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Seventh-day Adventists who desire ethical perfection in this life may find themselves struggling doggedly between the heavenly standards elaborated in Ellen White's writings and the edge of a hellish psychological abyss John Bunyan called the 'slough of despond'. What follows is a description of that detour and some lessons learned from it. I hope this odyssey is encouragement for those who (like me) have to learn to live with the fact of their own imperfection.
As a child growing up in Fiji in the 1950s, the first god I became consciously attached to was one that is familiar. He was called simply 'God' and 'He' could be found in a book called 'The Bible'. He created all there was and is, and had a favourite people called 'Jews' thousands of years ago. Unfortunately, they let Him down badly, eventually killing His 'Son' Jesus Christ. God thereby deserted them but now had another group of favourites: Those who (unlike the Jews) obeyed His commandments.
That meant especially us: Seventh-day Adventists, who, as I then understood it, were a great big family who were the only ones in the whole world who kept all of God's laws. Being an 'SDA' meant, according to the Ten Commandments, we had church on Saturdays, whereas the rest of the world had church on Sundays. (This, as I understood it, was what some fellow called 'the Pope' wanted). Being 'SDA' also meant eating 'Granola' where the rest of the world ate pork. It meant worshipping God in our very best attire. Preening oneself was seen as especially essential to pleasing our God'cleanliness was next to godliness' (especially for Pacific Islanders). And no matter how uncomfortably hot our 'Sabbath best' was in the tropics, we should persistsweating, suffering for God was good. He would compensate us later. Moreover, while pride was a sin, being proud to be an 'SDA' wasn't. Thus, no matter how charitable my kin or friends might be, I grew up believing that because they weren't 'SDAs', they were ultimately the Devil's children or foolishly misled by the same.
More than anything though, my childhood was an imperfect and regrettable discovery that God was a conditional friend. He loved us and would help us at anytime about any matter, but with strings attachedyou had to be good enough. Favourable answers to my prayers would only eventuate if God and I were on good terms. If we were not, I knew I had only myself to blame and I would chastise myself for not being perfect. I must try harder.
By the time the 1960s rolled around, I was in Australia and I still could not tell the difference between legalism and gospel-good-news, between a childish and a child-like faith. Religion and salvation had become for me, a matter of conformity to standards. And I thought of Adventist church standards as comprising a Sabbath suit, tidy hair, clean language, staying away from radio and television between Friday afternoon and Saturday night, reading appropriate books, listening to classical or folk music, and steering clear of the opposite sex. Despite the best efforts of ministers and my elders to convince me that religion and church standards were really about 'dos' and not 'don'ts' and that achieving them would come naturally if I was truly dedicated or had totally surrendered, I remained convinced that they were more about don'ts, and reliably hard to come by (whatever my state of mind).
My problem was this: I knew that as Christians we were enjoined to uphold certain standards of behaviour but I wasn't sure whether these were a condition of my salvation or not. I knew that as Adventists we were to become the most sublime expressions of Christianity the world had ever seen, but how was it to be achieved? How was I to attain to the high standards of Christian living which this woman called Ellen White, the church's special 'messenger', had said we were called to and which she described in detail? More importantly, would my salvation be in jeopardy if I did not hold up my end of 'the standards' in a continuous, uninterrupted manner? Would I slip out of favour with my church or worse, with God? Was the Divine eraser about ready to rub me out of the Lamb's Book of Life if I did not keep up a good average?
In a desperate effort to resolve these salvation-standards-anxieties, one approach I came across during the 1960s, and which worked for a time, was the method of pointing the finger at decline in 'the church' in a general and abstract way. The '60s protest movement could be applied to my own backyard. I learned that a part of being a 'good Adventist' could mean building up a reservoir of concern about church standards. By expressing an intense but vaguely-directed concern, I could actually feel better. Not wanting to be counted among the Laodicean lukewarm (and as much in the spirit of my generation), I came to equate criticism of falling church standards with being 'hot' and fervent. It substituted easily for my own failing standards and it took on the character of a Sabbath afternoon hobby.
Sometimes however, this pastime would be interrupted when a thinking person would ask me to be more exact about what particular standard was not being adhered to and by whom. At that point, my accusation had to assume a reality so I would nominate someone (not usually within hearing range) as being inconsistent in their Christianity. Or, I would remonstrate with a particular leader in the church. Or complain earnestly about a particular church policy as being out of date or too permissive, or inappropriate. (It was easier, I found, to complain about a 'policy' as being out of line because it wasn't personalpolicies were abstractions, whereas I felt a little uneasy about judging actual living breathing persons).
While that course of action always made me feel better, I found it didn't guarantee my own to ability to live up to church standards. I didn't always let the side down but I was always troubled by the fact that I occasionally did. The unevenness of my own Christian walk bothered me. Why couldn't Iwhy couldn't we alllive flawless lives of perfectly achieved standards, all the time, I wondered? Why was it that, as much as I concentrated on the Word and the Spirit, sooner or later, someone would kick me in the metaphorical shins and that would be the end of it.
By the 1970s, my concern about failing church standards had matured into misapprehension about sliding church doctrines. Not practising our standards was one thing but believing false doctrine, that was something else, something worse. I came to think that while we might not be able to do Christianity perfectly, there was no excuse for not being theologically correct. Indeed, as I pursued constructing my own doctrinal edifice with the help of some Adventist dissidents and my own small Bible-study group, I found that theological-knowledge can be a powerful and heady addiction and theological correctness had a seduction of its own.
In the first place, I found I could still point the finger at others but with a better, more serious warrant. As I studied our writings and publications I found evidence that the Advent movement was doctrinally corrupt, had lost the plot, and was in dire need of correction. Sure, I worried about it, but more, I felt a certain pleasure that I was 'not as other Adventists were' (so to speak). Moreover, after poring over Ellen White and the Bible for several years, I came to imagine I knew all there was to know. Or if I didn't, at least I was familiar with someone who did.
The conclusion of this path led me to dwell in and on another fantasythat which believes we are saved by theological correctness. At the time, I felt sure that God had directed me to fellow Adventist 'gurus' in whom I had come to see spiritual and intellectual enlightenment. And as I looked around at my church I thought only a minority indeed could see the light. I took pride in being one of them, in being at the vanguard of our church, in being part of an elite force of Bible students who were going to shake Adventism to its roots.
As it turned out, I was rescued from this condition by a series of experiencesthe lessons of which are summarised here:
My argument then, is not that Adventist standards are high enough and that we ought to leave well alone. Nor do I accept the argument that our standards are falling or have fallen irreparably. My point is that, although we are called to a high ethical plane, that perfection must, in the present, always remain out of reach in ourselves, butand this is the good newsif we are in Christ, it is never out of reach. As Ellen White better put it: "It is not God's will that you should . . . torture your soul with the fear that God will not accept you because you are a sinner and unworthy . . . You can say: 'I know that I am a sinner, and that is the reason I need a Saviour . . . I have no merit or goodness whereby I may claim salvation, but I present before God the all-atoning blood of the spotless Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. This is my only plea."
If we fail to understand this simple gospel paradox, we will either live our lives to a set of standards that are cheapened by their achieve-ability or live by a mentally exhaustive and physically abusive regime that demeans the essence of Christian 'good news'.
And some of us havethus, I have read of one Adventist who claimed that he had achieved the blotting out of sins and could not remember committing any recent ones. On the other side of the coin, I have (as outlined above) been a Christian tortured by the thought of facing an angry and reluctantly forgiving God. Both conditions were produced, I believe, by a Christian experience which fed and focused too heavily on an imperfect desire for self-oriented perfection. I needed rather to refocus my thinking, my living, my teaching and all that I do, to adoring the standards achieved by Christ, to seeing the perfection of His life and His death, and to celebrating His gift of resurrection to each of us. Whatever I lack, He has supplied. Whatever God wants of me, Jesus provides on my behalf. That He has already done it for me (on Calvary), is the assurance that he will continue to do it for me (in the Sanctuary ministry), is the promise that He will actualise and present it to me (by His Appearing).
In the meantime, because I am imperfect, I know I will still seek perfection in myself and sometimes worry about it in others and in my church as a whole. This is the legacy of a community historically nurtured in Ellen White's expositions of Biblical principles of sanctification. But how we relate to all of that is our business: Ellen may either serve as a rod for our backs or as a staff for our comfort. And where we slavishly adopt the former role for her, my experience is that telling the difference between Ellen and hell may turn out to be more theoretical than practical. There is a path between the two for the Adventist pilgrim. And it is this: Think less about how you are dressed, but contemplate more the ragged robe and thorny crest that Jesus wore. Rejoice that 'filthy garments' were worn by Him who 'knew no sin', that you might wear the spotless garment of His righteousness. Worry less about jewellery-wearing, but meditate more on the 'crown of life' that awaits those who trust in Him. Be less anxious about what your fellow Adventists are eating and drinking, but make sure that only the Bread, Wine and Water of Life is served at your table. Leave doctrinal debates about things such as the finer points of Sabbath-keeping to others, but thank Jesus for the rest He offers every time we come to Him. Leave others to nit-picking about music, but listen more for the song around the throne of heaven'Worthy art thou . . . worthy is the Lamb'. It is a song about a perfect Life and the name of the road to heaven that fails no standard, that helps us live through our imperfection, but finds no fault with us, if we are in Him.
Robert Wolfgramm, Ph. D., Monash University, AUSTRALIA