Bordner’s note: this is a response to a letter Shane Claiborne wrote to non-believers in Esquire magazine. Parts of this response are taken directly from Shane’s original letter.
To all my non-believing, sort-of-believing, and used-to-be-believing friends:
I read Shane’s heartfelt letter to you. You know, it made me think. His service to the poor is certainly something to marvel at. He’s a dynamo, and he’s done so much good for the world. In his letter, he’s got a point, but not in the way he might think. I, too, am sorry that so often the biggest obstacle to Christ has been Christians. So many of us just want to make nice. Sin is a real problem, hell is an objective reality, and the road from perdition is more narrow than most admit, yet so many times we Christians worry so much about our image. We wring our hands about being thought of as anti-gay, judgmental, or hypocritical, and we are oblivious to the fact that through no merit of our own, God has given us the real cure to humanity’s real fundamental problem. Why don’t we…well…give it away and actually tell people about it?
Have we earned it? No. Has God given it to us because we are somehow his “favorites”? No. We’re just like everyone else, yet here we are, with this incredible message, and so many times we either don’t communicate it at all or the way we do communicate it doesn’t make sense. We’re a timid, easily embarrassed bunch, you see.
The other day I was walking around observing a promenade of street performers. There was a breakdancer or two, there were a few magicians, and then there was this preacher. He was preaching about stuff we don’t like to think about. He talked about how we are all going to go to hell if we don’t know Jesus.
There were several different reactions to this man. Some folks snickered. Some told him to shut the hell up. A couple of teenagers tried to steal the dead body in the coffin. Then there was this one guy. Couldn’t take my eyes off him…kinda looked like Shane. Anyway, he might have been a believer. He looked so clearly embarrassed, as if he wanted to stand up on a box beside the preacher and yell at the top of his lungs, “God is not a monster!”
His reaction, to me, was the most curious thing of the whole scene. Sure, the preacher was doing some odd and quirky things. There was his megaphone, and the “dead” manequin, of course, the way he was speaking was a bit intense, and his moustache wasn’t helping either. He was unpolished, for sure, and the way he was communicating the message was a turn-off. That much I’ll admit.
But I don’t think the embarrassed onlooker was worried about all that. Seemed to me that he was embarrassed about the content of the preacher’s message–the talk about sin and hell.
It is this embarrassment that I want to apologize to you about. Far too often, we only tell you a partial message. We tell you all the stuff that will make you like us, all the stuff that is joyful to hear. We are embarrassed about the other part of Jesus’ message. If this onlooker were to stand up next to the preacher, I’d want to stand up next to him standing next to the preacher and shout “God is not Santa Claus!”
Jesus, afterall, spoke of hell and sin bluntly…and often. The apostles in the book of Acts continued that trend, speaking of those things as if they were actually actual. They didn’t speak so much about the love of God, though. In Paul’s letter to the Roman church, he spoke of God’s love and mercy only after he wrote at length about our rebellion against God and the penalty that has earned.
I’ll be the first to admit that God is love. That is all over the Bible….but so is God’s justice, and it is clear that both my hands and your hands are on the bloody knife. There is good news–God, in His mercy, offers amnesty, but that good news isn’t good news until we reckon with the bad news. Just as a doctor’s willful misdiagnosis keeps a cancer patient from seeking the proper cure, our hiding the truth of God’s justice from you keeps you in the dark. How is that loving?
Now, Shane did have a point in his letter: the Church could do a better job of adequately addressing the hells around us. We could always do a better job, and we will never measure up completely on that scale this side of eternity. Yet, he missed something too: obscuring God’s severity by only talking about His love does no one any favors. God is not a celestial Santa Claus. He is holy, and we neglect this at your peril. Yes, speaking of hell, wrath, sin, and all that stuff doesn’t put anyone in a good mood. Yes, some have abused those subjects by using them to control and manipulate the disadvantaged. I’d rather not talk about hell, to be frank. When I do, I don’t gain much popularity. However, I am convinced by Jesus’ words and the apostles testimony that those things are real as the couch I’m sitting on, and the Gospel isn’t the Gospel without them.
Think about this (I borrow this illustration, ironically, from one of those quirky street preachers that I just talked about): you are on a plane, and the flight attendant hands you a parachute. “Put this on, it will improve the quality of your flight” she says. You put it on, but it obviously doesn’t improve the quality of your flight; it weighs you down, people laugh at you because you look goofy, and it sure doesn’t ease the burn when another flight attendant accidentally spills hot coffee on you. Would you keep it on in that case? I wouldn’t!
Now what about if she came up to you and said instead, “put on this parachute. In a few minutes, you’ll have to jump out of this plane, and you will need it to be rescued.” I’ll go to Vegas on the wager that you’ll keep it on no matter what now! The spilled coffee will even make you look forward to the jump!
Perhaps that’s not the best illustration. Say that one day, after you walk through your house door, someone knocks on the door and hands you an envelope. “The judge loves you and wants you to have a wonderful and hope-filled life.” After feeding you and giving you some water, he leaves. Confused, you open the envelope and find inside a document stating that your fine and community service has been paid in full. What would be your reaction? It wouldn’t make sense. “Who cares about the judge’s love? I mean, thanks for the food and all, but I don’t owe anyone anything!”
What if, though, before the stranger handed you the envelope, he said, “before you parked, you ran three red lights and caused a terrible accident. This is a very serious infraction of the law, but someone you don’t know paid your fine and has already taken care of your community service”? You’d still probably have lots of questions, but at least the gift in the envelope would then make sense.
Both illustrations aren’t perfect, of course. For starters, our predicament is much more serious than a plane jump, and our sin is much more egregious than a traffic violation. What both illustrations drive home, though, is that good news only becomes good news once bad news is brought into the picture. The parachute and the clemency do not make sense apart from the jump and the traffic violation. This simple fact is what many Christians, including Shane, miss. In our rush to only talk about God’s love, we make God look silly. Aren’t there better ways, afterall, for God to communicate His love than a crucifixion? Why did He send His only Son to such a horrible death if He’s only trying to communicate His love to us and set a sacrificial example for us? Apart from God’s wrath–yes, His wrath–the cross is utter nonsense.
Shane calls that “force.” I fail to see his point. If I tell you that you have rebelled against God by breaking His commands, and that only Jesus Christ has the adequate means to rescue you from the gavel of God’s judgment, how is that “force”? Maybe it’s false, maybe it’s misguided, maybe it’s crazy. If that’s the case, then Jesus Himself is false, misguided, and crazy, for that is the very same message He preached. But under no circumstances am I “forcing” you just by telling you that.
I hope you are able, dear friend, to look past all the rhetoric about “forcing” and ask honestly ask yourself just one question: is it true? Twelve years ago, I asked that same question. Not only did it change my life here and now, but it changed the trajectory of my eternity. Through pondering that message, I came to see God not as petty and hateful, but as merciful, graceful, and–yes–loving.