Grace Emerges

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Pleasing God Postmodern

by Brad Duncan

In my two previous posts I brought up the question of how God may relate to people in the postmodern era.  Based on our understanding of God's nature from the Bible and our experience, how will God leverage postmodern thinking to bring more good into the world?  How can the kingdom of the Holy Spirit grow and expand as the culture shifts from a modern one to a postmodern one?  And finally, how is our postmodern concept of God a big improvement over the modern construction of God using systems and laws?  These are the underlying questions.   Who is the God Postmodern?

In this post I would like explore the question: 

How do I please this God Postmodern? 

I will start by discussing the modern mindset on this question, and then consider how it can be different in the postmodern mindset.

Articles so far in this series:

The Modern Heartbreak

We have for so long taken for granted that we can please God through structure, that we do it without thinking.  We evaluate all of our choices, actions, and beliefs through a lens of righteousness that defines which ones will please God and which ones won't.  Choices are rapidly filtered through a decision tree using a complex system of laws of right and wrong until we come up with a choice.  If we know the Bible and have attended church since childhood, we easily determine the choice that "God would want".  If we then don't act on that choice, but choose to do something else (perhaps for a very good reason?), we feel guilty that we are not pleasing God with our choice.  Throughout the day, this accumulation of choices leaves us acting as Christians, while building up guilt when we don't.  Then there is a pent up need for "repentance" and "forgiveness" in our prayer time to clear out the list of transgressions, re-evaluate our decisions, and start fresh the next day.  I put the word "repentance" in quotes because this use of the word is not correct.  Repentance doesn't mean listing our sins and apologizing, but instead means recognizing something wrong and changing it.  In the scenario above, the wrong was recognized already and probably we wouldn't have changed anything anyway.  Also in the scenario above, "forgiveness" is the wrong word, because what we are actually asking is for God to accept us, or at least put up with us, for another day in spite of our displeasing decisions.  Let's call this scenario above the righteousness cycle.

The righteousness cycle also drives community behavior.  Communities are naturally defined by laws of inclusion and exclusion, standards of behavior we call social norms, and a culture that defines the group's purpose and character.  A community of faith is largely about protecting a certain ideal so that it stays in tact and is reinforced across the group as the members come and go.  In a typical Christian church and in the Christian community at large, defense of the status quo leads to a righteousness cycle of evaluating the actions of the group and individuals and leading others or the entire group to do what is right.  Communication of what is right occurs through the church leadership, through public statements and information broadcasting, and through many one-on-one conversations (in the American church at large, communication happens through popular media and public leaders).  In addition, the social norms that are well understood by members are enforced minute by minute through body language and verbal responses to others.  In other words, if you do something wrong in that type of community, you will quickly know it!  If you are on the perimeter of the group, you will not notice this scrutiny unless you do something glaring (try raising your hand during a sermon to ask a question :) )  but if you dig in deeper to actually belonging, you will find that membership is rife with expectations.

The righteousness cycle also drives all biblical interpretation, the understanding of the purpose of Christ's time on Earth, and our derivative purpose on Earth in the era following Christ.  In spite of many indications by Jesus to the contrary in the gospels, we interpret following Christ as an effort to secure our righteousness, in a way earning the grace of God.  We may call it faith, but what we are engaging in is more of a logic activity than a heart one, as we use the decision-tree approach to follow Christ and act according to the "gospel" to earn our salvation.  "Am I going to heaven?"  "Are you going to heaven?".  If these questions are ever asked, they reveal the righteousness cycle and the strong need we have to choose and repent, in such a way that we hope the answer is "yes" (but we are never sure)!   In our structured notion of the "gospel", faith and righteousness are pretty much interchangeable.  In other words, faith is a mental activity of evaluating our behavior based on our beliefs.  Again I quote the word "gospel" as the word actually means good news, and the above scenario doesn't quite fit with the notion of good news.

By now you might be laughing at my foolish explanations.  You might say that certainly faith is belief in a system of facts from the Bible, that our pleasing God is just because we love God and loving God takes effort, and that the gospel is the wonderful, fantastic grace of God that we are just doing our best to follow.  We might say our heart is transformed by the work of our minds, individual actions and social behavior, so that we act consistently with our love for God.  We might even say we LOVE the Bible in this role as decision fabric, as it defines for us our life and purpose.  We can call all of this activity our love for God.  I have had many heartbreaking earnest conversations with believers that are wondering about their salvation and fearing the wrath of God because they evaluate themselves constantly against the decision fabric of the Bible and find themselves lacking.  Then they consider grace and find some relief, trying to decide that God will indeed accept them, in spite of their inadequate nature.  The righteousness cycle leads to a need for Christ.  The work of Christ is explained as a mechanism by which God can accept us in spite of our failures, and the gospel of grace is sort of a standardized forgiveness that we are guaranteed as long as we keep repenting and perpetuating the righteousness cycle.

This is heartbreaking for believers mainly for one reason - it doesn't feel like the love of God.  It is in fact a constant reinforcement that God doesn't like us, that God loves us in spite of ourselves, or that God's love is conditional.

I have also heard believers in frustration at some point declare "what's the point? If I will never be good enough why should I keep trying?"  Or at times one will question "If I was so bad that the only thing God could think of to do for me was send his Son to die to make me good enough, then why do I really want to believe in this God anyway?  What kind of parent is God anyway (to us, and to Jesus)".  Comparing God's actions and nature with what we understand as parenting leaves us perplexed, and wondering about God's core nature.  God is LOVE.  But what we experience is not love.  We simply hope to find LOVE in heaven but give up in truly finding it on Earth.  To quote Bono, in spite of all of our efforts to be loved "I still haven't found, what I'm looking for."

This feeling of inadequacy spreads to all areas of life, and we aren't ever confident that just being human is good enough.

How is this notion of the gospel reinforced?  Just try to challenge it - ask a believer if you really have to do this stuff to go to heaven, and you will find that it is strongly reinforced by a system of laws directly taken from the Bible.  It is the "gospel" where "gospel" means unquestionable truth, rather than good news.  In other words, it's the truth, simply because it's the truth - the gospel truth as they say.  It's logical because it says it's logical, etc.  Any modern system can validate itself using circular logic, by building into its structure a law that states that the structure is right.  If that happens, then questioning the structure is wrong, thus reinforcing that we must all follow the structure.  It is simply a defense mechanism of modern thought to add rules that reinforce the cycle and perpetuate the system.  If we question too far - in a government, we call it treason!  In church we call it blasphemy or heresy or disrespect for the Bible.  It's just not okay to question the structure at it's core, because if we do we threaten the structure's reason for existence.

Still need proof?  You might say that our belief system is more tolerant and loving than I have described.  Ask yourself if you would accept others that clearly fall outside of righteousness rules, if they wanted to be core members of the group.  How would you respond to them, correct them, and guide them toward being right in order to fully participate in the group?  If they insisted on going against the flow, would you pull an emergency rip-cord and notify the leadership of their errant behavior?  What if a person claims full faith but stands up contrary to a core belief?  Would you offer that person acceptance or disdain?  Would you let them teach your child's class?  I can ask myself this question because for years I honestly in the name of Christ offered plenty of disdain and chastisement to others, to help reinforce what I thought was right, and for their own good.  I remember when heavy metal music was wrong and we were expected to criticize people who liked it (I'm showing my age here - that would have been the early 80's)!  Now I love it!  In fact, bands like Metallica are earnestly exploring God and the implications of faith, much like I am doing in this blog.  In some ways they are more aware of what the Church is doing (albeit from the outside), than it's members.

Back to the subject at hand, if you are honest with yourself, you can quickly think of several areas of "sin" where you would readily chastise another believer if called upon to do so.  You might even go as far as to say that someone's eternal future in heaven is at stake if you don't chastise them.

These are Christian congregations that advertise as accepting gays.  What about all the others?

If you still don't believe me, than ask yourself about the stated purpose of baptism and communion, the two most important institutional practices of the church.  Aren't they reinforcing the modern notion of righteousness through action, to declare group membership and loyalty, and to encourage regular repentance of sins?  (In fact these two practices could be used much differently - I'll go into that at a different time - and I'm sure I'll offend some people by even bringing it up :) ).

So, bringing this to a point - modernism has done this to us.  We derive meaning and membership from structure, just like we engineer a bridge using Newton's laws, material properties, and structural analysis.  In the modern mindset, laws are life, and we have no meaning in life without them.  I recall reading the famous Christian book by Rick Warren "The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth am I Here For?", and attending Bible study groups where we went through the 40-days of studying this book.  I liked it.  It felt like a well-explained structure for living using modern language and examples.  But I also grew to dislike it, feeling that something was off.  Now I know why -- it is a perfectly modern synopsis of the structure of Christianity.  Take a read and see if you agree.  Now I have a completely negative reaction to this type of thinking.  Why?  Because this notion of life is extremely performance based.  We achieve purpose through excellent performance.  We are inadequate when we can't achieve that performance.  I wrote several articles on this idea (here is one).  I really like the article in which I explained an alternative concept to the purpose/performance-driven life, which I called the perspective-driven life.  Ok here's an excerpt:

Why call it "Perspective-Driven"?  If we open our eyes to see the world the way that God does, and conversely to see God as Jesus demonstrated and revealed God's nature, then we are driven to lives of peace, caring about others, and living in the present.  

Whereas the old modern definition of Christianity is a call to a high level of achievement in our relationship with God, the new progressive definition of Christianity is a call to a high level of awareness of the present and of the needs of other people, more as a partnership with God than as a fulfillment of a prescribed purpose.  [end of excerpt]
What do you think?  Does fulfillment come more from achievement or awareness?  


As they say, "seeing is believing!"  In fact, seeing the truth and ourselves through God's eyes gives us a true perspective that replaces the inadequacy coming from seeing our purpose only as a call to achievement.   Note that the words achievement, performance, purpose, righteousness, and adequacy are all the same concept in modern faith - namely, acceptance via right choices.

The Postmodern Sigh

Ok now that I have made you feel fully depressed, take a deep breath.  If you are feeling like a robot in a faith factory, breathe in the air of true forgiveness and grace.  Take the quotation marks off of faith, repentance, forgiveness, gospel, grace and love.  What will you find?  FREEDOM!  Freedom from the cycle of sin?  In a way, yes, but more like, freedom from needing to engage in the righteousness cycle at all.  Isn't it freedom from our inadequacy that we so earnestly seek?  The modern Christ doesn't fully offer that kind of freedom, but the postmodern gospel offers freedom from ever being inadequate in the first place.  How?  If the gospel comes from the Bible, how can it offer this type of freedom, when the Bible is a system we simply must follow?  Certainly many people who have left their faith do so because they see the Bible as a modern law book which they must choose to either follow, or not.  

Without going into a long description of postmodern hermeneutics, I would summarize by saying that our interpretation of the Bible in the modern era was largely a product of the modern times we were living in.  

We had no choice but to see the Bible as a constitutional hierarchy creating a fabric of laws, in spite of many passages in the Bible that contradict that notion or call us to an even higher standard of righteousness than simply following laws (that's why we call it the "New" Testament).  In fact, in the modern era, God used our modern mindset to do great things, to build a populist faith structure that propagated the knowledge of Christ to the entire world.  In fact, I'm not negative about it relative to the times it was born out of -- it was a good thing at the time, and God used it for good.  However, it also left many, many people behind (e.g., native Americans, Jewish people! For a long time - women were allowed only second-class status!, the list goes on and on).  In so many ways we are willing to make advancements and progress in society, when we learn something new.  It should be the same in faith.  We should learn our lessons and move to something better.  The Bible actually supports the notion that we should abandon religious shallowness, abandon performance-based elitism, and embrace authentic knowledge of God and ourselves as God's children.  Then we will see our true role in building the kingdom of God on Earth.    

So, now let me answer the original question.  What pleases God?  The answer is simple:

God is pleased already.  There's nothing you can do to change that.

God has already covered our inadequacy with grace!  Through the work of Christ we are accepted and redeemed (meaning rescued from all inadequacy), not first despised/rejected/hated, and then somehow made acceptable through our faith or actions.  Did you ever fully absorb these words spoken by Jesus to Nicodemus?:

17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:17)


Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” (John 3:3)

These words which we consider as the very core of the gospel message spoken by Jesus, speak of complete transformation of us and the entire world, through the sending of God's Son into the world.  Notice how the notion of being "born again" is about awareness - we must open our eyes anew in order to see the kingdom of God.  Any notion of performance requirements here?  Somehow the modern world turned this into a structure of faith requirements, and a notion that God is displeased but willing to overlook that displeasure at the request of Jesus.  Really?  Is that what 3:17 says?  NO !  God did this!  God and God's kingdom are about total rescue of the world, and we need to see this rescue as a new kingdom created by God, by looking through God's eyes and being completely reborn.  Transformation through awareness, not through the cycle of artificial repentance to achieve righteousness. 

What pleases God?  God is pleased already.  Enough to send Jesus to rescue us from all inadequacy, and to promote us to full kingdom status.  Love without qualifications.  If you were the parent in this relationship, what would you do?  Would you be happy with your kids even when they mess up, even proud of them?  Or would your acceptance be earned day to day by good behavior?  Breathe a sigh of relief.  God is the perfect parent.  End of story.

Modern God: Needs to be pleased and appeased
God Postmodern: Is happy already!

1 comment:

  1. Yes and amen for pleasing God today again with good thing to do for our neighbors best and be encourage to be the friend around us and with bearing others burdeness and be supporting the needs our help thanks and bless in Jesus name ,keijo sweden