soundbite theology: perfection & forgiveness

Recently, I posted a status on Facebook, requesting friends to give me any well-worn Christianese sayings, sayings popular as bumper stickers, aphorisms, or catch-all encouragement expressions. I was looking, in short, for soundbites that seem, unfortunately, to form the ‘foundation’ of certain groups’ theology.

It was a fun thread, and a number of friends, of very diverse political and theological backgrounds—from the very liberal to the very conservative—participated in good humor and great memory.

But the fun was dampered quite suddenly when one friend wrote simply, “I feel attacked.” It wasn’t even an hour later and she had unfriended me. I was shocked and hurt, since this friend was a dear discovery, a found ally from decades ago, with whom I had many shared trials and victories, a friend I treasured. That a simple list of aphorisms, outside of any usage context, could make one feel attacked in one’s faith, pulled me up short. What is it that this portends?

My concern is that an increasing number of Christians rely not on scripture and its ambiguities, not on the ineffability and mystery of a God who is greater than we can think or imagine, but on the certainties such soundbites promise. And when these soundbites are merely listed together as a set of aphorisms, they somehow fail to stand up with such vigor as do other lists of aphorisms, like, for example, the Proverbs. The soundbites, when looked at for what they are as aphorisms, even before we consider content, seem paltry and trite. But such a subconscious suggestion challenges one’s faith, if one stands on these, and not on the complexities and paradoxes expressed in scripture and those faith traditions that have endured for centuries.

The contrary to faith is not doubt and unclarity, but certainty, for when one is certain of something, one need not trust, one need not risk relying on another, need not dare to be mistaken. Faith, according to the early Christians (and Jews) is trust, not a blind acceptance of a certain set of propositions about the nature of God, the locations of afterlife existence, and the complete set of activities that constitute sin or righteousness. These come later, and ultimately don’t matter in faith. Faith is trusting God even if the truth value or content of one (or more) of these propositions is unknown or doubted by the one who trusts.

So I begin this discussion on certain soundbites, analyzing them in the light of cultural connotations, theological implications, and  scriptural quotations, in the light of what Jesus taught and what those who rely on these soundbites claim and practice. It’s sure to be a controversial ride.

Oh, and before I begin on the first one, I ask you to please, if you think of any, feel free to comment with any Christianese soundbites that you have heard.

Soundbite: Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.

A short meditation, here, which I would like to preface with an observation. When I searched online for image results of this soundbite, I was stunned to find that roughly one in ten links were to discussions about the ‘abomination’ of homosexuality, the evil evil ‘gay agenda’, and so forth. Of course, the inference I drew wasn’t surprising or unintended: Unlike gays, Christians are forgiven. And though Christians aren’t perfect, Lord knows we’re not as bad as those perverts. But what then, is forgiveness in the scheme of God’s activity among persons?

Forgiveness is something given freely, something offered, according to scripture and Christian teachings (except five point Calvinism), to everyone. God loved the world, not just Christians. Everyone is forgiven. Of course, what makes a Christian a Christian is simply that s/he acknowledges this forgiveness and accepts it.

Consider this in terms of the limited realm of human interaction. When one forgives another, it is often despite the other’s repeated activity. Counselers advise us to forgive even if the other doesn’t change, since the forgiveness frees us up. Now imagine a more analogous scenario. Person X has done something person Y forgave. But X feels great embarassment, maybe shame, at what X did. X might or might not know Y has gotten over it, has forgiven X. So X will behave according to what X knows about Y. Imagine X learns that Y has forgiven what X understands to be a heinous offense. Well! X will be quite different than were X to know X needed to be forgiven but maybe wasn’t. Or even if X had no clue X had hurt Y at all. If X finds out, knowing full well X needed to be forgiven, imagine the gratitude, the sense of reconciliation X would carry around! There wouldn’t be this attitude that X is better than, say, Z, because X is forgiven. X would be humbled, and to the degree X had offended (or hurt) Y, would be thankful for the forgiveness.

Forgiveness isn’t conditional on whether it is received or acknowledged. It is conditional upon whether the forgiver wants to forgive. And it is extended before it can be received. It has to be in effect before it can be acknowledged, before it can be embraced. Forgiveness is antecedent to its reception and is not contingent upon whether anyone to whom it has been extended ever acknowledges it has been offered.

Thus the problem here. This saying implies that only Christians are forgiven. But then, that would imply that forgiveness isn’t for just anyone, and that only Christians get it. Salvation by works? Certainly tastes like it to me.

Now suppose, just for the sake of argument, Calvinist doctrine is true here. Then we have that whole predestination, elect thing going on. But there is no knowing who is elect and who isn’t, no knowing whether someone, Christian or not, is in that forgiven elect group. Sure, one acts on the belief that one is among the elect, among the “forgiven and going to heaven” crowd, but the point here is, even under strict Calvinism, this soundbite isn’t accurate.

Either everyone is forgiven, or some are and nobody but God knows who is until judgment day. No matter which way you look at it, this soundbite implies and communicates poor doctrine.

I am not of the mindset that forgiveness is only for a select few. It is consistent with the Hebrew tradition (how to treat strangers, the hospitality code, etc.) and the teachings of Jesus and Paul (not to be mistaken with “pseudo Paul” or those second century writers who authored in his name) that this kindom of God is egalitarian, respecting no person over another, but offering love and forgiveness to any and all.

If this is the case, then we should consider what the juxtapositions in our trite little sayings communicate. This one implies that what makes a Christian is forgiveness. But I am arguing that this is what makes a human being, an image bearer of God. So maybe the saying should be modified: Christians aren’t perfect; in fact, we know we need to be forgiven. Changes everything, doesn’t it? All of a sudden, we don’t sound so smug, so terribly holier than thou. In fact, we begin, with such a saying, to sound, well, surprisingly Christian.

2 thoughts on “soundbite theology: perfection & forgiveness

  1. Garrin

    I like it. I like what you’ve written quite a bit. Of course, being a Lutheran, I’m sort of obliged to say something about predestination. Lutheran predestination has a much more agnostic quality about it than Calvinism (especially five point Calvinism), but nevertheless, there’s something about predestination that’s hard to escape, and it even begs the trust question in my humble opinion. (Predestination could be universal, for instance, and Lutherans are open to that possibility.)

    Perhaps the central issue of predestination, for instance, isn’t what happens to some people if they aren’t chosen. In my experience, it has simply been about letting God be God. There is much talk in Christianity and elsewhere about what God “ought” to be if God is really “just” or “good.” In my own experience of formulating theories about God, and even in what I would call my experiences of the Holy, the mystery (of which you speak above) seems to demand that we settle down in our attempts to categorize what’s divine. Obviously, this is a necessary act on our part (or seems to be warranted at any rate), otherwise we’d have no way to describe God or what’s not God.

    But the point I’m trying to make (very poorly I think), is that if predestination is really more about the Almighty nature of God, and not necessarily so much about “who gets in,” then the aspect of trust is still critical, otherwise, it seems you’ve got a “certainty” bound up in a universal (or even not so universal) proclamation of forgiveness. And I’m not sure we’re entitled even to that certainty, but we are given to have faith in such universal forgiveness, and without being foolish because it is promised in our baptism…

    Just a thought…. I’m definitely not into the idea of preaching two peoples (The saved and the damned). I just keep thinking about 2 Esdras from the Deuterocanonical books, where God says: “Can you show me a picture of a voice? Can you open the cupboards of the wind? Can you make flowers bloom? Then neither can you know the goal of my love for you…” But we can trust it. And sometimes… I do.

  2. Lynn

    It seems like, we accept Christ – believe he is who he says he is. Anyone can do that if they will – and that acceptance includes forgiveness. Forgiveness is part of who Christ is – we accept his totality, his person, his words, his forgiveness. Then we are Christians – doesn’t matter who we are, what we’ve done. Jesus said, “Go and sin no more”, and that’s what we try to do knowing we will blow it, and he will honor our heart attitude and forgive our failings. So all who believe are forgiven and are Christians. Christ offers love and forgiveness to all no matter what. It just has to be accepted.

    “Christians aren’t perfect, in fact, we know we need to be forgiven” sounds essentially the same to me as the other phrase. ‘We are forgiven’ or ‘we know we need to be forgiven’ – one seems to imply the other.


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