Theological Thursdays: Scriptural Balance And The Carrot And The Stick

Welcome to the second edition of Theological Thursdays. Much of my thinking is done in analogies, similes, and other mental images. I have been told I am a visual thinker. I believe that is true and while my math was acceptable, photography was really my medium of expression growing up. Why, you ask, am I telling you this? Because I think it explains why I get a lot of my ideas and concepts from other fields such as business, technology, or even pundantry. For example, I got the idea for this column from DETERRENCE (part 1) an article on Eject! Eject! Eject!. I really like Bill Whittle’s (the author) insight and his ability to turn a perseptive phrase. He boiled the argument between liberals and conservatives over the terrorist issue down the need for deterence and whether we should be nice (carrot and liberal) or mean (stick and conservative). Then midway through his argument he made a turn of phrase that coellesed for me the substance of the issue.

Folks, it’s time to reach down deep and get in touch with our inner adult.

I can just see in my mind’s eye somone reaching deep into their interior looking for that grown up version of themselves. That image hit home and I began thinking “outside the box” as people are wont to say these days and it struck me how apt his whole nice/mean, carrot/stick, and inner adult context was to Scripture, theology, and the post-modern church. I thought about how most of modern Christianity saw God and how it preferred the nice “New Testament” version to the mean “Old Testament” one. The contrast for the modern Christian was between love and judgment, between the hug of a caring Father and the wrath of an angry, vengeful and distant diety.

Coming from the Episcopal Church I had heard this dichotomy often enough at diocesan events. I can, with a bit of humor, remember when I accidently read the wrong lesson at a diocesan convention Eucharist. I read Hebrews 12:11-21 rather than Hebrews 2:11-18. When the appointed reader did not come forward I stepped up and in the darkness of the subdued lighting I read chapter 12 rather than chapter 2 and did not stop at 18, going on to 21 since it was in the middle of a thought and paragraph.

I should have read:
Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. He says,
“I will declare your name to my brothers;
in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises.” And again,
“I will put my trust in him.” And again he says,
“Here am I, and the children God has given me.”
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil–and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

Instead I read:
No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed. Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears.
You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”

You always end such readings with “The Word of the Lord.” and the newly elected Suffragin Bishop came up to me afterwards and admitted the reading had shaken him, but he awkwardly laughed it off as an Old Testament relic. Personally I saw it as prophetic and think the Bishop’s response illustrates my point, the abhorance of that Old Testament God, who induces fear and rejects sinners.

Just as there are liberals and conservatives in the political arena, there are similar divisions in those who identify themselves as Christian. And some would argue that a similar nice and mean, carrot and stick interpretation of the Bible applies. While I agree that liberals embrace the “nice” God who offers them the all embracing carrot of an unconditional love based on, for those who still hold to some form of orthodoxy, the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross, I reject that conservatives only embrace the “mean” God who wields the stick of judgment and rejection of sin. No, true conservative Christians are like Paul, who in his letter to the Philippians (1:9-11) says:

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ–to the glory and praise of God.

They embrace the “full gospel”, accepting both God’s love in Christ Jesus and the fruit of righteousness that comes from exercising proper judgment and accepting the discipline of the Lord in confronting their sin (see also Hebrews 12, verses 4-11 for thoughts on God’s discipline.)

Why is there is dichotomy between the two; why do liberals want only to see the nice carrots? I believe Bill Whittle’s call to “get in touch with our inner adult” has a lot to do with it, especially if you define being an adult as accepting responsibility for your actions in life (or as the Confession in the Episcopal Prayer Book says, “what we have done and what we have failed to do.”) along with taking the necessary steps to shoulder that responsibility.

Bill explains that as a young man he was a liberal and he was able to maintain that view of the world around him because he grew up insulated from the harsh realities of life that 99.9% of all those who have lived upon this earth throughout its history have faced. He was able to maintain his liberalism because “belief in goodwill, compromise, concession and trust grew as a result of being surrounded by decent people in a well-ordered, lawful society, with a long history of compromise and cooperation.” He had not encountered true evil in any personal way and generally thought being nice would eventually get nice in return.

The God with whom we have to do is not so naive. He created beings with free will and they chose to reject him. He chose a people to bear witness to the process of redemption and they continually abandoned him. He sent his prophets to call his people back to him and they killed them. He offered his Son to them and they sougt to crucify him and with the complicity of the rest of us, succeeded. We must come face to face with the fact that we are utterly depraved (for all have sinned and come short) and without the saving grace of Jesus Christ there is no hope in us. Yes, God calls to us, but we do not answer; we shut our ears and erect self-serving idols, gods cast in the image of our own desires who will give us all of the carrots we seek without any of the sticks we fear, at least until it is too late.

It is true. God has both a carrot and a stick and true believers, those born again into new life in Jesus Christ, embrace both because God’s love is tough love, able to save to the uttermost.

4 thoughts on “Theological Thursdays: Scriptural Balance And The Carrot And The Stick

  1. It takes time, effort, study and humility to get go deeper the shallow, spoon-fed topical sermons most people hear today. Many people don’t read the Bible, and when they do read it, they don’t know how to parse the text. You managed to express the perfect truth of the Gospel in a few well-written paragraphs becuase you’re a life-long student of the Word. I hope your Thursday Theology posts spur a few people to want to mine the riches of Scripture for themselves.

    I’m currently revising an 8-week Bible study for high-school-aged youth. Can you suggest any resources teens would appreciate in terms of Bible dictionaries, commentaries, and guidelines for interpreting the text?

  2. Kathy, there are four books I believe every Christian should read and older teens should have no problems with them.

    The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, Third Edition by James W. Sire. Sire examines the “set of presuppositions which we hold about the basic makeup of our world.”

    Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible by James Sire. In this book Sire examines the common methods used to distort the scriptures, which helps us avoid the same traps as well as enabling us to see when others are “twisting scripture”.

    Knowing Scripture by R.C. Sproul and Robert Wolgemuth. Helps you examine how you approach the bible and introduces hermeneutics in a way that almost anyone can understand.

    Knowing God by J.I. Packer. This book is one of the all time great Christian classics. Packer addresses the difference between knowing about God and knowing God. We use the updated and revised 20th Anniversary Edition. While Intervarsity also produces a study guide, I had already produced my own materials for each chapter. See

  3. Thank you. I love James Sire. I met him and attended a summer workshop he offered a few years ago. Great resources! I’m so glad I found your blog. I put a link to Beyond the Rim on my site. It kind of goes well with Beyond Words, don’t you think?

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