Chapter 3: Steps of Faith. 2, Teenage Wasteland

I was thrilled recently to locate the Bible of my youth group period. I’d not seen the book for years and assumed it was lost; the book was tucked away in a dusty recess behind a desk in my mother’s home. The Bible is one of those Good News for Modern Man paperbacks, the New Testament in the Today’s English Version (TEV), which for a time proliferated like rabbits in churches. My 7th grade Sunday school teacher, Gene Hutchison, presented copies to the class. That was 1970: the year of the Kent State shootings, Jimi Hendrix’s death, the first Earth Day, and so on; among the many songs I liked during that period, the protest song “Monster” by Steppenwolf stands out. On the Bible’s inside front cover, I wrote my name with an arrow crossing the T of “Stroble,” the cheesy way I signed my name in junior high school. The Bible featured those wonderful cartoon line drawings that illustrated the various stories and teachings, and also newspaper mastheads on the cover: The New York Times, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Times of India, and others. I wondered, “Why newspapers?” but I suppose they symbolized the Bible’s contemporary relevance.

Those were youth group days. Our church had an “awesome” youth group for a while, but it didn’t sustain momentum after our volunteer leader transferred jobs to another community. While it lasted, the fellowship was terrific—I still remember our leader’s house on Vandalia’s Johnson Street where we meet weekday evenings in the summer for Bible study, and my first car that got me there, a seen-better-days Chevy—but I had no personal, noticeable experiences of God’s love which some of my friends recall from their own memories of youth groups, church camps, and campfires beneath the stars.  I wore a plain cross around my neck for a while, partly as a witness, partly as cool jewelry.

My memories of adolescent spirituality associated with this Bible are more negative.  This Bible scared me terribly when I encountered some of Jesus’ teachings. For instance, I worried about his commandment in Matthew 5:48.

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Now there’s a verse that connects me to a lot of early, negative ideas that I had. Perfection?  Is Jesus kidding?  He didn’t seem like a big kidder, so … I couldn’t imagine measuring up. Even worse, though, was the Lord’s warning about the sin against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:28-29). What was that sin, and have I committed it? Why didn’t Jesus make such an important thing clearer? The matter was left cruelly vague.

At the time I focused on Jesus’ warnings about Hell. In the chilling Olivet discourse (Matt. 24:1-25:46 and parallels, he warned that people would miss the kingdom of God and would be cast into outer darkness or into the fire. He also warned that people would call him “Lord” who would be excluded from the kingdom if they didn’t do his will (Matt. 7:21-23). [1]

Now … I’d nothing to worry about.  Good Lord, I was a very sweet, tenderhearted kid who barely got into minor trouble, let alone anything serious.  If you were compiling a list of candidates for an eternity in Hell, I rather doubt I would’ve topped your list. Besides, the fact that I was concerned about pleasing the Lord evidenced a saving, though beginning faith. Part of me hates the kind of Christianity that would plant such a fear into the heart of a child.

I didn’t see myself in very positive ways, and I’d yet another ambivalent impression of the Bible: it contains passages that aren’t easy to understand. As in this case, a verse can even mislead you if you’ve no one to help you sort it all out. However, that “sin against the Holy Spirit” business did make me look for other passages that would assuage my anxiety. Here’s one:  “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30). Here’s another one, an old favorite, “that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life …” (John 3:16). Whew!

But oh no, here’s another scary one: “don’t lust in your heart …” (paraphrasing Matthew 5:28), and I was quite attracted to a pretty suntanned girl in my history class … Maybe it’s hopeless for me!  God must have impossible standards.

Amid my teenage angst, I stumbled upon a venerable hermeneutical principle—Scripture explains Scripture—without realizing.[2]

Why didn’t I have a happier, more accurate version of the Gospel, especially given my faithful church teachers, both in childhood and teenage classes? The Bible contains abundant stories of people who followed Jesus and were overwhelmingly happy; they had abundant, loving power from God in their lives that would carry them all the way through life and death to eternal life. Adolescence can be a terrible time: of trying to fit in, of being good enough and popular enough. Parents—with whom one can too easily confuse on a subconscious emotional level with God—can issue punishments for seemingly minor behavior infractions.  On that level, I can’t blame my younger self for envisioning God as a scolding parent leaning forward from the heavenly throne in glum disappointment.

But a certain notion is very deeply ingrained in many of us: we’ll go to Heaven only if we’re good enough. It’s as if Jesus had said that he’s preparing a place for us in Heaven (John 14:2-4) but stipulates he’ll only do so if we provide the lumber, drywall, and wiring—and damn you (literally) if you mess up. Perhaps a certain emphasis that you do find in churches—the Bible peoples are “heroes” whose faith and character you should emulate—has something to do with it. We one-sidedly think that the Gospel is primarily something we have to do; we have to live the Gospel; the Gospel is implied to be a program for moral- and character-development. We think that the most important thing about Jesus is the decision we make to follow him. In turn, the characters of the Bible become subjects of moral lessons (e.g., Abraham’s call to go to Canaan symbolizes our need to be flexible; David and Goliath symbolize the way we can stand up to big problems) rather than primarily examples of God’s work.

In other words, the emphasis is less upon the grace of God and the atoning work of Christ, but rather upon our behavior and attitudes; even the extent to which we psychologically surrender to Christ becomes an essential factor in God’s power becoming operative. Decision, surrender, and behavior are certainly important things. But they, too, are empowered by grace thanks to the power of God through Christ and the Holy Spirit.  A Christian author was once asked when he was saved, and he replied, “On Calvary.” He realized the Good News is the power of God on which we rely and which we can never earn.

Would anyone decline a winning lottery ticket with the sadly self-depreciating little response, “Oh, I’m afraid I’m not good enough”?  The conditional approval that we experience all around us—in our homes, our jobs, with our relatives, and with our religious leaders and church friends, too—becomes a model, though an erroneous one, for how we perceive God.

Unfortunately, we thereby, if unintentionally, deny the truth of the loveliest and most freeing Bible passages: the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), John 3:16, Romans 3:21-26, and many others.[3]

Often, in Christian experience, a conviction of sin precedes acceptance of Christ. I wonder if a special sin for which we need repentance is an inadequate, works-oriented view of the Gospel, where Jesus is primarily a teacher of character and values, and the Gospel is a list of dos and don’ts.  There isn’t much freedom and grace in either of those, compared to the real Gospel of freedom and peace.

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[1] A few years later, when I was in college, I studied more about Jesus’ second coming. The expectation of God’s coming in judgment is expressed in the Old and New Testament as “the day of the Lord” (Jer. 46:10, Joel 2:32, Amos 5:18, Oba. 15, Mal. 4:1-6, 2 Thess. 2:2, 2 Peter 3:10, and others) According to Hebrew 9:28, Christ “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” At that time he’ll be king over all earth and heaven (Rev. 11:15), will completely destroy the power of death (1 Cor. 15:25-26), will bring about the resurrection of the dead (1 Thess. 4:16-17) and the final judgment (Rev. 20:11-15). He will come suddenly (Mark 13:36). Some people expect Jesus to return in our lifetime. Others point to the fact that Jesus discouraged speculation about the timetable of his return (Mark 13:32). Paul told people to stay alert (1 Cor. 16:13, 1 Thess. 5:1-11), but also warned that we shouldn’t become idle and neglect our daily responsibilities (2 Thess. 3:6-13). Whenever Jesus returns, one thing is for sure: we will all die someday. God will reward us for our faith whether we came to Jesus early or late in life (Matt. 20:1-16), but we do need to be ready (Mark 13:33-37)!  That is, we can commit to Jesus, however small our faith-steps may be.

[2]  The Westminster Confession (1646), for instance (I, 9), states, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture, is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” The entire confession can be found at: http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html?mainframe=http://www.reformed.org/documents/westminster_conf_of_faith.html

[3] Recently I read a book that made an interesting point. The author noted how afraid he had once felt concerning Matthew 25:46 and its promise of eternal punishment. What a terrible fate lay in store for people who denied Jesus unwittingly! But the author realized … by the criteria of Matthew 25:46, Jesus’ disciples were all heading to Hell!  Soon after this portion of Matthew’s gospel, they all denied and forsook him, not by failing to help the needy, but in the literal sense: they abandoned him in his most desperate time. But what happens?  Jesus appears to them, loves them, and promises his eternal companionship (Matt. 28:20). Matthew Linn, Sheila Fabnicant Linn, and Dennis Linn, Understanding Difficult Scriptures in a Healing Way by (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2001), chapter 2.

Luke T. Johnson writes: “Only with this final restoration [Rev. 21:5] will evil truly be banished from the earth (21:8, 27). And despite the threat of eternal punishment for those who reject this gift, there is still the hope for a universal extension of this life. By the light of the Lamb even the nations shall walk (21:24), and ‘the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations’ (22:2): “There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it and his servants shall worship him….(22:3-5).” The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 527.

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