By Dr. Johan Tredoux
“His mercy endures forever” (Psalm 136).
It was a Sunday evening in the year 1976. I was sitting on a hospital bed with a fresh below-the-knee-cast on my left leg pondering what had happened to me earlier that day. I smiled as I replayed how my friend and I had outwitted the pool caretaker at the University Olympic Pool on a Sunday
Because of the Dutch Reformed Church’s influence on society, everything was closed on Sunday, including the University pool. It didn’t take long for us to get in trouble, since our canon bombs off the diving board made it loud and clear that someone was having a really good time… on a Sunday. Our strategically placed bicycles on the other side of the fence –as our getaway strategy—came in handy as the caretaker came to inspect what the noise was all about. We were caught red-handed, and the angry caretaker started chasing us around the pool. My friend and I were both able to get away as we jumped over the fence. However, the fence was very high and when I landed on the other side, I felt a sharp pain shot up my lower left leg. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had broken my leg upon impact. My adrenaline was so high, that I was still able to get away by pedaling only with my right leg. All the while, the caretaker was chasing after us. We got away, but I was left with a broken leg, all because the sabbath rule disallowed swimming on a Sunday.
This all took place in my final year of high school, in a town called Potchefstroom, about 60 miles from Johannesburg in the Rep. of South Africa. It was a small university town, bustling with the energy of youth, who, just like me, tested every boundary of the ultra-conservative Dutch Reformed religious culture. We’re talking about the emerging age of miniskirts and bikini swimsuits, with women cutting their hair short and hemming their dresses high. It was Modernism on full display in the late 70s, as young people sought to break with the past and search for new forms of expression.
New discoveries and thinking on the frontlines of science, society, religion, and lifestyle started to make inroads into schools and churches. Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd gave rhythmic voice to the resistance building against the 2-year draft into the South African army. It was a picture of the emerging culture surrounding my life as the sun set on the 70s in South Africa.
Looking back and seeing myself in the middle of so many layers of culture makes me think of the movie, Inception… In this upside-down world, it was hard to know which way was up and what was real. The rise of modernity had the effect of labels being put on those who had different perspectives than the traditions of the day. In the political arena, it was called “progressivism” and in its religious form it was called “liberalism. The societal experiment with “apartheid” had deep roots in the predestination theologies of the Dutch Reformed Church. Their go-to God was deistic, a God who decreed outcomes from a distance and orchestrated society accordingly.
These predestination theologies became part of the propaganda used to keep the progressives in check. In this push and pull between progressives and traditionalists, the fundamentalist religious conservatives dug in their heels. One of the arrows in their quiver was the “God of will.” This, to them, represented a God who determined, governed, and commanded absolutely everything. Accordingly, nothing happened unless God ordained it. He was “in control.” He foresaw everything and whatever he foresaw, he also “foreordained.”
On the opposite spectrum were the “liberals” who were more comfortable with a “God of love.” However, even their “God of love” was interpreted through the lens of the predestination theologies of the Dutch Reformed Church. Weirdly, the theocracy enforced by the Dutch Reformed Church in the apartheid era South Africa reminds me of the 1992 American classic movie, “A River Runs Through It.” This movie follows two sons of a Presbyterian minister, one studious and the other rebellious, as they grow up and come of age in the Rocky Mountain region. The two boys learned a love for fly fishing from their dad but were home-schooled under the strict moral and academic code of their father.
In the South African version of, “A River Runs Through It,” I am the son of a Nazarene minister, raised under the strict moral codes of Nazarene special rules. These rules tried to insulate me from reality. It was a dream world created where I couldn’t dance, drink, smoke, or go to movies. The pressure on me and my siblings was to conform and look good so that my dad could keep his job. On Sundays, I listened as my dad passionately preached on the “God of Love.” The Great Commandment in Matthew 22 was one of his favorite texts. In my mind’s eye, I can still hear his thunderous proclamation: “Thou shalt love the Lord your God, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” [KJV, Matt 22:37]
What was sad was that no one questioned
if real love could be a response
if love was commanded.
The emotional process of my life as an Afrikaner in an apartheid society, inside a Nazarene subculture, with yet another layer added as a pastor’s kid, brought many social expectations about race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. Much of it was conditional love saturated with prejudice. As the second-born, I had a restless spirit; constantly fluctuating between head and heart. These polarities were most evident as I had trouble integrating the two streams of information at the two different levels. The sociological experiment of apartheid and propositional Christianity created polarizing extremes which made it hard for me to integrate the middle and make sense of my world. The polarities were most evident as the explicit and implicit rules of our parsonage family did not always line up. Emotions were spiritualized and encouraged in the context of worship, but at home, the emphasis was on correct thinking and correct doctrine.
Embedded in my early childhood theology, I remember times when I felt close to God and that I was God’s buddy, but I also remember times when I was scared to death of God, especially after seeing the movie; “The Thief in the Night.” In church, I was told that God loves everyone and that I should love my neighbor, but these noble beliefs were polarized as my family hired a black female servant who cleaned our house, made our beds, ironed our clothes, and yet was prohibited to worship with us on Sundays because she was black.
The trouble I now see is that a dream world was created by using the language of the “God of Love,” but in reality, it was just another dressed-up version of the “God of Will.” I have since come to realize that if love as a response is required, then the great commandment cannot be taken as orders to be obeyed, but rather as invitations that could only be responded to by consent. It boiled down to this simple choice. Is it…
Divine love by command or divine love by consent?
An option I was never offered growing up. It was always… “Love God, or else…”
It was Bradley Jersak, in his magnificent work: A More Christlike God who helped me to see this for what it is… He wrote:
If consent comes with an ultimatum tied to a deadline—if lack of surrender is threatened with eternal conscious torment—then the offer is devoid of real love. We’re left with no more than a pseudo-choice and not genuinely allowed to withhold consent.
This Sunday swimming episode all happened while my parents were studying in America. My caregiver drank the Kool-Aid of the Dutch Reformed cultural rules and was all in on enforcing the Sunday rule. This became evident as I was refused pain medicine for my broken leg as punishment for swimming on a Sunday. Needless to say, that left a mark on my vulnerable psyche at that time.
I have since expanded my understanding of the “God of Love.” Instead of thinking that I need to get back in His embrace, I have this deep sense that I have always been in the hands of God. (Irenaeus) He has never let go of me. The very essence of who I am is anchored in God’s embrace. And I believe I am to live “from” this position as my base camp. I can try to remove myself from the hands of God and go off into the far country (as in the parable of the prodigal son), but God will always be looking for me to come home. I know in God’s heart his love for me never changed. It would be as if I had never left.
It is then wise to view the great commandment as a therapeutic prompting rather than a judiciary command. God’s love is uncontrolling. (Oord) God is not cornering me with the law like the Pharisees did to Jesus. Instead, he rules through our consent and our willingness to mediate his self-giving love into the world. (Jersak) As a side note, I noticed in Rev. 21-22 that the gates of the new Jerusalem never shut. It remains open. It makes me think that God will wait for me forever.
PS: I love to swim on Sundays, and I don’t think God cares. Today the Dutch Reformed Church is making a significant impact on the post-apartheid society. Their theology and practice have taken significant steps closer to the “God of Love.”
 Jersak, Bradley. A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel (p. 125). CWR Press. Kindle Edition.