Posted by: Shawn Ragan | June 2, 2008

An Angry God

For most of my life, there has been one word that summarized my understanding of Christianity – Guilt.

A couple of years ago, I was hunting pheasants. I had been hunting pheasants for a couple of years, unsuccessfully. I really wanted to bring home a pheasant. A psychoanalyst may have commented that my masculinity was beginning to depend upon my ability to bring a pheasant home. I was having no such luck.

One day after duck hunting, I was driving home through this wilderness area. There, standing to the side of this gravel road up ahead was a pheasant. He just stood there. The place I was at was a Wildlife Management Area and they stocked rooster pheasant there. I had a permit good for six roosters, so I was legal to shoot the bird. He was a farm-raised bird, and he just stood there as I drove as close as I felt comfortable. I opened my door, slid out and as soon as I cleared my door and was in a legal spot to shoot, I shot the rooster.

Immediately, guilt came upon me. Not for shooting the bird, I intended to eat it and I enjoy pheasant. My kids had been looking forward to eating pheasant for the two years prior to this. The thing was, I didn’t really hunt the bird. I was legal in everything I did, but it still didn’t set right. I felt I should have parked further away and hunted the bird. Had I done that, I probably would not have gotten him…thus the reason I didn’t. I really wanted to shoot a pheasant.

It took me months to eat that bird.

Several weeks later I was up duck hunting with a friend. The guilt still plagued me from that earlier hunt, and we weren’t seeing any ducks. The thought kept going through my mind “This is God punishing you for the way you hunted that pheasant.”

A friend of mine shared that he and his family watched a comedy from the 1980s. It was rated PG, and it had a small amount of cussing in it. Part way through the movie, he shared with me, he wondered if he should turn it off. He decided to finish watching it. That night though, the guilt hit. He couldn’t sleep at all, and his wife and kids were flying out of town the next day. He was frightened God was going to punish him (by making the plane crash) because he had watched that movie. For him, too, the keyword was guilt.

I know we are not alone, as I have pastored these last 8 years, this has been a reoccurring theme. This angry God, waiting to punish us. Us, sitting in guilt and fear.

Even modern ways of explaining the Gospel teach this, even if its unknowingly. You’ve sinned. God is just, therefore He must punish sin. But God also loves us, so He sent His Son to earth and punished Him instead. Now, if we accept Christ taking the punishment for us, we can live with God. Those theologies can even include the idea that God does not look at us at Judgment, He sees only Christ.

This was much of what I taught. We did the little bridge illustrations when teaching evangelism classes. We explained salvation using these often repeated phrases. The more I did, the more I struggled with it…right up to the point I had a hard time telling people about this God, because it wasn’t making sense to me. They would ask questions about salvation I couldn’t answer.

And of course there was the “If that’s God, I don’t want anything to do with Him.” I have seen that on other blogging sites by atheists, as well as having heard it from people I have visited with these last 8 years. I have even heard things similar to this from people who were thinking about leaving Christianity.

We say God is love and about love, but our whole model of salvation is punishment driven and based. Justice preempts love. Punishment overrules mercy (for those who hold to this model and want to claim that mercy triumphs over punishment because of Christ, I’d remind you that according to that model, punishment was exacted. Punishment was the victor, because Christ took it – it was satiated by the cross. According to that model, victory was not attained by mercy, it was attained by justice and punishment).

The second time I went to Vespers, there I was sitting across from these two monks as we were downstairs sharing a meal afterwards. One of them was a bigger fellow and had a very jovial face, a perpetual smile. He reminded me of Santa Claus. He was very light-hearted and I enjoyed talking with him.

The other monk (actually he is a hieromonk – which means a monk who is also a priest) did not look so jovial. He was much quieter and had almost a stern look on his face. Honestly, he intimidated me.

Hieromonk Mark.

Over this last year or so, I found that Hieromonk Mark is one of the most compassionate men I know. I try to see him every couple of months, and there has not been a single time where we have visited, or even spoken on the phone, where he has not said something that pierced my soul – something I needed to hear. My spiritual journey has been helped greatly by this man, and it all began on this night.

We were talking about things, and Hieromonk Mark asked someone there if they had a copy of “The River of Fire” by Alexandre Kalomiros. He told me I should read it. I went home and read it and for the first time in my life I began to understand that our God is love. In many ways for me, it was like learning about Christ and what He did for the first time. It helped me to understand many of the errors in my thinking about God, and how in fact I denied His real presence, and the real power of the cross.

“I preach Christ and Him crucified” claimed the Apostle Paul. This Good News – and it was not Good News because someone else got killed in our place, it was Good News because of what God actually accomplished for us on the cross. Reading this paper helped me to let go of this “guilt” based idea of God, and to work towards one that really was based on “love” and “mercy.” It helped me to let go of a view of salvation that was developed centuries after Christ lived, and hold to one that has existed from the time of the Apostles.

If you are interested in reading this, be prepared. He can be blunt, but if you want a better perspective on the love and mercy of our God, try reading the article. It is available through St. Nectarios Press, but it is available online from Orthodox Press here:

http://www.orthodoxpress.org/parish/river_of_fire.htm

If you read it, leave me a comment and let me know what you think.

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Responses

  1. It is extremely difficult to break out of the juridical view of salvation when it is absolutely equated with being “THE” Gospel. The Prodigal Son/Elder Brother summarizes the “River of Fire”: The Elder Brother stands at the door of the party and the Father begs him to enter but he refuses. The same Father, the same love for His sons, one parties, one refuses. The Elder Brother’s hell is self created.

  2. The juridical view has been so ingrained in the West for the last 1000 years that it is very hard for people to see otherwise. I think many do see it is an incorrect way and try to leave it to some extent, but they are so ingrained in that way of thinking, they end up in a place of confusion – “muddy thinking” as you put it. The River of Fire, I think, helps to distinguish the later Western view from the earlier Eastern/Jewish view.

    While it is difficult to break out of it, for me anyways, it was incredibly freeing when I read the paper. I have heard much on this topic since, and the freedom I found was beyond words. In many real ways, it was like hearing the Gospel for the first time.

    Great illustration on the Prodigal Son/Elder Brother…Thanks!

  3. What astounds me most about the guilt is how difficult it is to break free. It does seem to be more prevalent in Catholicism than in other flavors of Christianity. And yes, it’s true. Once you manage to divorce yourself from that guilt, it feels like a huge weight’s been lifted.

  4. I’m glad you could finally come out of the guilt-based Christianity! On June 15th (Pentecost) I’m going to be Chrismated into the Orthodox Church and I must say that the Christianity which Orthodoxy teaches is much more in line with the idea of God as Love.

    I think the problem with Western Christianity (as legalistic and juridical) all stems from Augustine’s view of Original Sin somehow being transmitted from one generation to the next. Like we’re born with some inherent guilt which we must struggle to get rid of and to appease the God who places the guilt on us.

    The idea of the only thing being transmitted from Original Sin being death, and that we are only responsible for the sins we ourselves commit really changes the whole outlook of things.

    God bless, in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit!

    IC XC
    +
    NIKA

  5. Zacharias…Congratulations on your upcoming Chrismation…I look forward to the day when my family and I will enter the Church. I have one month left in my contract – I am currently a Protestant pastor. I hope my family will become catechumens in July, but it is all in God’s time.
    Shawn

  6. Hi leftcoastlibrul, Actually having been Catholic and Protestant they are both guilt based religions since their entire theology of salvation has to do with expiation of guilt for sinning. If you listen to protestant talk/preaching radio for even a day virtually ALL of the sermons and classes deal with trying to convince people that Christ makes them not guilty. Guilt IS a big problem with protestants in a backhanded way, no one actually “preaches hell fire guilt trips” to protestants anymore but they do explicitly preach Christ as the one who took our punishment, so the implicit unmistakable message is that we are guilty and their faith is based on guilt as the primary motivation for all of God’s activity toward the human being.

  7. I am interested in how you chose Orthodoxy. Was it because of the article ‘River of Fire’? I thought that article was beautifully expressed, and it reflects a recent change in my own understanding, despite my protestant background.

  8. Sorry – I’m reading your blog. I guess that will answer my question. 🙂

  9. ravingpente,

    The rest of the posts in the blog, thus far, will explain much of my journey to that point. Much of it is hard to put into words…as I mention in a blog post, it is difficult to talk about a painting in writing. But I will try to make some comments about what drew me to Orthodoxy… First, it is totally God-centered, the services, the worship, the Christian life, all of it is based around God, not the person. I am used to people debating about what types of songs to sing (you know, the worship wars 🙂 ), as well as how long the sermon should be, how we should do this or that, really all issues of personal opinion. The very arguments and discussions reveal that much of the modern Protestant worship service is not about God, but about the congregation. What can we do to please the congregation? What does the congregation want? Let’s do it in the way they want (which usually leads to arguing because different people want it different). The point is, in Orthodoxy all of that is gone, because we don’t come to focus on ourselves, but God. Second, it heals. My wife is going through some of that healing now, having been spiritually hurt in our last church. I think it is important that if Christ did set up a church though His Apostles, that He equipped it to do what it was supposed to do – and to the early Christians the Church was a hospital – even Christ makes that statement. How effective are churches today at healing the soul? If you get a well-trained counselor, you might get one who is trained at healing the emotions, but the spiritual life is much deeper than that. The system of faith – the Christian life itself – in Orthodoxy HEALS one spiritually and helps the faithful grow in communion with God. This has been tested for thousands of years and has produced enormous amounts of fruit – Saints, martyrs, confessors, and holy men and women who lived their life full for God. Third, it is mystical and real. This is hard to explain, but God is bigger than us and beyond our comprehension – shouldn’t the Church be as well? I try to talk about this in “Out of Time” a little bit, but the best way to understand it is just to attend a service. Fourth, this is the historical church. Orthodoxy did not begin with some movement in the 19th century or a reform in the 16th century or a schism in the 10th-11th centuries. This is the Church of Jerusalem we read about in Acts, and the Church of Antioch that we read about in Acts. The fact is that most all of the churches mentioned in the New Testament are Orthodox. They never became Roman Catholic, and never followed the Pope as a “universal bishop.” The issues that led to a Protestant Reformation never existed in Orthodoxy, because she has remained faithful to the teachings handed down by the Apostles and Church Fathers. Fifth, because in my heart I know it to be true. This is not just a matter of head knowledge (which is where I am comfortable at), but it is also heart knowledge. Orthodoxy is true and it is real. If you want to understand it better, visit a service. If you have never been to one, it will be unlike anything you have ever seen…and you will have questions and you will ask “Why are they doing this? Why did they say that?” That’s OK. Take the time to ask the questions and learn what they are and are not doing and saying, and I think you will find that is all is Scriptural and that the reasons speak to your soul.
    Shawn Ragan

  10. Wow wow wow. You are saying the very things I’ve been trying to put into words since I started this journey. You’re saying them better than I have, thus far. Thank you for writing this!

  11. Christina,

    You’re welcome…much of this is hard to put into words, as I am sure you know. Any other comments/thoughts, don’t hesitate to mention them.

    Shawn

  12. Have you had any other responses regarding Dr. Kalomiros “The River of Fire”. We have been astonished how that work has been so widely distributed. We are pleased with those who call attention to it on our web-site and we thank them for their kind comments. (Sadly, a few people have attacked the article which much venom. However, they dont fully grasp Orthodox theology.)

  13. I have been Orthodox christian for 3 years and just read the river of fire. For many years now I have found myself rebelling against the idea of hellfire and damnation and an unconditionally loving God who condemns the lost souls to eternal punishment. I am grateful to have found a spiritual haven in Orthodoxy.

  14. This is great, wonderfully helpful but I don’t see how to email it to someone else. I think it would be a great way to ease someone into “The river of fire” but how?

    Thanks, Mary Lona

  15. Help, how can I email this?

    Thanks! Mary Lona


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