God’s grace and Calvinism revisited

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As I wrote in my conversion story, I realised that the greatest challenge in my life would be receiving and responding to God’s love.

The Calvinist God

I grew up with a Calvinist God, an angry, intolerant figure who was going to send many of us to hell no matter what if we hadn’t made it onto the list of Elect. After being brought up with a weekly diet of hell, fire and judgement sermons, it was hard for me to believe in God’s love.

This kind of fear was certainly not limited to a Calvinist upbringing. In God of Surprises, Fr Gerard Hughes writes about the Catholic version, comparing religious instruction to a small child being taken to see their Great-Uncle George whom supposedly loves them. Before they leave, however, he shows them the furnace in the cellar and threatens to throw them in if they don’t visit every week.

In the church I was brought up in, only people who had been shown by God that they were among the Elect were considered to be saved. The other people, no matter how devout they were and how much they tried to live good lives, were going to go to Hell. In other words, there was nothing you could do to decide your salvation.

This led to despair. It also led to people not taking part in the Lord’s supper as they felt they weren’t worthy.

I was recently digging around in The Statistical Accounts of Scotland online, which, despite their dry name, are actually fascinating accounts written by ministers on all aspects of their parishioners’ lives. In a report in1845, the Rev Archibald Clerk wrote:

The majority of the people have been brought to regard the Sacraments, especially the Lord’s supper, with horror which causes almost all of them to avoid partaking of it

So, the feeling that we weren’t worthy to receive God’s grace through the Lord’s supper was not a new thing.

How can I trust God?

It’s taken me a long time and many years in exile from the church to even begin to unravel the tangle of love and fear, duty and punishment. When I was drawn back to Christianity and began attending a Catholic church, I felt like a someone who has survived an abusive relationship and is trying to build another one. How could I trust God? How could I believe in His love? How could I believe that He wanted anything good for me? Wouldn’t I be better trying to eke out whatever good I could get out of life on my own?

I also still felt that if I made mistakes or drifted away from God, I had to grovel, beg and persuade God to forgive me. Things had moved on from my perception of God when I was a Calvinist, but not a lot. In my new understanding, God would listen, but would still only grudgingly forgive if I managed to be sufficiently penitent.

Now, I am beginning to see something different. When I ask for God’s forgiveness, it isn’t about changing God’s mind, getting Him to give me another chance or persuading Him that I might have a good bone in me and be worth a bit of love.

No, it’s about healing, healing of the hurt part of me which can’t believe in God’s grace, healing of the part of me that is so twisted and curled in on itself that it is unable to receive the love that God always offers.

God’s grace

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I am beginning to understand my helplessness. I can’t save myself. That may seem like a truism. Haven’t I always been told, no matter what flavour of church I’ve been in, that Jesus saves?

But have I really taken that to heart? Haven’t I tried to ‘earn’ my salvation, by being good, keeping the ten commandments, helping people, respecting the law? As a Catholic, haven’t I sometimes let myself think that I somehow ‘deserve’ salvation by going to Mass regularly? When I’ve slipped up, haven’t I seen the Sacrament of Reconciliation as something I do to make things okay with God again.

Only now am I beginning to understand that I can’t by my own power do anything to heal myself and overcome my faults. All I can do is receive God’s grace and God’s healing. When I ask for forgiveness, whether alone in prayer, or through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it’s about healing the barriers to receiving God’s love and grace, including my own refusal to accept it.

Calvinism revisited

When I look again at the verses which were quoted to back up Calvinism, I see now that it’s all about grace:

Thus he chose us in Christ before the world was made to be holy and faultless before him in love, marking us out for himself beforehand, to be adopted sons, through Jesus Christ. Such was his purpose and good pleasure, to the praise of the glory of his grace, his free gift to us in the Beloved, in whom, through his blood, we gain our freedom, the forgiveness of our sins. (Ephesians 1: 4-7)

The Calvinists almost got it right. So close, and yet so far. They understood that salvation is God’s free gift, that there’s nothing we can do to earn it or add to it. But in teaching that it was wrong to ask God for mercy and salvation, they made a grave and damaging error. We can’t do anything to add or take away from God’s salvation, but it does require an important step on our part: ACCEPTANCE.

God is outside of time and I am in it. And here is the paradox. God is omnipotent, and yet He has limited Himself, taken on human nature, made Himself vulnerable. In giving us free will, He has allowed us to receive or to refuse Him, not just once and for all, but continually. In every moment of every day, He’s there waiting for us to turn Godwards.

I’ll give Julian of Norwich the last word:

This is his meaning: that we should see what he does and pray that it should be done … It is our Lord’s will that, whatever he plans to do, we should pray for it, either in particular or in general. The joy and delight it gives him, and the thanks and glory we shall be given because of it, pass all understanding – in my sight.

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God’s mercy

I wrote this piece a while ago and didn’t post it. I’ve recently had another attack of what I call ‘bad image of God’ (usually accompanied by bad image of self). However, I’m recovering and am posting this in the hope that it might be helpful.

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An attack of ‘bad image of God’

The biggest struggle I have experienced in my journey to becoming Catholic has been trusting in God’s mercy. A diary entry written a few months after I was received into the church says:

I am nobody, nothing. God hates me. He’s hovering in heaven, ready to squish me, to make me suffer in the most excruciating way possible, both psychologically and physically. He wants me to hurt, is even now planning how to do it.

Maybe I should just give up, ask for oblivion. Even death won’t help. It will just give him the chance to inflict more and never-ending torment. I can’t escape. I would despair except that I have children. I have to try to love them, even though it’s imperfect. I’m never good enough. God is always angry with me. He doesn’t forgive. I don’t want to go near Him because He will push me away.

And yet, grumpy and moody as I am, I try to forgive my children.

At the time that I wrote these words, I absolutely believed them, although I also experienced moments when I experienced God’s love and mercy.

High pews and short legs

These feelings of mistrust in God’s mercy came from deep in my childhood. I sat on hard, scratchy cushions on a pew that was too high for my short legs and watched the preacher. His face was thrown into relief by the pulpit light so that it seemed to be full of clefts and hollows which changed as he moved. As he spoke about God’s judgement and hell and our own sin and unworthiness, his voice rose and fell and his face twisted with emotion.

When I was very young, all I thought about was getting through the long sermons. I swung my legs and wriggled and twisted and traced pictures in the patterns of the wooden shelf where we rested our Bibles and Psalm books. I ate the sweeties that my grandmother gave me, trying not to sook on them and just let them rest in my mouth. If I was careful, four sweeties would almost last me through an hour-long sermon.

At some point, I began to understand the preacher’s words. I realised that when he talked about sinners who were going to be lost in hell unless they threw themselves on God’s mercy, he was including me.

I did what the preacher told me to. I turned to God and asked Him to forgive my sins. It was logical. I didn’t want to go to the never-ending fire that the preacher described so graphically, where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Double back flipping Calvinism

This decision brought me peace until I became a teenager and realised that it wasn’t as simple as that. God’s mercy wasn’t to be obtained by simply asking for it, not for a reformed Scottish Presbyterian. Many people in our church, including my own family, were double back flipping Calvinists (although I think that the theological term is double predestination).

They believed that God had decided before the start of time who would be saved and who wouldn’t. Therefore, it made no difference if we turned to God and asked for forgiveness. If God had decided that we were among the Elect, we would be saved and if we weren’t, then we would be damned regardless of how many times we petitioned God for mercy. In fact, it was sheer insolence to even ask for God’s mercy unless He first gave a sign that we were numbered among the Elect.

This was too much for me. I could ask God’s forgiveness, but could never be sure that I would ever receive it. Although I didn’t leave the church for several more years, my faith and trust were already damaged. My feelings of guilt and unworthiness grew until the only way I could cope was to leave the church in which I had grown up.

I tried different churches. However, I was dogged by the image of a God who would never love or forgive no matter how hard I tried to please him or how much I needed his help. I suffered from low self-esteem and depression. The only way to escape this bogey God who was always breathing disapproval down my neck was to turn my back on religion.

Believing in God’s mercy

It didn’t end there. Many years later I felt called to become Catholic. This brought me a lot of joy, but also the challenge of facing my own negative images of God.

During the first year or so after becoming Catholic, even the Sacrament of Reconciliation did not give me immediate relief from the feelings of guilt and mistrust in God’s mercy. Confessing to a priest was such a strange and unfamiliar thing. Perhaps that was the reason I didn’t experience the feelings of relief and lightness that other people reported. Often, however, I would feel that the burden of guilt and doubt had lifted a few hours or a few days later. On one beautiful occasion I stood in the sunlight in the church after confession and felt as if the doubt and guilt which was crushing me lifted in an instant, allowing the love of God to flow in.

The shock I felt after re-reading the diary entry above shows that God has made some progress with me, even if it seems to have been slow and imperceptible. Believing in God’s love and forgiveness is an ongoing challenge as the stresses and strains of life continually throw up new situations in which I have difficulty trusting Go

My other great challenge is to forgive. I will write more about that journey in the next post.