Have you ever attempted a long chat with someone who doesn’t appear to be living on this planet?
I have. I could say many things about them, but it’s clear they see no heaven in the here and now. The kingdom is not “at hand,” for them. It’s somewhere else. Somewhere far away. They wish they were there. You wish they were there too.
Years ago, there was the guy who dated my sister in college, exactly one time. He gave her a list of all her spiritual failings, things she needed to work on, including dress code, and she did some checking around; he did that to all the other coeds too. No one measured up. Some of their blouses were too form fitting. Many of them seemed to have a prayer life that was too casual. One was given a brotherly talk about gluttony, and what it does to us. ( How would you like to be the coed who reached for one extra french fry, and then got to hear what a crime this was against the whole body of Christ?)
Unbelievably, this guy eventually did find a woman who met the standard, and he married her — a pleasant little reed of a girl who never spoke a word. He moved back home, went into the insurance industry, and a few years later I saw him working out, with furious intent, at the gym. He was still unpleasant, in a manic, body-sculpting sort of way. About a year after making a note of his rep-heavy focus, someone told me he had run off to the big city and had plunged headlong into a serial search for gay lovers. So much for lecturing the college girls on the ultimate wife.
Or there was the radio preacher I listened to for a few years, as a new believer, anxious to hear more about the Word. He was quirky, flamboyant, fun to listen to, painting spooky end-times word murals, but when he began talking about liquor, and Christians with a wet bar in their homes, (serving wine and rum!) he might as well have been describing people who drew pentagrams on the floor and sacrificed toddlers to the prince of darkness. One day, his radio broadcast was cancelled without warning and we were told he was now off the air permanently. A few days later the announcement came out that he was banging the church secretary on the side.
And then there was the time I poured myself a stout ale in the presence of a new living history group I helped found. I was enjoying the brew in my home, after all. It was my farm, my little colonial public house, but a few weeks later a new edict came down from leadership. One of the husbands was sent, (I believe at the prompting of his overbearing wife),to tell me “in love,” it was not appropriate to celebrate the founding fathers by drinking ale.
“What about hard cider?” I asked, “John Adams drank quite a bit of that stuff, and John Hancock was always buying the sons of liberty rum.”
But I knew where this was going:
“We have higher standards than the world.”
“Okay,” I said. “No beer.”
Well, a few months later, it came out that the bearer of the new pure standard on beverage was conducting an internet affair, and then a real life affair. There was divorce on the horizon and a child or two who wound up, years later, in the sexually confused direction.
I once tried to talk one huge home school ministry into featuring Courage, New Hampshire in their video mail order catalog, but our show, with its accurate, but tasteful, representation of a bastardy trial was not uplifting enough for them. They were into “redemptive” film and television. I thought we were too, but they must have meant some other kind of redemptive, because their ministry shut down completely a few months ago because their leader admitted to an inappropriate relationship with a woman other than his wife.
And then, of course, there were the thousands of Gothard families, who dutifully, and sincerely, tried to follow the detailed routines of a celibate family ministry guru, who, among other things, advocated that married couples go without sex for fourteen days at a time, so as to build “stronger seed.” It turns out old Bill Gothard was accused, by numerous very young women, of inappropriate sexual touching. (He seems to have been a Pietist even in his sin life; he could only bring himself to feel up his victims.)
Are you seeing a pattern here?
The odd thing is that these folks rent too large a space in my head, and I don’t think I’m alone: those of us who believe Jesus when He said, “If you love me, keep my commandments,” (John 14:15) are always vulnerable, and should be, to reproof. We’re all vile wretches. We’re all battling lust, anger, gluttony, faithlessness. There isn’t a soldier in His army who doesn’t need a true pastor’s true instruction, but there’s a critical difference between beneficial and idiotic self-denial.
Telling the truth, for example, can represent self-denial, because a lie, for a time, can shield us from the wrath of our enemies; some truths cost us jobs, friendships, good will, and the truly honest man is a rare thing. He’s doing hero’s work, and I’m sure Jesus has His hand on the poor, hurting truth-teller’s shoulder. He’s denying himself, and, long term, that’s healthy self-denial.
But running around with an opinion on every coed’s blouse? Offering free advice on gluttony? Snorting self-approval in every refused glass of wine? Courting a young woman and refusing to even hold her hand, until you reach the altar, in a celebration of your own purity? Telling a married couple to abstain from sex, not out of their own mutual consent, but because you’re a lonely, horny old goat anxious for shared misery?
Stand back. Call the bomb squad.
You are about to embarrass yourself — and the church.