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Friday, July 10, 2015

Too Hot to Handle: American Laodicea

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Friedrich Nietzche, 1844-1900
In a blog post entitled “The 10 Biggest Issues Christian Americans Are Facing Today”, author Daniel Sweet maintains American Christianity is Laodicean in character. Sweet reads the Lord’s condemnation of the church at Laodicea and says this:

“Yes, that’s America. With atheists becoming more strategic in championing their godless worldview, the increasing reticence of Christians to engage in faith-oriented conversations assumes heightened significance. Why would a Christian be reticent about living and sharing his faith in Jesus Christ? Could it be because neither the Word nor the Lord is real to them? And could that be because the doctrine presented to most Christians is illogical, self-contradictory, confusing, bland or unmotivating?”

Tom: That’s pretty harsh, Immanuel Can. Do you think it’s accurate?

Immanuel Can: I don’t know, honestly. It’s all too easy to diagnose from a distance, or to take one’s own experience for everyone’s. But what I would say is that we really, really, need a dialogue about this to get started up among Christians. What would you say, Tom?

Belief and Reality

Tom: I’d have to think about whether or not Christians in general are “increasingly reticent to engage in faith-oriented conversations”. Less enthusiastic than the early church, certainly. But I’m not sure Christians I grew up were any more dutiful or loving about sharing their faith than our current generation.

IC: Let me say this then: the more real your beliefs about something are, the easier it is, and the more natural and unavoidable it is, to get into a conversation about those beliefs.

Tom: Agreed.

IC: For example, if you really, really know how to build a barn, or pick a savvy investment, or to catch trout and you’re always discovering new carpentry techniques, or new rising stocks, or new ways to fish, it’s extremely unlikely you’ll be able to hold yourself back from talking about carpentry, or investment strategies, or fishing. And if your faith is very real, and you’re always growing in it, and if it has the focus of your attention, then eventually it’s going to occupy the majority of your conversation … with everyone, all the time. So it shouldn’t be a problem, unless ...

Tom: Yeah, okay, fair enough. The more time I spend in scripture, the more I find myself referencing the things I discover there in conversation with unbelievers as well as Christians.

Faith-Oriented Conversations

But tell me, IC, do you think the failure of the Laodicean church was primarily a lack of interest in having “faith-oriented conversations”, as Mr. Sweet seems to think? It seems to me that the Lord indicts them for several things: a failure to fellowship with him corporately, for one; a sense of self-sufficiency, for another; and a characteristic blindness to their own spiritual state. For all we know, they may have still been having “faith-oriented conversations” with their friends and neighbours. It’s just that in their wretched spiritual condition, those conversations would not have been terribly persuasive.

IC: No, I suspect not. I take it that Mr. Sweet must understand that to be a symptom, not the root problem. If he thinks that’s all there is to it, then we could dismiss him offhand.

But let’s flip it around. There are other features attributed to Laodicea. Do you think there’s value in a comparison to us, or is that all just shock talk?

Disconnected from the Head

Tom: No, actually I think some of the other features are even more applicable. It seems to me all the various failures in Laodicea were consequences of disconnection from the Head of the Church, and that’s something that’s all too relevant today. Every local church in North America with a “pastor” or denominational affiliation of any kind has a built-in interference mechanism between Head and Body that can’t help but disrupt the fellowship between Christ and his people.

IC: We’ve forgotten that there is but one God and one mediator between God and man? Indeed we have. But I think even clericalism could not impede much if we were busy ourselves in advancing our own spiritual lives. But my sense of things is that we’re not. I routinely meet Christians who spend no (or precious little) time with God on a daily basis, and have little sense they should. Most have practically no applicable knowledge of his word, and no habit of consulting him for anything except, perhaps, for emergency situational rescue in those few occasions upon which they find their own resources entirely defeated. That’s got to signal a serious problem.

Tom: Very true. It comes back to self-sufficiency, doesn’t it? “For you say … I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked”. That statement may be just as true of individual Christians as it was true of the church in Laodicea. What does the failure to read and pray regularly say to God? It says I need nothing; I’m doing fine without you.

The Christian Life Without Christ

IC: Indeed. I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: The Christian life is the one that CANNOT be lived without Christ.

If you can get along without the Lord, you may be living a decent life, a respectable life, or even a moral life — but one thing for sure: you are not living the Christian life. Doing that takes a strong, living, active and constant relationship with the Lord. You literally cannot live the Christian life for even a day without him.

And yet, I fear that there are an awful lot of Christians around who live as if that’s not true. They seem to feel at some deep level that man CAN, in fact, live by bread alone. At least, that’s what their actions show they believe.

Tom: So in a way, we’ve come back around to what Daniel Sweet says: “… neither the Word nor the Lord is real to them”. He blames that lack of reality on the teaching they have received, which he calls “illogical, self-contradictory, confusing, bland or unmotivating”.

What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate ...

Hmm. I’d have to think about that some more. I won’t say Sweet is wrong there, but it seems to me that there are quite a few Christians who are exposed to very good teaching and yet fail to respond to it. I’m not sure teaching can be the only thing to blame here.

IC: I don’t think there’s been any point in human history where there has been more information and better resources to help the person with a Bible find his or her way around. But there are two problems: 1) the good stuff is swamped by a far greater amount of junk, and 2) you have to want to access it — that is, you have to actually care about deciphering what the Bible says for yourself — or all the resources in the world are of no use to you. So maybe one of the things we need to do is to ask ourselves, “Do I believe that there are important things I really need to know in the Bible, or can I get along as a Christian with not reading for myself?

Tom: There have been times in church history long before the printing press when the idea of owning all the words of God would have been a foreign concept to the average believer. Such a person could be excused for not knowing everything there was to know about the purposes and character of God. He or she was limited by factors outside their control. But that is not where anyone lives today. “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required”. What we do with the opportunities we are given demonstrates what we think of our Master. “I knew you to be a hard man,” said the wicked servant in the parable.

IC: Yes. And is it really a hardship if the Lord expects to talk to us at least once a day? Really, just how wimpy are we, spiritually speaking? 

Maybe that’s a future “Too Hot to Handle” topic: where are all the real men?

Tom: That’ll be the one nobody reads …

What Do You Really Love?

It comes down to what you love, doesn’t it. If I am entranced by a particular female, and if we have anything approximating a relationship, I will not only be thinking about her but actively involved in communicating with her daily, whether we are married or just hoping. I will pay attention to everything she likes and dislikes. When she tells me something I will remember it.

These are simple, common sense things that we all do, or there would be no children in the world. Why would we not expect the same to apply to our relationship with the Creator God and the Son he values above all else?

IC: Well, he’s not “present” to us in the way that our immediate loved ones are. And adding in the dimension of faith seems to strain many people’s abilities beyond the ability to love. Hence, lukewarmness. Now there’s another Laodicea reference.

Tom: That is a problem, but the “faith” component has been an issue for every believer at every point in human history. And yet not every church ends up in Laodicea, do they?

Overconfidence and the Death of God

IC: Very true. In Laodicea, the problem seems to have been overconfidence, spiritually speaking. They felt they were “rich” and “have need of nothing”, remaining unaware that in spiritual terms, they were actually “poor”, “naked” and “blind”. I don’t know that we could find a better description of self-sufficiency. Christ himself was outside the door, knocking (not at all in his rightful place) and who was listening? That is us. We think we’re just fine without the reality of fellowship with him.

Tom: Right, and fellowship with the Lord is the point of it all. It’s not about fire insurance followed by me serving my own interests for the rest of my life.

IC: Self-sufficiency is one of our key temptations today, as the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche pointed out would be the case, over a hundred years ago. When he wrote “God is dead”, he was not at all saying that God (in his view) had ever been alive, far less that God had been disproved in some way. No, what he was saying is that we’d come to a point in history at which mankind had found substitutes for God. We no longer pray for rain … we irrigate. We don’t pray for healing … we see the doctor. We don’t pray for blessing … we buy insurance. And so on.

Self-sufficiency. No need for God now, he said. And that is our great modern sin.

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