In Monday's post I was talking about the Protestant worry over "works based righteousness," the notion that a person could "earn" their way into heaven by doing good deeds.
I don't know about you, but growing up I heard a lot of talk on this subject. But here's the weird part. I don't think I've ever encountered a person who actually believed they could earn their way into heaven, morally speaking. And that's sort of odd. Why all this holding forth against something no one believes in? It's all just wasted breath. Why all this teaching, preaching and worry about a doctrine no one subscribes to? The whole effort has a ridiculous air about it.
That said, while I've never encountered a person who thought they could "earn salvation" I've met a lot of people who have felt they could mess it up. So maybe that is what the fuss is all about, an attempt to lift the load of shame and guilt from people's shoulders.
I grew up in a faith tradition that had (and still has) a pretty strong legalistic strain. A lot of my friends now in their 40s and 50s look back with a lot of anger about being made to feel that salvation was fragile and that God was an Angry Old Man out to zap you.
But for some reason this never happened to me.
So what kept me healthy, when so many were hurt, growing up in a legalistic tradition?
The answer might surprise you. I think, deep down, I had internalized a bit of the doctrine of Original Sin. Which is strange because, coming from an Arminian tradition, this wasn't a doctrine we taught or talked about. But somewhere deep in my heart I had this sense that we were all pretty flawed and screwed up. Now, a lot of people take this realization in a pretty dark direction, the depressing assessment that humans are depraved and rotten to the core and we all deserve punishment in hell.
But that wasn't how I intuitively internalized the doctrine of sin. For me, it felt that people were less depraved than, well, simply human. We were less evil than vain, foolish, and fearful. Sad more than sinful. Weak rather than wicked. Dumb more than demonic.
Not that there isn't real evil in the human heart. Just that I've encountered few truly evil people in my life. Most of the people I've met were sort of like me, less evil than ridiculous. That's how I feel about myself. I feel more clownish than bad.
Given how ridiculous we all were it seemed pretty obvious, to my young mind, that God was going to have to do the heavy lifting. I just assumed, perhaps naively so, that God would take all our our foibles and moral ineptitude into consideration, that, to use biblical language, God wouldn't expect much of us because we are but dust.
Psalm 103.13-14In short, for some odd reason I internalized the doctrine of sin as comedy rather than tragedy. The doctrine of Original Sin made me feel lighter rather than heavier. Happier rather than oppressed. I felt an experience of grace rather than doom.
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.
Again, not that there weren't a lot of bad people in the world. I didn't mind the idea of God zapping bullies. But most people aren't bullies. So I couldn't ever emotionally resonate with the notion that God, in God's Wrath, was all ginned up and ready to send all us sinners to hell. "Really?", I thought, "God's that upset with us? Why? I mean, look at us. We're ridiculous and pathetic. We're dust. Dust! Why would God want to send dust to hell?"
So I never thought God was angry like so many did. God was more sad and compassionate. And sometimes laughing. The way you feel around something small and weak.
Again, I'm not trying to minimize real evil, injustice and suffering. I'm not trying to offer up here a mature and systematic theology of sin. I'm simply trying to communicate a feeling I had as a child. Why my legalistic faith tradition didn't affect me. I looked around at humanity and concluded that the bar was so low for us that God couldn't expect very much. And that if God wasn't expecting very much then God's fundamental stance toward humanity was pity rather than rage. I mean, if you saw a lost puppy wandering around the street you'd want to take care of it, not throw it into the barbecue pit.
In short, I looked around and felt enormous pity and sadness for my neighbors on earth. And sometimes I laughed at our foibles. Here we all were. Dust.
And who rages against dust?
No one, I concluded.