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The Shallowness of Evangelicalism

It was just about two years ago that I came to a rather disappointing realization. After much reflection and soul-searching I came to realize that much of what I believed as a Christian was mere cliché. I wrote about this last year and said “I believe it is important that we investigate words we frequently use that may no longer evoke interest or any genuine meaning because they have been so overused. As the original meaning of the word “trite,” a synonym for “cliché” indicates, they have become frayed and worn out by constant use. A cliché is often used when a speaker (or writer) cannot think of an original way to express an idea. It may also be that there is no easy way to present the idea other than to use a cliché. The danger of never investigating such words and discerning their true meaning is that eventually they become little more than tradition. As Christians we are told not to use “vain repetitions” but perhaps that is what many of these phrases have become.”

I defined two terms: “cliché” and “trite.”

Cliché

  1. A trite or overused expression or idea: “Even while the phrase was degenerating to cliché in ordinary public use… scholars were giving it increasing attention” (Anthony Brandt).
  2. A person or character whose behavior is predictable or superficial: “There is a young explorer… who turns out not to be quite the cliché expected” (John Crowley).

Trite

  1. Lacking power to evoke interest through overuse or repetition; hackneyed (overfamiliar through overuse)
  2. Archaic. Frayed or worn out by use.

I’m sure you can see how these definitions apply to some of the words you use. You may really have no idea of the meaning behind some of the words you use – it could be that you learned them in a church context and may have been using them for years without really grasping what they mean. Or perhaps you have used the words so many times that you have lost sight of their meaning and significance, allowing them to become worn out.

I thought about some clichéd expressions I use or hear all the time and will list a few of them.

To do with prayer I thought of:

  • The word “amen.”
  • The phrase “Dear God.”
  • The word and concept of “forgiveness”.
  • The word and concept of “bless.”
  • The phrase “in Jesus’ name.”

In regards to the Christian Life I thought of:

  • The word and concept of “miracles.”
  • The word and concept of “sin.”
  • The word “worship.”
  • The word and concept of “the cross.”
  • The concept of “personal relationship.”
  • The word “gospel.”

I’m sure I could go on…and on…and on. The point is that I believe that we often live a type of clichéd Christianity. We use clichéd words to worship a clichéd God. When we allow ourselves to only experience God on the basis of cliché, we will become as tired of Him as we are tired of the words we use to describe Him. But when we take the time to examine the words we use to speak to God and to speak about God, I believe we will allow God to be more real to our minds and to our hearts.

Through some writing I did at that time I began to formulate an understanding of one of the apparent shortcomings of evangelicalism. What was a nagging suspicion was made startingly clear in the last year as we watched the tsunami devastate the East and in recent months, hurricanes devastate parts of America. And then this weekend John Piper quoted David Wells who said approximately the same thing: evangelicalism is simply inequipped to deal in a satisfactory way with the really difficult issues.

What follows are a few paragraphs of several pages of reflections I penned while flying home from the conference last weekend:

The shallowness of evangelicalism leaves it largely inequipped to deal with the difficult issues. If we are to be a people that brings hope to the hopeless, purpose to the purposeless and joy to those who know only sorrow, we must be prepared to give answers that are biblically-based and Scripturally-satisfying. To do this we must wrestle with the difficult doctrines of sin, love, sorrow and suffering. We must be prepared not only to give an answer for the hope that lives within us, but for the suffering that causes us to draw upon that hope and to take our refuge in Christ Jesus, the One whose death gives us hope for now and for eternity.

I am writing this while returning from a conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I gaze down at the ground some 29,000 feet below, looking at the thousands upon thousands of houses, knowing that each house represents one, two, three or more people, each of which could surely share stories of suffering. From birth to death we all suffer in terrible and savage ways. To be born is to suffer for both mother and child, and we soon come to understand that suffering is to respector of persons. Live long enough and you will surely know pain and sorrow. No one is immune. Neither is there any innoculation or protection that can ward off the effects of living in so sinful a world.

And what I have come to realize is that we have so little to offer to the family who home has been blown flat by the storm or to the man who has just watched his child succumb to an illness. We have so little true comfort to offer, for we ourselves have not wrestled with God about the truly difficult issues. When we see people approach their Ford of Jabbok, where like Jacob they will have to grapple with God Himself, we can give them little more than platitudes and cliché. We tell them that Jesus loves them and that He works all things for the good of those who love Him. But they want to know why. Why, God, do you allow me to suffer in this way? Why do you torment me? Why?

And we have no answer. We answer with cliché, but without true conviction.

This weekend helped me conclude, even more firmly, that we must wrestle with the difficult issues. We must be prepared to give an answer to death and pain and suffering. We must answer in such a way that we acknowledge God’s supremacy and sovereignty in all things and in a such a way that we do not let God off the hook, for as Mark Talbot taught on Saturday, God does not want to be let off the hook. In the first speech of the Desiring God Conference, John Piper expressed that the tragedy and suffering of 9/11 and Katrina has shown the church to be shallow and unable to deal with such serious evil. Evangelicalism is simply not very serious anymore. Against the weight and seriousness of the Bible, the church is choosing to become more shallow and light and therefore more unable to respond properly to pain and suffering. His desire for the conference was that God would show Christ’s supremacy even in suffering. My desire is that we, as Christians, can dig deeper into these issues to uncover God in the storm, God in the pain and God in the suffering.