Getting Our Story Straight

Others, Poverty , Theology
Adapted from Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream, pp. 92-96, 98-99, 120

I had a wonderful upbringing in a godly, Christian family, and I attended Christian schools from first grade through my senior year of college. But despite my parents’ best efforts, like many Western Christians, I somehow absorbed highly distorted views of God, human beings, and life in general. Some of these erroneous ideas have plagued me well into adulthood, doing considerable damage to me and some of the people I’ve impacted. And I’m not alone.

Human beings tend to become what we worship, and so when we worship the wrong things we get deformed. Western Christianity has some deep flaws, flaws that hurt us and that we often unknowingly and unconsciously impose on others, including the materially poor people we are trying to help.

In our book Becoming Whole, Kelly Kapic and I explored two of the major false stories that affect Christians in the West: Western Naturalism and Evangelical Gnosticism.

Western Naturalism says that God probably doesn’t exist, and even if He does, He is irrelevant to daily life. The cosmos is solely material in nature and operates on its own according to the laws of nature.

When Christians often mix some ideas of Western Naturalism with biblical revelation, the result is a highly distorted understanding of reality, which poverty expert Darrow Miller refers to as “Evangelical Gnosticism.”[1] Dating back to the first century AD, Gnosticism is a heresy that separates the spiritual realm, which is viewed as good, from the material realm, which is seen as bad. Similarly, Western Christians have tried to confine God to the spiritual dimension of reality and trust in the laws of nature to run the rest of the cosmos on a daily basis. In other words, we worship God on Sunday mornings, but we tend to live like Western Naturalists Monday through Saturday, acting as though God is largely irrelevant to our daily lives.

Because the spiritual and material aspects of the human being are viewed as separate from one another, Evangelical Gnosticism’s goal for the body is nearly identical to that of Western Naturalism. These goals can be summarized as:

  1. The primary goal of life is to get the soul to heaven for all eternity;
  2. A secondary goal is to pursue the American Dream, making the body happy in this life through self-centered, material consumption.

It’s easy to see the patterns of Evangelical Gnosticism when one spends time with Christians from the Majority World of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Christians in these places are often converted out of various forms of traditional religion in which the spiritual and material realms are tightly integrated.

Given their background, Christian converts from traditional religion naturally seek God’s help in all aspects of their lives. When my family and I lived in Uganda years ago, we were humbled by the regular, all-night prayer vigils that took place on Friday evenings. And throughout the week, we saw the Ugandans praying and fasting frequently for help with the details of their lives—for crops, for sickness, for jobs—faithfully living out the command to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). As one woman in a Ugandan slum explained to me, “If you aren’t fasting, you aren’t serious.”

Things do seem different in the U.S. For example, when I get sick, I often go to the doctor numerous times before I remember to pray for healing. Yes, we should go to the doctor and we should take medicine, but we should also pray that the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of the entire cosmos, the Great Physician, will use either modern medicine or miraculous intervention to cure our bodies. My prayerlessness reflects Evangelical Gnosticism. I ask God to save my soul, but I often treat Him as though He is irrelevant to my every day, physical life.

The students I teach at Covenant College are some of the brightest and most godly young people in the country. Like me, the vast majority of them have grown up in solid Christian homes and Bible-believing churches, and many of them have received Christian education from grades K–12. These are wonderful young people, and they regularly minister to me in all sorts of ways, however, even they exhibit some of the symptoms of Evangelical Gnosticism.

For example, each year in one of my classes, I conduct an experiment, asking the students to tell me what they should do to get a job. They invariably provide the following sorts of answers:

“We should study hard.”

“We should major in a field with good career options.”

“We should learn how to write a resume.”

“We should use our parents’ connections.”

There is truth in all these answers, but notice that the students’ entire focus is on techniques, on those things that they can do to control the material world. I’ve done this exercise with approximately 750 students over the years, and only one of them has ever said, “We should pray.” Think about the horror of this: some of the godliest young people in America—at least at the outset—don’t instinctively prioritize falling on their knees to pray to the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of work for help with finding a job. It’s all about resumes, connections, etc. This is Evangelical Gnosticism: God is Lord over our spiritual lives, but the rest of life is governed by natural forces that we can master through our hard work and ingenuity.

I’m not arguing that the Christian life should be one of expecting miracles to happen every other minute. Rather, I am simply arguing that the Christian life should be one of recognizing the truths of James 1:17: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”

The erroneous concepts of Evangelical Gnosticism are not just abstract philosophical matters. They shape every aspect of our lives, deforming us as image bearers of the triune God. Rather than living like highly integrated, physical and spiritual creatures that experience deep communion with God, self, others, and the rest of creation, we live dis-integrated lives. We worship on Sunday and then largely live like Western Naturalists the rest of the week, chasing the American Dream and becoming increasingly individualistic, materialistic, and self-interested.

Moreover, we automatically and unconsciously incorporate these faulty ideas into our poverty alleviation ministries, impacting every aspect of their design: the selection of interventions, staffing, implementation, funding sources, marketing, and metrics. And we can hurt materially poor people in the very process of trying to help them.

These stories aren’t producing true human flourishing for either the materially poor or the non-poor, in fact, they deform us all into creatures we simply are not designed to be. We all need a different story—one that’s rooted in the worship of the triune God. We need to be transformed by being immersed every moment of the day in the only story that is actually true.

[1] Darrow L. Miller with Stan Guthrie, Discipling Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Cultures (Seattle: YWAM Publishers, 1998), 46-47.