The price for the exhilaration of anticipation is a high one. When we indulge our desires by creating a Jesus that promises to fulfill some or other expectation, we do so at the expense of our commitment to the real Jesus. We pay for banana fever with lettuce leaves.
The reason for the trade-off is simple: The rush that we experience has nothing to do with the divine nature of God, or the power of the Spirit, and everything with the strong emotions that accompany expectations. As such it is not a valid portrayal of the life-giving capacity of the object or ideal that we are focused on, but an entirely subjective emotion forged by our belief that it will impart life.
The Anatomy of False Faith
This explains why the enchantment of anticipation offers such a viable alternative to real faith. Anticipation is, in fact, a form of faith, and here lies the subtlety. It sounds like faith, it looks like faith and it feels like faith. To make matters worse, it is globally proclaimed as faith.
But of course it is not faith, at least not as the Bible defines it. This should be obvious from the very emotions that we are discussing. True faith does not produce sensual feelings, for its object cannot be detected by the senses. As such it is wholly indifferent to that which appeals to the senses. It is moved by reliance on God alone, regardless of any experience (or lack of it). In fact, the Greek word for faith, pistis, can be better translated as “trust,” i.e. a strong reliance on the person and character of God, rather than mere “belief” which carries the connotation of simply believing in the existence of God.
Faith means I believe without having to see, smell or taste. It means I trust before I partake. The character of God is primary, the experience secondary. It is only the believing who get to be nourished in the end. The rest are disqualified.
And so, for faith to remain faith, its experience must of necessity be wholly different to the experience afforded by images that stir up the sensuality of desire and anticipation. Faith is the only antidote for the human irresistibility to desire, for it is in fact unfallen desire – desire pure and uncontaminated. Faith is desire under the governance of trust. It endears the believer to the Giver, not to his gifts. Faith is desire as love, not as lust.
False faith is something entirely different. It tells us that the lettuce will turn into bananas if we believe hard enough. It is an extension of our own delusions, not the antidote. It feeds on and furthers the greed that got us into our predicament in the first place, rather than challenges it. It reduces God to the status of a cosmic genie whose powers can be harnessed if we follow the correct formula.
To use Bonhoeffer’s term, false faith is a “wish dream.”
With the above in mind, it becomes clear why the banana trick is counterproductive. When we use the charm of sensual excitement as a means to motivate people for God, we are in fact messing with their perceptions. Faith is then no longer seeing the unseen, in the sense of that which is invisible to the naked eye, but seeing the unobtained, namely that which is visible in other people’s lives but invisible in mine.
This explains the trade-off. When we sensitise people to that which is visible and tangible, we desensitise them to that which is spiritual. When we teach them to live by banana excitement, we rob them of their capacity to live by lettuce. Sensual desire and faith are like God and Mammon. You cannot have both. They are mutually exclusive.
Mediation, all over again…
When we try and engineer the excitement of religious commitment, we are in fact suggesting that there is some experience that eludes our hearers. The only way we can make people lust after life is to question the validity of the life presently available to them.
The irony is that once we stir up desire and anticipation, we effectively create a gap between life and its partakers, for how can we desire and anticipate something unless it is first established that we do not have it? By promising that God is going to show up, we suggest that he is not present at the moment, and so we undermine the very essence of what the New Covenant is all about.
Our obsession with experience is nothing but a new type of mediation, and we are every bit as enslaved to it as our forebears were with priests murmuring in Latin. The packaging has changed, but it is the same old content. It is still guruism, albeit in a postmodern form. And here lies the difference: The new gurus are the guys who can best stir up expectation.
A simple visit to the Bestsellers section of your local Christian bookstore should reveal this quite clearly. Note how many of those books follow the famous formula of the television commercial:
- This is where you are.
- This is where you want to be.
- This is how you can get there.
The relief and bliss that one experience when reading these types of books have little to do with God, his power or his peace, and much with the absence of unwanted emotions – emotions that are temporarily suppressed by the intrusion of expectation.
Like a big drug company, our business has become the tranquilisation of the masses. The problem is that we have created a generation of addicts – people who no longer know how to use their primary resources to cope with the disillusionments that are so much part of this world. Our faith is no longer resource based, it has become vision based. And here I am not talking about the resurrection and the new earth.
The way in which this has come about is all too clear. The quickest and most efficient way to deal with a grumpy monkey is to repeat the banana trick – to use a new round of anticipation as therapy for the disillusioned and disenchanted, or, if we are really clever, for the potentially disillusioned, that is, to repeat the trick before reality hits home. We tell them that 2018 is the year of breakthrough before they have had a chance to wonder why the breakthrough eluded them in 2017.
The point is that the wish dream has penetrated our churches at an alarming rate, and that the masses have become enslaved to a type of enchantment that is entirely reliant on expectation. This year is the year of breakthrough. The revival is around the corner. God is doing a new thing. We are about to enter the realm of the miraculous.
On and on it goes. Where it will stop, nobody knows…
The Cost of it All
Again, all of this comes with a price. As Proverbs grimly reminds us, hope deferred makes the heart grow sick. There are limits to our capacity for anticipatory excitement. Sooner or later we realize that we are on a fast train heading nowhere, and that swopping stations makes no difference. Inevitably, the day will arrive when we will have not only lost our taste for lettuce, but also our capacity to dream about bananas.
It has been my experience, both as a professional pastor for many years and in my present post-institutional Christian life, that hearts sickened by deferred hope is the new epidemic that is sweeping the ecclesiastical landscape like the Bubonic plague. Its victims are countless, and their final words before breathing their last always follow this line in some or other way: Why didn’t it work out like I was promised?
We are, it seems, picking up the tab for the hysteria that we have been inducing with our vain promises over the past few decades.
Some of us have been wondering about the new type of Christianity for a long time, and have finally reached a point where we make every effort to stay out of its way. It has, in fact, become entirely impossible for us to derive any comfort whatsoever from any form of Christian prediction, except that God knows what we need and that he will provide it as and when he wishes to (terms and conditions apply), that the believing dead will be raised incorruptibly and that this beautiful earth will be restored in all of its splendor.
So did Jesus ever say anything about all of this stuff? In Part 3 we will address this question.