calvinism, Christianity, and the weight of the gospel

I’m studying 14th-17th century literature right now at Keble– I can hear you all groaning.  I was wary, but it’s actually been incredibly interesting.  I’ve learned a whole lot (I hope).  Of course, you can’t talk about this time period without breaching the subject of the different Christian sects of each time.  I, honestly, have loved this: I have been able to write my essays on God’s grace and mercy.  I have been able to commune with John Donne (my love) and attend lectures on religion in the Elizabethan era.  I was assigned Augustine for reading.  But a few weeks ago, our class on Calvinism hit me like a load of bricks.

Let me first clarify.  The class was on 17th century Calvinism, and it brought up a lot of uncomfortable things.  Calvin believed that man’s free will would cheapen God’s sovereignty, and so God controls everyone; he also chooses his elect and rejects the reprobate on seemingly arbitrary whim.  Because of this, you can never really know if you’ve been saved or not, and you can never know if you’re going to heaven or to hell.  According to Calvin, God even causes the rejected to feel like they have experienced God’s grace and Spirit.

This mentality wreaked havoc on the people of the time period.  They assumed God was punishing them for sins or for their own reprobate status; people even convinced themselves that, although they believed in Christ, they were still going to hell.  I’m not saying this was Calvin’s intention; I’m just saying that regardless, this is how it was taken by people of the 17th century.

Can God fairly and justly punish someone who He controls completely? This is when I realized that my greatest fear is not a nonexistent God; my greatest fear is that the universe is ruled by a cruel and arbitrary tyrant.

Do I believe this? I don’t think so.  If God were not good then our idea of order and justice and morality would be a sham, and the fabric of the universe would unravel.  Do I wrestle with questions I will never be able to answer on this earth? Yes, constantly.

The reactions of my classmates were telling.  They responded to the cruelty of Calvinism in a way that triggered their moral outrage, their sense of right and wrong.  And perhaps we can cite this same sense as evidence of a loving and justice-seeking God.  God, of course, does not have to follow the rules we make up for him.  But my heart sank as they spoke of these concepts as nonsense and rubbish, as they conflated this with Christianity and with Christ himself.

I cannot believe they are the same thing.

The constant fear of hell that Calvin expresses is not Biblical. Romans 10:13 tells us that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”; 1 John 3:19-20 that “This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” We have assurance in Christ – John has even written: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.”  We are confident and assured – we know.

But I still came out of that class with a realization: regardless of Calvin, and regardless of what others believe, people will still go to hell.

It haunted me for days. It still is, honestly.  That day I sent frustrated messages to my parents as I tried to reconcile these concepts of agency and sovereignty.  I sat on my bed at the thought that my classmates, the strangers I pass on the street, the homeless man on the corner, the musicians behind each song I listen to, the friends I share my life with – that they could all be barred from heaven.  And I wept.

I think this is the proper response.  A friend told me that when we draw close to the heart of God, we become grieved for the same things He grieves for.

I don’t know how all of this works.  I hate that people have to go to hell.  I don’t understand how, if God can harden people’s hearts to keep the Israelites in slavery or soften them to accept the Holy Spirit, he can’t just do this for every human being on earth.  I have heard of dream-vision conversions, and I can’t understand why God will not send them to every living person on this earth.

But I trust him, and I think that this deep, heaving grief is also God’s response when we refuse him.  I think that free will has to exist, because without it, love cannot.  Without it, we have no choice to accept or reject.  But I trust God because I believe these things about him: that He is sovereign, and that He is good.

I trust that I cannot fathom the idea of hell as he can. I trust that he, as the ruler of the universe, knows better than I do.

I’m sorry if this feels like a cop-out.  I know it must.  But the simple truth is that I do not understand, I will not understand, and I will mourn.  And as we follow these truths out to their logical conclusions – as we struggle with these things – we act on where they take us.

We cannot simply weep over the non-Christians in our life and in our world.  We cannot mourn them as though they have already been damned.  There is hope for every human being in Christ, and we are mandated to share it: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” (Romans 1:16)

This is the scariest part.  There is a piece of me that does not want to post this, because if I do, I become a hypocrite if I don’t tell others of the grace and glory and beauty of Jesus Christ.  So that’s probably a good reason to put it up here.

I will confess that I feel uncomfortable telling other people about Jesus.  I’m scared they will avoid me, and I’m scared they will shy away from preaching and proselytizing.  I’m terrified.  But I can’t hold my own discomfort as more valuable than the lives of my brothers and sisters.  If you love someone – really love someone – you are compelled to show them the cure for eternal death.  Penn Jillette, an atheist, says this:

“If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward—and atheists who think people shouldn’t proselytize and who say just leave me along and keep your religion to yourself—how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”

I know this is really heavy.  It’s been weighing me down.  But to forget would be folly.

My fellow Christians: hold me accountable.

My non-Christian friends:  I love you so dearly.  I do not want you to die.  I love you deeply, and that is why I tell you this:

We’re sinful.  When God gave us everything, including our very lives, we rebelled against him.  We chose death.  But God does not want us dead.  God is love itself, and God enacted this plan – he saw us in our suffering and sent us a remedy.  Jesus came to earth as God in human-skin so that he could take the penalty that we deserved.  He died – God took on the pain and death of humanity – for love of us.  We’re humans, we’re nothing compared to an eternal God – and yet he loved us.

He rose again from death, he defeated death itself.  For you.  And here’s the deal, now – we are offered grace.  We are offered redemption and future perfection and life with a wonderful and life-giving God.  If we take him up on the offer, we have to give up some of our idols and sins.  We have to serve God instead of our friends or careers or desire for money or fame or pleasure.

But it’s worth it.  I can’t express how much it is worth it, how content you can be when your worth is derived from the love God has for you instead of from your own accomplishments.

Ask me about this.  Tell me how weird this sounds, how improbable it is, tell me honestly what you think and why you cannot consider it.  I’ll tell you how much it’s worth it.

Peace, my friends.  Thanks for sticking this one out.

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les misérables and the force of grace

I’ve seen the Les Misérables movie twice three times now.  I know all the words to the musical (I was a stellar chorus member in high school) and I was not disappointed with the movie.  This story is so powerful.  I’ll probably have something to say about revolutionaries quite soon (ugh!), but what most impressed me was the way that the movie didn’t shy away from the central message.  In Les Mis, I’ve hardly seen a more beautiful depiction of the gospel, especially in its most baffling component – grace.

The entire story tracks the lives of its central characters, weaving in and out of different people’s stories, and it can get confusing.  But grace and mercy are the threads that tie them all together as the story continues, and Hugo shows that even though we may want to ignore it sometimes, grace refuses to stay passive.  Each time, it becomes a crossroad of the most dramatic and life-changing proportions.

The bishop is the first man who has shown Valjean any grace in a long time.  When the bishop welcomes Valjean into his home, the man is taken aback, stunned, and shouts out that he’s a dangerous convict – an outcast.  Instead of treating him as such, the bishop looks at Valjean as a friend, calling him brother.  This simple kindness causes an uproar in Valjean’s soul as he struggles with whether or not he should steal the bishop’s silver.  There is an entire chapter in the novel that compares the torment of the convict’s soul with a drowning man, saying that “the soul, going down stream in this gulf, may become a corpse.  Who shall resuscitate it?”  Reminiscent of Romans 7:24, Valjean’s hardened heart can only be softened by God’s power.  Valjean is a dangerous man because he has allowed hate to rule him, and when he is presented with love, he cannot accept it.  He steals the silver, effectively choosing imprisonment forever.

But.

The bishop pardons him, claiming that the stolen goods were a gift.  If the welcome into the bishop’s home was inconceivable, Valjean is now presented with the most life changing paradigm shift of his entire existence.  It is grace unbound.  He deserved imprisonment and death, and the bishop handed him love and life.  He was emancipated by this mercy.  He did not get what he deserved.  Grace forces a decision on Valjean, a stark contrast between life and death.  And he chooses life.

After being shown grace, Valjean effectively becomes a carrier, pouring the same love out into the town of which he becomes the mayor.  And then he meets Fantine, who has fallen so far from the beautiful, innocent girl that she was into a dying, miserable woman who has turned to prostitution in order to support her daughter.  She, too, has let hatred worm its way into her heart, and she despises Valjean for letting her be driven away from his factory.

Inspector Javert, the man ruled entirely by Law and not at all by gospel, is about to imprison Fantine when Valjean comes in to pardon her and take her to the hospital.  He becomes the agent of grace to the dying woman, offering her a choice.  And this action astonishes both Fantine and Javert:

“Javert felt that he was on the verge of going mad.  He experienced at that moment, blow upon blow and almost simultaneously, the most violent emotions which he had ever undergone in all his life… When he beheld that mayor, that magistrate, calmly wipe his face and say, “Set this woman at liberty,” he underwent a sort of intoxication of amazement”

Javert is shaken; however, he does not waver.  He resolidifies into the man of law that he was before, putting his shock aside.  Fantine, however, lets herself be repossessed by grace.

“Had she, then, been mistaken? Must she change her whole soul? She did not know; she trembled.  She listened in bewilderment, she looked on in affright, and at every word uttered by M. Madeleine (Valjean) she felt the frightful shades of hatred crumble and melt within her, and something warm and ineffable, indescribable, which was both joy, confidence, and love, dawn in her heart.”

Although Fantine dies, she has chosen life as well.  She had pleaded to die instead of her daughter, and this exchange of grace and life carries through.  Valjean shows grace to her daughter, Cosette, literally buying her out of bondage to the Thenardiers and raising her into newness of life.  Cosette innocently accepts the gift.

Grace changes the lives of all of these characters in a radical way, but it is a gift that must be received in order to be effective.  It forces a choice between death and life, but not everyone can choose to live in a radically changed world.

Least of all Javert.

I’ve heard people criticize the policeman for being overdramatic, but can you imagine what he goes through when Valjean sets him at liberty?  Javert feels as though he is going mad when he simply witnesses Valjean giving Fantine her freedom – how on earth could he rationally comprehend his state when Valjean, a convict and a sinner, shows grace to Javert himself, giving him back his very life?  The seams of Javert’s world begin to rip apart, and everything that he once knew is turned inside out.  Every paradigm that he had relied on in his life has burst apart, crumbling.  Javert’s world is ordered and clean, black and white, and in it, everyone receives what he deserves.  For him, there are no “minor sins”.  He leaves no room for grace in his adherence to the law, but yet, it finds him.

Javert’s world has been irrevocably destroyed.  Before, he could try to ignore grace, but now that it has been given directly and obviously to him, he cannot pretend that nothing has changed.  He must “stare into the void / Of a world that cannot hold” and choose between the desolation of what he knows and a new, very different, life.  He must choose, more literally than any other character, between life and death.

Because he cannot deal with the world as grace has colored it, he kills himself, choosing to leave it behind forever.

Javert and Valjean are not so different, really.  They both wanted to serve God.  While Valjean was consumed by hatred, Javert let legalism take over his soul.  They both were shown grace in part, and then in its full glory.  But Valjean had the strength to follow God’s path, and Javert, while telling himself that he was following the Lord, followed his own humanity into death.  When Valjean leaps into the river to escape Javert, it is a baptism.  When Javert does the same to escape Valjean, it is death by water.

I think that we forget how powerful a thing grace is.  It’s either life-altering or life-destroying.  It is a force to be reckoned with, and yet, we take it for granted every day.  We deserved to die, and Jesus showed us his pardon, setting us at liberty and raising us from death to life.  “You are free,” He tells us, like Valjean, “and there are no conditions”.  Well, that’s not entirely true – He has traded places with us, giving up His life.

How will we respond? We cannot ignore it.  We must either accept this gift in love and let it transform our lives and our very selves, or we must throw it aside and choose to die instead.  We cannot live as we had before.  We must return the favor by giving Him our lives.

This is the heart of Les Misérables, and I love seeing the ripple effect of grace as it reaches each person.  Valjean is showed grace and then shows it to others.  This is a perfect picture of how Christians should live their lives every day.  We have been shown grace by someone even more wonderful than the bishop of Digne, and we can’t keep it to ourselves.  We continue to pass it on, mimicking God’s grace in the lives of others so that they too can show grace to the people they encounter.  It’s beautiful.  And if we truly understand how powerful a movement grace should be, it cannot be kept a pretty secret.

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coincidence?

I can’t believe I haven’t posted anything about what God’s been doing in the past few weeks, because it’s been amazing and a hundred percent Him.  This month, He’s really shown me a lot and put me in different people’s paths.  In the past few weeks, I’ve had so many long conversations with people about God, what they believe, why they struggle with the ideas of Christianity, and what’s been going on in their lives.

During one of these conversations, my friend looked at me very seriously and intently and asked me if I believed in coincidences.

No.  I don’t.

The more I begin to see these connections, and the more I “coincidentally” run into people, the more I realize that everything fits together in a way that I can’t possibly imagine, orchestrated perfectly in an intricate, weaving dance by a Creator who knows what He’s doing more than I do.  Sometimes I imagine what it would look like to map out, lining out each person’s interaction with others as these lines converge and diverge, but that’s too overwhelming of a thought.

A few weeks ago, I felt that I should text this friend to tell her that she was loved, and so I did.  The day after that, I went to her dorm room and we talked for an hour and a half about God, Jesus, grace, and forgiveness.  And, coincidence.

I asked her why she wanted to know my views on coincidence, and her answer absolutely amazed me.  She said that she almost started crying when she got that text from me, because she had been going through so many horrible things at that very time, and it was exactly what she needed to hear.  She looked at me hesistantly and asked me if I’d known.  I chuckled and told her that I honestly had no idea.

I don’t believe in coincidence (at least on the important things.  You and your friend both wearing the same shirt is probably not that meaningful).  I think that God moves people and uses us, in all of our fallability, to do His work.  And what He did with that text message made Him more tangible to my friend, who had doubted if God even existed.

Since then, I’ve “run into” so many different people.  I happened to sit by a girl who goes to my church last weekend on a five hour bus ride, and we talked the entire ride.  She was also on the bus back, and took me back to campus when I didn’t have enough cash for a cab.

While visiting my friend, who also speaks Spanish, we met a homeless woman from Madrid and talked to her for a long time.

All these high school seniors are visiting my school right now, too, and some of them are staying with students.  I walked into my suitemate‘s room to find a kid that I went to pre-first with and figured out that all this time, we’d been living in the same neighborhood back home.

God does these sorts of things all the time, and there is no way that all of these coincidences could be coincidences.  It’s honestly impossible.

It’s like hearing a song and then realizing that it’s playing on the radio all the time, or meeting a person and then seeing them all over campus, or your neighborhood, or wherever you frequent the most.  Once you see God, and once you realize that He’s working, these random happenings grow extinct as you begin to see Him all the time.  He’s always been there.  You’d just never noticed it before.

A coincidence is nothing more than our inability to see.  A coincidence is when we don’t notice God moving in a powerful way and decide to attribute his magnificent power to mere chance.

So no, I don’t believe in coincidence.  I believe in God.

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