I’ve always loved playing devil’s advocate. Perhaps I’m just contrary (or maybe just the devil). I was delighted to discover that my differing nature was a genetic gift. Hey, it’s not my fault!
Look at this tombstone of my grandfather’s brother. Do you notice anything strange about it?
My great uncle (I think that’s what he would be called) hated conformity. All the tombstones in his cemetery faced the road. To revel in a life of difference, he willed that his tombstone face perpendicular to every other stone in the cemetery. Even in death he celebrated his difference.
Apparently, the town council was furious at this desecration, so they outlawed the practice going forward. The irony, of course, is that the new law meant his differences would live forever. Every tombstone in the cemetery—before and after—faces the road. Except his.
Which is exactly what he wanted in the first place.
For much of human history, people have been executed because of their beliefs. These people weren’t killed for antisocial behavior (like murder, rape, or treason); they were slain simply because of their inner-conviction about reality.
We’re more tolerant today. That’s good. I don’t want to be burned alive because I believe that Android phones are better than iPhones (though I confess to liking roasted Apples…).
It’s right we abandon belief-based execution, but remember those who experienced it. Thousands of men and women willingly suffered slaughter without recanting. They believed so strongly, they wouldn’t pretend to deny their beliefs; even to save their lives.
Today, though, doctrine is scorned. We imagine cloaked monks, closeted in their dusty cloisters, penning abstract dogmas on “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” I once asked dozens of people what they thought of doctrine. They boldly proclaimed:
- Doctrine, schmoctrine; God only wants us to love each other.
- Doctrine is about the head; I believe in the heart.
- Doctrine divides; it’s more important to find what unites.
- Thinking is the devil’s territory; let’s just experience God.
The thing is, each of these statements is a doctrine. (The belief that “God only wants us to love each other” is called the doctrine of Salvation by Works.) But would you die for your doctrine that, “Thinking is the devil’s territory”? I think not. Dorothy Sayers wrote,
In the world it is called Tolerance, but in hell it is called Despair … the sin that believes in nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive simply because there is nothing for which it will die (Creed or Chaos, slightly edited).
We don’t need to be burned at the stake. Our shallow convictions about reality are death. The problem with doctrine is that we all have them; few of us admit it; and it’s killing us.
I know a man convicted of a violent crime against someone he loves. He acted in a momentary rage; he had never been violent before. It shocked him. Now he’s in prison.
Prison bars are not his greatest problem. He’s repented to the victim, and the victim forgives him; and he’s repented to God, and he feels God forgives him too.
His problem is that he can’t forgive himself.
He’s confessed all known sins, prayed the sinner’s prayer, and claimed the blood of Christ. He knows he is forgiven by others, but he just can’t forgive himself.
He now feels doubly guilty; guilt at what he did, and guilty that he can’t forgive himself.
As a young boy, my weekends were filled with imaginary World War II battles. Nearby parks fielded the Battle of the Bulge, and the skeleton of a local building project (fatefully a new funeral home) formed our bombed-out buildings.
Dirtballs became our hand grenades, ditches our foxholes, and blankets our pup tents. We sacrificed our bodies (and the knees of our jeans) to save the world from Hitler.
One Friday evening I watched the movie, D-Day. I was captured by the airborne parachute jumps, the bravery and heroism, and the infiltration behind enemy lines.
The next day I made my first (and last) parachute jump. I confiscated a sheet from my mom’s closet and requisitioned rope from my dad’s tool room. I tied one end of the ropes to the corners of the sheet and the other ends around my chest.
I slithered through an upstairs window and crept onto the roof. With my parachute and lines carefully laid out behind me, I perched at the edge of our second story, and I hurled myself into the air behind enemy lines. I waited for the tug of the opening chute.
Lying on my back, I looked up. The chute still lay on the roof, and the carefully cut lines hung limply over the gutter. I had forgotten to measure the height of the roof.
My lines were ten feet too long.
A lethal virus is infecting many believers today. It’s the pop-therapy that claims shame is bad. Shallow-shame is bad, but only deep-shame brings healing. Without it we are doomed.
J. I. Packer tells us, “Seek the grace to be ashamed” (Knowing God).
The gospels describe two different miraculous catches of fish. The first occurs at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 5:4-8) and the second happens at the end (John 21:2-7). They are very similar:
- In both stories, professional fishermen fish all night.
- In both stories, the night of fishing is fruitless; not one fish is caught.
- In both stories, an amateur gives them specific directions how to fish.
- In both stories, the fishermen catch so many fish that their boats are sinking.
But there is one, huge difference. After the first miracle, Peter exclaims, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” After the second, Peter throws himself into the sea and swims an Olympic-record-breaking freestyle to get to Jesus.
In the first miracle, Peter experiences shallow-shame and he runs from Jesus. In the second, Peter experiences a shame that is deep and he races to Jesus.
I question our practice of painting biblical heroes more heroically than the Bible does. Hiding the faults of our heroes robs us of grace. That’s why the Bible doesn’t hide them.
I once suggested we tell true stories of our heroes, stories that show God’s pursuit of them despite their failings. I pointed out:
- Abraham was an idol worshiper and God loved him and pursued him;
- Joseph was a narcissistic boy and God loved him and pursued him;
- David was a murdering adulterer and God loved him and pursued him;
- Esther had sex outside of marriage with a non-believer and God loved her and pursued her.
I was surprised by the many readers who were upset at my negative description of “good” Abraham, Joseph, and David. I wondered, “Have they even read those stories?”
But I was astonished at the hail-storm of hundreds of angry emails that hated my history of Esther. Esther is beloved. Many think she was forced into sexual slavery.
I think she was a complicit adulterer.
I used to know a guy—just an everyday guy—who was a perfectly pleasant person. Until success spoiled him.
I first met him on a client visit where he was a mid-level manager. Fifteen years ago, through a fluke—and a dash of good luck fueled by a couple coincidences—he became the company president.
At first he was very humble about his promotion, “It was just God’s grace. I hadn’t wanted it, didn’t deserve it, and never tried for it; God just dropped it on my lap.”
Within a couple years, however, he began to take credit for his hard work and brilliant insights. He claimed the promotion had been too long in coming. Mild mannered Clark Kent became Superman. Without the smile.
He felt his genius was needed everywhere:
- He convinced the local high school athletic committee to fire the coach because he knew a better way to coach—even though he had never played football (or any organized sport) in his life.
- He became head elder at his church and bullied them into adopting a “superior” Bible translation—even though he had never studied Greek or Hebrew (nor any other language, even Pig-Latin).
And he couldn’t take the slightest correction. He once scowled in anger at a friend who mentioned his fly was unzipped (really!), and he sent his dental hygienist home in tears when she suggested he begin flossing.
Success had turned a wonderful, humble human being into an insufferable know-it-all.