Killing With Kindness

blog - kindnessThe issue of how exactly one wins over someone with a differing opinion has been on my mind recently.

I guess you could consider this something of a 3rd installment in a series on divisiveness. In the first post, I tried to share some basic intellectual arguments that Creationists may use with Evolutionists. This led to an umpteen day debate back and forth between two obviously well-educated scientists in the comment thread of my post, which, to my good fortune, illustrated the point of my subsequent post – that many debates for/against Christianity are not as intellectual as we tend to think, but, instead, are primarily driven by personal beliefs.

So, week three, then, is the issue of how you might move someone to see things from your side of the argument or even buy it as truth. I don’t pretend to be an expert on this or have a silver bullet. But I would suggest that the Bible has a basic formula that, to some degree, still exists as a parenting truism – “kill them with kindness.”

The Basic Narrative

To illustrate that the “killing them with kindness” point is, in fact, a biblical truth, we turn to 2 Kings 6.

Elisha, the successor to Elijah, is the prophet. He is working in the Northern Kingdom of God’s people, Israel. The enemy is the Arameans. Although the names of the kings involved are not explicitly mentioned in the text itself, we can fairly assume they are King Joram of Israel and King Ben-Hadad II of Aram.blog - kindness 4

Because the Israelites seem to know the army of Aram’s every move, Ben Hadad II figures there must be a traitor amongst his people. His officers, however, explain that it is the prophet Elisha, who receives messages from God concerning “the very words you speak in your bedroom” (2 Kings 6:12), who is assisting the Israelites. Ben Hadad II naturally reacts by ordering that they take this prophet down. So he sends soldiers to Dothan, where Elisha was staying. When Elisha’s servant sees the enemy troops, he panics. Elisha prays that God would open his servant’s eyes to put him at ease and he sees that there are countless angel warriors surrounding the Aramean contingent.

As the foreign soldiers began to attack, Elisha prayed, “Strike these people with blindness.” (2 Kings 6:18). God did. Elisha then led them to the king of Israel, located in Samaria. King Joram asked Elisha if he should kill the Aramean soldiers. After all, that was what they were planning to do to him. Elisha said, “No.” Instead, they fed the Aramean soldiers a great feast” (2 Kings 6:23). With their eyes now opened and their stomachs filled, the Aramean soldiers were sent home. What was the end result? Our text tells us, “So the bands from Aram stopped raiding Israel’s territory.” (2 Kings 6:23). They were “killed” with kindness.

Whenever we’re curious to see whether an account of the Bible is providing us with a general principle we should follow or simply giving another detail of a story, the easiest thing to do is to ask, “Does Jesus say anything about this?” After all, if he’s really true God and the One the Bible is about, his word is the final biblical authority on the matter.

In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses Jewish people who were inclined, both by law and by their natural instincts, to operate on the principle of “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.” In other words, if someone wrongs you, there must be justice enacted upon them that you rightly carry out. But much to the shock of the Jews, Jesus instead said, “I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well,” (Matt. 5:39-40) i.e. kill them with kindness.

The New Testament writers are consistent with this message as well. The Apostle Paul says, “Do not take revenge,my dear friends…On the contrary: If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12:19-21) The basic idea is that even if someone has indeed wronged you unjustifiably and they deserve retribution, you are incapable of exacting retribution on your own without falling into the same trap of evil. So let your holy, divine Lord bring any justice that is necessary.

The Applications

Not only am I suggesting that killing with kindness is a biblical mandate, but I’m also suggesting that it’s actually a logically more effective move. Twentieth century leaders who remain revered today understood this – Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela. Other leaders, who led by manipulation or force, and were notorious for human rights abuses, guys like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong, are remembered as the bad guys.blog - kindness 2

Today, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that neither Democrats nor Republicans (including Tea Party conservatives) understand this. Our country has endured bipolar politics for a long time, but hardly with the vehemence and vitriol that we see today. No matter what your preferred news outlet implies, it’s reasonable to suggest that there are intelligent people in both parties. There are individuals who I believe sincerely care about the welfare of the people in our country in both parties. But there is, for now, no hope for closing any gap. And this is because, while the elected leaders are concerned about citizens, they have (or at least demonstrate) very little concern for their political “enemies.”

This was illustrated for me very clearly after the last presidential election. I flipped through the channels watching the analysts give their thoughts on why the dominoes fell as they did, leading to President Obama’s re-election. Even today, it does seem to be a bit of a head-scratcher that a guy who seemingly railroaded through a personal healthcare agenda, continuously raised the already enormous debt ceiling, hadn’t really turned an economy around in truly measurable ways, and who is the final voice of an organization revealed to have secret involvement in American private lives, something most Americans seem to be uncomfortable with, would be re-elected. By the way, I’m not saying how I personally feel about any of this, only that it sounds like a majority of America IS fairly uncomfortable with it and this would all add up to a seemingly un(re)electable candidate or one that you’d expect might have a low approval rating. But here we are. Why?

President Obama comes off as kind and likeable. Immediately following the election, on FOX News, I saw several older white gentlemen pontificating about “How are we going to get the Hispanic vote?” They reasoned that, ideologically, the Hispanic community would seem to fall more in line with Republican thought. Not being able to see into the hearts of humans, I obviously can’t say who sincerely cares about people and who does not. But I can say how that exchange came off – we want/need to use this segment of individuals in our country to win the next election.  THAT is part of the problem. You can call it “unkindness” if you want, but if you lack genuine concern for fellow human beings, you will fail to win them over.

If you believe you hold the truth, to argue against someone with a condescending, bullying approach, it simply will not make them believe you more. It will actually make them want to believe you less. If your debate devolves to personal attack you’re only reaffirming in the other person’s mind that you are wrong. This is because there is a God-given print on our hearts that suggests to us real truth loves (1 John 2:9-11; 1 Cor. 13:1-3). Therefore if you demonstrate no humility, grace, or love, the subconscious assumption is that you cannot really hold the truth.

This principle of killing with kindness certainly isn’t new. Dale Carnegie wrote the textbook of social appropriateness and its benefits in the 1930s, How to Win Friends & Influence People. Nonetheless, Carnegie’s work is unabashedly and inherently manipulative. For his principles to work, it doesn’t matter if you genuinely care about people or not. So long as you mechanically apply his principles, you can produce results – primarily benefits for yourself. However, if you truly don’t care about people, your hypocrisy will eventually be exposed.

blog - kindness 3The Bible gives you something much more organically rooted then that, a self-replenishing fuel for showing kindness. It’s called grace – undeserved love. According to the Bible, Christians are the only ones who can fully embody this notion of grace.  This is because humans are only capable of showing love to the degree that they are shown love (interestingly, this ability to show affection based on the affection you’ve been shown comes up also in research on Reactive Attachment Disorder as well as psychologist Harry Harlow’s work with isolated monkeys).  In short, if your worldview is based on your performance – which every non-Christian religion suggests – then you will be consumed with yourself and either condescending or fearful of others – none of which is a recipe for kindness.

So how is Christianity different? It says your life is not about you. It’s about Jesus. The Bible teaches that Jesus died to pay for all of your willful and accidental mistakes. The times when you tried your best and failed as well as the times you failed to try, you fell short of the glory God designed for you. To some degree, we all know this. That’s why we try so hard to prove our value throughout our lives.  But the Bible also teaches that God has given us infinite value through our redemption by Jesus. We, who should be enemies of God, have been shown kindness as were adopted into God’s family. Having been shown kindness, we are now moved to show kindness.

I challenge you. Find me a more powerful force for changing the world.

Conclusion

Are there ever occasions where the “killing with kindness” principle wouldn’t apply? Well, it depends, to some extent, on what your definition of kindness is. Does kindness always imply gentleness? Jesus certainly doesn’t demonstrate gentleness as he overturns the money changers’ tables at the Temple (John 2:14-15).

Rather, kindness is better defined by always putting the goodwill of another ahead of your own. That could take many forms.

Jesus lived every moment for our sake and finally died for our sake to bring us eternal paradise. You don’t have to worry about yourself anymore. This frees you to show concern for others. And just think: if you consistently show kindness, even to your enemies, what good might God bring through you?

In disagreement, the goal is not to win an argument. Your odds of bullying someone into seeing things your way are not good. The real goal for a Christian is to glorify God by pressing toward the truth in love (i.e. kindness). It just so happened that God also designed that method to be effective too.

Nothing Personal. But It’s Not Just Academic.

Slide1

In my last post I tried to provide some helpful talking points with which to engage Darwinian Evolutionists. Specifically, the encouragement was to circle back to the following issues: 1) Everything that has a beginning has a CAUSE; 2) Everything that has complex order has INTELLIGENCE behind it; and 3) If notions about God biologically developed merely for survival, then logically, so did notions against God.

I reiterated that while these truths won’t convince anyone of God’s existence, they generally will cause someone to pause and say, “Hmmm. That’s interesting.” In other words, these points might help remove an obstacle that had otherwise caused someone to write off the God of the Bible.

The conclusion that I’m hoping many people arrive at through such debate, then, is not that someone start worshipping Jesus as Lord and Savior as the result of my points. That’s asking logic to do something which the Bible teaches only the gospel can do (Rom. 10:17). Rather, my hope is to impress upon someone that two intelligent, educated, thoughtful people can arrive at very different conclusions despite looking at the same information. (As a live illustration of this, check out the dialogue thread beneath last week’s post.) Just because I don’t entirely buy what I read in my biology or geology textbook doesn’t make me a fool. If everyone accepted as conclusive everything they ever read in a textbook, the world wouldn’t have seen the genius of Galileo, Newton, Edison, or Einstein.

So, if it’s true that intelligent people can come to differing conclusions about God’s existence, despite looking at the exact same evidence, WHY do they come to the conclusions they do?

Jonathan Haidt is a social & moral psychologist who wrote the New York Times bestseller The Righteous Mind. Haidt, not a Christian, offers a tremendous amount of research which suggests that our instincts, our gut, are what truly drive us to do what we do. Much like other notable social psychologists before him (e.g. Leon Festinger), Haidt suggests that humans are capable of rationalizing any and every behavior or belief to themselves. This rationale is generally just a coping mechanism to close the gap between what we think we should be and what we actually are. Rationalization soothes any unrest that exists inside of us.

What Haidt is concluding then is that we humans like to think that we believe what we believe based on our thoughts and choices. But, on the contrary, what study after study seems to indicate is that we believe what we believe based on something else, and that our thoughts are merely attempts to find internal peace with our beliefs and behavior. Put differently, we believe what we want to believe, and we use our logic to convince ourselves and convince others that it is “right.”

I think he’s on to something.

So, how might this apply to belief in the existence of God?

I’ve spoken with a number of Christians who have struggled to understand why anyone would willfully choose not to believe in God. Of course, they often say this in reference to a loved one who has chosen not to believe in God, who has generally offered the reasoning of, “I just don’t see enough evidence.” But as I mentioned earlier, if Jonathan Haidt is right, that our beliefs are less based on evidence than they are on our wants/desires, then what would potentially be the “want” at the heart of atheism/agnosticism?

Let me propose this. Very few in the world would deny that there are various orders of life in the organic world. So, if I ask which is a higher form of life? Animal or plant? Most everyone will say animal. This can generally be illustrated by asking the question “If one or the other had to die, which would better?” Innately, most everyone will say “plant” ahead of animal. Take this a step further. Which is a higher form of life? Human or animal? Unless you’re so extreme that even PETA would consider you “a little weird for animals,” then you will choose human life over animal life. The laws of every civilization throughout history have reflected this basic truth. Okay, so our hierarchy of life right now looks like this, plants < animals < humans. The Bible teaches that there is a rung of the ladder beyond this. Fascinatingly, the secular scientific community is starting to regularly propose weird ideas concerning this too. The Bible’s very clear assertion, however, is that God is at the top of this chain of command.

Slide1

The implication then becomes obvious if you remove God from the ladder. Again, our question was, what motive would anyone have for willfully choosing not to believe in God? If we eliminate God from the ladder, humans are on top. Consequently, we (humans) have no one that we are accountable to and no one can speak into our lives and tell us how to live? For post-Enlightenment thinkers, that’s practically the very definition of liberation.

This is undeniably appealing to many humans. For instance, if you were to ask children, whether in home or school, if they’d prefer to have rules, authority figures, and consequences for behavior, most would resoundingly say, “NO!” Human nature, dating to Adam and Eve, and despite the obvious consequences, seeks independence from authority. We’re often frustrated by God’s “rules” and by what God seems to allow to happen in a sinful world. So running away from home seems like a viable option. One of the most interesting things a former atheist once said to me was, “I came to realize that I couldn’t be angry with God and not believe in him at the same time.” 

Slide1

I believe this is one personal reason for not wanting to believe in God. I’m convinced that while many people tout certain research as proof to disbelieve in God, this is simply rationale for an underlying personal feeling.

Don’t get me wrong. I also believe that there are some non-believers who actually wish to believe in God but feel as though they can’t. Charles Templeton is my favorite example of this. What I’m suggesting, though, is that I still don’t think this conviction is held on the basis of evidence as much as it is by personal feeling. Perhaps most famously, Judas Iscariot, Jesus’s betrayer, (I believe) wanted to believe that God could forgive him for his mistakes (Matt. 27:3-5), but Satan had convinced him his sin was too great. As someone who worked closely with Jesus in ministry, Judas witnessed no shortage of evidence that Jesus was, in fact, true God. But his non-belief wasn’t a matter of evidence. It was a matter of personal belief.

Now, the cynic might suggest that if I’m advocating that some choose not to believe because of personal preference rather than evidence, then isn’t it possible that some choose to believe in God merely because of a personal preference? Absolutely. I think there are probably lots of people who want to believe in God simply because the notion that there might not be a divine being, someone out there to oversee the universe, just terrifies them. That’s not at all how I’d define saving faith though. Such individuals, whom I’ll refer to as “religious,” tend to have a view of God that is performance based. They see him as one who rewards the good and punishes the bad. That’s not the God of the Bible.

So, I’m suggesting that there are essentially three spirits out there when it comes to what we believe. Irreligion, religion, and the gospel.

From what I gather, it seems as though irreligious people tend to avoid God so that they can be god for themselves. Religious people tend to use God as a means to get to whatever they really care about, perhaps even a “comfortable paradise” like heaven. But what about people who believe the gospel of the Bible? The gospel says that God, who is at the top of the ladder, so loved his creation, including rebellious people like us, that even though he is so much higher than us, he subjected himself to suffer and die for us. It’s a strange, unfamiliar love that when contemplated seems to tenderize your heart.

But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (Heb. 2:9) (see also Phil. 2:5-8)

I think there are essentially three responses to God – you can hate him (irreligion), fear him (religion), or fall down in gratitude and give him everything (Christian faith).

So I’m a Christian.

Yes, I believe evidence supports Christianity. Yes, I want to believe Christianity. But beyond that, there’s an unexplainable sensation that causes my heart to burn within me at the thought of gospel truth (Luke 24:32), from which I cannot escape. It seems almost foreign, like someone (i.e. the Holy Spirit) just put it there.

The ABC’s of Talking Creation to Evolutionists

Slide1The Creation/Evolution issue isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, I think it’s only ratcheting up in intensity. A quick glance through my texts, emails, and Facebook messages showed that I had over 30 contacts from college students last year who were wrestling with the issue, either in the classroom or with a friend who held a different position.

As a result, I think there’s merit in posting some quick thoughts for Christians to use in the continuing dialogue. I’ve encountered many macro evolutionists who had very thoughtful, curious questions.  They deserve thoughtful responses. In other words, defensively writing someone off as a heathen for not immediately buying the Creation account probably isn’t going to be helpful in bringing them any closer to Jesus. An informed response, however, thoughts they might’ve missed, may open the gate for them to do more biblical investigation. The professional term for this is presuppositional apologetics. The Apostle Paul does it at the start of his sermon in Athens (Acts 17). It alone doesn’t make anyone a believer. But it’s sort of like driving your child to church. It may eliminate obstacles that would’ve otherwise prevented an individual from hearing the gospel. Furthermore, in an increasingly post-Christian society, I would suggest that it has increasing value for Christians.

Because there was so much other good stuff to study, we didn’t do too much Christian Apologetics (apologetics means “defense”) in my college or seminary. So, much of what I understand about it is gathered from writers like Alvin Plantinga, Lee Strobel, William Lane Craig, Ken Ham and the Answers in Genesis group, and Timothy Keller. What follows, to a large degree, is a summary of Timothy Keller’s thoughts from several chapters of The Reason for God. Keller there himself is summarizing and explaining Plantinga’s lecture notes from “Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments.”

My hope, long-term, is that Christians can develop some basic philosophical and scientific arguments to disprove the old false concept that Christianity is a matter of faith and Evolution (i.e. macro-Evolution or Darwinian Evolution) is a matter of science.

The ABC’s of Defending Creation to Evolutionists

Keller makes the argument in The Reason for God that the underlying error of many atheists is that they approach the notion of God with a philosophy called “strong rationalism.” Strong rationalism says that the only reason to believe something is if there is undeniable empirical evidence for doing so. Therefore, many non-believers will say, “I cannot believe in God unless you give me absolute, undeniable proof that he exists.” Here’s the logical problem with that statement. There is no empirical evidence that “strong rationalism” is the way to find truth. In other words, it’s a self-defeating theory, much like denying absolute truth. If you suggest that there is no such thing as absolute truth, you just did the exact thing you claimed doesn’t exist – you proclaimed an absolute truth! Similarly, if you use the strong rationalist argument that you won’t believe in God unless there is undeniable proof, you need to give me undeniable empirical proof that the only way to properly believe something is if you have undeniable proof. You’re holding me and my beliefs to a standard that you won’t/can’t hold yourself.

So…..rather than look for undeniable proof of God, why don’t we see which direction the facts we BOTH agree upon is pointing us in?

Argument 1) The Universe Had a Starting Point

When I was a young Christian, I remember reading my science textbooks and thinking that perhaps the naughtiest and yet most fascinating chapter was always that on The Big Bang Theory. It is now the predominate cosmological model that describes the origins of the early universe, having replaced the Steady State Theory. Somewhat ironically, however, The Big Bang Theory actually puts Christians and Macro-Evolutionists on common ground. When Edwin Hubble looked through his telescope in the early twentieth century and made his painstaking calculations regarding the redshift, it was the dawn of an era in modern evolutionary science that said the universe had a finite starting point, a beginning. It was calculated at approximately 13.7 billion years ago. Approximately 🙂

Now, I don’t believe in The Big Bang, nor do I believe the universe is 13.7 billion years old. However, I do believe the universe had a starting point. So do most all secular scientists today. We agree on this. We both say that the natural universe had a finite, specific beginning. Furthermore, we also both believe that everything that has a beginning must have a cause. Consequently, if the natural universe does have a beginning and everything that has a beginning has a cause, that means that the thing which caused this universe would have to be beyond natural. So why would you ever expect to be able to prove the existence of this “Cause” through merely natural processes? Additionally, what exactly would you call this Cause that exists outside of nature?  Wouldn’t “God” be a possibility?

Now, does this argument prove God’s existence? No. But does it possibly point us in the direction of belief in God? For some, it might.

Argument 2) A “Goldilocks” Planet

Remember Goldilocks. She’s a fairy tale character in “The Three Bears” who always has to have everything “just right” – exactly the way she wants it to be. I always thought she sounded kind of like a spoiled brat. Anyways, sort of like Goldilocks, the conditions of our planet are curiously “just right” for human survival. Strangely precise, in fact.

Francis Collins, atheist turned believer and author of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, has pointed out how there are 15 physical constants in the natural world that are exactly as they must be in order for life to survive here on planet earth. These include the speed of light, the gravitational constant, various constants concerning the strong and weak nuclear force, and others. If any one of these universal constants were off by one part in a million, the universe would not be able to continue as we see it today. Not only would there be no mankind, but there would be no such thing as stars, galaxies, or planets.

Seems shockingly coincidental that things are so finely tuned for human existence. In fact, Stephen Hawking once famously said, “The odds against a universe like ours emerging out of something like the Big Bang are enormous. I think there are clearly religious implications.” And elsewhere, “It would be very difficult to explain why the universe would have begun in just this way except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.” 

The most common counter argument that I’ve heard today to the “finely tuned” universe, is that there are possibly billions and billions of other alternate universes out there. And if that’s the case, then one of them is bound to have circumstances that are ripe for human life. The problem with this is that we have absolutely zero evidence indicating there are other universes out there. In other words, to believe in the multi-universe theory requires faith based on nothing.

Doesn’t it simply make more sense to suggest that a planet that, against all odds, seems about perfect for humans, is that way because a divine being made it that way? If you see a painting of an image that you recognize, do you assume a random chance smattering of paint into an image/language that you comprehend? Of course not. You assume a painter. When you walk into a building, do you assume a coincidental, safe arrangement of tons of bricks that you can enter into? Of course not. You enter a building and you assume a builder. When you recognize the perfectly organized, infinitesimally unlikely, “just right” nature of the universe, doesn’t that point to an intelligent being? In other words, when you analyze the complexity and symbiotic organization of creation, don’t you assume a Creator?

Does this argument prove God’s existence? No. But does it possibly point us in the direction of belief in God? For some, it might.

Argument 3) What Can You Trust?

One of the most common arguments I’ve heard against the existence of God is not so much an argument against God’s existence as it is a rationalizing of why so many choose/want/need to believe in God. Many will suggest that Christians (and others) need God in order to have hope for the world, meaning in life, and security/comfort. More crudely, former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura once said, “Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers.” Most people wouldn’t put it quite that condescendingly, but there nonetheless certainly exists this sort of underlying feeling in culture, particularly in academic circles, that emotionally, psychologically, relationally needy people, people who cannot think for themselves, are the ones who engage in faith beliefs.

Many who hold these opinions believe that “religion” is something that was developed for evolutionary purposes. In other words, long ago (and still today) humans who agreed to similar beliefs about God banded together. And because they were so tightly knit of a community, they were more likely to survive over the ages than free, independent thinking types. Subsequently, they created offspring who were hard-wired to believe in the existence of God, NOT because he is actually there, but because such beliefs would improve their chances for survival.

It’s not a bad try. Here’s why that thought doesn’t work though. Let’s say that the evolutionary biologists are right for a minute and the only reason humans have believed in God is because those beliefs led to stronger, more united tribes that were able to pick off the weak. The evolutionary biologist is suggesting that the thoughts we have, we do not hold because they are true, but because they help us survive. In other words, our thoughts and logic and rational faculties really don’t tell us the truth about the universe, only what is beneficial for continued existence. Now if that’s the case, to be consistent, then we must NEVER trust any of our rationale, including our thoughts about how humans have developed the idea of God in order to survive. You see, once again, it’s a thought that philosophically defeats itself! If you’re going to suggest that I’m biologically programmed to believe in God for survival, why can’t I suggest that you are biologically programmed to believe that God doesn’t exist but that some humans foolishly choose to believe in him? If none of us can trust our thoughts or logic, then you have to be consistent – you can’t trust your thoughts either!

Again, does this argument prove God’s existence? No. But it does possibly point out flaws in the logic of perhaps the most common argument against a God out there right now.

Conclusion

Can I prove the existence of a supernatural God through natural science? No. But I can show fingerprints in Creation that point to a Creator. I can highlight the inconsistent internal logic of those who have written off God or the Bible for personal reasons.

Things to keep in mind…

  1. Everything that has a beginning has a CAUSE.
  2. Everything that has complex order has INTELLIGENCE behind it.
  3. If notions about God biologically developed merely for survival, then logically, so did notions against God.

Nail these three points down and you’ll feel much more confident when the topic arises.

Finally, some might be disappointed that a pastor wouldn’t use more Scriptural support in a post like this. But that’s sort of the point. When dealing with those who simply do not regard the Bible as authoritative, it can be a tricky matter for many Christians to find talking points. I know many frustrated Christians who don’t know where to begin. Consider starting here.

But, since I wouldn’t want to leave you empty-handed….

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen. 1:1)

AND

“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” (Heb. 1:1-3)

Nobody’s Messiah

Slide1

When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Matt. 11:2-6)

Our Failure to Save

This past April 5, approximately a week after Easter Sunday, Matthew Warren, son of Evangelical mega-church pastor Rick Warren, took his own life at the age of 27.

Rick Warren is one of only a handful of pastors in the country who could legitimately lay claim to the “America’s Pastor” title in post-Billy Graham American Christianity. Regardless of your opinion of Pastor Warren’s theology or ministry, everyone who heard the news grieved and felt the painful irony – the son of the man who gave us The Purpose Driven Life, one of the best-selling Christian books in history and considered the most influential of the past decade, was unable to find enough meaning to press on.

The very first section of The Purpose Driven Life is titled “What on Earth Am I Here For?” Whether Matthew Warren was able to answer that question or not, I don’t know. But apparently the sadness he experienced was so overwhelming that, purpose or not, he couldn’t bear it anymore.

As someone who has carried the weight of depression and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder for the vast majority of my life, Matthew Warren’s story sounded eerily familiar. Never once did I really doubt that God could/would accomplish something positive during my lifetime, but the question was always whether or not the sadness I was experiencing at the time was worth enduring. I knew God didn’t need me to accomplish his purpose. What’s been fascinating to me is that, to some degree, I’ve come to believe that it’s me who needs to take part in God’s good purpose in order to kill my sadness.

I think that for people who know that Jesus died for their sins and that a heavenly home awaits them, potential “purpose” is not the thing that keeps them alive. The fear of a possibility of hell or hurting my family, which would be a different kind of hell, is what kept me from thoughts of taking my life as much as anything.

Matthew Warren was diagnosed with mental illness at age 7. He’d seen many therapists and fought through many different diagnoses. As Rick Warren told People Magazine in this past week’s issue, “If love could keep a mentally ill kid alive, Matthew would be alive. He was in a stable family, church system, friends. I’ve got a doctorate. I’ve done a lot of counseling.” Thousands upon thousands look to him for encouragement and hope. And even he couldn’t save the young man who grew up in his home. I’ve read a decent amount from Rick Warren and listened to many of his presentations – he is highly intelligent, an excellent communicator, and if anyone had the credentials to talk someone into feeling satisfaction in life, I might assume it’d be him – the man who has convinced over 38 million Americans that God indeed has a “purpose” for their lives.

To his credit, Rick Warren (and wife Kay) have not tried to find an answer to the natural “Why?” question regarding the tragedy. Asked about the natural temptation to question God, Rick replied, “Some things in life you are not going to get the answer to. What I get from God is not explanations, it’s comfort.” 

Our Messiah Complex

As painful as the story is to hear, it did provide a healthy reminder to me – that we mere mortals are nobody’s messiah.

Whether you credit Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, or any other prominent psychologist with developing the theory of the “Messiah Complex,” it’s a real thing. According to Dr. Stephen Diamond:

“..identifying oneself as God or Messiah is a disastrous form of ego-inflation. Such inflation is a grandiose narcissistic defense against profound feelings of inferiority and powerlessness. The wounded ego, with its debilitating, neurotic feelings of guilt, badness, shame, emptiness, unworthiness and helplessness falls prey to the equally neurotic (or psychotic) compensatory spiritual pride the ancient Greeks called hubris, providing self-righteous justification for evil deeds.” (“What Exactly is a Messiah Complex?” in Psychology Today; May 20, 2008)

I have no idea what Dr. Diamond’s faith beliefs might be, but I think he’s exactly right in the cause of a messiah complex – consciously or subconsciously wrestling with our own inadequacies, we feel that if we can turn someone else into something more, if we can save them from their wayward path, then we ourselves must have value and purpose – the craving of every insecure human heart.

Now no one is suggesting that Rick Warren had a messiah complex. I’m simply suggesting that it would be fairly easy for Satan to convince someone in Rick Warren’s position to think he should have been able to do more. Consider this: over 50,000 people came to listen to Rick Warren preach on Easter this year. Don’t you think having that many people listen to you might suggest to you that you have answers to life’s important questions? Don’t you think that such influence might lead you to feel like you could help people, maybe even save them?

The potential exists for anyone, particularly those in positions of influence, to think that they are in this world for the purpose of saving others from all their troubles. Parents may feel this about their children. Girlfriends and boyfriends may feel this way about whomever they’re dating – and some even seek out a good candidate to rescue. Teachers may feel this way about certain students. And yes, even pastors often tend to feel this way about their members, their city, or, if we’re having a particularly delusional day, all humanity.

Whether our behavior fits the criteria of a DSM-5 category or not, keep in mind that a lot of these “complexes” are merely labels that we put on behavior for convenience. The reality is that we all want to believe we’re important and significant. The way many of us do this is to take on other human “projects” to validate our lives. As a result, the good thing of serving others becomes a bad thing, as the end goal, without our realizing it, has shifted from Christ-like service of others to Messiah-like pride in ourselves.

The messiah complex can lead us to do crazy, unhealthy things. Again, this is certainly not exclusive to pastors, but since that’s the easiest example for me to expound on, give me a second to illustrate. I’ve known pastors who never/rarely say “No.” They have big hearts and want to help people. Their schedule is packed with good, caring activities. But they’ve forgotten that as mere humans, sometimes we have to say “No.” This is because we’re not messiahs. Jesus himself will NEVER say “No” when you ask him for help. But, as true God, he has the resources to be on call 24/7. Mere humans don’t. My job as a pastor got less stressful when I realized that my job wasn’t to be a hero like Jesus, only to tell people about my hero Jesus. And I’d suggest that this principle stands true no matter what relationship you’re in where a “Messiah Complex” is a temptation for you.

One True Messiah

It doesn’t matter who you care about – friend, boyfriend/girlfriend, child, parent, brother, sister, student, co-worker, neighbor, or church member – you’re still not Jesus. While we are compelled to love like Jesus, Christians have a clear distinction in their minds between the amazing things that God can accomplish through us and the things that our Savior Jesus alone can do.

God can accomplish extraordinary things through his people, but only Jesus can save this world. Only he can save our loved ones. We can pray for them. We can be God’s bold voice of truth to them. We can be God’s compassionate ear in listening to their cries of pain. We can be God’s helping hands in their time of need. But only the Great Surgeon can operate on their hearts. There’s still only one Messiah.