At Issue Index   EGW Index

Between Ellen and Hell –
Learning to Live with Imperfection

By Robert Wolfgramm, Ph. D.

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 persist—sweating, 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 attached—you 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 personal—policies 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 I—why couldn't we all—live 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 fantasy—that 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 experiences—the lessons of which are summarised here:

  1. One lesson I learned was experienced through a dream: falling terrified through a black space, the faces of my Adventist heroes appeared but were unable to help me. My spirit was directed to call upon the name of 'Jesus' for help. I wrestled, anguished, finding it difficult to get the word out of my mouth, When I finally did, the despair was instantly shattered. I felt a calm, a peace that woke me with tears of joy. The words of Jeremiah later came to me:

    'This is what the LORD says: "Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the LORD . . . But blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes" . . . (Jer. 17: 5-7).

  2. A second lesson was experienced through disillusionment. I saw the pillars collapse, the landmarks crumble in those whom I had followed. First, the place of sanctification was minimised, then, because of a loss of confidence in Ellen White, the distinctive sanctuary doctrine was repudiated, then the Sabbath was considered irrelevant, then the need for the Second Coming itself was dismissed. By the end of the 1970s, my theologically progressive heroes had theologically progressed right out of Adventism. I was confused—but not so confused that I could not tell the baby from the bath water. And I was hurt—hurt that many talented friends were surrendering their Adventism at theological gun-point.

I couldn't leave, I couldn't resign—I was born an Adventist; it was in my blood; it was in a sense, my 'ethnicity'; I felt indigenously Adventist. But I couldn't abide the loneliness of staying either. So I took a 'holiday', a moratorium to make sense of things. And from my detour—my wilderness experience of the 80s—I climbed mountains (and fell down them) and gained a better view of my own fallibility, a greater contempt for my own self-righteousness, a deeper love for those whom I had considered beyond the pale.

  1. Another lesson I learned (and there is nothing new about this), is that in admonishing others about standards and alleged doctrinal deviations, one must examine oneself. The eye of disapprobation, of judgement, cannot be cast outward to some obvious 'other' without implicating itself. A speck elsewhere may be viewed as a fall in standards or a heretical theology, but if the log in self is left uncut, our judgements will have a certain hollowness about them. If I do not include myself in the judgement I make of you, I run the risk of violating Christ's command to 'judge not' (Matthew 7). Hence, in constructively criticising others, we must be prepared to be self-critical; in laughing at others, we must be prepared to laugh at ourselves.

  2. I also learned that if I wished to focus on someone else's alleged lack of standards or their theological distortion, I risked meddling in their sanctification. The work of sanctification is a private as well as a public one. But more, it is a holy one. The individual's conscience works in tandem with the Spirit and the Word, and not just the collective wisdom of the Adventist community. As a community, we must trust and respect the rights of individuals in our church to work out their own salvation, to secure their calling and election, and to perfect their characters in their own Spirit-filled, Word-guided way. As individuals, we may need to get out of the Spirit's way.

  3. In this regard, an understanding of church standards and our commitment to theological purity must be made with a regard for a people and their place. It should not be undertaken with a blindness to cultural diversity. We must not think that once a person becomes a Christian, cultural standards and doctrinal understanding can be universalised without reference to the social and cultural values which define their ethnic distinctiveness. Setting standards and responding to truth vary from culture to culture, tribe to tribe, class to class and between genders.

    The apostles recognised the value of pluralism in their day when the predominantly Jewish Jerusalem council met with Paul and eventually hammered out a different set of cultural standards for Gentile believers in respect to what was acceptable and good. Hence, what was standard for one community of Christians was quite different to the standards for another despite their sharing a common set of principles. Needless to say, this diversity troubled some early Jewish church members. They felt there should only be one set of standards, one doctrinal response to Jesus—theirs. Religious totalitarianism cloaked as a concern for others.

  4. Standards-anxiety may also arise from wanting to impose the cultural standards of one era onto another without concession to wider societal changes, and changes in the composition of our church, over time. A generation which practised the standards in particular ways, may, as they get older, acquire a form of convenient amnesia in regard to its defects. Longing for 'the good old days', we may see nothing but trouble in the present. Research has shown that as we age, we tend to remember the past as better than it was, and that we are especially prone to exaggerate our importance to it .

    Further, while the principles of sanctification are timelessly rooted in Scripture, practising our standards can never be. Our behaviour must change with the times. For example, if we think victory over sin, the Devil and our enemies should be taken literally as a call to arms (as it was in the Old Testament and for David Koresh and his Davidians), we are confused. Similarly, if modesty is the Biblical standard, the practise of it cannot be lifted straight out of Paul's letters (unless one wants to practise a form of first-century fashion), or from Ellen White's advice (unless one wants to live in a 19th century time-bubble). To stretch the point, if sobriety is valued and added to the principle of modesty, one would be foolish to follow the standard of behaviours set by a naked Noah or a dancing David—despite neither being reproved by God for what today would be regarded as letting down the standards.

  5. Finding fault with others' standards often leads to some combination of negative emotions being left unresolved in them, and us. While there is a place for guilt, anger and fear in Biblical religion, these are not ends in themselves. They are meant to lead us to Christ (Romans; Galatians). And the good news is that in coming to Jesus, He gladly and willingly removes them. Getting rid of these negative emotions is as much a part of character-perfection as giving up fatty foods and fast cars. And unless they are removed, we can have little certainty and joy in our salvation. If we undertake the role of being standards-bearers we are also duty-bound to carry our message to its joyous gospel or 'good news' conclusion. Simply leaving others quaking in their boots is a job only half-done.

  6. I have also learned that focusing on others' standards, is invariably disproportionately directed to youth and can assume the character of an 'undeclared war' on them. A kind of vicious 'adultism' may work itself out in a remorse for what we once were and for what we apparently see in our children which upsets us. Young people are, like us, trying to work things out. It hardly needs reiterating that their religion—like that of my own youth—is made unbearable by constantly feeling damned and that they will give up too if they believe and are told they are not good enough.

    Too often young Adventists are scapegoated for our collective malaise and made to feel the brunt of our standards campaigns. A recent survey among North American Adventists has found that the greatest source of conflict Adventist young adults have with the church is the issue of church standards and that they feel unwanted and alienated by the excessive focus on them. If we, as adults, give the impression that the young alone are not living up to church standards without also implicating ourselves as failed parents and guardians, we are engaging in a dangerous form of myopia and one which will lead to perhaps another 'missing' generation. As the North American study concluded: 'Those ministering to young adults' need to address the issue of our standards with 'reasonableness and relevancy' (Dudley & Muthersbaugh).

  7. Focusing on standards also runs the risk of inducing a personal legalism leading to a false belief in corporate inevitability. That is to say, because standards are seen as public and obvious measuring-sticks of one's inner life, the temptation is to substitute them for building blocks in the process of sanctification. Standards can easily be confused for the harder-to-perfect, inner fruits of the Spirit. Cultural conventions of Adventism can unwittingly become the sign of a godly Christian life. These habits may slide in our thinking into 'must haves' in order to be identified as part of 'the remnant'. And 'the remnant', in turn, can come to sound like our equivalent of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, corporately applied. We may falsely conclude that because we're in, we're alright.

  8. If we focus on standards, we must be careful not to trivialise our mission. We were sent to preach Christ and to give particular emphasis to His present Sanctuary work on our behalf. If this is not good news what good is it? If it is not the most important news that the world needs now, are we not wasting our time? Too much emphasis on standards may therefore lead to public misperceptions of what it is we're on about. While our standards are designed to separate us from the rest of the world and to give us a distinct identity, they are not ends-in-themselves. Our standards give us an identity; they label us. But the label is not the product.

  9. Focusing on standards may also lead to 'revivalism'—that short-term and often superficial religious phenomenon that accompanies back-sliding. Swayed by a genuine and heartfelt haranguing, as a youth in an Adventist school, I responded to our standards lectures with confessions, renewed resolutions and tears—some of which I learned to self-induce. Like a slave wanting to please his master, I felt sure my teachers (and God) would think more highly of me, the more emotional I was. My commitments often lasted about as long as it took to get over the emotional high. Then it was back to square one until the next 'revival' of standards-oriented preaching. (As I noted at the outset, this cycle of achievement and defeat became the focus for my experience, my understanding of what it meant to be an Adventist Christian).

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, but—and this is the good news—if 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 have—thus, 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

At Issue   EGW Index