Why Calvinism Makes Me Cry

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

This is not a post about Calvinism. Not really. It’s not about TULIP or John Piper or predestination or the Reformation.  It’s not about why I think Calvinism is a theological system based on logical inferences rather than the clear, consistent teachings of Scripture. It’s not about all of my nasty run-ins with hyper-Calvinists who have called me a “cotton-candy Christian” and an “enemy of the Church” for not subscribing to their theology. It’s not about John Calvin or the persecution of the Anabaptist or those “Jonathan Edwards is My Homeboy” T-shirts.

This is not a post about Calvinism. It’s a post about fear. It’s a post about how our loudest protests and most passionate tirades tend to reflect our insecurities rather than our convictions.

I’ve been reflecting on this a lot recently, as I’ve been talking with loved ones about how to move past some of my “issues” (read— anger, obsession, deep-seated hatred) with some of the tenants of Reformed theology. 

Here’s the thing: I can talk about politics without raising my voice. I can debate young earth creationism vs. theistic evolution without shedding a tear. I can have differences of opinion with my friends about health care or global warming or eschatology or women in church leadership without taking it personally or holding a grudge. I generally accept differences in biblical interpretation with a shrug of my shoulders.

But I can’t seem to talk about Calvinism without crying.

It happened again the other night when I was talking with my sister about Calvinism. She’s not a five-pointer by any means, but she’s much more sympathetic (read—patient, kind, understanding) toward Reformed Theology than I.

“If Calvinism is true, it means that God creates disposable people, people without any hope,” I said, my voice steadily rising above the sound of the USC vs. Ohio State game on TV. (We Helds like nothing better than theological discussions, mixed with college football, topped with steaks on the grill.)

“It means that God not only allows, but sovereignly ordains, every war and every abortion and every rape of a child. It means that God does not love the world; he hates it. If Calvinism is true, it means that if that dying little girl that you held in your arms in India was not among the elect, then God did not love her. He never had any intention of loving her. She was nothing to Him. In fact, he would delight and find glory in her eternal torture in hell.”

Then I started to yell.

“And whenever I raise these points with Calvinists, all they can say is that I should be more grateful for my own salvation! It’s like, ‘as long as my eternal destiny is secure, as long as my life is all planned out and taken care of by God, who gives a damn about anyone else!’ How can you be okay with that? How can anyone be okay with that? Why do I feel like I’m the only one who finds this morally offensive?”

I managed to get through the conversation without completely breaking down, but as soon as I got into my car to head home, I started to weep uncontrollably. I had to stop at the end of the street for about 10 minutes because I was shaking and crying and my contact lenses were getting all fogged up.

For the past four or five years, I’ve believed that such a response reflected little more than righteous indignation. I figured I was so angry because these Calvinists were just so wrong.  But as I’ve prayed and studied Jesus and talked with Dan and spent some time alone, I’ve realized that I cry, not out of conviction that the Calvinists are wrong, but out of the deep, paralyzing fear that they might be right.

You see, I grew up in a home in which the love of God was the foundation for everything.  My father, both in word and deed, ensured that my concept of a heavenly Father was one that made me feel loved and cherished,  and my mother instilled in me a sense of compassion for all people, especially the needy, the broken, and the lonely.  Though my father had a degree in theology, he knew that having  all the right answers wasn’t really the point, so when I would pose a particularly personal or challenging question to him, he would often respond with, “You know what, Rachel— I don’t know, but I know that God loves you.” It’s a phrase that I often repeat to folks who send me emails about how they are struggling with doubt. Though I can’t always answer all of their questions, I know that I can say with complete confidence, “I don’t know, but I know that God loves you.”

That God loves everyone (and not just a select group of people) has always been the most important theological constant in my life…and I feel like Calvinism, were it true, would take that away from me. Replacing “for God so loved the world” with “for God so hated the world” (which I believe Calvinism requires) is so disorienting to me, so dark and frightening and hopeless, that I fear it would lead me to despair.

I realized how profoundly these fears had affected my life the week that Reformed pastor John Piper declared that the tornado that hit downtown Minneapolis (like the Asian tsunami of 2004, the Minneapolis bridge collapse of 2007, and even his own cancer) was an act of divine judgment toward the sinners involved. 

The night after I heard the news, I dreamed that I was in a beach house during a hurricane. (Yeah, so I know this is a little unrealistic…but so is flying airplanes shaped as turtles and living among the Sioux Indians as an algebra teacher, which are also recurring dreams of mine.) Anyway, in my dream, it was completely dark outside, and the wind had broken all of the windows of the house, so I was exposed to all of the elements. Water, funnel clouds, lightening and debris swirled around me. I couldn’t find Dan. Suddenly an eerie calm fell over the scene, and I looked out the broken windows to see a massive, roaring wall of water headed straight toward me. It was black, like the sky, and as I stared into it, the most terrible, lonely sense of despair rushed through my body. Somehow, I knew I was going to die, and somehow, I knew that the tsunami wave represented God. 

I woke up in a panic. I had never dreamed about God like that before. As I wandered to the kitchen for a glass of milk, I realized why I was so upset about John Piper. I was upset because my single greatest fear is that God hates his creation, that he will never stop being angry with me, that he has chosen just a few for salvation, that the little girl in India is not among them, and that, perhaps,  I am not among them either.

These fears are not so different from the fear I see in the eyes of protestors carrying signs that depict President Obama as Hitler, the fear I see in the red faces of angry preachers urging their parishioners to “take America back for God,” the fear I detect in some of the books against emerging church, the fear I detect in some of the books in support of the emerging church, the fear I hear in the voices of both gays and the conservative evangelical activists who lobby against them when both sides consider for just a second the possibility that maybe they have it wrong.

No wonder James wrote that “the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” No wonder John wrote that “the one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

Perhaps righteous indignation is simply our favorite disguise for hiding our deepest, most paralyzing fears.  Mine have to do with Calvinism and the nature of God’s love. What about you? What issues make you the angriest, and does that anger correspond with any particular fears?  As I've mentioned before, I want to be “perfect in love." How do I overcome my fears?

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