TXAB: The Christ Almighty Blog

05 December 2017

Humility, and the “cage-stage” Christian.

When we’re willing to toss fruit aside, and fight for our beliefs.

The first principle of theology is humility—knowing who and what you are, and not claiming you’re anything more. Or, as we so often see in false humility, less.

That means we’re fully aware we’re wrong, and Jesus is right. The purpose of theology isn’t to believe we’ve “arrived,” and defend our newly-acquired high ground. It’s to correct our beliefs, poor character, and bad attitudes. Because they’re misbegotten and wayward. We may be redeemed, but they’re not. Bearing this in mind, with the Holy Spirit’s help and power, the goal is to get those traits to match Jesus’s.

The problem? A lot of Christians have utterly skipped that first theology lesson. Or weren’t paying attention, ’cause they were too busy staring at the syllabus. Or promptly forgot all about it, ’cause all their new knowledge puffed ’em up. However it happened.

Hence they imagine theology’s first principle is, “I was wrong—but now I’m not. Jesus fixed me.” When he gave us new life, supposedly he gave us a new nature—his nature—so now we have the mind of Christ. 1Co 2.16 We think like Jesus does… or he thinks like we do; it’s all the same. We have arrived.


As Calvinist cartoonist Adam Ford depicts it. They don’t always foam at the mouth though. Adam 4d

I run into Christians with this mindset all the time. They’d be the folks who email me to explain, patiently or not, why I’m completely wrong. Or who show up on discussion boards to loudly, angrily correct everybody who varies ever so slightly with their infallible doctrines. Back when they were pagan, they’d get this way about plenty of other subjects, like politics and Star Wars. Now they do it with doctrine. Or apologetics.

There’s a term the Calvinists use when their young, overzealous theologians get like this—when they’re so enthusiastic about “the doctrines of grace,” they forget to be gracious altogether. Calvinists call it “the cage stage.”

The cage-stager is as eager to defend their theological territory as a junkyard dog. They’ll fight anyone. Even friends: You might believe precisely the same as they, but if (God forbid) you misstate the slightest idea, the cage-stager will tear your throat out. Best to lock ’em in a cage till they calm the heck down. Hence “cage stage”: Lots of knowledge, very little love.

Calvinists may have coined the term, and may be notorious for the behavior. But lemme tell ya, by no means do they have a monopoly on it. I’ve met cage-stage Fundamentalists, Catholics, people in my own denomination, people in heretic denominations. I’ve encountered cage-stage Jews and Muslims too. The phenomenon’s all over Christendom.

It’s a pitfall many Christians (myself included) fall right into during our early days of following Jesus. The devil’d love every Christian to fall into it, ’cause it nullifies much of the work we do for God’s kingdom. We’re too busy denouncing ideas, sins, and people we hate, to ever get round to loving people, and winning them to Jesus through our kindness and love. ’Cause screw kindness and love; there are doctrines to defend!

Doctrines over fruit.

The reason I’m entirely sure the cage-stager doesn’t already possess the mind of Christ? They lack the character.

Jesus is patient. Kind. Generous. Gracious. Loving. Joyful. Peaceful. And all the other fruit of the Spirit, ’cause that fruit is his character. That’s who he is. That’s how he identifies his followers: How we are, not what we believe. ’Cause we’ll get all sorts of beliefs wrong, and the Spirit will spend years sorting us out that way. But if the Spirit’s living within us, we’d better see some of his attitudes flowing out of us. Certainly not any of the bile and froth we see in the cage-stager. Or Satan.

Like I said, the bad attitudes nullify our kingdom work. That’s not just a casual observation of mine; the apostles said so too.

1 Corinthians 13.2 KWL
When I have a prophecy—“I knew the whole mystery! I know everything!”—
when I have all the faith necessary to move mountains:
When I have no love, I’m nobody.

God is love, and anybody who lacks love, lacks God. 1Jn 4.8 The cage-stager thinks God’s changed their way of thinking, but their temper and quick frustration proves he hasn’t yet. And their pride in “knowing the whole mystery; knowing everything” means they’re gonna be resistant to anything new he tries to teach ’em. Especially when he tries to reach them through the very people they’d rather debate.

They’ll interpret the love and patience they receive back from mature Christians, as weakness and a lack of conviction. They’ll misinterpret a lot of things. Anger will either be “tough love” or “righteous anger,” rudeness and impatience will be “zeal,” joylessness will be “seriousness,” and pride will be “conviction.” Humans are really good at justifying our evil to ourselves. Cage-stage Christians likewise.

They’ll justify themselves by pointing to what the rest of us Christians are doing. ’Cause a lot of Christianity does consist of reminding and exhorting our fellow Christians to follow Jesus—or follow us as we follow Christ, 1Co 11.1 as I would hope we’re doing. We’re all striving to grow closer to Jesus, right? So we preach sermons. We prophesy. I blog. Come on people, put some effort into your relationship with your Lord!

But they forget this effort doesn’t consist of flawless Christians helping flawed Christians: We’re all flawed. We’re all wrong. We’re all pointing to Jesus, directing one another to Jesus: He’s right, and we’re not. I don’t have him 100 percent figured out. Neither do you. Neither does anyone. And even if I did have him wholly figured out (probably especially if I did), it gives me no right whatsoever to act like a dick towards anyone who disagrees with me.

Does God win us over that way? He knows all; if anyone’s justified in getting frustrated and ragey over people’s misbeliefs, it’d be God. But God uses kindness to draw us to him. Ro 2.4 Remember how you first came to Jesus? What drew you to him, the fiery condemnations of a dark Christian? Or the compassion of a God who offers grace and forgiveness to everyone for everything? Whom would you rather follow, a mercurial God who’ll toss you into hell for any private reason he likes, or a loving God who forgives his kids so much, we totally take advantage of him?

But the cage-stage Christian hasn’t thought out any of these things. To them, the only true fruit of the Spirit is orthodoxy, even though the apostles listed no such fruit; the other traits are optional, and so long that they’ve said the sinner’s prayer, or so long that God’s elected them, it doesn’t matter how fruitful they aren’t. And like I said, they can easily repackage all their fruitless behavior as fruit.

Like the verse up top states: No love, no achieving anything for God’s kingdom. If anything, the cage-stager drives people away from the kingdom. Plenty of ex-Christians have horror stories of a cage-stage Christian who tore ’em a knew bunghole over an honest mistake. So they concluded, “I don’t need this,” and promptly found better-behaved pagans to hang out with.

Battling our own cage-stage tendencies.

A friend of mine was a little surprised when I reminded him the first principle of theology is “I am wrong.” He confessed, “I’ve never heard that before.”

“You had to have,” I told him. “We had the same theology professor!”

Well, it was an 8 a.m. class. But that first lesson made an impact on me, anyway. Our professor emphasized the fact that, during the course of the course, he was inevitably gonna teach error. Totally didn’t mean to. But the reality is, none of us know where our errors are till the Holy Spirit points ’em out to us. Till then, we’re gonna be wrong. And we should never be so arrogant as to presume we’re not, and never are. We’re fallible humans. Being wrong is a given.

He also assigned us a book I’ve found mighty useful, and recommended to loads of Christians: Lutheran theologian Helmut Thielicke’s A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. It’s thin—only 57 pages in the ebook version—’cause it only consists of one lecture. In it, the good Dr. Thielicke warned his theology students of the common phenomenon where seminarians leave university, visit their home churches, and just horrify people with their godless cage-stage behavior.

Humility, folks! Never practice theology without it.

Of course, college students never read their textbooks unless they’re gonna be on a test somewhere. Short book or not, a lot of my classmates skipped Thielicke’s book, and even those of us who read it got pretty darn cage-stagish. Debates happened everywhere. In the cafeteria, in the coffeehouses, on the school’s online bulletin boards, in the library where other students were trying to study, in the dormitories late at night. Thankfully most of us were Christian enough to not take these debates to heart, nor resort to personal attacks, nor walk away with hurt feelings and grudges. But those risks were always around. And sometimes they did happen. Because an immature Christian isn’t gonna give a rip about hurt feelings: If you get in a fight, you fight to win. Right?

Just as Thielicke warned, some of us went to our home churches and shocked people with our newly-acquired knowledge without gentleness. I know I accidentally did. I stumbled into a discussion with a youth pastor about the rapture, and started ranting about why it takes place at Jesus’s return, and not seven years before. 1Th 4.13-18 He grew up hearing otherwise (and had never been to seminary himself), and grew convinced my school must be teaching me heresy. I might’ve made him more receptive to the idea if I’d been better at patience and kindness, but I still had a ways to go… and bluntly so did he.

See, as you study theology, you’re gonna discover there are a lot of things Christian popular culture teaches, which are straight-up wrong and unbiblical. But these beliefs are beloved. (Who doesn’t wanna get raptured before the really bad suffering comes? Sign me up!) But the way to break the bad news is not by picking a fight. Or mocking those who believe in such things. Or otherwise being a know-it-all smartass. It’s by gently explaining why it doesn’t fit the bible.

And by patiently accepting the reality that Christians won’t care that it doesn’t fit the bible. Because they want it to be true so badly, they’ll bend, fold, spindle, and mutilate the bible to make it fit. They want it to be true so badly, they think they can wish it into being.

Yep, there’s nothing like being a voice crying in the wilderness, to teach us humility. That is, if we bother to pay attention and learn this lesson.