In using the phrase ‘carnal Christianity’ I am not here referring to the life-style practices of those Christians who flout biblical moral principles, but to the behaviour of many Christians who, while apparently reflecting a depth of spirituality, in reality express a carnal form of Christianity!
Let’s explore this further.Feelings and emotions are essential to our personality and individuality. Grief, joy, love, hate, compassion, anger, pride and jealousy are just some parts of the package of emotions that God has given to us, and all contribute to the rich colour of life’s experiences. Apart from our emotions, we would be like lifeless robots.
However, how we ‘feel’ has often become the arbiter of values and conduct and, sadly, while this has increasingly been evident in secular society, it has also significantly found its way into Christian practice.
Emotions – a gauge, not a guide
Emotion has become the ‘spirit level’ by which all things are now measured – morality, spirituality and behaviour. The cute little emoticons that many now include in their text messages and emails reflect this fascination we have with emotions. However emotions fail miserably in determining right from wrong and true from false.
Emotions are not bad in themselves. Jesus expressed many of them when he walked among us, for example, Matthew 26:38, Mark 3:5, 6:34, John 11:35, 15:11.
I read somewhere that emotions are a gauge but not a guide. There is some truth in this but even as a gauge they are not very reliable. Emotions are actually morally neutral. Most people would possibly say that love is a good thing (even the Beatles sang that ‘love is all we need’) and that hate is bad.
But we harm ourselves immensely if we love something that is bad for us and hate something that is good, and we can delude ourselves at times by concluding, ‘How can something that feels so good possibly be bad?’
Emotions are part of our flesh. By that I mean that they are part of our human identity. Christians sometimes mistakenly think that the word ‘flesh’ as used in the Bible, particularly the Greek word sarx that is used in the New Testament, refers to something that is evil.
This is not necessarily so. For example, on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:17) Peter quoted Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people (flesh).’ And in Psalm 63:1 we see that the word ‘flesh’ is used in reference to the response of the whole person – including the emotions – to God.
However there is very great danger in living a life that is submitted to the urges of our emotions. As humans we have all been tainted by sin which has affected every part of our being, including our emotions. Emotions need to be controlled or they can control us! The Bible warns us, ‘A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls’ (Proverbs 25:28 RSV).
The problem for Christians, who permit themselves to be strongly influenced by their emotions and allow them to be their guide, is self-deception.
Within us is a tension between flesh and spirit, between the human and spiritual, and it can be so misleading because something which is of the ‘flesh ’may be confused with something that is of the ‘spirit’. Its great danger for Christians lies in a failure in distinguishing between ‘fleshly’ emotions and authentic spiritual encounter with God.
When the two are confused, there is no glory given to God. When emotions are unchecked and given vent under the pretext that they are valid responses to God, our ability to exercise spiritual discernment diminishes. In such circumstances ‘flesh’ is given preference over spirit but regrettably this is not recognised when it is taking place.
We see this at work in many areas of our lives. I want to mention here just a few.
1. The persuasion of the ‘want’ against the leading of the Spirit
Sadly, to a greater or lesser degree, all of us allow the things we ‘want’ to be the determining factor in the choices we make. Some of the things we want are inconsequential – for example I may want steak for dinner rather than chicken – but some have far-reaching consequences and others are ultimately harmful to us for even apparently good things can be corrupted when they serve our self-centred fleshly desires.
We may be aware at times that giving in to our feelings and wants may not be our best course of action and so admit to ourselves, ‘I know I should be doing this, but I really want to do that.’ And because what we want to do is often more appealing to us than what we ought to do – or, more particularly, what the Spirit is prompting us to do – our ‘want’ wins out!
Such a ‘want’, rather than being neutral, is from the self-centred, carnal, part of us that craves for attention and pampering! Many years ago I was working with a man, a keen Christian, who told me that some years earlier God had called him to train for the ministry. However there were other things he wanted to do at that time rather than spend 5 – 7 years in theological training. He then told me, ‘I left it too late and it is too late now.’
While following the impulse of our emotions, we may also try to rationalise our choices to make them appear right and even righteous! Paul knew differently! He wrote, ‘I know from experience that the carnal side of my being can scarcely be called the home of good! I often find that I have the will to do good, but not the power. That is, I don’t accomplish the good I set out to do, and the evil I don’t really want to do I find I am always doing’ (Romans 7:18-19 JBP, emphasis mine).
As we live here on earth influenced by the pressures and pleasures and temptations around us, we need to be guided by something much more dependable and beneficial than our emotional resources. I believe that Paul gives us some guidance in this. He wrote, ‘I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh (sarx) I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20 NKJV, emphasis mine).
‘Christ in us’ does not nullify our emotions. Rather they are brought under control. And that flesh-dependant ‘want’, that influences us so much, can be redirected. Again Paul has written, ‘God is always at work in you to make you willing and able to obey his own purpose’ (Philippians 2:13 GNB).
Jesus, quoting Deuteronomy 6:5, said, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ (Matthew 22:37). William Barclay has commented on this verse, ‘It means that to God we must give a total love, a love which dominates our emotions, a love which directs our thoughts, and a love which is the dynamic of our actions.’
2. Self-serving Hyper-spirituality or Christ-centred spirituality
Hyper-spiritual people try to give the impression that they live at an altogether higher spiritual level with greater intimacy with God than most other Christians. ‘Normal life’ is something that they try to pretend does not touch them as they live in a spiritually enlightened sphere which the untidiness of actually living does not penetrate! Their conversations are usually littered with pious comments, spiritual sentiments and biblical verses. As they seek to impress others with their spirituality, they in fact reflect the attitude of the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable who said, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers -or even like this tax collector’ (Luke 18:11). This is self-righteousness gone wild!
While the purpose of the hyper-spiritual person is to elicit admiration and respect, the result is the complete opposite. A couple asked to my home see to me. When they arrived, I asked them if they would like a cup of coffee. The woman said, ‘Let me first ask God.’ About 15 seconds later she said, ‘Yes, thank you.’ I was not impressed!
I am not criticising genuine love for the Lord, passion for his kingdom and enthusiasm for his work. Hyper-spirituality is not really about these things but about an unreality that discredits the authentic, that chooses camouflage over openness and mask wearing over honesty. Hyper-spirituality in not a harmless eccentricity – it is always damaging.
We live in a real world as Jesus also lived in a real world and he related to people in a normal way. Jesus was not hyper-spiritual. He was the most perfectly balanced person who ever lived. Those who flaunt their imagined spiritual superiority are, in fact, living a life of carnal Christianity in which reality and actuality are distorted.
3. Hype misrepresenting the prompting of God
Regrettably we see hype misrepresenting the prompting of God in many churches. When a congregation is deliberately manipulated by methods that are designed to stir the emotions, there is something unworthy and God-dishonouring in this. In fact some preachers and worship leaders deliberately use such techniques to draw out a powerful response from the congregation (or audience) as such a response serves to satisfy their own egos!
On the other hand there are some such leaders, who have been brought up in that culture of hype, who think that such manipulation is quite proper and that it helps to usher in God’s presence and brings honour to him. But they are mistaken.
Admittedly our emotions may be touched in various ways as we seek to worship. A Christian song may stir up one’s feelings, a gifted orator may deeply move people, and a touching story may speak to a person’s heart – and this is not to be despised. But none of these emotional experiences may be considered as evidence of God’s presence or prompting. God does not require someone to stir up the emotions of a congregation before the Holy Spirit can speak to people.
Emotional excitement does not authenticate spiritual reality! Admittedly there is ample evidence throughout the centuries to show that our human response to the active presence of God is often emotionally expressed. But in such cases the flow is from the activity of God that touches the emotions and not vice versa. Indeed it is difficult to see how one would not be emotionally moved if the Holy Spirit were dealing with us.
But, again I say, emotional experiences do not authenticate Holy Spirit activity nor justify extreme behaviour. Some years ago in Melbourne I attended a conference in which one young man ran around the room and climbed onto the platform and jumped off again a few times. The preacher took him aside and prayed for him, ‘Lord, bless this young man and take away his stupidity.’
But, you may ask, what about David’s exuberant dancing before the Lord?
Shortly after David became King, he went to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord that twenty years earlier had been taken by the Philistines. To the Israelites the Ark represented the presence of God and David wanted it to be placed in the Tabernacle in Jerusalem, the nation’s spiritual centre.
In 2 Samuel 6:14 we read, ‘Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the Lord with all his might.’ David’s energetic dance was not merely a self-serving, excited, emotion-charged expression of joy. It was significantly more than that. Although his wife Michal did not approve of his behaviour, he told her, ‘In God’s presence I’ll dance all I want! … Oh yes, I’ll dance to God’s glory’ (2 Samuel 6:21 Message).
David’s celebration clearly was God focused and God directed and was not merely serving his own emotional stirrings.
But hyped up, emotional expressions that pose as spiritual responses are manifestations of carnal Christianity that misrepresent the nature of true worship and exchange ‘feelings’ for the genuine presence and embrace of God.
To put it bluntly – carnal Christianity is a counterfeit Christianity, a substitute for the real thing, a devilish deception!
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books and Bible study series, welcomes questions from concerned Christians. In his well-researched Grace Revisited he reveals grace as having a strong active meaning and is like a many faceted diamond out of which shines a greater understanding of the great God we worship.
Normally $35 but obtainable from the author for $25 (plus postage). Link/orders/enquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org.