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The 17th century Puritan preacher, Richard Sibbes, was brilliant in his exposure of the human condition: “Oh! We should dismount from the tower of our conceited excellency. The heart of man is a proud creature, a proud piece of flesh. Men stand upon their distance” [“A Description of Christ”, Works, 1.9].
At this stage of his sermon Sibbes compared the motives of sinful humanity and the heart of Jesus, God’s Son. One is proud while the other is humble; one seeks standing while the other is a servant; one is frail and dependent while the other is the creator and ruler of all creation.
Did we catch the last element of the comparison? The irony is that the true God-man serves all of us even when we seek to usurp his Divine role—to become “like God”. And this even though we are utterly, if unwittingly, dependent on him for our every breath and heartbeat. The result is blindness. Sin confuses our thoughts about God and his ways so that we miss him, even when we think we have him analyzed and tamed. Pride turns keen thinkers into brilliant fools.
The problem, I suspect, comes with our need for coherence in life. We need a sense of order and rational symmetry in our beliefs. So if we happen to be proud—if we think of ourselves as a little bit better, kinder, smarter, and more alert than many of our neighbors and colleagues—then we’d like to have a God who supports our prejudice. With that ambition in place we find it easy to recreate God in our own image.
If, for instance, we find it hard to be around people we hold in disdain—whether socially, racially, educationally, theologically, or otherwise—we need a God who approves of our distaste. And, voila, before long we find (or found) a religious community that affirms us; or we abandon formal religion. Remember how Christ’s disciples fell into this trap when a Samaritan village rejected their efforts to rent a few rooms (Luke 9:32): “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Call them the wrath-of-God team!
Another option, for those who love financial security and power, is to take up the path followed by Balaam, Judas Iscariot, and Simon Magus. They all treated religious connections with God as a means to personal benefit. Sadly not one of their stories ended well.
Yet another option is to chase status and honor through our intellectual strengths. By elevating God’s qualities of omniscience and wisdom we can distance ourselves from the less able and, if we try hard enough, even become his priests. This involves setting ourselves above the ordinary folks who lack our gifts by taking on doctoral titles, wearing fancy regalia at graduations, and using impenetrable jargon to show how clever we are as God’s most gifted representatives. We need only read the series of “woe to you . . .” warnings by Jesus to the academics and religious leaders of his day to spot this as a dead end.
The problem? We have an infinite capacity to rationalize—to think up ways to justify—our sinful self-affirmations with God’s name as our cover. And all our efforts to rationalize this nonsense results in Christ appearing to be upside-down to who he actually is. Then, if we happen to meet him in the Bible or see him in some of his actual followers, we experience serious dissonance.
The result? Lots of “Christians” who don’t like the Bible. And theologians who transform God into attributes and essences that lack any personhood. And scholars who replace “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6) with creeds and concepts that lack a real love for God.
What did Jesus think of this sort of thing in his own day? Taking on one of the misaligned groups—religious leaders who loved their salaries more than God—Jesus warned them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15).
What, then, will we do with this epidemic of upside-down faith? I suspect we all need Christ himself to make us right. So maybe a brief prayer is in order: Lord, search me, please. I’m sorry for living in my tower of conceited excellency. Let me see you as you really are, and lead me, please, in your true ways.
It’s a prayer he loves to answer.