Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Balance Myth

I would like to kill off a silly notion that runs around among modern Christian discussions. Sorry for the violent sounding approach, but I've heard the rhetoric of war used rather frequently in church. So.

The myth appears, like the bogeyman and the abominable snowman, to have been devised in order to scare young adults away from drinking and having sex. It involves grace, the much defined, often talked of concept that Christians stake their faith on. We seem to have this spectrum of grace. The idea runs that on one end of the spectrum, we have legalism- the absence of grace, the worship of law and rules, the refusal to forgive. On the other end of this spectrum, we have license- a cavalier approach to behavior, too little regard for the law, the attitude that "it's okay to sin a little because grace covers it." Supposedly the ideal is to be somewhere in the middle, to strike the correct balance.

The problem is, the spectrum is a complete fabrication. The picture is misleading. And the illustration is found nowhere in the Bible, and certainly not in the red letters. But before I begin dismantling what I consider a distorted view of God's character, let me sum the whole thing up quickly: Pursue balance, and you will get neither balance nor God.

I can think of three traps that the spectrum model sets. There may be more.

1. If sanctification is summed up as a delicate navigation between Scylla and Charybdis, we perish because none of us can sail the ship properly. Painting the "spectrum" picture squarely saddles the Christian with the burden of performing his way to sanctification, simply another denial of grace.

2. We begin worrying that not enough grace will cause us to look like crotchety old fundamentalists, so we start tacking things onto our lives that are an excuse to say "see, everyone? I have grace." So we get rid of dress codes and start serving coffee at church. We make our music sound contemporary. Clearly we have undergone a radical transformation of the spirit. Likewise, too much grace will lead to license, thus the mindset of "a certain amount of grace, but no more." Which of course means that God only has "a certain amount of grace" with me. Which means I better get cracking and fix myself. Which is the road to a very well-intentioned hell.

3. We must then concoct a recipe- a dose of law here, a dose of grace there. Maybe they'll even each other out like frequency cancellation. So we guilt-trip occasionally, and then occasionally give vaguely defined inspirations about God's love and forgiveness. This allows us to avoid the substance and purpose of both law and grace. Because we're terrified of reality: that we're hopelessly beset by a sin nature which we cannot defeat, and that God has fully and unqualifiedly washed our feet in the most eternal way.

The real issue, as always, is less visible, and more selfish. I embrace the balance doctrine in order to feel better about my balanced-looking yet joyless life, and to condescend to those who don't meet my qualifications for sanctity.

Perhaps if we knew what grace was, we would be able to talk about sanctification in a way that helps someone, instead of giving us more of the world's poison. Grace is not the forgiveness of sins. "Unmerited favor" is flavorless and finite. The gift to us that the transcendent-imminent God has made of Himself. That embodies the bigness of the concept, while leaving room for its mystery.

Put a pivot point at the middle of the spectrum, and swing the ends around to meet. Now you have something more accurate. Legalism and license are really two names for the same thing- the refusal of God's transforming gift of Himself. His gift is the cure, and sits opposite both these feared ideologies. License equals a shortage of grace. Legalism equals a shortage of grace. If we need to have spectrums, how about "God's order in which all things are submitted to him, via grace" at one end, and "all other orders" at the other. Because the original spectrum absurdly implies that excessive grace leads to license. This is fine for people who want "a certain amount of God, but no more" in their lives. Which, if we're honest, describes all of us at least some of the time, and many of us all of the time. But really, I would be fine with scrapping spectrums altogether.

Wiccans and other pagans believe in many different kinds of balance that are necessary for the harmony of the universe. If we're that needy for balance, let's go get some lessons from them.

1 comment:

NaNcY said...

i surrender...again...dear Lord God, all my human ideas of who i am, and give myself all to you. thank you for Your giving LoveGraceYou. I am yours.