Getting By Without God

There are millions of people who do not know Jesus Christ, and do not have a relationship with God. That is a tragedy and something believers must seek to rectify. But an even greater tragedy is the fact that many Christians are also getting by without God.

Indeed, entire churches are getting by without God. The sad truth is we have been willing to substitute a million things for the living God. We have programs, marketing techniques, entertainment, self-help courses, methodology, management, cafes, and music galore. But do we have God?

Many observers of the contemporary church have sounded the alarm here. One thinks of the trenchant and incisive works by Os Guinness and David Wells, to name but a few. Writing in the 80s and 90s, they offered important critiques of the church-growth movement, of mega-churches, and the Christian embrace of modernism.

They offered brilliant and penetrating assessments of where the church was seriously heading off course. David Wells for example wrote a string of important volumes during this period, including his seminal 1994 volume, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams. In it he said this:

“The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is not inadequate technique, insufficient organization, or antiquated music, and those who want to squander the church’s resources bandaging these scratches will do nothing to stanch the flow of blood that is spilling from its true wounds. The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common.”

Os Guinness also penned a number of important critiques during this period, including his 1993 work, Dining with the Devil. There he wrote, “The very brilliance and power of [modernism’s] tools and insights mean that eventually God’s authority is no longer decisive. There is no longer quite the same need to let God be God. In fact, there is no need for God at all in order to achieve extraordinary measurable success.”

And in 1992 Guinness and John Seel edited a very valuable collection of essays entitled No God But God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age. It contained a number of first-rate evaluations of where the Western church was heading. The authors lamented the way the American church in particular had sold out to the spirit of the age:

“To be more specific, the idolatry in question is the idolatry of good and useful things from our modern world that, in the form of powerful modern myths, have been allowed to become distortions of the gospel and substitutes for faith in God….

“The first duty of believers is to say yes to God; the second is to say no to idols. Such idolatry is a problem for contemporary evangelicals because evangelicals have uncritically bought into the insights, tools, and general blessings of modernity. Thus a radical confrontation with heresy, worldliness, and idolatry is part and parcel of a serious examination of the theoretical and practical assumptions that shape the life of the church in modern society.”

They examined in detail how the church had simply slavishly copied worldly marketing techniques, salesmanship, and popular culture, all to be relevant and seeker-sensitive. But these worldly techniques, while perhaps adequate for the world, can never take the place of God himself in the church of Jesus Christ.

Indeed, we have steadily if unwittingly allowed God to disappear from our churches, and we have managed to keep on going. Our programs, our entertainment, our business, our noise, and our activities have kept us so busy that we have not even noticed that God may have departed long ago.

Of course one mighty prophet of God said all this a half century ago. For decades A.W. Tozer warned, cajoled, exhorted and pleaded with the Christian church to return to God and forget all this other nonsense. He spoke, wrote, preached and taught that God alone could revive a dead church.

Consider this razor sharp analysis of his: “If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today, 95 percent of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference. If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament church, 95 percent of what they did would stop, and everybody would know the difference.”

Read that paragraph again, and again, until it sinks in. Where is God in all that we do? Where is God in all our mega-churches, programs, and religious entertainment? Where is God in our board meetings, our small groups, our prayer meetings, and our pulpits? Is he there?

Lest we think such questions are too foolish to consider, let us not forget what God had to do in times past with his rebellious and stiff-necked people. Israel too was certain that they had God on their side, and that he would never leave them.

But consider just two episodes where we read about God and his glory departing from Israel. The first is found in the book of Samuel. In 1 Samuel 4:21-22 we read, “She named the boy Ichabod, saying, ‘The glory has departed from Israel’ – because of the capture of the ark of God and the deaths of her father-in-law and her husband. She said, ‘The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured’.”

The name “Ichabod” means “no glory” or “inglorious” in Hebrew. The glory of the Lord had departed, meaning God’s presence was no longer with the Israelites. This was a temporary departure of God’s glory. A much longer and more significant departure occurred when Israel was judged by Yahweh and sent into captivity in Babylon.

In Ezekiel 10 we read about how the glory of God left the temple, left Jerusalem, and left Israel. For example in Ez 10:18 it says, “Then the glory of the LORD departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim.”

The sad fact is, God had sent his prophets to warn Israel about their sin, their worldliness, their idolatry and their disobedience. Yet the Israelites would not listen. Jeremiah for example spent 40 years warning God’s people to repent and turn their lives around. But they refused to heed his words.

The Israelites were sure God was always with them. They chanted, ‘The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord is here’ (Jer. 7:4). They falsely assumed that the presence of the physical temple meant that God would never leave them. But of course he did leave them.

We too smugly assume that God is with us, blessing us, and always pleased with all that we do. But is he? Is he in fact to be found in all our religious activities? Or have we managed to fill our church lives with so much activity, so much entertainment, and so much technique, that we just assume God is in it all?

Perhaps he is not. Perhaps he has left long ago and we never even noticed his departure. Perhaps we too should be named Ichabod. Perhaps we too have lost the glory of the Lord, and have substituted for it all sorts of human and fleshly replacements.

I know these may be hard words. But such words must be constantly hammered into our souls and spirits. If they are not, we will continue to stumble, to fall, and to shame our master. The church has for too long allowed a humanised gospel and worldly methods to drown out the divine presence. And such drastic faults require drastic surgery – not more tinkering at the edges.

We must ask ourselves on a regular basis: is God still here? Is God still with us? Or are we simply running on our own steam? Those may be the most important questions we can ask of ourselves. But ask them we must.

[1334 words]

21 Replies to “Getting By Without God”

  1. Samson is another case in point. The tragic thing about Samson was that “he did not know that the Lord had left him”, thinking instead that he would “go out as before” and defeat the Philistines (Judges 16:20). So it is most certainly appropriate to be asking ourselves if God is still to be found in our churches. Too often these days sweat is confused with anointing!

    I think it was Leonard Ravenhill who said something like, “much of what happens in our churches today is man’s best effort to make up for the lack of the presence of God.”

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

  2. God is still here and God is still with those who respect his commandments. Also we must respect the greatest commandment ever given which is to love the Lord Thy God with all thy heart and with all your mind. Do this and God will always be here.
    We are entering the time of the falling away. This is not caused so much by the worship of things made with hands but by the quenching of the spirit as we as humans begin to think that God is irrelevant. Once the spirit is subdued the pathway to God is closed. If the spirit still stirs in our moment of need and though weak, we knock on Gods door then the door shall be opened.
    Think on this in the book of revelation 200 million horsemen from the east will come to kill those that worship false Idols and false Gods and there will still be millions that refuse to believe. (Could it be that one day China might become a Christian nation for where else can such an army come from?)
    We must hold fast to Jesus as our saviour and his father the creator of all things. For narrow will be the gate and very few who will find their way through. As Christians we should be petrified of losing our way. Revelations says that those who fail will be cast into the lake of fire to be continually tormented. Consider this, a galaxy is a lake of fire there is no other name for it. We live on this earth in a lake of fire. It isn’t heaven nor was it ever meant to be after the fall. And I personally would hate to have to live amongst this corruption and greed for even a thousand years let alone forever. It is full of woe, wars death and mourning.
    (remember there will be a new heaven and a new earth but with Gods warmth and light not that of a sun, so it will not be an exact replacement for this one)
    People often ask why did God make it this way. Remember that when God asked for a lamb without blemish as a sign that the worshipper was truly giving his best. God also knew that there would be many that weren’t perfect and with blemishes. If every thing in this world was perfect then truly we would be in heaven, but it wasn’t designed that way. It is a place and a time of testing to see if we can hold fast against all corruption and to do this we must also hold fast to Gods sacrificial lamb without blemish Jesus his only son who lived and died to show us the way.
    There will be wars and rumours of wars and famine and pestilence in diverse places and that kingdoms will rise up against each other.
    We must hold fast to God he is here and will be with us in these testing times.

    Dennis Newland

  3. Agree wholeheartedly Bill – in everything we do, we need to ask ourselves – is this God or is this the flesh? I have heard a similar message being preached in a number of different places lately – perhaps there is hope for us yet – if we obey His voice and stop working in our own strength.
    Andrew Munden

  4. Absolutely, Bill.
    “…and they devoted themselves to the Word … and prayer …” Acts 2:42
    We are devoting ourselves to too much outward form of Godliness, but denying the power thereof.
    It’s time we seek to know what the Father is doing, and do what He does. John 5:19
    Henry Lim

  5. As I read your posts Bill, and the comments, I feel a hope rising for the Church in Australia.

    Concerning this current post, you would think it would be obvious that the Church (and individual Christians) need God. It seems many have forgotten Jesus’ words that without Him we can do nothing. Thankfully He has ways to remind us.
    Bless your labours as you serve Him

    Glenn Christopherson

  6. Bill I think you are too harsh on the Church today. Oh I think you are spot on with your criticisms of Joel Olsteen and much of that, but I think God is still working powerfully in the more humble and Christ centered churches that are still around.

    Joel Olsteen and the like appeal to people who want their ears tickled. I am not sure their kind has ever been absent from the church. Mass media just makes them a more noticeable.

    But as you note, they pedal a false gospel and it doesn’t last. There’s will be the fluff burned away when trials and persecutions come.

    Jason Rennie

  7. What you say is, unfortunately, sometimes true. Despite that fact I’m sure the Holy Spirit is guiding the whole church and that good teaching will always be available to us if we ask Him to direct our lives. Last Friday morning at Mass in a little local chapel the first reading was 2 Timothy ch3 v.10-17 and we had a very powerful teaching on that text. We were reminded strongly what the Gospel call really asks of us. We were encouraged to consider how often we come to worship God and instead of joyfully accepting and offering up the formative trials he blesses us with, we whimper and whine and treat the Almighty like our personal Mr. Fixit. Paul, the ambassador for Christ, was held up as a model for us to measure ourselves against. Sadly, the opportunity to remind us of the need to study and pray the scriptures daily was overlooked, though we did get that in another context the previous week.
    Anna Cook

  8. Thanks Jason

    But at the end of the day it does not matter a hill of beans what I think about the church. What does matter is what God thinks about the church. And anyone reading what Jesus said about the seven churches in Revelation will note that he was far, far harsher than I have ever been.

    But having said that, I of course did not say anywhere that there are no good churches or good Christians. There are plenty around, but they are usually the ones who get no attention, no limelight, no media coverage. They are quietly doing the work of the Kingdom, loving Jesus and living sacrificial lives, fully sold out for Christ. They are often found in the smaller churches, even in home churches and small fellowships. I meet them all the time as I travel and speak, and I have written them up before and will do so again.

    And with all due respect, it was the Pharisees who always pointed at other churches and other Christians, and said they were the problem. They never considered that they themselves might be part of the problem. As long as we always point to others (and obvious candidates like Osteen), and never realise that we ourselves may need to get our own act together, we will never see God released to fully do his work.

    So I include myself in any harsh words I use. I must say that Bill Muehlenberg is the problem, along with so many other believers. I need to get my act together, as we all do. Revival must always begin with myself.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  9. Fair enough Bill.

    I think we largely agree on this. There are plenty of problematic things in “christendom” that pass for Christian and this is a serious problem.

    I just suspect that a lot of the high profile stuff is more noticeable as a side effect of better media today rather than it being something new that the church has never had a problem with in the past.

    Mind you last time it got this bad I think it triggered the reformation!

    Jason Rennie

  10. Your earlier post on mortification, coupled with this one, led me to think of that great mediaeval Saint, Francis of Assisi who, when faced with similar problems, was instrumental in getting the Church back on track. We need to pray fervently that God will provide us with someone like him to get us through this predicament.
    Dunstan Hartley

  11. I read the other day of a senior (Anglican) cleric who was “too busy” (!) to counsel a bereaved woman, busy with committees, admin, etc., etc. What a disgrace! I’ve said somewhere that if Satan has just one word, today, it’s “relevant”. the modern Church has thrown away everything in pursuit of that (which in truth has meant espousing secular/materialist values/agendas); God preserve us from ever being “relevant”.
    John Thomas, UK

  12. Bill, I couldn’t agree more. Thank you for writing such an incisive article – one that penetrates the sense of self-sufficiency to which we all succumb. I think this article, as well as a number of other articles on related subjects over the past few months, are sorely needed. I am very grateful for them.
    Scott Buchanan

  13. Amen. Very well put Bill. And you are right. If we are a part of the Body of Christ, we are all implicated in this, each one is accountable, and if nothing else, the least we can do is be praying. God bless you Bill, I hope this gets ‘out there’ widely, as a prophetic warning.
    Ryan Foley

  14. Good morning Bill,

    I’ve just stumbled across your site and have read a few of your articles. I stopped believing in gods about the time I stopped believing in Santa Claus and have never found good reason to change my views. I have just never seen any evidence of the existence of supernatural beings and I think that all religions are merely manifestations of our human yearning for immortality.

    It’s not that I am sure there is no god, but I’ve never met anyone who knows for sure that there is a god either. I guess that makes me an agnostic. But I’m curious about what makes people believe, other than their panic about death. Everything we see in the world appears to be random, in that it is pure chance whether we live a long life or a short one, a happy life or a miserable one. The earth itself, and the wider universe suffer frequent natural events that seem to owe more to the chaos of physics than any god-controlled order. And religious people in general seem to have some very confused ideas about human origins.

    When I try to discuss such thoughts with Christians of my acquaintance all I ever get is hand-wringing, finger-wagging and “god’s mysterious ways”, which is no answer at all. I wonder why, if the god deems it so important to believe, it doesn’t make it’s existence obvious.

    I’ve attended a few church and synagogue services but it all just seems like a lot of meaningless, repetitive ritual and bad advertising. I know that faith provides comfort to some people, but so do drugs and alcohol.

    So really, what is the point of religion? What is the point of all the sermonising, finger-wagging and judgmentalism? Aren’t we better to live life as best we can, caring for others, enjoying happiness when it comes, rather than indulging the gloom and doom merchants who run the pulpits?

    Mark Rushmeyer, Adelaide

  15. Thanks Mark

    This particular article was written to fellow believers, and was clearly not meant to provide the evidence for God. Other articles on this site attempt to do that. And such discussions can hardly be properly held in short comments. But let me at least address a few of your points.

    In response to your comment as a whole, the real issue here is truth. Is there objective truth which we should be searching for, or is everything a matter of personal opinion? If the latter, then I have my opinion and you have yours, and that is the end of the matter, so why even bother writing a comment to convince someone of your mere opinion?

    But if truth exists, then it can be argued for. Indeed, if there is no transcendent, objective truth that we can all appeal to, then why even bother going on about seeking to “live life as best we can”? In fact, who decides what that is? Hitler and the Nazis thought what they were doing were was the best way to go, and acted accordingly.

    If everything is random and relative as you suggest, then who is to say Hitler was wrong? And can I suggest that in your concerns about judgmentalism, you of course are making a judgment as well! You seem to think your version of events is better than that of religious folks. Thus you are making a judgment about them. But if all is random and relative, why should anyone pay any attention to your concerns?

    Consider also your remarks about randomness. The truth is, the very foundation of modern science (and it was primarily Christians who were at the forefront of this) was based on the belief that the world was not random, disordered and unknowable, but exactly the opposite. Because the world seems rational, knowable and orderly, that made modern science possible. If life was as random as you claim, you wouldn’t be able to string together a coherent sentence, let alone send it in an email to my website.

    As to the universal yearnings for immortality, perhaps they can be best explained by the fact that that is how we are designed. As CS Lewis once noted, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

    But much more can be said. As I tell people all the time who come here with their scepticism, if they are asking honest questions and looking for real answers, I will happily spend all the time needed to discuss the issues. But if their mind is closed and they simply want to argue for argument’s sake, then they are advised to go elsewhere. Which camp are you in Mark?

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  16. Thanks Bill. Someone has to say all that. You can’t wait till you are perfect to speak the truth and stand up for the true gospel. That day won’t come until glorification. You are no Pharisee, Bill. Continue to ‘contend earnestly for the faith’ – Jude 3.
    Barry Koh

  17. Beautifully written Bill. God should be first and foremost in our life. This becomes easy to forget. You are so right about the humanised gospel. There are so many in the Catholic Church who are experts at interpreting the Word of God to suit individual beliefs that reflect the thinking of the ‘current age’. It is blatant manipulation, distortion, whatever word you want to use, of the Word of God.
    Why, some even profess not to believe in Hell anymore. In fact, you would struggle to find a Catholic priest who mentioned the word ‘sin’ or ‘hell’ in a Sunday sermon. Very sad indeed.
    Jane Petridge

  18. My local church which I go to from time to time is considered evangelical and they claim the word of God which according to them is infallible guides everything they do.

    I have been banned from saying or doing anything because I put more authority on the scriptures than the traditions of the denomination. Anything I say that we should be doing because that is what the word of God says is fiercely opposed if it contradicts their tradition.

    Inevitably it is a church that has no prayer life or any interest in evangelism. How many more churches are like this across Australia?

    Roger Marks

  19. Hi Bill, What an amazing article you have written. You have the boldness to say what everybody else is thinking. Church isnt what it used to be.

    Money and time slot issues have taken the place of pre service prayer time. Where is the reverence? Where do we find direct preaching from the Word of God, as the great saints of old would do?

    If we want the Holy Spirit to move in our churches, we need to spend a lot more time kneeling at the alter before our great God, praying with great passion and reverence. God Bless you Bill

    Annette Nolan

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