“Moralistic-therapeutic deism” is the phrase University of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith uses to describe the religious beliefs of North American teenagers. It is the belief that God wants people to be good, play nice, feel happy and go to heaven when they die, assuming they follow these simple rules. While God may step in and help in the case of an emergency, he typically leaves people alone to work things out themselves. Essentially, God is a giant pre-school teacher in the sky.
While Smith’s work focuses on young people in North America, “moralistic-theraputic deism” could easily describe most people’s view of God—it is an apt description of the sort of higher-power that typically appears in the media, in conversation, and (if we are honest) in our own imaginations. Such a God is helpful, ready to serve, and interested in our personal comfort and contentment. He wants us to be nice, well-adjusted, and self-confident individuals. The strange thing is, something in this helpful God strikes many people wrong—when it comes right down to it, “playing nice” seems a poor version of the justice our hearts long for in the face of poverty, war, and abuse.
To regular readers of this blog, it is no surprise for me to say that the God of the Bible is neither a pre-school teacher nor a butler in the sky. He is a God of justice and, in the end, our comfort (in terms of ease) is really not his concern. In fact, the God of the Bible often makes his people uncomfortable. On purpose. I’m not talking about a persecution complex among Christians or some sadistic God who enjoys allowing his people to suffer for his glory. I’m talking about the way God niggles at the soul, agitating and even burning our very selves until we too become concerned about the deep justice, the deep setting-right of all that is wrong toward which he is constantly working.
In an odd, advice-laden passage in to the Thessalonians, Paul writes “do not quench the Holy Spirit.” It is a translation that survives, in large part, because of the suggestive possibilities of “quench.” Besides putting out a fire, the word “quench” is, in today’s English, is almost exclusively used for satisfying one’s thirst. Based on these uses, the idea of “quenching the Holy Spirit” should be a good one. After all, fires are dangerous things that must be controlled, kept safe in fire rings or fire places: no one enjoys being burned. But, of course, this is not the case in the passage. Instead, Paul instructs Christians not to quench the Spirit—let it keep on burning them, making them uncomfortable, paining them even.
And why does the Spirit burn? In Luke 12, just after admonishing the people against envy and greed, against the sort of financial worry that leads to saving up riches for their own security, against being unfaithful with the resources God has entrusted to their care by abusing their workers and excessive consumption, Jesus exclaims, “I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled.” The fire of God is the fire of justice, burning-up our self-satisfying projects so that we can see and meet the needs of the world arounds us. It is a fire that may very well burn up our happiness, our ease, so long as our happiness and ease are built upon the suffering of others. It is an uncontrollable fire, and a painful one. One that we might very well want to quench….but one that we must learn to let rage.