Who Told You? On Being Afraid in Sunday School


After teaching in both venerated institutions and glorified junk heaps on three continents over the past decade, I can tell you the scariest place in the world: adult Sunday School. I am not anti-Sunday School but would like to point out that in some Christian traditions giving the wrong answer to a theological question is akin to something between adultery and leprosy. Why are we so afraid to raise our hands, offer suggestions, and maybe get it wrong? I contend it is because we have continued to subject ourselves to one of the oldest lies in the Book.

The initial sin, therefore, was not the eating of the forbidden fruit but rather listening to a cynic question and intentionally misinterpret God’s goodness.
— Dan van Voorhis

The deception by the serpent in the garden started with him calling into question both the Word and character of the Creator. The initial sin, therefore, was not the eating of the forbidden fruit but rather listening to a cynic question and intentionally misinterpret God’s goodness. With cunning, the serpent asked “Did he really say?” as a temptation to believe what Eve otherwise knew to be untrue. Although she had no reason to distrust, the serpent suggests that the reason behind not eating the fruit is unreasonable and that it might be some kind of divine jealousy to keep humans from their rightful knowledge. But before she can process the questions to answer, the serpent jumps the gun by positing flatly, “No, you have been deceived, and the fruit will bring you life instead of death.”  

Later, when Yahweh comes looking for the now offending couple, they are nowhere to be found.  They’ve become embarrassed and afraid. They hide from the presence of God, convinced of their own nakedness and unworthiness. “Who told you…?” is the question they are presented with, and whatever the answer Yahweh is pointing them towards, it’s “not Yahweh.”  The Creator of the universe uses one of His first questions to us as a rhetorical device to say “You’ve received bad information about who I am.” In a minute of panic, in front of the Divine presence, our response is to recoil and hide. We assume that Yahweh is angry, but then He asks us where we got that idea in the first place.

In the parable of the talents, we see Jesus circle back to the initial sin of questioning the character of God (Matt. 25:14). Jesus tells the story of three men all entrusted with a portion of their master's wealth while he is away. Upon his return, the master asks his men how they invested their money, and the punchline comes when the man who played it safe by simply burying his money is condemned. The sin is not his lack of investing skill, but rather the mindset that would refuse to take a risk for fear of upsetting the master. Why the fear and trepidation? “Because I heard you were a harsh master” he replies.  

In other words, “Word on the street is that you are kind of a jerk” or “Everyone says it’s better not to try in case you can’t meet your high demands.” And so the man throws his master's reputation back at him. This seems to be a favorite theological pastime: blaming God for His reputation formed amongst others. “I would go to X, but those followers of yours gave me the distinct impression that you were kind of a jerk and that you were kind of uptight.”  You can reword that in a myriad of ways to fit your own voice and experience. We’ve all heard the excuse as often as we’ve made it ourselves. The master’s response in the parable mirrors that of Yahweh in the garden. “Who told you that I was a harsh master” is the sub-question begging the opposite conclusion. The master reminds the man that he graciously sows and reaps with little attention to the “oughts” and “shoulds.”  To believe otherwise is sin above all others.

This seems to be a favorite theological pastime: blaming God for His reputation formed amongst others.
— Dan van Voorhis

Having taught in and around the church for over a decade, I can assure you that nowhere in the world are nerves more frayed than in some Sunday school classes and church patios between services when tense theological conversations begin. Misspeak or ask an improper question, and risk alienation from other Christians who have been convinced that God is indeed a harsh master, waiting to pounce on their first mistake. But the mistake we are warned of is not “getting it wrong” but rather assuming that the kind of God we serve is more concerned with crossing t’s and dotting i’s than what we think of His character. So raise your hand, give it a shot. And if you are one that tends to answer questions, welcome others to the ranks of the inquisitive.

Overestimate a little. Let it go. Kick the grace up to 11. Be inconsistent in your indiscriminate love, erring on the side of too much. Suffer the accusations of being antinomian. Practice deflecting criticism of others with a “yeah, but…” that doggedly looks for justification to praise.  Raise your hand in Sunday school and risk giving the wrong answer because God’s not mad at you, He promises.

Daniel van Voorhis is an author, historian, professor and speaker at 1517. After receiving his PhD in Modern history from the University of St. Andrews, Dr. van Voorhis spent 11 years teaching history and political thought at Concordia University, Irvine and was most recently the assistant Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences.