The Origins of the New Testament, Part XIV: What Does Salvation Mean to Paul?

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 4 February 2010 0 Comments
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Twila Compton from Charlotte, North Carolina, writes:

The question I have is about prayer. For so many years I have begun my prayers with "have mercy on me, O gracious God." Having been well taught to be guilty and unworthy, it is hard to come up with a positive prayer. At times I feel like my religious beliefs are like a bowl of scrambled eggs and I keep trying to unscramble them.


Dear Twila,

Yours is just another form of the question that emerges constantly among my readers and those who attend my lectures. Prayer focuses our theology as does nothing else. In your words, you were taught to begin your prayers with a plea for mercy. You were taught to be guilty and unworthy. That is the experience of many.

Look, however, at what these words commit you to believe. You are making an assumption that God is a powerful parent figure in the sky who elicits fear and guilt. You have defined yourself as one who has failed to satisfy what you perceive to be this God's requirements. Perhaps that is because you have been taught that God is a judge "unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hidden." Who among us would not feel guilty and afraid before an authority figure who knows us this well?

This God might be very useful if controlling behavior is religion's primary agenda. If, however, the purpose of Jesus as interpreted by the Fourth Gospel is correct that he came "that they might have life and have it abundantly," then a prayer based on an understanding of God that elicits primarily guilt and fear will never accomplish that goal.

It is not, therefore, a positive way to pray that you seek, but a whole new understanding of life and what the word "God" means in terms of that life. That then becomes something that cannot be addressed in a question and answer format. It also points to why people like you have increasing difficulty participating in the life of traditional religious institutions that are more into guilt rather than grace, fear rather than faith and judgment rather than Jesus. If prayer is the activity of your life through which God is experienced as life, love and being, then prayer is more about who you are than what you do.

The journey starts there — travel well.

John Shelby Spong



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