I had a conversation with a friend of mine today about salvation and who needs what in a church. He’s further ahead than most, I think, in his trying to come to terms with the issue.
Basically, there are a few views of what sin is and, therefore, what salvation is. First, let me say that most people in the pew in my denomination don’t feel the need to be “saaaaaaavvved”! (as the televangelists like to say). It’s way too emotional, I think, and we are mostly rational folks.
Having said that, most people in the Congregationalist side of our denomination don’t think they need to be saved, because, for the most part, we think we don’t sin. We don’t believe in Original Sin, certainly, because well, we’re nice people. The fruit of our actions doesn’t seem yucchy, or evil, or even not-very-nice. There’s nothing to be saved from, in that case, so there’s no reason to talk about it. (On a more cynical note, it means that we don’t make mistakes — we don’t sin–, either). When they worship, they celebrate because it’s a beautiful day, because God loves us just as we are. God is good. We are good. It’s a good day.
On the other side of our denomination’s roots, there’s the Evangelical & Reformed side (which used to be German Reformed and the Dutch Reformed and a bunch of other Reformed churches…) which Very-Much-Believes-In Original-Sin, Thank-You-Very-Much. Their joy comes from the fact that they’re not going to be punished for being soooo evil. And because they’re joyous and serious at the same time, they do things to save a fallen world — build hospitals, save drunks, talk to people about Christ who saved them, too.
Because they believe in Original Sin, they can say the sentence “If we say we are without sin, we deceive ourselves and there is nothing good in us” with a straight face — a very serious straight face, I might add.
I’m one of those “Congo” folks, and you’ll never get me to say “there is nothing good within me”. Not gonna happen. Not now, not ever. I believe in people too much, and I like myself too much. (So there.)
So there are the two absurd extremes — “People who think they never do anything wrong and, thus, don’t apologize for anything” and “People who don’t have to do anything wrong to apologize for simply existing”. And that’s a cynical synopsis of people that go to church. To those outside the church: no wonder you don’t want to join. “New Age” folks are far more likely to join my kind of church. Fundamentalist folks are far more likely to join the second kind.
But here’s the problem: in my non-pastoral life, (as a therapist), I see people on a daily basis who really do sin — big time. They lie and steal, sometimes kill, sometimes neglect their children, sometimes fall into gutters while drunk, or fall into lives of prostitution to support their habit. I have a client at this very moment who can’t work the 12-Steps because he can’t conceive of forgiveness, even though he’s a generally nice guy now (and has been for the past couple of years). He suffers greatly from guilt and nightmares or memories from his past. He has an addiction. He was born into the sins which accompany addiction. If you ask him, he will tell you that “there is no good in him” when he thinks about it.
Would he go to church? He won’t go to anyplace that can’t even get over people’s very existence. If they apologize for doing nothing wrong, what are they going to do when you’ve actually done something wrong? That’s too much to bear.
He might go to a Congo church, but he’ll live a lie there. When the pastor says “God loves you just as you are” he’ll think, “Hell, I don’t even love me as I am. How could God?”. In that case, God is dumber than he is, and there’s no point in worshiping an someone that dumb. Then he’ll leave because it makes no sense.
This is where Virginia Satir fits in. Satir asks “does it fit for you to either say “I never sin/make a mistake” or “I always sin/make mistakes”?. Then she would say “If you can’t think of at least three options, you’re not being creative enough”.
Salvation must match the level of sin. The person who is generally nice but messes up on occasion should be able to at least acknowledge that they do. In that case, they can believe that God forgives them. God makes a realistic assessment of them and forgives them, because that’s what God does. They must still work it out with the people they’ve hurt, but minor details are easy to fix. Nice people can allow themselves to make mistakes, allow their kids to make mistakes, allow their colleagues to make mistakes and still teach general niceness as a value like Jesus taught us to. (I’m not being sarcastic there, BTW. The world needs a lot more generally-nice and genuinely nice people).
But for the big-time sinners, God also makes a realistic assessment and forgives them, because that’s who God is. Big-Time Sin meets the Biggest-of-all-time Grace and –even though the rest of the world still needs to be dealt with — there’s enough hope for the person to go on living. And my client, who is used to grungy, smelly people can share the gospel that he’s known and confuse the heck out of them as he does ministry among them, just as Jesus did.
In both cases, God actually knows who we are, and loves us anyway, which Satir, BTW, says is the fundamental and universal human yearning.
Lastly, though, the UCC (the larger denomination) gets it right in a whole other way. As a denomination we take sin seriously when it’s a system created by humans. We acknowledge Apartheid is a sin, racism is a sin, Nazi-ism is a sin, homophobia is a sin, wealth-beyond-belief is a sin. “The powers and the principalities” are sinful, because — dare we say it under our collective breaths? — sinful people create sinful systems. This, however, is a pretty intellectual way to get to acknowledging sin/evil in our lives and not really seen by the general public which sees evil as either the Communist dictator in a foreign country or a pro-wrestler like the Undertaker.
But, hey, you can’t have everything.
Comments, as always, are welcome on this whole thing.