Psychologists have proven that humans have a strong tendency to fool themselves into thinking that they’re better off than they are. It’s called “Illusory Superiority”. Essentially, the theory says that when we compare ourselves to others, we tend to notice the areas where we consider ourselves superior, and ignore the areas where we come up short. I’ve been seeing this first hand lately.
I teach a discipleship class for young adults. A few weeks ago, I felt led to ask them five questions, as a sort of “spiritual barometer”. When I wrote down the questions beforehand, they seemed random and disconnected. But as we discussed them, an interesting picture emerged. Here they are:
- On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 meaning you’re ready to completely walk away, and 5 meaning you’re closer than you’ve ever been), how would you rate your relationship with God?
- How often do you read the Bible?
- Why do you go to church?
- What would you change about your church?
- How do relationships with others influence your walk with God?
What was shocking about the answers the class gave was how consistent they were. Since that night, I’ve asked numerous others these questions. I know a youth pastor who asked the forty students he leads on Wednesday night the questions. The answers are almost always the same. And that’s where things get distressing.
As to the “1 to 5” scale, over 90% of those asked have answered a “3”. When probed as to what that means, they say, “Well, it’s not as good as it’s been before, but not as bad as it could be.” Then, when asked about how often they read their Bible, those same people answer “Almost never.” Of course, as someone who has personally experienced the power of daily Bible reading, I was a little surprised that those who answered “Almost never” could even consider themselves as being at a “3”, but we’ll come back to that later.
When asked why they go to church, I started to hear what I call “Sunday School Answers”: “For fellowship” or “For spiritual nourishment”. With my discipleship class, I just looked at them and said, “Seriously? You never use words like that in the real world. What’s the real reason?” Then they answered, “Because I’m supposed to.”
I was encouraged by the answers to question 4. Most people asked have agreed that they desire to see the Holy Spirit moving; to see God’s people making a difference in the world. They use words like “revival” and “on fire”. As to how relationships affect their walk with God, they almost always said that the impact was significant.
So based on these answers, here’s a description of the “average American Christian” today: The average American Christian rarely, if ever, reads their Bible; goes to church on Sunday because they feel like it’s what they’re supposed to do; would love to see their churches making a greater impact in the world, but admits that this isn’t really happening. Because other Christians around them have a tremendous impact on their walk with God – and since nearly everyone considers their relationship with God a “3” – this makes sense. We become like those we spend time with.
But nothing could have prepared me for the response one person I discussed these questions with had. He is very active in his church. In fact, he is considered a leader among his peers. His answers were identical to those above. But his reaction to them, and the subsequent response, was unbelievable.
As we talked, this individual broke down into tears. He wept as he was confronted with the reality of his situation. And he vowed then to make a change. We talked about “first steps”, and the obvious answer was the discipline of daily Bible reading.
Four days later I saw him again, and asked how things were going. He sheepishly responded that he hadn’t gotten started yet. I metaphorically scratched my head, but graciously said that I would ask him again the next time I saw him.
Apparently he was prepared that next time. Once again, he said that he hadn’t yet started, but he believed he had a very good reason. He said he couldn’t just “pick up his Bible and start reading.” He said he needed to find the right plan that made it interesting and compelling so he could truly get something out of it. You could tell he felt vindicated by this excuse.
What do I think about his excuse? I think he’s a fool.
And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.
Deuteronomy 8:3/Matthew 4:4
The Word of God is clear: our physical hunger for food and the need our bodies have to be satisfied is a reminder of the need our spirits have to feed on the Scriptures. But as the answers to these five questions indicate, the “average American Christian” eats maybe one or two meals per week. That’s the real reason we go to church. If we didn’t, most of us would die off completely. So we’re spoon fed the Word on Sunday morning and maybe one other time during the week, and we’ve convinced ourselves that this is not only acceptable, but that it is more than enough. This is what we see in others in our churches, so we’ve become numb to the reality that this isn’t at all what God wants. The Church in America can be described in one word: apathetic.
We know this isn’t right, but we see the problem as being outside of ourselves. We want the Church to have an impact, but we don’t see the reality that WE are the Church. We look at others, and believe that THEY are the problem, when we are, in fact, all the same. We’re all “3’s”.
I once heard a writer say that Moses must have left off one of the commandments when he was on Mt. Sinai. He said that the 11th Commandment has to be “Thou Shalt Not Fool Thyself.” Most of us are pretty good at doing that. We convince ourselves that things are really better than they are, or that our excuses are actually pretty reasonable.
So in response, I have two points to make. The first is for the young man who is waiting for the right reading plan to come along to help him out. If he hadn’t eaten but one or two meals per week for the past several months, he wouldn’t wait for the ultimate recipe to show up. He’d take the first bowl of oatmeal he came across. My advice to him: Thou shalt not fool thyself. All the tears and words of regret and later excuses don’t really mean much. If you really believed that your relationship with God needed to get back on track, you’d have left the room we were talking in, found your Bible, gotten alone with God and started working on that relationship. You’d have eaten “the first bowl of oatmeal” you could find. You’re dying spiritually, and you don’t seem to care.
And to the rest of us who would qualify our relationship with God as being a “3”, while in the next breath admitting that we read the Bible and spend time with Him maybe once a week if at all, I remind you of Jesus’ words to the Church at Laodicea:
“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. “
“Neither cold nor hot” sounds a lot like “it’s not as good as it once was, but not as bad as it could be.” It sounds a lot like a “3”. Jesus’ words to those of us in that category sting. He says that we think that everything is wonderful, when we don’t realize that in reality we are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” Jesus tells a world full of “3” Christians, “Thou shalt not fool thyself.” What I’ve realized over the past few weeks, is that someone who rates their relationship with God a “3” – while saying they rarely, if ever, spend time with Him – is really only a “1” or a “2” that is doing just that – fooling himself.
We love to talk about Jesus standing at the door of our hearts and knocking as if that has something to do with salvation. It doesn’t. It was Jesus’ description of His relationship with the Church at Laodicea. His promise to that church is the same promise He makes to you and I:
Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.
Maybe He’ll bring some oatmeal.