I was thinking the other day about what might be one of the most common critiques of God that I hear from skeptics. I think that without hesitation it would be the complaint that,
“You serve a loving God, but the church itself; it is arrogant. How is this reflective of a loving God?”
Now, this is an interesting critique against the Church, but I don’t know that it really does any damage to God. It seems clear that their critique is against a group of people and not God Himself. But, be this as it may, it is a critique we must face if we are to effectively communicate the gospel message with the lost.
Now, before we get into the particulars here, I think I would like to share with you a quote from Isaiah Berlin. He was a philosopher who lived in the 20th Century. He was what we call a polymath. He was an expert in several fields—economics, politics, philosophy. He wrote extensively about liberty and freedom. He knew a great deal about these themes because he lived during Stalin and Hitler. He suffered persecution. Now, he was a secular Jewish intellectual, so you will see this in his quote. I remember coming across this quote of his and remember vividly how it shook me to the core:
“The enemy of pluralism is monism — the ancient belief that there is a single harmony of truths into which everything, if it is genuine, in the end must fit. The consequence of this belief (which is something different from, but akin to, what Karl Popper called essentialism — to him the root of all evil) is that those who know should command those who do not. Those who know the answers to some of the great problems of mankind must be obeyed, for they alone know how society should be organized, how individual lives should be lived, how culture should be developed.”
This is a serious quote. I remember after reading that—I took a pen and jotted in the margin—
“What about a person who holds the truth, but at the same time is full of grace?”
When someone is described as being graceful, what is being said is that there is a beauty to their physical movement. When someone is described as being gracious, or full of grace, this is saying there is a beauty to their inner movement. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” One can possess absolute truth, but also be fully gracious.
Now–against the critique itself:
The first thing I would do is talk about the nature of this ‘arrogance.’ I remember I was talking to some friends and one of the people I was talking to got violently disagreeable with what I was saying. She replied to me, “You seem to insist that there is only one way to God, and that is through His son Jesus. I cannot accept a religion of arrogance such as this!” I remember asking her, what her view of spirituality was, and she replied, “I am a Buddhist.” I then said to her, “Is your critique against Christian due in whole to the fact that it is arrogant because it claims to be an exclusive holder of the truth?” She replied in the affirmative. I then said, “Did not the Buddha himself come from Hinduism, and in coming from Hinduism; didn’t he reject the Caste system and a large portion of the Vedas as not being divinely inspired?” I went on to say, “What about the millions of people whose faith Buddha has rejected in his repudiation of Hinduism?” She sat there with kind of a blank look on her face. I then asked her this, “You are prepared to follow the Buddha though he was clearly exclusive in his view of truth, but you reject Christianity solely on the basis that it makes exclusive truth claims?” She said, “I don’t like where this is heading.”
You see, truth by its very nature is exclusive. If you make a claim as being true, then its opposite is untrue. No matter how you frame truth, you will exclude someone.
I remember a friend of mine had just become a Christian, and soon after he was converted he found himself at a dinner seated across from one of the leaders of the Baha’i faith. The Baha’i claim to be fully accepting of all spiritual views. My friend told him, “I have just become a Christian,” to which the other guy replied, “that’s great that you have found your path!” Then my friend said, “I believe that Jesus is the only way to God,” to which the Baha’ist replied, “we cannot accept that.” My friend replied, “now you are excluding me!” “No, No,” replied the Baha’ist, “we are accepting of everyone.” My friend asked again, “What about the view that only Jesus is the way to God?” The Baha’ist again replied, “No, we couldn’t possibly accept that.” My friend replied, “You are excluding me again!”
No matter how you frame a truth claim, it is by its very nature exclusive. The guy that says all paths lead to God excludes those who say that only one path leads to God. He even excludes the guy that finds Hitler’s methods questionable and declares, “Only some paths lead to God.” If all paths lead to God, then the view that only some paths lead to God is rejected outright. Likewise, if you say that only one path leads to God, this excludes those who claim that all paths lead to God.
Now—the nature of the original critique is to level an accusation against truth holders as being arrogant. This just doesn’t work. Arrogance is not a property of truth. You can be humble and hold on to truth, and you can be arrogant and hold on to truth. Likewise, you can be humbly self-righteous, or you can be arrogantly self-righteous. This is where the world starts to have a problem with Christians.
If I went to dinner with a group of people who were interested in hearing about the Christian faith and they invited me to share my faith and to answer their questions; if the first thing out of my mouth was, “I am John and I know God personally, and I know for a fact that I am going to heaven,” how would this come across? To the unbeliever or the skeptic, there is little question it would come across as arrogant. Does it have to? Does the fact that I am claiming to know someone and know my destination with absolute certainty mean that I am necessarily arrogant?
If you were asked about someone who you worked with and you replied, “Nah, I don’t know them,” people would accept your word that you didn’t know them. If you replied, “Oh yeah, I know them very well. In fact, I just talked to them,” would you be seen as arrogant, or would you be seen as actually knowing them? Why is it when someone says, “I know Jesus,” they are immediately seen as being arrogant, intolerant, and bigoted?
Paul wrote at great length in the Bible about knowing Jesus personally. He also knew that he was going to Heaven. I don’t think that he was being arrogant in any way. He actually knew Jesus. He knew that Jesus had promised eternal life for those who had believed. He had believed. Therefore, he knew he was going to Heaven. This isn’t a statement of arrogance. This was the truth.
Why then is claiming to know Jesus, even if true, interpreted as being arrogant. Well, we have to be honest—many Christians have helped to further this accusation by living up to the very insult hurled at them—but—it is not inherent in Christianity to be arrogant. In fact, it is commanded that we be humble.
There is a story in the book of Luke that Jesus tells about a Religious guy and a Tax Collector. They both go to the temple to pray.
Here is what Jesus says in Luke 18:
“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (verses 9-14).
What a brilliant story. You know, the sad fact of the matter is—we have become so desensitized to these parables because we know them so well, that we actually do not know what they say. Even our pastors sometimes get them messed up. I think the old quip is true: Often times it is theologians who go down the deepest, stay down the longest, and come up the murkiest than anyone else. We try so hard to understand what the Bible means, that we don’t pause long enough to read what it actually says. I mean, it is as if when we hear the word “Pharisee” we are programmed to say, “Boo Bad!”—but when we hear “tax collector” we instantly say, “Yay, Good!” like some kind of Pavolvian dog. The problem with this is—if you put yourself back in the time of Jesus, the moral people of day were widely regarded as being the Pharisees. They were not hated–on the contrary. These men were held up and praised as people who walked the walk, and were not prepared to compromise on any sin issue. I mean, they were even particular about who they ate with! This is why in Luke 15:2 they complain about Jesus eating with sinners. To them, they viewed this as a move toward compromising.
“Jesus, How can you entertain sinners, fraternize with them—and hope to stay morally pure?”
That was their point of view.
The expectation when this parable is told is for the Pharisee to be the good guy. When this thing gets turned around, this message is shocking. We have to be honest—if the Pharisees were around today, they would be active members of our own churches. They were admired, respected, and they didn’t compromise.
On the other hand is the tax collector. They were seen as collaborators. Everyone hated them. Just like today, no one likes paying their taxes. As a side note, if you are reading this, and you do work for the IRS you will be happy to know that the vitriol that you receive on a daily basis has been around since Jesus walked the earth. You are in good company. The thing about the tax collectors is that they were seen as political. It wasn’t that they collected money for the Romans that people didn’t like, it was the fact that they collaborated with the Romans. The Jews were oppressed, and these guys were collaborating with the oppressors. Tax Collectors were hated. Don’t think for a minute by the way that Jesus didn’t know this, and didn’t recognize the sentiment. He grew up in Jewish culture. He knew first hand of Roman oppression. He knew the tax collectors would stab their own people in the back.
Many people like to interpret this parable as a teaching about private prayer—it is necessary to be humble in our private prayer. Of course we should—but this is not a parable about private prayer. Why? Well, n Jesus time, if you said, “I’m going to the temple to pray, it either meant, “I’m going to the temple to offer private devotion,” or “I am going to a public worship service (prayer service).” Now—the prayer in this parable was given either in the morning or the evening during a public service. How do we know that? Well, its clear from the rest of the story.
They both go to the temple. They go at the same time, they leave at the same time—and they pray at the same time in an act of worship. But, how do we know it is a worship service? Partly because they offered their own public prayers. But, also because there were only two services that were performed every morning and every evening in the temple. This would be where a sacrificial lamb was sacrificed, and the priest would go to burn incense. Now—while the priest was burning the incense in the inner area of the temple, the people couldn’t see him—so they prayed out loud. This is the same thing that happens when Zechariah goes to burn incense and it says the people stayed outside praying.
Now, the parable also tells us something about the two men. The Pharisee—after the sacrifice is made—stands there and says, “God I thank you I am not like everybody else.” This is the most arrogant, and self-righteous prayer one could make. Not only is he self-righteous, he is religiously self-righteous. Look—righteousness can come from two places. It either comes from the self or it comes from somewhere else. The Bible tells us obviously that it comes from God—but the thing is—it is so easy in our Christian life to take the credit. The Pharisee was living a life he thought would bring him closer to God. He isn’t just doing what he has been commanded to do—he is doing quite a bit more. The problem is, his heart is wrong, and his prayer is arrogant. He is convinced in himself—and totally sure that because of his works, he is right with God.
Contrasting this is the tax collector. He is not a happy guy. It says he beats his breast. Now, in this culture, men do not beat their breast. In fact, in the New Testament, the only place you will hear about a man beating his breast, is when a disciple does it at the foot of the cross. Women beat their breast, not men. He is crying and beating his breast. This is humiliating action. He is acting in a way like a woman.
Is his being upset coming from self-pity? I don’t think that it is. On the other side of this, we may think that self-righteousness and boasting come from success. The fact is, boasting can also come when we are in times of peril.
John Piper puts it very well:
“Philanthropists can boast. Welfare recipients can’t. The primary experience of the Christian Hedonist is need. When a little, helpless child is swept off his feet by the undercurrent on the beach, and his father catches him just in time, the child does not boast; he hugs.
The nature and depth of human pride are illuminated by comparing boasting to self-pity. Both are manifestations of pride. Boasting is the response of pride to success. Self-pity is the response of pride to suffering. Boasting says, ‘I deserve admiration because I have achieved so much.’ Self-pity says, ‘I deserve admiration because I have sacrificed so much.’ Boasting is the voice of pride in the heart of the strong. Self-pity is the voice of pride in the heart of the weak. Boasting sounds self-sufficient. Self-pity sounds self-sacrificing.
The reason self-pity does not look like pride is that it appears to be needy. But the need arises from a wounded ego, and the desire of the self-pitying is not really for others to see them as helpless, but as heroes. The need self-pity feels does not come from a sense of unworthiness, but from a sense of unrecognized unworthiness. It is the response of unapplauded pride.”
Piper is right on. It is easy in tough times to have pity on yourself. “Look how difficult things are for me, look at what I have given up.” The thing is, this is driven in the end by pride!
The thing is—this tax collector isn’t driven by pride. This isn’t a prayer of self-pity. What the tax collector prays is not, “Lord, have mercy on me.” It is kind of a shame that it is translated that way. The Greek word for mercy is eleison and you might pray Kyrie eleison, “Lord have mercy on me” in an Anglican church, for example. This is not an accurate translation.
This is not what is in the actual Greek. The words used here, which are translated in the NIV as “have mercy on me,” are hilastheti moi. This actually means “make a propitiation for me.” What he is actually saying is, “be propitious to me.” Because of this, we can be certain that this prayer is offered in the context of public sacrifice and a service in the temple.
So—here they are. In the temple at the same time—both praying. The lamb has been sacrificed and the Pharisee stands up and says, “Look at me, God. Look how good I am. I am better than everyone.” The tax collector in contrast, hangs his head, beats his breast, and declares,
“Lord, be propitious to me. May this sacrifice for sin, this propitiation, this satisfaction for sin, may it be for me.”
Then Jesus concludes his parable with these remarks,
“I tell you that this man (the tax collector), rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
This is amazing. They are both in the temple. They both see the same sacrifice. They see the same ceremony. But one of them receives it penitently, and the other receives it with a hardened heart.
“Lord, I am a sinner. I need this. I cant do it on my own. Please, let this be for me.”
You know, it’s very interesting, even for us as Christians: we can be in the house of God, we can look upon the sacrifice that God Himself has made and offered, and it can make us hard. We can be so sure that we’re doing so right and so well that we become self-sufficient, we become hard. We become self-righteous. We can all be in the same place, in the presence of God–and some get it while some don’t. Some still think it is about them.
Galatians 5 says this,
“So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law…. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other” (verses 16-18, 22-26).
The apostle Paul is contrasting the law and the spirit—those who try to live by the law and achieve their own self-righteousness even after they have become Christians. This is really shocking because the book of Galatians is written to people who’ve been set free from the law but who are now trying to live by the law. They’ve come into relationship with God through the sacrifice that God himself has made, but are now putting themselves back under the curse of the law only to become self-righteous. And Paul says, “Let us keep in step with the Spirit, and let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.”
Isn’t that an interesting way to end that passage? We walk in step with the Spirit so we don’t provoke and envy each other. Isn’t that incredible? You know, it’s entirely possible to project the image that you’re leading such a good Christian life while goading people into some kind of Christian self-righteousness. Of course, we need to make a hard effort, but again, there are only two possible ways that we could be right with God. Either we believe it comes from ourselves because we are self-righteous, or we realize that it comes from God.
The message of the gospel is not arrogant. Yes it is exclusive, but that exclusivity includes the inclusivity of the cross—and the propitiation for all sins. You cannot come to Christ and be arrogant. Only the humble will be exalted.
I would invite you—if your gripe against God is that Christians are arrogant—I would invite you to remember that not everyone who claims to be something, is actually what they claim to be. The book of Galatians talks about a test to see if someone is genuine. It talks about the fruit of the spirit. It is a singular use of the word fruit, but it has a compound taste. Paul is essentially telling us, “bite me.” See if I taste like the gospel.
I would ask you, before you make your judgment about Christianity—have you really seen it? Has it been lived out in front of you? Has it really had a chance to show you what it is?
Have you seen the Pharisee or have you seen the heart of the tax collector?
I want to end with an article from a prominent atheist, Matthew Parris. Does his descrption of Christianity (a view he does not affirm as being true) seem to be of a worldview that is inherently arrogant, or full of grace?
Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it’s Malawi, and The Times Christmas Appeal includes a small British charity working there. Pump Aid helps rural communities to install a simple pump, letting people keep their village wells sealed and clean. I went to see this work.
“It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.
Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.
I used to avoid this truth by applauding – as you can – the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It’s a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.
But this doesn’t fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.
First, then, the observation. We had friends who were missionaries, and as a child I stayed often with them; I also stayed, alone with my little brother, in a traditional rural African village. In the city we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world – a directness in their dealings with others – that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.
At 24, travelling by land across the continent reinforced this impression. From Algiers to Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Central African Republic, then right through the Congo to Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya, four student friends and I drove our old Land Rover to Nairobi.
We slept under the stars, so it was important as we reached the more populated and lawless parts of the sub-Sahara that every day we find somewhere safe by nightfall. Often near a mission.
Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers – in some ways less so – but more open.
This time in Malawi it was the same. I met no missionaries. You do not encounter missionaries in the lobbies of expensive hotels discussing development strategy documents, as you do with the big NGOs. But instead I noticed that a handful of the most impressive African members of the Pump Aid team (largely from Zimbabwe) were, privately, strong Christians. Privately because the charity is entirely secular and I never heard any of its team so much as mention religion while working in the villages. But I picked up the Christian references in our conversations. One, I saw, was studying a devotional textbook in the car. One, on Sunday, went off to church at dawn for a two-hour service.
It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith. Their work was secular, but surely affected by what they were. What they were was, in turn, influenced by a conception of man’s place in the Universe that Christianity had taught.
There’s long been a fashion among Western academic sociologists for placing tribal value systems within a ring fence, beyond critiques founded in our own culture: theirs and therefore best for them; authentic and of intrinsically equal worth to ours.
I don’t follow this. I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the big man and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition.
Anxiety – fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things – strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won’t take the initiative, won’t take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.
How can I, as someone with a foot in both camps, explain? When the philosophical tourist moves from one world view to another he finds – at the very moment of passing into the new – that he loses the language to describe the landscape to the old. But let me try an example: the answer given by Sir Edmund Hillary to the question: Why climb the mountain? Because it’s there, he said.
To the rural African mind, this is an explanation of why one would not climb the mountain. It’s… well, there. Just there. Why interfere? Nothing to be done about it, or with it. Hillary’s further explanation – that nobody else had climbed it – would stand as a second reason for passivity.
Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I’ve just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.
Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted.
And I’m afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.”