I have been a member of the Spanish Seventh-day Adventist Church in Berrien Springs since it was organized in 1973. I have attended worship services in other churches in the area only on rare occasions. A few weeks ago, however, I could not attend my church because I was sick. On such occasions, I listen to the worship service at Pioneer Memorial Church, which the Andrews University radio station broadcasts by radio. Since I did not have the church bulletin and the radio made no announcements, I did not find out who was the guest preacher. It certainly was not Dwight Nelson, whose style is inimitable.
It pains me to confess that I was unable to listen to the full sermon. I was so upset by what I heard that I turned the radio off sometime before the end. The sermon I was listening to was in no way original; I have heard dozens of different versions of this sermon. The sermon impresses on everyone the necessity to get rid of self in order to become a Christian. Thus, it turns out to be a masochistic exercise whose purpose is to make the listeners feel spiritually sick and bad about themselves. This, it is hoped, will motivate them to raise their hands, stand up, or pass to the front of the church in order to declare their intention to live the Christian life with God. It is necessary to cast self aside in order for Christ to come in. The sentence that stayed with me that Sabbath morning is: “If you don’t get rid of self, you cannot love God.”
This way of looking at the Christian life is in direct opposition to the message of Jesus. According to him, it is absolutely necessary to be in full possession of self and be able to use all its faculties to love God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The standard by which we should evaluate our love of our neighbors is the measure of our love for ourselves. In other words, what Jesus taught is exactly the opposite of what this preacher told his listeners that Sabbath. Only he who loves self can love God and neighbor.
Someone may think it necessary to remind me of Jesus saying, ”If anyone wishes to follow me, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” These words must be understood. To deny oneself is “to abstain,” “to renounce,” “to abdicate,” “to disregard,” “to pay no attention to.” The letter to Titus uses this verb and gives us an idea of what is involved. “For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world” (2:1112). In other words, to renounce my selfish passions and take up my cross is not a way to get rid of self, but to change priorities. To carry out this change, we need all the faculties of the self.
Why do so many sermons radically tergiversate the teaching of Jesus? What causes us to want to flagellate, mortify, and destroy ourselves psychologically and to think that in this way we condition ourselves to come to God? Why is it that we have revival services every few weeks thinking them beneficial? Is it not the case that these revival services leave us feeling spiritually “worn”? To think that we must feel bad about ourselves and continually destroy our self-esteem is in no way reasonable or edifying. On the contrary, the religion of revival services based on disqualification of the self is a sick and counterproductive religion. Instead of strengthening and reviving its practitioners, it produces weak spiritual beings who never reach the spiritual maturity that the gospel of Jesus provides.
It is true that our conversions before the love of God, and the lifestyles we develop while conscious of God’s love, are not fleeting events from the past. Conversion and change of lifestyle are things that go on continuously. These are experiences that deepen as we live, and they never cease being necessary. We live in a world in which good and evil are always beside us and we participate in them to various degrees every moment of our daily goings and comings. To live is to confront circumstances and make decisions that create circumstances. To live is to learn to use all our faculties to make our lives manifestations of the power of the gospel.
Without a doubt, we must exercise our will not to live according to routine, vices, poor education, and prejudices. Our liberty to act is limited by the powers that give it energy: health, time, money, imagination, and reason. This means that we may not always do our bestmany times we have not even done that which is good. Let’s face it, sometimes we have even done things that are bad. Does this, then, mean that we are bad people who need to get rid of ourselves and shame ourselves publicly every few weeks or months to make possible God’s willingness to accept us with loving arms?
I have often asked myself what compels us to participate in a religion of revivals? It is beyond me to know what causes my sisters and brothers to raise their hands, stand up, march to the front of the church, or make public confession of sin. But I can look at my own past experiences. When I was very young, a teenager with all the tensions and temptations of that stage in life, I think I responded to appeals to get rid of self and surrender with some sense of my need for purification. Later, in most cases, I just followed the herd. I did not want to stand out. Besides, I really did want to identify with my congregation, having no reasons for wanting to distance myself from my sisters and brothers. But the time came when I thought the preacher was manipulating my sentiments; he was using me to satisfy his own need to see himself as a spiritual leader. Recognizing this dynamic made me wish with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength not to be part of such maneuvers.
Revival religion arose with the Holiness Movement that swept the churches of the American Colonies and the United States in the second half of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth. It was a religion based on the need to rescue souls that would otherwise end up in Hell. People were in the hands of an angry God on account of their sinfulness. Even Christians could end up in those angry hands if they did not get rid of self and walk upward on the road to holiness. The Advent Movement was born in the bosom of the Holiness Movement and adopted the famous camp meetings to revive the desire for holiness. One had to part from the world and re-consecrate oneself routinely. In most cases, however, this routine becomes a vicious circle of spiritual failures and doubts about one’s ability to achieve the sanctified life. Many Adventists, to this day, consider this type of religion the best, and they have permanent nostalgia for “the good, old-time religion.”
However, it is about time for us as a spiritual body to rid ourselves of this nostalgia for a religion that may be old but not at all that good. Seeking signs that their souls would go to Paradise rather than Hell caused those Christians to reach paroxysms of spiritual pride and judge fellow believers according to personal prejudices. It is best for the religiosity of the eighteenth century to be buried in the past. It was the religion of those who felt the need to rebel against a religion with many rituals, much pomp, and displays of power, as well as the rationalism of the Enlightenment.
The twenty-first century requires a religion that recognizes the contributions of science and technology, openly combats the temptations of commercialism with its propagation of injustice and bad health, and honors the value that God gives to all humans just as they are. Doing this requires full use of the heart, soul, and mind and the strength of a healthy and secure self, not one cloistered in a vicious circle of neurasthenic failures and prefers sentimentalism to serious thinking.
Herold Weiss is a professor emeritus at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana. For twenty years, he was an affiliate professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, in a western Chicago suburb. He is the author of A Day of Gladness: The Sabbath Among Jews and Christians in Antiquity.