A few days ago Terrence posted a short exegesis of Revelation 3:15-16, a passage which he interpreted as signifying the type of devotion God demands from his followers. We are not to be people of lukewarm belief, as the passage states, but people who are confronted with the outrageous claim that Christ is our Savior and still choose to believe. As Terrence states, “Jesus presents us a two-handled faucet with a cold dial to the left and a hot dial to the right. It is a faucet too often operated by human error – by delicate human hands that are too apathetic or timid to dial temperatures beyond anything but tepid. Wouldn’t it be better to test the waters and make a decision cold or hot?”Terrence’s point is well-taken, if not deeply provocative. It is a stark call for Christians to live in a manner that is either “sold-out” (as the youth group phrase goes) or not at all, and not in some half-hearted, “tepid” attempt at belief now and then. Said another way, to be a Christian means we give 110% or we go home – no half-assed believers apply. As Terrence writes, “Just as a parent, God demands maturation of His children and for them to go beyond the selfishness of lukewarmness into hotter waters.”
While this seems to cut to the chase of the Revelation passage, let me attempt to offer something of an alternative read which forges a third way between making the decision between hot or cold, maturity or immaturity.
First, Revelation is a complicated book from which to extrapolate much meaning. It is a text rich in imagery, metaphor, poetry, and artistry, and written primarily to an oppressed people (and as American Christians, we are not an oppressed people. If anything, we are the oppressors, making a read of this text that much more difficult). It is (along with Daniel) one of the more confusing texts in Scripture, and so I would simply express caution at reading the text too literally or asking the question, “How does this apply to my life?” The reality is that like a Dan Brown novel, the symbols aren’t always what they appear to be – nor is the ultimate meaning always what it seems. If you haven’t ever read Revelation and suffered from profound confusion and disorientation, then I’d urge you to read it again very carefully and allow yourself to feel the weight of the imagery.
With that being said, let me return to Terrence’s metaphor of a hot-cold handle and the Christian’s tendency to choose the life of tepid, lukewarm comfort. It is a striking metaphor, really, for the ways it conveys the importance of the choice that lies before us. Based on his read of the Revelation passage we’re given a choice – we go all in or we go home. And for any of us raised and steeped in American evangelicalism or Pentecostalism, this message is consistent with anything we hear from the pulpit on Sunday mornings. God demands our best, we’re told, and we ought to therefore respond with unrequited commitment lest God spits us out of his mouth.
Yet let us reconsider the hot-cold continuum a little more carefully, and specifically the rejection of a “lukewarm” faith by first asking, What does it mean to have a “hot” faith? What does it mean to have a “cold” faith? Indeed the language of hot vs. cold is a troublesome split and tends to create more problems than it solves, as one of the interlocutors of Terrence’s original article rightly points out. It creates an unfortunate bind by suggesting that a “hot” faith might simply mean a blind, fervent dogmatism equivocating the religious extremism so prevalent around our world. And yet I don’t think that’s what the writer of Revelation (nor Terrence) had in mind. So indeed, how do we tell when we are more “on fire” for God and when we’re not? What is the difference? Is God more present during moments of “heat” versus moments of “cool”?
The answer to these questions, I think, will be different for each of us. The reality is that a modern, dualistic split of hot vs. cold is the wrong place to focus our attention, for the question is not “Are we hot or cold?” Or “should we make a decision to be hot or cold?” but rather, “Which am I at which moment?” In other words, Like Kierkegaard wrote before us, either/or is the fraudulent question – it’s in the entertainment of the both/and that life seems more true and we feel the weight of the choices before us.
Anyone who has endured the suffering, complexity, heartache, and glory of a life lived knows that our belief is as volatile and fickle as life itself. If our belief in God is genuine then it is also rife with unbelief, and we are likely “hot” with belief and “cold” with doubts at the very same time. So perhaps it is more accurate to say that any “tepid” belief we feel isn’t because of a refusal to make a hot/cold commitment on the dial, but rather because we feel both hot and cold simultaneously, and therefore suffer from the weight of our own ambivalence. And while ambivalence can be a paralyzing agent intent on destroying love, to deny that we feel both belief and unbelief equally denies something of our very humanity, and what it means to be a faithful follower of Christ.
As I grow and mature in both belief and age (I’ll be thirty this fall), I’ve come to find that life has become increasingly more complex. As a grown adult my finances are more complicated than they used to be, my family is more complicated, and decisions are now fraught with much more significance than when I was twenty. Indeed, why would I expect my faith to be any different? God and I have too long of a history together, too long of a relationship for me to think of it as anything but a simple choice of being hot or cold. I rarely understand God’s ways in my life or in the lives of others and struggle mightily to hear his voice. God torments me during seasons with such profound physical, emotional, and existential pain that I’d like to give up this whole business of faith because it feel tortuous. Yet God has also chosen to reveal God’s self in ways that make my head spin and convince me of God’s care and concern for me. To reconcile these wildly (manic?) experiences of God in my life to being either “hot” or “cold” grossly oversimplifies the relationship and does an injustice to the wild ride I’ve been on as a follower of Christ. It’s probably more accurate to say that any “lukewarm” faith I possess is simply knowing that I serve a paradoxical God whose madness is both infuriating and intoxicating (and infuriating because it’s intoxicating) that I’m left in an ambivalent space of feeling everything at once.
One more point is worth exploring as we work to find a “third way” between a faith deemed “hot” or “cold.” Evangelicalism has bought into the modern assumption of a false split between faith and doubt – that one doubts in the absence of faith, and therefore in the absence of God. Faith, we are told, means we have now put to rest those fundamental questions about the nature and work of Christ, and to wonder about these things means we are exhibiting a “weak” (or “fence-sitting”) faith. And I think part of the tendency in this conversation of a “lukewarm” faith is to implicitly endorse the same belief – that God is somehow more present (or at least, God is more pleased) when we’re in a stance of faithfulness (at least he won’t vomit us out!) What’s striking to me, however, is the ways in which this view reduces the efficacy and power of God (and faith) by assuming God would rather be hanging with those who know that they know that they know than with weaklings who can’t think straight. We walk on troublesome ground, I think, when we begin to emphasize an Edwardian “sinners in the hands of an angry God” to the exclusion of God’s original partnership with God’s people in co-creation and God’s final, ultimate reconciliation for all creatures, God’s reconciliation for both sinner and saint, for both victim and perpetrator.
In other words, to emphasize God’s move to “vomit” his people simply because they may not have “enough” faith or the “right” faith seems to indict each of us for simply being human, and misses the work God has done for God’s people throughout history. At the risk sounding too trite or spiritually minimalistic, let me in invoke an evangelical mantra by suggesting that God loves us too much, has done too much work on our behalf, and interceded in too many important ways throughout history to simply vomit those who don’t believe enough. Faith, as Eugene Peterson reminds us, is a long obedience in the same direction, a notion which suggests we are continually at work in our lives to become more faithful people, a life which is fraught with more pitfalls than we can possible imagine.
So as we work to recast something of a bankrupt faith evangelicalism has willed us, let me leave you with some final questions and an important quote. First, what if God’s presence or absence wasn’t mediated by the degrees to which we believe? Said differently, what if God was as present during those places we perceive our faith as being “cold” or “tepid” as when it’s “on fire”? How would those ways we choose to live life be different? And in what ways can we consider faith as a more dynamic and relational event of the both/and rather than as a staid “yes” or “no”, either/or proposition? The contemplative thinker Henri Nouwen understands the poverty of this modern dichotomy more than any other person I’ve read, and he’s a helpful guide in imagining a third way forward which links some of our disconnected understandings. May his words bring you comfort and hope.
“God is ‘beyond,’ beyond our heart and mind, beyond our feelings and thoughts, beyond our expectations and desires, and beyond all the events and experiences that make up our life. Still he is the center of all of it. Here we touch the heart of prayer since here it becomes manifest that in prayer the distinction between God’s presence and God’s absence no longer really distinguishes. In prayer, God’s presence is never separated from his absence and God’s absence is never separated from his presence. His presence is so much beyond the human experience of being together that it quite easily is perceived as absence. His absence, on the other hand, is often so deeply felt that it leads to a new sense of his presence.”
– Tom Ryan, Guest Writer
Tom Ryan is a teacher and freelance writer who lives with his wife in Seattle and enjoys rainy days, large cups of coffee, and S¯ren Kierkegaard. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and he blogs semi-regularly at http://thomasryan02.blogspot.com (as featured on The Discursionists’ blogroll).