The purpose of this column is to stimulate its readers to think outside of the box, to shift paradigms, and to entertain new possibilities. It is not to denigrate or discourage faith. I believe deeply in the principle that truth, if indeed it is such, will set us free and not bring us into bondage (cf. John 8:32).
In what, or whom, do we place faith? What is truth and what is freedom? These are crucial questions.
If we place faith in human leaders, we will be let down. As Jeremiah the prophet wrote: “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength” (Jeremiah 17:5). All of us have feet of clay. Sooner or later, all of us fail, sin, err, and fall short of the divine standard. As they say, “We all make mistrakes.” Problem is, in authoritarian religious systems, all depends upon the glorious human Leader, who perpetuates the self-serving mystique that he is indispensable to, or central to, God’s Plan. I don’t know what psychologists call this now, but they used to call it a “Messiah complex.”
No human being is infallible, indispensable, or immortal. Sooner or later even the most charismatic and domineering of leaders dies. Before they do, they make mistakes, errors in judgment, and they reveal their humanity. If you place faith in human leaders, even popes and ministers, you’ll be disappointed. I don’t know of a one who understands the Bible perfectly or comprehensively. I don’t know of any minister who lives a perfect, exemplary life. Whom do you know who walks fully in the Spirit and displays a Christ-like demeanor on all occasions? I’ve never met such a person. All of the Christians I know, ministers included, are imperfect “works in progress,” myself included.
The Authoritarian Trap
Authoritarian religion is a deadly trap. It weakens its adherents. It renders them dependent upon flawed and imperfect human leadership. It robs them of autonomy and freedom of choice. It seeks to control behavior and to rein in its followers to the point of perfect conformity to a corporate standard. It’s yellow pencil religion.
If you find yourself caught in one of the authoritarian manifestations of the churches of God, you owe it to yourself to escape and learn to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” The more dependent you have been, the more frightening and challenging will be the journey. You will have to learn to replace the fear of man with an autonomous fear of God. This is a major, and most significant, step. Never underestimate the importance of it! It will require lowering your expectations of man, and raising them of God.
Many authoritarian Christians, once they escape the grip of an autocratic leadership, find themselves adrift, unable to think clearly about anything, confused and disoriented. They are used to being told what to do. They have had faith and confidence in men, rather than in God. Consequently, they have in place no critical thinking skills. They are accustomed to complying with a group standard arbitrarily imposed by leadership. Consequently, they find that they have no moral compass of their own. The journey to faith in God is a frightening one. Yet, Jeremiah also wrote: “But blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream” (Jeremiah 17:7-8).
If we can learn to have faith in God rather than in man, we will have made a giant spiritual leap forward. God, not human leadership, is the proper object of faith (Mark 11:22).
Human Leadership in Perspective
This is not to say that we should disrespect human leadership. Paul wrote, “Follow me as I follow Christ” (I Corinthians 11:1). The operative term here is “as.” We should follow human leaders to the degree that they live exemplary lives and teach authentic, Christian truth. Yet no man should be the object of faith. That is reserved for God alone.
Building the faith of God’s people in God ought to be one of the premier tasks of true ministers of God. The purpose of the various ministerial roles is to: “…to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12-13).
Ministers should be faith-builders, not faith-busters. We should be building up the Body, imparting knowledge, and fostering spiritual maturity in the Church. This is a weighty responsibility. We cannot afford to be cavalier about it.
A true servant of God is more interested in building people’s relationship with God than with himself. He points them God-ward, not self-ward. He does what he can to encourage God, not man, to be the object of the Christian’s faith.
Real Christianity must be portable. It cannot depend upon one’s association with a particular denomination, pastor or congregation. These configurations are all temporary. God alone is permanent, unchanging and omnipresent. Who you are when you think no one is watching is who you really are. We are most “real” when we are alone with God. Our relationship with Him must be one-on-one. It must carry us through any form of isolation from our human support system.
If we find ourselves alone in a hospital room, at the mercy of a medical bureaucracy and a gaggle of domineering know-it-all nurses and doctors who couldn’t care less about our wishes, it is our faith in God that can pull us through.
If we wind up in prison, as have many Christians down through the centuries, we must rely on the Lord to support us. We have heard the testimony of Chinese Christians who have suffered enormously in Chinese prisons for their faith. Some have died in those prisons. As Paul wrote, “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8). We were “bought with a price” (I Corinthians 6:20), and the Lord will not discard what He has purchased with his own shed blood (Romans 1:6). The writer of Hebrews captures this thought in Hebrews 13:5-6: “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you,’ so we may say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid, what can man do to me?’”
Peter taught, “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29).
Jesus instructed us: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
If, when we age, we find ourselves “warehoused” in a costly nursing home staffed by abusive attendants who barely speak English, we can trust in the Lord to get us through the ordeal. Though our families may abandon us to the mercy of strangers, God will not be a stranger to us if we place faith in Him.
No matter what dire straights we find ourselves in, Jesus says to his people, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b). We can count on the Lord, but not on man. In the world of man, life is cheap and getting cheaper. As we age, we are progressively devalued by society, by our families, and by the institutions around which society is built. At some point, we become downright invisible – yet we will always be both precious and visible to God.
Even when we find ourselves helpless, or at the mercy of men, or inconvenienced relatives, as is Terri Shiavo, God is with us for we are precious to Him. He will not allow us to slip through the cracks. Sometimes the Lord allows men to have their way with us because he has better things in mind: “The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart; devout men are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil. Those who walk uprightly shall enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death” (Isaiah 57:1-2).
Dante’s Inferno Writ Large?
There is much evil in our world. In some situations it may be better to be dead than alive in such a world. Surely the cries of a world in pain rise to the ears of God, and not without result. The world is an increasingly dangerous place, especially for Christians. For millions, life is a living hell that looks like a painting by Hieronymus Bosch or a scene out of Dante’s Inferno. Yet it is a world of our own devising. Society’s holocausts are the result of evil men and women doing evil things. Life, as it unfolds, is largely cause & effect. Man, cut off from his Creator, can create only hells, infernos and holocausts. The prophet Isaiah wrote of ancient Israel: “…your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear…The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths…”(Isaiah 59:2, 8). The prophet’s words ring true today do they not?
The word “peace” here is shalom. It means “completeness, soundness, welfare, peace” (BDB*, p. 1022). Without God, and without Jesus, God’s Anointed One, the world is unsound, incomplete, filled with wars and terrors, pain and unbearable suffering. We can thank human leadership, which has provided opportunity for the devil, for the state of the world and of the Church.
The World to Come
In the world to come, we will have occasion to thank God and His Messiah for the “restitution of all things” (Acts 3:21). God has a plan of redemption for planet Earth. All that the first Adam has undone, the second Adam will restore.
No matter the chaos that surrounds us, there is only one conclusion for the true Christian: “Have faith in God” (Mark 11:22). When all of the world’s systems collapse around us, God will remain solid, immovable —“eternal in the heavens.” The Lord is the Rock of our salvation. He alone can be counted on in a pinch. God’s redemptive purposes will not be denied. His will, will be accomplished in the world. God alone is the legitimate object of faith. We must have faith in Him, and we must be faithful to him, for God is faithful to His children. As Paul told the Athenian philosophers, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
If we wrap our lives in a bundle with God, then God will ever be with us. God alone is reliable, trustworthy, pure of heart, and all for us. God’s children are precious to Him. He will not abandon us, though at times he may correct us for “…the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son” (Hebrews 12:6).
Some things happen to us because they need to happen for our own spiritual development. Other things happen simply because we are Christians. Still others occur because of our own sins. Not a few things happen because of “time & chance” – i.e.: being in the wrong place at the wrong time. All of it – the pain and the pleasure – are part of life on this planet. We all share in it’s up and down sides.
A Word of Qualification
I am not saying that everything mankind does is evil. The state of the world is a mixed bag. Much of what happens is because of sin – missing the mark of the divine standard. Sometimes, however, people do things right. As Paul reminds us, “Even the gentiles, who have not the Law, do by nature things contained in the Torah” (Romans 2:14). When we do things right, accidentally or on purpose, it pays positive dividends.
Science is morally neutral. When we do things scientifically, like sending rockets into space or building massive bridges and buildings, they work. An automobile works because it is scientifically designed to work.
Civilization is civilized to the extent that it operates within the laws of science and divine morality. On the other hand, science in the hands of a madman or a megalomaniac is a dangerous thing. No human being could ever be trusted with ultimate power. Power does corrupt. Few of us handle it well. That’s part of the reason we’re here: to learn how to handle power (cf. Luke 19:17). Until we do, we need checks and balances. Humanistically speaking, democracy founded upon Judeo-Christian values is the best system yet devised for bringing about peace, order and prosperity in the world. It’s far from a perfect system. In our time, even this system is decaying from slow rot. Its institutions are being compromised. The balances of power are being upset. Our Western culture is drifting inexorably into secular socialism – and that means the erosion of Judeo-Christian standards, and the rise of the all-powerful State. In today’s America, the Constitution is being undermined by activist judges on the Left who are making rulings contrary to the spirit of the Constitution.
If you step back even farther, and study the whole organic human culture, you will note a steady drift in the direction of world government. Once this government is in place, it will not be benign (Revelation 13). Yet its arrival will signal the soon return of Yeshua ha Meshiach – Jesus the Messiah.
In a world such as this, there is no justification for placing faith in man. The track record of the human race has been written in its own blood, and the results are there for all to see. After millennia of technological “progress,” what have we to show for it but a world in chaos?
Yet, even in the chaos, there is hope. There are flickers of light within the general darkness. The Kingdom of God is in formation. The children of the King are being prepared for a new dawn in which there will be order and shalom. Study closely the wording of Isaiah 35. Read also the entirety of Isaiah 11. The second Adam, Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 15:45), will lead the world to the Father. At the conclusion of His work, God will be “all in all” (I Corinthians 15:20-28). That glorious state is described in Revelation 21:3-4: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death, or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
It all boils down to this: No matter how many “isms” mankind invents – Nazism, Communism, Fascism, Islamism, Catholicism or Protestantism – he cannot bring about utopia. Ideas forged in the fires of idealism eventually die in the flames of powerism. Human nature, in all of its grotesque ugliness, inevitably asserts itself in any human system. The lust for power, money and influence tend to corrupt virtually any process. Even as noble a document as the Constitution has been all but abandoned by our nation’s courts and politicians, no matter how often they pay lip service to it. Never listen to what politicians say. Note only what they do.
If you place faith and confidence in men – even the most noble of them – you will eventually be disappointed. Fortunately for all of us, the future does not lie in the hands of men but in the power and goodness of God. He is our only hope.
Have faith in God, and whenever or wherever you can, be a faith-builder in others, not a faith-buster. As Jude put it: “But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit”(Jude 20).