Monday, January 26, 2009

Looking Back--Part III

There certainly isn't anything wrong with the 'fear of the Lord' as a key motivation in life. It is a healty perspective that simply acknowledges that I am accountable to a righteous and loving God. Living in the fear of God means, among other things, respecting the Person who loves and cares for me night and day. It also means realizing as I am prone to live life on my own terms at the expense and to the neglect of others, I know God has the right to correct me. Sometimes that correction may be painful and I fear it. I think that both elements are basically what it means to 'fear God.'

But growing up in a fundamentalist context may include a negative factor that goes beyond a healthy fear of God. There was this incredible fear of hell, a place so terrible and horrid that there is nothing on earth to compare with it. It was this fear of going to hell that plagued me regularly during my early teenage years. It would especially haunt me in quiet moments--like when going to bed at night. That, with the regular pressure to 'walk the aisle,' made those quiet moments intensely oppressive. Partial relief for this anxiety came through my own mother's wise counsel. She took some of the pressure off by telling me that I could make a decision for Christ once I understood it better. That seemed to contradict the 'urgency of the gospel' that the preachers were telling me, but it went a long way to help me feel, knowing very well that I really didn't understand 'how to be saved.'

Like many, I had walked the aisle to answer the alter call, but though I meant well, nothing really happened to me. I was basically scared into it, going up to the preacher, shaking his hand, praying the sinner's prayer, and getting baptized. Nothing much happened after that. I felt no different. I had no 'assurance' that I had spiritually passed from death to life. It merely compounded my guilt. It was crappy.

Later on in life, I would come to question, and even despise, this type of pressure filled evangelism. I view it largely as human pressure added by preachers to convert people. Some call this 'man-centered evangelism,' the idea that conversion can be manipulated by strong emotional pressure. Very often, this kind of conversion seems to wear off. There is a good possibility that it turns some permanently away from God. Who wants to go through such humiliation and defeat. Could it be that many find religion a goofy thing for this very reason? Emotionalism insults our basic intelligence. Could it be that some are atheists now who had to endure such experiences? I'm convinced it could.

Just as important to consider is this: Was this the way the Gospel was originally designed to operate? Did Jesus, Paul, and the early church preach the gospel in this manner--with alter calls, sentimental music, and the threat of going to hell at any minute? And exactly what is hell, anyway? Did the preacher have it right? Who was I to question at such a young age? I simply went along with it and made the best of it, painful at it all was. Ironically, later on, evangelism and mission would become major interests of my life. But as I would journey through in theological studies, evangelism and missions would take on a different meaning---one that I was sure was more biblical and meaningful.

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