Why I Don’t Hate Calvinism

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I spent a good part of my formative theological years in Reformed, Calvinist circles. Yes, the stereotypes of Calvinists being argumentative, stubborn, and more than a bit tone-deaf are mostly true (I being the chief at fault there), but Calvinism itself was a safe haven for me.

I’ve always been keenly aware that what I most needed saving from was myself. First it was from the vile sins of a totally depraved heart, like getting frustrated when people were rude, or being a jerk of a big sister, or failing to read through the Bible in a year, or neglecting a robust prayer life. Then, as my faith started shifting, it was from my ignorance of my own ignorance — my people-pleasing, my fear, my brokenness, my humanness, the subconscious things that controlled what I believed and how I acted — things too subtle for me to even notice, much less combat.

I noticed how at the core of almost every (if not all) sin was hurt or human weakness. People lashed out in anger when they were bullied. Abusers were often once the abused. Kids shot their fellow students because they were misunderstood and ostracized.

If it were not for that hurt, compounded by human weakness, that turns into despair and then hate, what might this world look like?

And because these things are so subtle, many people are not even aware of when we grossly wrong another person or ourselves because of whatever lies we were taught or picked up or concluded due to our individual experiences.

My kindergartners constantly bullied and hit each other. I thought, at first, they just needed to learn to keep their hands to themselves. But that was not the issue. The issue was that their parents told them to fight when they were wronged. This was the inner city. Life or death might depend on being able to fight back. In a world of fear, hurt, and danger, violence, rather than peacemaking, made perfectly logical sense. It was my namby pamby rule of using words rather than violence that was stupid and immoral.

Due to our experiences, all of us get broken, wrong ideas implanted in our souls as perfectly logical and moral. Everyone is a good guy in their own ideology. Everyone is on the right side according to their view of the world.

Lord, have mercy.

I say that with all seriousness: Lord, have mercy, because we need some hands-on intervention into our brokenness.

This is why I never resonated with Christians’ exuberance over free will. “God is a gentleman. He never forces himself on anybody,” I heard frequently, as if that was the highest praise. “You are not insistent, You do not force me, You are not controlling,” Audrey Assad sings in her latest song “Deliverer.”

Of course, I understood the heart of these sentiments — we aren’t robots; true love comes from the opportunity to choose love freely. And all of those things I would come to believe and value in time.

But if I was honest with myself, both the past and present versions of me, I dislike the image of God the gentleman standing to the side as he watches the world burn; God the gentleman saying, “Depart from me; I never knew you,” when he could have stepped in and made himself known; God the gentleman creating free will in the first place when he knew it would cause us to suffer so much.

Embarrassingly, I resonate with John Donne’s shocking, violent depiction of God’s sovereignty:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Yes, batter me. Break, blow, and burn away all the ignorance and brokenness that drives us to hate and harm and choose all manner of evil in the name of good. We don’t know better, and you do, so do something.

Calvinism allows for a God who micromanages his elect, orchestrating their salvation, keeping them within the fold. I remember feeling such confidence, such an awash of grace, when I first learned the doctrines of irresistible grace and the perseverance of the saints. Nothing, nothing, nothing — especially not my own ignorance or sin or weakness — could keep me from the love of God.

I was finally safe from my worst enemy — myself.

I love Calvinism for introducing me to a God like that — a Father so acutely aware of my limitations that he doesn’t just sit by as I obliviously wander into oncoming traffic; he runs and snatches me up; he doesn’t let me go even as I kick and scream and don’t understand. He loves me more than he loves my free will, which isn’t, in a world as broken as this, as free as we’d like to think.

***

This image of a fatherly, ever-loving, all-knowing, sovereign God is why I am ultimately no longer Calvinist.

The flipside of a God who chooses and keeps his elect is a God who chooses to damn the non-elect for no reason other than his pleasure — a vile departure from any notion of love. And because God chooses his elect willy nilly (i.e., according to his wise counsel), he’s not really saving us from ourselves as much as he is saving us from his capricious self.

Hence, most people, I discovered, hated Calvinism. It surprised me how much people hated Calvinism and the God revealed in Calvinism.

But this past year, I went through long periods of terror in the hands of an angry God. I felt like I couldn’t keep the faith; it was slipping away from me into agnosticism. I wanted so badly to stay Christian, but I wasn’t able to.

I felt damned.

And I knew from Calvinism that God was capable of saving the elect, that he would never leave me or forsake me, that the elect would persevere until the end. Since I wasn’t able to persevere until the end, since I was rapidly losing the faith, I was clearly the vessel he created for destruction.

No matter how much I railed at this ugly idea, that God damned his creation for his own glory, all I kept hearing was Paul heartlessly repeating, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?”

Once again, my humanness got in the way of my salvation. This time, there was no rescuer.

***

Ironically, it was this spiritual experience that leads me more than ever to rejoice in God’s sovereignty.

As I’ve stepped outside of the raging Arminian and Calvinist debate, I no longer see salvation in terms of God’s sovereignty pitted against human will. Ardent supporters of either theologies will insist that, as total sovereignty and total free will are opposites, I have to choose one or the other as the primary instigator of predestination.

But I don’t see them as opposites. I see them as paradoxes. What we’re dealing with here is not a logical thing, but a spiritual, experiential thing with too many facets for a systematic theology. And as such, I’ve gained more clarity about the issue from abandoning the labels and the debates and the attempts to stitch together my favorite clobber verses. I’ve paid more attention to the metaphor and the mystery of God’s love as experienced through human love — particularly through parental love.

The more I interact with children through gentle parenting/teaching methods, the more I understand how it’s possible for God to be sovereign — for God to have his way — and for God to respect, honor, and allow our free choices in a way that doesn’t ultimately harm us.

In gentle parenting, when a child throws a tantrum, the parent doesn’t leave the room, close the door, and let the child deal with the negative behavior he chose (the equivalent of the worst of Arminianism, in my mind). Nor does the parent bark orders, punish, or demand that “you better do what I say — or else!” (the equivalent of the worst of Calvinism, in my mind).

The gentle parent knows that her child is acting out of legitimate discomfort and ignorance about how to handle that discomfort — hunger, sleepiness, disappointment, embarrassment, pain.

Knowing this, she sits with her child until the tantrum ends. If the child lunges at her, she gently blocks the child’s hand and says, “I understand you’re angry, but I won’t let you hit me.” If the child starts running around the room and throwing things, she stays within reach to make sure the child doesn’t harm himself. If he can’t keep himself or others safe, sometimes she enfolds him in her arms gently and firmly, empathizing and repeating that she will not let him hurt himself or others.

She will not be moved by the worst of his moments. She will not punish, threaten, or coerce her child into doing what she wants. She is always near, always ready to jump up and protect, jump up and rescue, until her love is so evident and so unavoidable and so relentless that her child collapses into her arms.

Unavoidable, relentless love wins out every time — not because it batters its way through, but because we were made for love, we were made in the image of love. No matter how broken, hurt, twisted, and sinful we are, there’s always a part of a us that can and will respond to love, given enough time, given enough relentless patience.

While I would no longer describe God’s sovereignty as a rape, I wouldn’t describe him as a gentleman either, waiting around to see what our free will will choose. I would describe him as that patient mother. His sovereignty isn’t invasive; it’s intimate. His patience isn’t passive; it’s involved.

Will he get his way in the end, with all men being saved? Will love reach us where we are most broken and hardened? Oh, I hope so. If anybody could do it, this sovereign, patient God could.

Readers, to focus the discussion, let’s not argue within the binary of Calvinism and Arminianism about which side is “right.” I myself am still capable of giving a point by point proof of Calvinism in rebuttal to this article. I’m more interested in hearing how God’s sovereignty and our free will makes a difference in your spirituality, how you have grown in your understanding of how they work together, etc. 

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14 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Hate Calvinism

  1. Abigail

    This is such a beautiful article, both in content and execution. Your prose and ideas flow wonderfully, and the words you chose convey meaning so well. As my art teacher would say, “The only thing I don’t like about this is that I didn’t do it.”

    As we’ve discussed before, I had a similar experience finding relief in Calvinism and salvation from myself. Although my subsequent struggles have been different than yours, I have landed in approximately the same place on this issue. I love how you described God’s sovereignty with the image of a caring mother. Thank you for putting this into words for me.

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  2. For the Love of Books

    I think you are entirely right, we need to view God through the parenting lens to have the most accurate picture of who He is. He is unfailing love and will do whatever it takes. As parents sometimes we have to hang on and sometimes we have to let go, and He does too. I think we have missed a vital point, the love we have for our kids is a faint reflection of the love God has for His kids (every human on the face of this earth; our kids don’t stop being our kids because they are criminals, or ignore us) and we have this love for our kids because we are made in His image. He is the ultimate parent. Both camps, as you’ve mentioned, have some things right and some things wrong, because they are men’s thoughts. God’s ways are not our ways, and His love for us is beyond what we can think or imagine.

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  3. maygrrl

    I took a seminary class last year called the Theology of Suffering, and really a lot of it was about this topic. The Calvinism/free will conversation has as much to do with where God is in our pain (did He ordain it?) as it does to do with his role in our salvation. Anyway, we read Suffering and the Search for Meaning by Richard Rice, and it was wonderful for me. It covered the entire range of beliefs around this from Open Theism, to perfect plan, to free will, to “for your own good.” What I got out of it is A) there are reasonable logical and biblical arguments for every single POV, B) when talking about the nature of God, we are idiots if we think we can nail it down, C) it’s okay to disagree with my faith tradition and to shift as God reveals new parts of himself because (A & B).

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    • Bailey Steger

      Your comment is gold. Thanks for sharing. I’ve spent more time lately thinking about God’s sovereignty in the context of our suffering (particularly because I see our suffering and sin as intrinsically linked), and I like your ABCs of navigating all the different opinions. :)

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  4. Allison Caylor

    This really is a wonderful, lovely post. Thank you. The two sort of “sides” to a calvinistic view of God — his incredible faithfulness to those who trust in him and his horrific dealing with those who don’t — are rarely looked at *together* from an anti-calvinist perspective. It’s refreshing and sets the stage, I think, for real dialogue.

    For me, just like you said, I know I need saving from MYSELF. I’m warped. I’m ridiculously weak. I can as little hold on to Jesus by my own might as I could lay up enough goodness to somehow deserve him. I cannot be intellectually brilliant and equipped enough to meticulously refute every argument against the existence of God; I cannot kill my love for the darkness. But he holds me. I may fall, but he will draw me up again, because it’s not me — it’s him.

    I would love to say/ask more, but I’ll be out of town this week. Again, I enjoyed this post so much.

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    • Bailey Steger

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! I’ve never seen a non-Calvinist position that acknowledges what an incredible amount of security Calvinism brings to those who consider themselves the elect (except perhaps in a snarky way, equating security with arrogance). So I thought it important to offer a gracious look into why someone would actually derive comfort from Calvinism (and no, it has nothing to do with arrogance and wanting to damn others).

      If you have more thoughts when you come back to town, I’d love to hear them!

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  5. erin13mc

    What a timely blog post. I’ve been battling this lately in my head/heart while delving into the calvinism/arminianism question. I’m trying to figure out where I fit in Christianity now and the one thing I couldn’t resolve with Calvinism was “what about everyone else”. While I wouldn’t turn down being the elect, I was angry that a God who would choose me wouldn’t choose someone else. I’m still angry about the possibility of people going to hell who never had a chance to hear “the good news”. It seems like it’s not their fault for being born where and when they did. There are so many Calvinism-positive articles and not so many non-Calvinism-positive ones. (I dislike the term Arminianism. Most people don’t even know who he was.)

    I like your description of God towards the end. Lots to think about.

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    • Bailey Steger

      I feel like that’s something all compassionate Christians must struggle with, with they’re Calvinist or not — salvation is wonderful for us, but what about everybody else? Best wishes to you as you wade through all the rhetoric on all sides.

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  6. Jasmine Ruigrok

    Though not one, I’ve actually always loved that Calvinists believe that it’s impossible to lose one’s salvation as that’s something I believe quite strongly; that once we have surrendered our hearts to His love and His grace, it doesn’t matter where we go or what we do, His love and grace will forever chase us down and be right there with us. That was the Good News: Emmanuel, God with us. The “withness” of God is such an incredible, wonderful thing.

    I loved hearing your thoughts here. You put it so beautifully. God is about relationship, and relationship goes beyond the concept of doctrines. I echo the mention of how our understanding of God can be enlightened by our understanding of earthly relationships. I said to my Mum the other day, “My Dad loves me. Doesn’t matter where I am, if my car brakes down, my Dad is there. It doesn’t matter what stupid stuff I’ve done to get me in trouble, Dad would do anything to get me out of it. If I ask him for $50, he gives me $100. If I’m wounded or sick, Dad is right there doing whatever it takes to heal me. How could my Father in Heaven be anything less than my earthly Dad?”

    Whilst I don’t believe love is without truth, and that the truth can often sting us (not in a punishing way, but in opening our eyes to our selfishness, i.e., being lovingly corrected if I were throwing a tantrum), I think sin is often its own punishment. Moving away from the love of God leads nowhere good, and the consequences of sin often leave our hearts more hollow than a hard rebuke would. It’s knowing that when we come to the end of our own resources that God has followed us there and will pick us up and carry us home that gives me such a peace and a freedom. I feel like lyrics sum up this lengthy ramble well:

    Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
    Oh, it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine
    I couldn’t earn it
    I don’t deserve it
    Still You give yourself away
    Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God.

    There’s no shadow You won’t light up
    Mountain You won’t climb up
    Coming after me
    There’s no wall You won’t kick down
    No lie You won’t tear down
    Coming after me.

    And who could forget Rich Mullins:

    There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
    I cannot find in my own
    And He keeps His fire burning
    To melt this heart of stone
    Keeps me aching with a yearning
    Keeps me glad to have been caught
    In the reckless raging fury
    That they call the love of God.

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