Fanaticism, Religion, and the Gospel

“In traditional cultures you get your identity from your family.  And so when Jesus says, ‘I want priority over your family,’ that’s drastic.  In our individualistic culture, on the other hand, saying good-bye to our parents isn’t a big deal, but for Jesus to say, ‘I want priority over your career’ – that’s drastic.  Jesus is saying, ‘Knowing me, loving me, resembling me, serving me must become the supreme passion of your life.  Everything else comes second.'”
-Timothy Keller (King’s Cross, p. 18 about Mark 1:16-20)

Following Jesus, if done in the level prescribed by Jesus, is not a casual affair.  It is not something to be done in our spare time or regulated to an hour one or two days a week.  It is no easier in a community-based society than in a society based on individualism.  The gospel of Jesus pierces to the depths of a person’s soul and refuses to be boxed on by a particular cultural expression.  Ironically, following Jesus wholeheartedly enables us to live Him out in whatever cultural context we happen to inhabit.  When we free ourselves from holding onto our cultural box we end up being set free to truly express Him in our world.

Yet, this thought of putting Jesus as primary is scary and can sound a bit fanatic.  Timothy Keller puts it this way:

In many of our minds, such words cast the shadow of fanaticism.  People in our culture are afraid of fanaticism – and for good reason, really.  In this world considerable violence is being carried out by highly religious people.  Even setting aside such extremism, almost everybody knows someone, personally or by reputation, who is very religious and who is also condemning, self-righteous, or even abusive.  Most people today see religion as a spectrum of belief.  On one end are people who say they’re religious but don’t really believe or live the tenets of their religion.  On the other end you’ve got the fanatics, people who are too religious, who over-live their faith.  What’s the solution to fanaticism?  Many would say, “Well, why can’t we be in the middle?  Moderation in all things.  Not too zealous and not too uncommitted.  Being right int he middle would be just right” (pp. 18-19).

Moderation.  Sounds good, but often those in the moderation camp tend to be bigger problems to a church or Christians at large than those who over-live their faith or don’t live their faith at all.  It may sound illogical, but let us consider those who tend towards “over-living their faith”.  Yes, they do cause problems in the church and give those outside of the church bad impressions of Christians.  Yet, it doesn’t take an IQ of 165 to realize that they are not living Jesus and anyone with a semblance of being fair to a worldview would acknowledge that they don’t accurately  portray the faith.  Plus, those who are too extreme tend to not stick around that long before utterly offending everyone because and nobody likes being barraged with Bible verses as though they are tomahawk missiles.  Sometimes, the over-living is simply a person who has been dormant in their faith and have recently “come alive” and are overly zealous, forgetting that just a month ago they were just like the people they are now lambasting.  Given time, this type of person tend to calm down, and if not, they tend to isolate themselves and end up embittered because they are alone and don’t understand why people dislike their attacks.

On the other extreme, those who don’t really believe the tenets of their faith rarely express their beliefs and as a result do minimal damage to the reputation of Christ.  If they do call themselves Christians, those around them tend to give a raised eyebrow and ask, “really?”  And if they do show up to church it tends to be a matter of celebration that they are showing an interest in God.

Those who stand for moderation tend to be relatively faithful in their attendance at Christian gatherings (as long as it doesn’t conflict with a cousin’s birthday or other “major life events”), profess their faith, but are non-committal in serving.  They are those who will come to major church events and support the church as long as it is convenient.  Yet, they tend to be the loudest complainers if the church tries to implement a change, talks about tithing, or exercises discipline.  The “moderates” can also be those who talk about Jesus and spiritual things, but the impact does not appear in their daily lives regarding they use of their time, money, language, on the job behavior, and eating habits.  They talk big but the  gospel doesn’t seem to be able to penetrate too deeply into the heart.  The moderates tend to be those that fair-minded non-Christians point to and say, “If Jesus is so great, why are they no different in their daily life than most non-Christians I know?”

So, is the solution truly “moderation”?  Is that what Jesus talked about?

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).  Sound moderate?  Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me.”  He doesn’t say to the crowd, “Look, most of you can be moderate, but I do need a few good men and women who really want to go all the way with this discipleship.” He says, “anyone.”  There’s no double standard.  “If anyone wants to have anything to do with me, you have to hate your father and mother, wife and children, brother and sister, and even your own life, or you cannot be my disciples.” That’s what it means to follow Jesus…

Jesus is not calling us to hate actively; he’s calling us to hate comparatively.  He says, “I want you to follow me so fully, so intensely, so enduringly that all other attachments in your life look like hate by comparison.”  If you say, “I’ll obey you, Jesus, if my career thrives, if my health is good, if my family is together,” then the thing that’s on the other side of that if is your real master, your real goal.  But Jesus will not be a means to an end; he will not be used.  If he calls you to follow him, he must be the goal (p. 19).

So, is following Jesus really a call to fanaticism?  Jesus certainly is not calling us to moderation or to being cultural Christians.  But is he truly calling us to fanaticism?  Here is Keller’s response:

Does that sound like fanaticism?  Not if you understand the difference between religion and the gospel.  Remember what religion is: advice on how you must live to earn your way to God.  Your job is to follow that advice to the best of your ability.  If you follow it but don’t get carried away, then you have moderation.  But if you feel like you’re following it faithfully and completely, you’ll believe you have a connection with God because of your right living and right belief, and you’ll feel superior to people who have wrong living and wrong belief.  That’s a slippery slope: If you feel superior to them, you stay away from them.  That makes it easier to exclude them, then to hate them, and ultimately to oppress them.  And there are some Christians like that – not because they’ve gone too far and been too committed to Jesus, but because they haven’t gone far enough [emphasis mine].  They aren’t as fanatically humble and sensitive, or as fanatically understanding and generous as Jesus was.  Why not? They’re still treating Christianity as advice instead of good news.

The gospel isn’t advice: It’s the good news that you don’t need to earn your way to God; Jesus has already done if for you.  And it’s a gift that you receive by sheer grace – through God’s thoroughly unmerited favor.  If you seize that gift and keep holding on to it, then Jesus’s call won’t draw you into fanaticism or moderation.  You will be passionate to make Jesus your absolute goal and priority, to orbit around him; yet when you meet somebody with a different set of priorities, a different faith, you won’t assume that they’re inferior to you.  You’ll actually seek to serve them rather than oppress them.  Why?  Because the gospel is not about choosing to follow advice, it’s about being called to follow a King.  Not just someone with the power and authority to tell you what needs to be done – but someone with the power and authority to do what needs to be done, and then to offer it to you as good news (pp. 19-20).


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