My wife and I are co-blogging our way through Trevin Wax's Counterfeit Gospels. See the Related Articles links at the bottom for the rest of the articles in the series.
Chapter 2 begins an examination of some of the gospels that are counterfeits of the real thing. Grouped together under the title "The Therapeutic Gospel" these variants emphasize different aspects but focus on our human need for happiness in a way that is at odds with the Biblical message about who we are.
Happy Meal Gospel
First up is the Happy Meal gospel. Wax talks about his son as toddler wanting to go to McDonalds but I think its really just the marketing chutzpah of the name of the menu item that makes him use it. I confess I hadn't ever really thought about it - a meal that promises Happiness!
The Happy Meal gospel occurs when we make felt human happiness our ultimate value and goal. Wax sees as typical of this gospel a scene in the evangelical-friendly movie A Walk to Remember where the heroine, arguing with her pastor-father trumps his arguments from scripture with "I think God wants me to be happy."
Fill 'er up Gospel
The Fill 'er up gospel is another variant of the therapeutic gospel that uses more explicitly therapeutic language. Here happiness is still the goal but the means is increased self-esteem. For the fill-er-up Gospel humans just need to abandon their poor self image and recognize their true worth in order to be happy - like a car low on gas a simple addition of the fuel of self-esteem promises to restore functioning.
Pastors in this version of the Gospel are there to encourage and motivate. Wax identifies typical motifs like "the real problem is deep down we feel we're not good enough to approach a holy God" or more straightforwardly motivational messages like "there is a hero within you waiting to be awakened" as markers of the Fill 'er up gospel message. It's all about YOU! And with a little help YOU can be who YOU were meant to be!
Paid Programming Gospel
The Paid Programming Gospel is the result of using salesmanship to pitch the gospel based on the benefits it brings. "Come to Jesus and your life will get better". This is true - but it depends on how "better" is defined and too often "better" is defined as happier, more prosperous and the Christian life is sold on the basis of the blessings it will surely bring to your life.
God as Vending Machine
Finally and most vulgarly is the God as Vending Machine approach. The various flavors of the prosperity gospel fit here - God, it teaches, is obligated to bless you and give you whatever you desire. You pay the fee of faith or obedience and God will give you your selection from His array of goodies.
Wax rightfully points out that there are more subtle versions of this heresy - most people can spot the flaws in Kenneth Copeland's theology of blessings but what about promising that God always honors our obedience with blessing? Some Churches offer money-back guarantees for their giving - tithe, they argue, and God will surely bless your finances. More subtly - how many times have you heard the plea to serve God by going on a mission trip, adopting an orphan, giving to support charitable work with the promise that God responds to our obedience with blessings?
Why they are tempting
The middle section of the chapter was on spotting the counterfeits, identifying the things they get right but also the results they produce in the lives of believers. Finally Wax talks about combating these counterfeit Gospels in our own lives.
Part of why they are appealing or not even always obviously wrong is that the counterfeits contain truths - maybe even truths we sometimes do not emphasize enough! Humans certainly have worth - but we have worth because God loves us, God does not love us because of our intrinsic worth. God is indeed faithful to keep his promises and He does bless His children and many blessings are promised to those who are faithful.
Those promises and blessings are not contracts, however, they are indicative of the nature of God and they are accompanied by stories and admonitions to trust in God who acts in ways we cannot understand. God relates to us as his children - always acting for our good but not always in ways that are comprehensible to us.
If we see God as a vending machine we will end up in a crisis of faith when tragedy or suffering befalls us. Haven't we been faithful enough? Surely God isn't breaking His word?
Therapeutic language minimizes sin - and leaves us outside of Scriptural language and provision of grace and repentance.
If the blessings become the point we miss the point and can't see Jesus because we're so busy focusing on our family, our business, our prosperity.
To combat these tendencies Wax proposes that we make sure we are focused on God. You are not the center of the Story - the Story is about Jesus. Your desires and hopes and dreams are not insignificant to God - but the aren't the point and may not be the best for you anyways! We most not focus on ourselves but instead should focus on God.
When we do this we can find our joy in God and our worth and identity in the Gospel. Are you looking for the blessings? Are you in it for the rewards? If we can find satisfaction in God alone, if we can place our sense of worth in our identity in Christ, we are nearer to comprehending the Gospel and less likely to fall prey to the counterfeits around us.
I have to admit I don't have a lot of first hand experience with the Counterfeits Trevin Wax identifies. Consequently none of the portraits he paints really feels that familiar to me. That isn't to say that they don't exist - I have bumped into the "name-it-and-claim-it" variety of Christianity that reduces God to the great vending machine in the sky - but in general my own Christian experience has been mostly free of these counterfeits.
I suspect that the "Happy Meal" gospel is the most subtle counterfeit so far because its premise is often unstated. Baldly stating "the Good News is that God wants you to be happy" is clearly ridiculous. But much of evangelical teaching and preaching does seem to be oriented around becoming satisfied, fulfilled, contented, enriched, etc etc. All synonyms in some way for happiness - and an imbalance that can lead to a Happy Meal expectation from the Gospel without ever coming right out and stating it.
I also appreciated the discussion of the Fill-er-up gospel. The focus on "positivity" in Evangelical circles has long irritated me - although it may just be revealing of my personality that the local Christian radio station's motto "Positive and Encouraging" has always irritated me and any hint of "Motivational Speaker" style communication from the pulpit makes me cringe.
I've also really noticed the trend of therapeutic language replacing the language of Scripture in some circles lately. The "Celebrate Recovery" movement seems to do this to some degree and it produces Christians who prefer therapeutic concepts and attitudes to Scriptural ones - the language of "sin" is harsh and condemning while "addiction" is an extrinsic human flaw we're not personally culpable for. "Confession" becomes therapeutic confession where everyone "shares" and is "honest" with one another - but no one would dare to challenge anyone else because that would create an unsafe atmosphere. And so forth - until the language that Scripture itself uses becomes unfamiliar and harsh to our therapeutically conditioned ears. This is tragic.
This is not to say there is no place for therapy or therapeutic language - it is just that for Christians it should not take the place of the Church and therapeutic language should not drive out the language Scripture uses.
Most convicting to me personally was the section on combating these counterfeits. Do I take Joy in the presence of God? Do I find my fulfillment and identity in Him? This sounded to me like John Piper's Christian Hedonism - "The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever." This is a notion I agree with, but struggle to practice. If our Gospel does not lead us into companionship with God, however, if it it does not call us enjoy and glorify Him than we certainly gone wrong somewhere.
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