Some thoughts on Israel Folau

I am so grateful for my parents and especially their legacy of faith. Their genuine love for God was evident in their life. They put their trust in Him for every challenge, and there were plenty that came their way. They taught me as a child that God was love, Jesus was my friend and that he always heard my prayers. They made going to church a family priority, and I’m sure that this was not easy at times with five young children.

As I look back on my early years, I don’t remember a time when I didn’t believe in God.  I’m not saying I didn’t have questions, because of course I did. But I never questioned God’s reality; His existence always made sense to me. However, as a teenager, I would say my faith wasn’t very alive, and even though I went to church, I did so more out of a sense of duty than anything else.  

When I was about eighteen, little did I realize that my hum-drum spiritual life was about to get a real shakeup.

At that time, two of my siblings – an older brother and sister became heavily involved in what I would call a destructive religious sect. This “church” taught many extreme doctrines, and they believed that they were the only true church because they were the only ones that “taught the whole truth” and did so “without compromising”.

I was coerced into attending a few of the Sunday meetings. I also went a couple of times to a coffee shop which they ran on Friday nights. It operated on the main mall of the town I lived in. Their strategy was to invite people in off the street for free coffee or hot chocolate. Once inside, the poor unsuspecting person was virtually set upon by a few zealots who shared with them “the truth”. Occasionally, someone “converted to the truth” but most people weren’t interested. Those not interested were swiftly warned of the impending judgement which awaited them; eternal separation from God, an eternity in hell – they said.

A hallmark of this sect was that they used massive doses of FEAR to manipulate people into accepting their doctrine.

This teaching was an affront to everything I had been taught. After many difficult months of studying the bible for myself, I ended up making the decision that I could not go along with it – at all. Other family members including my parents made the same decision.  We were all warned that because we rejected the truth, the consequences would be that we would be cut off from them permanently – because, after all, that’s what the bible taught – they said.

Tragically, that’s just what my brother did. That was forty years ago, and the reverberations of his decision are still being felt. (I want to say here that my brother does have many virtues, but his wrong belief system was at the core of his hurtful actions.)

As desperately sad as this was for our family, I was very thankful that I remained deeply connected to my closest sister, even if it was in secret. (The church had warned her to cut all ties with me). 

Fast forward to the present time ….   

Like the rest of the nation, for the last few months I’ve been watching with interest the events surrounding Israel Folau.  And it looks like this is going to continue for a long time yet, now that its going to court.

The issues are complex, and everyone has an opinion. Not surprisingly, many in the media have slammed Israel. But there are others who support his right for free speech (even if they don’t agree with his post.)

Christians are divided on the issue too. Some believe he was “just quoting what the bible says”. They hasten to defend him saying “he didn’t say he hated gays, he was only trying to warn them because he cared about them.”   

Other Christians passionately disagree with Israel’s views. They say he’s quoted the bible out of context.

I’ve been watching all this play out and mulling over it for quite a while; and I now want to share some of my own perspective, as brief as it is.  

Clearly, it will be no surprise that my views are shaped by the false teaching of the cult I experienced as a teenager (which is why I provided it as a context to discuss this issue).

My own experience of this fire and brimstone approach was very damaging. (I know now that it was spiritual abuse.)  It made me very afraid of God. It represented Him as someone who was cruel and mean and vengeful – someone who doesn’t hesitate to punish all those who don’t obey him by throwing them into an eternal fire and damnation. (I can only thank God I didn’t walk away from Him at the time because of this message).

I am strongly of the belief that when Christians represent God to the world in this way, its very damaging to the true revelation of the good news of the gospel.

Not only does it wrongly represent who God is, it often tragically alienates the very people Jesus came to embrace.

At this point, lets put Jesus center stage. After all he said  “whoever has seen me, has seen the Father.” Clearly Jesus point in saying this is that he doesn’t want people to just guess and wonder what God is like. He wants them to see who God really is, through Him.

So how does Jesus portray God to the world? 

Let’s look at what Jesus was like.

I defy anyone who fully reads the gospel to disagree that Jesus embodied perfect love. He demonstrated unconditional acceptance and inclusion of ALL people – regardless of race, religion and gender. That’s the very radical nature of God’s all-inclusive and all-embracing love. As love incarnate, He was an irresistible magnet to all who were broken, desperate, marginalized and hurting. The most excluded and rejected by society were ALL welcomed by him, and they came in their thousands.

Did these people follow him because he threatened them with hellfire and brimstone?

Did they follow him because they were afraid?

Did they love him out of fear?

Hardly!

Quite the opposite. Jesus showed us through many stories what God was like. Take the story of the prodigal son for example. As that wayward boy came home, his love-sick Father rushed towards him – he couldn’t get to him quick enough. And when he did, he gathered his son up into a passionate embrace and covered him with hugs and kisses. 

That’s just one illustration – but the New Testament is full of them. That’s the God of love Jesus shared with people. 

But now, some will say…. surely in the bible there are many examples of Jesus preaching about judgement? 

Yes, true. But what’s the context for this? (always important to look at)

A careful look at the gospels reveals that the only people Jesus warned of a coming judgement was the Pharisees. No-one else!  

Why?  

Because He was furious with them! They were meant to point people to God. They were meant to show the world He was a God of truth, justice and love. But they were doing an appalling job of it! Being obsessed with their own importance, they paraded around in fine robes all the while looking down their noses at “sinners”. They even blocked the way to God from others. And Jesus exposed them for it. He called them out on their hypocrisy and pride. He warned them in no uncertain terms that if they didn’t change their self-righteous attitude, they could expect God’s judgement. Eventually, they killed him for it.

So now …  going back to Israel’s post. 

Whilst I believe Israel is entitled to express his views, they leave me quite conflicted. As a teenager, the message of repent-or-hell certainly did nothing to endear me to God. And its certainly not working for people in our culture. In fact I am now asking God for wisdom to know how to respond to a world which sees God as mad with them. 

But it also begs the question: If Jesus clearly didn’t use this approach to reach this hurting world, why would the church?  Aren’t we his disciples? 

Let’s pray that all of us choose to follow the example of Jesus.   

(And lets not let this issue divide us, that also represents God badly to the world). 

Just a few reflections …

With love from my heart to yours,

Carolyn

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