May 8, 2008

Hostile towards Freedom-- What Gives?

A recent radio program had an interview with a Jewish writer whose latest book details his lifetime of neurotic fears of a vengeful, capricious Ogre in the sky, the God of his childhood, based on common perceptions of the Old Testament. This view, of course, is perhaps the one most popular among both religious people and, curiously, atheists too. In this essay, I don't intend to explore that warped outlook, except to look at one unfortunate consequence of its inherent legalism. I will illustrate what sounds like an abstract concept with a recent, true-life anecdote.

In mid-winter, a friend asked for my help in moving to another city. She wanted me to drive a truck with her furnishings across the mountains to her new abode. I was available, and so agreed. Besides, I thought it would give me an opportunity to re-establish contact with a former friend that I hadn't seen for several years. I telephoned said friend-- let's call him Tom-- and he seemed happy to hear from me, even letting me stay in his home for the few days I'd be there. Things really fell into place, and a drive that can be a horror in winter snow squalls turned out to be a cake-walk. The move went smoothly, and the visit with Tom seemed to go well, too... despite a few awkward moments that we quickly passed over. Obeying an inner voice, I waited till the morning I departed before telling him that I'd left a set of books that I thought he'd find very interesting to read.

Once home, I sent an e-mail message to thank my hosts for their hospitality. Tom's wife-- the official e-mail communicator-- replied very quickly, asking for my mailing address. Hmmm... okay, I sent her my address... with a slight apprehension mixed with curiosity. Was he sending me a book for my perusal? Several days later, I got a notice in the mail that a package was waiting for me at the post office. I walked down and picked up the package. It was a large envelope that had torn and was re-packaged by the postal service; but I could feel several books inside, and then noticed that they were, in fact, the same ones I had left him. He's a speed-reader, you may be thinking. Not! He was giving those books the bum's rush back to me; but as I intimated, I wasn't completely surprised at this. Tom is a man of stubbornly-held beliefs, and doesn't brook dissent lightly.

Something did surprise me, though. It was a hand-scribbled note he had included with the books, and it was probably the rudest letter I'd ever received, even from enemies. In it, he called me a deluded fool, and biblically illiterate; and had even worse descriptions for the author of the books-- who happens to be a friend of mine. I was, frankly, rather stunned. Especially so, since earlier the same day, I had received another e-mail from his wife in which she stated that 'Tom hopes you will not take offense at our religious differences,' or words to that effect! 'Sure,' I thought to myself, 'why would anyone take offense at being called a deluded fool?' The whole episode had a surreal feel to it.

After sitting on it for a day, I sent an e-mail to Stan, the friend who wrote the offending books. Later, he telephoned me, and sounded quite up-beat. 'Don't worry,' he said; 'it's not you; your friend is not even aware of why he reacted so violently to the books.' In view of that last e-mail from Tom's wife, I thought Stan may be on to something. He explained further that Tom was unconsciously under the influence of a controlling spirit of legalism. It sounds far-fetched to the non-religious mind, but could be re-cast in contemporary terminology. You see, the whole tone of Tom's note was of indignation. He was highly indignant that I had had the temerity to even suppose that he would lower himself to entertain the premise of Stan's books. His note avowed that he had taken all of 'ten minutes' to ascertain that these tomes were full of nonsense not worthy of a Bible student like him. Like the Pharisees condemned by Jesus, Tom was deeply offended, and spared no language in conveying his disgust to me, an erstwhile 'friend.'

Thinking back to a previous incident, years before, I realized that Stan had a valid observation. On that occasion, I attended a small conference with Stan where speakers presented papers on matters relating to Bible study. One of the presenters was another friend of mine, at the time; let's call him Ken. I was familiar with Ken's favorite Biblical hobby-horses, most of which I tended to share, and had just become enthused with Stan's new insights. Innocently, I thought they should meet each other, and we'd all have a grand time sharing our views. Wrong, again! As soon as Ken met Stan, he immediately got on the defensive and we ended up having a very unpleasant lunch together. I was somewhat flummoxed; but Stan was surprisingly sanguine about it. Later, he told me the same thing-- when a person is under the spell of legalism, they simply will not listen to any other viewpoint. In fact, they seem to detect the spirit of freedom at once, and react viscerally and bluntly, often acting completely out of character with rudeness never before witnessed. Frankly, I wouldn't have believed such things until I had first-hand experience, seeing it happen before my amazed eyes.

Today, I am passing on this experience to other lone warriors of truth, who may wonder why many of their listeners are not just indifferent to their message, but outright hostile... even before they get to discuss it. The unbelievers you encounter will almost always gracefully decline your attempts to enlighten them; their attitude is usually 'Nice try... but I'm really not interested.' And that's fine; it's their choice entirely, as God wants. It's the so-called Christians who get riled up and indignant; 'How dare you attempt to expose them to your heretical garbage!' is their typical manner of response. So, as Jesus said, don't waste your pearls of wisdom on those of hardened hearts; where you are not welcome, shake the dust of that place from your shoes, and just carry on to the next destination (Matt 7:6; Mark 6:11).

As Paul wrote to the Corinthian congregation: "For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?" (2 Cor 2:15-16, NIV) Paul recognized the same phenomenon: that some hearers of his message find it deathly intolerable, while those who are open find it refreshing. We bearers of the message are equal to the task by the grace and power of God within us. There's no point trying to argue with the former group; their spiritual ears are blocked by hardening of the attitudes. Paul provided a penetrating analysis of the response of his Israelite countrymen to the gospel, in 2 Corinthians 3 (NIV; italics added): "[14] But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. [15] Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. [16] But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. [17] Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. [18] And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit."

Although Paul was writing about the Jews of his day, there's no reason to suppose that his analysis doesn't apply equally 'even to this day' to anyone who focuses religious attention on the Law of Moses, the Old Covenant. As he states metaphorically, a veil covers their 'heart,' meaning their ability to see spiritual reality. That veil, that blinder, is only removed, Paul affirms, whenever one turns to the Lord, Jesus. And as he states in several other epistles, the Spirit of the Lord equates to freedom and life... while the letter of the Law is slavery and death. It seems simple enough: look to Jesus and enjoy the freedom that he purchased on our behalf, or look to the Law and remain in bondage to its stony demands. The legalistic Christians (the 'Judeo-Christians') don't want to admit to legalism, however; they think they can have one eye on Jesus and the other eye on the Law, and somehow get the 'best of both covenants!' They attempt this ploy, despite the clear words of scripture that you can't have it both ways-- either you are under Law or under Christ. Choose today which god you will serve (Gal 3:2-5; & 11-13; Rom 10:3-5); choose between life and death, as even the Old Testament challenged (Deut 30:19).

Only the Holy Spirit can soften the hard heart of the covert legalist... and then, only if the soul is willing. Those with 'unveiled faces' who are open to the message of liberty, are being transformed by the renewing of their thinking into closer relationship with Christ, as Paul again notes in more than one letter. Remember, Jesus himself inaugurated his mission by quoting Isaiah: "He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4:18-19). Those goals he accomplished, not merely in the physical sense, but spiritually as well. So yes, you can always pray for those 'blind guides of the blind' to listen to the still, small voice that beckons them to freedom. Some of them will eventually crack, and let the light shine in.

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