Ask Ivor

Mike asks:

"How come good doctrine doesn't make you nice?"

Athanasius was the Church's staunch defender of orthodoxy during the Arian controversies of the 4th century. Athanasius was also an uncompromising political manipulator who earned a multitude of enemies; "a notoriously troublesome man."

Augustine, "Father of the Western Church," charted the intellectual course for the entire Middle Ages; yet Augustine also joined hands with the state to suppress the rival Christian church (the Donatists), by confiscating their buildings and imposing fines on their clergy.

John Calvin helped restore and liberate the church, by showing where popes and councils had added onto, and perverted, the simple purity of the gospel; yet Calvin also, as "dictator of Geneva," had Michael Servetus burned at the stake for holding unorthodox ideas about the Trinity.

How is it that such men—who were so instrumental and necessary in the development of orthodox theology—could be such pigs in the social realm? How is it that so many of our Christian acquaintances are puffed up with religious knowledge, yet somehow incapable of doing to others as they would be done to?

Jesus says: "Woe to you... you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill, and cumin, but you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.... You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel."

Specifically, Jesus addressed these words to the religious leaders of his day, but all of us are deserving of the critique, for all of us have strained the gnat and swallowed the camel. We all have insisted on our own perception of reality, and made others suffer by our insistence thereby.

Pursuing truth is a wise aspiration; holding on to our own perceptions (of truth) is dangerously foolish. That's because truth is not an idea, but a living thing, a thing we need to be in a relationship with, a thing we need to share our lives with in order to understand. When we limit ourselves to our own ideas about what truth is (and who truth is), we are not sharing life, we are putting truth into a prison of our own making. And, inevitably, we put everyone else (including ourselves) in prison also. And we begin to choke on the camels.

How then do we move past our narrow perceptions and into the wide open freedom of true relationship? What is the key that releases us? The apostle Paul points the way: "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing."

No talent or accomplishment is of any value unless it is in service to love, because love is the only master that can set us free.

But how do we obtain this love, and what kind of love is it?

It is divine love, and God pours this love into human hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus tells those who follow him: "As I have loved you, so you must love one another."

How does Jesus love us? In a way that we can scarce imagine, but one thing is for certain: the Athanasiuses, Augustines, and Calvins of this world are not successful in following Jesus' way, because divine love does not manipulate, suppress and kill; rather, divine love empowers people to love their enemies, to be merciful, to not judge or condemn, and to forgive.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer says: "The disciples of Christ are to love unconditionally.... By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.... If we are on the lookout for evil in others, our real motive is obviously to justify ourselves... assuming by implication that the Word of God applies to ourselves in one way, and to others in another. All this is highly dangerous and misleading."

Bonhoeffer was merely echoing Paul, who said: "At whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.... If you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiments of knowledge and truth—you, who teach others, do you not teach yourself?"

Paul is emphatic in wanting us to understand that "there is... no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set [us] free from the law of sin and death"; "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom."

Remember how Jesus began his public ministry? By announcing: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. 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."

Surely every time—down through the centuries and right up to the present day—that representatives of the Christian faith have prostituted that divine freedom and exchanged it for either a doctrine of salvation by works; or, the opposite error, a doctrine of cheap grace; surely the sacred heart of Jesus has been broken anew.