Concerning Lemons (What I Do When the Bible Makes Me Angry)

–Daniel S. Ferguson

When my older sister Leilani turned 16, she, like many newly minted drivers, almost immediately bought a car, a used Oldsmobile Achieva. The very first thing this car did for my sister was run out of gas. That’s not terribly surprising since she had just bought it and didn’t think to fill it up first thing off the lot, but it really should have been an omen, a sign of things to come, because I don’t think a month went by that something wasn’t wrong with that car.

Repair after repair, part after part, service after service, and still, that dang “check engine light” came on every time. I remember one particularly frustrated moment about a year after she got the car, right after she got it back from the shop, not even three days later, that check engine light popped right back on, and Leilani just screamed.

She just yelled at her car like it was an insolent child at a Wal-Mart. She grumbled and cursed and said cuss words I didn’t even know she knew all the way back to the mechanic. He plugged it in and found out what the check engine light had come on for: she was out of washer fluid. That was the breaking point, I think. I don’t remember why, but at some point the critical mass was reached, and Leilani just gave up on that car and got rid of it forever.

There are a few terms for cars like that, like junker or jalopy, but that was the first time I had ever heard what many people call those cars: lemons.

Lemons are cars, or really any piece of equipment, that just never work. No matter how much you spend on them, no matter how much you repair them, no matter how much you love on them, they will simply never perform the way they are supposed to. They’re just defective, no-good lemons.

Most car buyers go through enormous pains to make sure the cars they’re getting aren’t lemons, and we’re always wary of the car that’s being sold for too low a price for exactly that reason: no one wants to get stuck with a lemon because no matter what, at some point, you’re going to just give up on that lemon and get rid of it. Lemons are a waste of our time, money, and energy. There are even laws protecting buyers from them.

And when I first heard that term, lemon, at the tender age of twelve, I remember my first thought very distinctly: “That’s me. I’m a lemon.”

Permanently broken. No amount of repair, replacement, or repenting could fix me. No matter what, God always seemed too high up and too far away. I had never had the “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” that other people talked about, tried though I did. And that was what everyone told me that Christianity was.

And then my sad, twelve-year-old soul, in a normal Bible study, got to Romans 9, which says this:

Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort but on God’s mercy. For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden (Romans 9:13-18, NIV).

My heart sank. Because what if I were Esau? What if I were Pharoah? What if I were someone with whom God pre-decided not to have a relationship ? For eternity? I made a quick syllogism:

Salvation is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. + I have believed in Christ, but do not have evidence of a personal relationship with him. + I am therefore not saved, even though I want to be. + God saves those he wants to save.

= God must not want a relationship with me.

Seriously, that’s what went through my twelve-year-old brain. And it stayed there for the next fifteen years, through every church service, through every Bible reading, through every sermon, through every song. I wanted to rip Romans 9 right out of every Bible I found. All because I never felt the presence of God.

I tried hard. For 20 straight years And you know what I got? Nothing. I went to church. I sang the songs. I prayed the prayers. I read the Scriptures. I joined the groups. I served the church. I even led others to Christ. But when I reached for what Yancey calls the Invisible God, I get nothing. Not a single spiritual inkling. Not one moment where I could feel the love God says in His Bible He has for me.

“Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself” (Isaiah 45:15, KJV), Scripture says. Indeed, I couldn’t agree more. God is the all-time winner at hide-and-seek. Either that, or I’m the worst seeker ever. Maybe a combination of both.

In Revelation 3:20, God says He stands at the door and knocks. When I read that, I go, “Really? When? Because I’ve been sitting here in my living room for 20 freaking years, and I ain’t heard no knocking.”

But that’s not the most infuriating part. You know what is? The next part of Romans 9:

But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use? (v. 20-21, NIV).

This is when I always put the Bible down. Or threw it against a wall. Or one time a in a fire. With expletives. Because I’m not a piece of clay. Paul’s comparison is ridiculous and infuriating. I want to punch him in the jaw. I’m not clay. I’m a human being. I have a soul. A soul God is purportedly in love with and that he died to save. I matter. Of course I have the right to complain if I’ve been excluded from the salvation of God. Of course I have the right to complain if I was created by God while he had no intention of having a relationship with me. Of course I have the right to complain if I’m a lemon!

If that’s the case, you know what this lump has to say to its potter? Screw you, that’s what. I am not a worthless mindless material that God can just discard if he doesn’t like it. Sure, God can overpower my soul if he wants to, but then I’m not really a soul anymore. Then I’d be just an object. My free will is what makes me a soul, and he can’t just throw that away. Not without destroying all of me in the process.

I don’t think God wants clay. I think he wants souls. And if that’s not the case, what the hell is the point of it all?

And you know what? God says I’m right. I just didn’t notice it. I was too angry at the text for years to really pay attention. It made me seethe and writhe, so I didn’t notice what came next.

As [God] says in Hosea: “I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,” and, “In the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘children of the living God.’”

That’s what I missed in my anger. The passage isn’t talking about exclusions from salvation. It’s talking about God’s all-saving mercy. It stares me straight in the face and says, “Yeah, you’re a lemon….BUT God loves lemons. You aren’t God’s people, but he’ll make you his people. You aren’t God’s loved one, but he’ll make you his loved one. You aren’t his child, but he’ll make you his child. He loves you and your lemonhood that much.”

Now if only I had discovered that at 12 instead of 27. My general advice for people when they’re confused, angry, or frustrated with the Bible now? Keep reading. It’s good advice.

By the by, read the book of Hosea. You’ll be floored.

Edit: My sister informs me she never cursed at the car. I remember it differently…

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