According to the authors of the book “America’s Four Gods”, Americans differ widely from one another on two key areas of belief about God: (1) the level of God’s engagement in our world, and (2) the extent of God’s judgment of evildoers.
In other words, is God actively and meticulously engaged in what happens in your life and in your world? Or is he distant, remote, uncaring? And secondly, does God judge wrongdoers in this life? Does God express wrath toward people and nations in this age? Or is God only kind, forgiving and helpful to people in need?
Based on those two differences, the authors say that Americans divide into four major understandings of God.
First is the Authoritative God. He is very involved in the world to help people and does judge evildoers in this life. Even so, he is loving, and is seen as a Father figure. The author’s research shows that 31 percent of Americans have this understanding of God.
Second is the Benevolent God. He is very involved in this world helping people but does not feel anger toward evildoers and does not judge anyone. Twenty-four percent of Americans have this understanding of God.
Third is the Critical God. He does not involve himself in the affairs of this world or its people, but he does take careful note of how people live and will judge them in the afterlife, holding them to account for evils done. Sixteen percent of Americans have this understanding of God.
Fourth is the Distant God. He is more a cosmic force or Higher Power than a person. This God created everything but is no longer engaged with the world and does not judge its inhabitants. Twenty-four percent of Americans have this understanding of God.
Five percent of Americans are atheists.
Concerning agnostics, the authors write: “We find that when pressed, individuals who first describe themselves as ‘agnostic’ are actually believers in a Distant God. For the most part, agnosticism is a reaction to conventional images of God that strike the believer as mistaken.”
After describing these four beliefs about God, the authors explore at length how our beliefs about God affect our beliefs and values about morality, society, science, money and possessions, evil, warfare and the culture wars.
As I read these impressions, I was struck by the awesome nature of a God who loves me – ME – enough to send His own Son to die as payment for my sin. He is a God who cares for me enough to send His Spirit to live within me, empowering me to live and to make a difference where I live. It really does not matter to me what label you stick on God. But one of the questions that I cannot seem to get out of my mind is why more people who claim to follow Christ are not making more of a difference in their circles of influence. Christ, and their relationship with Him, does not really seem to matter to them. I am convinced the reason for this is because most professed followers of Christ seek to live a “non-toxic” brand of Christianity. That is, their “Christian” lifestyle tends to be easy, upbeat, convenient and compatible. Their lives exhibit little, if any, self-sacrifice, discipline, humility, an otherworldly outlook, a zeal for souls, or a fear, as well as, love for God. There is little guilt and no punishment, and the payoff in heaven is virtually certain.
May I suggest that there are perhaps five root causes for this “non-toxic” brand of Christianity?
1. Religious Individualism – We have come to believe that religious authority lies in us rather than in the Bible or in church leadership. Thus, we have become our own final court of appeal as to what is right or wrong: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” (Judges 17:6)
2. Shallow Superficiality – Most of us have only a scant acquaintance with Biblical truth, because our exposure to, and understanding of, the Scriptures lacks discipline, focus and scholarship. If the Word of God is not spoon-fed to us in “touchy-feelie” bite-size portions, we soon loose interest. “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear… ” (2 Timothy 4:3, 4a)
3. Religious Consumerism – Exercising our “divine right” as religious consumers, we buy as much Christianity as we seem to want. The cost is low and customer satisfaction seems guaranteed. If our present religious “provider” fails to cater to our whimsical fancy, we flutter across town to one that will.
4. Cultural Christianity – Our values, norms and modes of interpreting reality have been entirely emancipated from any dependence upon God. Overwhelmed as we are by the pervading culture, we have accommodated our beliefs to fit in with its norms and values to the point that our Christian witness has lost its authenticity. Thus, the persecution mentioned in 1 Timothy 3:12 is alien to our experience: “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
5. Frenzied Materialism – While we slave away at obtaining the “finer” things in life, we openly profess a strong distaste for materialism. Yet we have become amazingly adept at learning how to deliberate an uneasy union between the spiritual and material.
The questions for today are what is your view of God, and how does that affect the way you live for Christ? Are you a non-toxic Christian? If so, what should you be doing about it?
Chuck Tabor is a religion columnist for The Times-Gazette and a former Hillsboro area pastor who now resides in Florida. He may be reached at email@example.com.