After a long journey we’ve finally arrived: Chapter 14 of Not a Fan by Kyle Idleman, the book’s end. This is perhaps our most important episode on this book as it gets to heart of what we find wrong in Idleman’s “reward and punishment” approach to Christianity.
So in the place of Idleman’s view that following Jesus means obeying (i.e., “letting go” of what is keeping us from following Jesus), Gregg proposes three interrelated steps that necessarily precede and prepare for obedience (and explain why obedience may not be possible or even intelligible, depending upon someone’s current circumstances).
First comes belief: whether the notion of a divine being seems plausible for a given person. Second is understanding: rightly conceiving of who God is and what the human / divine relationship is supposed to be. Third is trust: having both the basic belief in the divine and a firm understanding of the specifics of who God is and what the divine / human relationship is about, obedience requires a certain degree of trust based on our past experiences that indicate that God is indeed trustworthy! Without these components it’s unrealistic to think people can blindly obey God as a lasting behavior.
Further, Gregg notes that Jesus seems to say “if you love me, you will obey me” yet Idleman reverses this: “obey me in order to know me / relate to me!” In Gregg’s view God desires that I be all that I fully can be and, as this occurs, I understand that God truly has my best interests at heart. This is our basis for trusting God.
John notes the subtleties between “trust” and “surrender,” where trust is an active response based on proper information, whereas Idleman advocates surrender (which is more resigned and almost defeated). Gregg agrees: Christians typically explain disobedience via sinfulness, but as this generally means “fallenness” it offers no real explanatory power.
So Gregg posits that we understand obedience (or a lack thereof) by translating these situation with God into situations in everyday life and asking ourselves questions: What would I think of that? How would I respond? John offers an example from He Loves me, by Wayne Jacobsen (which John highly recommends). From the ensuing discussion obedience has different meanings depending how we view God. If God is simply “Lord” (as Idleman seems to propose) then we are only servants. However if God is also “Father” then we also sons and daughters, which is a different relationship and orientation.
Further, just as you can’t command someone to “enjoy yourself with me” or “love me” (because these things are “responses” to previous experiences), so likewise with God: Gregg believes that we obey God based on what we have experienced of God. So in the New Testament Jesus does not command: “do what I want and then I’ll help you.” Instead he first heals, feeds, and relates to people, meeting them “where they are at.” Thus Jesus establishes relationship in order to create understanding, cultivate trust, and this results in many things, including obedience (so the one who loves God indeed obeys God because obedience is the product of a relationship characterized by love).
As we have argued numerous times in earlier podcasts, Idleman’s top priority for Christians of “following” seems to overlook the greatest commandments (loving God entirely, loving myself rightly and loving my neighbour likewise). And this finds its counterpart in the notion, as Gregg argues, that God wants us to be ourselves and, as C. S. Lewis writes at the beginning of the Narnia series, God “gives us ourselves.” We are a gift, to ourselves, from God and we have been given ourselves to have relationship with God, as one who knows me more truly that I know myself and loves me more deeply than I love myself.
Gregg closes by noting how Idleman’s misunderstanding of God’s love and character can be clearly seen in his final example. Here Idleman likens how God loves us to how Idleman’s own father proposed to deal with his wife’s hypothetical infidelity: by threatening to break her new boyfriend’s legs. Gregg demurs: because Idleman has so badly misunderstood God it is not surprising that he characterizes Christianity as the choice between heaven and hell, reward and punishment.