Two weeks after writing about the unfortunate misunderstandings leading nearly a third of all American “secularists” to believe conservative Christians literally put them at physical risk, I am still haunted by that horrid misperception.
It dawns on me, though, that it’s likely that just as many secularists see not just conservative Christians but God himself as an angry, threatening figure. Somehow, somewhere, what registered in their minds about the Judeo-Christian tradition is the concept of judgment – the “fire and brimstone” awaiting sinners – rather than the overriding message of mercy and abundant grace.
To be sure, there are Biblical passages, including some from Jesus himself, saying that the torments of Hell await those who turn away from God. And of course the most famous “rules” from God – and the ones conservative Christians put so much stock in that they fight to put them into civil courtrooms – are that series of “thou shalt nots” called the Ten Commandments.
If all one understands about a religion is that its god tells you not to do things and threatens eternal torture for those who transgress, then perhaps it is just a tiny step to project that same image of God onto the characters of God’s most fervent, and thus strictest, adherents.
Yet even in the Old Testament, meaning even before Christ came into the world to re-emphasize the ultimate truth of God’s mercy, love and grace, that image of a wholly vengeful God – the God of harsh and impatient judgment – is not an accurate one. Whether out of honest ignorance or some psychological resentments, the secularists who believe this image are missing both context and divine intent.
Today’s first two readings (option one) demonstrate the true and ultimate reality of our Judeo-Christian God. The first reading is largely comprised of the famous Ten Commandments themselves. The second, the famously beautiful Psalm 19, explains how those Commandments are to be understood.
The psalm makes clear that God’s laws are intended not to rebuke us, but to benefit us.
“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul…. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart…. [The ordinances of the Lord are] more to be desired …than gold, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey.”
In short, the most important feature of The Law is not its punishment but its promise. The rules are there for our edification and enlightenment, leading us to happiness.
For a very rough analogy, consider the warnings on cigarette labels. They tell us that if we smoke a lot, we’re likely to get lung cancer, which usually means dying an early and painful death. But is the label-maker the one punishing us with that fate, or are we in effect choosing that fate for ourselves? The warning on the label is there to keep us from that fate, so that we may live more healthily, more happily.
God’s Commandments aren’t merely like cigarette warnings, but like those warnings with an extra benefit. The warnings don’t promise a happier life to those who heed them; they just make an unhappy life and death less likely. But the Commandments, rightly understood and heeded, are actually meant to be joy-inducing. Keeping them is meant to be a reward in itself, because keeping them helps put us right with God – and He is a god of mercy, beneficence, and love. So if we are right with God, we put ourselves in position to feel, to be enveloped by, that wondrous mercy and love.
And, for those of pharisaical or Essenic Judaism, and obviously for Christians, that all-encompassing love is understood to be infinitely and eternally multiplied by means of some form of life (either of the soul or the body) after death.
Thus, the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament are not a threat but an offer, or a promise. And those who urge them on others do so not to judge, much less harm, the others, but to give them the means of self-help and the path to the belief that brings God’s grace.
And just in case, or maybe because, so many people missed that message, Christ made it even clearer: All the law and all the prophets can be summed up in the Two Great Commandments: Love the Lord, and love thy neighbor.
If secularists understood that this is God’s intention, and that in turn this is the intention of those who follow God in the most traditional (or conservative) ways, then they might feel embraced by, rather than threatened by, those believers.
The job of believers is to repeatedly stress this truth, and to wear their love on their sleeves, so that the misunderstanding may end and so that reviving the soul and rejoicing the heart might proceed in marvelous measure.
Quin Hillyer is a veteran conservative columnist with a degree in theology. His faith-themed satirical novel, Mad Jones: Heretic, is due for publication in October by Liberty Island Media.