Me and (Former) Pastor T

Pastor T is really the first “celebrity” pastor I ever listened to (the only other is Tim Keller). While I was familiar with his name, I wasn’t interested in listening to him until I heard Michael Horton interviewing art historian Daniel Siedell about Modern art and the Christian faith. I looked Mr. Siedell up and saw that he worked in some capacity for Coral Ridge, where, of course, T was pastor until a few days ago. I think my road to liking T started years before I knew he existed, way back when I was early in my midlife crisis and still coming down from my own legalism and self-justification projects as an unsuccessful Proverbs 31 Woman.

I bought the book Search for Significance, which I had seen many times at the thrift store but passed up because I assumed it was just “worldly psychology”, because, you know, it’s not doctrinally correct to desire a sense of worth and significance because we’re miserable sinners who don’t deserve anything (and I do assent to that fact in a certain theological sense). But I was starting to see that I did indeed have those desires and had been trying to manufacture my own worthiness by my performance as a Godly Wife and Mother.

I finally admitted that I really wasn’t all that great at fulfilling the womanly roles as defined by the Godly Family Subculture (which I mistakenly believed had proper definitions and proper understanding) and I was left with despair, with anger and with confusion about what it means to be a Christian. Although I had sat for years under a pastor who regularly taught that our identity and our justification were found in Christ, I didn’t get it. I grew up without a foundation for a strong identity. I’m not talking about touchy-feely self-esteem, but the basic safety and belonging needs (as defined by our friend Dr Maslow).


So, all my life I have tried to build my sense of worthiness and/or  (in Tullian or Mockingbird Speak) justify myself with:

1) my beauty and desirability (in my teen years especially – a fail)

2) intelligence or debate skills (in my mid to late 20s and early 30s – a fail)

3)  the aforementioned womanly arts or gender role fulfillment (my early 30s to late 30s – a fail)

4) my creativity and physical fitness (my early to mid 40s – a fail), and

5) probably other things I have forgotten, which were undoubtedly failures too.

And then to deal with the discouragement of being a constant failure and/or disappointment, I have self-medicated with pot off and on during all these years.

Understand I am not saying that I am a literal failure at all those things, like I’m not the ugliest person on the planet and I’ve had my share of attractive men who have found me attractive; I am fairly intelligent and articulate (at least in writing); I have kept up our home and am raising what so far appear to be five non-psychopath children; and my artwork, while still untrained, shows promise. But that’s the whole point. That desire to feel justified, loved and accepted is bottomless and can never be quenched no matter how objectively well we perform. I know other people have said it, maybe better and with more traditional theological language than Tullian, but he was the one who made clear to me that these functional saviors are actually idols, which always require sacrifice but never deliver.

When I had my 5th baby, she was such a clingy type that I didn’t have much time for my Identity-Enhancing Activities. At first, that didn’t help with my identity issues. My mind was always still swimming with plans to improve myself and ideas for art and writing and other creative stuff that could generate income and also maybe a teeny tiny bit of fame and/or human approval for me. I reread Natalie Goldberg’s books and was intrigued by the Zen idea that a key to being content is non-attachment, which is not the same as having no “attachments” (people, things, activities you love and enjoy) but is a practice of:

1) accepting the impermanence of all things in our lives (All flesh is grass, and all it’s beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. Isaiah 4:6-7)


2) observing your circumstances and thoughts and emotions without constantly judging them, fearing them, letting them determine your actions, trying to control them or thinking they define you. ( Though certainly as Christians, we are supposed to examine ourselves, repent of our sin, etc. and those things are really not part of the Zen mindset – although they do value kindness and compassion, which are Christian virtues if not always our practice as Christians.)

Anyway, I’m pretty much the most attached person in the history of the world, and I think all my self-justification schemes are the ultimate form of attachment.  Of course, I’m not really a Buddhist. I just find the Buddhist way of describing my inner landscape to be very accessible.

How does all this fit into my experience with Tullian? Well, one of his main themes is that we do indeed let our circumstances and thoughts and emotions define and control us, which definitely causes “suffering” (a key Buddhist term). We look to our actions and our internal situation and either feel good or bad about ourselves or think that God changes his opinion of us, depending on “how we are doing”. Tullian slams home the fact that we need to look outside of us to the objective work of Christ, because when we don’t, we either fall into despair when we are doing poorly (struggling with sin, depressed etc.) or become prideful when we are doing well (giving so much money to worthy ministries, having long and fruitful “quiet times” etc.).

Another thing I heard from him numerous times is a quote from J. Gresham Machen: “So it always is: a low view of law always brings legalism in religion; a high view of law makes a man a seek after grace.” I literally never understood the severity of God’s law until I heard Tullian the So-Called Antinomian. I didn’t get that Jesus was serious when He said, “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Because I had come to the end of my very short and frayed rope of self-righteousness, I was able to really hear that for the first time.

When I was a very young Christian and reading Francis Schaeffer, I was drawn to his distinction between psychological guilt feelings vs real moral guilt. While I think his point in making that distinction was to help modern semi-nihilists understand the holes in their philosophy, I was reminded of it when I would hear Tullian talk about the Big-L Law (God’s actual moral law) and the little-l law (all the “shoulds” we deal with in this life.) From Paul Zahl:

“The principle of divine demand for perfection upon the human being is reflected concretely in the countless internal and external demands that human beings devise for themselves…Law with a small ‘l’ refers to an interior principle of demand or ought that seems universal in human nature. In this sense, law is any voice that makes us feel we must do something or be something to merit the approval of another . . . In daily living, law is an internalized principle of self-accusation. We might say that the innumerable laws we carry inside us are bastard children of the law.”

I think this idea must have it’s roots in Romans 2:

“They (those without the law) show that the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.”

We know that standards of righteousness and morality differ from culture to culture, but that everywhere people have some standard of right and wrong. Even in the most secular of societies, we devise expectations for ourselves and for others that may have little to do with actual righteousness or morality, but under which we can still feel unbearably burdened. Again, Paul Zahl:

“In practice, the requirement of perfect submission to the commandments of God is exactly the same as the requirement of perfect submission to the innumerable drives for perfection that drive everyday people’s crippled and crippling lives.  The commandment of God that we honor our father and mother is no different in impact, for example, than the commandment of fashion that a woman be beautiful or the commandment of culture that a man be boldly decisive and at the same time utterly tender…  The weight of these laws is the same as the weight of the sublime moral law.  Law, whether biblical and universally stated or contextual and contemporarily phrased, operates in one way.  Law reduces its object, the human person, to despair.”

Since I have been a Christian, I really haven’t had many times where I felt like God didn’t love me or I wasn’t really “saved”. I have mostly lived under the burden of little-l law or misinterpretations of the Big-L Law. But ultimately, I have fallen prey to that because even subconsciously, I was (to quote Tullian) “…seeking (my) worth in anything and everything but the gospel of God’s grace, (so I)  kep(t) seeking and keep wearing (my)self out in the process.” I was “… setting (my) sights on something, someone, smaller than Jesus.” Namely myself and my ability to perform, to improve, to be impressive.

Even before I heard Tullian I considered that I should consciously practice relinquishment. It has been so exhausting trying to fit Identity-Enhancing Activities into my days, which of course didn’t enhance my identity because it was another failure – a failure to fit in the Identity-Enhancing Activities. So practicing relinquishment doesn’t mean giving up particular things, art and zinemaking or whatever. It means relinquishing Identity-Enhancement  itself. It means believing that “my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” Of course, I will fail at relinquishment too. Tullian:

“Because Jesus was strong for me, I was free to be weak; because Jesus won for me, I was free to lose; because Jesus was someone, I was free to be no one; because Jesus was extraordinary, I was free to be ordinary; because Jesus succeeded for me, I was free to fail.”

Lots of people in the blogosphere are saying that beliefs like that are what led to Tullian’s sin. And yes, it was a big, big sin. A friend pointed out how in his formal statement, he tried to shift blame to his wife, which I agree is also a big sin. This sin of his is hurting a lot of people and even giving non-Christians ammunition against us, because they believe we think God loves us because of how good we are. But as Michael Horton says in Christless Christianity”

“If the focus of our testimony is our changed life, we as well as our hearers are bound to be disappointed.”

I’m disappointed that I won’t be hearing any more preaching from Tullian, even though I agree that he needed to step down from his pulpit. But I don’t feel like he personally disappointed me, because I didn’t put my faith in him. I don’t think any of his correct statements are tarnished by this sin. I’m sad that the Liberate site is no longer up (which I guess I understand, as it was an outreach of Coral Ridge) but I don’t think we need to do damage control when a person falls into sin.

In one of his sermons, he quoted Brennan Manning. He made a joke that the next day, he would get all kinds of calls asking why he was quoting a heretic. I’m writing this because I still owe a debt of gratitude to Tullian, and that doesn’t change because he’s now an adulterer, any more than it changes my affection for thinkers and writers I don’t always agree with. Because, as RC Sproul Jr. wrote just today, “We serve a God who delights to make straight lines with crooked sticks.”

God put Tullian in my path when I might have been on the road to denying the faith, because I could see that the theology of glory was a lie, but I didn’t yet know about the theology of the cross.

May Tullian (and may all of us) always turn to God in repentance, saying “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” And when we know we have received that mercy, in hearing the gospel, “God reminds us again and again that things between He and us are forever fixed. They are the rendezvous points where God declares to us concretely that the debt has been paid, the ledger put away, and that everything we need, in Christ we already possess. This re-convincing produces humility, because we realize that our needs are fulfilled. We don’t have to worry about ourselves anymore. This in turn frees us to stop looking out for what we think we need and liberates us to love our neighbor by looking out for what they need.”(TT)