Please, God, Don’t Kill Me!

I got another one yesterday… you know, the e-mail that tells you that if you don’t forward it to everyone you know, God will be disappointed with you.

First of all, I’d like you to know that I am a Christian, adhering to the essentials of Christian doctrine. (There are many places you can find lists of essential doctrine, including at the Christian Research Institute’s Web site.) So when I challenge the content of this message, I’m doing so from a Christian perspective, so don’t think this is another post bashing those fundamentalist Christian nut cases. Rather, it’s a call to think about how to effectively communicate God’s attributes and message by guarding against some ineffective ways.

Before reading on, view the e-mail here (an html-formatted version that’s pretty close to an actual representation of the forwarded-forwarded-forwarded e-mail I received) so you’ll understand my observations and comments.

The author specifically implores you to “make a personal reflection on this”… heh, OK, I will.

Hmmm, where to start? I’ll tackle the style/format/communication issues first and then move on to the theology of the content…

I’m no marketing genius, but you don’t have to be one to understand that the gaudiness of the format is just not a good way to make the reader receptive to what you’re trying to communicate. Six different bright font colors on a black background?? 24-point font?? The subject and first two lines in ALL CAPS, which we all know means you’re being YELLED AT?? And the styles and line breaks are set up so that there’s at least 5 times the appropriate space between lines of text, so you have to keep scrolling down in the middle of each thought. Honestly, every time I receive something like this in a similarly painful format, I read the whole thing only because I want to find what all is wrong with it. Reading till the end had additional benefits: I’m pleased to know that at least two people use AVG 8.0.100, and I’m happy to have that advertisement for the now-expired “i’m Talkaton” [sic] that someone’s Yahoo! mail or whatever appended to the message.

The author makes it a point to tell you this is “very interesting, read until the end.” Why tell me it’s interesting or to read it until the end? Is it to be assumed that most of the things you send me aren’t interesting, or worthy of being read till the end, and that this is a special exception?

OK, that’s it for the annoyances having to do with formatting and communicative style. I encourage you to read, digest, and act upon my post about E-mail Stewardship to avoid promoting these and other practices. On to the theology stuff….

What purpose is there really in pointing out that some people who disparaged God in some way died in noteworthy ways? (I almost think that the intent is to pass it around in Christian circles, congratulating ourselves on being spared from God’s wrath.) After reading it several times, I really think that the author is trying to tell you that you shouldn’t dishonor God or He might zap you. That’s very simplistic, but I think that really is the point – the examples are given in such a way as to draw a corollary between a God-dishonoring statement and a horrible death.

You know what? It could be true. If you speak or act in a way that dishonors God, you just might die tragically as a result. It has happened before: in Acts chapter 5, two people withheld what was promised to God, lied about it, and subsequently died; in First Samuel chapter 17, Goliath the Philistine defied God and His people, getting a rock buried in his forehead as a result; there are a number of such instances described in the bible. The problem is, even in these miraculous instances, you don’t know for sure if their deaths were a result of their disrespect for God; you can make a good case for it, but mostly because God demonstrated that He was using it to accomplish a particular purpose in history. I would argue that the vast majority of miracles are concentrated around significant spiritual turning points in history – for example, Creation, the Flood, the Exodus, the establishment of the nation of Israel, Jesus’ earthly ministry, the birth of the Church, the bringing of the Word of God by missionaries to previously unreached regions, etc. You cannot make the case that John Lennon’s or the Brazilian girl’s deaths had the historical impact that Goliath’s or Ananias’ did. So, although it’s true that God can smite whomever He will whenever He wishes, it’s not consistent with His M.O. to do so, especially not where His greater purposes are not evident. While I grant that it’s possible that God did somehow put these people to death for their irreverent remarks, it doesn’t seem likely if you study how He has revealed Himself and and carried out His relationship with people throughout history. To reduce God to an impulsive, capricious hothead with a chip on His shoulder who one-ups his adversaries by putting them to death is to completely misunderstand His character and motives, and, worse, perpetuates the stereotypes that hide the true message of Christianity. Those who are vocal about their rejection of the Christian Faith use these kinds of things to support their views – they either don’t believe in or refuse to worship a God who kills off those who disrespect Him; and they poke fun at those who propagate such notions. Just do a Google search on “Death is certain but the Bible speaks about untimely death” and you’ll find comments like this and this, as well as numerous bitter and condescending atheistic comments on blog posts.

The author of this e-mail correlates a disrespect for God with dying a terrible death, but in fact his examples are isolated instances that he conjures up to subjectively prove the point rather than objectively coming to the conclusion the majority of the evidence leads to. If you stop for a few seconds, you can think of many people who disrespect God but live long, successful lives; even worse, you think of many who love God but whose lives are cut short tragically. You have no logical choice but to come to the conclusion that, excluding miraculous events, which by definition are not normal occurrences, speaking out in disrespect against God and dying a noteworthy tragic death are at best coincidental. To claim to claim that each of these cases is a miraculous occurrence, the work of the direct hand of God, is to claim a revelation outside of the scope of His Word – a dangerous theological position.

I can’t comment on someone’s use of a verse like Galatians 6:9 in such a way without doing what we should all do when a verse is applied: study it, which means to seek to understand it in context, which is to understand who wrote it to whom under what circumstances and inside of what train of thought. Often times, non-Christians (and many Christians, I suppose) will read bible verses like random quotes or proverbs, thinking that they are universally applicable bite-sized tidbits, rather than being phrases or sentences that belong inside a particular context. Galatians 6:9 is a sentence or two (depending on which way the translation you’re reading breaks it up) inside a paragraph that’s in a section of a somewhat long letter that the apostle Paul wrote to a group of churches he had previously visited. You need to know a little about Paul, these churches, and what he’s talking about in this sixth chapter in order to understand this verse – you can’t just snatch out this verse and throw it at whomever seems to be “mocking” or “making fun of” God. It’s doubtful that the word that’s translated into English here as “mocked” even has the connotation of disparaging or making fun of. Merriam-Webster defines “mocked” mostly in terms of contempt and defiance, which is a much better fit in the context of this passage, which addresses how to treat wayward fellow churchgoers, helping with their (spiritual) burdens, embracing your own responsibility, and being consistent in your service of others. “Mocking” God in this context is defying God’s directives with regard to church service, fooling yourself into thinking you can fool God into favoring you if you have the right pious attitudes and words but don’t give evidence of your Faith by putting some action behind it.

So, while I appreciate the author’s willingness to do a small part to propagate the proclamation of the glory of God, I can’t help but take issue with the method of delivery. Indeed, God is powerful enough to make someone pay dearly if he rejects Him as Lord; but his method of dealing with people is in most cases an invitation to willingly enter into a relationship with Him, rather than strong-arming the person into submitting against his will.

To a certain extent, evangelizing (which is a step in the direction of the Great Commission’s charge to make disciples) is ‘winning’ people to the Christian point of view, giving reason for the hope we have with gentleness and respect, or “speaking the truth in love”. This e-mail fails on many accounts: it speaks the truth some, but mixes in a good deal of fantasy; the gentleness part is missing altogether; piousness rather than love seems to be the motivator here; respect and reason are discarded as misinterpretations of selected pieces of the bible are followed to false conclusions. It shouldn’t be the goal to make everyone feel warm and fuzzy, but it sure does a lot of harm to assist critics in taking pot shots at Christianity by giving them the ammunition they want. Atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists are constantly receptive to, and on the prowl looking for, information to use in their case against ‘religion’ or ‘belief in God’. Many times this information is used to obscure and take focus off of the main points (is there one God? is Jesus human and God? is the bible the true, inerrant revelation of God?) and put it where it doesn’t belong (“see – those people are nutso and therefore what they say is wrong”). Let’s not give them those opportunities. Let’s paint as accurate a picture as we can of God and the bible – the critics’ beef needs to be with God Himself, not with us.

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