Once upon a time, there was a man who said to himself, "I think, therefore I am." It was a revolutionary statement, because up to that time, people didn't think this was the way to begin. "In the beginning, God. …" Yes. "In the beginning was the Word. …" Yes. But now, for the first time, someone was saying, "In the beginning, I."

It didn't take long to catch on. Pretty soon everyone was saying it, and saying it in their own way. "I feel, therefore I am." Or "I experience, therefore I am." Or "I am mystical, therefore I am." Or "I am creative, therefore I am." Even "I am religious, therefore I am."

Eventually, someone said, "I am, therefore I am." And everyone applauded, because it seemed to be a stroke of divine genius.

Then, away from the maddening crowds, far off in the wilderness, a voice was crying out, "Prepare the way of the Lord." But people no longer had ears to hear that sort of thing. It sounded faint, quieter than a whisper. To most people, it sounded like gibberish. Others listened really closely and thought they could make out the words. But they just frowned, disappointed with the result of all their efforts, saying, "But what does this have to do with me, with my problems?"

A remnant could still hear that whisper of a voice in the wilderness, and hear it distinctly. They understood it, and they believed it with all their heart—well, at least as much of their heart that didn't believe "In the beginning, I." But they believed it enough to recognize that something needed to be done. People needed to hear the message in all its wonder and revolutionary power.

But how to do that? They lived in a world where everyone woke up with this prayer on their lips, "I am, therefore I am," and went to bed with this scripture running through their minds, "In the beginning, I." Where should they begin?

Some bright fellow came along and said, "We need to start where people are at. We need to make this message relevant to their concerns, their problems. Then we can introduce them to the revolutionary words, 'Prepare the way of the Lord.' "

This made sense to nearly all of these believers. So they resolutely began their preaching and teaching and writing and seminars and conferences by talking about problems that people had, and then once they had everyone's attention—because they were talking about their problems, after all!—that's when they would mention how the Lord was someone who could solve their problems.

The "I am" people loved this. They were fully committed to the "I am" way of life, but they realized lots of challenges and problems were tying them in knots. They were having a really hard time dealing with their problems on their own. As they thought about it in this new light, it only made sense that there might be a Power greater than themselves that could help them solve their problems. I mean, what else would this Power be interested in if not in helping people solve their problems? It's not like he had to worry about problems of his own.

Article continues below

This approach caught on. Soon churches were established all across the land dedicated to finding a need and filling it. Some concentrated on psychological needs, and created churches that helped people see how the Lord could fulfill their needs and desires. They wrote books and held conferences about how the Lord could really make a difference in people's lives. As a result, many people spoke enthusiastically about how "I'm being transformed," and "I am now the me I always wanted to be," and "I have my best life now"—always adding, of course, "But I couldn't have done it without the Lord!"

Others thought this whole emphasis was too individualistic. So they created churches that concentrated on social needs, and they showed how the Lord didn't just care about the problems of rich and middle-class people, but also poor people. In these churches, people talked about how not just lives were being transformed, but whole communities. And they waxed eloquent about how people were getting jobs and medical care and education like never before—how humanity was flourishing!

One particularly interesting group came along and said, "It's not about psychology or sociology, it's about salvation! It's about a sovereign, righteous, and gracious God." This seemed pretty revolutionary and made a few people upset, until someone explained: "Well, you can't really understand this God or what he has done for you until you understand how sinful you are." This made everybody feel better, because now they could go back to thinking about themselves, wavering between feeling guilty and feeling forgiven. So all was good.

But it had become apparent to some of these believers that this entire enterprise—trying to get people in the "I am" culture to really hear a word from the Lord—was not working. They began to see that when you begin with "I am" you get stuck in "I am." It was like thinking you could jump into the middle of a tornado and stop it. Instead the tornado just sucked you up into the whirlwind.

Article continues below

And when they studied the Book of Books, their scripture, they noted something really odd: It hardly ever began by talking about people's problems. It never ignored people and their problems—in fact it seemed very much a story about the Lord's relationship with problem-plagued people. But it was about the Lord first and last, "Alpha and Omega" as it liked to put it. "In the beginning God. …" "In the beginning was the Word. …" "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. …" God was not merely a supporting actor in this drama.

This insight made the believers very discouraged at first. You can imagine their bewilderment when they realized that all their attempts to meet people where they were just left people where they were—mired in the self. People remained enslaved even when they had become religious!

If this was true of even the devout, who then could be saved? What could be done to convince people to prepare not a way for themselves, but for the Lord? It seemed humanly impossible to give people ears to hear the whisper from the wilderness. It would require a miracle.

And that's when it dawned on someone: "Maybe this is not our job. Maybe the Lord has to prepare hearts first, so that people can prepare the way for the Lord."

Then a light went on for someone else: "Maybe we can stop trying to manipulate people into the faith. Maybe we can end all the gimmicks and prizes and come-ons. Maybe we can stop taking people so seriously!"

Then another chimed in, "Maybe we can just tell people the good news that God is Lord, and not us. That it's not what we do but what God has done and is doing in Jesus that is the really interesting thing. Maybe it's time we start taking God seriously."

In the meantime, they figured out that if this God is who he says he is—gracious and merciful and abounding in steadfast love—then maybe he is like a father who has compassion on the adolescent spirituality of his people, a people who can't help but be wrapped up in themselves and their problems. And when they looked closely, they saw God's hand in those changed lives and in those changed communities, even though those changed lives and changed communities kept talking mostly about themselves!

This struck some as pretty unfair to God, as it did not give him or his glory proper due! Some were starting to get hotly indignant at the blindness and selfishness of people, when someone noted how this seemed to be the way of God, whose Son died for the world knowing full well that it was mostly indifferent to him.

Article continues below

At this, some of the indignant stomped off, separating themselves, complaining about "cheap grace," promising a divine comeuppance. But others were both startled and calmed at the divine patience, and just shook their heads in wonder.

Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today, and author of A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God (Baker).

Related Elsewhere:

Previous SoulWork columns include:

The End of Christianity as We Know It | Now we can move on from merely giving people pleasant worship experiences. (April 15, 2010)
Asking the Right Question | Why neither worm theology nor worth theology will do. (April 1, 2010)
Love Needs No Reason | One difference between the therapeutic gospel and the liberating gospel. (March 18, 2010

In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is former editor in chief of Christianity Today and author, most recently, of Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals.
Previous SoulWork Columns: