The Skinny God

by David Wells

Many years ago, J. B. Phillips wrote a book called Your God is Too Small. It was quite popular at the time, in 1952, although it now seems rather quaint. The juvenile understanding of God Phillips was attacking then is, by contemporary standards, rather innocent. This, however, is a book which I believe should be written afresh every decade. For is it not the case that our internal bias (cf. Rom. 1:21-5) constantly tilts us away from God’s centrality and toward our own? And does this not lead us to focus more on ourselves and less on him? Even worse, don’t we then substitute our importance for his greatness?

This inward bias is now being mightily encouraged by our experience of the modern world, the upshot of which is our fascination with our self. Those who are well fed seldom think about food but for the hungry this becomes a consuming preoccupation. And for modern people, the self has likewise become an obsession. We are the starved. How else can we explain the fact that America has half the world’s clinical psychologists and one third of the world’s psychiatrists? Over approximately the last thirty years, the number of clinical psychologists has increased 350%, clinical social workers 320%, and family counselors 680%, so that today we have two psychotherapists for every dentist and there are more counselors than librarians. The plagues of the modern self are providing sustenance for an extraordinary number of professionals, as well as driving a burgeoning publishing industry.

At the root of these statistics are two related developments. On the one hand, it is undeniable that life in our contemporary world is extraordinarily difficult, that the toll it extracts is high, and that the wounds it inflicts are deep. We, today, live with more stress, with higher levels of anxiety, than any prior generation. We have more people passing through our lives on a daily basis than ever before because of telephone, fax, e-mail, and even television and yet we are often lonely because so few ever matter to us personally. We often are not rooted in any place but wander around our society like perpetual migrants and we may not even have families to which we are connected in any meaningful way. The constant change, the terrible speed of it, the escalating number of choices we have to make, all extract their cost. And we must also live in a society that is fragmenting in fundamental ways. Between 1960 and 1993, violent crime increased 560%, single parent households 300%, births to unmarried mothers 400%, and teen suicide 200%. So, it is no wonder that we feel alarmed and insecure and that we also become preoccupied with the wounds and pains within.

On the other hand, many (even in the Christian world) have drunk deeply at the trough of popularized psychology and appear to accept its two basic assumptions. First, we believe that we can find release from these pains through the right technique. If we are anxious, guilty, insecure, lost, unmotivated, unappreciated, ineffective, or friendless, we need worry no more about it. There is an answer, though we will have to pay to get it. Second, we have come to believe that our top priority should be that we seek our own authenticity before all else and that others, such as spouses or friends, may have to be treated as a threat to our own growth. Hence, where these assumptions have intruded upon the Church, our spirituality has become extremely privatized, highly individualistic, inimical to commitments, and quite ethically indifferent. Because this is so, we lose our appetite for God, our taste for his Word, and our sense of dependence on Christ. Our God, too, has become too small and is now often lost amidst our inner preoccupations.

There are, of course, those who genuinely need professional psychological care but the overwhelming proportion of those who have cast their faith in psychological terms do not. Their appetite for the therapeutic has come about for other reasons. In part, it reflects their own inner emptiness and the pain which this creates; in part, it rests on our growing cultural sufficiency, that what God’s grace, power, and regeneration once did, we can now do for ourselves; in part, it reflects a greatly diminished sense of sin and our refusal, quite often, to bear the pain of any self-reproach at all; and in part, it seems to reflect our lost ability to see any purpose in life outside of the self, an inability that both fuels our self-indulgence and stokes our need for more distraction.

What seems so obvious to anxious, pained, bewildered moderns is what is so wrong. We are having to learn again, even in the Church, that Christ’s paradox is always true: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39). Losing one’s life flies in the face of all of the counsel we are receiving today that it is by finding the self, cultivating the self, expanding the self, and actualizing the self, that we will find life. Today, self-restraint and the self-abnegation‹which faith requires‹have become obscenities. And we miss the point entirely if we think that this is simply a quarrel between two competing views of therapy.

No, what is at stake is whether or not we will be able to see the greatness of God, and whether what we see will enter into the innermost fibers of our being, for this is where our true spiritual health resides. The greatness of his power, wisdom, and goodness, and his greatness in creating, sustaining, and ruling over all of life, are not simply doctrines to be talked about but truths to be appropriated. His greatness in giving and judging his Son in our place, as well as his greatness for what he has yet to do one day in putting truth forever on the throne and error forever on the scaffold, should be matters of great weight to us and great joy for us. The psalmist spoke of longing, of fainting for God, of being enraptured with his beauty (Ps. 84:1-2), of having a compelling thirst for him (Ps. 42:1). How out of place this would be in many of our churches today! The truth is that our diminished “god” simply lacks the power to summon up such longing, such hope, such pleasure, in those who have come to worship him. But if our God has become small and skinny, he has been diminished only in our understanding and experience. He has not really been diminished. So why can we not hope that the Church will yet be surprised to discover his greatness afresh? Why can we not hope that those who long for God, who are enraptured by his beauty, who thirst deeply for him, will become the norm rather than the exception? I know of no reason.

This article first appeared in the July/August 1997 issue of Modern Reformation.

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