Evangelical Wrath and God's Righteousness

by Matthew Raley Sometimes I slip statements into my posts to see who's paying attention to what. The award this week goes to my brother Chris, who spotted a matter of some importance in last week's post about the court decision on Prop 8.

What I said was,

Having entered the political fray with a fractured base — a base that opposes threats to marriage in principle but that is under the thumb of family courts in fact — the religious right has little option but to find enemies and blame them. That’s elementary, abc stuff. If the base is not united, your tool is fear.

So the enemies are homosexuals.

This strategy is Pharisaical. Which is to say, it is the wrath of man leveraged to produce the righteousness of God.

Chris pulled out the last sentence: "That has a lot of implications. Like, to what extent do we do this to fellow Christians?"

My allusion was to James 1.19-21. In teaching how to endure temptation, James commands us to be "quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger." He is warming up to say later that wrangling and fighting is demonic (3.13-13; 4.1-12).  But here, the basic reason he gives to resist anger is that "the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires."

Rather, we must lay aside our own wickedness, and "receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls." The word of God implanted in the receptive heart-and-mind is the source of godly obedience. Our anger is not the source.

James would say that we do inflict our wrath on other believers to produce righteousness, and we must repent. Here are some specific ways that we do what James forbids:

1. We often rely on conformist instincts to uphold standards.

No one wants to provoke the community's anger and bring shame or rejection on themselves. It is a high cost to bear. So, much of the time, church-goers keep their heads down. They will avoid any public non-conformity to the church's explicit and implicit standards, hiding any behavior that might expose them to disapproval.

Threats of the anger of man, in this case, produce lying rather than truth.

James teaches that God's righteousness is produced when someone responds directly to God's goodness (1.18). "Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures." Conformity to other human beings is spiritually barren.

2. We often use guilt manipulation to motivate people to godliness.

Guilt manipulation, to define it broadly, is making people feel bad about what they've done. It is what one human being does when trying to control another human being's behavior. This comes in a range of language from "Burn in hell, you sinner" to "We're disappointed in you." We do this because we know that shame is a disabling emotion.

In this method we, the human beings, are supposed to police sin and arrest it.

The use of shame is a kind of vengeance -- which is to say, the satisfaction of anger. It does not produce righteousness because it is disabling, not redeeming. God nurtures a living, joyful righteousness.

Obviously, a church needs to confront sins. James is not teaching that we can shirk that duty, nor am I. Rather, confronting sin must be done with abundant listening and the tender maintenance of meekness. God is the one who convicts sin, not us. It is his implanted word that has the power to save, not our emotional appeals.

3. We fight to preserve a culture that reflects our standards, believing that this will save future generations.

The whole motivation behind the campaign against gay marriage is to preserve our society's reflection of particular biblical values. This and other such issues are labeled the culture wars. They are social battlegrounds. The scenes of anger.

What these battles have unleashed in the conversation of Christians around me is not the righteousness of God. They have unleashed jealousy, mocking, lying, brawling, gossip, slander, and condemnation. If we "win," I can say with some confidence that not one soul will gain eternal life as a result. As for the souls of our children, many are filled with revulsion.

And all this for a goal that is of dubious value. Jesus Christ does not redeem human cultures. He redeems souls. Those redeemed souls then alter the character of the cultures in which they live.

James would not have shrunk from declaring God's will for sexuality, nor will I. But let the focus of our speech be where James focused his, on maintaining the meekness of souls to receive the implanted word.

No souls will be saved any other way than by the new birth in Jesus Christ.