When Holiness Becomes Evil

Mideast Israel Palestinians

Well, over the weekend I found myself in another one of my weird misadventures. This time, I was viciously attacked by a bus driver.

To make it even weirder, this person is a friend of mine. I first met Lucius* two years ago when I hadn’t spoken to another human in almost seven months. He found me sitting by myself in a corner booth at a restaurant pouring over a commentary on the book of Job, and, taking pity on me, introduced me to the Millers—the wonderful family with whom I have dinner and Bible study once a week—and to Chay Erickson, who would become my new roommate when I moved out of the scary community a year ago.

Lucius was gregarious, friendly, and extremely talkative. He seemed to have committed whole portions of the Bible to memory. Because he was a shuttle driver, he had memorized the names of seemingly every single person at IHOP. If you wanted to find new lodgings, or a used car, or just a place to hang out on Sundays, you asked Lucius. He was a great guy.

There were some things that troubled me, though, even from the beginning. Once he asked if he could pray over me, and near the end of his prayer he said, “God, and I pray that You would deliver Boze from the spirit of fantasy literature. Help him not to waste his life reading these novels. Because Lord, the hour is late.”

I mean, yeah, that kind of bothered me. My hero growing up was C. S. Lewis. God has called me to write fantasy novels. That’s a goal I’ve been working towards my whole life.


But he was a sweet fellow, and at the time I didn’t have a lot of other friends (or any, really), and I wasn’t yet sufficiently removed from my scary community and fundamentalist upbringing to recognize abusive personality traits and theologies.

But then towards the end of that year, things started changing. Through a series of surreal and painful circumstances, I realized that the kind of Christianity I had been practicing since I was a small boy was actually closer in spirit to fundamentalist Islam than to the Christian faith. I was radically delivered from a self-righteous, intolerant, world-hating legalism to which I had been in bondage for almost twenty years. It was a genuine conversion experience, but not of the kind that we so often read about. In falling in love with the shame and horrors of the cross, I fell in love with the world, because I realized that Jesus is in love with the world.

And that was when the sparks began flying.

My first hint of trouble came just fifteen days after I left Tyler’s group, when Lucius and I were driving back from Sunday night Bible study. He said, “Bobby, I want to thank you for provoking me. Because when you speak, what I hear coming out of your mouth is the language of America, of empty pop theology. I feel a fire in my spirit, and I ask myself, ‘Where is that fire coming from?’ And I realize, ‘Oh yeah… it’s because what I’m hearing is not in the Bible!’”

He seemed to think he had said something deeply encouraging; so, even though I had tears in my eyes, I got out of the car, accepted his apology, and tried to forget about it. Everyone says hurtful things to someone sometime. I had said plenty of hurtful things to Tyler (before the Shun) without even realizing it. Tyler said I had hurt him every single day.

That was the last we saw of each other for months, and as the Group lost its hold on me I began developing my own ideas about God and the Scriptures. Some of these ideas differed radically from what most folks believe here at IHOP. And as I began to express my opinions more vocally, I started getting into trouble. A lot of trouble. “Big Ben” Jonson* accused me of trying to stir up strife and confusion “just like the devil does!” I was told I belonged to the “false religion” of non-Protestantism. My salvation was questioned. Someone (jokingly, I think?) said, “The Israelites should have finished slaughtering the Canaanites, because then there wouldn’t be any Muslims and we wouldn’t have Bobby!” And so on.

And you know, that’s fine, whatever. I’ve had to put up with a lot worse. But then there’s Lucius.

He returned to Bible study about a month ago after a year-long hiatus. The group had been growing and become a healthy forum for people to air their interesting ideas about people and the world we live in—some of which were really sweet and powerful (a girl visited last week and broke down while telling the story of how she had been dumped by her fiancée), and some of which (“The Jews started World War II with the wealth Satan had given them”) were just silly.

Well, Lucius was trying to pin down what I believe now—it’s been a year since we’ve talked and some of my new ideas had set off his alarm bells—so I sent him a link to my blog. He read one of my latest entries, “Satan Wants to Deceive Christians,” and when I got on the bus to go home on Saturday night, he wanted to talk to me about it.

“Hey Bobby,” he said, without preamble. “I’ve been reading your blog. I just had a couple of quick questions…” I had an ominous feeling, but there wasn’t anyone else on the bus and we weren’t going to be leaving in the near future, so I told him to go for it. “First, who has authority over God, being His instructor or counselor?” He didn’t wait for me to respond, but proceeded with his delivery. “Second, isn’t it God, not our own self-righteous, lofty opinions that God invites us to reason with? Third, who TOLD the Israelites to kill their neighbors? Who TOLD them to do that? Was it God? Fourth, what does Paul say about those of fleshly mind who are corrupted by the deceitful thinking of this world, who spout vain philosophies of human wisdom?”


“I’m not sure I see what you’re getting at…” I said.

“Fifth, what does Paul say is the punishment for those who INTENTIONALLY lead others astray? Oh yeah, he says”—and here he turned and looked directly at me—“‘O full of all deceit and all fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord?’”

“Are you calling me a liar?” I asked him, incredulous.

“Yes!” he said, now raising his voice. “I am calling you a LIAR! You are a liar! You are setting yourself up to be a false prophet and bringing on your head eternal recompense. You go around and around in circles trying to confuse people, you avoid their questions, and you think you can FRUSTRATE me! You think you can frustrate me!”


It seemed like this statement demanded some kind of hilarious retort, but none was forthcoming. As he went on with his tirade, I just slipped back into my seat and sat there in silence, trying hard to love him.

“Boze, where do you find these crazy people?” Betania* had once asked me. That was five years ago, when the prayer group was first starting.

*           *           *

So over the weekend as I struggled to write my essay about The Man who was Thursday and wondering why I’m hurt so much, I was once again having to face the fact that I’m kind of a magnet for weird people and situations.

And I don’t know why, but it’s been like this for as long as I can remember, and if there’s any huge mystery over my life that I would like to have explained when I come to the end of all this, it would have to be, “God, why was everything so strange? How did I find myself in all these ridiculous situations? And why am I always getting attacked?”

Chay was more philosophical about it. “Bobby, if I were you, I would just get used to it,” he said. “It’s almost like your lot in life to meet these people.”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell people for ages,” I said. “Wherever I go, these people just find me… and attack me. I mean, maybe I should just write my blog post about that.”

“Yeah, you can talk about how you were living with that one guy,” he said, “and he thought you were spying on him…”

“He thought IHOP was PAYING me to spy on him!” I said. “I mean, what on earth? And that wasn’t even the worst living situation I’ve been in. Who can forget: ‘Bobby is sending DEMONS to attack us, and we need to war against him in prayer!’”

“I think your problem is,” said Chay, “you try to be very tolerant. And some people here—”

“… hate any mention of tolerance.”

“Yeah. There’s a spirit of elitism that can creep in. ‘Oh, we’re the best! We’re God’s special people,’ you know? And you speak against that, and it makes people really uncomfortable.”

*           *           *

And it worries me, it really does. Because I worry that friends like Lucius aren’t going to get the help they need, and will continue to mistreat others, because we live in a spiritual environment where this kind of abusive rhetoric is accepted, even encouraged, in the name of love. I see a whole subculture of Christians in our country who have identified “holiness” with the self-righteous pursuit of an abstract moral purity that turns people against one another, in often violent ways, when true holiness is found in the outstretched arms of the suffering messiah.

“Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate,” wrote Henri Nouwen. “Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to places where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.”

At its best, this is what my faith represents. I’m still a Christian because that’s the kind of God I believe in.

The one who was a friend of sinners.

Who was accused of being a glutton and drunkard (and not without reason).

Who surrounded himself with the destitute, the despised, the outcast.

Who suffered more than anyone has ever suffered; who ended His life in the utter extremity of physical and spiritual agony.

That’s what holiness looks like.

And I worry that we’ve gotten it all wrong. And I worry that if Jesus were here today, doing what He did in the Gospels—rebuking the religious leaders for their sanctimonious, abusive legalism; refusing to take up arms against the state and warning the people that a violent revolution would destroy their nation; conferring respect and dignity on those whom the faithful believers of His time considered vile in God’s sight—folks would hate Him now no less than they did back then.

This morning I was having to explain to a dear friend why I wrote a post on Facebook yesterday about how much I respect some of my atheist friends. She’s worried that I may be encouraging them in their wickedness. “In applauding the atheist or the Islamic for his ‘good’ ways and intellectual skills,’” she wondered, “isn’t that calling evil good?”

It’s a fair question. The reason I was inspired to write that post was because of this essay where a devoted Christian muses on the fact that some of his atheist friends are better people than some of his most zealous Christian friends. He writes, “Sometimes I relate to militant atheists more than fundamentalist Christians because many of my secular friends have an incredibly humanistic worldview, one that’s bent on taking care of the captive, the widow, the addict, the orphan—the people Jesus seemed to care about the most—while, on the other hand, some (not all, but some) of my fundamentalist friends actually . . . deeply despise humanity.”

What he’s getting at is something I’ve been struggling to put into words ever since my conversion to what I consider true Christianity in the fall of 2011: the near-total inversion of the moral order in some Christian circles. You see, because of the influence Jesus has had on the world, because we’re living in a golden age of faith and the earth is now filled with the knowledge of God, there are people—probably a lot of people—who don’t identify with Christianity because they have been so influenced by the character of Jesus, by the work of the Holy Spirit, that much of what they see in the American Church is repulsive and deeply immoral to them.

Not everyone who professes the name of Jesus is a good person; nor are they necessarily wicked who have rejected the false gospels of this culture.

            Because—as the Bible itself demonstrates over and over again—when the basis for your community’s holiness is the idea, “We have to separate ourselves from the bad people,” you start to become unholy.

I can’t think of any better way to put it than this. I went to a private, secular, liberal arts college. There were a lot of atheists and agnostics. There were a lot of humanistic, liberal Christians.

And there was a small subset—no more than twenty or thirty people at any given time—that was deeply conservative, Charismatic, Bible-believing, zealous, on-fire believers.

These twenty or thirty people, who were following the Lord with all their heart, who took every word of the Bible at face value, who listened for the word of the Lord in the most trivial aspects of their everyday lives, who were going to become missionaries together and save all the Jews and Muslims, ended up getting pulled into a very dangerous cult.

Why? Because they couldn’t recognize evil when they saw it. Because Tyler Deaton seemed like just a normal person. Because in this culture, let’s face it, he WAS.

And everyone else—everyone!—knew he was dangerous. They warned us not to go near him. Some of them even prophesied, half-jokingly, that he was going to become a notorious cult leader. They KNEW. They knew the whole time.

I’m talking about atheists and liberals. They had better discernment than the prophets. They recognized evil when they saw it.

And you know what? When I came out of that group, when my friend lost her life, there was no more supportive group of people on the planet than those Southwestern alumni whom I had spent four years scorning, avoiding, and standing in judgment against. They surrounded me. They were my support and comfort in probably the darkest hour of my life.

And yes, I had extremely supportive and encouraging Christian friends here in Kansas City. But the more “zealous” they were, the less inclined they were to be sympathetic. They couldn’t recognize the same dynamics that were operant in Tyler’s group, operating in them.


In the damning words of T. S. Eliot, they “had the experience, but missed the meaning.”

So I’m done being “zealous” and “holy” as those words are traditionally understood. I don’t want the holiness of the Pharisee. I want the holiness of Jesus.

I’m tired of talking about the so-called “sins of the world” in a voice of disgust, when the deepest and worst sin is the pride in my own heart.

I’m tired of having to constantly introduce words like “judgment,” “wrath,” and “damnation” into my conversation so that other believers don’t hear me talking about compassion and non-violence and wonder if I have an Antichrist spirit.

I’m tired of living a totally blameless, morally pure, technically perfect life while utterly hating everyone around me.

I’m tired of following sociopaths because I can’t tell the difference between abusive, corrupt leadership and holiness.

I’m done with it. I’m giving my life to mercy. I’m going to work on forgiving even people like Lucius who are so mean to me, because I was once lost in the exact same way. I’m going to keep my heart open to people with all kinds of backgrounds and perspectives, because I don’t want to harden my heart even to the most hateful, judgmental person. It’s the people we have the hardest times loving who need to be loved the most. I’m going to embrace the brokenness and the beauty of my humanity and not run from it, because God became a human and there’s no shame in me or my body. And to the end of days I’ll sing to the rafters the incredible majesty of His incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, because that is what majesty really looks like:

God, taking on flesh.

God, sharing with us in the depths of our torment and suffering; coming to the end of His days without hope.

God, swallowing up death in life, and beginning to restore—everything. The body; the soul. Men, women. Kingdoms, cultures. The universe itself.

That’s the kind of God I believe in: a God who doesn’t appall us with some horror-show version of goodness, because His goodness is actually good, and He recognizes the difference between good and evil, and He sees the reach in the hearts of those who are reaching towards Him, even if they don’t yet know it, and He sees the evil ambitions of frauds and pretenders who seek to destroy His people.

Zeal for that God is the zeal I’m striving after. I’ll never again be satisfied with any pious substitute.


6 thoughts on “When Holiness Becomes Evil

  1. “But it’s good that you’re making it snow, Anthony, – it’s real good. And tomorrow – tomorrow’s going to be a real good day!”

    I loved these Lines:
    Chay was more philosophical about it. “Bobby, if I were you, I would just get used to it,” he said. “It’s almost like your lot in life to meet these people.”

    “I’m done with it. I’m giving my life to mercy.”

  2. I went through something very similar at the start of my time at SU: I had to make peace with the fact that my ideals were changing as I experienced new types of people, the most intense of these changes came around due to the fact that I had never met an openly gay or lesbian individual in my life until college. When I finally did, the flimsy ideas I’d always heard about choice and demon-possession evaporated so quickly that I began to question almost everything else I’d been taught about my own moral superiority and the abjectly untrustworthy nature of any non-Christian. Add to this the fact that I started to study Ancient Greek and began to read the Bible in its original form, and what I’d always more or less accepted to be true suddenly became incapable of holding water. When I began to question long-held certainties, I was in turn rejected out of hand by people I had known and loved my whole life. Through this, I realized that even the most apparently black and white scripture can be twisted to validate whatever action the reader desires: for a basic example, “love thy neighbor” becomes warped with the application of punishment as a form of love, and love as a concept can very quickly devolve into (with appropriately skewed scripture to back it up) just another way for people to control others, which leads to the kind of abuse you’ve already experienced.

    If someone wants to believe in and worship the Biblical God, I have no problem with that–but when they begin to believe that they specifically were put on the earth to maneuver other human beings into God’s service by whatever means necessary, it becomes a power play that only further proves that no person is above corruption, no matter their religious leanings.

    All in all, I hope you are doing well and hope that you know that nothing these people say to or about you is worth worrying over–you use your God-given mind, and if they think they have the right to take that away from you, they’re not the kind of people Jesus (or Mr. Rogers) would have appreciated, anyway. ❤

    • Thanks, Phoebe. What a beautiful and thoughtful response. I wish more of us understood how easily good can become twisted, and how the only safe protections in this crooked world are love and humility.

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