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I Am Anxious that the Machine Hates Me

July 14, 2014

Last week I talked about anxiety and whether Christians can be anxious or must be insufferably cheerful at all times. (Hint: I decided against option two.) However, anxiety is incredibly important to Protestantism. If everyone were laid back there would never have been a Reformation. This is true for a number of reasons[1] but the one that has left permanent impressions on all of subsequent Protestantism is Martin Luther’s great anxiety about salvation. If Luther had been a bit more relaxed and a bit less worried that he might fail to work hard enough for God he probably wouldn’t have poured through the Scriptures to find answers and when he found that he didn’t need to earn his way into heaven he wouldn’t have been nearly so excited about it. This goes even further: one of the standard evangelical models of conversion is to pull a mini-Luther[2] and become desperately anxious about how sinful one is, fear that God hates one, and then find out that actually Jesus can take care of that and it’s not necessary to be so stressed. This model definitely works for some people but the anxiety has always struck me as a bit odd.

Sure, maybe people outside the church could have weird phobias about God smiting them but the odd bit is how many people inside the church seem to think that the natural state of humanity should be to huddle in a corner with one’s arms covering one’s head in a hopeless attempt to ward off divine wrath. Some time ago I was involved in a long, meandering argument with a man who considered himself a Calvinist (although Calvin would probably have thrown up if asked to claim him as a disciple) and at one point this man became aware that I did not hold to his rather rigid and simplistic understanding of perseverance of the saints. Specifically, he became aware that I did not believe that God was obligated to save me from the fires of Hell on the basis of a confession I had made when I was a child but that I thought that some more current data might be relevant as well[3]. He asked me a question: how did I prevent myself from gibbering in terror constantly since I did not know with 100% certainty that I was saved? (The snarky but correct answer is that I do not believe in epistemologies that promise certainty about much of anything.) This question seemed frankly unbalanced to me. Perhaps if I had just finished slicing open my forty-second infant while chanting prayers to the evil one I might be overcome by such dread but I found the idea that a Christian attempting to live a faithful life might suddenly be overcome by terror that God would damn them to be simply strange. The actual answer I gave him was something rather simple along the lines of, “I believe that the Lord Who brought me out of darkness intends to finish the job.”

There are many odd things about this conversation but one of them is that the person who asked me this question was chock full of Christian clichés. If anyone was ever likely to ask about your personal relationship with Jesus it was this man. And yet the God presented in this question isn’t really a person.

Take a friendship. You have a personal relationship with your friends. You know who your friends are. Sometimes your friends are not as nice to you as they should be. Sometimes they have a bad day and snap at you or tell some of your personal business to someone you want kept out of it or whatever. They’re still your friend. You can actually tell the difference between a friend on a bad day and an enemy pretty easily. However, in the constant-fear-of-accidental-damnation model God is apparently incapable of doing this. It’s as if God is a simple machine which flips states between “save” and “damn” based on instantaneous changes in your behavior.

Ok, so maybe this model is broken but what about works-righteousness in general? There’s an impression in many evangelical circles that works-righteousness should be an endless stress-fest but most of the works-righteous seem not to think so. In fact this article began life in a conversation with a friend of mine about how he had visited a mosque to prepare for a class on Islam and noticed that while the imam preached entirely in a works-righteousness theme his congregation seemed quite unworried that they were going to miss the cut.

Again, personhood comes to the rescue. If you believe that God demands perfection then works-righteousness is a pretty hopeless task. (For the record I agree with both of those statements.) If you attempted works-righteousness and only works-righteousness then you should spend your life in fear. And yet, again, this assumes that there is no personal element. If a friend of mine were running a charity and I volunteered there I would assume that they wanted me to succeed. I would assume that when I messed up my effort in general would be counted and that the fact that I volunteered at all would be seen as evidence that I was on their side.

The view I get when people describe this God Who should make you anxious is of a God Who basically hates you. He doesn’t hate your sin, He hates you. He’s the boss who wants to fire you but needs an excuse and so you live in terror that you might slip up and provide that excuse. He is, oddly, not a personal God Who loves you and went to great effort to bring you salvation.

The problem with this is that it feels like yanking the supports out from under some good evangelism (and perhaps lending aid to works-righteousness). However the simple fact is that very few people in the modern West live in constant fear of God’s wrath (and many of those who do are Christians, oddly enough). If we insist that people should be in constant fear and yet they aren’t it’s worth asking why. It’s also worth asking whether we should try to sell them on being afraid (sometimes people are blasé about things they really should be terrified of) or whether we should examine our own ideas to see if we are saying something strange. In this case I’m afraid that we are in some ways saying something strange and that many people will hear a Christian who insists that they should be afraid of God saying that God is not a very nice sort of being at all. And, of course, many Christians have internalized a not very nice sort of God to their own detriment.

So, let’s take a Christian cliché seriously. Let’s relate to Jesus like a person. Let’s assume that God is capable of drawing the distinctions that we can draw and work from there. God may indeed be much scarier than many of us wish but let’s not get to that conclusion by assuming that God acts like someone Who actually hates us.


[1] “Luther, I hear you’re into some new stuff. Come over so we can chill and have a nice talk. – The Pope”

[2] Only twenty-six to thirty-nine theses required.

[3] Beware temporal language which is entirely incorrect when discussing God.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. dylanwolf permalink
    July 14, 2014 12:12 pm

    Luther is a good example here–it seems like people who advance theological thought usually do so out of self-doubt.

    Ironically, I always found “once saved, always saved” to be more anxiety-inducing than the alternatives. (Granted, some of this is the context where I encountered it.)

    I’m not an extremely emotional person and consider myself rather self-aware. I knew I couldn’t have an experience so defining that I’d never doubt it, but I tried anyway. (Which, incidentally, can be its own form of works-righteousness–if I am only saved if I can make myself feel the right things and then walk the aisle during altar call, then I’m not exactly sola fide.).


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