Hell, election, and arrogance

Despite Robert Burns’ own considerable moral indiscretions, he certainly had no trouble decrying religious phonies such as he saw in William Fisher, elder in Mauchline Kirk in 1785. In “Holy Willie’s Prayer”, Burns paints a vivid picture of a womanizing hypocrite whose excuses and even theological justifications strike me as authentic and potentially accurate. But forget those for this post. So as not to give the false appearance of indicting any of the Reformed with Willie’s moral failures, I will cut out all but the first five and final stanzas (but here’s the rest).

O Thou, who in the heavens does dwell,
Who, as it pleases best Thysel’,
Sends ane to heaven an’ ten to hell,
A’ for Thy glory,
And no for ony gude or ill
They’ve done afore Thee!

I bless and praise Thy matchless might,
When thousands Thou hast left in night,
That I am here afore Thy sight,
For gifts an’ grace
A burning and a shining light
To a’ this place.

What was I, or my generation,
That I should get sic exaltation,
I wha deserve most just damnation
For broken laws,
Five thousand years ere my creation,
Thro’ Adam’s cause?

When frae my mither’s womb I fell,
Thou might hae plunged me in hell,
To gnash my gums, to weep and wail,
In burnin lakes,
Where damned devils roar and yell,
Chain’d to their stakes.

Yet I am here a chosen sample,
To show thy grace is great and ample;
I’m here a pillar o’ Thy temple,
Strong as a rock,
A guide, a buckler, and example,
To a’ Thy flock.


But, Lord, remember me an’ mine
Wi’ mercies temp’ral an’ divine,
That I for grace an’ gear may shine,
Excell’d by nane,
And a’ the glory shall be thine,
Amen, Amen!

Love that meter and rhyme scheme!

Isolating the theological content, and certainly not including Willie’s justification of his own hypocrisy in the omitted portion of the poem, on the whole I found that the depiction of Reformed doctrine in the first four and last stanzas, with its preoccupation on God’s acting in the interests of His “glory” via damnation and grace to fallen humanity, sounded very much like presentations I hear nowadays.

But considering Willie’s pompous demeanor, I must say that the ugly side of his attitude certainly bears a resemblance to someone I recently interacted with. (H/T to Matthew Raymer for reminding me of this poem.)

Again, I want to be careful not to bind Reformed theology – and still less all those who accept it as truth – to the personal flaws of Willie Fisher. But I do have to ask: considering their insistence that total depravity of the will, monergism, and unconditional election actually highlight our need for humility, why is it that the popular stereotype of those who are the most committed to Reformed theology as being insufferably arrogant seems to find so many matches in the real world?

My guess is that it would be hard not to let the idea of being “chosen” inflate the heads of those convinced that it applies to them. I know it would be hard for me to chalk up my own election (if I believed in such a thing) fully to divine mystery: I suspect that deep down I’d feel pride in somehow being one of those few whom God thought He could use to bring Himself glory, no matter how much my innate uselessness was necessary to qualify me. I suppose that in the end, even if I believed I had no merit going into it, that the act of divine election itself would afford me a special status in God’s economy and be a coat of many colors difficult to wear in humility. I must say, I know many very humble Reformed people, and I must applaud them for not succumbing to the temptation they face!

But the problem isn’t just with the Reformed, is it? It’s with all exclusivist Christians. Heck, it’s with all humanity. How can we avoid it?

Perhaps it’s in loving “the outsiders”, even our enemies, no less than we love ourselves. In kenosis, we forget whatever privileges we think we have and devote our very lives to making them available to others. A deep-seated, God-empowered will to love and act in love to all indiscriminately; a conscious decision on our part not to elect some and damn others, or treat anyone as though God had done so.

Gosh, it’s still a difficult balancing act, but it’s worth trying to keep in mind.


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