Idols of the Heart and “Vanity Fair”
A Classic Article by Dr. David Powlison
One of the great questions facing Christians in the social sciences and helping professions is this one: How do we legitimately and meaningfully connect the conceptual stock of the Bible and Christian tradition with the technical terminologies and observational riches of the behavioral sciences? Within this perennial question, two particular sub-questions have long intrigued and perplexed me.
One sort of question is a Bible relevancy question. Why is idolatry so important in the Bible? Idolatry is by far the most frequently discussed problem in the Scriptures.1 So what? Is the problem of idolatry even relevant today, except on certain mission fields where worshipers still bow to images?
The second kind of question is a counseling question, a “psychology” question. How do we make sense of the myriad significant factors that shape and determine human behavior? In particular, can we ever make satisfying sense of the fact that people are simultaneously inner-directed and socially-shaped?
These questions-and their answers-eventually intertwined. That intertwining has been fruitful both in my personal life and in my counseling of troubled people.
THE RELATIONSHIP OF INDIVIDUAL MOTIVATION TO SOCIOLOGICAL CONDITIONING
The relevance of massive chunks of Scripture hangs on our understanding of idolatry. But let me focus the question through a particular verse in the New Testament which long troubled me. The last line of 1 John woos, then commands us: “Beloved children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). In a 105-verse treatise on living in vital fellowship with Jesus, the Son of God, how on earth does that unexpected command merit being the final word? Is it perhaps a scribal emendation? Is it an awkwardfaux pas by a writer who typically weaves dense and orderly tapestries of meaning with simple, repetitive language? Is it a culture-bound, practical application tacked onto the end of one of the most timeless and heaven-dwelling epistles? Each of these alternatives misses the integrity and power of John’s final words.
Instead, John’s last line properly leaves us with that most basic question which God continually poses to each human heart. Has something or someone besides Jesus the Christ taken title to your heart’s trust, preoccupation, loyalty, service, fear and delight? It is a question bearing on the immediate motivation for one’s behavior, thoughts, and feelings. In the Bible’s conceptualization, the motivation question is the lordship question. Who or what “rules” my behavior, the Lord or a substitute? The undesirable answers to this question—answers which inform our understanding of the “idolatry” we are to avoid—are most graphically presented in 1 John 2:15-17, 3:7-10, 4:1-6, and 5:19. It is striking how these verses portray a confluence of the “sociological,” the “psychological,” and the “demonological” perspectives on idolatrous motivation.2
The inwardness of motivation is captured by the inordinate and proud “desires of the flesh” (1 John 2:16), our inertial self-centeredness, the wants, hopes, fears, expectations, “needs” that crowd our hearts. The externality of motivation is captured by “the world” (1 John 2:15-17,4:1-6), all that invites, models, reinforces, and conditions us into such inertia, teaching us lies. The “demonological” dimension of motivation is the Devil’s behavior-determining lordship (1 John 3:7-10,5:19), standing as a ruler over his kingdom of flesh and world. In contrast, to “keep yourself from idols” is to live with a whole heart of faith in Jesus. It is to be controlled by all that lies behind the address “beloved children” (see especially 1 John 3:1-3,4:7-5:12). The alternative to Jesus, the swarm of alternatives, whether approached through the lens of flesh, world, or the Evil One, is idolatry.
An Internal Problem
The notion of idolatry most often emerges in discussions of the worship of actual physical images, the creation of false gods. But the Scriptures develop the idolatry theme in at least two major directions pertinent to my discussion here. First, the Bible internalizes the problem. “Idols of the heart” are graphically portrayed in Ezekiel 14:1-8. The worship of tangible idols is, ominously, an expression of a prior heart defection from YHWH your God.3 “Idols of the heart” is only one of many metaphors which move the locus of God’s concerns into the human heart, establishing an unbreakable bond between specifics of heart and specifics of behavior: hands, tongue, and all the other members. The First Great Commandment, to “love God heart, soul, mind, and might,” also demonstrates the essential “inwardness” of the law regarding idolatry. The language of love, trust, fear, hope, seeking, serving—terms describing a relationship to the true God—is continually utilized in the Bible to describe our false loves, false trusts, false fears, false hopes, false pursuits, false masters.
If “idolatry” is the characteristic and summary Old Testament word for our drift from God, then “desires” (epithumiai) is the characteristic and summary New Testament word for the same drift.4 Both are shorthand for the problem of human beings. The New Testament language of problematic “desires” is a dramatic expansion of the tenth commandment, which forbids coveting (epithumia). The tenth commandment is also a command that internalizes the problem of sin, making sin “psychodynamic.” It lays bare the grasping and demanding nature of the human heart, as Paul powerfully describes it in Romans 7. Interestingly (and unsurprisingly) the New Testament merges the concept of idolatry and the concept of inordinate, life-ruling desires. Idolatry becomes a problem of the heart, a metaphor for human lust, craving, yearning, and greedy demand.5
A Social Problem
Second, the Bible treats idolatry as a central feature of the social context, “the world,” which shapes and molds us. The world is a “Vanity Fair,” as John Bunyan strikingly phrased it in Pilgrim’s Progress.6Bunyan’s entire book, and the Vanity Fair section in particular, can be seen as portraying the interaction of powerful, enticing, and intimidating social shapers of behavior with the self-determining tendencies of Christian’s own heart. Will Christian serve the Living God or any of a fluid multitude of idols crafted by his wife, neighbors, acquaintances, enemies, fellow members of idolatrous human society…and, ultimately, his own heart?7
That idolatries are both generated from within and insinuated from without has provocative implications for contemporary counseling questions. Of course, the Bible does not tackle our contemporary issues in psychological jargon or using our observational data.8 Yet, for example, the Bible lacks the rich particulars of what psychologists today might describe as a “dysfunctional family or marital system” only because it does not put those particular pieces of human behavior and mutual influence under the microscope. The “lack” is only in specific application. The biblical categories do comprehend how individuals in a family system—or any other size or kind of social grouping—work and influence one another for good or ill. For example, the life patterns often labeled “codependency” are more precisely and penetratingly understood as instances of “co-idolatry.” In the case of a “co-idolatrous relationship,” then, two people’s typical idol patterns reinforce and compete with each other. They fit together in an uncanny way, creating massively destructive feedback loops.
The classic alcoholic husband and rescuing wife are enslaved within an idol system whose components complement each other all too well. There are many possible configurations to this common pattern of false gods. In one typical configuration, the idol constellation in the husband’s use of alcohol might combine a ruling and enslaving love of pleasure, the escapist pursuit of a false savior from the pains and frustrations in his life, playing the angry and self-righteous judge of his wife’s clinging and dependent ways, the self-crucifying of his periodic remorse, a trust in man which seeks personal validation through acceptance by his bar companions, and so forth.
The idol pattern in the wife’s rescuing behavior might combine playing the martyred savior of her husband and family, playing the proud and self-righteous judge of her husband’s iniquity, a trust in man which overvalues the opinions of her friends, a fear of man which generates an inordinate desire for a male’s love and affection as crucial to her survival, and so forth. Each of their idols (and consequent behavior, thoughts, and emotions) is “logical” within the idol system, the miniature Vanity Fair of allurements and threats within which both live. Their idols sometimes are modeled, taught, and encouraged by the other person(s) involved: her nagging and his anger mirror and magnify each other; his bar buddies and her girl friends reinforce their respective self-righteousness and self-pity. The idols sometimes are reactive and compensatory to the other person: he reacts to her nagging with drinking, and she reacts to his drinking by trying to rescue and to change him. Vanity Fair is an ever so tempting…hell on earth.
Idols counterfeit aspects of God’s identity and character, as can be seen in the vignette above: Judge, savior, source of blessing, sin-bearer, object of trust, author of a will which must be obeyed, and so forth. Each idol that clusters in the system makes false promises and gives false warnings: “if only…then….” For example, the wife’s “enabling” behavior expresses an idolatrous playing of the savior. This idol promises and warns her, “If only you can give the right thing and can make it all better, then your husband will change. But if you don’t cover for him, then disaster will occur.” Because both the promises and warnings are lies, service to each idol results in a hangover of misery and accursedness. Idols lie, enslave, and murder. They are continually insinuated by the one who was a liar, slave master and murderer from the beginning. They are under the immediate wrath of God who frequently does not allow such things to work well in His world.9
The simple picture of idolatry—a worshiper prostrated before a figure of wood, metal or stone—is powerfully extended by the Bible. Idolatry becomes a concept with which to comprehend the intricacies of both individual motivation and social conditioning. The idols of the heart lead us to defect from God in many ways. They manifest and express themselves everywhere, down to the minute details of both inner and outer life. Such idols of the heart fit hand in glove with the wares offered in the Vanity Fair of social life. The invitations and the threats of our social existence beguile us towards defection into idolatries. These themes provide a foundational perspective on the “bad news” that pervades the Bible.
In sum, behavioral sins are always portrayed in the Bible as “motivated” or ruled by a “god” or “gods.” The problem in human motivation—the question of practical covenantal allegiance, God or any of the substitutes—is frequently and usefully portrayed as the problem of idolatry. Idolatry is a problem both rooted deeply in the human heart and powerfully impinging on us from our social environment.
This brings us squarely to the second kind of question mentioned at the outset. This second question is a counseling question. How on earth do we put together the following three things? First, people are responsible for their behavioral sins. Whether called sin, personal problems, or dysfunctional living, people are responsible for the destructive things which they think, feel and do.10 If I am violent or fearful, that is my problem.
Second, people with problems come from families or marriages or sub-cultures where the other people involved also have problems. People suffer and are victimized and misguided by the destructive things other people think, want, fear, value, feel, and do. These may be subtle environmental influences: social shaping via modeling of attitudes and the like. These may be acutely traumatic influences: loss or victimization. My problems are often embedded in a tight feedback loop with your problems. If you attack me, I tend to strike back or withdraw in fear. Your problem shapes my problems.
Third, behavior is motivated from the inside by complex, life-driving patterns of thoughts, desires, fears, views of the world, and the like, of which a person may be almost wholly unaware. We may be quite profoundly self-deceived about what pilots and propels us. My behavioral violence or avoidance manifests patterns of expectation that own me. “You might hurt me…so I’d better keep my distance or attack first.” My behavior is a strategy which expresses my motives: my trusts, my wants, my fears, my “felt needs.” Such motives range along a spectrum from the consciously calculating to the blindly compulsive.
How are we—and those we counsel—simultaneously socially conditioned, self-deceived, and responsible for our behavior without any factor cancelling out the others?! That is the question of the social and behavioral sciences (and it is the place they all fail when they excise God). It is also the question that any Christian counselor must attempt to answer both in theory and practice in a way that reflects Christ’s mind. The Bible’s view of man—both individual and social life—alone holds these things together.
A Three-Way Tension
Motives are simply what move us, the causes of or inducements to action, both the causal “spring” of life and the telic “goal” of life.11 The notion of motivation captures the inward-drivenness and goal-oriented nature of human life in its most important and troublesome features. All psychologies grapple with these issues. But no psychology has conceptual resources adequate to make sense of the interface between responsible behavior, a shaping social milieu, and a heart which is both self-deceived and life-determining.
Here are some examples. Moralism—the working psychology of the proverbial man on the street—sticks with responsible behavior. Complex causalities are muted in toto. Behavioral psychologies see both drives and rewards but cast their lot with the milieu, taking drives as untransformable givens. Both responsible behavior and a semi-conscious but renewable heart are muted. Humanistic psychologies see the interplay of inner desire/need with external fulfillment or frustration but cast their final vote for human self-determination. Both responsible behavior and the power of extrinsic forces are muted. Ego psychologies see the twisted conflict between heart’s desire and well-internalized social contingencies. But the present milieu and responsible behavior are muted. It is hard to keep three seemingly simple elements together.
Unity ‘with Respect to God’
The Bible—the voice of the Maker of humankind, in other words!—speaks to the same set of issues with a uniquely unified vision. There is no question that we are morally responsible: our works or fruit count. There is no question that fruit comes from an inner root to which we are often blind. “Idols of the heart,” “desires of the flesh,” “fear of man,” “love of money,” “chasing after…,” “earthly-minded,” “pride,” and a host of other word pictures capture well the biblical view of inner drives experienced as deceptively self-evident needs or goals. There is also no question that we are powerfully constrained by social forces around us. The “world,” “Vanity Fair,” “the counsel of the wicked,” “false prophets,” “temptation and trial,” and the like capture something of the influences upon us. Other people model and purvey false laws or false standards, things which misdefine value and stigma, blessedness and accursedness, the way of life, and the way of death. They sin against us. God quite comfortably juxtaposes these three simple things which tend to fly apart in human formulations. I am responsible for my sins: “Johnny is a bad boy.” My will is in bondage: “Johnny can’t help it.” I am deceived and led about by others: “Johnny got in with a bad crowd.” How can these be simultaneously true?
The answer, which all the psychologies and sociologies miss, is actually quite simple. Human motivation is always “with respect to God.” The social and behavioral sciences miss this “intentionality,” because they themselves are idolatrously motivated. In a massive irony, they build into their charter and methodology a blindness to the essential nature of their subject matter.
Human motivation is intrinsic neither to the individual nor to human society. Human motivation is never strictly psychological or psycho-social or psycho-social-somatic. It is not strictly either psychodynamic or sociological or biological or any combination of these. These terms are at best metaphors for components in a unitary phenomenon which is essentially religious or covenantal. Motivation is always God-relational. Thus human motivation is not essentially the sort of unitary species-wide phenomenon that the human sciences pursue. It is encountered and observed in actual life as an intrinsically binary phenomenon: faith or idolatry. The only unitary point in human motives is the old theological construct: human beings are worshiping creatures, willy-nilly. Seeing this, the Bible’s view alone can unify the seemingly contradictory elements in the explanation of behavior.
The deep question of motivation is not “What is motivating me?” The final question is,“Who is the master of this pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior?” In the biblical view, we are religious, inevitably bound to one god or another. People do not have needs. We have masters, lords, gods, be they oneself, other people, valued objects, Satan. The metaphor of an idolatrous heart and society capture the fact that human motivation bears an automatic relationship to God: Who, other than the true God, is my god? Let me give two examples, one dear to the heart of behaviorists and the other dear to the heart of humanistic psychologists.
Hunger as Idolatry
When a “hunger drive” propels my life or a segment of my life, I am actually engaging in religious behavior. I—”the flesh”—have become my own god, and food has become the object of my will, desires, and fears. The Bible observes the same mass of motives which the behavioral sciences see as a “primary drive.” Something biological is certainly going on. Something psychological, and even sociological, is going on. But the Bible’s conceptualization differs radically. I am not “hunger¬driven.” I am “hunger-driven-rather-than-God-driven.”
We are meant to relate to food by thankfully eating what we know we have received and by sharing generously. I am an active idolater when normal hunger pangs are the wellspring of problem behavior and attitudes. Normal desires tend to become inordinate and enslaving. The various visible sins which can attend such an idolatry—gluttony, anxiety, thanklessness, food obsessions and “eating disorders,” irritability when dinner is delayed, angling to get the bigger piece of pie, miserliness, eating to feel good, and the like—make perfect sense as outworkings of the idol that constrains my heart.12 Problem behavior roots in the heart and has to do with God.
The idolatries inhabiting our relations with food, however, are as social as they are biological or psychological. Perhaps my father modeled identical attitudes. Perhaps my mother used food to get love and to quell anxiety. Perhaps they went through the Great Depression and experienced severe privation, which has left its mark on them and made food a particular object of anxiety. Perhaps food has always been my family’s drug of choice. Perhaps food is the medium through which love, happiness, anger and power are expressed. Perhaps I am bombarded with provocative food advertisements. The variations and permutations are endless.
Membership in the society of the fallen sons and daughters of Adam ensures that we will each be a food idolater in one way or another.13 Membership in American consumer society shapes that idolatry into typical forms. A complex system of idolatrous values can be attached to food. For example, we characteristically lust for a great variety of foodstuffs. Food plays a role in the images of beauty and strength which we serve, in desires for health and fears of death. Food—the quantities and types prepared, the modes of preparation and consumption—is a register of social status. Membership in a famished Ethiopian society would have shaped the generic idolatry into different typical forms. Membership in the micro-society of my family further particularizes the style of food idolatry: for example, perhaps in our family system hunger legitimized irritability, and eating was salvific, delivering us from destroying our family with anger. Yet in all these levels of social participation, my individuality is not lost. I put my own idiosyncratic stamp on food idolatry. For example, perhaps I am peculiarly enslaved to Fritos when tense and peculiarly nervous about whether red food dyes are carcinogenic!
Security as Idolatry
Behaviorists speak of “drives” and tend to “lower” the focus to the ways we are most similar to animals. Humanists and existentialists, on the other hand, speak of “needs” and tend to “raise” the focus to uniquely human social and existential goals. But the same critique applies. When a “need for security” propels my life or a segment of my life, I am again engaging in religious behavior. Rather than serving the true God, the god I serve is the approval and respect of people, either myself or others. I am an idolater. I am not “motivated by a need for security.” I am “motivated by a lust for security rather than ruled by God.” Or, since desire and fear are complementary perspectives on human motivation, “I fear man” instead of “I fear and trust God.” Need theories, like drive theories, can never comprehend the “rather than God,” which is always built into the issue of human motivation. They can never comprehend the fundamental idolatry issue, which sees that the things which typically drive us really exist as inordinate desires of the flesh that are direct alternatives to submitting to the desires of the Spirit.
Our lusts for security, of course, are tutored as well as spontaneous. “Vanity Fair” operates as effectively here as it does with our hunger. Powerful and persuasive people woo and intimidate us that we might trust or fear them. In convicting us of our false trusts and acknowledging the potency of the pressures on us, the Scriptures again offer us the liberating alternative of knowing the Lord.14
Idols: A Secondary Development?
When the conceptual structures of humanistic psychology are “baptized” by Christians, the fundamental “rather than God” at the bottom of human motivation continues to be missed. For example, many Christian counselors absolutize a need or yearning for love. As observant human beings, they accurately see that fallen and cursed people are driven to seek stability, love, acceptance, and affirmation, and that we look for such blessings in empty idols. As committed Christians they often want to lead people to trust Jesus Christ rather than their idols. But they improperly insert an a priori and unitary relational need, an in-built yearning or empty love tank as underpinning the heart’s subsequent divide between faith and idolatry.
They baptize this “need,” describing it as God-created. Idolatry becomes an improper way to meet a legitimate need, and our failure to love others becomes a product of unmet needs. The Gospel of Christ is redefined as the proper way to meet this need. In this theory then, idolatry is only a secondary development: our idols are wrong ways to meet legitimate needs. Repentance from idolatry is thus also secondary, being instrumental to the satisfaction of needs. Such satisfaction is construed to be the primary content of God’s good news in Christ. Biblically, however, idolatry is the primary motivational factor. We fail to love people because we are idolaters who love neither God nor neighbor. We become objectively insecure because we abide under God’s curse and because other people are just as self-centered as we are. We create and experience estrangement from both God and other people. The love of God teaches us to repent of our “need for love,” seeing it as a lust, receiving merciful real love, and beginning to learn how to love rather than being consumed with getting love.
Humans lust after all sorts of good things and false gods—including love—in attempting to escape the rule of God. The love-need psychologies do not dethrone the inner sanctum of our heart’s idolatry. Structurally, the logic of love-need systems is analogous to the “health and wealth” false gospels. Jesus gives you what you deeply yearn for without challenging those yearnings.
It is no surprise that, for good or ill, love-need psychology only rings the bells of certain kinds of counselees, who are particularly attuned to the wavelength of what we might call the intimacy idols. Such theories lack appeal and effectiveness “cross-culturally” to people and places where the reigning idols are not intimacy idols but, for example, power, status, sensual pleasure, success, or money. A love-need system must interpret such idols reductionistically, as displacements or compensatory versions of the “real need” which motivates people.
The Bible is simpler. Any one of the idols may have an independent hold on the human heart. Idols may reduce to one another in part: for example, a man with an intractable pornography and lust problem may be significantly helped by repentantly realizing that his lust expresses a tantrum over a frustrated desire to be married, a desire which he has never recognized as idolatrous. Idols can be compounded on top of idols. But sexual lust has its own valid primary existence as an idol as well. A biblical understanding of the idolatry motif explains why need models seem plausible and also thoroughly remakes the model. In biblical reality— in reality, in other words!—there is no such thing as that neutral, normal and a priori love need at the root of human motivation.
The biblical theme of idolatry provides a penetrating tool for understanding both the springs of and the inducements to sinful behavior. The causes of particular sins, whether “biological drives,” “psychodynamic forces from within,” “socio-cultural conditioning from without,” or “demonic temptation and attack” can be truly comprehended through the lens of idolatry. Such comprehension plows the field for Christian counseling to become Christian in deed as well as name, to become ministry of the many-faceted good news of Jesus Christ.
CASE STUDY AND ANALYSIS
Using a case study of a hurt-angry-fearful person, this article will now explore in greater detail the relationship between “world” and “heart” in the production of complex and dysfunctional behaviors, emotional responses, cognitive processes, and attitudes.
Wally is a 33-year-old man.15 He has been married to Ellen for eight years. They have two children. He is a highly committed Christian. He works for his church half time as an administrator and building overseer and half time in a diaconal ministry of mercy among inner city poor. He and his wife sought counseling after an explosion in their often-simmering marriage. He became enraged and beat her up. Then he ran away, threatening never to come back. He reappeared three days later, full of guilt, remorse, and a global sense of failure.
The current marital problems are exacerbated versions of long-standing problems: anger, inability to deeply reconcile, threats of violence alternating with threats of suicide, depression, workaholism alternating with escapism, a pattern of moderate drinking when under stress, generally poor communication, use of pornography, and loneliness. Wally has no close friends.
Several years ago Wally became involved sexually with a woman he was working with diaconally: “I know it was wrong, but I just felt so bad for her and how rough she’d had it that I found myself trying to comfort her physically.” He broke it off, and Ellen forgave him; but both acknowledge there has been a residue of guilt and mistrust.
He oscillates between “the flame-thrower and the deep freeze.” On the one hand he can be abrasive, manipulative, angry, and unforgiving. On the other hand he withdraws, feels hurt, anxious, guilty, and afraid of people. He oscillates between anger at Ellen’s “bossiness, nagging, controlling me, not supporting me or listening to me” and depression at his own sins. Her patterns and his create a feedback system in which each tends to bring out and reinforce the worst in the other.
Wally grew up in a secular, Jewish, working class family. He was born when his father was 52 years old and his mother, 42. By dint of hard work, long hours, and scraping by, they bought a house in a relatively affluent WASP suburb shortly after Wally was born. Wally’s father was a critical man, impossible to please. “If I got all A’s with one B, it was ‘What’s this?’ If I mowed and raked the lawn, it was ‘You missed a spot behind the garage.’”
After his retirement at age 70, Wally’s father became “much more mellow; and, with my having become a Christian and trying to forgive him, our relationship wasn’t half bad the last five years of his life.” His mother was “well-meaning, nice, but ineffective, totally intimidated by my Dad.” Wally had been a bit of a “weirdo” in high school: “I never matched up to the bourgeois values. I was too smart, too uncoordinated, too ugly, too shy, too awkward, and too poor to cut it in school.”
Wally became a Christian during his first year in college and immediately gravitated towards work with the poor and downcast. “I have little sympathy for rich, suburban Christians; but I love the poor, the single parents, the ex-addicts, the psychiatric patients, the ex-cons, the orphans and widows, the handicapped, the losers.” His Christian commitment is intense and life-dominating. He loves Jesus Christ. He believes the Gospel. He desires to share Christ with others. He knows what his behavioral sins are, but he feels trapped. “I just react instinctively. Then I feel guilty. You know the pattern!”
Financially, Wally and Ellen are not well off. They are not extravagant spenders, but they face continual financial decisions: Dental work for the children? Should we buy a house? Should we take a vacation or work side jobs to earn a little extra money? How many hours a week should Ellen try to work outside the home? Can we really afford to tithe? Should we accede to the kids’ desire for a VCR? They live month to month, and the bill cycle periodically creates quite a bit of stress.
How are Christian counselors to understand Wally in order to help him?
“Vanity Fair”: The Sociology of Idolatry
Idols define good and evil in ways contrary to God’s definitions. They establish a locus of control that is earth-bound: either in objects (e.g., lust for money), other people (“I need to please my critical father”), or myself (e.g., self-trusting pursuit of my personal agenda). Such false gods create false laws, false definitions of success and failure, of value and stigma. Idols promise blessing and warn of curses for those who succeed or fail against the law: “If you get a large enough IRA, you will be secure. If I can get certain people to like and respect me, then my life is valid.” There are numerous idolatrous values which influenced Wally and continue to pressure him: beguiling him, frightening him, controlling him, constraining him, enslaving him.
His father’s perfectionistic demands were one of the prominent idols impressed into Wally’s personal history: “You must please me in whatever way I determine.” Wally believed his father’s sinful, lying demand. “Fear of man” describes the phenomenon from the psychological side of the equation, a particular “idol of the heart.” “Oppression” and “injustice” describe his father’s powerful demands on the sociological side. We see the dominion of a father whose leadership style was that of a tyrant-king, not that of a servant-king promoting the well-being of his son.16 In essence, he lied, bullied, enslaved, and condemned. “I can remember lying on my bed while my Dad went on and on lecturing me, ranting and raving.” Wally was conditioned to be very concerned with what significant people thought of him. At the same time Wally bought the idol. He is simultaneously a victim and guilty. He was abused by powerful idols operative within his family system. He also instinctively both bought into those idols and produced his own competitive idols.
Relationships are rarely static. There were various sides and various phases to Wally’s relationship with his father’s critical opinion. At times Wally temporarily succeeded in pleasing his father and felt good about himself. At other times he failed in his father’s eyes, earning only scorn for being “a spaz, girlishly emotional.” At other times he obsessively, almost maniacally, strived to please his father. He once spent a summer, with dismal results, trying to learn to dribble a basketball in a way that did not “look like a six-year-old girl.” Some of the classic “low self-esteem” symptom patterns were established in this crucible.
At other times Wally rebelled against his father and his father’s implacable demands. He pitted his will against his father. Being highly intelligent, he was formidable and creative as a rebel. In his teens he succeeded in driving his father half crazy by setting up contrary value systems (serving contrary idols): rock music, bizarre dress and hairstyle, left-wing politics, marijuana use. One idol—”I need to please my father”—led into another—”I’ll do what I want and set myself in opposition to my father.”17
There are even elements in Wally’s conversion to Christianity which might be construed as part of this tendency to define himself in opposition to his father’s secular, ethnic Jewish, upwardly mobile culture. His Christianity could be used at times to torment his father. Idols are fluid. The rebellious stance ultimately became Wally’s predominant long-term commitment and undergirds a certain low-grade resentment he still feels at the memory of his father, now five years dead. But rebellion is not unmixed. It can be tinctured with regrets, a sense of failure, or even with merciful and gentle tendencies. “Sometimes I think I have really come to peace with my father—an honest, merciful peace that Christ has painstakingly wrought in me. At other times I know I lose it and react like the wounded and proud animal I once was.”
Wally’s father was not static either. In his later years he mellowed considerably. Wally’s Christian faith and his father’s evolution into a gentler man combined to bring a fair measure of kindness and forgiveness into the relationship. It became peaceable but never warm. Idols have a history, a “shelf life.”18 Vanity Fair evolves. A demanding father became a less demanding father who eventually promulgated a friendlier idol: he wanted to bask in the warmth of “family” and retirement. Our hearts also evolve. A youth with a compulsion to please became a young man who half wanted to please and half rebelled. The young man became a middle-aged man driven and haunted by some of the same patterns of contradictory compulsions, even after his earthly father’s death. Wally both lusts after the approval and respect of people and yet rebels and isolates himself in his pride.
We become infested with idols. The idolatrous patterns in Wally’s relationship with his father manifest in other relationships. Wally has had ongoing problems with authority figures in school, the military, work, and the church. He has had the same sorts of problems with his wife, friends, and even his children. Naturally, he brings this same pattern into the counseling relationship, with all the challenges that creates for building trust and a working relationship. He continues to manifest a typical stew of associated problems: a slavish desire to be approved, a deep suspicion that he won’t be approved, a stubborn independency.
We have attended in some detail to the way in which his father’s demandingness constituted an idol system which staked out a claim in Wally’s affections. We will give less detail to other influences, though each might be explored in equal detail. His mother’s passivity in the face of conflict set a model for him which still frequently colors his relationship to Ellen. The “bourgeois values” of his high school peer culture—dating, athletics, scoring sexually, looks, clothes, money, “cool”—also marked him out as a failure and fueled both his rebellion and his sense of shameful inadequacy. He bought the bourgeois values and failed against them. He rebelled against those values and bought the alternative values of the drug culture, in which he succeeded. He rebelled against both straights and druggies and isolated himself as a world of one, which sometimes worked and sometimes failed. All these things happened, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes successively.
Even the counterculture values of his “radical Christian” subculture can be understood in part as an idolatrous narrowing of the Christian life in reaction to the opposite idolatrous equation of Christianity with the American Dream. Certain biblical goods are magnified to the exclusion of other biblical goods. In various ways Wally continues to play out a three-fold theme. First, he typically rebels against certain dominant “successful people” cultures. Second, he finds his validity in the affirmation of a “down-and-out” subculture. Third, all the while he acts in idiosyncratic pride to create his own culture-of-one in which he plays king, and his opinions on anything from the dinner to eschatology are self-evident truth.
“Who can understand the heart of man?!” And who can understand the world that negotiates with that heart?! Wally and the myriad forces which impinge on him elude exhaustive, rational analysis. Yet we can describe enough of what goes on in his complex heart and complex world to minister helpfully to him. And the Wally we meet today is only today’s Wally, not the Wally of some prior point in his personal history. Biblical counsel, the mind of Christ about Wally’s life, can be given. Wisdom, the nourishing and honeyed tongue, can make satisfying and convicting sense of things, and Wally can learn to live, think, and act with such wisdom.
Many other idol systems and sub-systems impinge on Wally. Some are the same players Bunyan described in his Vanity Fair: cultural attitudes, values, fears, and opportunities which circle around money, sex, food, power, success, or comfort. Certain gentle-faced idols—the mass media, professional sports, and the alcohol industry—woo him with temporary compensations and false, escapist saviors from the pressures generated by his slavery to the harsh, terrifying idols which enslave and whip him along at other times: “I must perform. I must prove myself. Everyone I respect must like me. What if I fail?”
Some of the other idol systems which daily impact on Wally are found within the marital system and the family system. Ellen’s and the children’s values and desires provoke and persuade Wally in various ways. If Ellen worries about money, if the children get swept up with complaining when they do not get what they want, if Ellen nags Wally with expectations of moralistic behavioral change, Wally is variously worried, angry, compliant, depressed, defensive, full of denial, or whatever else, depending on how he interfaces with the particular micro-society that is constraining him.19
This way of exploring “What rules me?” is “sociological.” False gods are highly catching! With good reason both Old and New Testaments abound with warnings against participating in pagan cultures and associating with idolaters, fools, false teachers, angry people, and the like. Our enemies not only hurt us, they also tempt us to be like them. False voices are not figments which the individual soul hallucinates. “World” complements “flesh” to constitute monolithic evil: the manufacture of idols instead of worship of the true God.
If we would help people have eyes and ears for God, we must know well which alternative gods clamor for their attention. These forces and shaping influences neither determine nor excuse our sins. But they do nurture, channel, and exacerbate our sinfulness in particular directions. They are often atmospheric, invisible, unconscious influences. Conscious repentance begins to thrive where I see both my own distortions and the distortions impinging upon me from others. Both tempt me, and I must battle both.
Scripture is sensitive to sociological forces without compromising human responsibility. But, of course, idols are also “in here” in our hearts, determining the course of our lives. In the discussion above, Wally’s heart response to his environment—idols of the heart—continually intruded. The two are impossible to disentangle absolutely. But in the next section I will look in greater detail at the more psychological dimension of idolatry.
Idols of the Heart: the Psychology of Idolatry
At the simplest level Wally both imbibed the idols to which he was exposed and creatively fabricated his own. He has variously succeeded, failed, or rebelled against various value systems. But in each case he nurtures and serves numerous unbiblical values. His life implicitly validates many lies. His heart is deeply divided between the true God and idols. Is he a Christian? Yes. But the ongoing work of renewal must engage him genuinely over the particular patterns of idolatry that functionally substitute for faith in Christ. There has been a measure of genuine fruit in his life. But there has been a measure of bending the true God to the agenda of the flesh.
Idols are rarely solitary. Our lives become infested with them. Wally is psychologically controlled by a lush variety of false gods. For example, he typically oscillates between “pride” and the “fear of man.”20Pride or “playing god” generates one set of sins: anger, manipulation, compulsions to control people and circumstances, a “Type A personality,” rebellion against parents and the bourgeois. The fear of man or “making others into god” generates another set: self-consciousness, fears, depression, failure, anxiety, withdrawal, a gnawing sense of inferiority, chameleon behavior. They work hand in hand to produce his “perfectionism,” both in its anxious and its demanding aspects: “My performance in your eyes. Your performance in my eyes.”
Many other gods wait in the wings, playing occasional bit parts in the drama of Wally’s life. At times Wally’s god is a lust for escapist comfort from the pressure cooker he creates. Alcohol abuse, TV watching, video games and pornography provide fleeting escape. At times he is owned by a desire to “help” people. He becomes obsessed with his ministry, angry at any who hinder it, prone to become messianic (and even adulterous), justifying any doubtful actions on his part by reference to the supreme value of “my ministry.” Of course, this is only a sampler. Any of scores of particular lesser gods can appear in the temple of his heart depending on traffic conditions, the weather, how his wife treats him, how his children do in school, etc.
The real Wally is irreducibly complex! Even as I portray Wally in broad strokes, it is clear that his life emerges from an ever-shifting mosaic of false loyalties. This noted, are there hierarchies of idols or prepotent idols of unusual significance in Wally’s case? Yes, there are. Wally’s life may well play out typical, oft-repeated themes. He is a “type” in a loose sense, though he can never be reduced to a rigid diagnostic type because of the myriads of fluid idols which constrain him. Certain idols strike me as predominant in Wally. “Pride” (I play god) and “fear of man” (I install you as god) are crucial. One finds variations on the themes of “I want my way” and “How do I perform in your eyes?” endlessly repeated in Wally’s life. Demand and fear take turns in the spotlight. Other typically dominant idols—sexual pleasure, money, etc.—certainly have their say in Wally’s life but have a more low-grade, nagging quality, which in a different counselee might be greatly intensified.
It is striking how biblical categories—the idol motif, in this case—stay close to the concrete details of life and do not speculate abstract typologies. The bedrock similarities between people tend to be brought into view. In our psychologized culture we are used to definitive analyses of Wally and others according to a typology. He is a type-A person. He is a Pleaser. He is a Controller. He is a combination of melancholic and choleric temperaments. He is a typical ACOA or member of a dysfunctional family. His root sin is anger. His problem is low self-esteem. In DSM-III categories he is a…, and so forth. Such statements tend to pass for significant knowledge. In fact, they are not explanations for anything but are simply ways of describing common clusters of symptoms.
Given the prevalence of this mode of typing people, it might be expected that we could say something like, “His root idol is….” But the data on idolatry does not generally support such reductionistic understandings of the human heart.21 At best we can make the softer claim, “His most characteristic idol is…usually…but at other times…!” For purely heuristic purposes it may be useful to notice that one person is particularly attuned to the intimacy idols, another to avoidance idols, another to power idols, another to comfort idols, another to pleasure idols, another to religiosity idols, and so forth. A person’s style of sin—”characteristic flesh” in Richard Lovelace’s graphic term22—may tend to cluster habitually around particular predominant idols.
But sin is creative as well as habitual! We should not forget that the reductionism the Bible consistently offers is not a typology that distinguishes people from each other but is a summary comment that highlights our commonalities: all have turned aside from God, “each to his own way,” “doing what was right in his own eyes.”23 Under this master categorization the temple teems with potential shapes for idols and false gods. The rampant and proliferating desires (plural) of the flesh contend with the Spirit and clamor for our faith and obedience. Typologies are pseudo-explanations. They are descriptive, not analytical, though as conceptual tools for various psychologies and psychotherapies they pretend to explanatory power. At best, typologies describe “syndromes,” patterns of fruit and life experience that commonly occur together.24 Current typologies are not helpful for exposing the real issues in the lives of real people. At best they are redundant of good description and intimate knowledge of a particular individual. At worst, they are bearers of misleading conceptual freight, for they duck the idolatry issues.
How do we explain the fact that all of us are not exactly like Wally though we share the same generic set of idolatrous tendencies?: the numerous forms of pride and the fear of man; obsession with sensual pleasures; preoccupation with money; tendencies towards self-trust regarding our opinions, agendas, abilities; the creation of false views of God based on our life experience and desires; desire to be intrinsically righteous, worthy, and esteemable; and the like. Jay Adams has perceptively commented on the commonality inhering within individual styles of sin:
Sin, then, in all of its dimensions, clearly is the problem with which the Christian counselor must grapple. It is the secondary dimensions—the variations on the common themes—that make counseling so difficult. While all men are born sinners and engage in the same sinful practices and dodges, each develops his own styles of sinning. The styles (combinations of sins and dodges) are peculiar to each individual; but beneath them are the common themes. It is the counselor’s work to discover these commonalities beneath the individualities.25
‘Neighborhoods’ in Vanity Fair
How do individual styles develop? Certainly particular “neighborhoods” in Vanity Fair can empower different idols. It doesn’t surprise us that Wally’s demanding and unpleasable father can be correlated with a particular form of the “fear of man” as a significant idol in Wally’s heart. Yet because of the continual interplay of idol-making heart with idol-offering milieu, another child might grow up with very accepting parents, and the “fear of man” would be similarly empowered as a lust never to be rejected or fail. Our idols both covet what we do not have and hold on for dear life to what we do have.
Many of the nuances of our idolatries are socially shaped by the opportunities and values that surround us. For example, it is unsurprising that more people will become homosexuals (or adulterers, or pornographers, or whatever) in a culture that makes certain forms of sexual sin available, legitimate, or normal. For example, Wally grew up in a family moderately obsessed with academic and professional achievement. His next door neighbor might have grown up in a family obsessed with escapist pleasure, and he might have been nurtured to live for “Miller Time” and televised sports. The generic idols in every heart may bear different fruit in different people. For example, Baal is no threat to produce “religious” forms of idolatry today, but Mormonism is such a threat.
Much of the variation among us is simply empowered by the “accidents” of life experience: tragedies or smooth sailing, handicaps or health, riches or poverty, New York City or Iowa or Uganda, a high school or a graduate school education, first-born or eighth-born, male or female, born in 1500 B.C. or 1720 or 1920 or 1960, and the like. Much individual variation is due to hereditary and temperamental differences: kinds of intelligence, physical coordination and capabilities, variation in talents and abilities, metabolic and hormonal differences, and so forth. In the last analysis, idiosyncratic choice from among the opportunities and options one encounters accounts for the nearly infinite range for individuality within the “commonalities” that biblical categories discern in us.
The diagnostic categories which pierce to the commonalities are categories such as “idolatry versus faith,” which we are using here. These alone can embrace both the fluidities and relative stabilities of Wally’s world, flesh, and devil—and can embrace the true God who has saved Wally. They apply toevery person in a way which is simple, but never simplistic, accounting for all the complexities. For all our differences, the Bible speaks to every one of us.
OTHER DIAGNOSTIC PERSPECTIVES AND THE GOSPEL: MULTIPERSPECTIVAL INTERPRETATION
As we have indicated, Wally’s mass of behaviors, attitudes, cognitions, value judgments, emotions, influences, et al. can be understood right down to the details utilizing the biblical notion of idolatry. The disorder in Wally’s life is produced by the interplay between particular idols of his heart and particular idols of his social environment. Sins occur at the confluence of disoriented heart motives and disoriented socio-cultural systems of all sizes. The intention of this essay has been to explore some of the dense connections between flesh and world. But there are other ways of approaching these things which are important to recognize.
Notably absent has been attention to the equally dense connecting links between the Devil and both world and flesh in the production of Wally’s dysfunctional and sinful living. “Who rules me?” invites awareness of spiritual powers. Idols and demons go hand in hand in literal worship of false gods. Not surprisingly, the functional lordship of Satan is equally evident in the more subtle idolatries that enslave Wally. Does this mean that Wally is “demon-possessed” and the treatment of choice is exorcism? Decidedly not. But wherever we are problematically afraid or angry—to isolate two particular bad fruits—we are being formed into Satan’s image rather than Christ’s. The same modalities that fight world and flesh also fight the Devil. Intelligent faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is ultimately the answer. But awareness of the spiritual warfare occurring emphasizes the fact that Christian counseling is a ministry of prayer.26 Awareness of spiritual warfare also helps shake us out of the behavioral science mindset which tempts us to think about people psycho-socially, rather than with respect to God.
The Dark Lord’s stratagems are all intended to establish his lordship over people. Satan methodically disintegrates Wally’s relationships, leads him into gross sins, deceives his mind into highly distorted and selective perceptions, accuses him into despair, discourages him, ties his life into knots in every imaginable way, fans normal desires into inordinate and addictive desires and “needs,” and the like. This article has primarily attended to “world and flesh.” “Devil” completes the monolithic triad of biblical perspectives on the motivation of problem behavior.
Also notably absent has been detailed attention to the somatic influences on Wally. His problems are exacerbated by allergies, overtiredness, a diet with too much “junk food,” sexual frustration and a sedentary lifestyle. Close attention to patterns of irritability, marital tension, sexual lust, and depression would consistently reveal a plausible somatic component. The fact that monitoring caffeine and sugar intake, and getting more regular rest, sexual intercourse, and exercise moderates Wally’s symptoms also points to somatic influences. Somatic factors, at minimum, influence the “quantity” of Wally’s problems, though they do not create the “quality” of his problems. A tense irritability can flare into rage and cursing. A case of “the blues” can spiral into bleak despair. A tendency to ogle women can break out into purchasing Penthouse. Wally’s body variously exacerbates or moderates the intensity of his sins. It does not create new kinds of sins.
The Role of the Will
Also notably absent has been a discussion of the degree to which Wally’s behavior is willed and, hence, immediately controllable. As was stressed earlier, paying biblical attention to motives of heart and world is no ploy for cutting the force out of the Bible’s view of human responsibility. Wally chooses, even when he plunges down well-worn ruts where a fork in the road seems experientially nonexistent. Wally has made headway in self-discipline at various times in his life. He knows what is wrong and what is right. He is able to describe many times when he “bull-headedly chose wrong.” He can also tell of many times when he acted out of conscious faith in Christ to choose right.
Recognizing choice does not negate the power of world, flesh, and Devil. The more Wally grows to know himself and his environment, the more he consciously knows and experiences that he has always been making choices. One of the purposes of working with the idol motif (or with its more culturally accessible equivalents: the idolatrous desires, hopes, fears, expectations and goals which own people) is to expand the arena in which Wally is aware of the choices he has been making implicitly. Sanctification expands the arena of conscious choice and biblical self-control.
Also notably absent has been a discussion of the providence of God in bringing intense, transforming experiences. Wally’s conversion “dropped out of the sky” and gave him months of freedom from sins, joy in Christ, and growing love for people. He has had other “high times” as a Christian: times of greater vision, love, and liberty produced by a good sermon, at a retreat, or by some inexplicable opening of his heart to God in a moment of daily life.
But changes in Wally’s life—whether the product of victories in conscious spiritual warfare, of physiological alterations, of volitional commitment or of mountaintop experiences—seemingly “happen” at random. These four paradigms often provide the stuff with which Wally thinks about problems and change in his life. Wally has little sense of confidence that his life is moving in the direction of consistent, intelligent, desirable, whole-souled change. His life in general seems to be an unhappy chaos, with occasional and temporary moments of symptomatic relief. One of the goals of this essay is to describe several elements which can make change more consistent, internalized, self-conscious and genuinely transformative. In my experience the Wallys, both inside and outside the church, tend to be very blind to the things that move them. It is a curious but not uncommon phenomenon that a biblically literate person like Wally has no effective grasp on the idols of his own heart and the temptations of the particular Vanity Fair which surrounds him.27 Wally is all action, impulse, and emotion. He knows relatively little about what God sees going on in his heart and his world. The question, “What is God’s agenda in my life?” can often be answered with some confidence when I start to grasp the themes which play out in my life.
My analysis has been predominantly “psycho-social” (covenantally psycho-social!). A full biblical analysis of Wally’s problems would be a “psycho-social-spiritual-somatic-volitional-experiential” analysis.28 To understand the exact weight of each variable is, obviously, to quest after something which is—from a human point of view, the intentions of social scientists notwithstanding!—ultimately elusive. But the Bible’s answer is always powerfully applicable: turning from idols to the living God, renewal of mind and heart in the truth, activities captured in shorthand by the phrase “repentance and faith.”
The Lordship Question
There is some utility to teasing out these two strands of human motivation, while never forgetting that we are focusing only on several perspectives within a unified whole. The two I have concentrated on in this article— the heart and the social milieu—without question receive the bulk of the Bible’s attention. But the question of human motivation is ultimately the multiperspectival question of lordship, of faith in idols and false gods in tension with vital faith in the true God. This can be looked at through numerous lenses:
Lordship through the lens of our hearts: The grace-filled, “strait and narrow” will of the Spirit versus the rampant, idolatrous desires of my flesh.
Lordship through the lens of social influences: Social shaping by the Kingdom of God and the body of Christ versus imbibing the models and values of the kingdoms of our world (various micro-kingdoms of marital and family systems; on up through progressively larger kingdoms of peer relations; of neighborhood, school, and work place cultures; of ethnic group, socio-economic class, nationality, etc.).
Lordship through the lens of spiritual masters: The good King Jesus versus the tyrant Satan.
Lordship through the lens of somatic influences: living through bodily pains and frustrations in the hope of the resurrection versus immediate service to and preoccupation with my belly’s and body’s pains, pleasures, deprivations, and wants.
Lordship through the lens of volitional choices: Conscious faith in God’s promises and obedience to God’s will versus believing and choosing according to my spontaneous will, desires, and opinions, “the way that seems right to a man.”
Lordship through the lens of experiential providence: Learning to rejoice in God amid blessings and to repent and trust God amid sufferings versus growing presumptuous, proud, or self-satisfied when things go our way and depressed, angry, or afraid when life is painful, frustrating, or unsure.
Though this article has commented particularly on the interplay between the first two lenses, my intent throughout has been to expand our view of Wally, not to constrict it. Within the biblical conceptual framework we can bring into view all of Wally and his world. The notion of behavior as ruled lets us hold together seeming paradoxes. Wally is fully responsible for what he does. Wally’s inner life is full of kinks, distortions, and blind compulsions. Wally is continually being conditioned from without, tempted, tried, and deceived. Wally is also a Christian. The Spirit and the Word can work powerfully both to reorient him from the inside and to set him free from the control of what impinges on him.
Idolatry and the Ministry of the Gospel of Jesus Christ
In this article my attention has been heavily weighted towards the issue of diagnosis: How do we biblically understand people? But biblical diagnosis bridges immediately into biblical treatment. The understanding of people presented here enables the message of the Gospel to apply relevantly to the problems of troubled people.
One of the major challenges facing Christian counselors is how to apply the Gospel of the love of God incisively. There are many faulty, distorted, or inadequate ways to go about this. The Gospel is easily truncated and weakened when idols of the heart and Vanity Fair are unperceived or misperceived. But if we accurately comprehend the interweaving of responsible behavior, deceptive inner motives, and powerful external forces, then the riches of Christ become immediately relevant to people. What was once “head knowledge” and “dry doctrine” becomes filled with wisdom, rel-evancy, appeal, hope, delight, and life. People see that the Gospel is far richer than a ticket to heaven and rote forgiveness for oft-repeated behavioral sins.
How many Wallys—and Ellens—are stuck with a vague guilt over seemingly unshakable, destructive patterns? But when Wally sees his heart’s true need and his need for deliverance from enslaving powers-that-be, he then sees how exactly he really needs Christ. Christ powerfully meets people who are aware of their real need for help.29 We Christian counselors, both in our own lives and in our counseling, frequently do not get the Gospel straight, pointed, and applicable. I will consider two broad tendencies among Christians who seek to help their fellows: psychologizing and moralizing.
Christian counselors with a psychologizing drift typically have a genuine interest in the motivation that underlies problem behavior. Psychologically-oriented Christians attempt to deal with both the internal and external forces that prompt and structure behavior. The heart issues are typically misread, however. “Need” categories tend to replace biblical categories—idolatry, desires of the flesh, fear of man, etc.—which relate the heart immediately to God. Also, environmental issues such as a history of abuse, poor role models, and dysfunctional family patterns tend to be given more deterministic status than they have in the biblical view.
These views of inner and outer motivation fit hand-in-glove as an explanation for behavioral and emotional problems. “You feel horrible and act badly because your needs aren’t met because your family didn’t meet them.” The logic of therapy coheres with the logic of the diagnosis: “I accept you, and God really accepts you. Your needs can be met, and you can start to change how you feel and act.” Behavioral responsibility is muted, and the process of change becomes more a matter of need-meeting than conscious repentance/metanoia and renewal of mind unto Christ.
What is the Gospel?
What happens to the Gospel when idolatry themes are not grasped? “God loves you” typically becomes a tool to meet a need for self-esteem in people who feel like failures. The particular content of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—”grace for sinners and deliverance for the sinned against”—is down-played or even twisted into “unconditional acceptance for the victims of others’ lack of acceptance.” Where “the Gospel” is shared, it comes across something like this: “God accepts you just as you are. God has unconditional love for you.” That is not the biblical Gospel, however. God’s love is not Rogerian unconditional positive regard writ large. A need theory of motivation—rather than an idolatry theory—bends the Gospel solution into “another gospel” which is essentially false.
The Gospel is better than unconditional love. The Gospel says, “God accepts you just as Christ is. God has ‘contraconditional’ love for you.” Christ bears the curse you deserve. Christ is fully pleasing to the Father and gives you His own perfect goodness. Christ reigns in power, making you the Father’s child and coming close to you to begin to change what is unacceptable to God about you. God never accepts me “as I am.” He accepts me “as I am in Jesus Christ.” The center of gravity is different. The true Gospel does not allow God’s love to be sucked into the vortex of the soul’s lust for acceptability and worth in and of itself. Rather, it radically decenters people—what the Bible calls “fear of the Lord” and “faith”—to look outside themselves.
Christian counselors with a psychologizing drift typically are very concerned with ministering God’s love to people who view God as the latest and greatest critic whom they can never please. But their failure to conceptualize people’s problems in the terms this article has been exploring inevitably creates a tendency towards teaching a Liberal Gospel. The cross becomes simply a demonstration that God loves me. It loses its force as the substitutionary atonement by the perfect Lamb in my place, who invites my repentance for heart-pervading sin. “The wound of my people is healed lightly.”30
Christian counselors with moralistic tendencies face a different sort of problem. Where there is a moralizing drift to Christian counseling, Christ’s forgiveness is typically applied simply to behavioral sins. The content of the Gospel is usually more orthodox than the content of the psychologized Gospel, but the scope of application may be truncated. Those with psychologizing tendencies at least notice our inner complexities and outer sufferings, though they distort both systematically. In some ways the moralizing tendency represents an inadequate grip on the kinds of “bad news” this article has been exploring.
Moralistic Christianity does not usually evidence much interest in the pressures and sufferings of our social milieu. Counselors fear that such interest would necessarily feed those varieties of blame-shifting and accusation which spring up so readily in our hearts. Human responsibility would be compromised. But they do not see that understanding the evil that happens to me—the Vanity Fair that is swirling around my life—is a crucial part of my widening and deepening appreciation of Christ. Attendance to the forces that have pressured and shaped me—and are shaping me—for ill allows me to respond intelligently, responsibly, and mercifully. As psalm after psalm demonstrates, our sufferings are the context in which we experience the love of God, both to comfort us and to change us. We are comforted in our afflictions as we learn of God’s promises and power. We are changed in our afflictions as we learn to take refuge in God rather than in vain idols.
Moralizers are also weak on the inward side of motivation. Heart motives may be attended to in part via an awareness of “self” or “flesh.” But the solution is typically construed in all-or-nothing terms. Conversion, “Let go and let God,” and “total yieldedness” attempt to deal with motive problems through a single act of first-blessing or second-blessing housecleaning. The Gospel is for the beginning of the Christian life or a dramatic act of consecration. There is little sense of the patient process of inner renewal which someone like Wally—and each of us!—needs. Jesus says to take up our cross daily, dying to the false gods we fabricate, and learning to walk in fellowship with Him who is full of grace to help us. Receptivity to God’s love—”The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want”—is the absolutely necessary prerequisite for any sort of active obedience to God.31
I have looked at two common truncations of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Both evidence an inadequate grasp of the deviance of our hearts and our corresponding vulnerability to external influences. People are idol-makers, idol-buyers and idol-sellers.32 We wander through a busy town filled with other idol-makers, idol-buyers, and idol-sellers. We variously buy and sell, woo, agree, intimidate, manipulate, borrow, impose, attack, or flee. But there is a bigger Gospel. At the gates of Vanity Fair, Christian met a man who entreated him and his companion:
Let the Kingdom be always before you; and believe steadfastly concerning things that are invisible. Let nothing that is on this side of the other world get within you; and, above all, look well to your own hearts, and to the lusts thereof, for they are deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. Set your faces like a flint; you have all power in heaven and earth on your side.33
Christian passed through Vanity Fair bloodied but purer in heart. He remembered, amid hard combat with world, flesh, and Devil, the Celestial City which was his destination, and the Lord Jesus who beckoned him to life.
The biblical Gospel delivers from both personal sin and situational tyrannies. The biblical notion of inner idolatries allows people to see their need for Christ as a merciful savior from large sins of both heart and behavior. The notion of socio-cultural-familial-ethnic idolatries allows people to see Christ as a powerful deliverer from false masters and false value systems which we tend to absorb automatically. Christ-ian counseling is counseling which exposes our motives—our hearts and our world—in such a way that the authentic Gospel is the only possible answer.
Article published on October 9, 2009 @ http://www.ccef.org/idols-heart-and-vanity-fair
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Powlison, M.Div., Ph.D. worked for four years in psychiatric hospitals, during which time he came to faith in Christ. He teaches at CCEF and edits The Journal of Biblical Counseling (soon to be re-launched online). He received a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in the history of science and medicine, focusing on the history of psychiatry. He has a Master of Divinity degree from Westminster Theological Seminary, and has been doing biblical counseling for over 30 years. He has written numerous articles on counseling and on the relationship between faith and psychology. His books include Speaking Truth in Love, Seeing with New Eyes, Power Encounters, and The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context. – See more at: http://www.ccef.org/biography/david-powlison#sthash.BgnGUHsy.dpuf
1 The “First Great Commandment,” like the first two or three commandments from the decalogue, contrasts fidelity to the Lord with infidelities. The open battle with idolatry appears vividly with the golden calf and reappears throughout Judges, Samuel, Kings, the prophets, and Psalms.
2 This confluence of the world, the flesh, and the devil is unsurprising, as it recurs throughout the Scriptures: see Ephesians 2:1-3 and James 4:1-7 for particularly condensed examples.
3 “Heart” is the most comprehensive biblical term for what determines our life direction, behavior, thoughts, etc. See Proverbs 4:23, Mark 7:21-23, Hebrews 4:12f, etc. The metaphor of “circumcision or uncircumcision of heart” is similar to “idols of the heart,” in that an external religious activity is employed to portray the inward motivational dynamics which the outward act reflects.
4 See such summary statements by Paul, Peter, John, and James as Galatians 5:16ff; Ephesians 2:3 & 4:22; 1 Peter 2:11 & 4:2; 1 John 2:16; James 1:14f, where epithumiai is the catch-all for what is wrong with us.
5 Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5.
6 John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967), pages 84-93.
7 I’m commenting here only on the impact of “negative” social influences, which both communicate their idols to us and provoke our hearts to produce idols. If you rage at me, I tend to learn from you something about the supreme importance of getting my own way, as well as a few tricks and techniques for accomplishing that. I also instinctively tend to generate compensatory idols in order to retaliate, to defend, or to escape. We tend to return evil for evil.
I could equally comment on the impact of “positive” social influences—both in Bunyan and in life—which communicate faith to us and tend to encourage faith in our hearts and repentance from idolatry. The biblical way to deal with “enemies,” returning good for evil, is both learned from others and a product of the heart.
8 Sociologists, anthropologists, and historians of psychiatry have described how most symptoms and all diagnostic labels are culture-bound. This is especially true with regard to functional problems (as opposed to the distinctly organic problems) which comprise the vast bulk of human misery and bad behavior. This relativizing observation means that diagnostic labels are not “scientific” and “objectively true.” Labels are occasionally useful heuristically if we recognize them for what they are: crude taxonomic orderings of observations. But labels are elements within schemas of value and interpretation. Because diagnostic categories are philosophically and theologically “loaded,” a Christian who seeks to be true to the Bible’s system of value and interpretation must generate biblical categories and must approach secular categories with extreme skepticism.
9 It is obvious that if idolatry is the problem of the “co-dependent,” then repentant faith in Christ is the solution. This stands in marked contrast to the solutions proffered in the co-dependency literature, whether secular or glossed with Christian phrases. That literature often perceptively describes the patterns of dysfunctional idols—addictions and dependencies— which curse and enslave people. The idols which enslave the rescuer or the compulsive drinker do not work very well for them.
The literature may even use “idolatry” as a metaphor, without meaning “idolatry against God, therefore repentance.” The solution, without exception, is to offer different and presumably more workable idols, rather than repentance unto the Bible’s Christ! Secularistic therapies teach people eufunctional idols, idols which do “work” for people and “bless” them with temporarily happy lives (Psalm 73).
So, for example, self-esteem is nurtured as the replacement for trying to please unpleasable others, rather than esteem for the Lamb who was slain for me, a sinner. Acceptance and love from new significant others, starting with the therapist, create successful versions of the fear of man and trust in man rather than teaching essential trust in God. Self-trust and self-confidence are boosted as I am taught to set expectations for myself to which I can attain. The fruit looks good but is fundamentally counterfeit. Believers in false gospels are sometimes allowed to flourish temporarily.
Therapy systems without repentance at their core leave the idol system intact. They simply rehabilitate and rebuild fundamental godlessness to function more successfully.
The Bible’s idolatry motif diagnoses the ultimately self-destructive basis on which happy, healthy, and confident people build their lives (eufunctional idols), just as perceptively as it diagnoses unhappy people, who are more obviously and immediately self-destructive (dysfunctional idols).
10 Terminology is, of course, not indifferent. “Personal problems” and “dysfunctional living” imply a primary responsibility only to oneself, family, and society. “Sin” implies a primary responsibility to God the Judge, with personal and social responsibilities entailed as secondary consequences.
11 The Bible’s mode of everyday observation is comfortable describing both the push and the pull of human motivation as complementary perspectives. Psychologies tend to throw their weight either towards drives or towards goals. Idolatry is a fertile and flexible conceptual category which stays close to the data of life, unlike the speculative abstractions of alternative and unbiblical explanations.
12 Matthew 4:1-4, 6:25-34, John 6, and Deuteronomy 8 are four passages, among many, which work out these themes in greater practical detail. Notice how the language of relating to God—love, trust, fear, hope, seek, serve, take refuge, etc.—can be applied to relating to food.
13 Matthew 6:32: “The nations run after these things.”
14 Proverbs 29:25; Jeremiah 17:5-8.
15 Resemblances between “Wally” and any actual human being are purely coincidental products of the essential similarities among all of us. The external details of this case study are fabricated of snippets and patterns from many different lives, altered in all the particulars of behavior, gender, age, background, etc.
Similarly, the analysis of idolatries derives from a biblical analysis of the generic human heart—my own heart included— rather than from any particular individuals. Wally is Everyman, idiosyncratically manifesting idolatrous human nature.
16 Mark 10:42-45.
17 John Calvin, in his remarkable discussion of the nature of man in the opening section of hisInstitutes, comments on the way that idols “boil up from within us.” It could equally be said that they boil up around us. There is always some object at hand for us to put our faith in.
18 I am indebted to Dick Keyes of L’Abri Fellowship for this felicitous phrase.
19 Where do we begin in counseling? Are there hierarchies of influence or “key” influential relationships to tackle? There may well be. In particular, is Wally’s relationship with his parents the key to effective counseling? Not necessarily, although psychodynamic psychology is strongly biased towards parent-child relationships. The Bible is not similarly biased (either for or against looking at relationships with parents).
I do not believe that in this case, as presented, Wally’s relationships with his father and mother are the most important ones to tackle now in counseling. Theoretically, we could tackle any troubled relationship in Wally’s life, and we would end up grappling with generically similar issues, the same idols and sins. My instincts in counseling would be to tackle vignettes involving Wally and Ellen or his children. That is where most of the hot patterns are being played out. His relationship with his father could come up as could other significant relationships where there are live issues. But for Wally to grow and be renewed, to repent intelligently, to be transformed both in heart and behavior, he does not necessarily need to look at the parental relationship.
20 And “there is no temptation which is not common to all men” (1 Corinthians 10:13). This pride/fear of man oscillation is run-of-the-mill human nature. It plays itself out in an endless variety of forms.
21 Of course, at specific points in time specific idols will need to be named and faced. Wise biblical counseling grapples with specifics. Jesus faces the rich, young ruler with his mammon worship. The parable of the sower faces people with their unbelief, their social conformity, their preoccupying riches, pleasure, and cares (all of which can be rephrased as expressions of the idol motif). In the Old Testament Elijah directly confronts Baal worship. For example, Wally will need to deal with his drive to perform in people’s eyes as the issue unfolds in counseling.
22 Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of the Spiritual Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), page 110.
23 Isaiah 53:6 and Judges 21:25.
24 The word “syndrome” ought to be stripped of its clinical pretensions to significant explanatory power. It is purely descriptive. It literally means, “things that tend to all run along together.”
25 Jay Adams, Christian Counselor’s Manual (U.S.A.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1973), Page 124f.
26 Acts 6:4 is a classic text defining ministry in terms of both truth and prayer. Ephesians 6:10-20 is a classic text on the mode of warfare: faith in all its elements and ways of expression defeats demonic powers. James 3:13-4:12 adds the note that repentance is crucial to the defeat of Satan.
27 The Bible indicates the reason for this by frequently describing our inordinate desires as “deceptive.” Satan is the arch-deceiver. We tend to conform to the atmospheric deceptions of our socio-cultural milieu. Our idols are so plausible and instinctive that a person can even describe them, without really seeing them as the crucial problem in his or her life.
28 There are doubtless any number of other ways of slicing the pie of human motivation. See Tim Keller’s “Puritan Resources for Biblical Counseling” (The Journal of Pastoral Practice, 9:3 (1988), pages 11-44) for a stimulating portrayal of the multi-perspectival subtlety of a previous generation of Christian counselors.
29 Hebrews 4:12-16; Matthew 5:3-6; Luke 11:1-13; Matthew 11:28-30; 2 Corinthians 12:9-10; indeed, the entire Bible! Christ’s forte is our acknowledged need in the face of compulsions from within and pressures from without.
30 Jeremiah 8:11(cf.23:16f).
31 Active love is the fruit of receptive faith. Psalm 23—like many portions of Scripture—is a pure promise to be drunk in. Other passages detail the transition from gift to gratitude, from root to fruit, from abiding to fruit-bearing, from faith to works (Galatians 5 and 1 John 4:7-5:12 are two of the most sustained expositions). Performance-oriented people like Wally, idol-driven people, rarely drink and eat of the life-giving bread of heaven.
32 We have not mentioned how Wally’s distorted system of interpretation and valuation affects—is “sold” to—his children, wife, friends, and parents. There is obviously a feedback loop of mutual effects, a vicious circle.
Conversely, as Wally is able to change both heart and behavior, he will create a gracious circle of positive effects in his family and church. We have emphasized the negative side of social shaping, but faith is just as catching as idolatry.
33 Bunyan, ibid., page 83.
Series: Presentations of the Gospel #3
HOW CAN I KNOW GOD PERSONALLY?
by Dr. Tim Keller
What is Christianity? Some say it is a philosophy, others say it is an ethical stance, while still others claim it is actually an experience. None of these things really gets to the heart of the matter, however. Each is something a Christian has, but not one of them serves as a definition of what a Christian is. Christianity has at its core a transaction between a person and God. A person who becomes a Christian moves from knowing about God distantly to knowing about him directly and intimately. Christianity is knowing God.
“Now this is eternal life; that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” – John 17:3
Why do I need to know God?
Our desire for personal knowledge of God is strong, but we usually fail to recognize that desire for what it is. When we first fall in love, when we first marry, when we finally break into our chosen field, when we at last get that weekend house–these breakthroughs arouse in us an anticipation of something which, as it turns out, never occurs. We eventually discover that our desire for that precious something is a longing no lover or career or achievement, even the best possible ones, can ever satisfy. The satisfaction fades even as we close our fingers around our goal. Nothing delivers the joy it seemed to promise. Many of us avoid the yawning emptiness through busyness or denial, but at best there is a postponement. “Nothing tastes,” said Marie Antoinette.
There are several ways to respond to this:
By blaming the things themselves – by finding fault in everyone and everything around you. You believe that a better spouse, a better career, a better boss or salary would finally yield the elusive joy. Many of the most successful people in the world are like this–bored, discontented, running from new thing to new thing, often changing counselors, mates, partners, or settings.
By blaming yourself – by trying harder to live up to standards. Many people believe they have made poor choices or have failed to measure up to challenges and to achieve things that would give them joy and satisfaction. Such people are wracked with self-doubts and tend to burn themselves out. They think, “If only I could reach my goals, then this emptiness would be gone.” But it is not so.
By blaming the universe itself – by giving up seeking fulfillment at all. This is the person who says, “Yes, when I was young I was idealistic, but at my age I have stopped howling after the moon.” This makes you become cynical, you decide to repress that part of yourself that once wanted fulfillment and joy. But you become hard, and you can feel yourself losing your humanity, compassion, and joy.
By blaming and recognizing your separation from God – by seeing that the emptiness comes from your separation from God, and by establishing a personal relationship with him.
In order to form a personal relationship with God, you must know three things:
1) Who we are:
God’s creation. God created us and built us for a relationship with him. We belong to him, and we owe him gratitude for every breath, every moment, everything. Because humans were built to live for him (to worship), we will always try to worship something — if not God, we will choose some other object of ultimate devotion to give our lives meaning.
Sinners. We have all chosen (and re-affirm daily) to reject God to make our own joy and happiness our highest priority. We do not want to worship God and surrender ourself as master, yet we are built to worship, so we cling to idols, centering our lives on things that promise to give us meaning: success, relationships, influence, love, comfort and so on.
In spiritual bondage. To live for anything else but God leads to breakdown and decay. When a fish leaves the water, which he was built for, he is not free, but dead. Worshiping other things besides God leads to a loss of meaning. If we achieve these things, they cannot deliver satisfaction, because they were never meant to be “gods.” They were never meant to replace God. Worshiping other things besides God also leads to self-image problems. We end up defining ourselves in terms of our achievement in these things. We must have them or all is lost; so they drive us to work hard, or they fill us with terror if they are jeopardized.
2) Who God is:
Love and justice. His active concern is for our joy and well-being. Most people love those who love them, yet God loves and seeks the good even of people who are his enemies. But because God is good and loving, he cannot tolerate evil. The opposite of love is not anger, but indifference. “The more you love your son, the more you hate in him the liar, the drunkard, the traitor,” (E. Gifford). To imagine God’s situation, imagine a judge who is also a father, who sits at the trial of a guilty son. A judge knows he cannot let his son go, for without justice no society can survive. How mush less can a loving God merely ignore or suspend justice for us–who are loved, yet guilty of rebellion against his loving authority?
Jesus Christ. Jesus is God himself come to Earth. He first lived a perfect life, loving God with all his heart, soul, and mind, fulfilling all human obligation to God. He lived the life you owed–a perfect record. Then, instead of receiving his deserved reward (eternal life), Jesus gave his life as a sacrifice for our sins, taking the punishment and death each of owed. When we believe in him: 1) our sins are paid for by his death, and 2) his perfect life record is transferred to our account. So God accepts and regards us as if we have done all Christ has done.
3) What you must do:
Repent. There must first be an admission that you have been living as your own master, worshipping the wrong things, violating God’s loving laws. “Repentance” means you ask forgiveness and turn from that stance with a willingness to live for and center on him.
Believe. Faith is transferring your trust from your own efforts to the efforts of Christ. You were relying on other things to make you acceptable, but now you consciously begin relying on what Jesus did for your acceptance with God. All you need is nothing. If you think, “God owes me something for all my efforts,” you are still on the outside.
Pray after this fashion: “I see I am more flawed and sinful than I ever dared believe, but that I am even more loved and accepted than I ever dared hope. I turn from my old life of living for myself. I have nothing in my record to merit your approval, but now I rest in what Jesus did and ask to be accepted into God’s family for his sake.”
When you make this transaction, two things happen at once: 1) your accounts are cleared, your sins are wiped out permanently, you are adopted legally into God’s family and 2) the Holy Spirit enters your heart and begins to change you into the character of Jesus.
Follow through: Tell a Christian friend about your commitment. Get yourself training in the basic Christian disciplines of prayer, worship, Bible study, and fellowship with other Christians.
Why should I seek God?
On the one hand, you may feel that you “need” him. Even though you may recognize that you have needs only God can meet, you must not try to use him to achieve your own ends. It is not possible to bargain with God (“I’ll do this, if you will do that”). That is not Christianity at all, but a form of magic or paganism in which you “appease” the cranky deity in exchange for a favor. Are you getting into Christianity to serve God, or to get God to serve you? Those are two opposite motives and they result in two different religions. You must come to God because 1) you owe it to him to give him your life (because he is your creator) and 2) you are deeply grateful to him for sacrificing his son (because he is your redeemer).
On the other hand, you may feel no need or interest to know God at all. This does not mean that you should stay uncommitted. If you were created by God, then you owe him your life, whether you feel like it or not. You are obligated to seek him and ask him to soften your heart, open your eyes, and enlighten you. If you say, “I have no faith,” that is no excuse either. You need only doubt your doubts. No one can doubt everything at once–you must believe in something to doubt something else. For example, do you believe you are competent to run your own life? Where is the evidence for that? Why doubt everything but your doubts about God and your faith in yourself? Is that fair? You owe it to God to seek him. Do so.
What if I’m not ready to proceed?
Make a list of the issues that you perceive to be barriers to your crossing the line into faith. Here is a possible set of headings:
Content issues. Do you understand the basics of the Christian message–sin, Jesus as God, sacrifice, faith?
Coherence issues. Are there intellectual problems you have with Christianity? Are there objections to the Christian faith that you cannot resolve in your own mind?
Cost issues. Do you perceive that a move into full Christian faith will cost you dearly? What fears do you have about commitment?
Now talk to a Christian friend until these issues are resolved. Consider reading: Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis (MacMillan) and Basic Christianity, by John Stott (IVP) – [or Tim Keller’s The Reason for God (Dutton)].
@ 1991, Timothy Keller.
About Tim Keller:
In 1989 Dr. Timothy J. Keller, his wife and three young sons moved to New York City to begin Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In 20 years it has grown to meeting for five services at three sites with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Redeemer is notable not only for winning skeptical New Yorkers to faith, but also for partnering with other churches to do both mercy ministry and church planting. Redeemer City to City is working to help establish hundreds of new multi-ethnic congregations throughout the city and other global cities in the next decades.
Dr. Tim Keller is the author of several phenomenal Christo-centric books including:
Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (co-authored with Greg Forster and Collin Hanson (February or March, 2014).
Encounters with Jesus:Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions. New York, Dutton (November 2013).
Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York, Dutton (October 2013).
Judges For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (August 6, 2013).
Galatians For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (February 11, 2013).
Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World. New York, Penguin Publishing, November, 2012.
Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, September, 2012.
The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. New York: 10 Publishing, April 2012.
Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Riverhead Trade, August, 2012.
The Gospel As Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices (editor and contributor). Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.
The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York, Dutton, 2011.
King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (Retitled: Jesus the KIng: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God). New York, Dutton, 2011.
Gospel in Life Study Guide: Grace Changes Everything. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010.
The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, Dutton, 2009.
Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Priorities of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. New York, Riverhead Trade, 2009.
Heralds of the King: Christ Centered Sermons in the Tradition of Edmund P. Clowney (contributor). Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009.
The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.
Worship By The Book (contributor). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.
Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1997.
Here are the three primary reasons why God orchestrates life in such a way that his children suffer persecution and trials and opposition from the enemies of the faith.
First, give thanks for suffering because of what it accomplishes for you personally. In particular, I have in mind what it accomplishes for your faith and for your future.
As for your faith, consider these texts:
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4).
“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).
As for your future, we read:
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13).
Second, give thanks for suffering because of what it accomplishes for others.
We see in 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 that it equips you to encourage them:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).
Paul also points out that suffering equips you to evangelize them:
“I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (Philippians 1:12-14; see also 2 Cor. 4:7-11).
Third, and by far and away the most important reason of all, give thanks for suffering because of what it accomplishes for the praise and honor of Christ.
Look closely again at v. 29. Did you notice how Paul boldly declares that our suffering is “for the sake of Christ” and then again “for his sake”? How can that possibly be true? What benefit could come to the name and fame of Jesus because his people bear up patiently under persecution?
That our suffering serves the greater glory of Christ is clear from 2 Corinthians 1:8-11. There Paul writes:
“For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Corinthians 1:8-11).
Or consider how it magnifies his greatness:
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this [thorn in the flesh], that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
All our sufferings, all our trials, all our discomfort, all the pain inflicted by an unbelieving world, whether it be emotional, physical, or financial, are designed by God to magnify the beauty of Christ’s all sufficient-grace.
I recently read the remarkable book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: an English professor’s journey into christian faith (Crown and Covenant, 2012), by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield. Butterfield was in her own words a radical feminist, a lesbian, and a professor of English literature at Syracuse University. She regularly taught courses in postmodern deconstruction, gay and lesbian studies, and what is known as “Queer” theory. And then she met Jesus. When she turned her back on her lesbian lifestyle and radical feminist politics, the persecution she endured from former colleagues, friends, and students was almost unimaginable. In her book she tells the story of one profound encounter:
“My lesbian neighbor . . . was dying of cancer. She approached me one day and said, ‘I didn’t give a damn about who God was to you in your happiness. But now that you are suffering, I want to know: who is your God? Where is he in your suffering?” (60; italics mine)
I’ll close with one final comment by John Piper. Listen closely:
“We do not choose suffering simply because we are told to, but because the One who tells us to describes it as the path to everlasting joy. He beckons us into the obedience of suffering not to demonstrate the strength of our devotion to duty or to reveal the vigor of our moral resolve or to prove the heights of our tolerance for pain, but rather to manifest, in childlike faith, the infinite preciousness of His all-satisfying promises” (Desiring God, 287).
Will you then join with me, together with Paul and the Philippians and countless other Christian, both ancient and modern, and give thanks for the gift of suffering?
*Note: Sam Storms’ books on Theology Proper and Soteriology are excellent: The Singing God; Pleasures Evermore; One Thing; The Grandeur of God; and Chosen for Life – all highly recommended! (DPC)
Praying for Your Prodigal – Ephesians 1:18
Sermon by Ray Pritchard preached in June 2006 – I received an email with a heartrending question:
I have a daughter that I don’t believe is saved. I pray for her but often times I can’t. I suppose that I’m angry she isn’t responding and feel incapable of helping her. What can I pray for on a daily basis so that she will come to Christ? At times I feel such sorrow, thinking she might go to hell.
This parent speaks for mothers and fathers everywhere who pray for their prodigal children, often for years, with seemingly no results. I do not doubt that praying parents must at some point feel like giving up, and it must be hard not to get angry when you see your children repeatedly making bad choices or showing no interest in the gospel. What do you do then? How do you keep believing for your own prodigal son or daughter? When I use the word “prodigal,” I’m referring to anyone who has drifted away or run away or totally rejected their Christian heritage. It could refer to a college student who simply stops going to church or to a man who thinks he doesn’t need “religion” or to someone who becomes an atheist. A prodigal could be someone who gets so busy in their career that they have no time for God. In all those cases, the prodigal was raised in a Christian home or had a Christian background and for some reason no longer lives for the Lord. In thinking about cases like this, we often wonder if the prodigal is saved or lost. The answer is, only God knows because only he can read the heart. We see the outside and to us, it may be easy to conclude that the person we thought we knew so well was never saved in the first place. But our knowledge is limited. While the prodigal may appear to have totally rejected his background and he may give all the appearances of being lost, only God knows for certain.In thinking about hard questions, it’s crucial that we start in the right place. Nowhere is this more important than when we pray for our prodigal sons and daughters. Because we have so much invested in them, we may be tempted to give up because the pain of praying when nothing seems to be happening finally becomes overwhelming. After I wrote about this topic on my weblog, I received the following email from a distraught father:
What about prodigals who have been saved and walk away from everything they know to be true? Our daughter has been drifting and living a sinful lifestyle for the past two years. She has recently chosen to totally walk in the ways of the world. She is involved in an abusive relationship and has turned her back on her parents/brothers. This is a young lady who is musically gifted, loves people, and has served the Lord since she was 3 years old. We are a Christian family and have always been close knit. She and I have always had a strong relationship emotionally and spiritually until she got involved with the abusive boyfriend. She has given up everything she loves and has lost her identity. She continues to cut off all communication with us. It is breaking our hearts and we try our hardest to trust the Lord and believe He alone can rescue her from herself. I guess I am just looking for some words of wisdom and encouragement on how we can be the “hope givers” in her life.
Stories like this could be multiplied. And not just about our children. A prodigal may be a pastor who ran off with a woman in his church and now has rejected his family and his faith. It might refer to a brother who used to be an Awana leader who now refuses to go to church at all. It could refer to a former best friend who now lives an openly homosexual lifestyle. You may have learned about Jesus from someone who now rejects the very faith they once taught you. Very often prodigals start out as people who, having been deeply hurt by the circumstances of life, feel abandoned or cheated or mistreated by God.
�A godly mother prays for her wayward son. He was raised in the church, he went to Sunday School, he knows the Bible, but when he left home, he left it all behind. For many years she has prayed for him but to this day he remains a prodigal son. �A wife prays for her husband who left her after twenty-three years of marriage for a younger woman. He seems utterly unreachable and the marriage heads swiftly for divorce.
�A husband prays for his wife who has terminal cancer. She has six, maybe seven months to live. None of the treatments stop the rampaging tumors. The elders anoint her with oil and pray over her in the name of the Lord. She dies five months later.
�A young man prays fervently for deliverance from an overpowering temptation, but the struggle never seems to end. The more he prays, the worse the temptation becomes.
And so we cry out with the Psalmist, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1)
Calvin And Hobbes
You wouldn’t think that such a serious subject would make it to the comic strips, but I happened to find it there a few years ago. The comic strip is called “Calvin and Hobbes.” It’s late November and a little boy is waiting with his sled for the first big snowfall. He waits and waits but all he finds is brown grass … and no snow.So he says, “If I was in charge, we’d never see grass between October and May. Then, looking to the heavens, he says, “On ’three,’ ready? One … Two … Three. SNOW!” Nothing happens and the little boy is downcast. Then he shouts to the heavens, “I said snow! C’mon! Snow!” Then shaking his fists he cries, “SNOW!” Now thoroughly disgusted with God’s failure, he says, “Ok then, don’t snow! See what I care! I like this weather! Let’s have it forever!”
But his defiance does not last. In the next frame we see the little boy on his knees offering this prayer, “Please snow! Please?? Just a foot! Ok, eight inches! That’s all! C’mon! Six inches, even! How about just six?? Then he looks to heaven and shouts, “I’m WAAIITING …”
In the next frame we see him running in a circle, head down, fists clenched, making a little-boy sound which the artist spells out as “RRRRGGHHH.” That’s not an English word but every parent has heard it many times. Finally, the little boy is exhausted, his energy spent, his prayer unanswered, with snow nowhere in sight. In the final frame, he looks up at God and cries out in utter desperation, “Do you want me to become an atheist?”
There are many Christian people who feel just like that little boy, only they have prayed for things much more important than a few inches of snow but the end result has been the same. And in their frustration and despair they have cried out to God, “Do you want me to become an atheist?” Some of them have. Most haven’t, but the pain turns many of them into prodigals.
The Heart Has Eyes
At this point we come face to face with the crucial importance of good theology. We need to be reminded that an astounding miracle lies at the heart of our faith. We believe something absolutely incredible–that a man who was dead came back to life on the third day. We believe that God raised him from the dead. Now if God would do that for his Son, indeed if God has the power to raise the dead, who are we to question God’s power to change the hardest hearts? After all, if you go to the cemetery and stay there waiting for a resurrection, you’ll wait a long time. There are lots of people going in and no one coming out. You will see plenty of funerals and no resurrections. What are the chances that a man who had been tortured and then crucified and then buried in a tomb would be raised from the dead? The odds would seem to be against it. You can’t start with what your eyes see or what you can figure out. And you can’t trust your feelings in something like this because your emotions can play tricks on you. We must therefore start with God who can raise the dead, not with the person who is spiritually dead.If it is God alone who can raise the dead, then our focus must be on God alone.
Here are three verses that will help us as we think about praying for our prodigals:
“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23 NIV).
“The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, Like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes” (Proverbs 21:1 NKJV).
“I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened” (Ephesians 1:18 NASB).
The heart has eyes. Did you know that? When Paul speaks of “your heart,” he’s not referring to the organ in your chest that pumps blood throughout your body. The term “heart” refers to what we might call “the real you,” the place inside where the decisions of life are made. The heart is the place where you decide what values you will live by and what direction you will go and how you will live your life each day. Every important decision you make starts in your heart. And your heart has eyes that can be open or closed. When the eyes of your heart are closed to the light of God, you stumble blindly through life, making one dumb choice after another. You fall into sinful patterns, you break God’s laws, you end up driving into the ditch, you make the same mistakes over and over again, and you enter one dead-end relationship after another. Why? Because the eyes of your heart are shut and you lack moral vision. The light of God is shut out of your life. That means you can see and be blind at the same time. That is, you can have 20/20 vision with your physical eyes, but the eyes of your heart can be blind to the light of God. There are lots of people like that in the world. Physically they can see but spiritually they are totally blind.
Get off the Bench and Into the Game
That describes many young people raised in the church. They know God but their eyes are so filled with the things of the world that they are blind to the truth. Let me illustrate. Here we have a young man who has been raised in a Christian home. He’s been going to church for years—Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, children’s ministry, and the youth group. Now he goes off to college and at last he’s on his own. He meets a girl and they start dating. Soon they are sleeping together. When his parents hear about it, they are furious and worried and upset and they wonder what to do. They argue and plead and cajole and threaten and quote Scripture, all to no avail. What is the problem? It is precisely this: The eyes of his heart are closed to the truth of God. And until those eyes are opened, all the yelling in the world won’t make much difference. A few years ago I met with a young woman who had been part of our church’s youth ministry. She came to see me at the request of her mother who was at her wit’s end in dealing with her daughter. The young woman was sweet and friendly and very open when we met. We talked for a while about this and that, and finally I came to the point. When she went off to college, she met a boy she liked, they started dating, and now they were sleeping together. This much the mother had confided to me. Was it true? The young lady answered yes. I knew it wouldn’t do any good for me to argue with her because she and her mother had been arguing about it for quite a while. But I did ask if she thought it was wrong to sleep with her boy friend. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “I guess so.” Her answer wasn’t really defiant and she didn’t seem angry. In fact, she was very friendly and not rebellious in her manner. She was just a nice girl, raised in the church, who now slept with her boyfriend at college. And what’s wrong with that?As we were talking, an illustration came into my mind. Whenever you watch a football game, you’ll usually see three different groups of players. The first group is the players on the field. They give all they have on every single play. The second group is on the sidelines. They stand together, watching the action the field, waiting for their turn to get into the game. But often there is a third group of players who don’t seem very interested in the game. They sit on the bench laughing and talking and goofing off. Sometimes they turn around and wave to the people in the stands. They could care less whether their team is winning or losing because they’re just along for the ride. As far as the team is concerned, they might as well not be there at all. I explained all of that to the young lady and made this application. Living for Christ means that you’re playing on his team. You’re either on the bench or you’re in the game. “Your problem is, you’re sitting on the bench goofing off when you ought to be in the game serving the Lord. Bench warmers sit around, goof off, laugh, cut up, and trade jokes while the game is going on. If you ever decide to get in the game, you won’t have time to do the things you do now.”
If our young people sleep around, or if they get drunk on the weekends, if they cheat and cut corners, if they are rebellious and unmotivated, those things are only symptoms of a deeper, more fundamental issue. They’ve never made a personal commitment to get serious about Jesus Christ. They’re sitting on the bench when they ought to be in the game. And I tell you this with total certainty, once you get into the game, once Christ becomes the center of your life, no one will have to tell you not to sleep around, and no one will have to tell you, “Don’t get drunk on the weekends.” You just won’t do it. Once the eyes of your heart are opened, the light of God’s truth will come flooding in and you’ll never look at anything the same away again. Sometimes we worry too much about the symptoms without dealing with the root issues of life. We should pray, “Open the eyes of their heart, Lord,” because when that happens, life will radically change. They will grab their helmet and get in the ballgame for the Lord. They’ll go to the huddle and say, “You call the play, Lord. I’m ready to do whatever you say.”
“I Just Don’t See It”
Opening blind eyes is the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. He and he alone can do it. But he can do it, and this is the source of our hope. We see this principle very clearly when we witness to those who don’t know Christ. After sharing the gospel with them as best we can, sometimes they will say, “I just don’t see it.” That’s not an excuse. They truly don’t see it. That’s why you can talk to a lost person until you are blue in the face and it will do no good. You can quote Billy Graham, Josh McDowell, Francis Schaeffer, and if you’re creative, you can throw in some John Calvin and Martin Luther. Quote Abraham Lincoln and Mike Ditka if you like. It will do no good. You can quote Scripture all day long and the lost will still be lost. Until their eyes are opened, they will not “see” the truth about Christ.What is the answer? We must pray for the lost that God will open their eyes, give life in place of death, enable them to hear, create within them a desire to understand, give them a hunger for Jesus, and then grant them faith to believe the gospel. In short, as we prepare to share Christ with others, we must fervently pray that God will go before us. When we pray for the lost, we are saying to God, “You go first! If you don’t go first, all our efforts will be in vain.”
This is why we pray for our children and grandchildren and for our family members and for friends and loved ones who today are far from God. As our children grow older, we discover over and over again how little control we have over them. We cannot compel their obedience because we cannot compel their hearts. But we can pray and cry out to God and say, “O Lord, open the eyes of their heart. Help them to see the light of truth.” If you have a prodigal daughter, pray like this: “Lord, open the eyes of her heart so that she can see Jesus.” That prayer is so simple and yet so profound. Apart from God’s grace, we all have the same problem. Our hearts are closed and we cannot see the truth. Only God can open the eyes of the heart. When God opens those eyes, she will see the truth and light from heaven will come flooding in. Do not focus on her going to hell. Focus your prayers on God and his power to change her heart. Ask our Father to do what only he can do—open the eyes of her heart so that she will come to know him.
A Mother’s Tears
One of my favorite stories about the power of prayer to reclaim a prodigal is over 1600 years old. It begins with a woman named Monica who was raised by Christian parents in North Africa. When she was old enough, her parents arranged a marriage to a pagan man. Evidently the marriage was very difficult because of divided spiritual loyalties. Monica and her husband had three children who survived. Two of them followed Christ but one son left the faith of his childhood. By his own admission, he chose the path of worldly pleasure. For many years he lived with a mistress and together they gave birth to a son out of wedlock. He broke his mother’s heart by joining a religious cult. Monica prayed for 17 years that her son would return to Christ and to the church. Looking back, her son said that she watered the earth with her tears for him, praying more for his spiritual death than most mothers pray over the physical death of a child. She fasted and prayed and asked God to save her son. One day she went to see the bishop and with tears asked why her son was still living in sin. The bishop replied with words that have become famous across the centuries: “It is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish. Your son will be saved.” He was right. It took several more years of fervent praying but eventually Monica’s son came to Christ. His name is Augustine. We know him today as St. Augustine. He is universally regarded as one of the greatest thinkers in Christian history. Sixteen centuries later his books and writings are still in print. He makes it clear in his Confessions that his mother prayed him to Jesus. She would not give up and eventually God answered her prayers.I think the bishop was right when he said, “It is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish.” How precious are a mother’s tears! There is no substance on earth more valuable than the tears of a godly mother. There are mothers and grandmothers who have prayed their children and their grandchildren to Christ. There are mothers and grandmothers who have seen their children in the “far country” of sin and have prayed them step by step back to the Father’s House. When everyone else gave up, godly women laid hold of heaven and claimed their offspring in Jesus’ name. And God heard those prayers and answered them.
Please do not misunderstand. I do not believe that our prayers contain merit in and of themselves. But God has ordained both the means and the ends of salvation. And the two chief means of salvation are fervent prayer and the proclamation of his Word. We pray because everything depends on God, and we preach because the gospel is the power of God for salvation. Your prayers are part of heaven’s plan to reach out to the prodigals in your life and bring them back to God. If you are heavily burdened for a loved one, you may be sure that that burden does not come simply from yourself. The burden is a gift from God, a token of his mercy toward the prodigal who at this moment cares nothing for the Lord. Your prayers are thus an indispensable link in the chain of God’s purposes.
I met a woman recently who told me that she prayed for fifty years for her brother to be saved. For most of that time, he showed little interest in spiritual things. But through an amazing series of events, he saw his need of Christ and embraced him as his Savior. For the last six years, he grew in his love for the Lord and he made his faith known to everyone. When he died in March, he died as a Christian, trusting in Christ to the very end. Fifty years is a long time to pray. I’m sure the woman must have felt like giving up many times. Surely it sometimes seemed hopeless to her. But God granted her faith to keep praying and not to lose heart. Eventually her prayers were answered with the miracle of her brother’s conversion. How happy she was when she told the story. And rightly so. Lest we miss it, let me make the theological point very clearly. Salvation is of the Lord, but that does not mean that our prayers do not matter. Our prayers are part of God’s plan to bring the lost to Christ.
A few days ago I received this email from a man I have never met:
I am one of those who never thought my older brother would ever be saved. I had lost all hope for him. Then, May 18 of this year I visited him in the hospital in Missouri (I live in Arkansas) and led him to the Lord. He cried like a baby afterwards and testified to his nurse a few minutes later when she came into his room. BTW, he is 75 and I am 73 and I have prayed for him for many years. God is faithful!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
God is a Better Parent Than We Are
Finally here is one more email that arrived from a mother whose prayers have not yet been answered:
Our third son is a prodigal, (although I suppose we are ALL prodigals in some fashion!). I have experienced a depth of relationship with God that I didn’t know before mothering a prodigal. God has continued to walk this road of parenting with us, revealing his character to us, and growing us through the trials. Before, I didn’t understand the joy in trials that James 1:2-4 speaks of quite like I do now. It is an opportunity to become mature in our faith as we have heartbreak and disappointment in different situations. I thank God for our son actually. He has been, and is the iron that sharpens me. I trust that God is working deep in his heart, even though the outside doesn’t often look that way. I believe that someday his eyes will be opened, and God will remove his heart of stone will give him a heart of flesh! And the renewing of his heart and his mind will be a great testimony to God and who he is.
Everything I have been trying to say is in that email. Here is a mother who has grown spiritually as she has prayed for her son who at this moment is still far from the Lord. Instead of becoming bitter, she has been changed on the inside and brought closer to the Lord. God often uses the prodigals in our lives to bring us closer to him. As long as we try to control our loved ones, either through anger or through our tears or by arguing with them or complaining about them to others, as long as we focus on them, they will not change–and neither will we. Sometimes in our despair, we become prodigals ourselves because our anger at them has ruined our own walk with the Lord. As we pray for our prodigals, we must remember that the first change needs to happen in us. Until we are changed, and our anger is turned to love, we will become bitter and hardened ourselves. And that can happen even though we go to church every Sunday, pray the prayers, sing the songs, serve the Lord, and do all the outward things the church asks us to do. At that point we ourselves have become prodigals just as surely as the loved one for whom we are praying. Notice two key sentences in this woman’s note: “I thank God for our son actually. He has been, and is the iron that sharpens me.” Those are the words of a woman whose heart has been softened and not hardened as she has prayed for her son. The change we seek in others must start in our heart first. I believe God will answer that mother’s prayer sooner or later. A few years ago, when we needed some encouragement, the Lord put this thought into my wife’s heart: “God is a better parent than we are.” No matter how much we love our children, he loves them even more. No matter how much we want the best for them, he wants it even more than we do, and he truly knows what it is best. Not only that, he can see from where they are to where he wants them to be, and no matter where the starting point is, he knows how to lead them from here to there. He does it infallibly, with an abundance of wisdom, a generous helping of tender mercy, and he wastes nothing along the way. Sometimes parents look at their children, especially when they seem to be far from the Lord, and we feel hopeless or guilty or angry or frustrated, or maybe all of the above, and we wonder where God is in the midst of our pain. There are many ways to answer that, but this much is certain. He is not silent or absent or uncaring. Nor is he stumped or surprised by young people who seem to have rejected all they have been taught.
God is a better parent than we are. That’s really good news for those times when we’ve blown it. Because he loves our children far more than we do, he will lead them even when they don’t know they are being led. He can bring them back to himself, though the road back may be long and hard and torturous, though it may seem to go in circles or even be going backwards for a season.
At some point we must relinquish our children into his hands and say, “Lord, they belong to you. Always have, always will.” They never were ours to start with. It is so hard to yield them to the Lord, but it is made easier if we remember that his love never fails, that he knows what he is doing, and that he is a better parent than we are.
Do you have a loved one who is far from the Lord? Does it seem totally impossible that he or she will ever change? Do you get angry thinking about their foolish choices? Do your prayers seem useless to you? Pay no attention to your feelings. There is more going on in the heart of your loved one that you can know.
Don’t give up.
Keep on praying.
You never know what God will do.
When you pray for a loved one who seems hardened against the Lord, pray that the eyes of their heart might be opened so that the light of God can come flooding in. And if that seems hopeless, at least it puts the hopeless case at God’s doorstep, which is where it belongs. On Saturday night there was a “hopeless case” in the Garden Tomb. On Sunday morning the whole world changed. You never know what God will do, so keep on believing and keep on praying. God specializes in impossible situations, and he loves to prove that hopeless cases aren’t hopeless after all.
So never give up. Pray, pray and keep on praying. Your prayers accomplish more than you have ever dreamed.
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About Ray Pritchard:
Dr. Ray Pritchard serves as president of Keep Believing Ministries. He has ministered extensively overseas in China, Bolivia, Columbia, Paraguay, Belize, Haiti, Nigeria, Switzerland, Russia, India and Nepal. He is a frequent conference speaker and guest on Christian radio and television talk shows. He has written 27 books, including Stealth Attack, Fire and Rain, The Healing Power of Forgiveness, An Anchor for the Soul, The Incredible Journey of Faith,The ABCs of Wisdom, Leadership Lessons of Jesus (with Bob Briner), Why Did This Happen to Me?, and Credo: Believing in Something to Die For.
For 26 years he pastored churches in Los Angeles, Dallas and Chicago. Most recently he pastored Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, IL for sixteen years. He is a graduate of Tennessee Temple University (B.A.), Dallas Theological Seminary (Th.M.) and Talbot School of Theology (D.Min.). He has been married to Marlene for 37 years. Their three sons (Josh, Mark and Nick) have spent time in recent years teaching English in China. Josh and Leah were married in July 2006. They have one son, Knox, who was born in August 2010. Mark and Vanessa were married in July 2007. They have one son, Eli, who was born in July 2011. His hobbies include biking, surfing the Internet, anything related to the Civil War, and playing with Dudley and Gary, their very excellent basset hounds.
We believe the Old Testament regulations governing Sabbath observances are ceremonial, not moral, aspects of the law. As such, they are no longer in force, but have passed away along with the sacrificial system, the Levitical priesthood, and all other aspects of Moses’ law that prefigured Christ. Here are the reasons we hold this view.
1. In Colossians 2:16-17, Paul explicitly refers to the Sabbath as a shadow of Christ, which is no longer binding since the substance (Christ) has come. It is quite clear in those verses that the weekly Sabbath is in view. The phrase “a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day” refers to the annual, monthly, and weekly holy days of the Jewish calendar (cf. 1 Chronicles 23:31; 2 Chronicles 2:4; 31:3; Ezekiel 45:17; Hosea 2:11). If Paul were referring to special ceremonial dates of rest in that passage, why would he have used the word “Sabbath?” He had already mentioned the ceremonial dates when he spoke of festivals and new moons.
2. The Sabbath was the sign to Israel of the Mosaic Covenant (Exodus 31:16-17; Ezekiel 20:12; Nehemiah 9:14). Since we are now under the New Covenant (Hebrews 8), we are no longer required to observe the sign of the Mosaic Covenant.
3. The New Testament never commands Christians to observe the Sabbath.
4. In our only glimpse of an early church worship service in the New Testament, the church met on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7).
5. Nowhere in the Old Testament are the Gentile nations commanded to observe the Sabbath or condemned for failing to do so. That is certainly strange if Sabbath observance were meant to be an eternal moral principle.
6. There is no evidence in the Bible of anyone keeping the Sabbath before the time of Moses, nor are there any commands in the Bible to keep the Sabbath before the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai.
7. When the Apostles met at the Jerusalem council (Acts 15), they did not impose Sabbath keeping on the Gentile believers.
8. The apostle Paul warned the Gentiles about many different sins in his epistles, but breaking the Sabbath was never one of them.
9. In Galatians 4:10-11, Paul rebukes the Galatians for thinking God expected them to observe special days (including the Sabbath).
10. In Romans 14:5, Paul forbids those who observe the Sabbath (these were no doubt Jewish believers) to condemn those who do not (Gentile believers).
11. The early church fathers, from Ignatius to Augustine, taught that the Old Testament Sabbath had been abolished and that the first day of the week (Sunday) was the day when Christians should meet for worship (contrary to the claim of many seventh-day sabbatarians who claim that Sunday worship was not instituted until the fourth century).
12. Sunday has not replaced Saturday as the Sabbath. Rather the Lord’s Day is a time when believers gather to commemorate His resurrection, which occurred on the first day of the week. Every day to the believer is one of Sabbath rest, since we have ceased from our spiritual labor and are resting in the salvation of the Lord (Hebrews 4:9-11).
So while we still follow the pattern of designating one day of the week a day for the Lord’s people to gather in worship, we do not refer to this as “the Sabbath.”
About John MacArthur:
John MacArthur is the pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, as well as an author, conference speaker, president of The Master’s College and Seminary, and featured teacher with the Grace to You media ministry.
In 1969, after graduating from Talbot Theological Seminary, John came to Grace Community Church. The emphasis of his pulpit ministry is the careful study and verse-by-verse exposition of the Bible, with special attention devoted to the historical and grammatical background behind each passage. Under John’s leadership, Grace Community Church’s two morning worship services fill the 3,500-seat auditorium to capacity. Several thousand members participate every week in dozens of fellowship groups and training programs, most led by lay leaders and each dedicated to equipping members for ministry on local, national, and international levels.
In 1985, John became president of The Master’s College (formerly Los Angeles Baptist College), an accredited, four-year liberal arts Christian college in Santa Clarita, California. In 1986, John founded The Master’s Seminary, a graduate school dedicated to training men for full-time pastoral roles and missionary work.
John is also president and featured teacher with Grace to You. Founded in 1969, Grace to You is the nonprofit organization responsible for developing, producing, and distributing John’s books, audio resources, and the “Grace to You” radio and television programs. “Grace to You” radio airs more than 1,000 times daily throughout the English-speaking world, reaching major population centers on every continent of the world. It also airs nearly 1,000 times daily in Spanish, reaching 23 countries from Europe to Latin America. “Grace to You” television airs weekly on DirecTV in the United States, and is available for free on the Internet worldwide. All of John’s 3,000 sermons, spanning more than four decades of ministry, are available for free on this website.
Since completing his first best-selling book The Gospel According to Jesus in 1988, John has written nearly 400 books and study guides, including Our Sufficiency in Christ, Ashamed of the Gospel, The Murder of Jesus, A Tale of Two Sons, Twelve Ordinary Men, The Truth War, The Jesus You Can’t Ignore, Slave, One Perfect Life, and The MacArthur New Testament Commentary series. John’s titles have been translated into more than two dozen languages. The MacArthur Study Bible, the cornerstone resource of his ministry, is available in English (NKJ, NAS, and ESV), Spanish, Russian, German, French,Portuguese, Italian, and Arabic with a Chinese translation underway.
John and his wife, Patricia, live in Southern California and have four adult children: Matt, Marcy, Mark, and Melinda. They also enjoy the enthusiastic company of their fifteen grandchildren.
Is the Study of Theology and History an Antiquated Discipline?
The opening lines of Charles Dickens’ 1837 novel, A Tale of Two Cities, a description of turbulent revolutionary times in France and England, seems an appropriate starting point for a description of our times. There is warrant for wondering if the era of the birth of the noble experiment in enlightened thought differs significantly from the era of its unraveling and denigration. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom; it was the age of darkness. It was the epoch of belief; it was the epoch of incredulity. It was the season of light; it was the season of darkness. It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,” wrote the literary craftsman and social critic.
Many in the social sciences alert us that we are living in times of upheaval, a time of transition from one system of values and assumptions to another. Some suggest that the unease will subside as we make our peace with the changes; others that we are entering a dark, glacial age and the destruction of civilization.
Comfortable or not, at least two things can be argued from all of this.
First, this is a time of rapid and often disconcerting cultural and social change; the contrasts between the world of our grandparents and ours is akin to Gulliver’s transport to the land of the Lilliputians in its newness and culture shock.
Second, no amount of wishful thinking will make the negative features of the postmodern world, or even the “modern world,” vanish as a bad dream in the night. The church will live and flourish in this era as it has in every other because its origins and power are not of this world, but from heaven; religious doomsayers will all prove as wrong as the naturalistic optimists. The former is true because we are prone to forget, in the flurry of religious activities, that behind the scene of events is the Lord of all history who “works all things according to the counsels of his good pleasure.” The latter is true because human engineering and political agendas, enhanced by vast access to new information now accumulating at a truly staggering rate, have never overcome the destructive potential of human greed from within, nor can they. It is into this world, resolving to trust in the God of the heavens, that we face with joy and delight, seriousness and pain, the challenges of the new century.
The Denigration Of Theology In The Postmodern World
In this strange new world, how much of the past is still relevant and useful? Even more strange in our times is the suggestion that history and theology are beneficial for the health of the church today; but that is exactly what the church needs.
In our day, theology is regarded as an irrelevant, even destructive topic for the health of the church. Parishioners are more attuned to quick, easy solutions to their questions—the gratification of felt-needs and slick and easily grasped answers—instead of the pain of reflection and mental exertion. Pastors, not desiring to bore the flock of God or unnecessarily divide them, seem to view theology as a subject to be broached with extreme caution, even embarrassment, while waxing eloquent on topics that are hardly the central focus of God’s revelation to us. Though perhaps a cruel judgment, it can be argued that contemporary sermonic fare deals far more frequently with self-help and psychological issues than with the knowledge of the character of God, leading to behavior that is the fruit of sound theology.
Thomas Erskine was quite correct when he argued that “religion is about grace, ethics about gratitude.” Worship is more often a celebration of personal security and temporal happiness than the frightening, yet wonderful experience of coming before a holy God whose demands are only met in his Son. “I Am So Glad I’m a Part of the Family of God” is not a song for Sunday morning; far more fitting is “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Theology is wrapped in a veil of silence, like some haunting past hurtful experience. Or we are told that theology is actually harmful for postmoderns. I reject such talk as wickedly flawed and destructive for our Lord’s church. Yet it bears asking, “What, then, is the value of theology in today’s world?” Why has so much that has been written by so many over the centuries now lying unread? Is the study of theology and history of marginal value in the Christian community today?
While there are some notable exceptions, articles on the contemporary relevance of theology seen through the lens of history have been written generally by academicians for the scholarly community. Such defenses are rarely aimed at our pastors and an inquiring laity. Largely this is the case, I suspect, because the intellectual content of the Christian faith has been diluted. Theology is not merely about the occupation of scholars; the intended audience is that of pastors, Christian workers, and the Lord’s people in general. A truly biblical theology seeks to avoid the perils of lofty but irrelevant intellectualism and mere speculation on the one hand and the often superficiality of popular literature on the other. It arises from the belief that the quest for the knowledge of God is not an idle pastime, that spiritual vitality in any era is found in people who know their God, and that the greatest danger for the church is ignorance of God. Fears and adversaries come and go, but only those who know God can change the course of human events, bring permanence from impermanence, and speak a word of peace in a world that knows only self-advancement, self-hope, and self-fulfillment. In short, theology is a call to the church to return to God and make him the center of its priorities and life.
Let’s think a moment. Has the decline of doctrinal preaching in our churches prevented the intellectual anemia and cultural irrelevancy that has marginalized the church as an advice-giver among Americans? Has the de-emphasis on God brought to the church more willing hearers and maturity to the people who are already there? No! I believe that the decline of theological content in preaching is the cause of the weaknesses of the church today. When the message of the church merely affirms the morals of the culture or makes us more culturally identifiable, the church has ceased to be the church. The essence of Christianity is not morals; morals are the fruit of a vibrant profession of it. If we aim to promote the fruit of Christian faith without its foundation in the knowledge of God in Christ, how are we any different from the moral Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, or secularist? A person can certainly have a solid home, raise good children, and contribute to the betterment of society without Christ. Those wonderful things are not what distinguishes a Christian from others.
I am asserting in this article that theology does matter in the life of the church today. Both history and theology are indispensable to the vitality of the church. Scholars have lamented the denigration of historical studies; departments of history have steadily fallen prey to budgetary restraints while investments for science and technology have mushroomed. If financial expenditure is an evidence of priorities, theology and history have hit upon hard times to say the least! Such decline of interest among our scholars and teachers has an interesting parallel to the disinterest in theology in the churches. It seems to be far easier to worship God with our emotions and affections today than it is with our intellectual energies. Did not the Lord instruct us that the foremost of the commandments is that we should “love the Lord our God with all your hearts, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30)? A fragmented society has led to a fragmented church. A culture that marginalizes rational reflection has infiltrated the church of the Savior; we live in a world that generally appreciates knowledge for its pragmatic and utilitarian ends rather than as substantive essence. The Bible asserts that the fear of God is the beginning of knowledge. The pulpit fare in our churches, at times, appears to be sending the message that what is most important is to get in contact with the innermost recesses of the self. Failure, impotency, and disappointment come from ignorance of the appropriate recovery group or the latest “secret” of walking with God.
In short, the church seems to be in a rather awkward situation. Having struggled for several centuries to deflect the intellectual attacks posed by Enlightenment rationalism, which denigrated the biblical notions of God, sin, and grace, the church shows signs of imbibing those very characteristics: the penchant for micro-management (the emphasis on procedures, “steps,” and “rules” for everything from church growth to personal happiness); pluralism; tolerance; and privitization (i.e., truth is only personal and private, not public or universal). Theology, once the “queen” of all the sciences, is rapidly becoming “an embarrassing encumbrance.” (See David F. Wells, No Place for Truth: Or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1993, 300).
Thomas C. Oden suggests that the state of the church is that of “an ecclesiastical swamp.” This has been produced, in his judgment, by three intellectual sources: first, the emergence of “an intellectual immune deficiency syndrome, a marked decline of Christian content in the churches with a corresponding emphasis on the emotions”; second, “an acceptance of many of the premises of modernity”; and, third, “an ignorance of the roots of the church in classic orthodoxy.” (See Thomas C. Oden, “On Whoring After the Spirit of the Age,” in No God but God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1963, 196).
If this is true, then the church is truly in a precarious time. The church, and I mean the evangelical portion of it, is in a strange situation. We are increasingly defined by and identified by the very movement we invested enormous energies to denounce as unbiblical and ungodly. It may be argued that modern evangelicalism stands under the same judgment as turn-of-the-century liberalism that also berated doctrine while stressing morals and culture. I write from the conviction that the church must be aroused to reinvest heart and mind in historic, Christian orthodoxy. A Christianity separated from historical credibility is not a biblical faith; a Christianity without theology is morality and not the “faith once for all delivered to the saints of God” (Jude 3).
The Place Of Theology In The Life Of The Church
While theology is not to be confused with the Bible, there is an inseparable linkage between the two. As the Spirit of God and the Word of God are never severed (that is, God speaks most assuredly through his Word to our consciences, both private and corporate), so the Word and theology are inseparable. The source of our knowledge of God, which is the meaning of the term “theology,” is fundamentally Word and Spirit related. Theology is the fruit of the study of the Word that is the voice of God.
The Role of Theology in the Church is at least Four-fold:
(1) First, the task of the skilled theologian or pastor is to gather together the knowledge of God available to us with a view to the church’s worship and service. Older theologians, particularly of the English Puritan tradition, did not seem to define theology in cognitive terms (i.e., the science of the knowledge of God) though their endeavor to understand the Scriptures was remarkable as a scientific endeavor. They often referred to it as “the art of living unto God” or “the art of living blessedly forever.” Theology was neither a mere intellectual discipline nor the attainment of a body of knowledge; it was a means to an end, a godly life. Theology, then, may be defined as the distilled knowledge of God that is the foundation of a walk with God. No one can walk with a person they do not know, neither can we say we walk with God if we do not have an accurate knowledge of him. It is not about the admiration of gathered insights, however wonderful. It is about responding appropriately and regularly to the God revealed to us. This is the task of the pastor for his people. The pastor is to lead his people to a deepening knowledge of God. His tool is a knowledge of God derived from the Bible.
(2) A second function of theology, and here I have in mind historical theology, is to preserve the church from fads and novelty Knowledge of the past keeps the church from confusing the merely contemporary with the enduringly relevant; it distinguishes the transient from the permanent. In so doing, it spares the church of harmful diversions, which at the moment may appear promising. Knowledge of the past bequeaths a stability and confidence in a world where flamboyant voices lend credibility to spurious ideas promising success. In essence, theology presents to the church a valuable accumulation of enduring insights, often acquired at an enormous price, without expense to us along with many relevant lessons and warnings. It abounds in lessons and examples, both positive and negative, for the contemporary church. It thus functions with a view to the growth and maturity of the church by increasing the church’s understanding of its teaching. The relationship between the study of systematic theology and the study of historical theology is integral. Theology is both a science and an art concerning itself with the meaning of the Bible. Historical theology is a discipline that seeks to understand what the church has taught that the Bible teaches. The two disciplines function together. Knowledge of the past provides a wealth of insight about the meaning of texts. History is not opposed to creativity, though it is opposed to novelty.
History is not opposed to creativity,
though it is opposed to novelty.
(3) Third, theology in its historic context and development will preserve the church from error; it provides both apologetic and polemic weapons against deception. The accumulated wisdom of the church can provide an arsenal of arguments as we struggle to preserve the church today from its opponents within and without. For example, the church has been ravaged both by an over-intellectualization of the gospel, as well as by a de-emphasis on the cognitive aspects of the faith; it has alternated between an arid faith full of knowledge but with little vitality and an experienced-centered faith with little intellectual content. An over-emphasis in either direction has proven destructive to Christian experience. Though a contemporary issue, this is not the first time that the church has been forced to articulate the relationship between “the faith as known” and “the faith as experienced.” The collective insights of the past are instructive in gaining a perspective.
Another issue that has recurred in the church is (the question of) the cause of something and its proper effect. Are morals in some sense the cause of salvation or are they the necessary and proper effect? The struggle of the church in the past with this issue provides helpful insights as we attempt to handle the same controversies in a contemporary setting.
(4) Fourth, knowledge of history and theology provide a bulwark against pride and arrogance borne of the thought that any one church or ecclesiastical tradition stands in the exclusive heritage of first century orthodoxy. While all ecclesiastical expressions of the church today mirror a continuity with the one, holy, and apostolic church, there are also significant discontinuities as well. Various ecclesiastical traditions, whether Episcopalian, Presbyterian, or Congregational, claim biblical warrant for their structures yet each have evolved forms. Some have more elaborate structures than others. But do they possess explicit biblical justification for all their forms? Church structure often has emerged out of a particular historic setting and answers needs of the time. While it may be argued that one form or another more faithfully reflects the Bible, each evidences modification from the embryonic structure of the New Testament.
Knowledge of continuity in the midst of discontinuity should have a multiple function. First, it should cause us to be careful in claiming a biblical precedent for all that any particular church does. Second, it should cause us to make continuity with the New Testament, not later additives, the ground of true fellowship. And, third, it should cause us to focus on those areas of truth that are truly timeless and enduring, recognizing we all cling to certain things that are more a part of our tradition and our own accustomed way of doing things than strictly biblical.
In the process of the proclamation and defense of the faith through the centuries, the church has become the heir of a rich treasure. In countless books and other forms of literary witness men and women have recorded their faith in action. With literary skill and biblical insight the people of God have defended the faith, explained its deepest complexities, and revealed its practical implications. It is not too much to assert, it seems, that much of the literature produced by the church today appears trite, superficial, and anemic when compared to the rich treasury of the centuries. The works of Athanasius, Augustine, Cyril of Jerusalem, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and the English Puritans, to mention some now silent voices, have bequeathed such a wonderful heritage of insights that we are impoverished if we remain in ignorance of them.
Finally, knowledge of doctrine supports the Bible’s witness to the triumph of the church. Through times of duress and trial the people of God have been preserved and steadfastly have proclaimed the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The devil has employed every strategy to destroy the church, armies have marched against it, faithless scholarship has relentlessly assaulted it, internal bickering has rent it, and martyrdom has depleted its ranks from time to time. Yet the church marches forward in triumphal anticipation of the great consummation when the kingdoms of this world will be put under Christ’s feet, and the bride, without spot or blemish, will be given to the king. Theology witnesses to the truth of the Scriptures that the world will not end with some deluded false messiah pulling off the ultimate threat to destroy the globe through a nuclear holocaust, holding the world hostage, but in the glorious reign of the King of Kings.
Can We Have A Knowledge Of God Without The Study Of Theology?
(1) Certain basic assumptions support the endeavor of studying theology. Our fundamental assumption is that there is truth available to us; it is found both in the Bible and in the church’s study of the Bible. The Bible is the Word of God written; Christ is the Word of God revealed in it; and the Spirit is the voice of God in it revealing Christ. The Bible is the work and witness of the triune God. Faith is Word-invoked by the Spirit who reveals Christ, our redeemer, enlightening our eyes, redeeming the soul, and infusing the very life of God into us. With child-like embrace, the church has clung to the Bible, searching its pages for direction in life and work. The central focus of the Bible is Christ.
(2) A second assumption is that the Bible has been and can be accurately understood by the church. The Spirit promised through the apostle John that he would lead us into all truth (1 John 2:27). While this has been the subject of considerable discussion, it cannot possibly mean that all the details of orthodoxy are universally known in the church or that unanimity of teaching would prevail. There is simply too much division of opinion in the churches. “All truth” seems to be a reference not to all truth without distinction, but to all truth without exception; it embraces what Christians essentially believe and have commonly embraced across all traditions and denominations. It is a reference to Christ, his person and his work, which the Spirit reveals universally to all believers. While Christians have not been able or are able to agree on a wide range of topics (e.g., the sacraments, spiritual gifts, form of church government, eschatology), there is common consent in the redeemed community about the Lord Jesus Christ.
(3) A third assumption is more difficult to explain. It is the idea that our understanding of what the Bible teaches or says (i.e., theology, doctrine, and dogma) has evolved both negatively and positively. History tells us that theology often has deviated from the path of biblical permissibility while simultaneously it has maintained a remarkable congruity to it. It is one of the duties of the historical theologian and pastor to demonstrate how the church has stood in continuity and discontinuity with the apostolic age.
While the evangelical Christian church has correctly understood the essentials of the gospel, this does not suggest that in every particular the various churches stand in continuity with the apostles’ teachings; this is a logical impossibility. Either one particular community is in conformity with the first century revelation of God or none of them is in every detail. It is my understanding that no single assembly of saints or denomination, however orthodox, evangelical, or primitive, strictly follows the Bible. While the church has sought to be always faithful, the meaning of texts is often subject to more than one interpretation. Theology is often the art of establishing central, classic texts, and every system of doctrine may fail to give proper regard to certain other proof texts. Circumstances also can furnish profound insight into the meaning of texts or current prejudices. No single individual, church, or denomination has escaped human frailty, though there is continuity and uniformity in the essentials of Christ, his person and work.
(4) A fourth assumption is that theology has been forged in church history; the content of our faith was given by the apostles and understood clearly through the centuries in the believing church. However, the explanation of the revelation of God, not the fact of it, has emerged in history. It is amid attack from the enemies of the church or the serious intellectual inquiries of those inside the church that has occasioned the development of theology.
The Bible neither came to us completely intact as today nor with a topical index! It came to us a volume at a time; it was the verbal expression of the oral message of the church. For example, some have argued that the doctrine of the absolute co-equality of Christ with God implied that Christianity was not a monotheistic faith, an early Gnostic charge. Today some claim that the idea of the deity of Christ is not a first-century truth, but one that was invented in the fourth century by the bishops of the church at the first ecumenical council, Nicea (325). The Gnostics understood that the early churchmen made this claim; others deny that they ever made the claim. The answer is that the church has always made the claim, but it took serious reflection upon the Scriptures, as well as other circumstances, to explain, not invent, it. Theology is made in history; it is the result of the study of the revelation of God. It is a human endeavor by fallible people who engage all their intellectual strength and Spirit-inspired ability to understand an infallible book with the sure promise that he will lead us into “all truth.” Theology is a historical question and answer exercise. Presented with questions, apparent difficulties with the coherency of our faith, the church has given them serious thought. The church, in thinking about the inquiries, has reflected deeply on the Bible as the fountain for the substance of an adequate reply. Those answers, when delivered in written form, are doctrine. This formulated reply derived from the Holy Scriptures, the church has used to answer her critics.
Can We Have A Knowledge Of God Without The Study Of Theology And History?
While scholars throughout the disciplines of historical studies follow the same basic method of research, generally the rudiments set forth by Francis Bacon years ago, there are significant differences in their philosophical assumptions in approaching the task. The overarching assumption for the Christian pastor is a belief in the sovereignty of God in all human affairs and the decreed outworking of his purposes. His pastoral work is a blending of the data derived from the Bible including history and prophecy as well as the study of the events and various circumstances outside the Bible. A rather insightful attempt at writing a history of mankind employing this method was devised by the American Puritan Jonathan Edwards in his A History of Redemption (1739) to which I am indebted for many of my own views in the matter. In this particular book, Edwards suggests that the divine purpose in creating and sustaining mankind through the centuries is that God is gathering a bride for his Son, the Lord Jesus.
The Bible describes human history from beginning to end; it is selective of material and there are enormous gaps in the story, particularly of the events between the two testaments and the two advents or comings of Christ as well as the creation itself. The Bible begins with a description of a created, unspoiled garden and concludes in the same fashion, one in time and the other in eternity. The function of the book is also two-fold. It is a revelation of comfort and condescension.
It is about the comfort of God for his people through his condescension to them through prophets, judges, and kings though most perfectly and completely in the Lord Jesus Christ, and it is about his triumph in and through history. History is really a redemptive drama! If the subject of the Bible is Christ, the central event in the revelation of God is the cross.
The Bible is composed of two testaments or covenants, an old one and a new one. The Old Testament is a book of shadows; the ceremonies and symbols the ancient people of God anticipated the coming of a promised deliverer. Beginning with the promise to Adam after the Edenic catastrophe (Genesis 3:15), God progressively revealed the One who would crush evil. The Old Testament describes his person and his work. Gradually the former is unveiled as details about him are progressively disclosed (e.g., he is to be a male; a Semite; a son of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob; a son of Judah; a son of David). His work is gradually unveiled through ceremonies such as the Passover and the Day of Atonement. The summit of the shadowed unveiling is the revelation of Isaiah the prophet (chapter 53). In essence the Old Testament era is one of anticipation of the coming of the vaguely explained deliverer, shadows that gradually take on substance.
No longer revealed in shadow as in the Old Testament (Hebrews 1:1), Christ stands in his wonderful clarity in the New Testament revelation, where the person and work of the promised deliverer is unmistakably unveiled. The central event of the Bible is Calvary where God’s promised deliverer became mankind’s redeemer. There he rendered a sacrifice, a payment in his own life’s blood, to divine justice in behalf of sinners, where atonement was made for sin, so that God could justly and freely forgive sin without a violation of his holiness.
(1) The first of two monumental events in the Bible, one of two central foci of the book, is the cross of Christ. The long-anticipated Christ became our sin-bearer enduring the wrath of God due the sinner (2 Corinthians 5:21). There the debt of sin was paid so that God could be both just in his character remaining always holy and yet justifying, declaring sinners righteous in his sight. Beyond the gospels and in the epistles God revealed something of the early history of the church. Then through prophecy we are told about his second coming, not as a savior but as the Lord and king of history.
(2) The second grand focus of the Bible is his return as king to rule over his redeemed in a renovated garden. If the great period before the advent of Christ can be called one of anticipation, the period before his coming again may be called one of both anticipation and reflection. Christians the world over have a double view as they gather for worship week after week; we express expectancy of the Lord’s return and we reflect in the study of the Scriptures on his first coming, either from shadowed, Old Testament texts or the clearer New Testament revelation. At the end of time, when Christ comes to reign as king over the earth, the third era will commence, the era of fulfillment. All the promises of God, from both testaments, will come to fruition just as the Bible indicates; righteousness will prevail, not chaos. The era between the two advents of the Savior comprise the period of the history of the church, the era of the development of the apostle’s doctrine.
A Plea For The Importance Of Theology In The Postmodern World: The Study Of Theology Is At The Heart Of Our Task
Having written on the history of Christian thought and the importance of theology for the church today, I am compelled to ask the question that haunts every writer. Are my thoughts a service to the Lord’s church or has all this work simply added to the proliferation of small, useless ideas that have littered the publishing landscape? Does anyone really care about theology anymore?
These concerns are particularly intense because we are now living in the world of post-modernity. We exist within a culture that has repudiated many of the assumptions of modernity, such as the importance of the rational, the propriety of the orderly, and the possibility of objective truth. We live in a world where personality has more street value than character, psychological wholeness than spiritual authenticity. We find ourselves in a world where pleasures are embraced without moral norms and social responsibility. Christian truth is attacked not so much for its particular assertions, but for its fundamental claim that there is such a thing as binding, objective truth. The quest for truth has been replaced with the preoccupation for pleasure and entertainment. Thus, we live in a world of the therapeutic and the psychological, an endless quest for self-fulfillment and entitlement. Sin has become little more than the infringement of personal rights and privileges; there is little thought of defining it by the standard of the holiness of God. It is in this kind of a world that the question of the relevance of theology is raised. With so much interest in the management of life, what is the benefit of such a seemingly esoteric thing as timeless, transcendent, historic truth?
The question is complicated by the fact that modern evangelicalism is in a state of crisis. The very community that historically has been deeply interested in transcendent, timeless truth seems more earnestly intent upon focusing on the merely private, personal, and temporal. If I could be so blunt, the church has lost its soul. The quest for contemporary relevance has led it down the path of increasing irrelevancy and marginalization. The evangelical church is on the brink of becoming another of the many social, do-good agencies whose mission purpose has to do with helping people more fully to enjoy this life while neglecting the implications of eternity. While our culture has shown a marked inclination to secularism, the church seems to have followed suit. One of our recent Christian social critics has summarized the problem quite succinctly, “The stream of historic orthodoxy that once watered the evangelical soul is now damned by a worldliness that many fail to recognize as worldliness because of the cultural innocence with which it presents itself” (No Place for Truth, 11).
This is characterized by a decline of Christian content in teaching and preaching, with an accompanying interest in self-help programs that merely promise a better management of everyday crises. There is also an appalling ignorance in the churches of their rich Christian heritage (“On Whoring After the Spirit of the Age,” 196). Mark Noll speaks of “the scandal of the evangelical mind,” the denigration of the intellectual content of the faith and the elevation of the subjective and personal (Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1994, 35–36). Barna complains that the average Christian is uninterested in life-changing religious convictions, having little more than the most superficial awareness of sin, grace, and redemption (George Barna, The Barna Report. Ventura, California: Regal, 1994, 44, 58).
This moral and intellectual crisis comes to the evangelical church when Christianity is without a serious secular opponent; there are no potent rivals in our culture making claims to having objective, final truth. Such truth claims have been abandoned in the postmodern experience.
David Wells has found a general parallel to the situation in the churches today to the era just prior to the Reformation in the sixteenth century.
(1) First, the two churches, he suggests, are similar in that they each manifest a lack of confidence in the Word of God. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the denigration of the Scriptures was manifested in the church’s appeal to papal pronouncements; today, it is to business know-how and psychological counseling.
(2) Second, both churches reflect a flawed understanding of the seriousness of sin. One of our philosophers, having reflected on the decline of the discussion of sin within his own religious heritage simply has stated: “The new language of Zion fudges: ‘Let us confess our problem with human relational adjustment dynamics, and especially our feebleness in networking’… ‘Peanut Butter Binge’ and ‘Chocolate Decadence’ are sinful; lying is not. The measure of sin is caloric.” (Cornelius Plantinga, “Natural Born Sinners: Why We Flee from Guilt and the Notion of Sin,” Christianity Today 38. November 14, 1995, 26).
(3) Third, in both instances the church, having lost its grasp on sin, has minimized the glory and efficacy of the death of Christ (David F. Wells, Losing our Virtue. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1998, 28–29). Sin and grace are intrinsically linked. The former is the problem; the latter the solution. Weak, unbiblical views of mankind’s plight lead to a weak solution to it. Without the biblical doctrine of human depravity, Calvary is little more than a moral object lesson of how to behave when misunderstood and tragically treated. Christ is reduced to a pathetically misunderstood fellow who neither died for sin or rose from the dead to verify his victory over it.
The Centrality Of The Gospel In Christian Proclamation
My plea is a rather simple one. It is one that has been stated with regularity, but practiced infrequently. Theoretically, I suppose, it is easy to talk about gradation of convictions.
(1) First, there are those beliefs that each of us holds that are simply essential. These are the core doctrines of Christianity without which there can be no Christianity, the beliefs that one would hold as so central that there should be a willingness to die for them. Among these, for example, may be the existence of God, the deity of Christ, the atonement, and salvation by grace without any human merit.
(2) Second, there is that cluster of beliefs that are reckoned to be very important and are held with the same conviction from the Scriptures as those most essential truths, but with the recognition that there is legitimate debate among Christians on their interpretation. Often these are what you might call “denominational distinctives,” if held by a particular religious group, or simply personal convictions. Examples of these types of convictions might be a particular view of baptism or the Eucharist, church polity, or the chronology of Last Things. While they may be fervently held, they are nonetheless teachings that are subject to a variance of opinion and are not issues that should divide the fellowship of the saints in the broadest sense.
(3) Third, there is another realm of beliefs that are distinctly personal. They are neither core doctrines of Christianity nor those embraced in a creed by any particular Christian group. They are simply private, personal views that arise from the study of the Bible and the experience of life. Traditionally these have been defined as “adiaphoria,” in matters of difference. They might have to do with certain moral issues that are neither prohibited nor propounded by the Scriptures. Experientially, however, these concentric circles of beliefs are often blended together; sometimes, mere personal beliefs are treated as core truths. My plea is that these distinctions be recognized and that our Christian pastors, teachers, missionaries, and laity make sure that the central truths be foremost in our proclamation of Christianity.
The cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith concern the person and work of Jesus Christ, the gospel. The most important person in all of history is Jesus Christ; he alone must always be the passionate message of the church. Without Christ, there can be no gospel that is really good news. He is the essence of the Bible. While there are teachings that are important, greatly adding to the maturity of the church, Christ is the keystone of it all. The very center of the Scriptures is Christ. The cross of Christ is the great moment of redemptive history. That should always be, along with all the teachings of Christ that fill out its deepest meaning, the essential proclamation of the Christian community.
What Happens When The Non-Essential Becomes A Preoccupation?
There is a hazard for the church of Jesus Christ when the peripheral becomes a preoccupation, when the core doctrines of the faith are superseded by other, perhaps even, solid and wonderful teaching. I see at least two negative consequences.
(1) First, when the non-essential teachings consistently are taught, the impression is conveyed that they are the very heart and core of the faith. To be biblical means, at least in part, that one not only derives the content of teaching from the
Bible, but that one also submits to the priorities and centralities of the Bible. The pages of history are replete with examples of people who have majored on the minors instead of minoring on them. Such a tendency distorts the gospel of Jesus Christ when the time-honored central teachings of the church are substituted with the particular insights of a teacher or a group, teachings not shared by the entire Christian community. My plea is that we become “catholic” in our profession of Christianity. We must stand together on the historic Christian doctrines, majoring on them in our proclamation of Christ, and not allow ourselves to be drawn away by the attractions of novelty or complexity.
Novelty will always get a crowd
and build a following, but it does
not last beyond the gifted and winsome
teacher or teachers who proclaim it.
(2) Second, there is also a danger in majoring on minors for those who preach and proclaim them. Novelty will always get a crowd and build a following, but it does not last beyond the gifted and winsome teacher or teachers who proclaim it. There is a rather wonderful dynamic in all this. Christ has so ordered things, it appears, that the enduring truths of Scripture last from generation to generation, but novelty is short-lived. Those who teach other than the core truths of the gospel as gospel-truth can be compared to a person who walks along a beach in the soft, moist sand when the tide is out. In this analogy, they leave their footprints or teachings, as it were, in the sand, but the tide eventually comes and washes them away. In past centuries, many have taught unique or novel insights, but most of them have passed with the “tide” of time. In refusing to major on the great and timeless truths of the gospel, precious time is poorly managed, the gospel distorted, and the Lord’s people confused.
Where To Go From Here?
The history of Christian thought suggests that there is a timeless core of Christian truth. It is what we call theology. It has survived the battering of those unsympathetic with it and the minimizing of it by its advocates. Because Christ and his gospel came to us from heaven, it has and will survive the ravages of friend and foe. Will it, however, in the American churches? Or will our churches drift like the churches of the great European Reformation in the sixteenth century, the churches once vibrant with the teachings of Luther and Calvin, that are now emptied of all but the old? Do our churches have the potential of becoming tomorrow’s museums? Our pastors and teachers must make theology and history their task, the pulpit and lectern their forum. In this era of theological drivel, we must be people of courage in the proclamation of timeless truth. The issue is not that much in our contemporary churches is not stimulating and exciting; it is that it is not eternal! “Help us, O Lord, not to be ashamed of the simplicity and wonder of the gospel of Jesus Christ. To preach nothing other than Christ and him crucified calling men and women, boys and girls to this One who has loved us and loosed us from our sins in his precious blood. Amen!”
About Dr. John Hannah
Department Chair and Research Professor of Theological Studies, Distinguished Professor of Historical Theology
B.S., Philadelphia College of Bible, 1967; Th.M., Dallas Theological Seminary, 1971; Th.D., 1974; M.A., Southern Methodist University, 1980; Ph.D., University of Texas at Dallas, 1988; postdoctoral fellowship, Yale University, 1994.
Dr. Hannah has enjoyed a distinguished career for more than 35 years at Dallas Seminary. He is a frequent and popular church and conference speaker both at home and abroad. His teaching interests include the general history of the Christian church, with particular interest in the works of John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and John Owen. His publications include books, journals, chapters in books, audio materials, and computerized works. He currently is researching and writing a history of Dallas Seminary, with a general history of the Christian church after that. He remains active in church ministries and serves on the boards of several organizations.