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Q&A with Michael Horton on Recovering Our Sanity

This Q&A with Michael Horton comes from Zondervan Reflective. Learn more about Horton’s new book at RecoveringOurSanity.com.

What prompted you to write Recovering Our Sanity?

Michael Horton: The replication of America’s “civil war” in the body of Christ. It’s one thing to be hated by the world because of the gospel; it’s another thing for Christians to hate each other because of politics. But then it seemed like, with the last couple of years, a lot of other fears presented themselves in bolder relief. It’s deeper than whether you wear a face mask.

What’s the #1 moral and spiritual problem in America today? Take a minute and think about it.

If you’re like me, the top 10 get filled in pretty quickly—the sins of “the others” (or my own that I keep secret). Now, what’s the #1 sin in the whole of biblical history? “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Gen 20:11; Dt. 25:18; Ps 36:1; Rom 3:17, etc.). We try to domesticate it: “Fear doesn’t really mean fear; it means respect.” Well, it includes respect, but it’s being super scared—phobos in Greek, as in “phobia.” Why do we think that people shouldn’t be afraid of God? That’s where our problems begin.

So, inspired by Daniel 4, I began to think of how we’re all little Nebuchadnezzars prancing on the roof of our personal palace boasting in our heart, “Is this not the great Babylon I have built by my power and for my glory?” Humbled—actually, humiliated—by God, the king realized the hard way that God is sovereign not just in general but in particular, over him. “I raised my eyes to heaven,” he said, “and my sanity was restored.”

If I never leave my house because I’m jumpy about panthers lying in wait, that’s a little crazy. But it’s no saner to pretend a panther doesn’t exist if I meet one in the wild. It’s just the opposite for us right now. We’re terrified of losing power, security, elections, prosperity, health, a job, and so forth, while the fear of God is often the last thing we take seriously. I’m not just talking about “Others” but “Us.”

So what is the sanity that you would like to see us recover?

Horton: Sanity is just living with the grain of reality. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Prov 9:10). It’s the fear of the Lord that drives us to God’s mercy in Christ. “But with you, there is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (Ps 130:4). What a paradox, right? There’s a terrifying, unsettling fear of God that’s just sane. Then there’s a new kind of fear—with the anxiety removed—that results from the gospel. It’s sane too, but a total surprise. Two different sorts of fear: one from Mount Sinai, the other from Mount Calvary. And we need both.

How has “cancel culture” exacerbated our fears? Should Christians be concerned with being on the “right side of history?”

Horton: I’m a 56-year-old guy raising teens. I have fears, believe me. In no other period have social convictions about right and wrong changed dramatically in such a short period of time. But that includes insulting people’s dignity by “canceling” them. That used to not be ok. But now many Christians think it’s fine because we’re good and they’re bad—really bad.

When we get to the place of canceling, we’ve closed our hearts and turned off our minds. Now it’s just emotional blackmail, manipulation to get what we want. We sort of started this with boycotting Disney and then others back in the 1980s.

Peter tells us, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord.” That’s well-placed fear. Next sentence: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” It’s been said that a quarrel kills a good argument. If I can’t listen and formulate a good argument, I’ll just toss verbal grenades and slogans at people. “Well, you’re just a homophobe” or “You’re a Social Justice Warrior.” We throw out epithets like “Critical Race Theory” (or just “CRT”) or “Christian Nationalist” as if the person we’re talking to can be dismissed with a label. And there’s one more sentence in 1 Peter 3:15: “But do this with gentleness and respect.” I can do that when I fear God instead of my neighbor.

The Bible gives us a story in which the stories of the daily news can be interpreted properly. Instead, we often interpret the Bible in light of the daily news. The church reflects the same worldly divisions. There are “FOX” churches and “CNN” churches. We’re certainly not getting the fear of God from those outlets. They’re just stoking our other fears—and making a lot of money in the process.

Jesus is the “right side of history.” He went to the cross but was raised on the third day and is glorified at the right hand of the Father, interceding for sinners, until he returns to establish final justice, righteousness, peace, and life. We’re called to care about the common good of our neighbors in this life—indeed, more than expecting the world to treat us well. But we’re longing ultimately for their salvation and incorporation into Christ’s body. When we see our neighbors through his eyes, through the lens of his love and mercy, we begin to honor them as created in his image and in need of Christ just like us. We don’t cancel fellow image-bearers of God.

What the world needs to see are not fearful, angry, and proud Christians making the same stand that Republicans and Democrats make. The world doesn’t need the church to make a statement by wearing or not wearing masks. The world needs to hear good news, good arguments, and see Christians on their knees with the tax collector instead of in the peanut gallery with the Pharisee, confessing their sins and being forgiven. Because let’s face it, Christians have done some pretty bad stuff in Jesus’ name. “You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law,” Paul indicts. “For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (Rom 2:23-24).

Precisely because we live in Jesus’ story, we take justice and righteousness seriously but know that it won’t ever be established perfectly and finally until Jesus does it in person. Not just “Others” but “We” will be praying, “Have mercy on me, a sinner,” until Jesus returns.

You say that “death is the ultimate source of our anxieties and that fear of it can make us do some crazy things.” Can you tell us more about this?

Horton: As Christians, we say we believe in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” But often we live as if death and its symptoms—loneliness, job loss, moral decay and injustice, climate change, health, and politics—are in charge. That’s what I mean by “we worship what we fear.” If I’m most afraid of losing my job, then I’m finding my security in someone or something other than Christ. If I’m afraid of not being happy, I’ll make my wife and kids bear the burden of ultimate satisfaction—and maybe ditch them or ignore them when they don’t. If I’m afraid of all the social, political, economic, and moral changes, I’ll blame “Them”—whoever they are—for my unhappiness.

But when we raise our eyes to heaven like Nebuchadnezzar, our sanity is restored. That’s just living with the grain of reality. When we imagine we’re in charge, that we can transform ourselves or our world, or that the government or entertainment or a political figure can do this for us, it’s literally insane. It’s living against the grain of reality.

Reality is defined by the Triune God—the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit. First, God created us. We belong to him. He’s not there for our happiness. We exist for his glory and we’re made to enjoy him. When we enjoy someone or something else in that way, we make them our “creator.” Second, we belong to him by right of redemption. He chose us, redeemed us, regenerated, adopted, and justified us; incorporated us into Christ’s body. Praise the Lord that he has the whole world—and us—in his hands and he knows where history is going and in fact is already up ahead of us, leading us there by his word and Spirit.

Why is regular involvement in a local church essential?

Horton: Actual institutions mediating between the state and the individual are disintegrating. This is where the kingdom of Christ really stands out—or should, at least. When Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it,” he wasn’t talking about a Platonic idea. He meant concrete, local, embodied branches of himself as the Vine.

In a world of soundbites and surrogates, we go to church to actually encounter the God who made and redeemed us. We’re not just hearing the story again but being re-casted by the Holy Spirit from the dead-end stories of this fading age into the greatest story ever told: reality. Here, God makes a real promise with real words from the lips of another sinner, uses real water to seal that promise, and keeps pledging with real wine and bread. It’s where we hear, sing, and pray God’s word together, confess our sins together and confess our common faith in the Triune God, hear God’s absolution. We become what the word says. CNN and FOX won’t be covering that, but it’s the “breaking news.” And we’re no longer afraid.

How does Christian nationalism violate the doctrine of “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church?”

Horton: There is one Christian nation made up of “people from every tribe and people and nation and tongue” (Rev 5:9). Christ is the head with many members, the Vine with many branches. And a lot of those members or branches are people we see as “Them,” not “Us.” The world can’t unite people of different ethnic, socio-economic, and political backgrounds. In fact, big government, big entertainment media, and big business thrive on our divisions. But Christ promises to incorporate our divided social communities and our own divided selves into himself as the head.

America has had a lot of Christian influence, a lot of it for the common good. But white Christians have done terrible things in the name of Christ throughout our history. We’ve used Jesus and the Bible for our sinful agendas. We have to own up to that. “Christian America” means something different to an African-American brother or sister than it does to a white Christian school teacher.

America doesn’t pick up the story where Israel left off. Often, the Black church has also appealed to these narratives as if they applied to the America envisioned by Dr. King rather than by white nationalists. Jesus is the fulfillment of that story, not America. He is the true Israel. The United States is not God’s chosen people.

Once we accept that, we can truly secularize the narrative—not in the sense that God hasn’t blessed America providentially with a lot of blessings, but in the sense that the sacred isn’t allowed to migrate from Christ’s kingdom to the kingdoms of this age. To identify Christ’s kingdom with any kingdom of this age is to reject “one holy, catholic [worldwide] and apostolic church.”

All of this to say that all empires of this age are corrupt and destined to crumble. The founding fathers gave us a great Constitution—in my view, the best in history, but it’s not inspired and inerrant and it is the New Testament that provides the constitution for the new covenant people of God. All the other kingdoms will be shaken, leaving at the end only one left standing (Heb 12:28).

What is your hope for the readers of this book?

Horton: If we recover a fear of God, we’ll recover sanity. I’m not writing for the general public. The main reader I have in mind is someone like me who believes that Jesus is the only way, the Bible is the only reliable revelation of God’s saving purposes, and yet feels anxious about life right now. It’s not a jeremiad. I’m not indicting. Rather, my hope is that we can all return to “the solid joys and lasting treasures that none but Zion’s children know.” And that starts with the fear of God that is the beginning of sanity.

Learn more at RecoveringOurSanity.com.


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