Why do we use harsh and potentially devastating words like “universalist,” “unorthodox,” or “heretical,” or “false teaching?”
This question has been racing around my mind over the past couple of days. Yesterday, I posted my review of pastor Rob Bell’s newest book, the well-known (infamous or famous would depend on who you ask) Love Wins. In this review I used these admittedly harsh words and I have asked myself, why?
Nowhere in the book does the reader get a hint that you can be saved apart from Jesus. In fact, the point of the book is just the opposite. Only through Jesus will we be with God after we die. In gospel terms, then, all of our bases are covered and we can agree to disagree. We can take back these fear-mongering words, right?
I have to admit that I only just a few minutes ago figured out our need for such words. They are not to demonize a person. We do not cast one another into outer darkness, nor do we take up Jesus’ mantle of judge. We have never been in charge of deciding who is “in” and who is “out.” This is one of the great points Rob Bell makes in this book, incidentally.
So if these intense words have the possibility to do damage and it is nothing personal, why use them? Bear with a story about a boy and his dog for just a second and I will try to make this clear.
There is a park near my apartment, right off the road, which is almost completely forgotten. Now, my dog Delia is half Spaniel and half Labrador, so you can imagine her energy level is all but uncontainable. In order to get her some exercise, I try to take her down to this little park and hit some tennis balls with a baseball bat. This gives me the advantage of letting her run at full-tilt for twenty minutes or so. It also gives me the advantage of staying in shape in case any Major League team decides I am what they have been looking for all this time.
As we were walking back to my truck after our playtime today, she found some shade on the other side of the street and bolted across the little two-lane highway. Lately, she has been in the habit of doing this, and although it is a lazy side-street, I understand the danger in letting her cross the road.
Dogs, as history has proven us, are not-so-adept at sensing oncoming cars.
So I did what any loving owner would do. When she did not come back immediately on my command, I went out into the street, picked her up and tossed her out of harm’s way. Yes, I handled her harshly. It was just then that I saw a stranger walking past me.
“Great,” I thought, “this guy saw me grab my dog and pop her once or twice. Here comes the lecture about how you should be nice to animals and I need to turn myself into the police and admit my grievous crime against this sweet dog.”
Nope. I was wrong.
This stranger turned out to own to be a dog owner, too. He had thought nothing of my harshness. He knew that I had done a loving thing to Delia. I had warned her with all the severity at my command that dogs do not belong in the road.
You see, a loving master does not only feed, clean up after, or play with his dog. He does everything in his power to keep his dog from destroying itself. Sometimes that means positive encouragement and sometimes it means the dog needs to be picked up and compelled out of harm’s way.
Now there’s an interesting word, “compel.” That’s what the servants are ordered to do in Jesus’ story about the king and his absent dinner party in Matthew 22.
Go into the highways and the hedges and compel them to come here.
Some of them, I imagine, had to be picked up and tossed into the banquet. They did not know how dangerous it was to remain outside. They had no clue that to ignore such a rare, wonderful, beautiful, sweet and life-giving invitation meant they were doomed to their own destruction. There is harshness on the part of the king for those who refuse his warnings.
In fact, so much so that Jesus, the one who loves us enough to put himself in harm’s way to rescue us from ourselves, tells one more part of the story. Somebody, it seems, had snuck in on his own program. The response of the king?
Throw him out.
You see, Jesus loves us enough to use very harsh language about hell, heaven, and the fate of everybody who has ever lived. He wants us to see that the consequences are both dire and irreversible for whoever refuses the kind invitation of the master.
No, we cannot understand how God can work like this but, for what it is worth, I am positive Delia cannot understand why I treated her like that today. She has to take my word for the fact that I love her and my harsh words are for her good.
And this is exactly what we have to do with a God whose words seem so harsh.