The Problem with Pietists

Some of us who attended Sunday School as children will recall the song that goes,

Be careful little eyes what you see
Be careful little eyes what you see
The Father up above is looking down in love
So be careful little eyes what you see

Although I sang this song as a child, I don’t recall having any particular thoughts about it. However, I know people for whom this song brings back feelings of dread, and you can see why. While it presents itself as a nice, sweet little song and even says that God looks down “in love,” it has very ominous overtones, akin to Sting’s “Every Breath You Take.”

The message is clear: Don’t screw up, because God is watching and He’d be very, very disappointed. The song presents itself as loving, but it’s really intended to produce a sense of shame – and as many have unfortunately discovered, shame can be controlled (the reason behind anyone saying, “Shame on you!”).

Why do we do this to our children? For that matter, why do we still do this to ourselves? Here’s a dose of reality: If the only reason we aren’t doing something is because we know someone is watching, then we’re not really any holier than if we just went ahead and sinned. Wasn’t this Jesus’ point in Matthew 5? It’s not our actions so much as our desires. Certainly our actions have earthly consequences (which is reason for curbing certain damaging behavior), but spiritually speaking, it really doesn’t matter. If I hit you, I’ve both hurt you and committed a crime, and you could have me arrested for battery. If I only want to hit you, I can’t be charged with anything, but I’ve still committed a sin.

Pietists think that by managing sin-deeds, we become more holy. The truth is, when we let God love us, we become holy, and we don’t want to sin (or at least a little less than we did in the past; it is a process). Sin management doesn’t make people holy, it only makes them hypocrites.

Now, this doesn’t mean that what I will call “holiness reminders” aren’t helpful; holiness reminders are like the advice that Paul always gave in his letters – things like, “submit to each other” and “love is patient and kind, not arrogant or boastful.” These things remind us of our goal, that state of perfection that God is taking us to (and also make living with each other a lot easier), so we can do an internal check to see where we need to ask for God’s help.

Holiness is an act of grace, not of our will. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Gal. 3:3 NASB)” Our holiness comes to us through grace, through God’s empowering presence in our lives. In other words, it is the by-product of God’s love for us.


  1. What were your experiences with guilt and shame as a child?
  2. What is your experience now? Are you still dealing with residual shame, or is someone in your life using religion to add to your shame burden?
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5 Responses to The Problem with Pietists

  1. charlie says:

    You have failed to understand pietism in its historical context and its spiritual context.

  2. Howard says:

    sorry, that should read ‘climbing a ladder without rungs’.

  3. Howard says:

    I think you’ve touched on something key here regarding pietism enforcing a sense of shame (essentially, the same awareness in the garden following the fall) and seeking to present God through that single lens – the only remedy is to ‘do good’. This, of course, entirely obscures the depth of our problem and the genuine nature of God and His mercy.

    There is only one real form of ‘sin management’ – death; ours, as a consequence of sin (both in the fall and in the grave) and Christ’s, which is the only antidote to the eternal consequences of sin, so any other notion is climbing a ladder with rungs.

    The key focus of Sanctification of any worth, I think, is a deepening appreciation of the depth of our corruption and the glory of the riches of grace and peace found in the redemptive nature and work of God in Christ – that alone truly prepares us for the day when these perishing bodies are renewed at His call.

  4. me says:

    I’ve never actually had much of a problem with James, although it does strike me as an odd letter. Besides it’s seeming incongruence with Paul at times, I know the authorship is questioned. I can see why it’s been one of the most debated books in the Canon.

    I would agree, for example, that faith without works – fruit – is dead. However, works done outside of faith are dead as well.

    The most troubling verse to me at this point is 1:25, where he says the law makes us free. If this is really what he meant, then we seem to have a direct contradiction to Paul.

    By the way, I just left a comment on this issue on your blog.

  5. Fred says:

    You probably don’t like James much, do you?

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