Is it better to burn to death or to drown?

My good friend Garret responded to a post below.  In that post, one of the things I was noticing was that several non-Christian groups have done a better job of causing people to behave morally than several Christian groups.

More specifically, I was thinking about straight-edged punk rockers among stereo typical white suburbanites and groups like The Black Panthers among African Americans.

One of Garret’s intresting contributions to the topic was the idea of legalism.  He implied that these groups tend to be legalistic.  He was intellecutally honest enough to observe that Christianity is often also legalistic.

As I pondered this point, I spent a while on a silly question.

That question is “Which is better: to be somebody who happens to behave in a way that Christ approves of but who does not do it for Jesus, or is it better to be somebody who knows what they are supposed to do, somebody who knows what Jesus did, but often messes it all up?”

Here’s a practical example of what I’m talking about: we could imagine an atheist who was a straight-edged punk rocker.  He never has any sexual contact.  He doesn’t indulge in inpure thoughts.  He’s seen the destruction that sexual contact outside of marriage can bring.  This is why he’s made the comittments he’s made.  Suppose, for the sake of argument, he does a good job at this.

Now consider a seminary student.  He’s memorized half the bible.  His interpretations are accurate.  He knows what is expected.  And he keeps messing things up.  He has a problem with his sexuality.  He continually engages in sexual sin.

The silly question I pondered was:

Is it better to to be the first person or the second person?

It occurs to me that both of them have a tremendous problem.  I think scripture agrees.  Paul says in a variety of places that Jesus didn’t free us from sin so that we can go on sinning.  It’s clearly important that the seminary student not abuse his freedom in Christ.  But James, on the other hand, seems to be saying that if the seminary student doesn’t act out his faith, if it doesn’t make a difference in terms of his behavior, then he doesn’t have a real, living faith.

And it seems like a real, living faith in Jesus makes the difference for our eternity.

To ask the question: Is it better to be the straight-edge or the seminary student is still for a number of reasons.  One of them is that the term “better” is so vague.  But more importantly, they both have a tremendous problem.  We recognize the inherent absurdity in questions like “Would you rather burn to death or drown.”  Or “Would you rather chop off your little pinky or lose your right ear?” This is a similiar thing.  Niether of them is better.  We ought to try to do better than both.

(I realize that there are atleast three cans of worms hovering around this question that I haven’t even opened yet.  One is the reality that we all sin.  There’s some level that we’re all like the seminary student.  Another is the question of whether or not we can lose our salvation.)


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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

One thought on “Is it better to burn to death or to drown?”

  1. Thanks for the encouraging words.
    i was going to let someone else comment first because it seemed awkward in a narcissistic way to jump in after a shout-out.

    But then it seemed i might be engaging in false-humility. You can see where this one goes….

    Anyway, i like the way you framed this post. It isn’t at all like arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The question you’ve posed is a valid one. More importantly, it’s germaine to life.

    The contrast of the two individuals cuts to the heart of the value of obedience. And asking “which one is better off?” is a bit silly if one concludes that neither is in very good stead. The fact that we can’t really know the answer to that question is a bit frustrating, but no more than ever trying to solicit the mind of God.

    There’s a great parable that Jesus told about the vineyard owner and his two sons:
    He told them both to go and work the field. The first son said, “No”; he had better things to do. The second son answered, “Yes”. In the end the second son had something come up and didn’t do as his father had asked, and the first had a change of heart (and mind) and did. Who is the “better” son?

    What can we conclude about the value of intentions from this parable?

    i was contemplating what i meant by ‘legalism’ and what you might be inferring about legalism in your first question. What i came up with as a general theme from this meditation is “redemtion”.

    Where legalism succeeds is obvious to even the casual observer. The benefits are remarkable to the individual and to those around them. There’s great value in the natural law edict that is satisfied by the discipline of abstaining from behavior that is self-destructive. Discipline is a good thing.

    Legalism fails when it’s applied as surrogate redemtion. In such a case it becomes a vehicle of obligatory reward.

    The person who does their “sacrament” (sorry for the Catholic word, but it works for the moment) is owed a commensurate response; first by man, then by God. Even if by ‘man’ it means simply the approval of one’s own self – Jesus says, “You’ve already received your reward”.

    The challenge is to make the distinction between what God offers as real redemption and what is a cheap imitation…and then to communicate it.

    So…”would you rather drown or burn to death?”

    The premise is that both scenarios lead to death. You’ve pre-judged them to be equal in this regard. Was that your intention?


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