[Christianity] has become a shallow self-help cult whose chief aim is not cultivating discipleship but rooting out personal anxiety.Rod Dreher, “Live Not By Lies”, 205
God has a wonderful plan for your life. With all of its ambiguity and deception, this was the famous trademark of sorts for a prominent evangelical milieu. This novel evangelical culture became so widespread that sociologists, missiologists, theologians, and lay-Christians alike began discussing this trend under the banner of Moral Therapeutic Deism. (This was appropriate as it firmly distinguished this movement from Christianity altogether.)
Today, to use phrases like God has a wonderful plan for your life or Moral Therapeutic Deism is to make one sound a bit dated. These phrases are not so much apart of our cultural dialogues anymore. But nonetheless, the social atmosphere characterized by them is alive and well. If anything, it exists now in a much more sinister form. This inward focused, therapeutic approach to religion has transitioned from a putrid stench that has invaded our atmosphere into the very air we breath. It is so ubiquitous that we hardly recognize it unless it happens to show itself by marching under banners of these explicit catch-phrases.
The reason it’s important for Christians to re-engage in this conversation is because it has become obvious that this is not at all an invention of evangelic sentimentality, as I once assumed. The scenario is far worse. This is, rather, a secular phenomenon with which much of the visible church in America is going along. The visible church has been picked up and is being carried away by the winds and waves of the self-obsessed, hedonistic, inward focused, therapeutic age.
Carl Trueman wrote a book explaining the philosophical and cultural evolution, beginning with the 18th and 19th centuries that eventually led to a 21st century America where men can claim to be girls and no one but fundamentalist Christians bats an eye. As he documents the influences of men like Rosseau, Wordsworth, Darwin, Marx, and Freud he demonstrates how the Western world has essentially recreated the self (hence the title of his book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self). He provides a brief description of our contemporary age as,
“…the age of the therapeutic, where psychological well-being is deemed to be the purpose of life and where happiness in the present moment is the overwhelming priority.”(The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, 191)
It is very alarming how poignant that definition is. While it aims to describe our secular, godless culture, it simultaneously describes evangelical culture accurately. This means, to be redundant, so much of the visible church is not being shepherded by Christ, but by Marx, Darwin, and Freud.
Though I don’t actually recommend doing this, spending time listening to some of the most popular, young, “Christian” leaders in America today will leave no doubt of the veracity of my assessment. The most popular preachers in this country are not men and women dedicated to text-focused explications of a passage. Their messages more so resemble motivational speeches, pep rallies, and self-help lectures. God is presented as the one who helps people “overcome”, “breakthrough”, and perform other verbs of victory. They are focused heavily on the exaltation of the self, the realization of personal value and worth, discarding our haters, ignoring our doubters, feeling good about who we are and what we desire, and receiving blessings. Christianity is being presented to people as a means of transitioning from pain to pleasure. Christianity has become a vehicle which carries you toward self-fulfillment. Psychological well-being is the purpose of life, and God conveniently helps you fulfill that purpose.
The times of “moral therapeutic deism” are not over, the times of “God has a wonderful plan for your life” are not over; they are blooming. What is additionally so frightening is that the bandwagon this movement is on began as a larger cultural ethos. What Trueman refers to as the “social imaginary,” our secular milieu seems to actually be what is shaping much of the evangelical milieu.
While certainly one blog post from my obscure, irrelevant keyboard is not capable of undoing centuries of cultural decay, the invisible church must start somewhere during these ominous days. May I recommend striving for a newfound devotion and focus on the Law of God?
One of the central themes of Scripture which most blatantly contradicts our therapeutic age is the Bible’s love for God’s Law. Certainly, our contemporary social imaginary is in the process of removing anything which is transcendent, objective, and external in order to make the subjective self of highest importance. The very existence of God and His authority expressed through Law is it odds with our culture, but I am speaking about something even more specific. I am not bringing our attention to the fact that God’s Law exists, but that the Bible’s disposition toward it is that it’s wonderful. Scripture then not only sets the Law of God as being of crucial importance to us, but also presents the Law as something good. The Law of God is to be cherished and obeyed.
Few passages speak to the priority of God’s Law better than the fourth chapter of Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians:
Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.(1 Thessalonians 4:1-8)
When the average person attempts to ascertain the will of God for their life, it is usually in regards to specifics like who to marry, which vocation to pursue, or what educational institution to attend. But when Scripture expressly mentions what the will of God is for our life, it reveals it as sanctification. The Lord wants us holy and obedient, sanctified. The Lord desires that we abstain from sin, and pursue righteousness. Obedience to the Law of God is very much a key element to our entire existence as human beings.
And in case that sounds as if I have overstated things, let me remind you of Solomon’s thesis statement for the human race:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.(Ecclesiastes 12:13).
The whole duty of man, what the Westminster Confession might call the chief end of man, is a two step process: 1) Fear God, 2) Keep His commandments. The Law is a crucial aspect to our existence, to our telos as God’s creatures. Where is this message in our churches and in our families? Are we perhaps too afraid of sounding like “legalists” to emphasize the crucial place of the Law of God. Obedience is more than a consequence of faith. It is why we were created?
Now that we have been forcefully reminded of the Scriptures emphasis on God’s Law, we need to now remember that the Law of God is beautiful, good, wonderful. This central place of obedience is not a heavy, intimidating message. It is one in which we should delight. For how does the Scripture describe God’s Law?
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.(James 2:8-12)
God’s Law is the Law of Liberty. In a stunning turn of events, the Bible counterintuitively reveals the path to liberty as road the winds through Law. Obedience is where true liberty is to be found.
This royal Law of liberty is certainly something that David learned to love appropriately. In his famous Psalm, Psalm 119, he dedicates a lengthy, poetic song to His delight in the commandments of God. He says things like, “Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes! With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth. In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word” (12-16). He also says “Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes; and I will keep it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it” (33-35). Perhaps even stronger is,
“And take not the word of truth utterly out of my mouth, for my hope is in your rules. I will keep your law continually,44-48
forever and ever, and I shall walk in a wide place, for I have sought your precepts. I will also speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame, for I find my delight in your commandments, which I love. I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes.”
David knew, like the Apostle John, that the Law of God is something we can delight in and love. “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). Put simply, we are not called to begrudgingly submit to the yoke of obedience; we are called to delight in the Law of God (Psalm 1:2, Romans 7:22).
In short, the delight of the Christian experience is not so much that God has a wonderful plan for you. Rather, the delight of the Christian experience is that God has a wonderful Law for you.