19 January 2020

Time wasted on bad theology—and its temptations.

When I was a teenager I wanted an audio bible. At the time I couldn’t afford one. This was back when they were on cassette tapes, and cost about $150. No foolin’. So I decided the only alternative was to do it myself. I cracked open a six-pack of blank cassettes, cracked open my bible, and started recording. Started with the New Testament. Got as far as Acts. Definitely took more than six cassettes!

Then I came across an audio New Testament for $20. (Narrated by James Earl Jones, too.) For a brief moment there I thought about not buying it. After all, I’d spent a lot of time making one on my own. I didn’t wanna consider it time (and cassettes) wasted. But what made more sense?—buy the superior product, or persist in doing it myself?

Yep, I bought the audio bible. Years later I finally got the Old Testament too, ’cause someone put Alexander Scourby’s narration on the internet, and even though I only had a dial-up modem, I patiently downloaded every single tinny file. I’ve since bought proper audio bibles.

What’s the point of this story? To single out the reason I almost didn’t buy that first audio bible: I put a lot of time into my do-it-yourself audio bible. Time gave value to that piece of junk. Oh let’s be honest; it was junk. But it was my junk.

In the very same way, probably the most common reason Christians cling to our incorrect beliefs, bad theology, and heresy, is a rather simple one: We put an awful lot of time into our wrong ideas.

Some of us spent years on these ideas. Went to school and studied ’em in depth. Wrote articles and books. Taught ’em in class after class, Sunday school after Sunday school. Defended doctoral theses on the subject. Kinda made it our subject, the idea we’re best known for.

We really don’t want all the time and effort to turn out a giant waste. And for some of us, there’s a great deal of professional pride wrapped up in them. So, better to defend the bad idea, than drop it and embrace the better one.

And if the Holy Spirit himself is trying to get us to doubt our misbegotten certainty? Easiest to block him out and pretend he’s not talking. Worse, to reject him and claim that’s not him talking; it’s the devil. Claim it’s Satan when it’s really God. You know, blasphemy.


Expecting credit for wasted hours.

On occasion a student of mine wouldn’t read the directions, and wound up doing their assignment wrong. Sometimes a little wrong, sometimes entirely wrong. Either way, they weren’t getting an A. Really frustrated them too. I know the feeling; I’ve made that mistake myself once or twice.

Every so often, despite going so wrong, one of these students would try to talk me into giving ’em a good grade regardless. Because, they argued, at least they put in the time. That should count for something, right?

Um, no.

I taught bible, science, algebra, grammar, and history; not P.E. (True, some P.E. teachers actually grade their kids for achievement instead of participation… but I haven’t worked with any.) Yes there are plenty of situations in life—and plenty of jobs—where they pay you regardless of how productive you are with your time. But that’s not true in every arena, and y’better learn that. Make hay while the sun shines.

Still, there are a lot of kids—and just as many adults—who still think this way. They put in the time, so they should get something for it. Some sort of karma, recognition, respect, even praise, for all their hard work—even when it honestly wasn’t all that hard. They want us to highlight the few things they got right and inflate their importance, and ignore all the stuff they got wrong, even if most of what they did was wrong.

I’ve seen many a Christian produce an error-filled bible study. To keep others from going astray, I’ve been obligated to point out the errors. And these mistaken teachers regularly, foolishly excuse themselves with, “You gotta give me some credit for putting all this stuff together.” Same as my wrong-headed students.

No I don’t gotta give you credit. Didn’t give my students credit either.

I do have to be kind. I gotta forgive you. I’m Christian; I believe in grace. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you didn’t mean to teach error. (Well, usually I will. Certain fruitless souls deserve our skepticism.) But when you study wrong, you waste your time. And when you present the results of your wrongly-done study as if it’s true, you waste everyone’s time. Nobody, not even God, gives us credit for wasting time on error and evil, Calvinist beliefs notwithstanding.

But this mindset of “I put in the time, so it must count for something” gets applied to way too many things in Christianity. Like time spent in a ministry which accomplishes nothing, but Christians justify the wasted time by imagining God’ll turn it into something. Like time spent trying to preach to antichrists, and this practice of throwing pearls to pigs Mt 7.6 is defended by saying, “I’m planting seeds” or “God’s word won’t return void.”

Bad theology. But time was invested, and God would never let our investment wholly go to waste, right?

Time and idolatry.

At its core the reason we believe we should get something for misspent time, or figure there should be some credit and value we can gain despite misspent time… is idolatry.

Yep, idolatry. Time is valuable. “Time is money,” as Benjamin Franklin aptly put it, and many people see the two as interchangeable. We won’t always agree on the exchange rate, but we generally agree there is one. If I put time into something, I put value into it.

And if I put that value ahead of God? That’s the very definition of idolatry.

Yep. So just as money is something we need to be wary of, so is time. If I put a lot of time into a wrong idea, it’s still a wrong idea. Time contributed nothing. Time redeemed nothing. Time justifies nothing. Wrong is wrong.

I’ve wasted lots of time on bad ideas before. Businesses which went nowhere. Books and articles which weren’t accepted. Relationships which went bust. It’s frustrating… but it’s life. Things don’t always work out. Hey, we don’t know any better; we’ve gotta learn better. Time is a teacher, provided we treat it like one.

And the same is true of theology. We can spend an awful lot of time studying a theological idea, getting really familiar with it, making it a part of our understanding of God… only to have the Holy Spirit undo it with a few well-placed words. So we gotta determine right now how we’re gonna respond to his correction: Faith? Or a massive crisis of faith, followed by years of a hobbled relationship because we don’t wanna listen to him tell us we’ve misused our time?—and that we’re still misusing our time?

I find it helps when we keep in mind the first principle of theology: “I’m wrong. Jesus is right.” I expect to find I’m wrong. Even if we’re talking the beliefs I’ve held for a good long time, and invested loads of time in: Maybe I have the wording right, but I’ve mixed up something about the concepts. Or maybe I’m prioritizing them when Jesus wants me to prioritize something else. (Or maybe he’s okay with my prioritizing them for now, but he wants me to grow out of it.) Hey, I’m following his lead; however he wants to correct me, I’m game. He’s the only one I cling to tightly.

If that’s not stable enough for you, may I submit you’re perhaps putting your faith in more shaky things than you realize. Time spent should not be one of them.