The Hammer of God: A Novel about the Cure of Souls was written by Bo Giertz, a Lutheran theologian, novelist and bishop of the Gothenburg Lutheran Diocese from 1949 to 1970. “In this bestselling novel, three pastors learn the necessity of relying on God’s grace. They fall short of their pastoral duties through public humiliation, self-doubt, inability to accept God’s promises in their own lives, and divisions and quarreling among their parishioners. Ultimately each man rejects temptations and permits the Holy Spirit to work through him.” (Amazon review)
There is a moment of a powerful conversation between Pastor Fridfeldt and his superior.
“I just want you to know from the beginning, sir, I am a believer,” [the young Pastor Fridfeldt] said [to the older pastor]……”So you are a believer, I’m glad to hear that. What do you believe in?” Fridfeldt stared dumbfounded at his superior……”But, sir, I am simply saying that I am a believer.” “Yes, I hear that, my boy. But what is it that you believe in?” Fridfeldt was almost speechless. “But don’t you know, sir, what it means to be a believer?” “That is a word which can stand for things that differ greatly, my boy. I ask only what it is that you believe in.” “In Jesus, of course, ” answered Fridfeldt, raising his voice. “I mean — I mean that I have given him my heart.”…….”Do you consider that something to give him?” By this time Fridfeldt was almost in tears. “But sir, if you do not give your heart to Jesus, you cannot be saved.” “You are right, my boy. And it is just as true that, if you think you are saved because you give Jesus your heart, you will not be saved. You see, my boy,” he continued to look at the young pastor’s face, in which uncertainty and resentment were shown in a struggle for the upper hand, “it is one thing to choose Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior, to give him one’s heart and commit oneself to him, and that he now accepts one into his little flock; it is a very DIFFERENT thing to believe on him as a Redeemer of sinners, of whom one is chief. One does not chose a Redeemer for oneself, you understand, nor give one’s heart to him. The heart is a rusty old can on a junk heap. A fine birthday gift, indeed! But a wonderful Lord passes by, and has mercy on the wretched tin can, sticks his walking cane through it, and rescues it from the junk pile and takes it home with him. That is how it is.”
One of the books that I have been given to read, to expand my academic and professional vocabulary and knowledge base, is an old Concordia Publishing House book, Building Faith One Child at a Time by Becky Schuricht Peters printed in 1997. I know how long ago that seems, my second eldest son was born that year. Nineteen years ago….and yet it still rings truth today.
As I’ve studied for my bachelor degree and now as I continue into the Master of Science studies, a lot of the understanding of the developmental stages of humans is given attention to; predictable, sequential stages of growth (and change) that can be used to help us understand where we or someone else is on the ‘map’ of their competency, understanding, wisdom, and ability to affect their environment and world with an increased reference of a world view.
What Peters does, in her chapter entitled “Faith Development Theories” is to give us a sense of how development phases of our spiritual life happen. With researchers like James W. Fowler, John H. Westerhoff III, and V. Bailey Gillespie, we can understand the development of faith, the faith that was given and is grown by God through the work of the Holy Spirit.
The situation Pastor Fridfeldt is experiencing at this particular stage of development….what Fowler claims is the Synthetic-Conventional Faith stage, where we as believers give emphasis on God’s love and forgiveness. This stage, according to Fowler, is where most of us live for the rest of our lives in faith. We do not question, nor do we encourage anyone else to question, the beliefs that we have. This is the “We do this because this is what we have always done” mentality of the Church today. So fearful of false and misleading doctrines, those who have protected the essence and depth of the Truth are afraid of letting it be challenged. They have no question about whom they are…..at least on the surface.
They experience the qualms Fridfeldt does after a incident with some villagers who are less than stellar in their “christian” attitude and conduct, and the rector treats them like children of God ………
“Fridfeldt felt at once and the same time impressed and perplexed. He could not quite approve treating everyone without distinction as a Christian. But he was happy about the results.”
The problem is, there are a lot less of the shiny, properly labeled food sitting on the grocery store shelves of life anymore. As the verse reminds us, “like a roaring lion, your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Many in the world today have been the feast of this adversary. All that is left is the rusty tin can of what once was a child of God, discarded upon the rust heap of this world.
But, it is these rusty, empty and castoff tin cans that are usually at the next stage of spiritual development, if they are given a chance like the “wonderful Lord” gives to them. But it is fearful to those who live in the “unexamined way of believing.” This next development phase of faith is called the “searching faith” by Westerhoff, and is indicative of Gillespie’s “resolute faith”
Rituals and symbols don’t have meaning to empty tin cans, nor does the ‘unquestioning’ method of understanding biblical narratives and the great I AM. They are empty, waiting to be filled with the promise of the Holy Spirit, seeking to clean out the majority of the junk that has accumulated in the confines of their opened tops.
Some make it, while others fall into the trap of being recycled and put back on the shelf with a new food staple…..and are afraid to question why and who they are. They want to be shiny and ‘new’.
It is well and good to stand on protecting the Truth from distortion and twisted logic that seems to find itself into our sermons, Sunday School classes, bible studies and community life. But only in the kindness of speaking it loud and proud, on the behest of Christ and not our own. Our stage of development is dependent on our understanding of who God is and who we are in Christ. Not in understanding whom God is fully, something we will never be able to do.
The only way that will happen is if the faith community, the Ohana of God, understands the journey that a tin can brought in the home of the ‘wonderful Lord’ is on. While they welcome the questioning, understand the motivation, and recognize the need for such searching; the Ohana stands upon what it knows and can confidently embrace because it has undergone the journey itself…..”what do I believe?” Then the rituals and traditions find deeper meaning, greater spiritual instruction and more powerful impact in the lives of all.
Martin Luther experienced this kind of faith, questioning and seeking God on His terms — yet knowing he’d never fully understand it. It is interesting how the founder of this denomination never intended being excommunicated.
Each of us have been a rusty tin can….sinners through and through regardless of whether we have been baptized as an infant or later adulthood. We all continue to struggle, at least we should if we are honest, against the resurrection of the old man over the new. As Luther reminds us to say, “We, poor and miserable sinners”
We are all tin cans, rusted upon the refuse heaps of a “lion” that has devoured our heart of identity, but some have donned a new skin. Still empty on the inside as they sit in the pews and speak Christian-ez language among the freshly scrubby faces of other grocery store cans.
Luther never wanted us to be ashamed of asking for more from our Heavenly Father (just as we once did with our earthly ones). He would rather have us challenge God to answer and be assured in the Word, Sacraments and understanding about who, what, why and how………
“Thus when we declare, ‘I believe in God,’ we are not saying only that we believe that God exists. Certainly, believing in God requires believing also that there is a God. But this is not the main thrust of our words. Their main thrust is that we trust God for our lives, and also that it is in this God that we live and believe, that this God is both the foundation and the context of our belief.” Justo L. Gonzalez writes in The Apostles’ Creed for Today.
What do you believe in and why?