Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Good News for Anxious Christians--Why Trying to Be Christian Makes Us Anxious

I recently decided to blog through the chapters of the book Good News For Anxious Christians (10 Practical Things You Don't Have to Do) by Phillip Cary. I find the title wittier the more I think about it because it mimics the titles of Christian self-help books. We all want those "practical" tips on everything from house-cleaning to living the Christian life. But this book is not about self-help. As the author confided in the first sentence of the preface, "this book is a stealth attempt to preach the gospel, disguised as an attack on the new evangelical theology." It's a good idea to keep that in mind as one reads along, although the author does a very good job of keeping the gospel in focus.

Last time, I recapped the Preface. This time I'll try to summarize the introduction, Why Trying to Be Christian Makes Us Anxious. Cary begins with a little history on the new evangelical theology he is critiquing in his book; the theology that has promoted certain practical ideas and techniques such as "giving God control", "letting God work", "finding God's will", and so on. "The good news is that this is a new theology--it's not in the Bible and you don't have to believe it. You might think, 'but wait a minute, isn't this how you have a relationship with God? Don't those phrases tell us something important about how to be a Christian'? And my answer is: not in the Bible, they don't."

This new theology took over American evangelicalism fairly recently, "about the time when color TV came on the scene." It fits in very well with the consumerist theology we now see everywhere--marketable products that promise to transform your life. This kind of marketing and the use of techniques in living the Christian life has had a terribly detrimental effect--Christians have been trained to feel guilty for thinking! "Since bad theology can't really defend itself against critical thinking, it has to try to get you not to think." Cary encourages his readers to "think critically about what I say--take seriously the task of discerning what is true from what is false here. Having done that, you're one step closer to discerning what is true from what is false in the theology you've been taught. And that will do you a lot of good."

Cary isn't just trying to dismantle a bad theology; he's trying to get across to us that the gospel is such good news, and is so liberating from all the newer, bad theology, that it's almost hard to believe it could be true. "For some readers, what I'm talking about in this book will seem too good to be true. To those readers, I say: the gospel of Christ is often like that--hard to believe because it is such good news. But go ahead and believe it!" The gospel of  Christ is good news, he says, because it does us a lot of good. "It frees us from anxiety, makes us cheerful and glad. And that is something we need, because life is hard and the Christian life is harder."

The Christian life is a life of love, which is very hard work, and of heartache, because we love people who hurt. And besides all that, we have our own hurt. "Trying to be Christian" is anxiety-producing. But what the gospel of Christ does is give us Christ, and that is enough. We can "...let everything else be what it is--hard work, worthwhile work, works of love, and the heartaches that come with all of that. And we can let our feelings be what they are, whatever that may be. What matters is Jesus Christ, and the gospel tells us that all is well on that score: that we are our Beloved's and he is ours."

Next time I'll take a look at Chapter 1, in which Cary discusses Why You Don't Have to Hear God's Voice in Your Heart. We'll see why Cary says that's such good news.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Good News For Anxious Christians

I'm re-reading a book, Good News For Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don't Have To Do, by Phillip Cary, and it's a great little book. I thought it might be a good idea to try blogging through it. If these posts catch your interest and you decide you might want to get the book and read it, you can order it here, at amazon. So here we go with the first part of the book, the Preface.

Cary, the author, is concerned about "the new evangelical theology". He believes that this theology consists of supposedly "practical" ideas that promise to transform our lives, but which actually get in the way of our believing the gospel.The gospel is the good news that God has already decided to do something about our lives--whether we let him or not, whether we do anything about it or not, whether we believe it or not. In contrast, the new evangelical theology offers ideas that "promise practical transformation", as Cary says, "but in real life they mainly have the effect of making people anxious--not to mention encouraging self-deception, undermining their sense of moral responsibility, and weakening their faith in Christ".

These are serious claims. We should be startled by this because each of us is, to some extent, a product of the teaching of this new evangelical theology. That's because it is taught in the majority of churches and sold in the majority of Christian bookstores. Cary believes that this theology, which is actually relatively new to the church, is harmful. Therefore, he says, he intends to be "unsparing in my criticism of these ideas... I want to do my best to free Christians from the burden of believing these ideas and trying to put them into practice".

The Introduction is next, in which Cary explains how "trying" to be Christian is making Christians anxious. The ten chapters that follow--the "ten practical things you don't have to do"-- will, in their turns, explain:

  1. Why You Don't Have to Hear God's Voice in Your Heart
  2. Why You Don't Have to Believe Your Intuitions Are the Holy Spirit
  3. Why You Don't Have to Let God "Take Control"
  4. Why You Don't Have to "Find God's Will For Your Life"
  5. Why You Don't Have to Be Sure You Have the Right Motivations
  6. Why You Don't Have to Worry About Splitting Head from Heart
  7. Why You Don't Have to Keep Getting Transformed All the Time
  8. Why You Don't Always Have to Experience Joy
  9. Why "Applying It to Your Life" Is Boring
  10. Why Basing Faith on Experience Leads to a Post-Christian Future 
I really like this book. I think it's an important one, especially for women. I appreciate the good news and the freedom of the gospel truths of it. Next time I'll try to summarize the Introduction, which has some important stuff in it, and then get on to the *heart* of the matter in Chapter One.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

If My People...

I have had several people express to me, concerning prayer, that praying is more for our benefit than anything. The thinking seems to be that since God sovereignly governs all things, and since he has decreed that all his purposes will come to pass, that our prayers serve mostly to encourage us when he answers them, or to remind us that he is God and we are dependent on him, and so forth.

We enjoy a real benefit to ourselves in prayer, for sure, but that's not all the Bible has to say of prayer. Paul, for instance, asked for prayer a good bit. And he asked for prayer so that good things would actually come to pass. He told the Colossians, "Pray for us, that God may open a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ... that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak" (Col. 4:3-4). He also told the Corinthian church, "You 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 Cor. 1:11).

It sounds to me like Paul really coveted their prayers, because opportunities and blessings and Paul's ability to speak well depended on them. I know God has already determined that his purposes and plans will prevail. I guess you could accurately say that they'll prevail with or without us. But they won't prevail apart from prayer. Prayer is a means God has chosen and ordained to accomplish his purposes. What happens when a Christian doesn't pray, or prays little? At the least, it seems that Christian will miss out on being a wonderful and important part of great things happening in the world.

Revelation 8:2-5 tells of an angel at the altar in heaven who takes a golden censer, filled with "the prayers of all the saints", and throws it upon the earth. This seems to bring about the final judgments of God on the earth and the end of all wickedness, and the ringing in of his everlasting kingdom. What did the Lord teach us to pray on a regular basis? "May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven." Surely that prayer, prayed by all the saints with fervency and longing through the centuries, will fill the golden censer and bring heaven to earth.