The Insidious Temptations of Modern Christian Publishing

A few weeks ago I had lunch with a friend who has five terrific kids and a great—almost fairy tale—family life. His kids seem to smile while they obey.snoopy writing a book

I admired his parenting skills and asked him his secret. He admitted his desire to write a parenting book. It would address issues like:

  • Kids, cell phones, and when
  • Television, video games, and limits
  • Daily chores, responsibility, and allowance
  • Older kids, younger kids, care, and leadership

My friend is bright, articulate, and humorous. I said his book would sell hundreds of thousands of copies. And then I added … it just slipped out:

“And you’ll doom millions of kids and their parents to hell.”       

Let me explain

My friend knows the grace of God. Yet his prescription for parenting was a bullet list of “wise” to do’s. His list was excellent, but it missed our deepest need: walking with God. His list reminded me of the Pharisees.

Despite their bad rap, the Pharisees began well. Their name—meaning “one who is separated”—reflected their desire to be free from impurity. They fought against assimilation into the surrounding pagan culture by creating a religious culture.

They were the sages who taught the Bible in local synagogues. They sympathized with the common people, and they opposed the elitism of the priestly class. In their struggle to nurture a pure culture, they created hundreds of “wise” rules for right living.

Over time their rules obscured the intent of the law. The sheer volume of regulations created a culture of external compliance; forgetting that God looks on the heart.

The Pharisaical sages began with good intent and ended as white-washed tombs.

The damning presumption of assumption

My friend embraces the gospel, but he assumed his readers would too. So he skipped past the gospel and jumped to action items. It reminded me of how the gospel is lost:

  • The gospel is Accepted
  • The gospel is Assumed
  • The gospel is Confused
  • The gospel is Lost              (Mack Stiles, Marks of the Messenger)

This is the evangelical world. We began with the Spirit and end with a to-do list. We accepted the gospel, and assuming others do too, we write about performance.

The assumption of the gospel leads to confusion about the gospel: Is the Christian life a daily conversation with God, or is it the Nike commercial, “Just Do It”?

Like the Pharisees, we wash the outside of the cup with our doing. Jesus says, “Clean first the inside of the cup … and then the outside will be clean as well” (Matt. 23:26).

Modern Christian publishing has much to answer for

Rabbinic sages scoured the scriptures and summarized it with 613 do’s and don’ts.

On a whim, I once scoured the websites of Christian publishers. I stopped when I had “summarized” over 1500 do’s and don’ts for wise Christian living:

  • 7 Steps to A Better Christian Marriage
  • 10 Rules for Right Parenting
  • 20 Ways to Love Your Neighbor
  • The Three Month Plan for Controlling Your Finances*

*(All these titles are fictitious but they represent thousands of real titles.)

I fear many Christian publishers are the modern paid scribes (literally) of “Just do it” based Pharisaism. Are we selling our gospel birthright for a bowl of financial gruel?

So what do we do?

The tips and techniques of Christian tutors aren’t bad, but they obscure the intent of the law; they encourage The Little Engine That Could thinking—“I think I can, I think I can”—instead of driving us to God as we realize, “I’m pretty sure I can’t.”

The law is not rules for right living; it is a verbal painting of the beauty of God. It is only the reality of God that will change our hearts. More than rules, we need God.

When Jesus expounded the law about adultery (Matt. 5:27-28), he didn’t offer “Five Steps to Safeguard Your Marriage.” He was saying, “You’ve already committed adultery in your heart; you don’t need new rules, you need a new heart. You need God.”

The book of Hosea is the autobiography of a man who buys back his incredibly unfaithful wife at a great cost and then woos her back with great love. The life of Jesus demonstrates a God who ransoms back his adulterous people at incredible cost and then woos us back with unbelievable love.

Our greatest need is not more wise techniques. Our greatest need is to see, know, and walk with God. It’s only seeing the reality of God ransoming and wooing us that will change us. It is not in “doing” that we see God; it is in seeing God that we begin to do.

My aspiring author friend

I asked my friend how he and his wife developed their great list of parenting skills. He said that whenever they encounter a new issue (like when to give cell phones to kids), they take time to seek God, hear his voice, and examine how God has fathered them.

I told him to write that book, and I’ll be first in line to buy it: How God The Father Is Parenting Me; And How He Changed My Parenting Forever.

I hope that book sells millions.


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What do YOU think?

25 thoughts on “The Insidious Temptations of Modern Christian Publishing

    • I love it, “Teach them you need Jesus.” I also love the double meaning: You (you the parent) need Jesus, and you (you the kid) needs Jesus.

      That should be the beginning, middle, and end.


  1. Right on Sam. It is all about relationship. I am also discovering how little I know of the covenant that he has made with us and the many blessings I have forgone because of my ignorance.

    • Hi Bob,

      Exactly, It is all about a relationship with God.

      I was torn about the harshness of the title; but I went with it because of the terrible results of “Just Do It” based Christianity. Who were Jesus’ greatest enemies? The “Just Do It” Pharisees.

      We have got to be on guard to protect our relationship with Jesus.

      “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the welspring of life.” Pr. 4:23

  2. Spot on, Sam. The to do list keep us in control of things and creates formulaic religion. Walking with God moves us to where we are out of control, dependent, and experiencing intimacy with a real Father. It’s the difference between death and life. And if we parent with the to do list, that’s exactly the type of formulaic religion that we will unconsciously hand on to our children.

    • “Walking with God moves us to where we are out of control, dependent, and experiencing intimacy with a real Father.” Love this, Bill. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for this Sam. This has been a theme that God keeps bringing up. One current concern is that as I enter into a new job, that I will loose the dependency that God has been teaching me as I struggled with my unemployment. The clear answer is to keep coming to Him to hear His voice and learn at His knee.

    • I think it is a constant Christian struggle. Someone once said there are two tests in the Christian life, the test of when things go bad and the test of when things go good.

      God is shaping us by putting us in places where we learn to grow in Him. I think he’ll work to keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.

  4. On Target, Sam! Wow. As someone who helps people develop books, this is a sobering reminder. The best books (and ministries, and blogs, and PEOPLE) nurture dependence on God, and not on principles. Thank you.

    • Yeah, I understand the sobering nature. As someone who writes, I need to remind myself (and, please readers, help remind me), that what we really need is God alone. Thanks!

    • David,

      Someone once said the Christian life is like a drunk trying to get on a horse. First we fall off on the man-made law side (The “older brother”) and then we get back up and slip off on the NO law side (the “younger brother”). We need God to even go to God. God help us!

  5. I’m going to take a different tack here. I agree with you in principle Dad, but I think you are too quick to denounce the evils of ‘wise advice.’ I agree 100% that our greatest need is to see, know, and walk with God. But I am honestly wrestling with the overall message of the blog. An initial (and slightly unfair) summary could be stated “The one golden rule of real Christianity: don’t make lists about wise advice.” You verbally acknowledge that it’s not bad advice, but you then decry the whole mindset behind adding any wise do’s and don’ts to our Christian walk. I don’t fully agree. I do agree that the gospel, our own wickedness being consumed by God’s loving faithfulness, needs to always be at the center of our lives. And I also totally agree that the first and foundational message of the gospel is that we need God. But wise advice doesn’t necessarily teach us that we don’t need God. It can. It has. But it doesn’t always. In fact, I think that sometimes it shows us all the more our need for God.
    Paul, who focuses on the gospel, gives plenty of advice to Christians: ‘do these things, don’t do these things’ right alongside his commendation of the gospel. He uses the advice to help teach people how to walk with God. Just because we are more wicked than we even imagine doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to be different. I meet too many people in my generation who say “all I need is God’s love,” while they continue sleeping with their girlfriend and cheating on their taxes. And I say “Yes, you do need God’s love, but that doesn’t means you don’t need to stop sleeping with your girlfriend.” It also doesn’t mean that God loves you ONLY IF you stop sleeping with your girlfriend. And even if you stop sleeping with her, that doesn’t exempt you from having sin at the core of your heart.
    What I am trying to say is that I think we need to be careful not to be too reactionary about ‘wise advice.’ You’re right, it isn’t the solution to our greatest problems, we need something more, but not less. There are too many Christians who think that walking with God has nothing to do with the choices we make. If we ‘gospel people’ isolate ourselves from wise advice about how to grow as Christians, we also cease to help people walk with God. Sometimes walking with God does mean “Just do it,” but thankfully there is so much more.
    But I agree; a book about “How God The Father Is Parenting Me; And How He Changed My Parenting Forever” would be a great book, and I hope it still has good advice in it.

    • What do you think? am I missing the point? is there room for wise advice? is it all contrary to the gospel? I know it can be, but is it always?

      • Excellent question. You must have a very wise mother.

        I’ve been wrestling with this balance in my own life and in my parenting. There’s a tension, a struggle, in the realm of living by the Spirit. Avoiding the trap of living by the rules, the guidelines, the principles, whatever (with “behavior” as THE GOAL), while avoiding the trap of living by “whatever we feel like doing.” And there is a huge blessing in developing habits and disciplines which turn our hearts towards God, which redeem the time, which help us to become (from the inside out) more like Christ. But there is fine line between disciplines which develop habits which lead towards heart change due to relationship with Christ and disciplines which seek to control behavior and fix things.

        Does it come down to filtering actions, disciplines, wise advise, etc. through a “gospel” filter? Is my goal to fix this problem? Or is my goal to let go of my control, draw near to Christ and let Him do as He will?

        I would go so far as to apply this to the Scriptures. Is my goal to gain truth and knowledge? To revere God’s truth and knowledge and apply it to my life? Or is the ultimate goal, Christ himself? (Read a quote today from Ben Franklin, holding up the virtue of respecting and observing the doctrines of Christ, while finding His divinity irrelevant. Chilling.)

        • Hi Christi,

          Thanks for weighing in. I like (and hate) your Franklin quote. I think two obvious temptations are good behavior and right doctrine.

          I just read what I said and laughed; I called good behavior and right doctrine … temptations. But they can be, when done outside or instead of going for God himself.

          Of course, as we know Christ himself, we WILL behave better (faith without works is dead) and of course as we know Christ we will come to know truth (doctrine). We can’t really separate knowing God from truth and living right. But our ultimate goal is not simply goodness or rightness; it is knowing God and letting his light guide our thoughts and actions.

          And, yes, Carla is the wise one. She’s learned much patience living with me.

    • Alas! My own son publicly decrying my message, and catching me in a subtle trap: I was giving (so called) wise advice about not listening to wise advice! Someone raised your right … it must have been your mother.

      I agree with you. Wise advice is good; and it is good to listen to–and obey–wise advice.

      My problem is not primarily with wise advice, it is with skipping to the gospel when we primarily relying on wise advice. Paul did give wise advice, and at the same time he said he said he came to preach the cross.

      My friend (from the story) is someone who really knows the cross and the gospel, but he was forgetting the gospel in his wise advice. It’s not that wise advice is bad; it’s that we can’t forget the gospel in the process.

      Someone once said that there are two ways to avoid Jesus: break all the rules and run from God or KEEP all the rules so you don’t need God.

      I do want wise advice: for how to pray daily, for how to hear God, for how to avoid sin, for how to relate well to brothers and sisters, and what to avoid.

      And–of course–how to write a more balanced article 🙂

      Thank you, my wise, gospel centered, and sharp son!

      (I look forward to seeing how others weigh in.)

  6. Just pick up any magazine and it has the top ten list to better your life in whatever category you can think of… why, because it sells magazines and it sells books – what does that say about the human condition? We are naturally drawn to the list of do’s and don’ts. I know I naturally drift to this and it doesn’t take long before I realize I can’t measure up. Thank you Jesus for your love and grace despite my urge to please myself/others by my wonderful behavior…. um… ok, maybe not so wonderful.

    • Great point, “We are naturally drawn to the list of do’s and don’ts.” And the thing is, wise do’s and don’ts can really be wise, and they are often good things to follow.

      But I think God didn’t give us all the details (when to give a kid a cell phone) partly so that the questions drive us to God. Let’s give and receive wisdom, but let’s also drive each other to God..


  7. I raised four kids, and the only advice THAT humbling experience suggests is “Pray, pray, pray… and chuck the advice out the window!”

    Personally, I wonder if kids aren’t wired to misinterpret the Gospel as works-based no matter what their parents do. That is, after all, what makes sense to the flesh. Besides, the everyday necessity of ordinary discipline reinforces the behave-to-be-saved message in spite of a parent’s best intentions. At least that’s what I observed at my house.

    For me, the Gospel of Grace is underlined by the ordinary powerlessness inherent in parenting. God asks parents to sow the seed and to provide the best soil they can, but as the poet said, only God can make a tree.

  8. Sam,

    After reading and pondering on your teaching, I’m still trying to figure out how we get from seeing God to doing for God as our ultimate measuring stick.

    One thing pops to mind; we want to hold onto something we can touch, measure, evaluation and improve on rather than to have faith in an unseen God. It’s so much easier in our quantifiable world to do the former than the latter. Tangible vs. intangible. It also allows us to focus on our part instead of His part.

    We can more easily pat ourselves on the back instead of giving God the glory. We can brag to others about what “we’ve” done instead of showing others the way to the One who did it all. At least that is why I gravitate in that direction, until I’m pulled back to the starting point; Him.

    Thanks for ALWAYS pointing your readers back to the cross and the resurrection and to the One who paid the price.

    Bruce :~)

    • Hi Bruce,

      I like your perspective. I like the tangible vs. intangible idea you put forth.

      My belief is that all of us are longing for a sense of significance; we want to know that we matter; that we should be noticed. That’s why so many of us might go to something public (sports, theater, even preaching)—the idea being that if we are good at “that” it must mean our lives matter.

      And, of course, being “good” (following do’s and don’ts or GIVING do’s and don’ts) can be simply one more way of showing that we “matter.”

      The intangible of sensing God’s love or his approval is … well, it’s intangible. It’s what we really need, but we often don’t pursue it. Instead we try to show him why we deserve his love and affirmation.

      We like the idea of grace, but we tend to live as if performance is what God wants.

      Thanks, for the great response.

      • I agree with your premise, Sam. This is an age old issue that goes back to the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve ate the apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because it would make them wise. So why is it bad to know good and evil? I believe the implication is that with that “knowledge” we believe we are like God. And consequently, we no longer need God. So is wisdom bad? Of course not. Proverbs echos the value of wisdom. But the fear of The Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Therefore, the gospel must be explicit and never assumed, as you rightly point out.

        This reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my Chinese friends who had been participating in our bible study for the last year. I asked him, “you have now learned of Jesus through our study together. Are you now ready to be a Christian?” He replied, I cannot since I’m a member of the communist party. However, I hope to apply the wisdom of the teachings to better my life. To which I replied, the wisdom is ultimately useless if you don’t have Jesus. Jesus is our creator. He is eternal. It’s only by the grace and strength afforded by Jesus that we can properly use the wisdom offered in the bible. Wisdom without Jesus is futile. If we are honest, we are all like my Chinese friend. We want the benefits offered by God, but we don’t want God himself. We are not willing to relinquish the throne.

        Therefore, I don’t think the question of wisdom and the gospel is an issue of balance. I think it’s an issue of priority. The gospel of Jesus comes first and then wisdom follows right behind it as its fruit.

        • Todd,

          I love what you say here, succinctly, graciously, and to the point. I’m simply going to highlight some quotable quotes:

          – with that “knowledge” we believe we are like God. And consequently, we no longer need God.

          – the fear of The Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Therefore, the gospel must be explicit and never assumed

          – wisdom is ultimately useless if you don’t have Jesus

          – We want the benefits offered by God, but we don’t want God himself. We are not willing to relinquish the throne.

          – I think it’s an issue of priority. The gospel of Jesus comes first and then wisdom follows right behind it as its fruit.

          Wow, I quoted almost all you wrote, but it was good and worth reading again.

          And again.