Detecting and Derailing “The Advanced Theology Dodge”

Over the past several years, just like any other Christian believer, I have had to work out a lot of theological issues within my own heart and mind. Obviously, this is an ongoing process…no one ever “fully arrives” in their understanding of the Bible, Who Jesus is, and how all of it relates to the messy business of conducting our daily lives. We are always, always, always learning and growing in our faithfulness to and pursuit of Jesus and that is (of course) a very good thing (Philippians 3:12-13).

There is certainly an appropriate time for pursuing those pesky issues that come up for discussion over and over again as we wrestle back and forth with our personal theologies. Big-ticket inquiries such as, “Why does evil exist?” and, “How can I trust that the Bible really is the given-once-for-all Word of God?” are completely valid questions, and the faithful Christian will not sit idly by and allow these sorts of inquiries to go unanswered. Instead, the true believer will encounter difficult questions for what they truly are, namely an opportunity to grow in wisdom, truth and lifelong faithfulness (Proverbs 27:17).

That said, I’d like to suggest that there comes a time when engaging in deep theological questions can mask what is actually a desire to stay as far away from the Truth as possible. Many first-century Pharisees seemed to enjoy doing their level best to trip Jesus up during His earthly ministry (Luke 6:1-5; Luke 10:25-29), so whenever we find ourselves doing likewise, the best response might be to take several steps backward and remind ourselves that we are called to submit our lives to the Lordship of Christ before He has crossed every “T” and dotted every “I” to our intellectual satisfaction.

Not all that long ago, I was having lunch with a couple of guys who were seeking to root out and defeat an ongoing series of besetting sins, i.e. thoughts, words and actions that were clearly contrary to God’s revealed will in Scripture. As so often happens in these settings, the conversation slowly drifted into areas of biblical thought that are “less clear” than, say, the Ten Commandments. As it turned out, the besetting sin that provoked the conversation – indeed, served as the primary reason for our lunch together – got lost in the shuffle, and we found ourselves grasping for verses, confused by the proper application of the epistles of Paul and hopelessly out of our depth.

You can always tell when a conversation has drifted from the concrete to the theoretical as all parties involved start hedging on their truth statements with phrases such as, “Well, it seems to me…” and “I grew up in the church, and I always heard that…” and so forth. Doubtless, just about every Christian believer reading this has found themselves snared by some abstract theological principle or an inability to argue to the contrary from the “wealth” of Scripture stored up in memory. Over the years, I have found it invaluable to step back and re-ask the question, “Why did we agree to meet in this greasy diner to begin with? Oh, yeah…because (for example) ‘Bill’ can’t stop drinking…and has recently added adultery to his sin mash-up.”

Stated simply, it is much easier, emotionally, for “Bill” to argue ad nauseum about the doctrine of God’s sovereignty than it is to honestly discuss why he has lost his job, is hell-bent on destroying his liver and can’t seem to keep his pants on. Pointing to things about the Christian faith that we don’t understand also helps to distance us from the truths that we do grasp, those ugly realities of our own sinful behavior. As faithful believers seeking to come alongside “Bill” and help him through a seriously difficult season in his life, I want to say that it is fairly easy for us to get sucked into unhelpful, endless theologizing, too.

I get into a lot of conversations with guys who are seeking to change, wanting more than anything else for God to change their hearts and put them on a lifelong path toward faith, obedience and its attendant blessings. Many of these conversations get stuck in the mud over the issue of, “Why doesn’t God just reach down and zap me? Why doesn’t He change my heart instantly so that I no longer desire this thing that is destroying me?” It is at moments such as these that I love to point to Joshua 3, in which the priests of Israel are instructed by God to step into the waters of the Jordan River before He (God) dries them up such that they can walk through on dry ground. Sure, God could have dried up the Jordan ten days before the Israelites arrived at that point in their journey, but He chose instead to require obedience of the Israelites before He brought His miracle to the party.

Over and over again, I have suggested to various individuals that the path to a truly-changed heart begins with them taking action in a way that would demonstrate a true desire to repent, only to have that person offer up some elaborate argument as to why this doesn’t jive with some piece of an exquisitely-constructed personal theology. It never fails to impress me how someone who can’t seem to stop smoking crack or downloading porn will, in the light of day, set about to transform themselves into some sort of world-class theologian, a misunderstood professorial type who, by rights, ought to be sitting fireside with his pipe, wearing a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches. Worse, the inveterate drunk actually begins to believe this protective, nowhere-to-be-found-in-reality alter ego. If we love that person, we all need to call this sort of thing out for what it truly is, and redirect the conversation if possible.

As Christians, we are called to speak truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) and seek to demolish strongholds of the enemy (2 Corinthians 10:4). When it comes right down to it, though, the only weapon we truly have in this fight is Christ Himself, Who told us in very clear language that we can do nothing apart from Him (John 15:5) and that our very best day of faithful service is as “filthy rags” before Him (Isaiah 64:6). All of our efforts to get someone to truly “see” their spiritual condition will be for naught absent the cooperating presence of the Holy Spirit, so prayer and the Word need to accompany every encounter we have with another struggling human being. Needless to say, if we do not have any genuine love for the person we are talking to, they will certainly pick up on this, and our best efforts will be all the more seriously crippled.

As far as I can tell, one of the greatest benefits of “staying on task” and avoiding The Advanced Theology Dodge is that we get to the heart of the matter and stay there when helping someone unwind the mess going on inside their own hearts. An even-greater benefit, perhaps, is that by becoming skilled at sniffing out theological smoke screens in others, we can more easily recognize them in our own hearts, too. Debunking another person’s rationale for hiding behind a lot of “Christianese” should help us face the rather-unpleasant questions, “Lord, am I doing the exact same thing? If so, where and how?”

1 John 1:5-10 (ESV, emphasis added)
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

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