This weekend I read the story of Jamie Coots, the preacher who refused medical treatment after being bitten by a rattlesnake, and died later that night, because he thought handling snakes was as serious a command as “thou shalt not commit adultery.” And if you didn’t get bit by the snake, or if you survived the snake bite without medical care, it proved your faith in God and His approval of you.
The story struck a chord with me because when I was in high school, I spent a few summers at a camp in the heart of Appalachia. I met kids who came out of churches like that. Their preachers not only handled poisonous snakes, but also taught the kids superstitious theology, like if you stared into a fire too long, it meant your soul was going to hell.
The girls from these churches all wore ankle-length dresses and could not wear anything else, even when they were going swimming. I watched them jump into the pool in long dresses that ballooned up like parachutes when they hit the water.
When I read about the preacher who died this weekend, my heart sank. Not just because it’s asinine to pick up a rattle snake and dare it to bite you, but because of all the other implications this theology has on people.
What is it like to live with the understanding of a God who would ask you to put yourself in unnecessary physical danger just to prove your faith in Him? And it’s not just these preachers who believe that; it’s been true throughout history. People have whipped themselves, crawled for miles on bloodied knees, set themselves on fire, walked with stones in their shoes, and starved themselves to prove that they have faith in God.
It’s easy for most of us to look at people who believe God wants them to maim or kill themselves in His name and think, “Geez, those people are cuh-ray-zee.”
But often we’re guilty of doing the same thing emotionally that these people are doing physically.
We affirm our spirituality by feeling guilty about things that happened a long time ago, by hanging our heads in shame over thoughts we’ve had or things we’ve done. We live in fear of judgment. We worry we’ll never be able to do enough to earn God’s love.
When we beat ourselves up about things that God forgave us for a long time ago, it’s like we’re picking up poisonous snakes and daring them to bite us. We’re willing to emotionally wilt under the guilt and shame because we think God asked us to put ourselves there.
But it’s a weight God never, ever, ever asked us to carry. It’s God’s kindness that leads us to repentance, not his anger or judgment or wrath or vindictiveness. God is not a sadist, which means we don’t have to be masochists.
God no more wants us to live with our pain and guilt and shame than He wants us to handle poisonous snakes. Those things only prove our insanity, not God’s character.
The life He calls everyone to is filled with love, peace and joy. It contains an infinite amount of grace. Forgiveness is ours for the asking. Guilt is freely lifted from our shoulders. The burdens of past memories, failures and disappointments are rolled away.
God loves you, He is in love with you, and He wants you to be healthy and free.
If anyone tells you differently, don’t listen to them. And please, for the love of everything, don’t pet their snakes.