‘No Condemnation Now I Dread’

And can it be that I should gain

An interest in the Saviour’s blood…

I remember this song being sung one night in early January 2008, when the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union was driven outside by a fire alarm during the Houseparty ceilidh. Worship songs sound beautiful when sung outside in the darkness. It was a bit surreal, too. Surely only the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, feeling a song coming on, would burst into a stirring rendition of ‘And Can It Be’.

Ama—Amazing love! How can—How can it be

That Thou That Thou my God shouldst die for me!

The next evening, on the coach going back to Cambridge, a fellow CICCU member from Selwyn asked me—tongue in cheek—if I was feeling properly wretched: apparently the point of the pre-Lent-term Houseparty was to make everyone feel really aware of their sins, so they’d be more amazed by the cross, and, as a result, be Fired Up for Main Event Week. Shortly after that came Main Event Week itself, a week-long intensification of the usual frenetic CICCU haze of guilt, anxiety and busyness. If I didn’t buy the right quantity of refreshments for a pudding party, if I didn’t send a list of prayer points to the Prayer Secretary by the appropriate time each day, if as a College Group we didn’t somehow rustle up some people from Trinity to take to the central evangelistic talks, if nobody came to our college events, if there were no posters on the walls of the college computer room, if, in short, my activities as a College Group Rep were a confirmed failure, then I would have let everybody down, and all the previous reps and possibly also God would be extremely disappointed. I say ‘if’ and ‘then’, but of course one also felt absolutely sure that failure was impending and inevitable.

No condemnation now I dread

Jesus and all in Him is mine!

I think there was some truth in my Selwyn acquaintance’s caricature of CICCU-type evangelicalism, and I don’t think it always was as grace-less as it sounds. Some people live such grace-filled lives that the words they use don’t matter so much. Evangelical Christians, discovering that you happen to be feeling a little wretched, will say something like “well of course we’re all rubbish and sinful, that’s why Jesus died for us and that’s how good His grace is,” follow it up with a bracing time of prayer, and leave an Encouraging Note in your pigeon-hole the next day. Charismatic Christians will pin you to a comfortable sofa by the laying on of every available hand, provide tissues, break off condemnation in the name of Jesus, and speak a few Strengthening, Encouraging and Comforting prophetic words into the situation. Either approach may be genuinely loving. People who overflow with kindness tend to have a family resemblance.

Still, when I booked rooms at the Accommodation Office, gave the notices in College Group meetings, sent out the Weekly Email or lugged bags full of juice cartons across the college, love was on the whole a less obvious motivating factor than fear. Where did the fear come from? Perhaps from the preacher whose third point on Isaiah 6 was about fearing God? Perhaps from the preacher who said that “preach the gospel, and if necessary use words” was a worthless and nonsensical soundbite, because you have to use words?

DSCF1278Perhaps it was just my own general foolishness? Some people, after all, seemed to have a straightforward and unproblematic relationship with CICCU evangelism, a clear chain of reasoning which led to practical action. Jesus is good, therefore we must tell people about him, therefore we must run a Food-for-Thought. And yet, suddenly, one such person would say that he’d invented a new acronym: PMEB, or Post-Main-Event Blues. Or you’d have coffee with the CICCU President, so he could explain the history of the relationship between CICCU and Fusion, and maybe it was the coffee but you were pretty sure his hands were trembling. You’d mention to a church students worker how guilty and incompetent you felt, and she’d say that everyone felt like that—generations of College Group Reps and Central Executive Committees had felt like that. Where did it come from?

Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray,

I woke, the dungeon flamed with light!

When there were beautiful things, they went unrecognized. During the preparations for Freshers’ Lunch, several members of the Exec unexpectedly appeared like ministering angels to help make the mountains of sandwiches which, of course, proved in the event to be far far too numerous. Somebody paid for almost all of those sandwiches out of his own pocket. At a May Week night-punting-and-barbeque trip, two College Group members abruptly sat down one on each side of me and presented me with what looked like a large gold brick and turned out to be chocolates. Once I accidentally booked two speakers for the same talk, and when I explained the situation to one of them, he was quite remarkably nice about it. None of these people received their due thanks and honour. There is no space for random acts of brotherly kindness in a schema for operations which states merely and comprehensively that the rep will run around like a headless chicken and always be destined to fail.

Sometimes, when you’re distracted by the preparations that have to be made, it’s not at all clear how you can love people—even the people you find easy to like, as opposed to those you resent bitterly for their way of preaching on Isaiah 6. When you have to attend a meeting to plan tomorrow’s meeting, or you’ve got a difficult email to send, or you’re washing a million disposable cups in the hope of reusing them sometime, or posting gospels through people’s doors or flyers into their pigeon-holes, or reflecting that zero would be an extremely confident estimate of the number of people saved directly through the efforts of the Trinity College Christian Union in the last year, or when you’re actually trying to do some work for your degree for a change—when all this is filling your life and your mind, how practically can you love people, except perhaps by making them tea at a pre-church breakfast?

mrs-doyleMaybe (maybe) the problem was that we thought evangelism was the reason for our corporate existence. I remember sometimes scampering off quickly from meetings, feeling that sitting round chatting to other Christians didn’t count as a valuable use of time. We said that CICCU wasn’t a church. We said that CICCU was the only society in the whole university that existed for the benefit of its non-members. But if the members of the Christian Union stand back-to-back, firmly outward looking, and just occasionally shout prayer points over their shoulders, not quite, or not necessarily, becoming friends, what exactly do they have to invite people into? What kind of Christian union is really there? ‘Join us, and you too can put flyers in everyone’s pigeon-holes, strategise, memorise formulae for presenting the gospel on the back of a napkin, and pray through lists of people from other colleges all represented by their initial letter!’ It wouldn’t exactly feel like coming home.

DSCF1277This is a bit exaggerated, perhaps: there were friendships in CICCU, there were those people who overflowed with kindness. Still, where they succeeded in setting the tone, it was a kind of victory over something. I find myself wanting to apologise along these lines to those who were on the receiving end of CICCU evangelism: guys, I’m sorry we were so weird: I’m sorry about the invitations and conversations and whatever else came out fear and condemnation and the received wisdom of CICCU tradition and then got randomly dumped on you. I’m sorry about the simplifications, the mistakes, the fact that we disappeared off to so many meetings for no apparent reason.

But there was love in it all somewhere: I don’t think we could have started or continued with CICCU if we hadn’t had an elementary desire, deep down, for people to know that Jesus loves them. There might have been a grave lack of connection between that desire and what we actually did, said and thought, but it was there. You can, for example, hijack the matriculation photograph in order to advertise a free lunch to all the freshers, and you can stand there, stressed, scared, hearing the thinness of your voice, freaking out a little because you’re walking on the grass, and yet also know in the core of your being that every person in the neat matric-photo arrangement in front of you is totally, inconceivably precious. That was the reason. It really was meant to be a free lunch. It was for love of them. And maybe it was stupidity from beginning to end; maybe it did achieve nothing. But it was for love. All of it: the houseparties, the Food-for-Thoughts, the public debates, the Grill-A-Christians, the tea parties, the pudding parties, the night punting; the Reps’ Meetings, the Link Group Meetings, the College Group Meetings, the Central Meetings, the International Breakfasts; the 8am prayer times, prayer jargon, the heavy boxes and bags, the countless emails with the horrible electric blue background, the trolley of Sainsbury’s baguettes jarring down the pavement to St Andrew the Great. The anger and nervousness. The acronyms, the flyers, the Christianity Explored sessions. The five-minute talks and the lunchtime talks and the futile private discussions and the Q&A. The piles and piles of copies of Mark’s or Luke’s gospel. The lists of prayer points. The washed disposable cups that never were reused. It was for love. And love never fails.


CICCU membership card.


Not throwing it away just yet.

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5 Responses to ‘No Condemnation Now I Dread’

  1. Tom says:

    I learnt the doctrines of grace through CICCU – and for that I will be eternally grateful. And I became part of the first truly Christian fellowship within Trinity CU and CICCU – a fellowship that provided me with my wife, my two best men, and my closest friends. I’m absolutely sure that I need a kick up the backside to get into personal evangelism, and also grateful that CICCU provided it. I also needed a secure grounding in apologetics – for my own assurance and for my witness; again, CICCU provided it. Did CICCU make mistakes and have bumpy bits? Of course! It’s composed of sinners who are hard-wired towards works-righteousness and need the gospel to be bashed into their fallen minds all the time. So CICCU will have felt like guilt-motivation and works-righteousness at times, yes; but it also bashed the gospel into me and hundreds of others. Truly, I am blessed indeed to have been part of it.

    • lucysixsmith says:

      Hi Tom, thanks for stopping by and commenting — especially as your viewpoint redresses the balance in particular areas in which my post is unbalanced. I’m conscious that it (the post, I mean) pays disproportionate attention to the times when it seemed to me that the CICCU ways of doing things did not encourage free and grace-filled fellowship. Of course these times were not the whole picture even of my own experience of CICCU–which is itself only one person’s perspective. There were many people I knew or met in CICCU who were genuinely living the gospel, people whose very existence was a thought that could (and still can) revive my faith on a gloomy day. So it’s good to have your comment here as a testimony to the good stuff happening in CICCU.

      I am not convinced that the gospel as I heard it preached in CICCU central meetings, houseparties, college Bible studies and so on was really adequate. But it’s very hard to be objective about these things. I may have taken things the wrong way to a very great extent. Perhaps the CICCU ‘kick up the backside into personal evangelism’, and the ‘bashing’ of ‘the doctrine of grace’ into people’s heads was exactly right for many people: and, as I mentioned above, people can describe the gospel in ways that seem strange to each other, yet resemble each other in actually living it, or in my case just trying to live it: but those phrases give me the creeps–I’ve been sitting here for ages trying to work out whether there’s any good reason for that, or whether it’s just irrational, so maybe it is just irrational.

      On that inconclusive note, thanks again for commenting — it means that even after a long post, which was supposed to get the thoughts out of my system, I’m going to go away and think things over!

  2. Y says:

    “Did CICCU make mistakes and have bumpy bits? Of course! It’s composed of sinners who are hard-wired towards works-righteousness and need the gospel to be bashed into their fallen minds all the time.”

    One can be too glib, too quick, and too light about this kind of point. (That said: my wife and best men have yet to appear – I guess I’m just bitter.)

  3. Tom says:

    Thanks Lucy. For your cogitations… I also think that we hugely under-estimate the importance and value of discipline and accountability in the Christian life, because we’re so paranoid about the dangers of legalism and guilt-motivation. For instance, if the example and teaching of CICCU hadn’t stressed the importance of private prayer and quiet time devotions (at the risk of sounding border-line legalistic) then I would certainly have never gotten into the (very good) habits and been blessed by years of keeping it up since. The New Testament in both Gospels and Epistles is filled with the sort of direct, command-sounding, discipline-stressing, ruthless all-out gospel-living sentiment that it makes even CICCU’s most strident policies and culture seem positively tame. Try reading the epistle of James! My word, that’s uncompromising (which is sort of the point). CICCU’s an easy target because it sticks its neck out. But I kinda think that exaggerated disciplinarian keenness is what young giddy Christians need to give them a grounding from which they enjoy Christian liberty and live a grace-motivated life as they move out into the world.

    • lucysixsmith says:

      Thanks again for commenting, Tom. I think we’re now talking slightly at cross purposes, actually. I quite agree about the importance of discipline — and agree in the sense that I know I need more of it myself! But I hadn’t meant this to be about legalism in CICCU as such. Well, yes, it was partly about the problem of being motivated by guilt rather than love. But the more substantial question is about the actual content of the beliefs and practice, or beliefs in practice, that CICCU members were supposed to discipline themselves to. Your remark that the New Testament makes CICCU seem ‘positively tame’ is actually pretty much what I mean. For example, making too many sandwiches for a bunch of Trinity undergraduates and taking the ones left over to Jimmy’s Night Shelter does not, it seems to me, count as looking after orphans and widows in their distress or as serving those who are poor in the eyes of the world (James 1:27, James 2:5). However, CICCU had a very specific aim, ‘to make Jesus Christ known to students in Cambridge’ (and anyway I’ve no wish to pick on CICCU here, since I’m not sure I’ve ever in my life done anything that would really count as looking after orphans and widows in their distress), so I’ll leave that. But the book of James still sits oddly against the CICCU approach when I think specifically about life within the undergraduate community. “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak…” “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” I’m sure no CICCU preacher or BSGL would disagree with these verses, but they’d also stress the importance of Verbal Proclamation. I wonder what proportion of the words spoken formally and informally at CICCU gatherings was devoted to such subjects as the importance of inviting friends to events, taking opportunities to witness, and what to say when such opportunities arose. And I wonder whether this necessarily empowered people to love their friends deeply (James 2:8) and serve them faithfully whether or not they and their lives fitted with the CICCU assumptions. When an undergraduate has questions, confusions, beliefs that they’ve thought out deeply and at length, and a whole variety of different needs all at once, all varying between individuals, being able to draw the ‘Two Ways To Live’ pictures does not, I think, go very far towards being a good friend to them, and that’s more or less what CICCU felt like at times, to me. I remember a students worker and former CICCU President saying something like ‘the Friday Lunchtime Talk is when we meet the University face to face!’ But we were _in_ the University. Our friends needed more from us than verbal proclamation — not, I hasten to add, because our friends were particularly pathetic, but just because friends always need more from each other than verbal proclamation. And what CICCU had to proclaim, or gave its members to proclaim, was, at least sometimes, I think, a little bit impoverished: a predictable three or four point gospel package that was always pretty much the same whichever bit of Scripture one managed to find it in. I’ve ranted before on this blog about the time when we were told that Psalm 2 boiled down to ‘we have sinned, God is angry, judgment is coming, so put your trust in Jesus’. This comment, too, has become something of a rant — not very consistent with James 3:17-18! But it was at your suggestion that I re-read James this morning, and this is what came out of it. If you’re still reading this long reply by this point, I do apologise.

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