March 10, 2014

Heart and Soul: Theology

A popular animated film from a few years ago features a protagonist named Gru, who is on a quest to capture the moon in order to earn the title of World’s Greatest Villain.1

As the story progresses, one comes to see that this antisocial, self-centered aspiration is rooted in a childhood history of emotional neglect, unworthiness, and unimportance. The character in question shows all the telltale signs of someone who is emotionally dwarfed: lack of empathy, lack of humor, as well as a fear of vulnerability, attachment, and emotions in general. He seeks to compensate by making himself significant in a world that makes him insignificant.

By the end of the otherwise silly story, Gru comes to experience and open up to love. He stops trying to be a hero (or antihero), and just accepts his need to love and be loved.

Religion of Heroes

Many of us know Adventism as a religion for heroes. We are, after all, the remnant people, those who must stand in the last days before a holy God. We stand apart from the crowd in our observance of the Sabbath. We teach unpopular truths about history, Bible prophecy and end-times, death, law, and judgment.

Add to all that a lifestyle message that seems to touch every cherished sin of our age, and you have something to intimidate even the most daring people.

For many, transitioning to Adventism seems like a herculean epic, overcoming trial after trial on our quest for eternity. However, as Peter discovered, Jesus does not need heroes. He needs people capable of doing heroic things who realize that they are but children in need of genuine community, authenticity, vulnerability, and love that only Jesus provides.

The Unjust Steward

The parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-13) clearly lays out the importance of connection, authenticity, and vulnerability.

The parable begins when a scoundrel wealth manager is found skimming from his boss’s fortune. Because of the manager’s selfish approach to life, he is about to lose his position, status, and power. To meet this emergency, he unexpectedly changes his life philosophy and sets out to create a social safety net for himself at the master’s expense. Amazingly, the master commends the shrewdness of his double-dealing servant.

Each one of our distinctive doctrines is a declaration of how close, loving, and involved Father God really is.

This is the key to understanding the parable: The steward was not commended for his tactics. The master commended the selfish steward for being shrewd enough to see that his self-centered approach to life to that point led nowhere. Despite his shady dealings, he is praised for seeing that he needed others, and for seeking them out, even at the risk of bringing more trouble on himself. The servant stops his power trip and decides to bank on friendship, vulnerability, goodwill, and solidarity with others. This is what is commendable.

It was actually a savvy and unusual way of dealing with the problem. The more common way would have been to try to prove his innocence and/or impress the master through heroic acts of some kind.

Another reaction would have been to be hard on his master’s debtors to try to prove himself to the master and regain his money. This would have been more in keeping with his previous life of independent power and wealth seeking. But instead he decided to bank on friendship. He became vulnerable and approached others as one in need. He laid a foundation for a life of community and solidarity with others. It is a total reversal of his previous life.

We and the Unjust Steward

Like the unjust steward, we too need a dramatic shift in life philosophy. The independent, self-made righteousness that we often seek actually bankrupts us. Our antisocial attitude makes us unfit for heaven. Our natural impulse is to try to prove our innocence to God, or impress Him with some heroic works. But what we really need is to turn around and focus our energies on fostering genuine community and connection in this world. We have to stop promoting and defending ourselves and open ourselves up to vulnerability, authenticity, and love. We have to realize that only Jesus can bring true and genuine community.

The gospel exists where there is true community. All our doctrines, understood in the light of Jesus’ life-changing love, lead to living socially, authentically, and connected with others.

The Right Thing

This concept is hardly foreign to us. We have doubtless heard many sermons and read many articles about the communal nature of love. We are encouraged to love each other more. Being like Jesus means demonstrating a love for each other that we do not naturally have. And it is one of the main purposes we ascribe to the church, a community in which Christian love develops and flourishes.

Sadly, we seem not to understand and appreciate just how much it is our privilege and our need to love and be connected to others. The unjust steward did not act from some higher ethical principle; he acted from pure self-interest. By contrast, Christ would have us understand that love is the right thing to do,and that even selfish people can recognize the rightness of looking out for others.

The latest research in the study of happiness agrees that vulnerability, connection, solidarity, and authenticity is where true happiness is found.2

God isn’t looking for heroes, He’s looking for children. Heroes are inevitably proud of their sacrifices and accomplishments. God is looking for the humble, those who know they are not heroes. He is looking for those who recognize that what is good is also best for them. They’re just doing what they were created and saved to do. “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty’ ” (Luke 17:10).

The Better Life

All of this leads us to conclude that the attached life, the communal, interdependent life, is the better life. Ascetic individualism centered on denial of pleasure and inclination is not God’s road to goodness. Rather, God’s way is in solidarity and family connection with our sisters and brothers, all in childlike dependence on God.

This, of course, often calls for self-denial and sacrifice. But abnegation is not an end in and of itself. God takes no pleasure in seeing us flog our bodies. His desire is not to abase us, but to build us up and help us reach our fullest potential and happiness. He understands and has designed that such growth can truly occur only for a person who has learned the infinite value of connection and loving interdependence with others. Jesus’ coming, His own continual dependence, His celebration of His children, all teach us to be converted to childlikeness within; to be genuine, vulnerable, and connected, as He first created us.

The dangers of missing this truth are too great to be ignored. For missing it holds Christianity in the perpetual Jesus-Accepts-Me-as-I-Am-So-Why-Do-I-Have-to-Be-Good?paradox. An antisocial gospel produces such antisocial questions as this.

When we, on the other hand, see Calvary’s saving love as God’s embrace of the whole world; when we understand the concept of God as Father underlining our solidarity and interdependence with the rest of humanity; when we recognize this as God’s original plan for the perfect and emotionally satisfying life we were created for: then we will be able to see the liberation power of God’s righteousness, instead of the subjugating force of divine orders. These heart-and-soul dimensions of Jesus’ saving grace infuse our preaching with never-before-seen power. For it is no longer some cerebral conception, some theoretical abstraction on disembodied, immortal souls, it is salvation for whole people—their brains and their thinking, their arms and their embracing.

“[Jesus] called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’ ” (Matt. 18:2-4).

In a way, we never grow up. We just build higher walls around that love and connection-craving child within. God’s design is that we go from finding our emotional home base in our parents to finding it in Him. As we become adults we are confronted with the reality that our parents are not all-powerful, all-knowing, or all-loving. They are mortal and fallible, like we are. They simply cannot keep us secure in a world in which death reigns, and in which they are themselves powerless, no matter how well-intentioned they may be.

Mortality turns life into mere entertainment. There can be no ultimate purpose or meaning when nonexistence awaits us. In a life of entertainment, love and vulnerability become a liability rather than an asset. Taken too seriously, they can keep us from having the fun and achieving the successes we want. So we must protect ourselves from them.

This is why life in this fallen world pushes us to build walls around us. We crave love, but fear the sacrifice it represents. If this world is all there is, then love isn’t worth it. But eternal acceptance with God, having an assured place within His kingdom of love, changes the equation. Love makes sense once again. Love becomes doable rather than heroic.


Adventism for the twenty-first century has gotten over some narrowly intellectual concepts and defense of our doctrines. Like the walls of Jericho, the intellectual walls against our message will fall without a fight when we do the crucial work of demonstrating what our doctrines mean for our broken world and our broken hearts.

It all starts with love and vulnerability. When I talk to people about the Adventist revolution, I just want people to walk away with one conviction: that the grace Adventists celebrate is about childlike vulnerability, human connection, and heartfelt authenticity.

God is closer to us than anyone ever imagined. Not only will He end death and suffering, He had nothing to do with them in the first place. Not only did God start history, He has been guiding it step by step. Not only can we have a personal relationship with Jesus, but He has also a specific day set aside each week to meet with us. Not only does Jesus forgive us, He also works in His sanctuary to give us His heart.

Each one of our distinctive doctrines is a declaration of how close, loving, and involved our Father God really is. God gives us the emotional security we need to love and to be loved without limit. He is big enough to unlock our vulnerability and tear away any facade of perfectionism, sufficiency, and independence that frightened humans shut themselves into.

These precious truths not only present Christ as the answer that our emotionally atrophied world desperately needs, they also, as we understand and apply them, make us perfectly ready to go home.

  1. Despicable Me (Universal Pictures, 2010).
  2. See Brené Brown, Daring Greatly (New York; Penguin Books, 2012).