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Silent betrayal

Public confession may be difficult, but it's half the gospel

Silent betrayal

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

I have made the Word of God complicated. I have taken the Psalms-"I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord, forever; with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations" (Psalm 89:1)-and rendered them inert. One can do that in at least two ways: Regard them as prophetic ecstasy; regard them as bygone liturgical recitations.

A day is coming when we will groan at how simple this all was: You do not tell your lover in private how awesome he is, and then act embarrassed about him in public. This would not be called discretion but betrayal. And yet I have called discretion my public silences about God, and have spun Byzantine rules for the when, where, and how of it, until my sledge has bogged down in the mud and I hardly speak of God at all. No wonder Jesus loves children best.

Talking about "God" can be a form of cowardice. Some give public nods to "God," knowing that generic confession does not invite reproach. No one is won to faith in Christ by mention of "God." Even presidents every four Januaries lisp "so help me God," and except for Michael Newdow, it produces a yawn. "I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins"-That's what gets you in trouble; that's what saves.

While I am busy betraying God in a restaurant, people at the next table are chatting with abandon about their Reiki class, appointments with a psychic, the Buddhist temple they discovered last week, and their Trans-Life Regression therapy.

For 30 years I have missed half the gospel. Here is the whole: "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9). Even a mediocre grammar student can parse it: The "If" governs both "confess with your mouth" and "believe in your heart," both clauses being the condition of "be saved." I had shrunk the "confess with your mouth" part to responsive reading in worship services, or a rote response on church membership Sunday. This is eisegesis, not exegesis.

Speaking of which, I know a man who used to be on the membership interview committee in my church. He once told me that it is remarkable that you can always tell a seminarian. Every other candidate, when you ask why he desires to be a member, will talk about what Christ has done for him. The seminarian wants to talk about theology. Paul Simon said it rightly: "There must be 50 ways to leave your lover."

My anecdotal experience is that, in general, the higher the level of Christian education, the less likely the person will publicly praise God. Sit next to a degreed Bible student on an airplane, and ask about his life, and he will say he is a theologian. Or is working toward an M.Div. Or plans to be a pastor. That's fine as an entrée, I suppose. But I should think he has warmer things to say about his wife.

What finally prompted this essay was a eureka moment during my blessed insomnia. There is a man I have lost touch with who boasts about Jesus all day long-Jesus this and Jesus that, Jesus his hope, Jesus his deliverer from addiction, Jesus his healer. My end of the conversation was more of the defeated and whiny variety. I am ashamed to admit that I thought him quaint, which is a way of feeling superior to someone. What dawned on me in the wee hours is the way God has exalted him. Whatever sins the man has, he honors God with his mouth, and so God honors him.

The Lord is willing to overlook a lot when a child of His continually praises Him publicly from a joyful heart. Your wife may have foibles aplenty, but if she loves and respects you-and everybody knows it-it doesn't matter so much to you if she stands the knives the wrong side up in the dish drainer. I think God is like that.

I don't consider this column public confession, by the way. It takes no courage whatsoever to type alone in my study. Especially when I'm typing for a safe audience.

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