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Mable learned as a child that God was right and holy and how she should fear Him. She also learned that God was good. She saw Him do so many amazing things for her family, the best of which was saving all of them. Mable was fond of saying, “We serve an awesome God.” She was known as an energetic young Christian who always had positive things to say.
Mable was also part of a legalistic church that emphasized how you present yourself to others. Externalism was as natural as breathing for her community, which made it odd that they did not perceive any contradiction with Ephesians 2:8-9—all of grace, and not of works. The fish is the only one who never realizes that he lives in water.
Though Mable loved to talk about how God saved her by grace and not with her works, she felt an odd tension in her soul that motivated her not to make mistakes. Mable would not say she was a perfectionist, which was probably accurate, but it was hard for her to admit messing up, making mistakes, or personal sin. Mable lived in an awkward, hybrid world of legalism and grace.
Nobody ever said the quiet part out loud, so they continued to live in this self-imposed pressure to present themselves in a favorable light. No one had the courage to be transparent about their real lives. They knew better. Self-censoring was the more natural path, though it’s hard to measure how living a dualistic life deadens one’s soul. How do you bring it up? Who dares to go first? What if you open up about your struggles, and you become the focal point of biting gossip?
As Mable grew older, she had the sense that her Christian culture was a trap for her. The joy-filled church environment felt more like a minimum-security prison. She began to internalize these tensions because there was no freedom to talk openly about human failure. Added to her struggles, she began to see her family differently from when she was a child. They were not as perfect as she thought they were.
Mable had no outlet to discuss these things. She privately processed the discontinuity in her soul, family, and church, which led to a slow chill. Because she knew how to perform well within a religious culture, nobody discerned how her heart was drifting from her first love. Inwardly, Mable was a blamer, critiquer, and hider. Outwardly, she was the Christian everyone wanted to emulate.
Mable did not realize what an immature Christian she had become. She knew a lot about the Bible and was one of the favorite children’s ministry teachers. But she did not have a maturing understanding of how to work through her private battles. Forget about confession and repentance among her peers. The fear of judgment from her legalistic friends began to boil within her.
All these things worked together for bad—to harm her soul, as the private churning continued unabated. Today, Mable is forty-two years old. She has been “painting (her Christianity) by numbers” for as long as she can remember. It’s fair to sum up her first four decades of Christianity this way:
No harm, no foul, right? I mean, if I’m not hurting anyone, what difference does it make? —The Rationalizing Believer
It appeared that Mable’s plan was working. She was not bothering anyone. She had her 2.5 children, and they were living the American dream. It was not the best-case scenario, but it was what she knew. Mable figured that as long as she could manage her low-grade frustration with God, life, and the church, it would be okay to keep on keeping on, working her plan.
How many Christians are “mailing it in?” They have their “Christian representative,” who is like a Public Relations Coordinator (PRC). This carefully edited version of themselves is the person they present to the public. Mable had spent years crafting her PRC, and nobody perceived, cared, or dared to be any wiser. Living a dualistic life means you can live under the radar for a while but not forever.
Eventually, your sin will come out to the light. It may not be the sin that you’re hiding, but living a hypocritical life will manifest somewhere. Like squeezing a hotdog balloon in the center, you will exaggerate the ends. Paul talked about God’s wrath, bearing down on those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). Mable was suppressing the truth, and though she thought she could control her low-grade disappointments, she was wrong.
Mable lived under a legalistic, guilt-tripping cloud. She was not oblivious to Paul’s teaching to the Romans. As much as she tried to shrug off the “God will get you for that” legalistic upbringing, she was a Karma Christian: “What goes around, comes around,” as they say. She had a skewed view of the fear of God, believing that He would “get her” for being such a hypocrite.
For Mable, the walls of her minimum-security prison came tumbling down when her son, Biffy, spilled the beans. He came out of the closet. He wrote her a long email, sharing what he had done. Biffy had renounced God, embraced the gay lifestyle, and vowed never to return to his “Christian roots.” Mable was understandably devastated, and there was nobody whom she could tell. But she had to blame someone.
There is no doubt that when sin comes home to roost, we all have a role to play. It is wise and humble for Mable to assess the entire family’s responsibility. Sin does not shy away from collecting allies. For Mable, there is a significant danger in her thinking that traces back to her legalistic roots, which will make her assessment of the problem incomplete.
Because of her fundamentalist’s works tradition, Mable is spiraling into a dark hole of depression. Though it is wise to assess the potential of guilt with all the leading players in her family and church, there is one more person that needs her attention. Mable has to come come to terms with a sovereign God who permits sin into our lives.
Mable’s problem is her myopic understanding of what the word “good” means when she says that God is good. She has a narrow, truncated view of God that protects Him from accusation. Rather than discerning “good” through the eyes of Him who sees and knows all things, Mable can only perceive God’s goodness with a human-centered lens. She has concluded that when bad things happen, the Lord is not part of it, which keeps her sightlines horizontal.
Do you see a problem with her understanding of God? How can an omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient being not have anything to do with the evil that happens to us? When I shared these things with Mable, she exclaimed, “God is good. There is no way that He could be part of my son’s sin.” Do you sense her angst? Do you see her practical theology? Someone was to blame but to say the Lord was part of sin’s evil equation is wicked, according to Mable.
Mable was angry at her son, her husband, and her Christianity. She was mostly mad at herself for “failing her son.” What she could not see was her anger at God, too. She could not bring herself to believe that she was frustrated with the Lord. Mable is a good, God-fearing Christian who has always done things the right way. Sadly, her theology was failing her. Here is a quick snapshot of how she thought about the Lord.
Mable has completely overshot the gospel. Though she is a believer, she does not understand what should be simple and on the surface. Her category for sin is so tight that she does not know how to factor the Lord into the equation, which is why she cannot fathom Him being part of her problems. She needs to reexamine the cross.
The cross of Christ proclaims many things. For example, God is good, of course. And there are times when He will use sin sinlessly to accomplish the good that will only come through those disappointments. There are times when living in a sinful world demands the permission of evil for a higher good. Even a cursory reading of the Bible brings substantial support to God’s authority and prerogative over sin.
You can virtually choose any fan-favorite from the Old Testament and see how the disappointment in their lives did not catch God off-guard, or happen as though it was an alternate plan from God’s sovereign oversight. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Job, and David testify that bad things happen to people, and God is always there, pushing His plans forward.
The good that God was drawing out of Mable’s heart was her hidden idolatry. If you have not picked up on her penchant for fear, deception, perfection, anger, hypocrisy, and rule-keeping, perhaps it would help to review her case history again. Mable has worked hard to be a good Christian, albeit in a self-reliant and deceptive way. She was a trained legalist, and God was imposing Himself on her life to extract her from that prison.
She had multiple opportunities to stand-up for Jesus by speaking out against the subtle hypocrisy of her church. Ironically, the same things that she disdained about them, she was also doing. She had a decision to make, which was whether she was going to continue exchanging the truth of God for a lie. She made the exchange repeatedly in her life. She did it so many times that it was second nature to her.
Mable was a genuine Christian who also performed for her friends. The Lord chose to bring her sin to the light but not just hers. Her husband and child were making their personal, private choices, too. God hurled a storm into their family to get everyone’s attention. He did not make them sin, but He is using their sin to make a significant realignment in their lives. It will be up to them to choose if they are going to continue their self-reliant, self-effort life that is comfortable for them or walk the path of the cross.