07 March 2023

Humility, and the “cage-stage” Christian.

The starting point of theology may be revelation, but the first principle of theology is humility: Recognizing we’re wrong about God, and Jesus is right, and following Jesus so we can know God better.

The purpose of theology isn’t to learn so much that we become God-experts, then correct everyone else around us. It’s to correct ourselves. Our beliefs. Our poor character. Our bad attitudes. Jesus may have redeemed us, and granted us access to God’s kingdom, but we still suffer from a depraved sense of selfishness, and need the Holy Spirit’s help and power to overcome that, and become like Jesus—the only human who ever did it right.

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

Hence too many of us imagine theology’s first principle is, “I was wrong. But now I’m not! Jesus fixed me.” Supposedly when he gave us new life, he also gave us a new nature. His nature. And now we have a Jesus nature, and fruit of the Spirit now grows in us spontaneously on its own, and we have the mind of Christ. 1Co 2.16 Whatever we think… it’s miraculously just as Jesus thinks. All our motives are good and pure and noble and godly. We have arrived.

And if you claim we haven’t… well, [UNNATURAL ACT] you. I have the mind of Christ, and you’re just some dirty heathen who thinks he’s Christian, but you probably voted for the other guy, didn’tcha? Who are you to claim I’m just as corrupt as before I came to Christ? You don’t know Christ. I do. [Cue Genesis’s “Jesus He Knows Me.”]

I run into Christians with this mindset all the time. They’d be the folks who email me to explain, patiently or in full fiery wrath, why I’m wrong and heretic and going to hell. 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 a little too enthusiastic about “the doctrines of grace,” and forget to be gracious altogether. Calvinists call it “the cage stage.”

Theology without the Spirit’s fruit.

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

Calvinists may have coined the term “cage stage,” 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, Baptists, Mormons, people in my denomination and other denominations and heretic denominations. I’ve encountered cage-stage Jews and Muslims too. It’s not just a Christian thing; it’s a humanity thing.

The cage-stager is a self-proclaimed, self-appointed gatekeeper of Christian theology. And they’re 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.

Well, you put dangerous animals like that in a cage till they calm the heck down. Hence “cage stage.”

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. It gets us to dismiss the Spirit’s fruit, and call such things as patience, gentleness, kindness, and grace worthless—those things will let our foes think we’re weak, and coddle them when we’re supposed to go for the throat. We need to be on the attack. This is spiritual warfare! There are doctrines to defend!

And so we’re so busy denouncing ideas, sins, and people we hate, we never get round to loving people, and winning them to Jesus through our kindness and love. ’Cause screw kindness and love. We’re trying to win.

I hope I’ve made it plenty obvious the cage-stager doesn’t already possess the mind of Christ: They lack his character. Jesus is patient. Kind. Generous. Gracious. Loving. Joyful. Peaceful. And all the rest of the Spirit’s fruit, ’cause that fruit is his character. That’s who he is.

That’s likewise how he identifies his followers: How we are, not what we believe. ’Cause we get beliefs wrong all the time. The Spirit will spend years sorting us out that way. But if the Spirit’s truly 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. And in Satan.

Fruitless theologians.

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 KJV
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

God is love, and anybody who lacks love, lacks God. 1Jn 4.8 The cage-stager thinks God’s transformed their way of thinking, but their temper and quick frustration proves he hasn’t yet. And their pride in “understanding all mysteries, and all knowledge,” means they’re gonna resist anything more he tries to teach ’em. Especially when he tries to reach them through the very people they’d rather fight.

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 his 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, and never need correction. 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. 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 who hadn’t gone to seminary about the rapture, and started ranting about why it takes place at Jesus’s return, and not seven years before. 1Th 4.13-18 Since he grew up hearing otherwise, he grew alarmed, and convinced my school was 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. As did he. As do we all.

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. Nor mocking those who believe in such things. Nor otherwise being a smartass or know-it-all. It’s by gently explaining why it doesn’t fit the bible.

And by patiently accepting the reality that many a Christian really doesn’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’ll think they can “claim it” into being. That’s how the rest of the world tells them things work, and they imagine it’s true for Christianity as well.

Yep, there’s nothing like being a voice crying in the wilderness, trying to remind us theology has to begin with humility. It’s a fruit of the Spirit too, y’know. We’re to recognize we’re not God; Jesus is. You wanna learn who God is, you follow him. Not your gut, not your hunches, not your optimism, not your biggest ideas nor your grandest plans. Those things are you—not the Holy Spirit within you, not some God-impulses which God implanted in you, and the fleshly behavior which follows those impulses should be a big red flag warning you it’s not God.

If we’re following ourselves, we’re not following Jesus, and getting nowhere. For such Christians, the cage stage isn’t a stage. It’s where they put roots. They’re like this the rest of their lives. And since they’re not suitable for New Heaven—they’ll just spend eternity complaining God made heaven wrong—I doubt it’s where they’re headed. Hope I’m wrong though.