God is like someone who is always there for you; I don’t know, it’s like God is God. He’s just like somebody that’ll always help you go through whatever you’re going through. When I became a Christian I was just praying, and it always made me feel better. (fifteen-year-old Hispanic conservative Protestant girl from Florida quoted by Smith)
[Religion matters] cause God made us and if you ask him for something I believe he gives it to you. Yeah, he hasn’t let me down yet. [So what is God like?] God is a spirit that grants you anything you want, but not anything bad. (fourteen-year-old white Catholic boy from Pennsylvania quoted by Smith)
God’s all around you, all the time. He believes in forgiving people and whatnot, and he’s there to guide us, for somebody to talk to and help us through our problems. Of course, he doesn’t talk back. (seventeen-year-old conservative Protestant girl from Florida quoted by Smith)
We’ve been looking at America’s Default Religion, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. We’ve looked at the first 3 statements of the unofficial creed here, here, and here. This time, we will see a further aspect of the therapeutic and deistic nature of this religion in considering the unofficial creed’s fourth statement.
What do people believe?
God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life, except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
Many today think God is unnecessary for most of life. As we saw in the first statement of the creed, God got things going and is watching the world, but His existence has little bearing on the majority of what we do. For most of life, people are practical atheists.
Thankfully for these people, this unnecessary God is thoughtfully uninvolved in our lives. As Smith describes this view:
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is about belief in a particular kind of God, one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in our affairs—especially affairs in which we would prefer not to have God involved. Most of the time, the God of this faith keeps a safe distance.
When does God get involved? Only when we invite him to, and we only invite him when we want him to fix something for us. God resolves our problems when and how we want. As Creflo Dollar writes, “When we pray, believing that we have already received what we are praying, God has no choice but to make our prayers come to pass. . . . It is a key to getting results as a Christian.”
Which means God is on call for our demands—but offers no demands in return. At the heart of MTD is a God who is there to meet your needs, without asking or requiring anything of substance in return. His purpose is to serve you. As Smith notes, this God “is something like a combination [of] Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist—he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.” You and your needs dictate what God does, and He dutifully complies with your demands then moves back out of sight until you call on Him again.
What does the Bible say?
We cannot survive unless God is intricately involved in our lives. If God were only sitting at a distance observing this world, we would be destroyed. While it is common to note that God could easily end our lives with just a word, perhaps a more biblical picture is that our lives would end (and the whole universe would be destroyed) if God simply stopped His work of sustaining all things (Col 1:17). While we may speak of the laws of nature, the biblical portrayal includes God’s ultimate direction of the sun and rain (Matt 5:45), growth of grass and plants (Ps 104:14), and food and breath for all creation (Ps 104:27-29). The biblical God is not passively observing the workings of this world but is actively directing them towards His good ends.
God does not exist for us—we exist for God. He creates for His glory (Is 43:6-7). He shows mercy for His glory (Is 48:9-11). He saves people for His glory (Eph 1:5b-6a). He orchestrates political events for His glory (Rom 9:17). He acts in judgment and redemption for His glory (Ezek 36:22-23). He gifts believers in His church to serve the body for His glory (1 Pet 4:11). As Paul summarizes at the end of his extended discussion of God’s majestic work of redemption:
From him and through him and to him are all things.To him be glory forever. Amen. Romans 11:36
God does not do our will—we submit to His will. We are clay while He is the potter, and therefore we have no grounds on which to question His working (Rom 9:20). If we confidently think our plans and actions will produce certain results we are foolishly and sinfully arrogant, because all of our plans depend on His will. (Jas 4:13-16). Jesus commanded us to pray for God’s will to be done on earth (Matt 6:10) and served as an example of submitting His will to God’s as He prayed in the garden before His crucifixion (Lk 22:42). While MTD assumes that God is always ready to answer our requests, John reminds His readers that God only guarantees to grant our requests when we ask according to His will (1 Jn 5:14-15). James reminds his readers that we do not receive what we ask for when we are seeking our own desires, since seeking our desires first is tantamount to spiritual adultery! (Jas 4:3-4).
When we come to understand that we exist for God, we also recognize that serving God includes every aspect of our lives. The true God does make demands—he demands our whole-hearted devotion to Him (Matt 22:37-38). He demands that we love Him to such an extent that our love for anything else, including our families and our own lives, looks like hatred in comparison (Lk 14:26, 33). Everything we do in life flows from our service to Him, which means all that we do should be done to the best of our ability (Col 3:23). If the mundane aspects of our lives, like eating and drinking, are to be done for God’s glory, then all of our lives must be directed toward that end (1 Cor 10:31).
How might this show up in our lives?
Our prayer life is a key area where this false teaching can influence believers. Do you find that you only pray when you are in trouble? When life seems to be going well, you live with little thought of God or your need for Him, but when difficulties arise you once again begin to pray. Or perhaps you pray regularly, but your prayers are dominated by your own desires and needs, with little thought given to God’s broader purposes for His glory.
Another area is our worship services. Do you evaluate worship services primarily by how you feel? Are you concerned with whether or not you received a “blessing” at church, or are you most focused on whether or not God was honored?
We must also guard against compartmentalizing our Christianity. You may think about God on Sundays, or when your church has prayer meetings or small groups, but you rarely consider what it means to serve God in other areas of your life. Your work, your vacation, your entertainment choices, etc. are all carried out in light of your desires and not under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
One of the more subtle and dangerous manifestations of this false thinking is our tendency to assume that God only demands what we already want to do. Sometimes this means we act as though God’s will always aligns with our desires. This approach leads us to either ignore or try to reinterpret passages we do not like, which reveals that we actually think our understanding is better than God’s!
Other times, this means we act as though God would never require great sacrifices from us. God’s demands on our lives pose no threat to our pursuit of the good life, because what ultimately drives us is not God’s desires but ours. God’s will never seems to threaten our professions, possessions, or pleasures—which should cause us concern if we understand how our sin nature continues to war against the Holy Spirit. If God demands never conflict with our desires, how likely is it that we view ourselves as the final authority and have recreated a god in our own image?
How might this affect our evangelism?
As we talk to those who have been influenced by this thinking, we must emphasize the utterly helpless and desperate state they are in. We do not just need God sometimes—we cannot live apart from Him! We don’t just need God for what we think are big problems—we need Him for everything. And we need Him for our biggest problem—sin. All of the things we think matter ultimately pale in comparison to that deadly disease which separates us from God and destines us for destruction.
We must clarify that salvation is about God more than about them. Our emphasis must not be on the truth that “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” as much as on the truth that God made you and therefore rightly deserves and demands your worship and obedience. If we frame the gospel around them, it will only reinforce their self-centered perspective. Instead, we must show that the gospel begins and ends with God.
We also need to challenge people’s thinking that their desires are best. We easily yet wrongly default to assuming our will is better than God’s. It is common to hear of people “losing faith” when God does not answer their prayers, i.e., does not give them what they want. Yet they do not have all of the information that God does, nor do they have the wisdom necessary to know how to evaluate all of the information God has. In fact, often we do not even know what we need! So we should not think that we know what is best but instead trust the God who knows and does what is best.
Finally, we must highlight the goodness and rightness of God being at the center of everything. In our modern therapeutic culture, we are uncomfortable with the idea that God made all things for His glory. Doesn’t that make God a narcissist?
If I were talking to you and said “Everything in this world should be directed toward me. Whenever something or someone does not see me as their highest pursuit, they will inevitably fail to fulfill their true purpose,” you would think I was full of myself. And you would be right! I’m nowhere near great enough to be at the center of everything—but God is. It is wrong for us to view ourselves as objects of supreme worth, but it would be just as wrong for God to not see Himself that way. He needs to be at the center, because nothing else fits there.
Yet God’s being at the center is also best for us. In John 11, John makes a somewhat shocking statement.
So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord,he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Jn 11:3-6
After Mary and Martha let Jesus know that Lazarus, whom they emphasize Jesus loved, was sick, Jesus states that the sickness is not ultimately about death but for the glory of God. John then again emphasizes Jesus love for all three of the siblings in verse 5, but draws a conclusion in verse 6 that seems odd—since Jesus loved them, he stayed where he was after hearing Lazarus was sick. His love caused him not to go see him but instead to wait for two days so that Lazarus would die (Jn 11:11-15)! Jesus love for Martha, Mary, and Lazarus did not lead him to prevent Lazarus from dying but to allow him to die so that they would better understand God’s glory.
True love, a desire to see the ultimate good for the other person, has to be directed towards God’s glory. Because God loves us, He must call us to live for Him and not for ourselves. And if we truly love others, we must tell them that God needs to be at the center of their lives.