Patrick and I have lots of talks, and I’m grateful we land in the same place theologically (most times!). In the course of life, we come across messages given to audiences that stir us, cause us to repent or see the kingdom of God in a new light. These thrill us! I love pondering deeply about Jesus, the Gospel, and the ever expanding, dynamic kingdom of God. I enjoy reading words by N. T. Wright that make me think differently.
Thanks to the availability of messages on the Internet, we also come in contact with many sermons that do not stir us, and when they don’t, we like to figure out why. We discussed one of them, and Patrick said this paraphrase of something N. T. Wright wrote about: “There’s a huge difference between good advice and the Good News.”
Maybe I’m watching the wrong sermons, but it sure seems like there’s a plethora of messages out there that are more therapeutic in nature, or chock full of great advice you could get from a self-help book. Instead of exegeting Scripture and finding the transformative nugget of wisdom there, we rip texts from their context, patching them together like a crazy quilt in order to support our self-help steps. And most of the endgame is this: you should live a happy life. And that happy life is within your grasp if you just do these things. I’m weary of it.
Last I checked, Jesus didn’t tell his disciples about 10 steps to a better you. He didn’t lecture them on choices and habits (those things are good, and they make up our lives, but that’s not what He emphasized). Jesus talked about the heart. He reminded the disciples that their hearts, apart from the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, were in desperate need of reformation. He also said inconvenient truths about losing our lives in order to find them, serving others, and taking up our crosses daily.
The Gospel is never a self-help plan of living a better, more ordered life. It involves sacrifice and inside out transformation. It involves surrendering our will to the One who submitted His will to the Father as He journeyed to the cross. The Good News trumps Good Advice every time. It was hard won, accomplished through blood, agony, and the perfect sacrifice. We cheapen the Good News when we emphasize good advice over transformation. But, oh, we don’t like those kinds of hard words.
This kind of cafeteria-plan Christianity marks the American church. Since we tend to be at the center of our lives (individualism! my happiness! my choices! my truth!), it’s natural that we flock to formulas that are pragmatic. It’s easier to chase after a palatable myth than to put on Christ and be willing to suffer for His sake. We would rather pick and choose our own theology, pulling a bit from Buddhism, Atheism, Humanism, and what ever ISM there is, according to our tastes. We prefer tolerance to sacrifice, cheap grace to holiness, an easy life to the straight and narrow (and hard to find).
Some have thrown out thousands of years of biblical scholarship in order to be accepted by our culture. This is wrong, and it reminds us of these pointed words:
For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths. But you should keep a clear mind in every situation. Don’t be afraid of suffering for the Lord. Work at telling others the Good News, and fully carry out the ministry God has given you. 2 Timothy 4:3-5
There are those words again: GOOD NEWS. My hope and prayer is that more and more messages would be about the Good News and less and less would be about what tickles the ears. Perhaps that is a vain hope, but I’m seeing a sweet shift. In January I attended Lisa Whittle‘s retreat, and that girl brought the Good News. She shared openly and skillfully from the Word of God, not mincing words, reminding us of that beautiful Bonhoeffer quote, “When Christ bids a man, he bids him come and die.”
I’m so excited about her upcoming book:
I’ve had the privilege of reading it and endorsing it. She has no idea I’m writing this post and including her. In fact, when I started writing, I had no idea I’d mention her work. But as the words dashed from my cursor, I reminded myself that complaining about what is happening in the American church, grievous as it is, will not ultimately change hearts. But commending those whose messages are far more than just good advice encourages the entire body of Christ.
Let’s stop settling for messages that help us make superficial decisions about our lives. Instead, let’s ask for biblically-nuanced messages that bring us right back to the radical Good News of Jesus Christ. We do a great disservice when we portray Christianity as either a self-help journey or a pick-and-choose-as-you-wish theological roulette.
How about you? What messages stir you deeply? Whose teaching and preaching cause you to surrender to Christ and consider His radical claims?
A very God-timely message, as very recently a friend asked me to evaluate an audio message of a church service. As I analysed it, I realised there were some areas of concern. Then I saw this blog post and it fitted in so well. I shared the blog post in an email with her and some others.
I also had to formulate some principles for sermon evaluation. Whilst you talk about “good advice” messages, I think the principles could be extended to “good causes” messages.
The following is only a tool and I am sure could be improved.
For any sermon/message I ask some simple questions such as:
1-How central really is Jesus/God in this message’s theme – what is true focus of message?
(a) Is it mainly about me?
(b) Is it mainly about causes?
(c) Is it mainly about God?
2- How biblically based is the message?
– Is there a coherent exegesis or just isolated texts?
3- Does message draw me closer to God and His purposes?
Is my heart stirred?
4- Does it equip me to come closer to God and His purposes?
In other words –
(a) Is it appealing just to my mind or also to my heart to motivate me?
(b) Is the dynamic of the HS and imparted life of Jesus central to my equipping?
or, is it just giving me programmes, principles and ponderings?
This is great! Good thoughts, Dr. Ralph.
Thank you for your truth-filled words. I looked for a contact you button and saw that you’re currently not available by email and I certainly understand. The Scripture above is not 1 Timothy but 2 Timothy. Thank you for your posts and your podcast! Blessings!
Thank you so much! I’ll fix it.
Thank you for these words Mary! I’m grateful you are one who shares the Good News, which is the Greatest Advice!! And Lisa too – looking forward to her book and praying about the conviction and challenge it will bring! So needed in our world today! I’m in the process of a finishing up a short study to share with the ladies following this year’s ReNEWed Event – praying it leads women into the Word and opens the door for transformation. Blessings to you! And thanks again!
Thank you jill. And I look foward to hear how your study goes!
Thank you for this reminder, Mary! Good advice is NOT the Good News. We all need an encouraging, light message sometimes, but those messages aren’t supposed to be our meat and drink. I think that’s why I’m a little leery when I pick up a new book by a new-t-me Christian author! I’m always on the lookout for someone trying to make Jesus’ words easier to swallow or (as one of my pastors put it) “explain away the tension.” I like how C.S. Lewis put it regarding Aslan in _The Chronicles of Narnia_: “Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” I think a lot of people today want to make Christianity “safe” for the masses. But Jesus isn’t safe, and His Way isn’t safe. But He’s good, and He’s the only Way. In our American culture, we desperately need more Good News because everything in our culture wants us to have it our own way! We’re taught to avoid pain/inconvenience/messiness at all costs! 🙁
So well said, Amaris. You should definitely write about this topic!