The fear of falling away

For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.
Hebrews 6:4-6.

Growing up in a Message church, I lived in mortal terror of this verse. After all, was not I the perpetual repentant? Wasn’t I the one always on my knees, begging God to give me His spirit once and for all – again? This verse was poison to the imperfect heart: any failure, no matter how banal (complaining about a frozen computer, making a thoughtless remark to a brother or sister), was evidence that obviously Christ was not yet the ruler of my spirit. Every time I fell to my knees, pleading for Jesus’ forgiveness, I wondered if His patience hadn’t yet run out.

The Message teaches that God is in the process of leaving the altar where His blood previously atoned for the sins of His children. There will be a time, they say, when the doors of the ark (metaphorically) will be shut. Those with the Holy Spirit at that time will be sealed in eternally, and those without will be condemned to the Tribulation. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know whether or not you’ve got the Spirit… other than “just knowing.” For a teenager convinced that the world will end before she’s old enough to drive a car, this doctrine can cause paroxysms of fear.

This verse is wielded as a thought-stopping threat. Entertaining doubts about the Message would be described in their circles as allowing demons to enter and “build a nest” in one’s mind, effectively cutting off communication with God and causing the errant believer to “fall away,” unable ever to regain the Lord’s favor.

This is a rather unflattering picture of God.

This interpretation damages the reputation of Christ himself as longsuffering and merciful, not willing that any should perish (II Peter 3:9). It cheapens His sacrifice, placing an expiration date on the cross. If you sin too many times, it seems to warn the believer, your debt will be too great for Jesus’ blood to cover. Moreover, it flies in the face of Christ’s own promise that none whom the Father has called and who have come to Him will be snatched from His hand (John 10:28).

This weapon was also brandished against unbelieving family members. Coming into contact with the Message was akin to “tasting of the heavenly gift,” and those who walked away were all but committed to spiritual funerals. My father was among them, but some Message believers held steadfast faith in God’s ability to strike him down with illness or sorrow in order to “get his attention.” The “tender hand of Jehovah” would save him in the end, even if it meant killing him or those closest to him to elicit a deathbed confession. Sometimes my own fear of not yet having the Holy Ghost was compounded by the fear that God might kill me to awaken my father. After all, it had happened to Brother Branham!

The paralyzing threat of Hebrews 6:4-6 made me terrified to step back and take stock of my spiritual life. Many times, as a young girl,  I wished that I’d had the opportunity my parents had: to grow up normally, with friends and music and beach parties and school, and to find the Message later, when I had the chance to think and accept it honestly for myself. Raised in it from such a young age, I was incapable of judging whether or not I’d ever properly accepted Christ and the Message. Both were such fixtures in my landscape that to identify my “new birth” seemed impossible. There was never a time when I did not believe!

This led immediately to the conclusion that I’d never actually been born again, and was therefore destined to miss the Rapture. “God has no grandchildren,” it was preached. Everyone must come to Christ individually. What to do, though, when you’ve been raised at the foot of Christ? How do you “put on the wedding garment” (the Message) to prepare for Christ’s return when you’ve been swathed in its fabric from childhood?

The only thing to do was to silence my own wavering voice, to “bring every thought into captivity” for Christ and to the Message. And so the passage in Hebrews became a thought-stopping weapon. “Don’t question. Don’t think. Don’t try to get to the bottom of your own beliefs, because what you find in that quest might cause you to fall away. If you doubt the Message once, Christ will never honor your repentance. You’ll be eternally lost, worse off than if you’d never heard it.”

I began to think, in my later teens, that I ought to believe what I did out of a firm, honest, personal conviction. I didn’t want to be a “make-believer” (Three Kinds of Believers, Nov. 24, 1963). But such convictions are impossible to form without ever daring to step away and consider an alternative. I began to resist the fear. Would God exert such vengeance on me for asking honest questions? If I admitted my doubts openly, wasn’t that more virtuous than feverishly pretending never to have any? Was the God who created me, who could read my every thought, who knew the depths of my heart by a blueprint of His own design, really fooled my by outward adherence to the standards of the Message?

But sin was unbelief, and doubts were the devil’s darts. Better never to take the risk of asking questions, than to risk falling away.

Isn’t it just this admonishment that makes pew-warmers of the youth, forever tormented by the fears of their own inadequacy? If I had never broken this cycle and recklessly burst through to the honesty of admitting my doubts, I might have stayed in the Message, but it wouldn’t have got me the Holy Ghost. To this day I’d be caught in the choking cycle of fear – never admitting my doubts and, more importantly, never resolving them. I would have been forever in limbo – a lukewarm believer, too afraid to move to ever become hot or cold.

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