Tag Archives: Biblical Commentary

an angry God.

27 Mar

Easter Sermon delivered March 27, 2016
First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY


So, let’s say that I am at your house. We are sitting down, talking, drinking some tea. We are talking about something and I am getting passionate. I tend to gesticulate quite a bit when I speak passionately, so my arms are flying all over the place, and I knock over your favorite lamp, which shatters. Of course, I am apologetic! And so now you have two options: you can either demand that I make restitution and pay you back for the lamp, or you can decide to forgive and forget.

Forgiveness has been our theme this month, and as Linette shared, we have looked at it from a variety of angles: forgiving ourselves, forgiving others, and what forgiveness could look like when practiced in public schools. And so we come to Easter. Among other things, in the Christian tradition Easter is about forgiveness and reconciliation with God. It is about atonement – that is, how to put right the relationship between God and humanity when humanity has sinned, has fallen short. There are many different atonement theologies that look at how the life and death of Jesus allows or assists us becoming reconciled, at one, with God. Some atonement theologies deal with original sin – the idea that from the time of Adam and Eve humans have carried with us the stain of their actions. Some atonement theologies deal more with individuals and their relationship with God. Some understand Jesus as a model for an at-one-ment with God, while others believe that his blood and his suffering were necessary for salvation.

It is one of these latter atonement theologies that I want to address today, and from which the lamp metaphor comes. It is called Penal Substitutionary Atonement, or PSA. After I break your lamp, if you decide to forgive and forget, then PSA says you end up paying a cost: either you do without the lamp, or you have to buy a new one.

Now, imagine that you are God. And I have not broken a lamp, but I have sinned. PSA says that just as you as a lamp owner had to pay a cost if you decided to forgive and forget, then God, too has to pay a cost if God decides to forgive and forget our sins.

A demonstration of how seriously this is taken by some churches...

A demonstration of how seriously this is taken by some churches…

In the lamp-scenario, I would probably offer you the money to buy a new lamp. But according to PSA, as sinners, we “are not capable of making a sufficient payment to rectify our sin problem because our righteous deeds are filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6). Since we are not capable of making a sufficient restitution payment, the only one left to do this is God.”i And not only that, but the only restitution God will take is not money, but death. Someone has to die.

PSA sees humankind as unworthy and our natures as inherently sinful. Our sinful natures keep God from allowing us into heaven when we die, and doom us to an eternity of suffering in hell. Salvation can only come from some form of restitution. It says that God can’t break God’s own law, since God is just, and so God took our sinful debts, piled them high on Jesus, and had him killed instead of us. And so the law is satisfied, our debt is repayed, and we are forgiven.

This theology looks at the cross, at Easter, in purely legal terms. “You and I are the criminal, God is the blood-thirsty judge and executioner, and Jesus becomes the one who steps in between us and lets the angry judge beat and kill him in our place. Having killed an innocent person, this judge is somehow satisfied and a little less angry, so he sets friends of the innocent dead man free…”ii

I know a number of us came to Unitarian Universalism in direct reaction to our horror at this merciless, angry theology. Many former-Christians have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, when the water is tainted with PSA. But believe it or not, PSA is actually a relatively new theology of atonement, and it is not what the Christians originally believed. And our history as both Universalists and Unitarians demonstrates that we have been in opposition to this faulty theology since the very beginning.

The PSA theory began to emerge approximately 1000 years ago. Before this time, Christians didn’t focus on the death of Jesus at all. In researching their book, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker found that images of the crucifixion did not even appear in churches until the tenth century. Instead, the early church focused on “how Jesus’s teachings and the practices of the early church affirmed life in this world as the place of salvation. Within their church communities, Christians in the first millennium sought to help life flourish in the face of imperial power, violence, and death.”iii

It was in the 16th century, in the Reformed Church, led by John Calvin that PSA really blossomed. Reformers found that the atonement theologies of the time stressed a merciful God rather than a just God. And so it is not surprising that PSA has legalistic overtones. “This idea is also called the ‘satisfaction’ theory because it asserts that’s God’s righteous requirement for justice was satisfied by Jesus’ death.iv Calvin even claimed that it was “necessary for Jesus to suffer through a judicial process and to be condemned as a criminal (even though the process was flawed and Pilate washed his hands of the condemnation).”v

Today, PSA is the dominant atonement theology for Evangelicals. Al Mohler, of Southern Baptist Seminary up the road, has emphasized the significance of PSA for galvanizing “the Conservative Resurgence that took place within the Southern Baptist Convention in the last quarter of the twentieth century.”vi Mohler tells the story of how, when he attended the seminary in 1980, his “first early morning class was with Frank Stagg on the Gospel of Matthew. Professor Stagg repeatedly and emphatically rejected what he called ‘bloody cross religion.’ He vociferously denied the necessity of the cross, insisting that ‘God did not have to arrange a killing at Calvary in order to forgive sin.'” Mohler disagreed, and now Southern Baptists are known for their belief in PSA.

Outside of the Southern Baptist Convention, one can see PSA’s influence woven in to the weft and weave of our country. Benjamin L. Corey is an Anabaptist author, speaker, and blogger. Writing for Sojourners in 2014, he said:

“For 500 years we have focused our understanding of God and God’s justice as the need for punishment instead of the need for reconciliation, and this has led to a broken framework in our country in regards to justice. When we allow this broken framework to influence the application of justice (as we have) we see criminal acts in terms of “need to punish as justice” instead of “need to restore as justice” …Yes, there are many criminal acts that require a person to be removed from society for their protection and for ours, but this theological framework has caused us to view “justice served” when a person receives what we feel is an appropriate sentence instead of seeing “justice served” when both the offender and the offended (even if that’s just society in general) have had their lives reconciled…

Justice becomes punishment, not healing and restoration.

And so, our prisons are overflowing. Why? Because our theological framework has told us that justice can only be satisfied when someone has been properly and fully punished, instead of telling us that justice is most fully satisfied when a life has been restored .”vii

Brock and Parker agree, and they are astonished how, in retrospect, they never questioned the centrality of this theological framework to contemporary Christianity. They write “The doctrine of substitutionary atonement uses Jesus’s death as the supreme model of self-sacrificing love, placing victims of violence in harm’s way and absolving perpetrators of their responsibility for unethical behavior.”

Theologian and activist Brian McLaren see’s the influence of PSA in our demonization of people who don’t agree with us. He writes that his “special concern with the theory comes up in relation to our attitude towards ‘the other’ – people of other faiths. If God’s default mode is ‘against’ all in hostility, then those who identify with this vision of God will find it too easy to justify a similar attitude towards ‘the other.’ ”viii

And if you believe in an angry God, how far of a leap is it to follow an angry man? Indeed, a powerful, angry man might seem God-like. Cognitive scientist and author George Lakoff found the theological connections between Strict Father Figure conservatives and Nurturing Parent liberals years ago. In a recent article examining why Evangelicals are drawn to Trump, Lakoff writes:

Those whites who have a strict father personal worldview and who are religious tend toward Evangelical Christianity, since God, in Evangelical Christianity, is the Ultimate Strict Father: You follow His commandments and you go to heaven; you defy His commandments and you burn in hell for all eternity. If you are a sinner and want to go to heaven, you can be ‘born again” by declaring your fealty by choosing His son, Jesus Christ, as your personal Savior.<ix

White evangelicals are drawn to someone who represents a strict father-figure identity, and who does that more than Trump? He is authoritarian, he says the things they wish they could say, he operates in moral absolutes – there is no grey area. Something is right, or it is wrong. There are winners, and there are losers. Losers, and wrong-doers, must be punished. Strictly. In fact, because PSA removes all mercy from God, “sin must be paid for, even if an innocent person must die. It can never be simply forgiven.”x So it is not a far leap to see how those with a penal-substitution view of atonement could be drawn to an angry, hate-filled, authoritarian rhetoric.

But PSA is not the only or final way to understand the Easter story. Far, far from it. Remember, as Brock and Parker found, the early Christian church focused on creating paradise, here on earth. It wasn’t for 1000 years that PSA evolved.

An earlier atonement theory is called moral influence view, and this is one in which both the Universalists and the Unitarians have their roots. “The moral influence view of the atonement holds that the purpose and work of Jesus Christ was to bring positive moral change to humanity. This moral change came through the teachings and example of Jesus, the Christian movement he founded, and the inspiring effect of his martyrdom and resurrection. It is one of the oldest views of the atonement in Christian theology and a prevalent view for most of Christian history.”

In the 16 century, as PSA was being developed by John Calvin and the Reform tradition, Fausto Sozzini, an Italian theologian, was advocating instead for a moral influence view of atonement. Socinianism, as Sozzini’s theology was called, was an early form of Unitarianism.

Sozzini wrote a pamphlet supporting a moral influence view of atonement that came into controversy with PSA because the two systems have very, very different criteria and definitions of salvation and judgment. PSA says that the blood of the cross saves us from an eternity of suffering in Hell while Socinians rejected the concept of original sin, rejected the concept of Hell, said that Jesus was fully human, and that his sacrifice serves to inspire us to abandon our sins.

Fast forward a few hundred years and, we find that “as a result of these conflicts, a strong division has remained since the Reformation between liberal Protestants (who typically adopt a moral influence view) and conservative Protestants (who typically adopt a penal substitutionary view).”

One of those liberal preachers who had a strong moral influence view of the atonement was Hosea Ballou. Ballou was raised in a the Reform tradition, in a Baptist home that was very Calvinist. But he could not reconcile his “belief in a loving, all-powerful God with the idea of eternal punishment for most of humanity.”xi And so he searched through the Bible, and ended up at the concept of universal salvation.

In 1805, Ballou published his Treatise on Atonement, which outlined his beliefs on atonement and universal salvation. In celebrating the 200th anniversary of this pamphlet, Charles Howe wrote in the UU World:

Orthodoxy [that is, the set of doctrines approved by the Church] considered humanity’s punishment for its infinite sin as separation from an angry God. Ballou, by contrast, saw [people] struggling to turn toward moral good and away from the sins that separated them from a loving God.

Orthodoxy required Christ to take on the burden of humanity’s sin by being sacrificed on the cross, thereby atoning for sin and making it possible for an appeased God to be reconciled with humanity.

Ballou, on the other hand, contended that Christ’s death released a great spirit of love into the world, making [people] who were receptive to this spirit better able to atone for their own sins and be reconciled with God.

This is so different from what we normally hear about the resurrection, isn’t it? The idea that in that final act of forgiveness on the cross, Jesus’s death released a great spirit of Love…??? Howe continues…

Thus Ballou argued that the orthodox had things backward: It was humanity that needed to be reconciled to God, not God to humanity. Moreover, this atoning spirit of love was available not only to Christians, but to all people, irrespective of “names…denominations, people, or kingdoms.” In no case would anyone be sent to eternal punishment by a loving God. No sin was that great; salvation was universal.xii

Ballou detested PSA and the concept of eternal suffering. It was repugnant to him. In his Treatise, he wrote “A false education has riveted the error in the minds of thousands, that God’s law required endless misery to be inflicted on the sinner.” Instead, Ballou saw God as a nurturing parent, who loves us unconditionally.

And again, you can hear Lakoff’s theory about the difference between conservatism and liberalism. Ballou was firmly in the nurturing parent view, even 200 years go. In his Treatise, he wrote “There is nothing in heaven above, nor in the earth beneath, that can do away sin, but love; and we have reason to be thankful that love is stronger than death, that many waters cannot quench it, nor the floods drown it; that it hath power to remove the moral maladies of [humankind], and to make us free from the law of sin and death, to reconcile us to God, and to wash us pure in the…life, of the everlasting covenant.” We see a modern interpretation of Ballou’s theology in our affirmation of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

Today, the divide between those who believe in PSA and those who take a moral influence view of the atonement could not be more strained, or more obvious. Liberal theologians ask, “how can justice and mercy be achieved through an act of injustice? If God is just, how can an innocent person be punished?” We ask this of theologians, and we ask this of our court system.

Others point out that the problem with PSA is that it is based on a faulty premise that sin needs to be punished, that God “cannot just sovereignly decide to forgive us, he also has to punish sin.” xiii Once this premise is dismissed, PSA makes no sense logically.

Additionally, going back to the metaphor of the loss of a lamp, if one believes that God is infinite, one assumes God could just write off the loss. If God is infinite, then “infinity minus five million billion trillion is still infinity. In the words of St Therese of Lisieux, even the worst sin in the world is like a drop of water in the burning pyre of God’s love.”endnotes

These days, as much as we still seem to love the themes of peace, love, and hospitality embodied in the Christmas story, Unitarian Universalists have a mixed relationship with the Easter story. We love the idea of hope and rebirth. We connect it to Spring, and renewal. We like the bunnies, and egg hunts. But talk about the cross and watch us squirm. I think the reason why is because the metaphor and magic of Easter have been lost to penal substitutionary atonement. PSA has become, in some ways, the loudest, if not the dominant, view of atonement. And so we want to make sure that we are not celebrating THAT view of this important, culture-shaping, story.

Our own history provides an antidote to the toxicity of penal substitutionary atonement and it’s angry God. And it is an antidote that the world desperately needs. Like the early church, in the face of imperial power, violence and death, we believe that salvation is something for this world, for this life, here and now. As inheritors of a tradition of a moral influence view of atonement, we understand Easter to be inspirational rather than a form of punishment. That Jesus’ final act of forgiveness of the imperfections of humanity is something we can aspire to for ourselves and for others. And as our early forbears taught, we know that the divine, by whatever name we call the numinous, mysterious wonder of the universe, is love – the very spirit of life itself. May we share this saving message, broadly, with a world so in need of it, and in this way love the hell out of the world and love one another out of hell.Blessed Be!



i. https://carm.org/is-the-substitutionary-atonement-doctrine-immoral

ii. https://sojo.net/articles/how-poor-theology-cross-created-americas-broken-justice-system#sthash.deJFTKcQ.dpuf

iii. http://www.uuworld.org/articles/early-christians-emphasized-paradise-not-crucifixion

iv. http://www.christian-history.org/substitutionary-atonement.html

v. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penal_substitution

vi. http://www.albertmohler.com/2013/08/12/the-wrath-of-god-was-satisfied-substitutionary-atonement-and-the-conservative-resurgence-in-the-southern-baptist-convention/

vii. https://sojo.net/articles/how-poor-theology-cross-created-americas-broken-justice-system

viii. http://brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/q-r-penal-substitutionary-atonem.html

ix. http://georgelakoff.com/2016/03/02/why-trump/

x. http://www.christian-history.org/substitutionary-atonement.html

xi. http://www.uuworld.org/articles/ballou-manifesto

xii. http://www.uuworld.org/articles/ballou-manifesto

xiii. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/inebriateme/2014/11/thoughts-against-penal-substitutionary-atonement/

xiv. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/inebriateme/2014/11/thoughts-against-penal-substitutionary-atonement/

a feminist take on Easter.

5 Apr


We probably all have at least one childhood memory where something happened that just didn’t fit with the world as we knew it. One such time for me was when I was in Sunday School, probably about 11 or 12 years old, and we were going around the table sharing how we wanted to serve God when we grew up. The boys pretty much all said they wanted to be pastors. The girls talked about teaching Sunday School. I was last, but I knew exactly what I was going to say. “I want to be a pastor!” I boldly declared. The Sunday School teacher, a woman with long brown hair, patted me gently on the shoulder and, with a sad smile, said “Honey, God doesn’t call women to be pastors. You can teach Sunday School, though.” And then we went on with whatever was left of the lesson. I don’t remember the topic at all – I do remember thinking that what she had told me made no sense whatsoever. My parents were telling me I could do or be anything I wanted. Free to be You and Me, right? Why would God put such a desire in my heart and then not allow me to fulfill it? It made no sense. (I must confess, when I am visiting my home town, I often have an urge to show show up at this church and say “Ha! Proved YOU wrong, didn’t I?”)

This congregation is not an outlier. There is a whole strain of Christianity in which women are told to be submissive to their husbands, who are to be the head of the household. Entire books from women, even, about how submitting to their husband provides them with more freedom than they would have otherwise, trying to explain how such submission does not make them less worthy than their husbands.

There are two primary places in the Bible that defenders of this belief system go to when trying to establish their authority: Genesis, and the writings of the apostle Paul. Holding all snark and commentary aside for a moment, here are some of their reasons:
Looking at Genesis, they say that man was created first, so therefore he is more important. Or they say that since Eve is the only creature not made from dust, but from Adam’s rib, this makes her inferior. They say that Adam has dominion over the creation that he named, and he named Eve so therefore has dominion over her as well. Or they point out that God never tells Eve not to eat from the forbidden tree – he tells Adam, so therefore Eve is not worthy of being spoken to by God. And it goes on, and on.

For a book written 3000 to 5000 years ago, Genesis has a large amount of influence on how our society models itself today. (Here in Kentucky, we only have to look at the popularity of the Creation Museum to know that!) It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned that women actually do have the same number of ribs as men – I had learned in Sunday School that we have one less, which, when you think about it, makes NO sense at all since it would have been Adam who had one fewer ribs. Someone might have a completely different interpretation on some of these verse, but that is besides the point for these folks, who believe their interpretation is the only possible correct one.

The writings attributed to the apostle Paul are slight more contemporary, having been written close to the turn of the eras. In these letters, or epistles, Paul is writing to the new, struggling churches throughout the ancient kingdom to provide them with support, to give them direction, and to make corrections in how they are doing or interpreting things. It is from these letters that we get such gems as “For indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake.” (1 Corinthians 11:9)

Or “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet, for it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve.” (1 Timothy 2:12-13 – not technically written by Paul but written in his name and style)

Or “As in all the churches of the holy one, women should keep silent in the churches, for they are not allowed to speak, but should be subordinate even as the law says. If they want to learn anything, they should ask their husbands at home. For it is improper for a woman to speak in the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:33-35) Who knows what women are to do if they want to learn something and they are single or married to another woman!

Those who cherry pick such verses have a tendency of taking them totally out of context, and dismiss the places where Paul refers to women who were obviously holding leadership positions, such as Phoebe, Prisca, Mary and Junia. And cherry pickers often neglect to understand that Paul’s views reflect those of his time, and that if he were writing today it would probably be very different. In ancient Greece, women had very few rights. They were supposed to be submissive. In the Rome of Jesus’s time, women could be citizens but could not vote or hold office.

“Okay,” you might be saying, “I hear you, but we don’t believe all this. So what does it have to do with us?”

As Unitarian Universalists, we believe that people of all genders are equal, but even today, in the society in which we live, women are consistently and constantly not considered as worthy or as worthwhile as men. One does not have to look very far to find continuing evidence of the bias:

  • Women continue to earn only $0.78 on the dollar that men earn – even less than that for women of color.
  • Women are earning the majority of undergraduate and graduate degrees, while at the same time, women make up the majority of the poor in America.
  • There are 15 states that never ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, which means women technically don’t have equal rights under our Constitution.
  • Women fill more than half of the jobs in the U.S. economy but constitute fewer than 12% of working physicists and engineers, and that number is actually dropping as women are tired of the bias and prejudice they bump up against in these careers, such as the recent GamerGate controversy.

Of course it is not just science and technology in which women suffer from bias. South Carolina State Senator Katrina Shealy is the only woman in the 46-member chamber. When one of her colleagues made a crack (at a domestic violence event!) about how women should be “at home baking cookies” or “barefoot and pregnant,” not serving in the state legislature, she asked him where he “got off” in making making such remarks. “Well, you know God created man first,” her colleague replied. “Then he took the rib out of man to make woman. And you know, a rib is a lesser cut of meat.”

We may dismiss this state senator as one of the “bad eggs”*, but there are a lot of “bad eggs” out there that perpetuate the idea that women are “less than.” One only need search for “Women’s Rights Quotes Politicians” for an overwhelming example of men in power who share this worldview.

Though their quotes are more public than that of the average Joe, these men are products of their society. A society where men and boys are more likely to be called upon in a classroom. A society where men get more space in print and online journalism. A society where men are retweeted more than women on Twitter.

Then there is the interruption phenomenon. Women get interrupted more than men, and when men interrupt women, it is often to assert power. Sometimes, in the course of regular conversation, we interrupt the person we are talking with in order to be encouraging about what they’re saying. But a 1998 study showed men interrupt women frequently to assert dominance, and it happens even more often in mixed groups.**

We saw this recently on a panel discussion at the South by Southwest festival, where Google chairman Eric Schmidt continuously interrupted his former colleague, Megan Smith, who is now U.S. Chief Technology Officer. Toward the session’s end, an audience member’s question pointed to Schmidt’s tendency to interrupt and talk over Smith – and the question came from Google’s own Judith Williams, head of their Unconscious Bias program. She did her job that day, didn’t she?

Phenomena like this have given rise to the concept of “mansplaining”, wherein a man explains something to a woman, condescendingly and patronizingly, without regard to the possibility that the she might actually know more than the he does about the subject. Mansplaining exists because it is consistently reinforced to us that men’s words are more important than women’s. Going back to the story of Senator Shealy, she reports that her colleague seems to think that this is an ongoing joke between them. He has tried to mansplain away her feelings, saying that “We are just joking around”, despite the fact that she has repeatedly asked him to stop such derogatory comments.

Our society has internalized the inferiority of women based on a narrow interpretation of the Bible. But just as the Bible can be used to justify this mistreatment of women, so can we find ways to use the biblical stories to counter such mistreatment – and we can do it without cherry-picking individual verses that suit our perspective.

As we heard in the Moment for All ages, women in general, and Mary Magdalen in particular, had a powerful role to play in the Easter story. It is in this story, and in following the actions and words of Jesus, that we can find a counter to the verses used to justify the oppression of women.

All four of the gospels mention that Mary was present at the death of Jesus. She had been close to him in life – indeed was one of his disciples – and she remained faithful to him in death, staying by him. The gospel account in Matthew even goes so far as to say that the male disciples deserted Jesus and fled in fear for their lives. But Mary and the the women remained, standing as near as they dared, to the spot where the soldiers were carrying out the brutal execution.

When Jesus’s body was taken down from the cross, it was getting late on Friday. The Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday at sundown, and there are strict rules against touching a dead body on the sabbath. Mary witnessed that Jesus’s body was sealed inside the tomb, and she and the other women left to gather and prepar the spices they would need for a proper burial after the Sabbath.

Once the Sabbath was over, on Sunday morning, Mary went to the tomb and found that Jesus’ body was no longer there. She was the first to witness the empty tomb. Gazing upon it, Mary had a vision where an angel came to her and she understood that Jesus was no longer dead. When she went to tell the others apostles, the story says she saw and heard Jesus himself – she became the first person to witness his resurrection! I sincerely doubt Jesus would have appeared to someone whom he considered inferior. It is with good reason that teachers in the early Christian church called Mary ‘Apostle to the Apostles’, because in Greek “apostellein” means to “go and tell”, which is what Jesus told her to do. Mary has been one of the most revered figures in Christian history.

And yet. And yet in in his letter to the Corinthians where he recounts Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul does not include Mary or any of the other women at the tomb among the witnesses to the Resurrection. According to Paul’s story, Jesus appeared to Cephas, and then to the twelve male disciples, then to 500 people, then to James, then to all the apostles. Mary Magdalen is not mentioned at all. Paul was writing to Greeks in Corinth, and sadly his letter reflects the culture of the Greeks, who viewed the testimony of women as unreliable. Perhaps we could consider Paul an early mansplainer!

Feminist JesusAs opposed to Paul, and many of those over time who have continued to use his words to justify the subjugation of women, I think Jesus would be wearing a “This is what a feminist looks like!” t-shirt, because the way that he treated women, in his life, death, and through the story of his resurrection, was revolutionary. Jesus, unlike the men of his generation and culture, taught that women were equal to men in the sight of God. Women could receive God’s forgiveness and grace. Women could be full participants in the kingdom of God. He also had women among his personal followers and closest confidants – Jesus offered full discipleship to women. These were revolutionary ideas at the time – many of his contemporaries, including his disciples, were shocked.

One can cherry pick verses from the Bible to justify just about any form of oppression – from slavery, to the subjugation of women, to oppression based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But the message to those who would follow Jesus is clear: women are not at all inferior to men, and, indeed, can be trusted to carry the most important news out into the world. What better counterpoint is there to those who would preach the submission of women than to ask: What would Jesus do? The Easter story makes it quite clear.

* Yes, bad Easter pun. Sorry, couldn’t resist!

** Two men shared with me separately after the service that they considered “humorously” interrupting me at this point, ala Kanye West. I am grateful they didn’t, but it would have just proven my point quite effectively, wouldn’t it have?

giving thanks in all circumstances.

1 Oct

Dear one,

My heart ached for you when you got the phone call telling you that your child had suddenly died. It is a tragedy to lose our children, no matter how old they might be. We always love them, they are always our children, and we are always their parent.

But even more than the news, what broke my heart was when I gave you a hug and you whispered, because words were too hard to speak out loud, “Give thanks to Him for everything, right?”

I heard this phrase a lot when I was a chaplain in the hospital. Patients would use it in an effort to avoid their grief, to invalidate the uncomfortable feelings they were feeling. It is a phrase I find repellent. And so, off the cuff, I answered you, “No, you don’t have to give thanks for this. This is terrible. You are allowed to grieve, to hurt, to be angry and sad.”

But I don’t identify as a Christian anymore, so I know my words may not have brought you comfort. My words may not have been what you needed to hear. So I want dive into your tradition to help explain this phrase that is so often taken out of context and used in such a damaging way.

There are two place in the Christian Scriptures where the idea of giving thanks in all things occurs:

Ephesians 5:19-20

“as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”


1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

First, let us take a look at the verse from Ephesians. These days, this book is accepted to not be an original Pauline letter but is generally understood to have been written in Paul’s “name by a later author strongly influenced by Paul’s thought.” Because of this, and because the author probably had the Thessalonian letter in front of him, let us focus instead on that scripture.

1 Thessalonians is understood to have been the first letter written by Paul to one of the new Christian communities, around the year 52. This makes it, chronologically speaking, the oldest book in the New Testament.

Paul was concerned about the young church. There were some errors that existed between what he had taught them and how they were practicing, so Paul was writing, in part, to clarify. And he wanted to encourage them in their faith. In the section in 5:12-25, in which the verse we are dealing with resides, Paul is writing about how Christians should behave.

Notice that the wording is “Give thanks in all circumstances” – This does not mean to give thanks for all circumstances.

Rather than deny our uncomfortable feelings or try to cover them up with gratitude, we can take comfort from and be inspired by the writers of the Psalms. The Psalms are full of laments, both communal and individual. Indeed, a lament is the most common type of Psalm. In these laments, the writer appeals to God in times of distress. “They typically open with an invocation of Yahweh, followed by the lament itself and pleas for help, and often ending with an expression of confidence.

tears_of_sadnessThe laments in Psalms show us that our feelings of sorrow, grief, anxiety, worry, anger, fear and so much more – these feelings are not foreign to God. In fact, we are encouraged to take them directly to God, and that God will be with us through them all.

This is what Paul is entreating the Thessalonians to give thanks for – not the trouble or struggling that is visited upon them, but that through it all, they are not alone. God is with them, and will be steadfast no matter how messy the emotions may seem.

And so I encourage you at this time of deep, deep sorrow, don’t try to pretend to be thankful. No one expects that from you. Instead, take your grief to God. Know that God is there with you in the pain. Lean on God and know that in this darkest hour, you are not alone.

With much love and sympathy,


PS: In writing this, I came across an incredible resource. Amy Roberts put together a 30-day devotional after the death of her daughter. It is called Psalms for the Grieving Heart and it can be printed out or accessed online.

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