Confession 78: Do No Harm

Monday evening, a teenager from our community was killed in a car accident. His grandparents are members of our congregation, although the teen himself attended another church while in high school. He had graduated last spring. His grandparents asked my husband to take a role in their grandson’s funeral, to which he agreed. He met with the pastors of the other congregation who would be presiding over the service to discuss the details of the service. Through the course of discussion, Chris learned that this young man was expecting his first child. His girlfriend is five months pregnant. As a parent, this news broke my heart. Yet, Chris and I were both disturbed at the response the other two pastors involved in the service had to this news. They decided that they would have to be careful about addressing this young man’s salvation because his girlfriend was pregnant and they didn’t know if he would have been “right with God.” My jaw hit the floor when I heard this! But that wasn’t all. After leaving this meeting Chris went over to the grandparents house to be with them for awhile and found that this concern over the young man’s salvation had been passed on to his family! His grandmother told Chris over and over how concerned she was that her grandson had not been “right with God” at the time of his passing because his girlfriend was pregnant. Chris tried to reassure her, asking her if she had forgiven her grandson. Of course, the answer was yes. He tried to help her see that as much as she loved her grandson, God loved–and loves– him even more. So, if she could easily forgive him, how much more so would God!

I couldn’t stop thinking about this last night. One of John Wesley’s three principles for Christian living kept going through my mind–do no harm. It makes me angry when Christian people, especially Christians with authority over others, violate this principle, whether intentional or not.

First, no one, not even a pastor, has the right to judge whether or not someone receives salvation. While our lives as Christians should bear fruit, and while we should live our lives so that others might know Christ through us, the state of our soul’s eternity rests firmly in the hands of God. It is by God’ grace alone that we are saved. We can’t earn it, we can’t do it on our own. Nothing we say or do can make us “right with God.” It is God alone who reconciles us to him. The whole of Scripture can be boiled down to God attempting throughout history to reconcile humanity to himself, finally finding that reconciliation through the ultimate sacrifice–Jesus Christ and God himself. Think back to John 3:16– “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes may have eternal life.” God’s grace surrounds us from the time we are conceived and salvation is there in a moment when we choose to accept it.
Who are we to judge what occurs between the heart of the creator and the heart of the created?

Furthermore, scripture makes it abundantly clear that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Ask God to reveal your sins to you and he will gladly comply. God has put me in my place several times when I have judged or misjudged the behavior of someone else. We all have something or lots of somethings to be held accountable for. And, quite frankly, I don’t see bringing a child into the world as one of them. Don’t get me wrong, I am not an advocate for premarital sex, but it burns me to the core to hear people talk of an unplanned pregnancy as a “sin” or “mistake”. If we as Christians truly believe in the sanctity of life, then we must accept each new birth as a precious gift from God, regardless of whether or not the parents were married when the child was conceived. Moreover, in this particular situation, when the family of this young man holds that newborn in their arms, they will be holding onto a living piece of him. What a beautiful gift!! Don’t tell me God had nothing to do with that!

Finally, when a family is grieving, especially due to sudden unexpected loss, it is not the time to quibble over theology. Families need comfort and support. They need a pastor or spiritual leader to offer them hope, to bring words of peace. They do not need to be thrown into emotional and spiritual turmoil, questioning themselves, the nature of God, their own faith. Although, many people do this anyway, it shouldn’t be brought about by their pastor! A pastor should help put pieces back together.

I had an uncle who died from colon cancer almost ten years ago. Due to a serious childhood illness, my uncle’s brain never developed past the age of nine. As he was dying in the hospital, my grandmother’s pastor came to visit. He informed her that if Charlie was not baptized, he would not go to heaven.

My grandfather had passed away just six months before. He was the emotional and spiritual rock of our family, and my grandmother was still reeling from his loss. When her pastor, this man she trusted to speak the truth of God’s love, told her this, she was thrown into despair. She and my grandfather had talked to a well-respected pastor when my uncle was younger about baptism. He told my grandparents that since Charlie had the mind of a child, he would be welcomed into the kingdom of God regardless of his baptismal state. Now, as she was preparing herself to lose her oldest child, my grandmother had to second-guess everything she believed. My father, a spiritual rock himself, convinced my grandmother that Charlie was fine, that God would welcome him with open arms, and that baptism now would only confuse and scare him further, as he already did not understand what was happening to him.

I have some definitive thoughts on baptism that I could share, but as this post is already too long, I’ll save it for another day. Suffice it to say, we, as Christian leaders, need to be very careful and intentional to do no harm. John Wesley’s second principle of Christian living, after do no harm, is to do all the good you can. I think these two principles are tied together. As we should intentionally do no harm, so we must be intentional to do all the good we can. If something we are doing or saying is not working for the good of others, then maybe we should consider that we are doing harm. Finally, Wesley tells us that we should love all. Everything we do or say should reflect that perfect, sustaining, redeeming, life-giving, life-affirming love that God has for us, that Jesus showed as he walked among the least of us; the outcasts, the sinners, the sick, the judged, the broken, the weary, the oppressed.

I believe in a God of grace and mercy, a God who sacrificed everything to reconcile our messed-up human selves to him. God is “right” with all of us. Thank you, Jesus!!

Blessings and Peace,