How would you respond to this?

How would you respond to this? June 22, 2013

Jonathan Merritt, at RNS, opens his article with this and I wonder what you would tell someone who asked you this?

A friend of mine who was raised in a fundamentalist home told me a disturbing story recently. One Sunday morning, the youth pastor at her Southern Baptist Church passed out three-inch galvanized nails to all the students in his care. He instructed them to keep these in their pockets at all times. Whenever they had an impure thought or disrespected their parents or sinned in any way, he told them to place their hand into their pockets and poke the nail into their finger.

“That way you’ll be reminded of the pain your causing God,” he said, “and you’ll know how disappointed He is with you in that moment.”

The spine-tingling actions of this minister raise an important question: does God get disappointed with us?

The two elements that comprise disappointment are surprise and frustration. Accepting the first—that God is surprised with our most tragic failures—tests our belief in His sovereignty. God knows the events that will unfold tomorrow, and they never take Him off guard. Additionally, He created our “inmost being” (Ps 139:13) and knows our hearts better than we do. We cannot take God by surprise.

But what about the frustration element of disappointment? Is God angry or frustrated with us? The theological roots of this belief run deep.

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  • Disappointment means events didn’t turn out the way you expected. Since God knows the future, everything turns out the way he expects; he physically can’t be disappointed. He knows we’re gonna fail, and knows every instance in our future when we do fail. Yet he establishes a relationship with us despite this. That’s grace.

    Poking yourself when you sin, does not teach you grace.

  • Scott Gay

    Please “notice that Jesus doesn’t give recipes as other teachers of religion do. He is Himself the way”…….quoting Barth in Metzger’s The Gospel of John: When Love Comes to Town, November 2010, p42.

  • Guest

    Of course God ‘gets disappointed’ – how can anyone read Genesis’ account of the flood and think otherwise? The idea that our actions don’t matter to God because God ‘sees our inmost being’ is nonsense – if we lack the capacity to understand how God might be loving while also upset says more about the inflexibility of our imaginations.

    RE: God & sovereignty and the use of the word ‘disappointed’ – it is a destructive pattern of thought to say that God does not respond to us. Jesus’ life death and resurrection is God’s response to us. It is likewise destructive to imagine a God incapable of disappointment – there are points in the gospels where Jesus is clearly reacting w/ emotion to the disciples. It seems twisted to allow our tendentious elaborations of a doctrine of ‘sovereignty’ to override the clear instantiation of God in our midst.

    The question of whether this practice of stabbing ourselves w/ nails is helpful to these children is verrry questionable. But I don’t see anything wrong with it given what we know here.

  • SteveSherwood

    This illustration, however, suggests that disappointment is the constant
    and dominant response of God to us at every moment. A reading of the
    entire Old Testament surely leaves one convinced of God’s “hesed” toward
    Israel. He chastens, as a loving parent would, but repeatedly (over
    1000+ years) with the relentless goal of reconciliation. I don’t have a
    problem with talking frankly about God, anger and disappointment, but to
    reduce God to only that, as the illustration seems to do, is abhorrent
    to me. Perhaps there was a larger context of God’s covenant, steadfast
    love, that the youth pastor was speaking out of, but it’s missing in
    this illustration as it is presented.

  • Camassia

    It sounds like operant conditioning with a spiritual explanation instead of a behaviorist one. Operant conditioning can be handy but usually for getting rid of a particular bad habit rather than any and all sins. (I also dread to think what effect this would have on a kid who happens to have OCD.)

  • Tim

    I’d tell them to take their nail and shove it. Not Christlike? I’m not so sure.


  • Self-flagellation is idiotic, even if we can understand the feelings and thoughts from which it stems. And, along with Guest, I’d say “of course God gets disappointed.”

    Penance, on the other hand, is completely warranted, and ought to be recaptured and reformed by evangelicals (the difference with the above being that penance at its best incorporates actual biblically warranted acts of holiness).

    To (perhaps counterintuitively) paraphrase Augustine: Genuine volition is not a myth; humans have free will, and, indeed, the source of evildoing is the free choice of the will. Just because God foreknows something will happen, doesn’t mean that it must involuntarily happen. Why? Because the will is something that is always in our power, and whatever is in our power is free. What God has gifted us with, if misused, will always disappoint him.

  • Dawn Lindholm

    Maybe a better use of the nail would have been to ask then students to feel the nail in their pocket and then remember that they do not have to feel the pain. Jesus took the pain and we need to remember to thank him for covering the sins and we do not have to pay another price. He did, it is done.

  • Phil Miller

    I’d tell the person to read some Brennan Manning… Seriously, I would. Fundamentalists don’t really believe God loves them, or that God could really love them. So when they treat people like crap, they are simply projecting their own self-hatred onto other people.

    I think we run into problems when we start talking about human emotions and attributing them to God. I don’t believe everything in the world is as God wants it or wills it to be. What would be the point in Jesus instructing us to pray that the Father’s will is done if that we the case? But I don’t believe God is the equivalent of an overbearing parent who is waiting for his children to fail so He can lash out at them.

  • Pat68

    I think God can be disappointed in us, but the idea of piercing one’s self with a nail each time we do something that might be displeasing to God without advice of where to go from there falls short. The kids may never grow past the place of hurting themselves in some one to feel some measure of the disappointment they’re causing God.

  • Pat68

    Right, Dawn, like figuratively nailing those sins and shortcomings to the cross.

  • danaames

    There is so much wrong with this that if I started writing I would end up writing a book. Scot’s the book writer here…


  • Patrick O

    Sounds very much like what the monastics did, and not just the extreme ones. Indeed, it sounds like it is helpful. The trouble is that people want to make this an issue of works salvation. If the kids are worried about their salvation, then this is wrong. But, as a way of reminder, of keeping the cross before them, that’s a helpful way of understanding the weight of their sins, the seriousness of them. It’s a reminder of the slavery they don’t have to be part of anymore (Romans 8).

    Physical reminders, like the Eucharist, or fasting, or so many others are ways of encouragement and inspiration. And making it sound like a little nail is the equivalent to flagellation is a bit extreme. It’s like wearing a rubber band or tying a string around a finger to remember something.

    It’s a reminder of what Christ has done as a way of pointing to who we have been re-created to be. In effect, following also a fair bit of the earliest church’s understanding of martyrdom, a sharing in the sufferings so as to celebrate Christ’s victory.

  • Patrick O

    Of course God gets disappointed with us. We see this in the Gospels, and it’s pretty much throughout the rest of the NT. I’m preaching on Revelation 2:18-29 and it’s pretty clear God is disappointed with parts of that church and the other churches. There’s also the pretty clear suggestion of passages like Ephesians 4. If we can grieve the Spirit, that suggests a measure of, well, disappointment.

    It’s not about salvation, it’s about relationship, and God shows throughout Scripture the different qualities of Father and Spouse in responding to others, which celebrates with us and is disappointed by us, a very relational dynamic that responds to our responses within a context of commitment and love.

  • Timothy Stidham

    My first thought is that it’s possible they don’t remember things exactly as they were said or misunderstood profoundly. Youth Pastors seem to get blamed for all things at one point or another. Maybe it was about not “grieving the Holy Spirit” or “we crucify Christ all over again”, both biblical statements about sin in believers. It’s a subtle point of identifying with Christ’s suffering on our behalf and giving thanks for the sacrifice. I’ve seen something similar to this handled biblically. Scripture doesn’t always fit neatly into our theological categories or preferences. The passage being applied and all the contextual details would need to be known before I’d throw the pastor under the bus…

  • Josh T.

    In addition to all the more obvious things potentially wrong with this situation, there’s the possibility of students getting into serious trouble with school officials if they keep nails with them “at all times.” Given many (most?) schools’ zero-tolerance policies for weapons or perceived potential weapons, this could be a big problem.

  • It is more confusing to a student than anything else. I was a youth pastor for fifteen years, and those sorts of teachings don’t leave scars as much as they create questions. Many students already have strained and tense relationships with their parents, particularly fathers, and it’s more a lack of good judgement on that pastors part. Father metaphors in youth ministry must be carefully considered, as they’re being used during a pretty formative season in students’ lives. I would add one more thing: most people, especially students, are hyper aware of their failings. Students spend their days working hard to appear glitch-free. The reason an illustration like the nail in the pocket works so well is precisely because the hearers are already suffering under the surface their well groomed lives. Either the youth pastor is a genius and he leveraged that truth int their direction, or he was clueless.

  • Ann F-R

    My take on it, now, would be to understand that God’s love compels us and that “in Christ” the love of God manifests from within us toward others. Our pain, remorse, fear and regret are insufficient to deal with sin; we need Jesus and the cross.

    In the epistle (compiled later, or not) as Paul tells us to “take captive every thought” (2 Cor. 10), and that our weapons are not carnal (the nail inflicting physical pain could easily be received as “I must punish myself”), Paul challenges us to see differently and to “punish every disobedience” according to God-in-Christ. What does that look like? To me, it doesn’t look like imposing/commanding self-inflicted pain on others.

    So, 2 Cor. 5 frames our new self in Christ this way:
    For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for
    all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live
    should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and
    was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point
    of view
    . Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no

    Then, 2 Cor. 10 gives a different slant:
    I myself, Paul, appeal to you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am humble when face to face with you, but bold toward you when I am away!— I
    ask that when I am present I need not show boldness by daring to oppose those
    who think we are acting according to human standards. Indeed, we live as human beings, but we do not wage war according to human standards; for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ. We are ready to punish every disobedience when your obedience is complete.

  • Eric Weiss

    And Southern Baptists call other Christian churches “cults.” smh

  • Dianne P

    To me, this smacks more of a gotcha moment. Oops, I got caught… or more precisely, I caught myself. Though I suspect the Baptist pastor would be mortified, this seems much in line with the old school Catholic confession… I told a lie 3 times, I took Johnny’s lunch money, etc.

    The problem here is the focus on doing wrong “things”, rather than approaching the whole world/ the whole day through the lens and love of Christ. More like – I ran a red light, rather than – I didn’t notice that mother with 2 kids in a stroller who was struggling to get through the door and I didn’t help. It focuses on the wrong things we do, rather than the things that we overlook. Open the eyes of my heart Lord… to see all those around me, rather than focusing on the petty mistakes that I make each day. It’s a small, narrow look at my failings, rather than a big picture look through the lens of love at the kingdom of God.

    I also suspect that this is quite a mean thing to do to young ones who, as Derek pointed out, are already hyper-focused on their own glitches. However, I disagree with his conclusion that it does no harm.

    As I get older (and older…), the more I focus on God’s love, the more I want to see things through the eyes of God, the more I want to live my life in line with his will. Of course I look at my wrongdoings each day. But bigger than that, it’s the Jesus Creed. One way I start each day is with the daily office from the Northumbria community on Lindisfarne.
    Who is it that you seek?
    We seek the Lord our God.
    Do you seek Him with all your heart?
    Amen. Lord have mercy.
    Do you seek Him with all your soul?
    Amen. Lord have mercy.
    Do you seek Him with all your mind?
    Amen. Lord have mercy.
    Do you seek Him with all your strength?
    Amen. Christ have mercy.

  • sacwriter

    Though I think this is a poor illustration period, I have to disagree with the inherent meaning of “disappointment” that Merritt puts forward. The idea of “surprise” is really not part of the word “disappointment” except for extreme optimists. God is not an optimist…He is a realist. He knows what we could be and knows what we are and his disappointment is the realization of how far we are from healthy.

    Perhaps the better word is to say that God is grieved by our unhealthiness. No self-mutilation can paint that picture.

  • Peter J Ackerman

    I become disappointed with my children, but I would never poke them with a nail or want them to poke them selves. (There are negative consequences that may have to be illustrated with discipline, but this is done so the child will avoid hurtful choices for his own good.) This is legalistic demonic, and above all ineffective and harmful.
    If we know we have done something wrong the Bible never asks us to hurt our selves. We need to turn to Jesus. He gives us ALL we need for salvation, forgiveness and sanctification.
    I knew a woman who was told by a therapist to snap herself every time she had a bad thought. The woman ended up in a mental institution. Really self inflicted pain is our salvation? Some body should have told Jesus that, he could have avoided the cross.
    As for me,” Have mercy on me Jesus I am sinner become a saint by nothing but your precious redeeming blood.”

  • Peter J Ackerman


  • Rob F.

    Theology aside, anyone else worried about tetanus or other negative health outcomes resulting from teenagers walking around with nails in their pockets? 🙂