Why I’m Critical of “Christian Self-Help” teaching part 2
Being “made like Christ”
The final answer for suffering is God “making us like Him” (based on “being conformed into the image of His Son”, based on Rom. 8:29, 1 Cor. 15:49, Phil. 3:21, 2 Cor. 3:18, Eph. 4:13), but then why is SUFFERING the only thing that makes us like Him? (The Bible doesn’t actually say this, but the teaching does seem to leave that impression). Is suffering (and being patient and merciful in it) the only attribute of His character? It may be the most important thing Christ did for us, but to define “being like Christ” that way really seems to reduce Him to much less than what He is. Taking this along with the eternal torment of all unrepentant sinners, and groups like Calvinists believing God actually ordains people for this, it seems like God is all about pain. Why is that? Has anyone ever thought about it?
The problem with this teaching, is it leads to an assumption of the “image of Christ” being behavioral, and since it would be behavioral perfection, and we know we do not measure up to that, then this “being made into the image of Christ” then becomes a mundane “growth process” not much different than what any non-believer can do.
Here, CRI’s Hank Hanegraaf lays down the typical formula, (in answer to the question “Does Repetitive Sin Mean We Aren’t Saved?”)
As you get into the Word of God, and get the Word of God into you, you will have a residue of power within you, to withstand the forces and the temptations that come your way from the world, the flesh and the devil. Not only that, but the intake of scripture is the missing link between meditating on scripture and effective prayer life. So meditating on the Word of God helps to develop a relationship with the lover of your soul, and the more that develops, the more sanctified you will become, which is to say you will become more and more like Christ; and you will find those bad habits eventually falling off like barnacles. […but we will always have bad habits, because we will be imperfect until the day we die…]
However, Non-Christians get over bad habits as well. Non-Christians can suffer and grow to be more patient or compassionate. You might try to say that this is just the image of Christ in general (which all men originally have, and was marred in the fall, but still present in all men), but it is clearly made exclusive to believers in many of these statements.
This might seem like nitpicking, but when it comes to something that makes the exclusive claims the Gospel does, it should really be something other than a regular, natural process. Else, you’re just cheapening the whole concept.
What “Image of Christ” really meant was the positional perfection of being totally freed from the condemnation of the Law, which was passing away “shortly” back then (the destruction of the Temple 40 years after Christ’s ascension). That system rendered everyone as filthy sinners, but when covered by Christ, we are seen as “perfect” (even though our behavior is still not).
This is connected with the equally misunderstood concept of “the flesh”. What “flesh” really meant in Paul’s usage was using our physical lineage as the means of reconciliation with God (along with our own efforts at keeping the Law passed down through that heritage). It was referring primarily to the Christ-rejecting Israelites, who thought their status as Abraham’s children made them “the chosen”, rather then one’s position in Christ. That was determined by physical blood lineage, or, “the flesh”. So Paul shows that all your physical nature can do for you spiritually is produce sins (transgressions of the Law; “missing the mark”) such as lust and anger and the rest. In contrast, were the “fruits of the Spirit”.
The Church has taken this as teaching a behavioral “growth process” where the entire purpose of our “walk” is to develop the better behaviors of those “fruits”. This is connected with “running the race”, but most admit we never actually get to the end. Is that really “winning” then? (And then what is the purpose of this when we are supposedly, instantly “perfected” at death? At this point, they’ll usually revert the purpose of this “growth” to “service to others” now, in this life).
But Paul’s point is that “Against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:23). The whole point of Galatians is Law vs Grace, and the walk in the Spirit is about love being the motivation (v.13, 14), and love is what produces the fruits of the Spirit, not Law. Yet “law” is precisely what is being preached in most of the church, in the name of “crucifying the flesh” in order to “walk in the Spirit”.
That this is not what is being described in these passages is proven by the fact that it must be broken down in the teaching into mechanical “principles” and “steps” and a slow “growth” that is not really exclusive to Christians. This is precisely what Paul was calling “the flesh” even as the aim was to keep the Law by trying to not commit sins!
So even if it appears to “work”, and you outwardly sin “less”, you’re still preaching something wrong to others, that will likely have less positive results in them, but then this is just attributed to “how hard it is for the flesh to overcome sin”; if not the person not trying hard enough, or perhaps not even really repenting.
The teaching is right, that the problem is “the flesh”, but it’s the teaching that is actually telling people to rely on the flesh (even while speaking against this), by misunderstanding what “the spirit” really is about.
Who’s Side are you on?
It also seems to put a divine stamp on the cold world of suffering, where the teachers tend to dissociate Him from it (even as some insist He is “using” it or whatever). In other words, God is against this world of injustice. Yet, it seems this is the way He wants it. If He wants me to be prosperous, and for you to be poor, that is His “secret counsel”, and He gives you the “grace” to “endure” it, so you better be “content” and change your attitude. It’s obvious all the places one can go [and where people have gone] with that sort of philosophy.
There’s a whole history of these things being used to pacify people, to maintain the status quo. The teachers often sound very compassion-less, telling everyone their pain is for some good purpose.
The typical testimonial approach takes a person who had some horrible experience or disability, and he or she just “chose” to think positively, through “faith”. The person shines from his good choice and attitude, and of course, you feel like a stupid heel for complaining about your far lesser problems. The latest one, just today, I see these postings on Facebook, of Rick Warren on one of Oprah’s shows, and they bring out this guy who had no arms or legs, to prove the point of “choice” as a coping strategy. “This is gonna shut your mouth” she says!
But this ignores other factors. Success is a combination I call “Timing, Talent, Temperament“. This is completely ignored in both American self-help and politics alike, where the successful are praised as simply making all the right choices, which implies that the less fortunate are only suffering for their own mistakes, up to “laziness”, even. And even those three things can be further influenced by various other psychological factors. But again, the trend generally is “one size fits all”.
Timing may have been bad, and his talent limited, but his temperament seemed to be such that the problem could be seen as more of a challenge, even after earlier suicidal feelings (He sounds like a Choleric). In the case of this guy on Oprah, his parents supported him, and he was of a temperament to be able to receive their more motivational “coaching” style “encouragement” (“You can either be angry for what you don’t have, or be thankful for what you do have”, which to me seems cold and trite, and would have been discouraging!)
Not everyone has this natural disposition. Too much is being placed on human will.
(And I couldn’t help wondering how many of these teachers would have handled what was their biggest fear 30 years ago; of being attacked or conquered by the Soviet regime, in addition to the “forces of godlessness” taking over from within; the way they all screamed about those “threats” in those days. Where was this “thankful attitude” then? Even today, with the gun control debate, the hostility towards Obama for the economy and other issues, and the fear toward Muslims, we wonder are people practicing what they preach? Though to be fair, most of these teachers today don’t really say much about politics anymore. But a few decades ago was a totally different story).
They even added “Choice” as a fifth card suit in a poker analogy (which one YouTube commenter points out seems to imply that God is the poker “player”) of what they see as the factors in these situations. In addition to “Chemistry”, “Connections”, “Circumstances”, “Consciousness”.
Always a formula, a quip, a neat little organized principle. It seems so nice and simple. What’s wrong with the vast numbers of hurting/struggling people in the world who just can’t ‘get with the program’; for whom this “victory” seems to be elusive?
Why do people even need compassion, then, if their adversity is all in God’s hands, it’s all a test of their ‘will’, and the “good” outcome is all that ultimately matters?
What the people need then would be coaching through it, and that’s pretty much what we’re getting! (Hence, Horton mentions Christ being transformed into a “life coach” in much Christian teaching).
Yet compassion is one of things they will all teach as one of the “good” things our suffering is supposed to produce (2 Cor. 1:4). Yet here, it’s having an opposite effect.
Again; why should we have compassion on anyone?
Hey, look; that guy has no arms or legs, and he made it fine. You don’t have any real problem [compared to that]; and as he testifies; even if you did, it’s no excuse! All you need to do is “choose” the right “attitude”.
Finance, second Master’s suddenly required by the state for a certain license —in the middle of a recession when jobs are scarce; so we’re paying money for school instead of having a second income; controlling job, (but walking around broke most of the time), etc.; lack of respect in a world (and much of the church) that looks up to the successful as naturally “deserving”, and those who struggle as probably “lazy”; and God never actively counters this; and if God’s answer is supposed to be through the written Word and other believers, then those believers just “comforting” you with those scriptures interpreted that way seems to reinforce or practically validate the problem.
It always made a striking parallel with the horror stories of Christianity similarly proof-texting justifications of racism, which was highlighted by citing passages on “contentment”, under the premise that only Heaven matters. “Pie in the sky when you die by and by”. Of course, those preaching that still enjoyed nice things here, including the benefits of the inequalities. (It really seems like placing a heavy burden on others they would not lift themselves).
It basically started with “God chose us”, with “chosenness” assumed to mean earthly favor and rule. Sound familiar?
This caused perhaps more than anything else, the total disrepute of the faith, as a “control” tool; and I’m supposed to be “witnessing” to my family with this.
The world is geared towards advantage. Telling those with less power to be content, because hardship is good for us appears to sanction the “unfair, fallen world” they warn us about. Faith is hard enough, because the world seems like such a godless jungle (which science essentially insists to us it is), so this just makes it seem God’s “ways” happen to conform to “survival of the fittest” (i.e. DARWINism, the great arch-heresy of the faith), and thus, by appearance, just another attempt at an explanation.
A Perfect Formula
The whole thing seems to fit so well. They cite examples of one person’s problems and negative reactions, and another person’s better attitude, or perhaps even the same person learns some better attitude, then cite the passage on contentment or growth, or things working out for good, and “bingo!” we have a ready-made, relevant, scripture-based philosophy that comes together like clockwork, and will “work”. It’s “hard”, but with some help from the Spirit, we gain this “peace” that transforms our view of everything. That’s the difference.
“The world can’t do it”, many actually claim. Or “I don’t know how the world does it without the Spirit”. But not only do many on the world practice similar “steps to growth”; the results are similar. Notice how the arch-secular figure Oprah can host these “testimonials” by leading evangelical Christians, and it fits right in with everything else on those shows, as she and the fans shout in agreement! This is the ultimate proof that this is no special “supernatural” work available only to born again or “regenerate” Christians!
No one has attained any better level of “growth” than anyone else. If they did, you would hear about it, and everyone would try to copy it. (Some will try to slip in “common grace” available to all).
Even though I [admittedly; or perhaps obviously?] struggle with faith, I value and respect the Gospel concept enough to separate it from pragmatic philosophy that renders it essentially no more truthful than anything else; and if anything, falsified by the claim that it’s a special supernatural “Grace” as they call it, accessible only to converted Christians. (Another example of terms and concepts torn from their original meaning and context).
The purpose of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was not a “growth through positive thinking” philosophy. It was freedom from the condemnation of the Divine Law which rendered mankind as dead sinners.
There are other self-help philosophies that are probably better than this.
What we end up with: “Many sermons are moral exhortations, which can be heard delivered with greater skill at the Rotary or Kiwanis Club. Many sermons offer personal therapies, which can be better provided by well-trained psychiatrists. Why should anyone come to the Church for what can be better found somewhere else?” (John Leith, The Reformed Imperative, Westminster Press, 1988, quoted in Horton, Beyond Culture Wars p.76, who points out that this was originally aimed at mainline churches, but now just as accurately describes evangelicalism!)
On p.145 he rhetorically asks if our sermons are “essentially pep talks seasoned with personal anecdotes and helpful illustrations?” (Perfect description!)
In Christless Christianity, he criticizes the “inward focus” (which ultimately turns glory right back onto man) of the “changed life” concept, and others. He also mentions how many in practice treat God/Christ/The Spirit as an “energy source” we “tap/plug into”. This is especially pronounced in the Charismatic environment I find myself in. (And charismaticism has greatly influenced the broader new-evangelical culture).
This remarkably describes much of the preaching and teaching you hear in churches, books and broadcasts today. While it maybe good in its own right as “self-improvement”, to confuse this with the Bible’s teachings on the power of God only clouds the issue. But it does sell, however.
The entire Christian teaching industry, and much of televangelism is driven by extravagant claims of “the mighty work God is doing today”, (defined as “changed lives”, overcoming problems, supposed healings, etc.), but which do not match the actual day-to-day reality of people’s daily lives, (which are more of a “struggle” as is admitted) and the world sees this!
The Difficulty of Faith
He further points out on p284 (BCW again) that we should accommodate our language but not our message to the world, but are doing the opposite:
“We still speak Christian-eze; we still talk about being ‘blessed’ and ‘anointed’ and use other Christian language that nobody understands outside of the evangelical world”, yet “…are accommodating the message to the world”.
He also says “In our day, the church resembles Corinth, with its attraction to slick preachers, and signs and wonders; an immature church…” (p.228)
This is actually a sign of a lack of faith. We want so much to share the biblical saints’ experience of regular divine interaction, that we must feign it, by hyping up things such as “healing” and “tongues”, and the language we see in the texts (often torn from their original contexts); if nothing else, substituting psychological “growth” as today’s “miracle”, by fusing it with the concept of the “changed life”.
It seems no one wants to admit that [most times, at the very least] prayer’s likeliness in being granted seems to conform to the natural situation. Even if we can’t fully understand it (in which case we take it as the ultimate proof it was a supernatural “answer”). When we admit prayers might not be answered, then we come up with alternate purposes for it (besides “making your requests known to God”), like “it changes US”, or it’s just our “relationship” with Him.
Being that expectations are basically the source of our pain as was mentioned, interpreting these scriptures as “promises” for US today, under the banner of “faith” raises more expectations, and when they don’t come true, and we have to shrug and tell ourselves (or another person) “oh well; we just don’t understand what God is doing”, it is creating more pain and disillusionment with God (and potential judgmental-ism if the disappointed person doesn’t develop the right attitude). It’s for all purposes “playing with our [own] hearts”! It would be God playing with our hearts, if we insist He is the one causing things to happen or not happen for some unknown purpose, but most Christians wouldn’t dare say that. (Only in moments of extreme frustration, some might). But people seem to believe that this is precisely what makes it a “test” from God. (To teach us how to handle disappointments. Another form of “playing with our hearts” is the notion that we gain “relief” from “dying”; i.e “to self”, but this is not actual relief, but still feeling the pain, and having to struggle to “change our attitude” on top of it. Don’t call it “dying” or “relief”, then!)
(The way they make it sound, I often wonder if this “growth” could be quantified. Perhaps into units of “grothions” or “grothons”, or perhaps “growitons“. So each disappointment we react to the right way gives us one growiton, and a bigger disappointment might give us five growitons. Whoever dies with the most, wins, and the more you have, the bigger the prize).
Belief in an invisible God is a very powerful tool, which can potentially be very dangerous in the wrong hands, since it holds great emotional sway and fear over many, yet cannot be readily proven or disproven (sort of parallels the power wielded by early men who discovered fire). It should be used with great caution, humility and love; knowing our human tendency to control others. So we are not to use it to silence people about the “unsearchable counsel of God” when we have been making a lot of extrabiblical speculations on what He is doing all along!
“Trusting God” ultimately winds up meaning trusting men, when teachers use their own interpretations of His promises, and personal experiences (and even revelation) read into them to instruct people on the “walk of faith”.
Faith today is very difficult, and while most will superficially admit this, in practice we end up treating it as if it were as clear as gravity (the notion that there is “no excuse” for unbelief has to be justified. The main passage this is based on, Romans chapter 1, is actually addressing Israel, whom God “showed” Himself to through special revelation).
What I’ve seen is that “faith”, when presented to others, always ends up with a measure of “presuppositionalism” (a term associated as one of the backbones of Reconstructionism, which takes just about everything the world hates about traditional religion to an extreme).
All of your arguments must presuppose the whole premise at some point. Usually, personal internal experience becomes the final arbiter, but then how can we expect others to go by just that? We have to argue that they have had the internal experience as well, which we take to be “conscience”. But conscience alone doesn’t prove all the other doctrines that go along with the entire faith.
So you can’t prove it, can’t disprove it; so that, in effect (whether consciously or not) becomes our ace in the hole, as we just presume and assure ourselves “They know it’s true, so we don’t have to prove it to them, and that’s why God’s penalties are so harsh”. When the world eventually turns away in disgust, and even believers grow weary and desperate, we can just chalk it up to their own “hardness”. (Many churches still try to entertain them back in, though).
It is especially hard for me, going through a difficult midlife crisis, and grappling with the near universal appeal to internal-based healing when I’m accustomed to expecting some form of external validation (both from life experiences, and temperament/type; a Supine in the temperament areas of Inclusion and Affection, and recognition-seeking Choleric in Control, with inferior extraverted Feeling).
I see that Horton does use many of these scriptures on suffering in a similar way, in other books. He also criticizes the “inner” approach in favor of an “outer” one. Namely, a more “catholic” (“high church” or “sacramental”) ecclesiology of communion of the saints, through the Eucharist and “the Word”. Still, the internal implications of this cannot be avoided. He criticizes the notion of “the god within”, but the whole concept of the communion of saints is that the Holy Spirit is WITHIN each saint, binding them together as one Body. And it’s still by “faith” in Someone who’s “unseen” externally, and so can only be accessed internally. The fellow saints are external, but are (admittedly) very imperfect representations of God. The sacraments are external, but only have any meaning through the [internal] faith.
I’m sure he would hold along with everyone else the common application of the the familiar 2 Cor. 4:16: “though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day”, and the even more familiar Psalm 23:4 “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for you are with me”, which are often used to teach that what’s going on in the outer world is not as important as God’s “work” within.
Philip Yancey is a somewhat well-known writer who has stood out from the rest, not being able to offer any magical solutions, or conclusions much different from the others; but just having this compassion in the way he writes. He just relates, not coaches on the path to “victory”.
So let those philosophies deal with self-help. Keep the scriptures focused on the salvation of man, and how we can love and show compassion to each oher.
Here’s a reprint of a very important newer addition to the “abundant” page:
Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh
In order to understand “sufficient grace” [perhaps the most tossed around term at suffering], we should have a better understanding of the subject of the context, which is the “thorn in the flesh”. Much speculation abounds regarding what it is, with everything from a literal thorn to his wife. In the end, they will all agree the principle is that God allows pain, and this “Grace” is generally interpreted as some sort of invisible power (through the Spirit) that makes it easier to cope with life and pain and change your attitude. When explained further, by some, it’s that just the “thankfulness” from the “grace” of being saved from the eternal Hell we really deserve should outweigh any temporal pain we have here, and thus make us content. (Truer to the meaning of “grace”, but it’s still not about any such comparison of literal pain).
Paul had just been given a vision, which by his own admission might have made him “haughty” or “exalted above measure”. As this page: http://www.gotquestions.org/Paul-thorn-flesh.html says: “Anyone who had encountered Jesus and was spoken to and commissioned by Him (Acts 9:2-8) would, in his natural state, become ‘puffed up.'”
The “messenger” came from Satan, who is “the Accuser” and accusation is based on violation of the Law. And “the Flesh” is our natural state under the Law, in which many try to justify themselves through works.
So what it looks like, is that this “thorn” is some highlight of a moral or spiritual “WEAKNESS” of his, and doesn’t that word sound very familiar, from our reading of this passage? His weakness (likely some transgression marring that perfect “Pharisee of the Pharisees” image he had once maintained) would be an embarrassment, and make him look like he is in bad standing with God. This is the whole key here.
So what was the solution for Paul? Well, Christ had borne his sins on the Cross, and forgiven him through GRACE. THIS was “SUFFICIENT” to counter this nagging flaw in his character and realize his troubles were not some sort of punishment from God. (And thus, he could actually “rejoice” in them!)
So NOW, it all fits together! Paul had a vision of Christ, but to prevent him from becoming puffed up, he was somehow reminded of his sinfulness, but Christ’s Grace is sufficient to cover this “weakness”, and His “strength” is manifest through this; and also ensure that he was on the right track, despite his persecution!