Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Forward If You Love Jesus

Gone are the days of honking if you love Jesus. In the age of information technology, the new method of demonstrating one’s devotion to Christ is forwarding e-mail. At least that’s so according to a message forwarded to me recently whose subject read “DO YOU LOVE HIM?” The e-mail calls itself a “simple test” of whether the recipient loves Jesus. The reader is emphatically instructed (the directions are given in all upper case letters) to forward the e-mail to at least 10 other people including the person who forwarded it to him or her. The following poem appears in the body of the message:

I knelt to pray but not for long,
I had too much to do.
I had to hurry and get to work
For bills would soon be due.
So I knelt and said a hurried prayer,
And jumped up off my knees.
My Christian duty was now done
My soul could rest at ease.
All day long I had no time
To spread a word of cheer.
No time to speak of Christ to friends,
They'd laugh at me I'd fear.
No time, no time, too much to do,
That was my constant cry,
No time to give to souls in need
But at last the time, the time to die.
I went before the Lord,
I came, I stood with downcast eyes.
For in his hands God held a book;
It was the book of life.
God looked into his book and said
"Your name I cannot find.
I once was going to write it down...
But never found the time"

Immediately following the poem this question appears in bold letters: “Now do you have the time to pass it on?”

I don’t doubt for one moment that those who author and/or circulate messages such as these are well-intentioned, God-loving people who sincerely desire to spur fellow Christians on to godly living. In the case of the above poem, the good end in view is the ordering of our lives in such a way that our use of time reflects kingdom priorities as opposed to selfish pursuits. The temptation to allow the living God to be pushed to the margins of our thoughts and schedules by busyness is one we regularly face. That’s why the poem registers with us. There’s something about it that rings true with our experience and we know that what it’s calling us to is good and right. The motives behind messages like these are good. If we are going to be discerning, however, we have to do more than assess the ends and the motives. We must also evaluate the means and the messages used to reach the desired ends. It’s not enough to ask, “Is the goal a biblical one?” We must also ask whether the methods used to motivate toward the desired end are themselves consistent with the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Pragmatism is the belief that whatever measures help us successfully arrive at a desired goal are acceptable and permissible. Nothing is off limits as long as it aids us in accomplishing our task. “If it works” it’s right.” Pragmatism presupposes moral relativism and is therefore incompatible with a biblical worldview according to which God’s revelation in Scripture provides a standard for how we are to govern our lives. Pragmatism is enticing because it focuses on getting things done. After all, that’s what’s really important, isn’t it – results? Unfortunately, we as Christians are prone to believing that the answer to that question is yes. That’s the root of my concern about much of the e-mail endlessly forwarded among Christians. I fear that too much of it operates on pragmatic rather than biblical assumptions. Using the above e-mail as an illustration, I’d like to point out the evidences of a pragmatic mindset that forsakes biblical truth:

It relies upon man-centered manipulation. After I read the e-mail I had to decide what I was going to do with it. Was I going to forward it to 10 others including the person who had forwarded it to me or would I simply delete it? When I thought about the latter alternative, I admit considering what the sender would conclude about my spiritual state when he found that I had not “passed the test.” I certainly didn't want him to think that I didn't love Jesus.

Messages like this appeal to our fear of the opinions of others in order to get us to act a certain way. If this weren’t the case, it wouldn’t be necessary to include the person who forwarded the e-mail to you among those to whom you forward the message. According to the Bible, the fear of man brings a snare (Prov. 29:25). Who among us hasn’t felt imprisoned by our own craving for the acceptance and praise of others? While it may be of proven effectiveness to make people act in various ways, the fear of man can never produce the fear of the Lord that should be every Christian’s strongest motivation for obedience.

It plays on the emotions. Most of us probably remember the mathematical dictum that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Results-oriented thinking reasons in a similar fashion that the quickest way to yield a desired outcome is to appeal directly to the emotions as opposed to going the more circuitous route of addressing the mind. Advertisers are very familiar with the effectiveness of this technique. Television commercials give little information about the products being pitched. Instead, they seek to create positive emotional associations. Speaking of the strategy that has made MTV so popular among young people, founder Bob Pittman noted “The strongest appeal you can make…is emotionally. If you can get their emotions going, [make them] forget their logic, you’ve got ‘em.”…We make you feel a certain way as opposed to you walking away with any particular knowledge.”

This is not to deny the involvement of our emotions in our relationship with God and to advocate an intellectual stoicism. We are to love God with the entirety of our being. However, there is nothing Christian about pleas made to the emotions while neglecting the understanding. This is mere sentimentality which overlooks the vital role of the intellect in the process of transformation. As the late D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones noted in Spiritual Depression, “Truth comes to the mind and to the understanding enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Then having seen the truth the Christian loves it. It moves his heart…Truly to see the truth means that you are moved by it and that you love it. You cannot help it. If you see the truth clearly, you must feel it. Then that in turn leads to this, that your greatest desire will be to practice it and to live it.”

It presents a faulty view of God. This is by far the most serious matter. In order to make its point, the above poem portrays God as sharing our limitations and faults. He is capable of being distracted and preoccupied even to the point of never getting around to something he had intended to do – namely, record a sinner’s name in the book of life. Fortunately, this is not an accurate representation of the One who chose us in His Son from before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4) and whose will it is that none of those He has given to His Son shall be lost. The triune God is not subject to the limitations of time, nor is His mind finite, requiring that He must decide what He will give attention to at a given time.

Another piece that has found its way into multiple electronic mailboxes and which also asks the reader if he/she has enough time to forward it to someone else, further illustrates the troublesome trend of portraying God in a sub-biblical manner in order to motivate believers to obey Him. The letter, written as though from God, recounts the numerous times throughout the day the Lord had hoped the addressee would spend time talking to Him. These divine hopes are consistently dashed, however, by the Christian’s preoccupation with other activities such as deciding what to wear, going to work, and watching television. Amidst the expressions of self-pity, God “writes”:

At one point you had to wait fifteen minutes with nothing to do except sit in a
chair. Then I saw you spring to your feet. I thought you wanted to talk to me
but you ran to the phone and called a friend to get the latest gossip.
Is the “God” who penned this letter the omniscient Lord of the Bible who understands our thoughts from afar (Ps. 139:2) and who has thorough knowledge of what we will speak before our lips make any utterance (Ps. 139:4)? By no means! Again, I understand and affirm the desire underlying these words. Provoking people to pray is most assuredly a biblically grounded aim. The Bible is filled with exhortations to God’s people to call upon Him in prayer. No, the problem isn’t with the desired outcome but with the method used to achieve it. God has told us what He is like and we are not free to make revisions in His self-disclosure in the name of stimulating believers in Christ to greater obedience. We can never glorify God by portraying Him in an unworthy (i.e., unbiblical) manner.

Ironically, both of the e-mails referred to, result from the very thing they’re identifying as a problem – lack of time for the Lord. By that, I’m not saying anything about the prayer lives of those who write and circulate such material. I have something else in mind. If we are going to be faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ, then certainly we must take time to pray. But we must also make time to study and reflect on the Scriptures in an attempt to construct an outlook on all of life that is biblically informed. We must also be willing to invest time to thoughtfully evaluate messages presenting themselves as Christian. A pragmatic mindset has no time for such contemplation and the speed of cyber-technology doesn’t encourage it. In his book The Soul in Cyberspace, philosopher Douglas Groothuis notes
:…the rapidity and immediacy of e-mail seem to encourage an emotional discharge and superficiality that would be less likely even in letters, because they require more physical involvement at every stage of composition – printing out the letter on paper, signing it, folding it, stuffing it in an envelope, sealing
the envelope, and carrying it to the mail box. This gives the writer more time and physical contact that allows him to reflect on matters that are (literally) "at hand" and "in hand” before committing the letter to the mail.
The next time you receive an inspirational e-mail urging you to pass it on to however many others, don’t impulsively hit the forward button. Pause and do some pondering. Ask yourself the following questions: Is this message appealing more to sentimentality than biblically sound instruction? Is it trying to target my emotions by bypassing my mind? Is it relying on man-centered shame or emotional blackmail as motivation to what may be a good thing? Is the presentation of God’s nature and character true to what He has revealed of Himself in the pages of Scripture? If after asking these questions you have doubts, don’t pass the message on. You won’t be contributing to the clutter in others’ lives and hopefully the time they would have spent reading your mail will be used more constructively. Remember, “forward” isn’t always the way of progress.


Mike - HotFudgeSunday.com said...

Insightful article! I've had some of the same thoughts.

Tom said...

Man, that's well said. I've forwarded this to everyone I know. :-)

weave said...

Keith, thanks for having the courage to say what I've been thinking. I've linked your article at my blog. http://kingdom-church-culture.blogspot.com/2006/05/those-troubling-jesus-emails.html

KP said...

You're welcome, Mark. I'm glad you found it useful. I'm sure there are countless others who share our frustration. I had reached my breaking point when I wrote that. Thanks for the link.

Anonymous said...

Thats really touching.. I've sent it to almost everyone I have on my contacts to spread the word of Christ. Thats really thoughtful and very well said.