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Should Revival Begin at the Top?

“With your forgiveness, O God, wash away my self-deception.”

I wrote that prayer on May 8, 1989. At the time I was attending to a Bible verse or two each morning—a discipline I have mostly failed to keep up—and that morning my focus was the beginning of Psalm 32. “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered,” the Psalmist declares, and then: “Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” 

This was an amazing juxtaposition: forgiveness on the one hand, and release from self-deception on the other. I was trying back then to consolidate my thoughts through prayer, and my journal records the outcome: “With your forgiveness, O God, wash away my self-deception.”

The prayer mattered to me then. It still does. And if you tweak it to say, “O God, wash away our self-deception,” it seems fitting for all of Adventism. Why it fits is painful to contemplate; retreating into fantasy is easier. But a Bible verse the General Conference president highlighted in the January Adventist World can help break down our defenses and open the way to healing.

The verse is 2 Chronicles 7:14. Here God tells Solomon that “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” These words, Elder Wilson said, are the key to Revival and Reformation. And the first requirement, or so it seems, is humility. For Revival and Reformation, humility is rock-bottom fundamental. 

Now, what does humility require but the washing away of self-deception? And how, to take this another step, can we overcome self-deception except as we feel forgiven? Surely we are most likely to be humble when the circle we inhabit is forgiving, and we can acknowledge our deficits and faults without fear of rejection or reprisal. 

I recently asked a Sabbath School class about the contrast, in Galatians, between “works of the flesh”—enmities, strife, jealousy and the like—and “the fruit of Spirit,” which includes love, patience and generosity. What might Paul’s message mean for us? A woman exclaimed, “Don’t be an angry Adventist!”—and the class broke into laughter. Her maxim had exposed an open secret about our own pathology.

Ted Wilson knows this pathology himself. Someone recently circulated a copy of an e-mail message meant for him, and it popped up in my in-box. The joint-authors accused Elder Wilson—I am not making this up—of supporting (!) the spread of “Roman Catholic Spiritual Formation” in Adventism. It was one accusation among several. The e-mail message was shot through with loopy, self-righteous vituperation, and it was signed, “In Christian love.”

I don’t suppose Elder Wilson expends much energy on correspondence from members so angry and self-deceived. For being God’s children, they deserve respect and love. But this is no reason to cancel an appointment in Fiji or summon advisors to an emergency meeting.

Still, it must hurt when two people so impatient and unjust in their discernment start off on you like that. We want our critics to pay exacting attention to who we really are and what we really stand for. We want them to attend not just to our ideas and behavior but also to subtleties of context that bear on both of these.  Otherwise, criticism seems dishonest, spiteful, cheap. And a truly moral person doesn’t stoop to such a thing.

True discernment, then, is hard work. But before the work itself is the capacity for that work. Can I see and feel—truthfully? Does my character expedite, or get in the way of, my effort to do so?

Again, humility seems crucial. When will I resolve to pay exacting attention? Surely not until I acknowledge my own deficits and faults and allow for my own skewed vision. If I know that I lean toward self-deception, and need to be forgiven daily, I cannot swoop in with half-baked criticisms and feel right about it. To take responsible measure of a person or project or set of ideas I have to defeat two things: my fantasies and (as Iris Murdoch put it) my “fat relentless ego.” If I should succeed, even modestly, I will have a gracious God to thank, not to mention my forgiving brothers and sisters. Success in truthful perception is that hard.

All this, I think, speaks to “angry” Adventism. We need more of humility and of the forgiving spirit that helps humility to thrive; we need less of arrogance and blame. And if the shoe fits the poor souls who send witless screeds to their church leaders, it fits those very leaders, too. Way too many of us are way too angry, and if Revival and Reformation could set off a flame of humility, it would certainly warm our hearts and congregations.

But let me now go to meddling. During the next few years, we will be sunk in conflict over the interpretation of Genesis, the standing of women and the means of spiritual growth. For each of these, Elder Wilson has set a divisive course, and he can probably bend majority opinion to his desires, at least in the short run.

But wouldn’t a flame of humility, in all our hearts, soften discord, or at least rejuvenate our love for one another? I myself need to seek God’s face and God’s forgiveness. I need to overcome my own self-deceptions and to increase my own capacity for exacting attention. All this would nicely complement my passion—for a church firm in faith and open to science, welcoming of women and distrustful of patriarchy, heedful of sham and attuned to the voice of God, wherever it may sound.  All this would nicely complement anybody’s passion.

God-sent humility—the first criterion of Revival and Reformation—would fit us all for just and loving attention to one another, and surely that could open doors to a more truthful, more aligned, and less angry, Adventism. Humility would serve forgiveness and a forgiving space would help to rinse away our self-deceptions. Each of us, in our stations high or low, could then summon the will to grow by listening and looking. Instead of veering toward inquisition, we could ascend into gracious dialogue.

Wintley Phipps and Barry Black both objected publically when leaders of an evangelism conference at Oakwood University felt pressured to dis-invite the well-known T. D. Jakes as a guest speaker. We have to “divest ourselves of arrogance,” said Phipps. We have no “monopoly” on truth, said Black; Ellen White “celebrated” great (non-Adventist) heroes of Christian history and we can still “learn” from others, just as she did.

Surely this frame of mind, this humbling of self, cannot be optional. If I am a truly moral person, I strengthen myself for exacting attention. Whether I confront an object or a theory, a person or a project, I stretch toward deeper comprehension and better judgment. I do not wave off everyone I think I disagree with. I do not pretend to know what I can’t know or don’t know.

Every pastor and church dignitary and the laity know full well that too many of our leaders and too many of the rest of us suffer from arrogance, from incapacity for just assessment of reality outside our fat, relentless egos. No one, least of all I, can claim to have fully overcome such arrogance.

So Revival and Reformation really does matter, and so does humility, its first criterion. Does it need to begin at the top? Absolutely. Just the fact that Phipps and Black had to make their point, or that people laugh so quickly at the mention of “angry” Adventism, shows that humility is in desperately short supply. The challenge to recover it is leadership’s responsibility.

And ours, too.

—Charles Scriven is president of Kettering College and chairs the Adventist Forum board.

Image: Margaret Bourke-White, Gandhi, 1946.

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