A while back, I wrote a post entitled “On Picking and Choosing.” In it, I talked about the lenses through which people read and interpret scripture.
A few years ago, informed both by scripture and my personal experience of God, I decided I would always read the Bible through the lens of love. After all, Jesus said love was the greatest commandment and the peg upon which hung all of the Law and the prophets (Matthew 22:36-40). I figured I couldn’t go wrong with that.
But I have to admit, the love lens messed me up. It tore to shreds my belief in a hell of eternal conscious torment. It convicted me deeply of my tepid generosity toward the poor. It made me reconsider the Church’s condemnation of LGBT people.
Love always exacts a toll.
Some people, of course, now accuse me of ignoring the whole of scripture. What about the Bible’s condemnation of the wicked? What about repentance? What about Jesus returning to earth on the back of a war horse to wage the Battle of Armageddon? What about Romans 9?
Well. Let’s talk about that.
What happens sometimes is that we’ve been listening to the standard biblical interpretations for so long that we let them pass without protest. The pastor reads a scripture and tells us what it means, and we nod along. After all, he would know, right? He’s been to seminary (we hope) and studied the classical biblical scholars. He can lay out a systematic theology that appears to make sense–as long as you share his lens.
But what happens when you change lenses? Suddenly, you’re thrust into an unfamiliar landscape, and you’re back to asking the root questions like, “Who is God, really?” “What did Jesus actually do on the cross?” “What happened in Eden?” “What does it mean to repent?” “Does hell exist? And if so, who goes there?”
So now you’re back at the beginning, holding onto this lens that you feel confident is the right one while your faith unravels like a roll of toilet paper in a toddler’s hands–and all of the people confident in the old theology are yelling at you to come back to the comfortable fold. Some do go back, simply because the dissonance is too much. However, you may be one of those who can’t go back. The new lens has illuminated something so profound that there is no letting it go. From experience, that is not an easy place to be. You spend a lot of time thrashing about in the dark, staring into the one sparkling beam of light that you can see. You don’t want to stay there forever. Too much time in the dark, and you’ll lose hope.
So what do you do? You develop a new theology.
To show you how this works–how my new lens has changed my view of scripture–I’m going to go through a series of statements commonly made by evangelical ministers and provide an answer to each one.
S1: Repentance means to turn away from sin.
A: Repentance means to turn toward God.
In the Gospels, Jesus kept telling people to repent, including the Pharisees. If you think about it, it was an odd thing to do. The Pharisees were the religious leaders. They knew the Law better than anyone and followed it to the letter. If anyone was considered blameless before the Law, it was the Pharisees. So why did Jesus tell them to repent? It was because the Pharisees were looking unto the Law for their salvation, not God. The Law had become an idol that they worked so hard to please that they ignored the Spirit of The One who had provided the Law. The Law was important, but its purpose was to lead mankind into fellowship with God. Apart from God, the Law resulted in spiritual death.
I’m going to say something truly radical here: Simply turning from sin does not save you. If you turn from sin without also turning toward God, you are committing idolatry in which you declare yourself redeemed by your own efforts. Repentance is not just declaring that we need to be saved, but that we require a Savior.
S2: God is love, but He is also holy and just.
A: God’s holiness and justice are rooted in love.
Many evangelical ministers will lead you to believe that there are two seemingly conflicting sides to God: one side that is loving and compassionate, and the other that is angry and bent on punishing sin. I no longer see these sides in conflict. God is holy because He is loving. He seeks justice because it is an act of love to rescue the weak from the oppression of the wicked. God’s righteous anger (which is slow and full of patience) flows out of His deep love for His creation–those He has declared worthy of ransom by his Son.
S3: God cannot tolerate sin.
A: Because sin is a rejection of love.
I read somewhere that someone once summed up the Golden Rule by saying, “That which is detestable to you, do not do to your neighbor.” That’s what sin is: treating others with less consideration than you give to yourself. It is selfishness, negligence, disrespect and active harm. It is rejecting God’s command to love Him and your neighbor. So of course it is something He cannot tolerate. How well do any of us tolerate the abuse or disrespect of a friend, spouse, or child? If you read the Levitical laws with an eye toward loving God and others well (and their purpose in revealing our need for a Savior), you’ll see them in a whole new light.
S4: Jesus is returning to wage war on the wicked.
A: Yes, amen!
My view of who is wicked is probably vastly different from your average preacher’s. I don’t think of “the wicked” as simply people who haven’t yet accepted salvation. I think of the “insolent God haters” described in Romans 1. I think of people who are unruly, who know what they should do but don’t do it; people who oppress others for their own selfish gain, who trip the blind and mock the disabled, who steal from the poor and hungry, who sell children into slavery, and who give no thought to anyone but themselves. They know there is a God, but they do not care.
Jesus defeated this wickedness at the cross, but he is returning someday to wholly claim that victory. My heart once trembled at the thought, but now it sings. On that day, all oppression will cease. There will be no more abuse or human trafficking or racism or theft or fraud or exploitation or wars or murder. All who declare Jesus their Savior will receive justice and peace. All of those who refused to love will be judged accordingly.
With my love lens on, I see a God who pursues mankind, who seeks him for relationship and fellowship. I see a God who wants to redeem us from sin, who longs to lavish upon us the riches of His boundless grace. I see a God who is angered by injustice and eager to bring His kingdom into the world through humble, meek and broken people. I see a God who is glorified not through what we say or do, but by who He is.
This is how I’m building a systematic theology of love. It’s not perfect by any means, but that’s ok. My certainty lies not in intellectual exercises, but in The One who has embraced me.