Thursday, September 4, 2014

It's That Most Preachy-est Time of the Year

For the past two days, there has been a street preacher in front of the campus library. I never stop and listen, but in passing I still caught the “football players and cheerleaders go to hell, drinkers go to hell, Catholics go to hell” spiel and saw the “turn from your wicked ways” sign. There’s a reason why I never stop and listen.

Even in passing, I can see that the message and the method are wrong, and it breaks my heart that a Christian can be so off the mark (and out there giving Christianity a bad name). Yesterday it occurred to me exactly what I found wrong in the message and method. Both convey such negativity. I’m sure if I bothered to stay and listen, the preacher would have gotten around to the good news. That there is forgiveness of sins, new life, salvation. But none of that is on the posterboard. None of that is heard by casual passersby. It’s all about sin and damnation. All that is heard is judgment.

It’s only September, which means I’ll face this again sometime soon. The weather is nice enough to call out the street preachers. Leading up to Halloween will be all the Judgment Houses and Hell Houses, a.k.a. the haunted houses with altar calls at the end. Like some weird gorefest, I like watching it all, from a distance. What an obscure worldview, I think, what an odd culture. It's Halloween; time to spook myself with Baptist theology. It is something all around this region and yet entirely foreign to me. I mean, who decides that after-school-special skits and standing on campus listing off who goes to hell will teach someone the love of Christ?

If in Christ, we have been liberated from death, if we have found grace and truth and life, why do these preachers focus so much on damnation? The only conclusion I can think of is attrition. By textbook definition, attrition can be defined as “a wearing down or weakening of resistance, especially as a result of continuous pressure or harassment.” In theology, attrition is the lack of perfect contrition, which is “sorrow for and detestation of sin with a true purpose of amendment, arising from a love of God.” So basically, attrition is when you feel really bad for your sins, you realize you’re broken, and you’re seeking a solution. Good news! Believing in Christ takes away those sins; he’s your get-out-of-hell-free card. See the problems? 1. You have to be worn down. Through pressure, harassment, or constant harping about the sins of the world, you have to embrace the sinner side of you. You have to understand that hell is the worst thing ever but that’s what you deserve. 2. Christ is this totally awesome guy that will get you out of the hell you deserve. Following him means not going to hell. 

While all of that is technically true, it’s a very dangerous and skewed version of Christianity. We should love God as a means of avoiding hell. That’s completely selfish. If our love for God only stems from getting out of punishment, then it is a self-motivated love. Love for God should be pure, unmotivated, selfless—a reflection of his love for us. We shouldn’t want “out of hell” so much as we should want “with God.” Our desire to be with the Creator, for the beatific vision, should far exceed our motivations of avoiding punishment. The goal is “in heaven” not “out of hell.” While they seem like two sides of the same coin, they are very different. Attrition is motivated by fear and selfish concern. Contrition is motivated by love and regret. In confession, we say an act of contrition. We admit our sins, our worthiness of hell, but we also focus on the grace that God offers, the love we have for God, and the pain we have caused the one we love. It usually says something like:
“My God, I’m sorry for having offended you. I detest my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and fear the pains of hell, but most of all because they offend you, my God, who is all good and all deserving of my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to turn from sin and avoid occasions of sin. Amen.”

When the preaching focuses on hell, on who gets damned, on why they get damned, on how awful damnation is, love gets lost. God is second, after the fear of pain and punishment. How sad it is that these preachers and those they reach don’t understand that attrition is incomplete devotion. What kind of relationship is one built on pressure and fear? Love is more than a mere appreciation that Christ will scoop you out of hell. And heaven is not simply a good afterlife; it is perfect union with God. Don’t fear hell; it is conquered. Don’t desire heaven; desire God.

Edit: From what I've heard, there were actually two different preachers last week. The first is the one I overheard, and apparently, he was even worse than I related, calling out individual women for sexual misconduct based on how they were dressed, etc. The second preacher, from what I heard, was much calmer and preached primarily of God's love.

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