A twenty-five-year-old man is filled with dread. He believes he can never truly walk in the Spirit with his thoughts thoroughly controlled by Christ. He can never fully avoid the contamination of the world around him. Even more, the evidence, he thinks, is clear—he is not one of the elect. He is persuaded that God has abandoned him, and being out of favor with the angry God is a dreadful thing. As you might guess, he has objections to any Scripture you might offer.
How might you respond?
I tried to assemble his version of God. He is saying, I think, that God is supra-sovereign—a despot, displeased with his people, and expecting something from them that is impossible to give. We are prisoners to his unyielding demands.
This understanding of God doesn’t form overnight. It probably started with his good intentions to obey, it moved to a focus on his inability, and it morphed into perfectionism or works-righteousness. From there it seemed to languish in fear and dread. That would seem to be the end of the line—after all, where else is there to go?—but the dread of God can have a partner. In his case, that partner is loathing. He loathes God and is angry with him because God demands obedience that the young man cannot give. “It shouldn’t be this way!” he says hatefully.
This young man, of course, is beholden to a myth of his own making rather than to the “compassionate and gracious God” (Ex 34:6). Though the path of righteousness-by-obedience was closed long ago, he lives as though righteousness can still be achieved rather than ascribed. The apostle Paul suggests that the problem is not so much with God but with his own desire in that he wants to live under the law (Gal 4:21). The cover story is that God is irrationally demanding and implacable. But the real story is that he does not like God, and prefers a religion that is more under his control.
As he teeters on psychosis, I am reminded of the complexities of the human heart and my own inability to help. All entries into his life seem closed. So I remember the truth: the self-sacrificial God has taken the initiative of love toward his enemies and has revealed a righteousness that comes from trusting in him rather than in ourselves. And he delights in opening blind eyes. So I aim for joy and thankfulness in my own life and consider succinct ways to approach him, when he is willing to engage.
God says to us “in repentance and rest is your salvation” (Isa 30:15), but like so many things in the Christian life, it seems so unnatural, so counterintuitive, and we are unwilling. So we gloss over it and rest in a system that makes sense to us—like works-righteousness—but it is a mere human invention.