By Dave Coleman
I remember the time that I stood at the bedside of a dear saint of God and agonized as I watched her writhing and moaning in obvious pain. Her pain was not physical; it was spiritual. In my role as Hospice Chaplain, I had seen this kind of agony many times before over the years.
No matter what I did, no matter what I said, no matter how long I prayed, there was no relief from her distress. From a medical standpoint she had only a few days if not a few hours to live, and I was deeply concerned as to how to bring her relief. The nurses assured me that they could not give her any more pain medication without adverse effects and, furthermore, we all knew that the pain was not caused by her physical illness.
Leaving her room I asked her daughter if she knew what was going on, because it sounded like her mother was trying to say something that sounded like, “tie… tie…. tie”. Her daughter told me that she was saying, “Tithe”, and proceeded to tell me her mother’s story.
Her father, she said, had been one of the early casualties in World War II, and her mother had been left to raise her three daughters. Mother had a very hard time making ends meet, and would work at two and three different jobs just to pay the rent and buy food for her and her sisters. Many a time, she remembered, Mom did not even eat herself for fear of not having enough for her children.
They attended a church, she recalled, which required that the members tithe whatever they earned right down to the last cent. However, because of their meager existence, Mother was not always able to contribute 10% knowing that one of her family would have to go without a morsel of food if she did. She chose to buy food rather then pay her tithe to the church.
The problem is she said, “My mother has felt guilty about that for the last 60 years, and is scared to death, that God will punish her eternally.”
When I left her home that day, I drove my car around the block and pulled over to the side of the road because my tears kept me from seeing.
How, I wondered, did she ever get to that point of spiritual bondage? Why was she so overwhelmed with guilt that her last hours on this earth were nothing but torture? Was this fostered upon her or did she come by it naturally? Was the church to blame? A former pastor? What caused this tragedy?
I have thought long and hard on those questions over the years. Is there something within us that causes us to feel guilty? Is it possible for others to make us feel guilty? Are we not responsible for the way we approach and deal with our lives? Isn’t life after all a series of choices? Or is this just the result of something deep inside that may be broken?
What causes us to latch on to something, which ultimately is so self-destructive? Is there some bizarre need within that is attracted to such negative behavior? Why can’t we at the time of our own impending death look forward to it such as the Apostle Paul did when he said, “For me, to die, is gain”? Or, “I have a desire to depart and to be with Christ which is far better.?”
It seems as though there is something within us that thrives on structure. It is as though we have this insurmountable need to obey some kind of a legal structure promoted by those who have a need to control by telling us how we are to live our lives (usually for their benefit). To live freely means only confusion. We must have some kind of law to live by and there must be someone we can trust to tell us the way. We have seen what happens in our society and in the societies of others when trust in the leadership is shattered for whatever reason. We need (because of our underlying fear of failure) someone we can look up to, someone who will tell us what is right and wrong.
Wasn’t this the lie of Satan to Adam and Eve when he insinuated that God could not be trusted, that He was only looking out for his own self-interest. Consequently, we now turn to others instead of God, even though we know deep down that they are as morally weak as the next person. Yet we still bestow on them the mantle of leadership to either provide or show us how to achieve success and self-acceptance in spite of the confusion that we feel underneath it all. Millions have been made by those who preach and publish the lie, that “we have it within ourselves to be all that we can be.”
And so when someone comes along and tells us that this is the way to happiness and success, we buy into it with hook, line and sinker. The how-to books of the religious world are beyond a doubt the best sellers. If we can be persuaded to do this or that, especially with the promise that “God will bless you,” we will embrace it as our own. If you buy enough tickets, you will win the lottery of God’s approval.
When people are told over and over again that the way to God’s heart is through obedience to this or that, they follow without question. And when you are threatened with eternal damnation, if you don’t obey, the power of choice is all but destroyed. The church today with very few exceptions teaches legalism—the doctrine of cause and effect, or you-do-this-and-you-will-get-that. “God, I’ve done this, therefore, you must do that.” “God you said you would do such and such, now it is time for you to hold up your end of the bargain.”
Is it any wonder that so many of God’s children live in constant fear, because, is in the case of this dear cherished saint, they were not able to keep up their part of the bargain. Studies have been made that the great majority of church goers attend church for fear of what might happen to them if they don’. It is no secret that most family squabble take place either on the way to or after attending church. The anger at God (who hasn’t kept up his end of bargain) has to go somewhere.
There are churches today that make you sign loyalty pledges binding you to attendance or to give so much, and making you feel guilty (if you really are a Christian) if you don’t pledge a certain amount. I was given a sheet of paper recently from a friend who was directed by their church to refinance their home so that they could give $25,000.00 to their church for a huge building project that would in the church’s words, “make a difference.”
When Paul looked at life, he summed it up by stating that his one desire was to “know Christ and the power of His resurrection.” Somehow we seem to have gotten way beyond that, and it is easy to do. Years ago I found myself totally absorbed as a pastor in keeping the machinery going, doing everything that needed to be done from mowing the lawn to sweeping up the rice in the parking lot on Saturday night so that the matrons of the parish would not slip and fall as they came to service in the morning. Admittedly (and shamefully I might add), the thought of a present Jesus in all His glory was not the highest of my priorities. To survive, I had been trained, was to lay on the guilt and to say, indirectly if not directly to the membership, that they had better get their act together if the church was going to continue. just like the majority of clergy today who are worried about job security.
The diabolical thing about this is that it worked. If you threaten people (especially with God’s disfavor), you cause them to be afraid of possible eternal consequences and; this, in turn, results in causing anger at God. I’m convinced that 90% of people attend church because they fear what might happen if to them if they don’t. God will get them if they don’t have all the Sunday School stars filled in perfectly behind their names.
Therefore, when someone comes along and tells them that if they do this and if they don’t do that, God will accept them (even if they cheat a little after all they aren’t as bad as the next guy). But this kind of thinking always leaves a residue of uncertainty in one’s standing with God. One can never be certain that God really loves him because the gospel was always presented on an “iffy” basis. It is tragic that so many of God’s precious ones have to die in fear and agony because in their most formative years they were taught some kind of religious moral behavior cause and effect modification, which is nothing short of Satanic legalism.
All through their church-going years nothing was ever said to the contrary. This is the curse of conditional love: “God/We will love you “IF” you measure up,” and it expresses itself in anger when God doesn’t do what we expect. Perhaps this is why the divorce rate is higher among people who attend church. Perhaps this is why there is so much child and spousal abuse (85% happens in religious homes) in the church? We might want to ask ourselves whether the church attract angry people or does the church produce them?
Someone said recently that the opposite of love is not hate, but control. I watched a documentary not too long ago that dealt with the celibacy of the clergy in the Roman Catholic Church and the problems that it has caused with child abuse. Even though you cannot make a case for celibacy from Scripture, it was pointed out, and correctly I believe, that celibacy will never be abolished in the Catholic Church because it is a form of control that the church retains over its membership.
The church, no matter to what tribe (denomination) you belong, will continue to use control in such a way as to keep its membership in check. And this is not just a local but a worldwide phenomenon. People are leaving the church and there are many more who would like to leave because they are burned out on religious manipulation, but they have been made to feel guilty with the prospect of “there is no salvation outside of the church”.
I believe that the most basic definition of sin as it is outlined in the Bible is not the breaking of the law, but rather it is the devilish desire to be in control—to manipulate, control, maneuver, threaten and abuse others, and especially God, to do my thing. When Satan met Jesus in the wilderness for the threefold temptation his strategy was simply, do you own thing and if needs be you can get God to help you. All you need to do is come up with a good excuse, like you need something to eat. Sure it seems harmless enough. Who wouldn’t be hungry after not eating for 40 days? After all, you really are a victim and you deserve it.
In all my years I have never heard a sermon preached on this subject of control and how it warps our view of God. Why have we strayed so far from the simple Gospel? The last sermon I listened to recently dealt with the subject of How to Get God To Do What You Want. He talked as if God exists to give us his goodies and there are clear principles we can use to manipulation him to do our will. Underlying his argument is that we are all victims of society and that God exists to make us comfortable.
This is so far removed from the desire of Jesus to show us the Father and His unconditional love for each of us. I so often feel that we go out of our way not to talk about the Cross and the Resurrection, the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, and how it is the Father’s desire to conform us to the physical visible likeness of His Son, that all may come to know what He is like and the life of peace that He has promised us. Most often our church services are what I call “a PS Jesus church”. The kind where often the sermon deals with behavior modification and then at the end, the speaker says, “Oh yes, if any of you do not know Jesus as you Lord and Savior, please come forward and we will pray for you.” I am indeed thankful for that but why wasn’t Jesus the theme of the sermon instead of me. Is Christianity all about me? Or is it about Jesus? It is no wonder than that folks are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with “the church”.
I recently attended a church event that averaged over 300 in attendance 40 years ago when the community was 15,000. Today, the community is 115,000 and the average attendance is 200. People know instinctively as the prophet pointed out thousands of years ago, “I know, that within my flesh, dwells no good thing.”
Can’t we just return to sharing Jesus with one another no matter what form that takes? He will lead to a deeper appreciate of Who the Father really is, what He has already done for us and what He will continue to do.
He really isn’t out to get us!