Some of you know I am a “Nazbeen,” a former Nazarene. The Orthodox Church is the church I fell madly in love with. I had realized long before that that if I continued to be Nazarene, I would eventually become an atheist. The problem was that the God I was told who loved me, and the God I was taught to love, was just so…inhuman.
Nazarene theology teaches that through faith it is possible to be saved by the grace of God from the effects of original sin. They call this the doctrine of the “Second Blessing” or “Entire Sanctification.” The CoN is part of the American Holiness tradition. Rather than talk about the history and theology of that movement, I will skip straight to the effects. Entire Sanctification is the belief that sainthood can be instantaneous. Indeed, it should be. What you get, then, is a lot of people trying to convince themselves that they are saints, and feeling like failures for being sinners. That’s an oversimplification, of course, but it is the gist.
I believe in sainthood. Hell! I believe in Entire Sanctification! I just think it takes time. It is long. It is rare in this life. And the true mark of someone who is entirely sanctified is that they will deny being so. (By contrast, one who would become a minister in the CoN must report when they were entirely sanctified and how many people are entirely sanctified yearly through their ministry.)
This past Sunday I was back at a Nazarene Church with relatives. The sermon was good, as far as those things go. It was about how a Christian should deal with adversity. “The world is watching us,” the preacher said (quoting from memory). When pain comes into our lives, we need to turn that pain over to God so that it can become something that God will use to grow us later. (I heard a story along these lines on NPR yesterday, dealing with “Post-Traumatic Growth.“)
That’s all well and good, but it left me wondering, “What about outrage?” The preacher talked about the Psalms, and about how David would face adversity, but trust in the Lord. Naturally this made me wonder about Psalm 22, or what may be my “favorite” Psalm, Psalm 137.
By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!
Remember, O Lord, against the E′domites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Raze it, raze it!
Down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall he be who requites you
with what you have done to us!
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
Why do I like this Psalm? Because it talks about killing infants? Yeah. Kind of.
Obviously, I am not in favor of infant-killing. What I am in favor of is authenticity. The desire to kill infants is about as base as you can get as a human being. To want to take the child of one’s enemies and bash its head in as vengeance for what was done to your own kin is a disgusting, shameful thought. And that is why I like its presence here. The Psalmist, who had lived through a nightmare, put his own nightmarish thoughts on paper for all the world to see, generation after generation.
This Psalm is why I am no longer Nazarene and why I worry about sermons like I heard on Sunday. Humans can be pretty vile creatures sometimes. Evil! And our evilness does not frighten God. The Psalmist does not apologize for feeling murderous. It is just the way it is. And it becomes part of his prayer. He does not pray, “Lord, I offer my murderous feelings to you.” Maybe he should. But that’s not what he does.
One thing I have learned over my inadequate years as a believer is that being Christian means being human, as human as a person can get, human to the point of sometimes saying, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” We feel like that sometimes. Maybe God will take that feeling and turn it into something better later. I do not know. God knows. What I do know, or at least I think I know, is that God cannot do anything in us without our honesty. I think that means not apologizing for the hatred. Not apologizing for the lust. The things we feel are the things we feel. We ask forgiveness for our acts, for the gaze that lingers too long, and for the hatred that becomes an unkind word or a punch to the throat (the former often being the most traumatic). We pray that God will make us holy, but our lack of holiness is not because of our lack of faith. It is because we are human.
If I believe hard enough, can God save me from the effects of original sin? I don’t know. Can God make a boulder so big that God cannot lift? It is a bit of a paradox. What I can tell you is that I cannot believe hard enough to be saved from the effects of original sin (or “ancestral sin,” as some Orthodox polemicists like to call it) because the effects of original sin are not just in me. They are around me. They are epigenetic. The effects of original sin are everywhere. I cannot cut myself off from them. I am a porous human being. We all are.
What I can do is be sinful before God. I can be honest. In my personal experience, Holiness Theology tends to breed people who “make excuses in sin” (Psalm 141:4). That won’t get us anywhere. So to the preacher who gave the sermon last Sunday, I must respectfully disagree. Or at least, I must qualify. It is true that God can transform our pain into something beautiful, just as God transforms bread and wine into the body and blood of our Lord, but my pain must be fully and freely offered. It must be laid bare before God. I am not sure that asking God to change our pain has much effect. That has not been my experience, anyway, because when I ask God to transform my pain, I tend to hold on to part of that pain for myself. I hold part of it back because I feel like there is something wrong with it. Surely, if I were a holier person, I would not feel this way in the first place, right? But if the Psalms teach us anything, it is that we must be honest before God, even—or especially!—about our pain. “God! I am so pissed off at you right now!” “God, I wanna punch that sonnabitch in the throat!” Now those are prayers I can get behind!