By Adam Smith
The Westboro Baptist Church announced last week that they would picket the funeral of President-elect Barack Obama’s grandmother. A solemn family memorial for a woman who will never get to see her grandson sworn in as the nation’s president will be beset by people waving angry and vulgar signs, spewing hate.
Sadly, the placard-waving street preacher is not an uncommon sight in America. They stand on corners, yelling at wide-eyed and innocent girls for being tawdry Jezebels. Shouting through bullhorns and brandishing angry and esoteric signs, they paint a grim picture of hell as the destination of everyone who happens to pass by.
Theirs is a brutal and atavistic god. A dark, old-world titan of blood and fire. It is a pagan deity born from the smallness of man. Such a god has its genesis in our own insecurities. Our own pride and hesitancy to accept unmitigated grace, believing on some level that there must be some Puritanical way we can earn it. This god doesn’t know grace. It demands perfection, knowing full well it will never get it–because that’s the game. It doesn’t want perfection. It wants to laugh at failure and then grind the accused to a paste between its stone molars.
Very few Christians identify with this kind of gospel, and most of us have a visceral reaction when we see the street-corner shouter, condemning strangers to hell. It seems more bad news than good. I often wonder, though, if on some bent level we can learn something from this. Surely, this message sacrifices the true message of the cross to revel in judgment. But how often do we try to be the counterpoint to that grotesque display, only to end up sacrificing the forth-telling of the Gospel at all? And how often do we cling to grace as a cheap catch-all to validate our own broken behavior?
One thing is certain: God’s grace is limitless. He loves us through our faults, forgives us any sin and never desires to see us cut off from His Kingdom. However, at what point do we use this to justify sin? When do we decide we will no longer languish in the same pitfalls over and over, and get down to the hard work of being more like Jesus?
The natural reaction would be to assume that we should tone down our rhetoric on grace and throw in some good, old-fashioned Jonathan Edwards brimstone. I think if anything, it’s not that we emphasize grace too much, it’s that we don’t take it seriously enough. You see, grace of this magnitude should inevitably motivate us toward the one who issues it. Not in the sense that we believe we can somehow pay God back for what He’s done. That’s impossible. Infinite grace can’t be repaid. Rather, we should be compelled to be molded into Christ’s image because grace is so beautiful as to lure us toward its author. It just so happens that, as we chase after this desire, it makes us more like God and less given to filling our lives with garbage. Grace is so stunningly gorgeous that the delights the world has to offer seem ugly and trivial by comparison. If people really understood the lavish depths of grace, the true breadth of God’s love for us, all the sinful acts the sign-wavers condemn would begin to lose their appeal.
This is why the street preachers rarely succeed in truly drawing people to Christ. At best, they make people over in their own perverted image. I once heard an evangelist defend hate-filled condemnation by saying that people don’t understand they need a savior until they understand the depth of their sin. I couldn’t disagree more. Perhaps some people do come to God as a result of recognizing their own depravity. But I tend to think that the beauty of God’s grace can draw people in of its own accord.
Certainly, rebuke has its place. After all, we see Paul engage in it a number of times. But that rebuke is, first of all, always born of prior relationship. Paul didn’t shout judgment upon people who had the unhappy coincidence of wandering by. He formed a deep, loving relationship with the churches he admonished. Secondly, true rebuke is not a slap in the face for screwing up. It’s a reminder that people have sacrificed something of greater fulfillment for something of paltry value. It points people back to grace and helps them recall how extravagantly good it is compared to the pursuits of the flesh. The crazy thing is this: The pursuits of the flesh also include trying to pridefully repay God for our own salvation.
I recall hearing a pastor say once, “If Paul could see the Church today, he wouldn’t even think we were Christians.” In the context of the message, he was insinuating that we had become too worldly to qualify for the term. I agree with the statement, but for entirely different reasons. I wonder sometimes if Paul would scratch his head in bewilderment at much of the modern Church, and then speak lovingly to us, saying:
“You foolish Galatians! Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by human effort?” (Galatians 3:1, 3)
Our human effort always comes up short. When we view grace cheaply, it leads to our desires being drawn away to ultimately unfulfilling pursuits. It leads to arrogantly assuming we can accomplish holiness through our own strength, and we find ourselves repeatedly falling short.
And, if we’re not careful, it leads to waving signs and shouting at people.