they will only live the same way that God will bless them as well. And then when they hear congregant stories that fit this pattern, they get to share their testimony or get mentioned in sermon illustrations.

And the people who keep waiting for the blessings keep wondering what’s wrong. They think maybe they’re wrong or that God doesn’t love them or that the church is full of shit. And so they leave. And then back at church, maybe the pastor points to these people who don’t attend anymore as examples of people who were unfaithful and who would never see blessings.

And the fortunate ones nod their heads in agreement while the (still) waiting ones cower in fear, shame, and expectation.

So if transaction theology is unhelpful, if not outright harmful, then what’s the alternative? This question, I think, points to the root question: how is it that God is at work in the world and how do we fit into that?

Thus, the problem with transition theology is that it’s a grossly inadequate response to the question of how God is at work in the world and our part in that. Transaction theology suggests that God is at work in the world as a merchant trading our good actions for good blessings. And if the blessings aren’t coming then something must be wrong with what you’re offering up.

But again, what’s the alternative?

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Near the end of my time in grad school, I found something called Process Theology which is a subset of something called Open Theism.2 The basic (and highly controversial) distinction between more traditional theology and open theism has to do with the relationship between God’s omniscience and the future. Open theism agrees that God is omniscient in that God does know all that can be known. However, because the future hasn’t happened yet, it’s not with the realm of what can be known and likewise is something that God cannot know.

In other words, God knows all there is to know about what has happened in the past and knows all there is to know about what’s happening in the present, but as for what lies in the future, that’s outside the realm of God’s knowledge because it hasn’t happened yet. Because the future is open.

This is a radical (some might say heretical) reworking of the idea of God’s omniscience, but it brings with it some real strengths and, of course, some (admittedly significant) weaknesses. And some of these strengths/weaknesses are related.

For example, one of the strengths of this theology is that it gets us around the problem of free will. In traditional understandings of God’s omniscience, God knows everything including the future. And that means God must know each and every action we will take before we make it. But if God knows what we’re going to do when how can we have free will? How can our choices be our own when God knows what they will be?

In contrast, open theism believes that because the future is not something that God knows (because it hasn’t happened yet) so our free will is real. Our choices really are our own and not in any way predetermined.

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One of the big problems though is that if God doesn’t know the future, then how can we know that God is moving us towards a better one? How do we know that the loving, just, peaceful, reconciled world that the book of Revelation (and other parts of the Bible) suggests is what God wants for creation will actually come about?

And yeah, that’s a pretty big problem, but again, I point back to the strength of the open theism: our choices matter.

A theology where the future is guaranteed is one that we technically don’t have to participate in. God’s future will happen whether we participate in it or not. We might do our best to make good choices and to live as examples of God’s promised future, but that future would happen even if we didn’t.

But in a theological framework where such a future is not fore-known (and therefore not guaranteed), our choices are of grave consequence. We do our best to live as examples of God’s proposed future because that’s how it comes about. If we don’t participate with God in living out and striving towards God’s future, that’s one less resource that God can use to bring it about. Thus, our role in God’s creation truly maters!

[POSTSCRIPT]

Here’s the thing. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with this Openness/Process Theology stuff and, as I’ve pointed out, there are lots of troubling aspects to it but also many promising bits. I don’t have the space to unpack all of that here and as I wrote in the preface, there are other hanging blog post series that I want to finish. Writing about God’s omniscience and the promise/problems of open theism is deeply nerdy and, I suspect, uninteresting to most people. And I want to focus my writing on matters that people are actually interested in.

That said, if I’m wrong about people’s interest in this topic, if there are people who are curious about and have questions about open theism, ask in the comments and I’ll respond as best as I can.

Funny thing though. While I do want to move away from nerdy, inside baseball writing, the next blog series I intend to finish is almost as geeky. It’s about the fuzziness of language and the effect that has on how we talk about God.


  1. Which suggests the idea that if God isn’t bringing blessing into your life then maybe you’re not tithing enough.  
  2. As I understand it, the basic distinction between process theology and open theism has to do with how/why it is that the future is open and unknown to God. Some open theists believe that God can know all, including the future, but God somehow chooses not to know. This is a way of holding on to the traditional notion of omniscience while making room for the openness bit. In contrast, process theology teaches that God isn’t somehow limiting God’s omniscience through will, God simply can’t know the future.  

397. God is kind of an asshole (part 2) – blasphemy as worship

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Image by: Alvaro Tapia

I saw the best Christians of my generation destroyed by madness…

(Apologies to Allen Ginsberg.)

I’ve always been pretty open here on my blog, but I gotta say that putting up part 1 a few weeks ago kinda scared me. I hesitated before hitting the “post” button because I knew that calling God an asshole would push some people’s buttons. For some, calling God an asshole is out of bounds, it’s irreverent, and unworthy of a holy God.

I disagree.

I think the fact that we can’t call God an asshole, or even that we hesitate to, is more of an indictment of the church than the person cursing at God because the church should be the very place where we can be and bring our true selves – irreverent language and all. And yet, it isn’t. Instead, the church is often a place where people have to hide their true thoughts and feelings whenever they’re too far outside the silently accepted (yet vaguely defined) norm. Especially when their thoughts and feelings have to do with God.

And this is strange because the church talks a lot about how God is a relational God – that God desires to have a loving relationship with us – but a loving relationship can only happen when and where the people in relationship are able to bring the fullness of themselves to the other. A church that teaches (explicitly or implicitly) that only certain kinds of complaints or critiques can be brought against God isn’t teaching people to know and worship the God of the Bible. It’s teaching idolatry.
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Photo by: Daniel Iván

I saw the best Christians of my generation destroyed by madness…

I began this post by paraphrasing Ginsberg because I have seen some of the best, brightest, most loving, generous Christians I know destroyed by the sort of madness that happens when people aren’t allowed to speak their truth. Their truth was not allowed or not welcome (if not outright shamed and rejected). And they loved the church and Christ and God and so they stuck around as long as they could.

But good, healthy, honest, self-aware people can only deny themselves and their true thoughts/feelings for so long.1 And so eventually they left because they knew better than to linger in a place where they were not welcome as their true selves.

And many of them didn’t just leave the church, they left Christianity. Some of them discarded belief in God altogether. I personally know people who’ve made these heartbreaking departures and lest you think, apart from church and God, that they lead lives of self-indulgence and debauchery, you need to know that they continue to live lives in service of others – beautiful, costly, healing work that’s making a real difference in the world.

The church is bleeding some amazing people.

And all because they weren’t allowed to speak the truth about their feelings/experiences/thoughts/doubts about God.

And that’s a shame.

Because there’s a biblical precedent for this kind of blunt, raw truth telling about God. It’s called lament. It runs all through the Psalms, it runs all through Job and Ecclesiastes, it permeates the writings of the OT prophets.

And you know who else models lament? Jesus.

In Matthew 27:46, Jesus cries out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” Which could be loosely paraphrased, “where the fuck are you, God?”

The people who are able to lob honest, brutal, maybe even blasphemous words at God? They are the healthy ones. They are the ones truly worshiping God.

I still think God is kind of an asshole.

And there’s a kind of glory in that.
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Photo by: Dan Allison

[FOOTNOTES]

1 It strikes me that “good, healthy, honest, self-aware people” are the very sort of people the church desperately needs right now and yet, these are the kinds of people that they are turning away. Which sort of begs the question, who’s left?

396. God is kind of an asshole (part 1)

[PREFACE]

Yeah, I haven’t been writing in a while. Life has been… overfull with stuffs. I hope to get to the last installment of the Language is Fuzzy series soon, but there’s something more pressing on my mind right now.

[END PREFACE]
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Photo by: Herbalizer Art by: SAM3

 
My girlfriend and I broke up recently and due to some of the circumstances surrounding that breakup, I’ve been feeling something pretty heavy lately. Put bluntly, I feel like God is kind of an asshole.

But let me backtrack a bit to give that statement some context.

There are many things I learned from my most recent romantic relationship and one of them is this: you can speak about the truth of your own experience even when you know that your truth is not the other’s truth.

For example, my ex has lived through some pretty shitty life experiences and because of this, sometimes she could be really critical of me (often for good cause). Now our relationship was one where we always tried our best to talk everything out, and I mean everything. And so when she would be critical of me, we’d talk about the criticism as well as what might be going on behind the criticism (sometimes an artifact of earlier life experiences).

I’ve written before about how much of my life has been one where I’ve focused solely on the needs of other people. That tendency is still with me (thankfully, to a lesser degree) and so in these times when my ex and I would talk about some issue she had with me, it was really easy for me to just focus on her side. It was much harder to talk about how I was experiencing the issue.

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Photo by: txmx 2 Art by: SAM3

 
Internally, I’d think: “well, yeah, what she’s saying about me does sting a bit, but I know that it actually comes out of this or that experience from her past, and so I should just focus on her and keep my hurt feelings to myself.”1 And one of the cool things about our relationship was that she didn’t want me to do that – she wanted me to express myself and what I was going through, even when they didn’t line up with where she was at.

And that brings me back to feeling like God is kind of an asshole.

Why? Because…

And I feel like God is kind of an asshole because all these things turned out to be utterly untrue. Even worse, these untruths played a role in my ex and I breaking up because even though I’ve rejected those teachings a long time ago, their residue is still with me.

Now at this point, I’m tempted to say, “well it was the church that taught me those things, so I should blame the church, not God.”

Yeah, maybe, but it was God’s church and God’s people who taught me, and that suggests that God didn’t care enough about me to intervene. And if that’s the case then yeah, I think I’m totally justified in feeling like God is an asshole.2

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Photo by: Herbalizer Art by: SAM3

 
But here’s the thing.

The relationship between my ex and I was often at its best when I was able to stay true to myself and say the difficult, honest thing to her. This was really hard to do (again, partly because of what God’s church had taught me) and even though I did my best to pay attention to myself, and she did her best to help, the times when I was able to do this well were too few and far between. And that took a toll on our relationship because when I wasn’t able to connect with and/or express what I was feeling, that would leave her feeling alone.

Robust, loving relationships only happen when and where the people in relationship are able to bring the fullness of themselves to the other, including what feels true to them when they know it may not represent the whole truth of the matter at hand. That’s what it means to show up in a relationship and that’s what ultimately leads to good, healthy, strong, mutually loving interactions.

And so I want to believe that my relationship with God only gets better when I’m able to pay attention to my feelings about God and express them in a way that is raw and real.

And right now, I want to say that I feel like God is an impotent, worthless asshole.

And I’m betting that in hearing me say that, God is overjoyed and thinking, “YES! Randall is finally showing up!”

And God is ecstatic because that’s the only place where true relationship happens.

And that’s ultimately what God wants from and for me, and from and for us all.

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Photo by: SantiMB Art by: SAM3

[POSTSCRIPT]

Stay tuned for part 2!

As always, questions, comments, and criticisms are welcome. Thanks for reading!


1 Often, this dismissal of myself was transparent to me – I didn’t even realize I was doing that.

2 I’ve actually moved to a process theology view of God and so I believe that while God did care deeply about me, God actually couldn’t intervene even if God wanted to. But I’m trying to focus on myself and my experiences/feelings in this post so please pardon the theological shorthand. 🙂

390. language is fuzzy (part 1) – panic in DC

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Let me begin with a story.

When I was in the 8th grade, I got to go on a week long class trip to Washington DC. On one of the stops, we got to see the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. We were told to meet back at a certain spot at a certain time to get on the bus back the hotel. Introvert that I am, I spent a lot of time wandering around by myself and I had a ball. But when I went to the designated spot at the designated time, no one was there – no friends, no teachers, no bus. I quickly realized that I had heard the time wrong and that the bus had left without me.
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Photo by: Chris Devers

 
I tried not to panic. I knew we were staying at the Days Inn and so I figured I’d just ask someone for the phone number, get in touch with one of the teachers, and they’d send someone out to get me.

Being from Honolulu where we don’t have Days Inns, I thought that there would be just one Inn in the DC area, and so I figured if I asked someone for their number, I’d get a simple, straightforward answer. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so simple. When I asked a customer service person for the number of the DC Days Inn, they asked, “which one?” And that’s when I learned that there were something like eight or nine Days Inn in the area.

And that’s when I started to panic.

I share that story because it illustrates something about how language works. Sometimes we think a particular word or phrase (“Days Inn in DC”) points to just one thing when in fact, it points to many things. In fact, through the course of this series, I’m going to argue that language always works this way because:

Language, it turns out, is fuzzy.

Sometimes the fuzziness of language isn’t a problem.

For example, let’s say you get a text message from your partner or roommate that reads “on your way home, can you stop by the store and pick up a dozen eggs?” you know it doesn’t matter which store you go to or what particular brand of eggs you pick up, as long as you get home with a dozen eggs.

Sometimes, the fuzziness of language can be a HUGE problem.

When your mechanic is replacing the brake pads on your car, you’d better hope that they’re not just phoning their supplier and saying, “on your way here, can you stop by the warehouse and pick up a few brake pads?” because, unlike eggs, it matters a great deal what kind of brake pads they get.
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Photo by: Morten Schwend

 
But even here, there’s wiggle room between what the mechanic asks for and what they can get. There are probably a number of different manufacturers who supply that part and each manufacturer might offer different performance/price options. Thus, choices still need to be made – out of the available options, which is the one that best fits the customer’s needs/budget?

This reveals something profound about language and words and how we use them:

Words have different meanings and thus are inherently in need of interpretation.

Now remember the panic I felt when I learned that there were a number of Days Inns in the DC area? I felt that because I expected a simple answer (one Days Inn) but received a complex one instead (many Inns). And then I felt lost and alone in a huge, unfamiliar world. And so I panicked.

I see that same sort of panic and anxiety in the evangelical church today (especially on the fundamentalist end) and I think a lot of it is rooted in the same sort of Days Inn disconnect that I felt in DC.

And I’ll have a lot more to say about that in my next post.

388. the spiritual lottery (part 2)

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Photo by: John Carleton

A Brief Review

In the last post, I talked about how when it came to dating, the church taught people that if (subtext: “and only if”) they kept themselves pure then God would bless them with an awesome marriage. Unfortunately,very few relationships happened the way they described it. The stories they shared, the stories that got air time? Those were exceptions that were carefully selected in order to support the narrative they were preaching.

The fact of the matter is:

A 2005 survey of 12,000 adolescents found that those who had pledged to remain abstinent until marriage were more likely have oral and anal sex than other teens, less likely to use condoms, and just as likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases as their unapologetically non-abstinent peers. The study found that 88 percent of those who pledged abstinence admitted to failing to keep their pledge.1

We never got to hear the stories of couples who had sex before they were married and still wound up with thriving, healthy relationships. On the flip side, we never got to hear stories (like mine) of people who had remained pure and ended up losing desire altogether. In fact, for some couples, even after getting married, they still found sex to be problematic because of the desire-denying teachings of purity culture.

And when it came to tithing, we were taught that if we tithed then God would bless.

But we never got to hear the stories of people who stepped out in faith, tithed when they couldn’t afford to, and then wound up going into debt. Those stories never made it into sermon illustrations.

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[Don’t] Ask [Difficult] Questions

It took me a long time to see this pattern, primarily because questioning the obedience/faith/reward narrative meant questioning (their interpretation of) the Bible which meant questioning (their understanding of) God which meant I was a bad Christian (in their eyes). And really, there was no room to question because the only stories that got shared were ones that fit the narrative – those people who did A, B, and C and as a result saw God do X, Y, and Z. We never heard the stories of people who did A, B, and C but didn’t see God doing anything so they kept pressing on to do D, E, and F. And when they talked to their pastor about why God wasn’t showing up, maybe they were encouraged to try G, H, and I (or to go back to A, B, and C only with more gusto and sincerity).

In short, we never heard the stories of people for whom X, Y, and Z never happened – the stories of people (like me) who did all the right things in regards to dating (not lusting, not dating, etc.) and still wound up single, or people who faithfully tithed even when they couldn’t afford to and then wound up bankrupt (financially and spiritually).

And we probably never heard these stories because the people who were living them eventually stopped going to church. Or at best, they never got the chance to share.

The Lottery Cycle

And here’s the most insidious bit. The pastors who preached this formulaic version of Christianity? Many times they were also people for whom the formula had worked, Sometimes the fact that God came through for them was a large part of the reason they chose to become pastors – so they could show people how awesome (their view/understanding of) God was.

Because if it had worked for them so well, why wouldn’t they want to help others to experience the same?

And then this creates an unfortunate cycle. The pastor lives a certain way and begins to see all the good things in their life as a result of this faithful living. And so they teach their congregation that if they will only live the same way that God will bless them as well. And then when they hear congregant stories that fit this pattern, they get to share their testimony or get mentioned in sermon illustrations.

And the people who keep waiting for the blessings keep wondering what’s wrong. They think maybe they’re wrong or that God doesn’t love them or that the church is full of shit. And so they leave. And then back at church, maybe the pastor points to these people who don’t attend anymore as examples of people who were unfaithful and who would never see blessings.

And the fortunate ones nod their heads in agreement while the (still) waiting ones cower in fear, shame, and expectation.

These people? The ones who stay, who remain faithful to the teachings and yet continue to await blessings? I was one of them for far too long. And all these years later, I’ve met with many friends who were also faithful and waiting. Many of them don’t go to church anymore. Some of them don’t believe in God anymore – and why should they? Can you blame them?

Me? To be honest, I think I’d say that I still believe in God, but barely.

And why do I believe? And what sort of God do I believe in, if not this transactional God-machine/lotery?

I’ll get to that in the next post.

[POSTSCRIPT]

I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you resonate with any of this, I’d love to hear your story in the comments section below.

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Photo by: mendolus shank

387. the spiritual lottery (part 1) – the transaction

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Photo by: Marcin Wichary

Transaction Theology

For a long time, I was confused about something. The pastors and ministers in my life would tell these stories about how because they lived life a certain way, God brought blessings into their lives – like maybe they left a lucrative job to plant a church and at first they were worried but now they’re super stoked about it. And then they would share stories from other people’s lives about how something similar thing happened. These examples were supposed to illustrate a truth from the Bible – that God will make X, Y, and Z happen when Christians do A, B, and C.

Let me give you a concrete example of this. In my earlier years in church, I got a lot of this sort of formulaic theology in regards to dating. I once described their teaching this way:

IF you set aside your filthy, carnal urges; IF you worry less about finding the right person and worry more about being the right person; IF you spend diligent, consistent, considerable time in prayer and study of God’s word THEN (and only then) God will bring an amazing woman into your life. Just like that. Happily ever after.

Of course that sounds ridiculous now, but here’s the thing. At the time, the people who were teaching me this had lived what they preached. They had lived sexually pure lives, they focused on being the right person, and they devoted considerable time to prayer and Bible study. And then, as they put it, God brought someone amazing into their life.

Back then, I was a scrawny, geeky kid who had no idea how to date. I was fascinated by women and desperately wanted a relationship but I had no idea how to approach or talk to them, let alone ask them out. And so here were these Christian leaders talking about how they (and other Christians that they spoke about) had met their significant others and so I took note and believed the same would happen in my own life.

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Tithing and Transactions

Dating is just one example of this selective way of talking about the Christian life. Another common example is tithing. Often, in sermons that talked about tithing, I’d hear the idea that according to Malachi 3:10, God seems to be saying, “test me on this – if you tithe, I will bless you.” See how that works? If you do this thing (tithe) then God will do this other thing (bless). It gets preached as a transaction and it’s supposed to be bulletproof, a sure thing, quid pro quo.

Whenever I heard these sermons, the preacher would go on to share miraculous stories about how people in the congregation had decided to begin tithing to the church at a time when they couldn’t afford to do so. Their story would often go something like, “we looked at our finances and knew that we couldn’t afford to tithe because there just wasn’t enough room in our budget. But we decided to step out in faith anyway and give, knowing that at the end of the month, we wouldn’t have enough to pay all of our bills. But then the end of the month came and some how, we ended up with a surplus!” Sometimes this surplus came in the form of a rebate check they had forgotten about or a refund from a utility that had over billed them or sometimes just from another congregant (“God told me that you needed this money”). So the message was, everyone needs to tithe because when you do, God blesses you. Always. And the proof of this was in the personal testimonies they shared.

Dating and tithing are just two examples, but this sort of message was pretty common. If you do A, B, and C then God will do X, Y, and Z.

Unfortunately, these were all another example of false church narratives (or at best, highly selective church narratives). The truth of the matter was far more complicated.

The God Machine

Let me close by saying a bit about the theology underlying this message. Whether they mean to or not (they probably don’t), messages like this paint God out to be nothing more than a machine – one that gives out based on what you put in. Seen from the other end, it’s a machine where if you don’t put in, you won’t get out.

But here’s the thing. God really does seem to come through for some people – they do receive the blessings they prayed/worked/gave for. However, for others, the hoped for blessing never appears, and this can be devastating. This formulaic theology can paint God as a cosmic lottery. People plug in various inputs (more purity, more tithing, more prayer, more Bible study, etc.) and hope for the promised blessing. And the bigger the buy in, the bigger the hoped for pay off. And when the church keeps putting forward stories from people who “won,” it perpetuates the belief that the “losers” need to just keep being faithful, keep doing their part.

And that can lead to tremendous disappointment and harm.

…and I’ll get to that bit in the next post