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Mable learned as a child that God was righteous and holy and that she should fear Him. She also knew God was good. She saw Him do many amazing things for her family, the best of which was saving them. Mable was fond of saying, “We serve an awesome God.” She was known as an energetic young Christian who always had positive things to say. Mable was also part of a legalistic church that emphasized presenting the best version of yourself to others. Externalism was as natural as breathing for her church, which made it odd that they did not perceive any contradiction with Ephesians 2:8-9—all of grace and not of works.
The fish is the one who never realizes that he lives in water. Though Mable loved to talk about how God saved her by grace, not with her works, she felt an odd tension that motivated her not to make mistakes. Mable would not say she was a perfectionist, which was probably accurate, but it was hard for her to admit messing up, making mistakes, or owning sins. Mable lived in an awkward, hybrid world of legalism and grace. Nobody ever said the quiet part aloud, so they continued to live under self-imposed pressure presenting themselves in a favorable light. They knew better than to be transparent.
Self-censoring was the common sense path, though it’s hard to evaluate how living a dualistic life deadens one’s soul. How do you bring it up? Who dares to go first? What if you open up about your struggles and become the focal point of biting gossip? As Mable grew older, she sensed that her Christian culture was a trap for her. The joy-filled church environment felt more like a minimum-security prison. She began to internalize these tensions because there was no freedom to talk openly about human failure. Added to her struggles, she began to see her family differently from when she was a child. They were not as perfect as she thought they were. Mable had no outlet to discuss these things.
She privately processed the discontinuity in her soul, family, and church, which led to a slow chill. Because she knew how to perform within a religious culture, nobody discerned how her heart was drifting from her first love. Inwardly, Mable was a blamer, critiquer, and hider. Outwardly, she was the Christian everyone wanted to emulate. Mable did not realize what an immature Christian she had become. She knew a lot about the Bible and was one of the favorite children’s ministry teachers. But she did not have a maturing understanding of how to work through her private battles. Forget about confession and repentance among her peers. The fear of judgment from her legalistic friends began to boil within her.
All these things worked together for evil to harm her soul as the private churning continued unabated. Mable was happy and vibrant on the outside but distant, cynical, and lonely inside. Today, Mable is forty-two years old. She has been “painting (her Christianity) by numbers” for as long as she can remember. It would be fair to sum up her first four decades of Christianity this way:
It appeared that Mable’s plan was working. She was not bothering anyone. She had 2.5 children, and they were living the American dream. It was not the best-case scenario, but it was what she knew. Mable figured that as long as she could manage her low-grade frustration with God, life, and the church, it would be okay to keep working on her plan. How many Christians are mailing it in? They have their “Christian representative,” who is like a Public Relations Coordinator (PRC). This carefully edited version of themselves is the person they present to the public. Mable had spent years crafting her PRC, and nobody perceived, cared, or dared to be any wiser.
Living a dualistic life means you can live under the radar for a while but not forever. Eventually, your sin will come to the light. It may not be the sin you’re hiding, but living a hypocritical life will somehow manifest somewhere. Paul talked about God’s wrath, bearing down on those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). Mable was suppressing the truth, and though she thought she could control her low-grade disappointments, she did not perceive self-deception. Mable lived under a legalistic, guilt-tripping cloud. She was not oblivious to Paul’s teaching to the Romans in her heart of hearts but had learned how to ignore it.
As much as Mable tried to shrug off the “God will get you for that” legalistic upbringing, Mable embraced a Karma Christian mindset: “What goes around, comes around.” She had a skewed view of the fear of God, believing that He would “get her” for being such a hypocrite. For Mable, the walls of her minimum-security prison came tumbling down when her son, Biffy, spilled the beans. He came out of the closet. He wrote her a long email, sharing what he had done. Biffy had renounced God, embraced the gay lifestyle, and vowed never to return to his “Christian roots.” Mable was understandably devastated, and there was nobody whom she could tell. She suppressed her thoughts, though she had to blame someone. Sin demands revenge, but who would be the culprit in this mess?
There is no doubt that when sin comes home to roost, we all have a role to play. It is wise and humble for Mable to assess the entire family’s responsibility. Sin does not shy away from collecting allies. For Mable, there was a significant danger in her thinking that traced back to her legalistic roots, making her assessment of the problem incomplete. Because of her fundamentalist works tradition, Mable was spiraling into a dark hole of depression. Though it is wise to assess the potential of guilt with all the leading players in her family and church, one more person needed her attention. Mable had to come to terms with a sovereign God who permits sin into our lives.
Mable’s problem was her myopic understanding of what the word “good” means when she says God is good. She had a narrow, truncated view of God that protected Him from accusation. Rather than discerning “good” through the eyes of Him, who sees and knows all things, Mable could only perceive God’s goodness with a human-centered lens. She had concluded that the Lord was not part of bad things, which kept her sightlines horizontal when bad things happened. Do you see a problem with her understanding of God? How can an omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient being not have anything to do with the evil that happens to us?
When I shared these things with Mable, she exclaimed, “God is good. There is no way that He could be part of my son’s sin.” Do you sense her angst? Do you hear her practical theology? Someone was to blame but to say the Lord was part of sin’s evil equation is wicked, according to Mable. Mable was angry at her son, her husband, and her Christianity. She was primarily mad at herself for “failing her son.” What she could not see was her anger at God, too. She could not make herself believe that she was frustrated with the Lord. Mable is a good, God-fearing Christian who has always done things the right way. Sadly, her theology was failing her. Here is a quick snapshot of how she thought about the Lord.
Mable has completely overshot the gospel. Though she is a believer, she does not understand what should be simple on the surface. Mable’s category for sin is so tight that she does not know how to factor the Lord into the equation, which is why she cannot fathom Him being part of her problems. She needs to reexamine the cross. The cross of Christ proclaims many things. For example, God is good. And also, there are times when He will use sin sinlessly to accomplish the good that will only come through those disappointments. Sometimes, living in a sinful world demands the permission of evil for a higher good. Even a cursory reading of the Bible supports God’s authority and prerogative over sin.
You can virtually choose any fan favorite from the Old Testament and see how the disappointment in their lives did not catch God off-guard or happen as though it was an alternate plan from God’s sovereign oversight. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Job, and David testify that bad things happen to people, and God is always there, pushing His plans forward. The good that God was drawing out of Mable’s heart was her hidden idolatry. If you have not picked up on her penchant for fear, deception, perfection, anger, hypocrisy, and rule-keeping, perhaps it would help to review her case history again. Mable has worked hard to be a good Christian, albeit in a self-reliant and deceptive way. She was a trained legalist, and God imposed Himself on her life to extract her from that prison. He used sin to accomplish His good work in her life.
Mable had multiple opportunities to stand up for Jesus by speaking out against the subtle hypocrisy of her church. Ironically, the same things she disdained about them, she was also doing; she was a hypocrite. She had a decision to make, whether she would continue exchanging the truth of God for a lie. She made the exchange repeatedly in her life. She did it so many times that it was second nature to her. Mable was a genuine Christian who performed for her friends. The Lord chose to bring her sin to the light, but not just hers: her husband and child were making their personal, private choices, too. God hurled a storm into their family to get everyone’s attention. He did not make them sin, but He used their sin to make a significant personal and familial realignment. It will be up to them to choose if they will continue their self-reliant, self-effort life that is comfortable for them or walk the path of the cross.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).