The Delusion of Doctrine

For much of human history, people have been executed because of their beliefs. These people weren’t killed for antisocial behavior (like murder, rape, or treason); they were slain simply because of their inner-conviction about reality.

We’re more tolerant today. That’s good. I don’t want to be burned alive because I believe that Android phones are better than iPhones (though I confess to liking roasted Apples…).

It’s right we abandon belief-based execution, but remember those who experienced it. Thousands of men and women willingly suffered slaughter without recanting. They believed so strongly, they wouldn’tMonk pretend to deny their beliefs; even to save their lives.

Today, though, doctrine is scorned. We imagine cloaked monks, closeted in their dusty cloisters, penning abstract dogmas on “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” I once asked dozens of people what they thought of doctrine. They boldly proclaimed:

  • Doctrine, schmoctrine; God only wants us to love each other.
  • Doctrine is about the head; I believe in the heart.
  • Doctrine divides; it’s more important to find what unites.
  • Thinking is the devil’s territory; let’s just experience God.

The thing is, each of these statements is a doctrine. (The belief that “God only wants us to love each other” is called the doctrine of Salvation by Works.) But would you die for your doctrine that, “Thinking is the devil’s territory”? I think not. Dorothy Sayers wrote,

In the world it is called Tolerance, but in hell it is called Despair … the sin that believes in nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive simply because there is nothing for which it will die (Creed or Chaos, slightly edited).

We don’t need to be burned at the stake. Our shallow convictions about reality are death. The problem with doctrine is that we all have them; few of us admit it; and it’s killing us.

Our mental image of God

The most controversial belief about reality is what people believe about the nature of God (immediately followed by the Apple / Android debate). A. W. Tozer wrote,

What comes into the mind when we think of God is the most important thing about us, for we tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God.

We all have a mental image of God (it’s really a doctrine even if we refuse the label) and that image controls our lives. By a “secret law of the soul,” we do what we do, due to belief.

If we believe God is a strict school-master, we work really hard, but mostly to avoid him. If we believe God to be a syrupy-sweet Santa Claus, we mostly ignore him (though maybe we leave out cookies and milk every Christmas Eve).

We choose our beliefs

Julius Caesar claimed, “Men [and probably a few of you women too] are nearly always willingly to believe what they wish.” We stick our heads in the sand and believe only what we want.

I’m kind of sick of hearing the feeling-oriented, fanciful, “I don’t like to think of God as a judge; I like to think of him as a loving father.” Are we stupid?

Seriously. Are we that dumb? If my daughter said, “I like to think of my dad as a young, virile, quarterback for the Denver Broncos,” perhaps her imagination would make her feel good. But every morning, what rolls out of my bed is an over-fed, under-exercised, old man.

We create our tame gods for emotional comfort. They just lack two things: reality and comfort.

Missing God

We don’t see the real God in our lives because he doesn’t conform to our mental image of who we think he should be:

  • The Pharisees fail to see God because he healed on the Sabbath.
  • The Zealots are blind to God because he didn’t kick out the Romans.
  • The disciples on the road to Emmaus miss God because he wasn’t in his tomb.

We are blind to Jesus walking right next to us because he doesn’t act as we imagine he should. He’s there, but we don’t see him. Our counterfeits make him invisible.

God is rarely what we like to think

When the he poet W. H. Auden converted to Christianity, his friends asked, “Why?” He replied, “I believe because [Jesus] fulfills none of my dreams, because he is in every respect the opposite of what he would be if I could have made him in my own image.”

His friends asked, “Why not other great teachers like Buddha?” Auden’s chilling response was, “None of the others arouse all sides of my being to cry, ‘Crucify Him.’”

You and I are not that honest. Nevertheless, we rebuke the real God when our mental image of him cries, “I can’t believe a loving God would let me experience ‘X.’” Instead of letting God be who he is, we scream “Crucify the imposter.”

God is always more loving than we expect. But we have to give him room to be real.

What do we most need?

The real cure for our real problems lies beyond our imagination. So we need a God who lives beyond our imagination. What we need most is a God who is not a creation of our needs.

Only a God who makes demands we don’t understand can give us the answers we can’t imagine. Only a God who is terrifying can finally give us love that is satisfying.

Hey, if you want an overfed, under exercised, imaginary God, it’s a free county. Maybe you can use that mental/molten image (and your Apple) as a paperweight for your pile of bills.

Just remember, it’s still a doctrine.

Sam

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16 thoughts on “The Delusion of Doctrine

  1. WOW! You know Janice and I were talking last night when she said to me “The reason you like Sam is he is confrontional and sometimes you both are two much.” Don’t worry I stuck up for you by saying Sam is a great writer who writes confrontionally. me I just enjoy being confrontional! 🙂

    However you proved my point with this post and this statment! “I’m kind of sick of hearing the feeling-oriented, fanciful, “I don’t like to think of God as a judge; I like to think of him as a loving father.” Are we stupid?”

    Dead On Post! However it starts with one place – the gospel of grace and realizing that Christians struggle with the biggest multiple personality disorders on the planet because of our failure to understand the gospel of grace. Which starts with a strong awareness of Theology, then moving to Anthropology, than Christology.

    Because of our lack of understanding of the bg words others consider unnecessary we do not end up with a root cause of disobedience but a root cause of lack of one of those three doctrines which leads to us looking a whole lot more like the church of Laodicea, than Collosse or Hierapolis and as a result leaving a bad taste in the mouth of God which utterly makes us useless. Poor doctrine always leads to one ending in some form of self-reliance which means we walk away like the rich young ruler missing what is directly in front of us.

    Great Post! Sam!

    • Hi Pat,

      I think we humans, like lemmings, just want to follow the crowd, even when we are jumping off a cliff. I want us to think–not “think” merely in the head in the clouds, ivory tower, detached from reality thinking–let’s think prayerfully so God can penetrate our dense, adopting our culture, blinded minds.

      And sometimes we simply need to be awakened to the danger of the cliffs we approach.

      Thanks again,

      Sam

  2. Well done. It never ceases to amaze me when I see posts on Facebook that start with “I believe the Bible, but…” or “I’m a Christian, but I don’t think God has a problem with…” I always want to reply with, “Oh, you’re the one who gets to determine what Christianity is all about. All this time I’ve been studying the scriptures like a sucker.”

    • Great comment Cliff,

      Sometimes it’s easy to see the false images others create. I wonder what false images we create.

      May God break in on us to reveal his true self.

      Sam

      • Yes. One scary thing to me is that, inherent in the definition of “(being) deceived” or “deception” is that YOU DON’T RECOGNIZE IT WHEN YOU’RE IN THE MIDDLE OF IT! I heard one Christian teacher state, “One of the most fearsome statements in the Bible is, ‘God sent them a strong delusion.'” (2 Thessalonians 2:11) If you read in context, along with the verses toward the end of Romans 1 (say, 26-28 or so), the idea is that God will give us what we insist on! If we, through our ignorance and blindness, insist on being deceived, God will arrange it so we get our fill of it. Revelation 22:11 and a couple of other verses similar to it seem to indicate that we go deeper into the path we choose, either into life and blessing, or into death and the curses of it.
        May God give us wisdom to choose LIFE, even when it doesn’t feel like it!

        • Hi Ken,

          I love your points. Yes, God does give us what we ask for, and what we often (even usually) ask for is our own God. And so God does deliver us up to them. Yikes!

          On the other hand, there is still great hope. God may give us up to our evil desires; God also continues to pursue us. We finally see the unsatisfactory results of that evil desires, and sometimes (may it be all the time), sometimes we ask for God himself.

          Thanks,

  3. Sam, Love your sentences about the God making demands we can’t understand and the God that terrifies – As usual, there is a pithy core in your writing that I take away from it. Good words.
    Asking me to fully explain God is like asking a poached salmon to give insights into Julia Child – at least I have the scriptures, which give me a fighting chance.

  4. God is not a loving Father? Perhaps not for you, but certainly He is that and much more. His word describes Him as such. Yes, He is also just and thatis partof being loving. TheideathatGod mist be terrifying to be loving is silly and counter to scripture which clearly states thatperfect love (God, according to 1 John4:7-8) casts out all fear (which I imaginewould include terror). Certainly God hasno gender and it may soothe us to “fatherize” Him in some cases…but His love is not questionable in the heart of this believer…God Bless!

    • Hi John,

      Of course he is a loving father, and–as you say–he is also much more. The gospel is not simply a commoner loving a commoner; the gospel is when the Great loves the ungreat, the Powerful loving the weak.

      That’s why our false mental images fail to bring the comfort we desperately want. It’s only when the terrifying judge loves (and pardons) the scared, guilty accused that we find real comfort.

      Yes, perfect loves casts out fear, but we have to have something to fear first. When our true fear is cast out, then our true joy becomes real.

      Thanks,

      Sam

  5. I LOVE this post. Thank-you so much for your insights on this subject. I so appreciate your statement that just saying that one doesn’t like doctrine IS a doctrine in itself. It’s the same with people who “hate theology” or “hate philosophy,” but I digress… I’ve been struggling with this question a lot, which is, how can someone seem to have a strong relationship with God and yet not grow in spiritual maturity, and your post helped me to realize that we can be blocked simply because we only love and accept an aspect of God. It’s great to find pleasure and peace in God, but if we only find pleasure and peace then we are probably ignoring the parts of God that we find uncomfortable. So thank-you for letting God speak through you and thank-you for the reminder that we worship a God who is waaay bigger than we can handle

    • Hi Havs,

      Hey, GREAT comment from you. I love your comment, “If we only find peace and peace, then we are probably ignoring the parts of God that we find uncomfortable.”

      In fact, I’d argue that we can’t find real peace until we meet the real God. Or (another way to say it), our true peace and comfort is only found in direct proportion to our knowledge of the true God.

      May God reveal himself to us (actually, he has in scripture) and may he open our eyes to see him.

      Thanks,

      Sam

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