AHC B Who Do You Say I Am? Ordinary 24 - Hebrew Catholics

Association of

Hebrew Catholics

New Zealand Branch

“Who Do You Say I Am?”

Ordinary 24 Year B

A Hebrew Catholic Perspective

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St. Mark 8: 27 — 35



In this text our Lord is seen to move 25 miles north from Bethsaida, to the villages around the magnificent city of Caesarea Phillippi, the capital of Iturea. This was the residence of Herod Phillip, on the slopes of Mount Hermon, beautiful and fertile source of the River Jordan.

A little history will help us see why Jesus may have chosen this spot for the event which takes place in this account. William Lane tells us, “When the area was first given to Herod the Great by Augustus he built a temple in honour of the emperor near a grotto consecrated to the Greek God Pan. In the year 3 C.E. Phillip rebuilt the neighbouring village of Paneas as his residence and, named the new city in honour of Caesar. The area was thus dominated by strong Roman associations, and it may be theologically significant, that Jesus’ dignity was first recognised in a region devoted to the affirmation that ‘Caesar is Lord‘.”

Our account marks a turning point in the ministry of Jesus, and in the understanding He was to impart on the real nature of discipleship. In any process of Christian “renewal”, this passage has powerful messages for us if we are prepared to look closely, and listen intently.

Click here for a printable copy of our text


Some Reflections on the Text

Verses 27 and 28

Now Jesus and his disciples set out for the villages of
Caesarea Philippi. Along the way he asked his disciples,
“Who do people say that I am?”

They said in reply, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still
others one of the prophets.”

As Jesus was walking from village to village around Caesarea Phillipi, He asked His closest disciples for a little feedback about His ministry. “I know people talk about me. What are they saying; who do they say I am?”

The reply given to this question is particularly interesting. People have been saying some very uncomplimentary things about our Lord, but the disciples keep those to themselves. Instead of giving a cross-section of commonly held opinions, they choose only the best they have heard. And so they volunteer titles such us, “John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the other prophets.”

In other words, from what they had overheard in common market-place conversation, Jesus was, in Himself, no one really; just another (the latest) in a long line of reminders of a long-past golden age of prophecy which every now and then seemed to come to notice, but never achieved anything much.

Verse 29

And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Messiah.”

In response to this, Jesus chose a manner of speaking which showed He rejected the titles commonly attributed to Him. He said to His close disciples: “But you, who do you say I am?” emphasising the obvious fact that they have been close to Him and been part of all He had done.

Peter, at this point answered, no doubt on behalf of the group. “You are the Anointed of God. You are the Messiah.” In answering this way, Peter was giving voice to the Biblical understanding of the Messiah, which implied “divine election and appointment to a particular task and a special endowment of power for its performance” (Lane).

Verse 30

Then he warned them not to tell anyone about him.

Peter’s affirmation of our Lord was a wonderful expression of belief. Perhaps to the surprise of the group, and even to present day readers, the immediate retort from Jesus was a firm warning to them not to repeat Peter’s answer. The problem was not what Peter said, but that it could cause confusion to His ministry if it reinforced the wrong messages.

The commonly held view was that the Messiah would be liberator and saviour of Israel who by force, would bring the world to compliance. He would make systems and organisations change. Our Lord would not allow His disciples to project their under-developed dreams and vision of a Messiah to a listening audience. William Lane points out that this “is a significant example of Jesus teaching the future leaders of his Church that mere declaration, proclamation and giving witness of personal belief are not sufficient to establish Christian faith“. The disciples of Jesus then and always must be led beyond mere messianic confession to an awareness of the demands of messiahship as it unfolded in the Scriptures. As the text soon discloses (verses 34 and 35) the disciples must be willing to suffer and die with their Lord. This was unheard of.

All of this begged the question, if the restoration and liberty of Israel could not be achieved by force and radical external change in the usual way, then how were they to come about?

Verses 31 and 32(a)

The Gospel text shows Jesus following up His warning immediately with an explanation:

He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer
greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests,
and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.

He spoke this openly.

The best scholars teach us to avoid interpreting this as conveying the idea that an impersonal fate or destiny is the determining factor, as though ‘the Son of Man is fated to ..…’ Rather this is the God-appointed mission of the Son of Man.                                                                                                               (Bratcher and Nida, U.B.S.).

Verse 32(a) which we attached to verse 31 above indicates Jesus felt confident enough to speak to his close disciples boldly, frankly, and freely, concealing nothing from them. This is significant if we are to understand correctly what follows.

Augustine Stock, O.S.B. points out that “the reference to the three prominent classes of Jews who together constituted the Sanhedrin indicates that certain groups and not the people as a whole were responsible for Jesus’ death“. This is important for us to note.

Walter Wessell clarifies who these three prominent classes were.

Jesus predicted that the rejection of the Messiah would be by
three groups: the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of
the law. The elders were the lay members of the Sanhedrin;
the chief priests included not only Caiaphas, the high priest,
and Annas, the emeritus high priest, but the members of the
high priestly families; the teachers of the law were the
professional scribes. These three groups made up the Sanhedrin,
the Jewish high court.

Verse 32(b)

Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

We can sympathise with St. Peter. Our Lord had indeed spoken so plainly to them that no one missed the point He was making. It came as a real shock! Never did anyone awaiting the coming of the promised Messiah have to cope with the mind-shattering image of a suffering, rejected and executed Messiah, let alone the added dimension of rising from the dead after three days! We may be tempted to think, “How could anyone be expected to cope with that”?

Verse 33

At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples,
rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are
thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said
to them, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny
himself, take up his cross, and follow me.

With His usual precision and clarity, St Mark records our Lord’s reaction to the thoughts and attitudes of His disciples. It is a moment of intense learning and reshaping their thoroughly world-centred way of seeing and interpreting events.

So when Jesus turned and looked at His disciples, He rebuked Peter with words meaning:

“Get out of my sight, Satan!” He said!

“You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things
of men.”

Many of us learnt Jesus’ remark as, “Get thee behind me Satan!” Augustine Stock, O.S.B. points out that the words, “looked at his disciples” indicate that all the disciples are included in Jesus’ rebuke. This is important or we will miss the very strong warning our Lord is giving His Church. In this incident Jesus was implying something like:

“You are talking to me exactly the way Satan did in the desert,
when I began my ministry!”             (See Luke 4: 5 — 8.)

Jesus does not mean Peter is (or any of them are) satanic or depraved. But by urging Jesus to hold back from death, to be more concerned with preserving His life than to fulfil God’s holy will, Peter is allowing himself to be the agent of the tempter: of Satan. In other words, he is allowing himself, and his vocation to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, to be hijacked and misused.

In effect, Jesus is saying to his disciples:

“You are well meaning; but an unspiritual disciple can quickly
become the tool of Satan without even realising it!”

Jesus shows no inclination to justify the ways of God to men. He simply affirms that the way of the cross is the will of God. (Lane). To our Lord, this error of St. Peter takes Him back to the temptation in the desert where Satan is literally hell-bent on getting Jesus side-tracked. Jesus speaks here just as authoritatively as in the middle of the desert.

Augustine Stock, O.S.B. quotes W. Harrington:

“The temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4: 1 — 11; and
Luke 4: 1 — 13) aimed at getting Jesus Himself to conform to the
popularly accepted messianic role; to become a political messiah.
It was an attempt to undermine His full acceptance of
the Will of God
, and here Peter play’s Satan’s role.” (Emphasis ours.)

Only after the resurrection of Jesus did Peter and the other disciples who felt exactly as he did, appreciate how much Jesus had honoured them on this occasion. They were now ready to commence their training on a new level. This is the turning point in St Mark’s Gospel. From now on their journey is set for Jerusalem!

We should notice the constant links to performing the holy Will of God, as expressed in the “Shema Israel” — Hear O Israel. If we do not know by heart the words of Jesus when He reaffirmed this (Mark 12: 29), we should have it written on a piece of paper always close at hand. Everything is connected to this core teaching in Deuteronomy and affirmed by Jesus.

Verses 34 and 35

At this point, to the surprise of some, Jesus suddenly called the crowd over to him. He went on to horrify them (together with His close disciples):

He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said 
to them, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny
himself, take up his cross, and follow me.

For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but
whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel
will save it.

So, the path of suffering is not only for Jesus, but His disciples as well. We recall that St Mark was writing in Rome for a small Christian community which was experiencing the most extreme, harsh and unthinkable persecution and torture ever devised by humans for humans. As Lane so wisely says, “It was the Lord’s intention that those who follow Him should not be detached observers of His passion, but men who grow in faith and understanding through participation in His sufferings.”                          (Emphasis ours.)

As Cole points out, they would be called followers of the Anointed One, of the Messiah; thus they were sometimes labled “Messianics”, or later “Christians”.

Charles Erdman has a helpful comment on the idea of losing one’s life:

The result, however, is larger, fuller, freer, truer life. This is what
Jesus means by the promise which He adds, “For whosoever
would save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life
for my sake and the gospel’s shall save it.” One who suffers for the
sake of Christ will enjoy eternal life in heaven; this is true; but
the promise is of a present experience as well. Jesus is not urging
sacrifice for its own sake, but, quite definitely, sacrifice for His
sake and the gospel’s. Such sacrifice results in the
enrichment and
the enlargement of life, and in the
enjoyment of all that is worthy
of the name of life.

We need to be very realistic about how this type of Christian thinking will be seen by many contemporary educators, counsellors and even some Christians themselves: like a lead balloon! Our Gospel text has long inspired an approach to Christian psychology which has, in our time, been demeaned and denigrated by new theories which have spread throughout most Western education systems — alienating modern youth almost entirely, from Christian culture. We attach some readings which may help our readers in the pursuit of a sound, practical application of Christianity at home and at work.

Two Appendicies

1.      The whole mentality of dying to self and losing one’s life is something
         many moderns struggle with. In Appendix 1 we offer thoughts from
         Professor William Lane, and from Bratcher and Nida’s Translator’s

2.      In Appendix 2 we offer a small sample of a Christian response to the
         modern day situation of compliance to false stereotypes.



In our introduction we noted that a long held view by Christian teachers is that Jesus chose to draw out of St Peter his magnificent declaration to counter local pagan belief. The Roman Emperor enjoyed being treated as divine, and the part-Jew puppet King, Herod Phillip, curried favour with his master by giving illustrious expression to this in the form of a magnificent city dedicated to him. To all it signified, “Caesar is Lord“. Jesus, in his own quiet way simply asked His closest disciples what they thought of Him in their hearts. Peter spoke for them all: “You are the one and only Anointed of God. You are Messiah.” St Paul echoed this in his teaching and letter writing. To him there was only one Lord and he said it the way it needed to be said:

“Jesus is Lord”



Further Reading

For those who would like a detailed study resource
on the readings for Sunday, please visit:

Agape Bible Study — Ordinary 24 ― Year B

If you require only the section on the Gospel reading,
just scroll down the page.

To view all the material on the Agape website please visit:


This website is highly recommended:


Proclaim the Gospel to Every Creature

(Mark 16: 15)

Let us remember God’s Teaching, contained in His Word and
in doing so, remain close to Him. The following are only
examples illustrating how you can note the gems the
Holy Spirit highlights for your on-going reflection.

Who Do You Say I Am?

Ordinary 24      Year B           St. Mark 8: 27 to 35

1. Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me”.

As we noted in our Reflection, “mere declaration, proclamation and giving witness of personal belief are not sufficient to establish Christian faith”. (Lane) We might say, that is only “one side of the coin”. The other, which is just as necessary, is that the disciples must be willing to suffer and die with their Lord.

For some followers of Jesus Christ, this may entail cruel suffering, even martyrdom. For others, it will mean dying to self in the day-to-day workings of life. This means a range of challenges whereby the old self is laid to rest and our true self rises to live according to the Spirit given to us. All are called in this life, to die to self in this way, even if not by martyrdom. Traditional Christian spirituality even encourages the faithful to train themselves to go without certain things and to offer that as a sacrifice to God: Making do, putting others first — these are practical expressions of living by the standards of Jesus.


2. Jesus said, ….. “the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders,
the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, ….. .”

In the third Millennium we still hear of Christians looking on all Jews as Christ-killers. All such references are made by people who do not know what they are talking about — and as is so often observed — don’t really care. This is a very serious matter. If one is going to quote Scripture to prove this charge, one should know sufficient to make valid observations. If we know sufficient about the use of language in the New Testament we will observe that nowhere are the ordinary Jews referred to as responsible for the unjust execution of Jesus by the Romans. Our reading
(Mark 8: 27 — 35) is structured by St. Mark to emphasise that it was certain groups within Judaism who were responsible for rejecting Jesus and handing Him over to the Governor, Pontius Pilate.

It simply has to be said, that as a religious culture, Christianity is deeply in debt to Judaism for the vast heritage we have inherited from these people. It also has to be admitted that we have committed a most grievous offence for burdening Jews with a blanket accusation that they (collectively) crucified Jesus. This is patently wrong, and we have barely begun to acknowledge this, let alone make amends. Such action is now overdue.


3. The sad demise of our once great Christian culture has begun to take on some frightening perspectives, In the West we are being bullied into complying with the new “order”, the new “morality”. Of course, some among us would say, “Where’s the morality, where’s the order”? In other parts of the world, Christians are suffering brutality, injustice and oppression almost beyond description.

Whatever our situation, our response has to be the same: “Watch and pray” — that is, Keep our mind and heart focussed on our Lord Jesus Christ, and follow Him closely. In this way we align ourselves with the Will of God and though we may lose our life — if it is for Jesus and the Gospel, then we will save it.

That is a promise out of the mouth of Him through whom all things were made.

Let us pray for one another as we confront a very disturbed and confused culture — that we will try our best to pass on to deprived souls, the beautiful story of the Messiah and what He yearns to share with all mankind. It is not all “doom and gloom”. There is light at the end of the tunnel: that is, life in the fullness of the Light — the source of Light —


Click here for a printable copy of the Reflection points 

Mark 8: 27 to 35

Ordinary 24 Year B


27      6 Now Jesus and his disciples set out for the villages of
         Caesarea Philippi. Along the way he asked his disciples,
         “Who do people say that I am?”

28     They said in reply, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still
         others one of the prophets.”

29     And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”
         Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Messiah.”

30     Then he warned them not to tell anyone about him.

31     He began to teach them that the Son of Man 7 must suffer
         greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests,
         and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.

32     He spoke this openly. Then Peter took him aside and
         began to rebuke him.

33      At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples,
         rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are
         thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

34     He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said 8
         to them, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny
         himself, take up his cross, and follow me.

35     For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but
         whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel 9
         will save it.

6 [27-30] This episode is the turning point in Mark’s account of Jesus in his public ministry. Popular opinions concur in regarding him as a prophet. The disciples by contrast believe him to be the Messiah. Jesus acknowledges this identification but prohibits them from making his messianic office known to avoid confusing it with ambiguous contemporary ideas on the nature of that office. See further the notes on ⇒ Matthew 16:13-20.

7 [31] Son of Man: an enigmatic title. It is used in ⇒ Daniel 7:13-14 has a symbol of “the saints of the Most High,” the faithful Israelites who receive the everlasting kingdom from the Ancient One (God). They are represented by a human figure that contrasts with the various beasts who represent the previous kingdoms of the earth. In the Jewish apocryphal books of 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra the “Son of Man” is not, as in Daniel, a group, but a unique figure of extraordinary spiritual endowments, who will be revealed as the one through whom the everlasting kingdom decreed by God will be established. It is possible though doubtful that this individualization of the Son of Man figure had been made in Jesus’ time, and therefore his use of the title in that sense is questionable. Of itself, this expression means simply a human being, or, indefinitely, someone, and there are evidences of this use in pre-Christian times. Its use in the New Testament is probably due to Jesus’ speaking of himself in that way, “a human being,” and the later church’s taking this in the sense of the Jewish apocrypha and applying it to him with that meaning. Rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes: the supreme council called the Sanhedrin was made up of seventy-one members of these three groups and presided over by the high priest. It exercised authority over the Jews in religious matters. See the note on ⇒ Matthew 8:20.

8 [34-35] This utterance of Jesus challenges all believers to authentic discipleship and total commitment to himself through self-renunciation and acceptance of the cross of suffering, even to the sacrifice of life itself. Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it . . . will save it: an expression of the ambivalence of life and its contrasting destiny. Life seen as mere self-centered earthly existence and lived in denial of Christ ends in destruction, but when lived in loyalty to Christ, despite earthly death, it arrives at fullness of life.

9 [35] For my sake and that of the gospel: Mark here, as at ⇒ Mark 10:29 equates Jesus with the gospel.

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised
edition (c) 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine,
Washington D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner.
All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced
in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.


Appendix 1

Denying Oneself — Taking Up One’s Cross.

Our Lord’s uncompromising demand that His followers must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Him, requires just a little “unpacking”.

This understanding is absolutely crucial in presenting the teaching of Jesus. Again we quote Professor William Lane from his commentary (Erdmans 1994) as he sums up the core of this teaching. We reproduce Dr. Lane’s text in bullet points to help our meditation on this most important text.

●     Jesus stipulated that those who wish to follow him must
        be prepared to shift the centre of gravity in their lives from
        a concern for self to reckless abandon to the will of God.

●     The central thought in self-denial is a disowning of any claim
        that may be urged by the self, a sustained willingness to say
        ‘No’ to oneself in order to be able to say ‘Yes’ to God.

●     This involves a radical denunciation of all self-idolatry and
        of every attempt to establish one’s own life in accordance
        with the dictates of the self.

●     This demand is reinforced and intensified by the horrifying
        image of a death march. Bearing the cross was not a Jewish
        metaphor, and Jesus’ statement must have sounded repugnant
        to the crowd and the disciples alike.

●     The saying evokes the picture of a condemned man going out
        to die who is forced to carry on his back the crossbeam upon
        which he is to be nailed at the place of execution. By the time
        Mark prepared his Gospel this had become cruel reality, both
        for Jesus and the Church.

●     Jesus’ words were a sober caution that the commitment for
        which he asked permitted no turning back, and if necessary,
        a willingness to submit to the cross in pursuance of the will
        of God. His followers must be prepared to die, for they share
        in the same veiledness that permits his own humiliation.

●     The call to follow Jesus which recapitulates the action in which
        self-denial and cross-bearing are to be manifested, provides a
        vivid reminder that suffering with the Messiah is the condition
        of glorification with him. (Rom. 8: 17).    (Emphasis ours.)

Because it is so important to understand this difficult concept, we add the note from Bratcher and Nida Translator’s Handbook (U.B.S):

Deny himself” is without doubt one of the most difficult expressions in all of Mark to translate adequately. Unfortunately, too many people have taken this expression to mean ‘to deny oneself certain pleasures or objects,’ while actually the meaning is denial of one’s presumed prerogatives or personal interests. The different ways of expressing this concept in various languages, is highly illuminating.”

Bratcher and Nida then list several examples of what the phrase can mean, in trying to retain the original message in Jesus’ words.

These include:—

•     Have no regard to oneself.
•     Not bother oneself about oneself.
•     To not worship oneself.
•     To stop doing what one’s own heart wants.
•     To not belong to oneself any longer.
•     To not take constant thought for himself.
•     To undo one’s own way of thinking.
•     To leave himself at the side.
•     To say ‘I do not live for myself ‘.

We trust these quotations will help clarify our Lord’s teaching.

Click here for a printable copy of Appendix 1

Appendix 2 — Psychological Seduction

(By William Kirk Kilpatrick (Thomas Nelson Inc. Tenessee. 1983)
(American spelling retained.)

We present two brief but significant clippings from this outstanding book which we recommend highly for your personal permanent library. Both readings refer in some way to modern inadequate attitudes towards the preoccupation with promotion of self under various guises.

(Text in bold is our emphasis.)

I     The Modern Cast of Characters — Being real

I began this chapter with a discussion of characteristic mentality and suggested that a psychological society creates a climate of unrelenting seriousness. If approached from another direction, the question of characteristic mentality becomes the question of what characters are missing from the story.

I cannot prove statistically what I am about to say: you will have to check it against your own observations. However, my observation is that in the modern theater of life, not only is the set — tradition, ritual, family — discarded but the cast of characters has been narrowed down alarmingly. The present atmosphere does not allow much room for spirited eccentricity, for that larger-than-life character represented in literature by Sir John Falstaff or Samuel Pickwick and in reality by a man like Samuel Johnson — men, in short, who lived their lives with outrageous exuberance.

When we think of these characters, we think fondly; they are like overgrown children. It never occurs to them that growing older means growing more serious about oneself. Johnson, even in his later years, delighted in rolling downhill. Pickwick and Falstaff, likewise, spend their days tumbling from one merry episode to the next. What all three have in common is the capacity to give pleasure by their company and their conversation. The reason is their levity. Beneath the surface vanities, they take themselves lightly. Giving pleasure of the kind they give depends on a basic humility, a recognition that they are but men among men, not special selves on the high road to fulfilment.

Now humility does not mean pretending to be less smart or less talented than you really are. Johnson, for example, knew well enough that few men in London could match his intelligence. He was no fool. Yet, on another level he had a fundamental modesty, a belief that all stand equal in the eyes of God, and that in those eyes all of us must at times look foolish. Johnson, in any event, was not above making a fool of himself. He was glad for any occasion of foolishness and created them when none came to hand. He was, wrote a close friend, “incomparable at buffoonery.”

It is hard for lightheartedness to hold the stage, though, once we learn how very seriously we ought to take ourselves. And this is what psychology has taught us. We hear a lot these days, for example, about the dignity of the person. This is a good emphasis if it means that no one ought to exploit or abuse anyone else. But if it means we are to perceive ourselves as solemn godlings and canters of wholeness, the idea can do much harm.

One casualty of our over seriousness may be our sense of humor. And that is because all humor involves a loss of dignity. The man who makes faces to amuse a baby gives up his dignity; so does the man who roars with laughter. The essential condition for having fun is to forget your dignity, that is, to forget yourself. We recognize this truth, for example, when we say, “I was beside myself with laughter.” We have to get outside ourselves to enjoy ourselves. Otherwise, we won’t have any perspective; we won’t see the joke. But an excess of self-preoccupation robs us of all perspective: enter self-seriousness, exit humour.

Exit humour, exit sanity. We sometimes speak of people as having a “saving grace,” some quality that keeps them from meanness or dullness, and a sense of humour is certainly one of those saving graces. Among other things, humour helps us save our sanity. This seems true, for example, of Johnson, who was naturally disposed to melancholy and suffered from poverty, grave physical ailments, and a singular physical ugliness as well. Indeed, he feared at some points that he would lose his mind. The remedy, he realized, was not to court self-awareness. The cure consisted rather in getting away from himself. No one can say what would have been the result had psychotherapy been available in those days. But we do know that therapy encourages self-analysis. Perhaps Johnson was fortunate that it was not available.

That Johnson was able to get outside himself we know from the genial legacy of his antics. There is the picture of Johnson gathering up his brown coattails like a pouch and hopping his bulky frame across the room to amuse his guests with an imitation of a kangaroo. And there is Johnson in the London streets bursting “into such a fit of laughter that he appeared to be almost in a convulsion; and, in order to support himself, laid hold of one of the posts …and sent forth peals so loud, that in the silence of the night his voice seemed to resound from Temple-bar to Fleet-ditch.”

If we are to obtain wholeness, then, we ought to employ the right strategy. People are most themselves when they get outside themselves.

II     Misguided Christian Notions

We started several chapters ago with the intention of disentangling Christian notions from psychological ones. This means that if we are going to criticize certain psychological ideas we must equally criticize them when they show up wearing Christian garb. If we are honest we have to admit that many Christians also have a great faith in positive thinking. It was a Christian minister, after all, who coined the term “the power of positive thinking.” You may want to object that with Christians it is not the same thing. But in point of fact it often is: it is faith in self rather than faith in God.

Norman Vincent Peale’s philosophy, for example, comes perilously close to a faith in the sheer power of believing. The object of faith seems almost secondary. Although Peale wants us to believe in God, he seems primarily concerned with belief as a psychological mechanism for achieving successful living. And he puts an extraordinary emphasis on believing in ourselves. You find the same attitude in some of the media evangelists. Some talk about the power of belief, some talk about “possibility thinking,” and they nearly always talk about prosperity. The point here is that this attitude is remarkably similar to the attitude of popular psychology: belief is pragmatic; certain beliefs are useful in producing positive mental states; and positive mental states produce prosperity. Believe and grow rich, or believe and overcome your troubles — that sort of thing.

Even when the positive-thinking Christian places his faith in God, it is sometimes a very presumptive faith. You may be told by some Christians that you have “a claim on Christ,” and the sense of it is often that God is obligated to answer our prayers exactly to our satisfaction, as though we were filing a claim with an insurance company. Now this may be biblical in the sense that you can find one or two passages to lend support to it, but it is not biblical if you look at the whole and obvious testament of the Scriptures. The characters in the Bible are not as a rule people who received success in life — certainly not worldly success. “Listening to the disciples,” writes David Myers, “one hears no glamorous testimonies of ‘how I overcame anger, selfishness, and doubt.”‘ What you get, rather, is a record of constant temptation, backsliding, and struggle.

I am not saying God does not perform miracles, nor do I deny that in some cases He may shower us with worldly blessings. He may grant us such things from time to time “in order that you may believe,” or for some other reason best known to Him. But that is up to God. And He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not a slot machine.

The problem that crops up here is the same problem that afflicts the victim of popular psychology. Suppose after putting your faith in the Lord you still have that arthritis or cancer? What then? Does it mean you haven’t prayed hard enough? Does it mean something is wrong with your faith? And isn’t it, finally, a form of Pelagianism — a way of thinking that God can be bought if you can ante up sufficient personal effort? That attitude, you must remember, was the one the Reformers attacked most strongly. The proper Christian emphasis is not on our efforts, our abilities, or even our faith.


 Click here for a printable copy of Appendix 2

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