The Dangers of Transformation and the Hope of Mercy in a Suicidal Church (and World)

The other day I was chatting with someone about why they got out of teaching […]

David Zahl / 12.19.13

shazam-2-09The other day I was chatting with someone about why they got out of teaching (grade school), and I was surprised by their answer. It wasn’t the long hours or the short pay or even the endless red tape and administrative dysfunction. They hadn’t lost their love for the kids or their dreams about making a difference. Nor had they been (overly) discouraged by cycles of poverty.

Their beef was with what they called the “pathology of transformation” in their particular school system. The way this guy saw it, the emphasis, however well-meaning, on getting the kids to where they should be prevented the teachers from meeting the kids where they actually were. He admitted to having gotten to the point where he couldn’t see his students apart from the metrics upon which his job depended, metrics that, by and large, were not indicating overwhelming amounts of achievement. Reading between the lines, he was beginning to lose sight of these kids as people–and had slowly begun to resent them for not doing more, wanting more, being more.

Kids being kids, they picked up on his attitude, and as the feeling in the classroom soured, so did the test scores. One day, after being forced by administrators to write up a third-grader whose parent had died two weeks previous, he realized that unless he took a break and got some perspective, he would head down a bitter road. In a resigned tone of voice, he told me that he thought he could do more for his fellow man if weren’t having to “teach to the test.”

I know next to nothing about pedagogy, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that a teacher’s job is to educate. They are paid to help students learn and grow and think. To bring them, knowledge-wise, from point A to B, and without tests to measure their progress, yada yada yada. But this isn’t a post about school policy, thank God; the punchline here is that the guy was considering going into ministry. I asked him why he was so sure he wouldn’t find the same “pathology of transformation” in the church. He gave me the kind of look that said, “Gee, man, thanks a lot.” It was not the most helpful comment, and I regretted it the moment it came out of my mouth. There’s a time and place for healthy pessimism, and that probably wasn’t it.

Our conversation was in the back of my mind when Ted Haggard’s recent missive arrived in my inbox. You may remember the former president of the National Association of Evangelicals from his headline-making scandal a few years ago. No need to go into detail here; suffice it to say, the bloom came off the rose in a very public and dramatic fashion. HBO aired a short documentary about what happened to Ted after the truth about his double life came to light, and I remember finding the guy quite charming and sympathetic. In the aftermath of his fall from grace, he had become something of a living testament to Derek Webb’s classic adage–paraphrasing–about how sometimes the best thing that can happen to us is for our worst secrets to be broadcast on the 5pm news. The truth had brought painful consequences, but it had also set him free, at least for the moment.

061105_haggard_vlrg_1030a.grid-4x2That was then, this is now, and the subject at hand is no longer Ted himself, but “Suicide, Evangelicalism, and Sorrow.” Ethan mentioned the other day how the ‘S’ word has been at the forefront of our coverage this past year; I for one still consider it to be the most important story of 2013. So I clicked on the Haggard forward immediately, and it took me to a deeply pastoral and impassioned response to two recent suicides of high-profile Evangelicals.

Ted sees a link between these tragic deaths and the widespread teaching, in certain traditions, “that life transformation took place at salvation and the power to overcome was inherent with the baptism in the Holy Spirit.” He does not see this teaching as simply off-base or unhelpful, but … deadly. In Haggard’s view, the transformation edict is something that fuels real despair, solipsistic bondage, and personality splitting in believers who find themselves coping with problems that don’t vanish after their baptism (or public commitment of faith), and creates an environment of suspicion and blame (even persecution) among those for whom the inheritance of Adam takes more socially acceptable forms (worry and control, greed, self-righteousness, etc). Moreover, he claims that the dissonance between who we are supposed to be (as New Creations) and who we actually are has prompted some to indulge the cruelest kinds of rationalizations. Haggard writes with such fierce compassion:

In the past we would try to argue that Evangelical leaders who fall were not sincere believers, or were unrepentant, or that they did not really believe their Bibles, or were not adequately submitted. And in the midst of these arguments, we KNOW those ideas are, in some cases, rationalizations. I can offer some guesses from personal experience as well as knowledge of others’ stories that, 1) Matthew Warren repeatedly prayed for God to heal his mind, and 2) Isaac Hunter frequently repented of the things in him that damaged his heart and marriage. I think Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and I know Ted Haggard, hated their sins, repented, prayed, fasted, memorized Scripture, and pleaded with God for personal holiness. I think there are very few hypocrites in our pulpits or on church staffs. I believe most people in ministry are sincere followers of Christ. But when God’s holiness is infused into our humanity, that sets us all up for some degree of struggle.

I can only imagine what many Christians must go through trying to reconcile the things we Evangelicals say are true with the realities of their own lives. Do we actually believe that the many pastors who have been characterized as fallen decided to be hateful, immoral, greedy, or deceitful? I think not.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The second half of the letter is where things get ‘hot’:

Billy-batson-magic-of-shazam-no1-2008My heart physically hurts for the Warrens, the Hunters, and the five families that lost their sons. The pain is incredible. I don’t know that it will ever heal this side of Heaven. I also hurt for Pastor Zachery Tims who died alone in a Times Square hotel room trying to get some relief, and for Pastor Cedric Cuthbert who was accused of watching child porn at work, and for Pastor David Loveless who was let go after his affair was revealed. Shall I go on? I do not believe we have a problem because these and so many others are insincere or because we have not adequately emphasized holiness. I think we have a core, fundamental, essential problem with our application of the Gospel. We need to re-read the New Testament and modify some of our interpretations. The Bible is true. God is faithful. But at this point, too many are missing the mark.

… Everyone I’ve mentioned here has fallen because of obvious sin. But I did not mention the proud, envious, gluttonous, angry, greedy, blamers and scrutinizers in the body of Christ who have equally fallen but their sins are acceptable in our culture so they do not even realize their sin or need for repentance. Why? They are too busy with the sins of others. Often we actually laud these Pharisees … because of their stand against sin, not realizing that they are still not teaching us the New Testament solution to mankind’s sin problem. When the New Testament becomes Torah in their hands, that law, too, stimulates sin.

It’s time for us to stop what we’re doing and weep. We need to repent, enter into the prayer closet without cameras, notes, or any announcements that we’re praying and fasting, and repent for what we have created until our hearts are soft again. Our children are dying. Our relationships are broken. Our attitudes are arrogant. And our hearts are left confused.

You don’t have to agree with all that Ted writes to recognize the power in his words. Not only does he speak with the unmuzzled courage of the dead, but also as one who has come to the end of his rope, only to find himself face-to-face with his Savior. Given his treatment at the hands of his co-religionists, I’m surprised he didn’t chuck his faith entirely. But it’s a strange and beautiful irony that the only solution for the (persecutory) dissonance one encounters in the religious comes in the object of the religion itself, Jesus Christ, the friend of sinners. It would seem that no amount of whitewashing or righteous indignation has been able to obscure Our Merciful Friend completely. And there’s something profoundly hopeful about that.

Yet oftentimes when you poo-poo ‘transformation,’ what others hear is a poo-pooing of hope. Which makes me sad, as nothing could be further from the truth. How can anyone look at the world or themselves honestly and not earnestly desire more transformation?! Transformation is grand! I know I would love to see more of it, in both myself and others. In fact, it’s a big part of the reason why we published GiA.

No one is disputing the possibility of transformation; what we take issue with is the guarantee of transformation. Not because transformation is painful or difficult, but because the guarantee often precludes the possibility. When transformation and salvation/belief are yoked too tightly, in lieu of actual transformation (which is usually unconscious and apparent to others before it is to us), a person will invariably pretend to change, deluding others and sometimes even themselves, all the while getting more and more stuck in that morbid cycle of spiritual pulse-taking with which some of us are all too familiar. A plant cannot grow if it’s being dug up every five minutes to monitor its growth.


If I/we sound over-confident on this issue, that’s regrettable. No one is immune to doubt. Watching the response to One Way Love this past fall, and to our work more generally over the years, there have been plenty of times when I’ve stopped to wonder whether we’re grappling with straw men. In the service of the burned-out and burned-up (i.e., ourselves), are we caricaturing Christian legalism with our endless deconstructions? Shadowboxing in other words? Or worse, instilling spiritual cynicism where it did not previously exist?

We certainly run those risks. But one would hope that we couldn’t overdo it even if we were consciously trying to–so ingrained is the self-deifying control-freak impulse in our DNA that it cannot be exaggerated. Life instills enough cynicism of its own, and pointing to the place, or Person, where we can take our cynicism can’t be a bad thing. Plus, one would like to believe that the scale of the human heart is not tilted in the legalistic, Semi-Pelagian direction because of the current ebb and flow of American Evangelicalism or the Religious Right or whatever. It’s tilted for the same reason it will always be: Original Sin (which is simply another word for human nature). And if that’s true, then no amount of ‘Gospel-centered’ books or conferences or blogs will render grace any less urgent. But I digress.

The bottom line is, you hear things about the “full counsel of God,” you read (or say you’ve read) stern books from stern men about the dangers of antinomianism and unless you’ve been completely hardened, you can’t help but ask yourself whether the lady (i.e., us) doth protest too much, whether we, like teenagers not wanting anyone to tell them what to do, are just telling ourselves what we want to hear.

The answer is, probably so–at least partly. Lord knows our motives are no purer than anyone else’s. Yet Haggard’s plea speaks to those doubts in a loud voice. Seven years may not be a long time in the scheme of things, but in “Internet-time,” where a site being offline for 12 hours can spell disaster, it sometimes feels like an eternity. To keep getting up in the morning and logging in, we need all the reminders we can get that this is more than a theological ego trip, or impartial contest of ideas, or increasingly eccentric venue for cultural analysis (not that there’s anything wrong with that!–a little playfulness seems more pressing with each passing day/suicide).

No, as much as I might sometimes wish it weren’t so, the stakes are not imaginary. They are real, too real. Suicide is not a secular phenomenon. The need for forgiveness and grace is universal. As our Panopticon teaches us in its conclusion, “the only religion that will work for the dying is a religion of mercy. Total mercy is the only thing that will work.”

So that’s my prayer this Christmas. For a pathology of mercy–for both teachers and their students, pastors and congregants, Christians and non-Christians, even you and me.

Take us there, Marvin: