31: Coerced Obedience | Chap 14 of Not A Fan by Kyle Idleman

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.

9 thoughts on “31: Coerced Obedience | Chap 14 of Not A Fan by Kyle Idleman

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  7. Joanne

    I really liked Greg’s reference to the phrase”Abba Father” (Rom. 8:15) in the context of Christianity being about having a relationship with God. Interestingly, those who enjoy this relationship, being “in Christ” (8:1, 9, 11, 14) are no longer like slaves but sons, being adopted into God’s family. It was interesting to observe the contrast between the “spirit of slavery” and the “spirit of adoption” in this one verse (15).

    I think your podcast is important because, as A.W. Tozer says in The Knowledge of the Holy, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” (p.9) I think we will always be growing in this area, never completely knowing, because our experience of life works hand in hand with developing our knowledge of God. One of you said, “I understand that God truly has my best interests at heart; this is our basis for trusting God.” It seems that this kind of heart commitment comes from what we learn about God through nature, experience, and Scripture (Isa. 40:12-31).

    I don’t care for Kyle Idleman’s writing style sometimes. He often uses exaggeration and hyperbole. (Hyperbole can’t be taken literally; it’s for effect on the reader. In describing a very large person, you could say,”He’s as big as a house.” That gets the point across with exaggeration and hits the reader with greater impact than simple saying, “He was very large.”

    1. John Poelstra

      Thanks for you comment Joanne! It’s great to know we have another listener out there. Yes, I do think it is interesting to take a hard look at what’s in the Bible and compare it to Idleman’s presentation which is what we’ve tried to do. Do you think our approach was fair or do you think there are areas we could have done more work?

    2. Gregg Monteith Post author

      Hi Joanne,

      Thanks so much for your comment. I get the sense that relating well with God is very important to you, and I appreciate the reference to verse 15 of Romans 8. As John and I have been replying to Kyle Idleman’s Not a Fan the notion of being “children” of God (who is thus our father and parent) has been a big issue. It appears central to much of how the gospel writers portray Jesus, and yet is overlooked by Idleman. Or if it’s not overlooked, then I wonder it doesn’t show up in Idleman’s book because he sees it more like a legal distinction rather than a relational reality?

      My fear is that many Christians see the matter as I’m wagering that Kyle does: we focus more on the notion of “adoption” than on the practice of relationship—more on fact of salvation than on the experience of love. Don’t get me wrong: how non-Jews have been invited into relationship with God is extremely important. But ‘How’ is conditioned by ‘Why’. Or better, by several different ‘Whys’. Specifically:

      a) by the ‘Why’ of motivation (Q: Why / from what motivation did God act as God did?
      A: Because, to quote Brennan Manning, God loves us “furiously” and seeks to demonstrate that love—love demands expression),
      b) by the ‘Why’ of purpose / Goal (Q: Why / for what ultimate purpose did God act as God did?
      A: In order for God’s love to find fullest expression with and toward us—through right and ongoing relationship).

      In addition to the first two ‘Whys’, which pertain to God, there are two more ‘Whys’ that pertain to you and me but which I think Christians have not done an adequate job in answering. Specifically:

      c) the ‘Why’ of importance (Q: Why / why does it matter that God acted as God did?)
      d) the ‘Why’ of verification (Q: Why / on what basis should I believe that God acted as you claim that God did?)

      Typically Christians understand c) in global terms—we understand it as being about sin and avoiding hell (or maybe about reward, like making it to heaven). I don’t think such things are unimportant, but they’re not the point. The point is that it matters here and now, and that it does so not so much for negative reasons but for positive ones.

      It matters that God acted as God did because God knows me more truly than I know myself and loves me more deeply (and more rightly) than I love myself. In other words, it matters that God acted as God did because only by being in right relationship with God can I be most fully human by being most fully ‘me’. It matters because I matter and life matters, and I experience the ultimate richness of both when I experience them through sharing them with God.

      Typically Christians understand d) in knowledge terms—we understand that we need to present people with information that we hope will convince them that Christianity is true. And while I agree that information is important, often I think that we are unclear about what type of information is required, about what “convincing” means (and when it is appropriate/inappropriate), and what our role in the matter is.

      So to my mind the basis for believing in, or to use Kyle Idleman’s term “following,” God is a combination of three factors that require different types of information. Here’s how I see it:

      First in basic belief—does the idea of God even make sense to you. Sometimes lack of basic belief can simply be intellectual, though it can also be resistance based on seeing too much evil in the world—being unable to reconcile evil and the proposition of a good God. A valid point.

      Second is understanding the particulars, and in my view this one is far trickier than most Christians think. We often think our job as Christians is to present the “gospel story.” I don’t think so. My job as a Christian is to love God entirely, to love myself rightly, and to love my neighbour likewise. For it is only from within that love relationship (or those interrelated love relationships) I will have the perspective that I need to read the Bible as I ought.

      Clearly, the process is interwoven: I understand who God is through the text; I understand the God of the text by relating to /experiencing this God, in real life. Yet I’m focusing on experience because evangelicals tend to preference text above experience, truth above love. In order to promote understanding in others we must properly understand the matter ourselves; in order to read the Bible rightly we must be those who are well versed in the practices of relating with God (experiencing God’s love and loving God in return).

      Third is trusting God, and trust is the basis for relationship. Trust becomes the focus once a certain threshold of understanding has been reached, and reaching it is a matter both of understanding the Bible’s claims (we might call them the Bible’s truth claims) and experiencing how God makes good on the claims (we might call this experiencing, and so understanding, the truth value of those truth claims).

      Trying to trust before basic belief and understanding (both intellectually and experientially based understanding) have been established is like trying to force partners in an arranged marriage to express heartfelt love: they are committing to something, but not out of love. Love may come, but it’s not there now. So on the one hand, trying to put two things together without the proper glue—in this case, without love—is risky business indeed. On the other hand, where the greatest commandment is to love God entirely, a relationship with God not established and centred on love seems… unbiblical.

      Thanks so much: your helpful comment has sparked ideas and given me the chance to clarify some of my thinking on this matter. We’d certainly enjoy responding to future comments you might make.


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