Knowing God, Chapter 21

The Dangerous Mirage

Is it possible that a ministry which unashamedly focuses on proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ could in actuality be a ministry of cruelty? In this chapter J. I. Packer says, “yes.” It occurs when the word of God, which is designed to heal souls, is misapplied with disastrous results. Packer compares this with the misapplication of medicines intended to heal bodily illnesses. They may be fine remedies, even guaranteeing full recovery from some disease, but if a topical ointment is ingested or a pill is simply rubbed against the skin, it will not accomplish its purpose and may in fact do great harm. The same is true with the gospel, and Packer explains two ways in which an evangelical ministry can actually be quite cruel.

First, he says it is cruel if it “buys results with false hopes.” By that he means that the blessed promises of the gospel are stressed in such a way “as to give the impression that normal Christian living is a perfect bed of roses, a state of affairs in which everything in the garden is lovely all the time, and problems no longer exist–or, if they come, they have only to be taken to the throne of grace, and they will melt away at once.” The reason that such a view is cruel is that it offers a false hope; it is a mirage. While it is true that God is often gentle with young Christians so that they are not overwhelmed with the full onslaught of spiritual warfare, it is also natural that as they grow stronger, “[the Lord] exercises them in a tougher school.” And with the greater testing comes the need for an even deeper dependence on the Lord and his grace. It is by this method of ever-increasing testing that the Lord strengthens his children and teaches us to walk by faith in his love. But when the Christian has been told that he ought to expect smooth-sailing with Christ as his pilot, he will assume that something has gone wrong when his insecurities and imperfections are exposed by these trials.

That is where the second element of cruelty comes into play. Packer says, “Having created bondage…[this ministry] now induces further bondage by the straitjacket of a remedy by which it proposes to dispel these experiences.” In other words, the cure becomes worse than the disease in that it perpetuates spiritual immaturity rather than encouraging believers to press on toward maturity in the faith. Consider it this way: the believer expects his Christian life to be easy, for that is what he has been taught. But instead he finds that his struggle with sin grows more difficult rather than easier as time goes by. He is told that this is the result of some abnormality in his faith, some lack of trust or obedience which is holding him back from enjoying the full blessing of God. Packer describes the outcome of this teaching as “[sentencing] devoted Christians to a treadmill life of hunting each day for nonexistent failures in consecration, in the belief that if they could only find some such failures to confess and forsake they could recover an experience of spiritual infancy which God means them now to leave behind.” The Lord does not want us to live a life of ease in spiritual infancy, but to go on to maturity through the trials that he intends to use to build character and strengthen our faith. This is the promise that God has given his children in Hebrews 12:3-11; he will discipline us in order to produce “the peaceable fruits of righteousness” in us.

What is the solution to this ministry of cruelty, then? It is to properly understand and apply the doctrine of grace, because God’s grace operates to bring sinners into ever-closer fellowship with the Lord, himself. A right view of grace will help us make sense of the trials and troubles of life and learn to trust in the Lord whose way is always perfect.

How does God in grace prosecute this purpose? Not by shielding us from assault by the world, the flesh, and the devil, nor by protecting us from burdensome and frustrating circumstances, nor yet by shielding us from troubles created by our own temperament and psychology; but rather by exposing us to all these things, so as to overwhelm us with a sense of our own inadequacy, and to drive us to cling to him more closely. This is the ultimate reason, from our standpoint, why God fills our lives with troubles and perplexities of one sort or another: it is to ensure that we shall learn to hold him fast.

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