Dust & Grace

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 103.13-14
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.
In 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.

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.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

34 thoughts on “Dust & Grace”

  1. I'm not sure if I know of any who truly believes they can totally earn their way to heaven, but I know of folks who probably believe in a mix of grace and works and who sound like they believe in salvation by works because they have a hard time articulating what they really believe.

    That aside, I like your thoughts here. I think the question of how God treats "bullies" as opposed to the "average" sinner deserves more attention in Christian circles.  I have no doubt that all of us are sinners, but there seems to be some gradations that might come into play at some point.

    Some of the thought here remind me of Michael Dowd's book Thank God for Evolution, where he traces a lot of human behavior to evolutionary adaptations that have not caught up with modern society.  He says that it is a lot easier to resist temptation when we can identify the (evolutionary) source of the problem, laugh it off, and move on.

  2. Bullies really test the limits of my Christian charity. When I see the strong picking on the weak something roils in me that is quite scary.

  3. I remember one morning at ACU when Dr. Headrick came in whistling and I (being my typical dark-cloud self) asked him how he could be so "disgustingly cheerful" all the time. He answered, "Well the Bible says whatsoever things are good, whatsoever things are beautiful ... think on those things." I laughed and later relayed the story to you, to which you replied, "It also doesn't hurt if you are genetically wired for high positive affect." That's also what I thought when I read your post today. I can definitely see you as a child thinking along these veins. 

    Dan McAdams says that we create the stories of our lives around one of four major structures: romantic, tragic, ironic, and comedic. Sounds like you may have structured yours around the comedic. The comedic story involves ordinary people and positive outcomes. I tend toward a comedic view as well ... which is ironic because I'm not particularly wired for positive affect :).

  4. Your transparency here is really quite heart warming.  Thank you.

    "Bullies really test the limits of my Christian charity."

    The 'problem' with universalism is that it grades on a curve.  Yes, God has reconciled 'ALL' to Him on the cross.  Even I agree with that.  But, even though we are 'dust' He still does expect something from us, faith.  For, without it, it is impossible to please Him.

    So universalism comes along and says well maybe we 'deserve' a little punishment after death; but, in the end He will let all in because He is so loving and we are just 'dust.'  Faith, on the other hand, does not test our limits; we are more than willing to see as 'heaven bound' one who simply says he/she has faith; but, whose live proves otherwise.  And, how much faith does it take to believe God after a few thousand years of punishment in hell?

    We just don't like the 'bullies.'  God has taken care of the bully's sin at the cross.  That is not the reason for hell.  Unbelief is still the bully's real problem; not sin.  God has already provided the solution for sin if the bully would only believe Him.

  5. Richard, our childhood paths sound somewhat similar. I can remember as an under 10-year-old hearing some of the more hardcore CoC bullet points and
    thinking, "Is that true. Meh, probably not." I was a little weird like
    that. Looking back, I came through it relatively unscathed, I think,
    because I didn't take it too seriously. I had on the one hand the
    strong sense that the adults around me cared deeply and wanted me to
    "turn out well," but on the other hand that they struggled greatly with the
    language to express it.

  6. I very much did internalize the idea of Original Sin as a child, although I do not believe the words "Original Sin" were ever used. Instead, I was taught that humans are naturally corrupted and depraved. However, I did not project that onto other people, only myself. I've always felt that most people are inherently good. But what I learned in church as a child made me believe that I was a terrible person, disgustingly stained by sin. God would only accept me (grudgingly at best) if I followed all the doctrines of my church and repented of all my sins. The moment I sinned again though, God would be angry and disappointed at me, and my salvation would be at risk. Each time I slipped, I felt incredibly guilty for being a failure. So, I tried to be perfect, and when I failed, as I inevitably did, I went through the guilt-repent-fail cycle, all over again. And again. And again. Eventually, I figured that something was obviously wrong with me. I was a bad person and nothing could ever fix that. God hated me and there was nothing I could do about it. I was convinced I would spend eternity in hell.

    Even now, when I know that God loves me, I have to fight my self-hatred almost every day.

  7. Me too. Especially when bullies justify their actions in Jesus' name.
    Or exempt themselves from acknowledging their actions and making amends because "God has forgiven me."

  8. While I cannot speak for all universalists, I can tell you what I think.

    First, and I believe this is our most fundamental disagreement, I do not think God requires us to believe in Him (to have faith in Him) to please Him. Having faith in Him does please Him, but it's not critical. I think an atheist who has lived a selfless life will go straight to heaven, not be punished in hell for his/her unbelief. What I believe is critical is love. Specifically, loving others, whether they be our friend or our enemy. So, I do believe that sin is the bully's real problem, not faith.

    As for punishment, I do not believe everyone gets just "a little" punishment. I believe that each person gets just as much punishment as he/she needs. It might be none. It might be a little. Or it might be a ton. I also believe that the goal of the punishment is rehabilitation and repentance. God punishes us, not out of revenge or just to torture us, but so that we learn what we have done wrong and repent of our past sins. As a universalist I believe that once a person has repented and rehabilitated then they will be reunited with God in heaven.

    Second, I honestly don't see how God grading on a curve is a "problem". God can grade however He sees fit. It's His creation. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus recites the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. The man who runs the vineyard goes out to hire laborers to work in the vineyard that day. He hires people throughout the day, from morning until shortly before work is to stop for the day. Yet, they all are paid the same amount of money for their labor. The ones who started first thing in the morning and toiled all day receive just as much as the ones who have toiled for only an hour. Correct me if I'm wrong, but that seems like God is grading on a curve to me.

  9. Same for me. Yesterday, my little sister came home extremely upset. She recently started going to a new church with her boyfriend's family. After Bible Study last night, they were discussing having a Halloween party for the children next month when one of the oldest (age-wise) member's of the congregation came up to her and said that Halloween was a Satanic holiday (because of it's pagan roots) and that if my sister was going to celebrate such things, she was not a "real" Christian since she was not following the teachings of Jesus.

    I was very very angry. Angry enough that I started shouting, something I have not done in long awhile. It took all the self control I had not to call that women up and ask her if she also refuses to celebrate Easter and Christmas, since they have pagan (i.e. "Satanic") roots mixed in with the more recent Christian traditions. I think my sister is planning to ask her that question on Sunday though, which makes me feel a little better.

  10. Who rages against dust?  I do.  I grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist church and internalized the concept of Original Sin, big time.  In fact, it has been just about the only part of my original faith which has survived all these years.  Why?  Because people have rarely failed to prove my original teachers wrong. 

    As far as I can tell, humanity has progressed morally not one iota since the Garden of Eden.  None.  And, if after we die "everyone is going to heaven" no matter what they thought, did, or believed during this life, then actions ("works") count for zero.  Both good and bad.  Faith or no faith.

    I do not wish to be in a heaven where Joseph Stalin is, or the 9/11 hijackers, or the woman who methodically and coldly broke my family apart.  Indeed, I do not wish to ever again meet up with the pastor of my youth.  He has been dust now going on five years, and I don't know what could possibly happen to me after I am dead which would change this.

  11. I don't mean to butt-in on your conversation with David, here, but I have a question.

    First, some concessions.  I do agree with pretty much everything I think you're saying here, and even more so I truly *want* to believe that God can be (and is) pleased with those who don't have faith in Him.  Having spent some time in a country "without religion" (though we all know how ridiculous a notion that is), I ran into, indeed depended on at times, the Christ-like actions of those who barely knew of Jesus as anything more than legend. The only way I can make sense of God and the very particular-ness of the Incarnation often relies on the fact that perhaps a majority of people throughout history never knew who he was "properly" but, nonetheless, God was/can be please by them and they still participate in his purposes.
    All that said, I am still reminded, challenged, and troubled by Hebrews 11:6, that "without faith it is impossible to please God."  How do we makes sense of this?  How do you reconcile your beliefs with the point made in Hebrews 11?

  12. Sammy and Sam,  my background is much the same, and when people make comments reiterating that which I know inside and out far more than they could imagine, it takes effort to resist not returning in kind playing the role of "theological corrector" back at them. Because I know the mindset so well, I know it would be a futile exchange. The thing that made Baptist hell less fearful to me, and actually presented me with something wholly other, was nearly dying myself in 1993. I won't go into the whole story because it's too personal, but three things that were impressed on me was 1. How very young I/we are, even the oldest among us 2. how very loved I/we are and 3. the answer to some very hard questions is simply "Do your best."  

  13. "I don't know what could possibly happen to me after I am dead which would change this."

    Because you will have been healed, restored, resurrected, reborn, redeemed.... "saved" ... just like the ones you hate now will be.

    Our failure to see others as broken and sick - JUST AS WE ARE - but instead as wicked and evil, can easily allow us to see them as beyond redemption... as if God can "reach" us but not them.

    Jer. 18:3-6 Then I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was, making something on the wheel. But the vessel that he was making of clay was spoiled in the hand of the potter; so he remade it into another vessel, as it pleased the potter to make. 
    Then the word of the LORD came to me saying, “Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?” declares the LORD. “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel." Rom. 11:25-26 For I do not wish you to be ignorant, brethren, of this secret — that ye may not be wise in your own conceits — that hardness in part to Israel hath happened till the fullness of the nations may come in; and so all Israel shall be saved, according as it hath been written,

  14. Loved this bit:

    "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."

  15. Thanks for all the comments.

    Here's what I'm saying in a nutshell: The greater the ontological distance between us and God the greater the pity and compassion.

    Generally, you here something different: The greater the ontological distance the greater the wrath. But I don't think that makes any sense at all. The greater the distance the greater the compassion

    Here's an analogy. You often hear it said that, compared to God, humans are just "ants" (I used the word "dust" in my post). That is, compared to God the ontological distinction between humans and ants is infinitely small. Compared to God there's no difference.

    Let's assume that is true.

    Now imagine me owning an ant farm. You might think I look on these ants with some care and affection. But I don't. Rather, I have an unusual fetish-like obsession with their moral behaviors. I scrutinize these ants with great care. And what I see appalls me. Some of these ants jerk off too much! Some of these ants cheat on their taxes! Some are gossiping! Some say "Oh My God" too much! Some read stories about wizards!

    So I go to work and let off some steam with my co-workers. "You wouldn't BELIEVE what is going on in my ant farm! The immorality! The perversity! I'm so mad I want to just burn them all alive!"

    A co-worker gets me a drink and sits me down. "Listen man, you gotta let this go. They're just ants. Ants. Don't let it get to you. Let it go."

    But I can't let it go. I'm obsessed with the ants. Their perverse wickedness is keeping me up at night.

    Sure, I'd like to forgive these ants, cut them a little slack. They are ants after all. What did I expect?

    But my sense of justice MUST be satisfied. I cannot forgive. The world can't go on, I can't be at peace, until the ants PAY for their sins.

    And so, one night I pick up my ant farm, fill a pan with oil and turn on the oven. I wait until the oil is hot, staring in at those jerking off, tax evading ants, grim but satisfied that they are about to get their due.

    Soon the temperature is right. I slowly dump in the ants. And one by one they sizzle.

    My wrath vented, my justice satisfied, I head back to bed.

    And sleep like a baby....

    Now I ask you: Does that seem coherent? The greater the ontological distance the greater the wrath?

  16. While I am sad for you that you had a bad experience with the pastor of your youth, I would like to think that God could in the hereafter both (1) heal our hearts so that we can face those who have hurt us in the past and (2) rehabilitate the Stalins and bin Ladens of the world so that we would want to be with them.  As it is there will be rehabilitated murderers in heaven (Son of Sam and Jeffrey Dahmer, for example), so we might as well get used to the idea.  I, for one, would welcome the opportunity to meet a redeemed, cleansed and rehabilitated bin Laden...the stories he could tell....

  17. I'm the same, and it is scary what can well up inside.... but thats maybe ok at the time of the bullying (...well, if kept under control a bit) - I sometimes wonder if Jesus maybe felt something similar when he cleared the temple of money changers etc.... which leads me to thinking that if Jesus came to show us what God is like, and his harshest words were for those of the pharasees who sound to me like religious bullies (in God's name) then is that that how God treats bullies - like Jesus treated the money changers ?.... but I also think back to my schooldays and the kids that did the bullying were often the ones who had been badly treated and bullied/ abused themselves ... cycles of abuse....there but by the grace of God go I ... and its not too different in some churches - with cycles of "religious bullying" abuse.

  18. In fact, the parable of the workers in the vineyard suggests the ultimate curve: everybody (or at least those who work) gets the same reward regardless of how much time and effort they put in.

    Here's some other references about grading on a curve:

    “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not
    get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many
    blows.  But the one who does not know and does things
    deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who
    has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has
    been entrusted with much, much more will be asked."  Luke 12:47-48

    Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  John 20:29

  19. Well I suppose that if the ants were carriers of some horrible disease
    that was affecting them, and through them affecting  the whole of creation, then I
    could perhaps understand myself having great wrath directed at the poor
    ants .... and maybe some folk look at original sin in this way. 

    I think we are more than dust, we are dust that has been breathed into
    by God. "If God wasn't expecting very much then God's fundamental stance
    toward humanity was pity rather than rage" .... He seems to be
    expecting more in Psalm 8:5  "You have made them [mankind] a little
    lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor"

  20. To clarify, I don't think we are ants. I'm just taking a formulation you often hear to expose some of its problems in a parable-like way.

  21. Beautifully said Richard. You have I believe put your finger on the issue. We need God to do the heavy lifting. This, I believe is what Paul is getting at in Romans 7. Who can save us? Only Christ Jesus the one who abides in God and in whom we can abide. It's about placing our fragile lives in the power and wisdom of God that is Jesus. Through his faith we are saved.

  22. Thanks, Patricia.

    People such as yourself and your statements about the NDE keep me involved in this inquiry.  Modern medicine has multiplied your story by the thousands, and most -- if not all -- are reporting much the same phenomena.  I don't know what it means beyond the fact that the statements are remarkably consistent over the past 30 years.  The fact that they are also consistent with the teachings of Christ is of great interest to me as well.

    While me may make analogies about people (dust, ants, broken, sick), it seems also the case that there is at work a "dark force" beyond our own humanity (however god-like or ungodly that may be), and it does not emanate from only the mind of George Lucas.  So whether you subscribe to the "grace" theory or the "wrath" theory, somewhere down the line there must be a settling of the scores, and a payment of the debt.  In death, if not in life.  If not, I might just as well have been made a sparrow -- or an ant.

  23. I've only talked to one other person, the mother of a lady I knew, who also had an NDE. I didn't tell her my experience, I simply asked a few questions about hers, and the similarities were striking, enough to verify to myself that this was no mere dream or anything like that while the doctors were working on me.

  24. Neither can I speak for all non-universalists. Just for me.

    As to our 'most fundamental disagreement' I would echo what AJ Turner asked as a starter. Nevertheless, I agree that love is critical. We probably disagree that what passes for love is in fact not. The only one who can love is the one who is filled with the Holy Spirit and that requires faith and on that we apparently disagree.

    As for punishment, I don't know if there are less painful parts to the lake of fire. What I do see (I think?) is that the 'lake' is simply the consequence that God has apparently defined for sinners who don't believe Him and thus have to take care of their bill on their own.

    I didn't mean to imply that I thought God graded on a curve. I accused (but in a nice way :) ) universalists who decide which 'sin' is worse that some other sin of grading on a curve. God doesn't do that. Sin is sin. All of it needs to be covered from the 'smallest' (in our view) to the largest (again, in our view).

    As to the vineyard, that seems to me to be about the sovereignty of God who can be just in deciding our 'wages' and is not dependent on our agreeing with Him on the 'fairness' of His decision. We don't get to negotiate with Him. So, I am afraid I don't see anything there about 'grading on a curve.'

  25. Great thoughts here; both as a child and as a reflective adult. Personally, I think God looks on the entire enterprise of theology as comedy. It's much like a parent watching a child play with toys they don't fully understand yet.

  26. I think there's a worry about this is because it's what the Pharisees believed. They were trying to earn their way into heaven by doing good deeds with no inner change of heart. The outside of the cup was clean but the inside was dirty. As for God's wrath. I thank Jesus Christ for removing God's wrath from my vision at the cross. By His grace I can now see and savor God's glory in the face of Jesus Christ. By beholding His glory I am being transformed into the image of His Son. When I find myself in His presence I am humble, compassionate, loving, content, joyful, hopeful, filled with awestruck wonder, peaceful in mind and heart. Not that I'm perfect.  I see in a mirror dimly. But I have a confident assurance that I will one day see face to face and be completely transformed.

  27. Sam,

    I have been thinking all day about these paragraphs you've written.  I find it interesting that in the first paragraph it is as if you're noting the validity of your "original teachers", but you conclude with a rather scathing attitude towards the "pastor of your youth".  Perhaps I'm not understanding you correctly, but there seems to be something rather ambivalent in the way you've written about your past experiences.

    Due to your last paragraph, I have some questions:How would you understand Jesus' commandment to "love your enemies" and "pray for those who persecute you"?
    Do you think people can be so evil that they are absolutely worthless and beyond redemption?
    Do you think anything could happen to you in this life where you could forgive people like Stalin, the 9/11 hijackers, or even the woman who broke apart your family enough that you could share the same heaven with them?

  28. "I don't think I've ever encountered a person who actually believed they could earn their way into heaven, morally speaking".  May be its not quite the same, but I know plenty of folk who think that if the good things they do outweigh the bad then God will let them into heaven - like in the book Mister God, This Is Anna

  29. AJ,

    You are absolutely correct about my ambivalence.  It's awful.  It illustrates what a profound affect the training of a child has as it ripples through the adult life.  I remain deeply conflicted about what I was originally taught, how I was bullied by my own minister and others, and the question of pain (my own and others') and evil in the world.  I have found some measure of comfort in the writings of C. S. Lewis.  I have been able to discard much of what I was taught -- except for the question of Evil.  I think they were right about that.  I agree with the way Lewis lays it all out, and the only area where he and I disagree is on the issue of human free will (I think it is an illusion, such as Freud articulated).

    This is the reason I read "Love Wins".  It is why I am so interested in Universalism.  Because we are each here through no choice or decision of our own.  Therefore -- we cannot be "held accountable".  We had no say in being born -- some of us with painful genetic defects.  (Maybe that's why Richard sees humor where I see wrath.)  How can a Creator hold anyone accountable for the "sins" of another?  Universalism does not grant me license to be a bad person, but it does hypothesize that we do not have to act or DO anything (including having "faith") in order to be "saved".  I appreciate Dr. Beck's musings very much, as well as the many comments.  This is a rare find on the Internet -- adults acting civilly instead of as arrested adolescences.  Still -- all is taken with a grain of salt, since, supposedly, in the end, we all end up in the same place.  However, I appreciate these posts as a primer for THIS life rather than the next.

    As to your questions; Those who are honest must confess that Jesus commands are impossible to keep (as Richard has noted -- "we are dust").

    Yes -- some people are evil incarnate.  They are beyond redemption.

    I don't know.  This is what I DO know.  My journey has left me with a distrust of any person who I perceive as being less than honest with either themselves or me.  That is one reason I have rejected Pascal's Wager:  God would know that I am only "believing" or "having faith" in order to escape the flames.  I am compelled to be honest with myself, and also with God. 

  30. Amen.  I have never met a Christian, even here, who did not in one form or another espouse the idea that we must "earn" our way into heaven. 

    At most in means a life of subordination to a higher power and loss of autonomy and self concept, self control, and personal liberty.  At the least it means "choosing to believe". 

    Ultimately, however, we all have something we must DO -- some initiative we must take, or action we must perform, or attitude we must embrace -- in order to get there.

  31. Sorry for the confusion.  When I said "I don't know, .... but what I DO know, etc.," -- it was in response (only) to your final question above.

    I will read the book you recommend.  Thanks for your understanding.  I believe you get where I am coming from.  This weekend our only child is getting married (we are the bride's parents), so I may not be online much for the next few days.

Leave a Reply