A trinitarian critique of "Walking with God" by John Eldredge

John Eldredge (pictured right) of Ransomed Heart Ministries, is a popular evangelical Christian author of such books at "Sacred Romance" and "Wild at Heart." A reader of this blog offers in this post a critique of Eldredge's book "Walking With God." Though this critique is not intended to discount the positive benefits some have derived from Eldredge's books, it does object to some of the premises of "Walking with God" that seem in conflict with a trinitarian/incarnational understanding of the gospel. See what you think. And feel free to send to The Surprising God critiques (positive and negative) of this or other books as we reason together in the light of Jesus.

-Ted Johnston
moderator, The Surprising God

It seems to me that "Walking with God" [WWG] espouses a form of magical thinking by implying that God can be manipulated by human activity. Through a highly individualistic approach to Scripture (where every verse is construed to be about "me"), Eldredge seems to ignore what I believe is the primary thrust of Holy Scripture - the revealing of the Son of God, and his in-breaking into all of creation through his incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension.

Eldredge's stated purpose for WWG is to show that God knows us intimately and desires with each of us a conversational intimacy in which one has an ongoing "conversation" with God. To show how such conversational intimacy is attained, Eldredge offers his own experience, which was gained during a year in his life when he asked God questions and sought to hear God's answers.

Before I take exception to many of Eldredge's conclusions, I should point out that he does offer words of caution. On p. 49 he notes that sometimes he is not able to hear from God. He also notes that on important matters, we should always seek confirmation from others as to whether we have or have not heard God correctly. He also notes that God will never tell us to do what is contrary to Scripture or against God's own nature. These are good words of caution, but Eldredge seems to throw caution to the wind in making some rather bold and sweeping claims.

Eldredge's claims are largely based on his survey of nearly every Old Testament character that Scripture says God spoke with personally (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Elijah etc.). Eldredge concludes that we can (and, indeed, should) expect the same kind of personal communication with God if we will only do certain things in order to bring about such communication.

The primary flaw I see in Eldredge's argument is that he makes no mention of the Living Word of God talking and otherwise working with these OT servants in order to further the miraculous breaking into history of the Great-I-Am Creator within his creation to affect the entirety of history and prepare for the coming of the "Word made flesh," which means the renewal of all of creation.

Instead, Eldredge's focus is on hearing from God in his "still small voice" (as in I Kings). To help us get started, he cautions that listening to God in this way takes some getting used to - thus we should start with some practice - doing so by asking God "yes or no" questions, or asking about small things that don't matter too much (things that we are not emotionally wrapped up in, or are secretly or desperately wanting to hear about). For example, we might begin by asking God, "What do you want for me this weekend: should I go to the ranch (a vacation spot) or stay home?" He says he then repeats such questions quietly in his heart, and then pauses to listen for God's answer. Then he repeats the question, and listens again. He says that all during this asking and listening, it's vital to stay "surrendered" and thus open, and perhaps to say to God, "Lord - I will accept whatever it is you want to say to me" (pp. 30-31).

Eldredge's advice then continues: "If I don't seem to be able to hear God's voice in that moment, sometimes I will 'try on' one answer and then the other. Still in a posture of quiet surrender, I ask the Lord, 'Is it yes, you want me to go?' Pause. In my heart I am trying it on, letting it be as though this is God's answer. 'Is it yes?' Pause and listen. Or is it 'no, you want me to stay home?' Pause and let this be the answer. 'I should stay home?' Pause and listen again" (page 32).

It seems to me that this approach does not fit well with the concept of the mediation of Christ from above and below. In fact, I think Eldredge's "yes or no" approach sounds like using a heavenly Ouija Board - asking a question and waiting to see which way the pointer goes. In short, I see this as magical thinking.

Eldredge repeatedly references the 10th chapter of John, in which Jesus talks about the gatekeeper, and the Good Shepherd whose sheep know his voice, and the others that do not. In WWG this passage is used to show that Jesus wants to hear from us, and that we will learn to hear from him in answer to our prayers about all the details of our lives if only we open the gates of our heart and mind and listen for his voice, ignoring all other competing voices.

But Eldredge makes no mention in his exegesis of this chapter of the prophets (the gatekeepers) having already opened the way for Jesus (the Good Shepherd). He fails to note that the context of the passage is Israel's rejection of the prophets and now their Messiah. This rejection is principally the responsibility of Israel's spiritually blind religious leaders (such as the Pharisees). These false leaders failed to protect the sheep. And now comes Jesus, the true Shepherd, to lay down his life for the sheep and then take it up again (in his death, resurrection and ascension). He does this on behalf of all humanity (Jew and Gentile), making Jesus the Shepherd of all nations - one flock that the Father has entrusted to Jesus' care.

To me, this exegesis is a far more significant reading of John 10 than the one Eldredge offers. Moreover, this exegesis does not support Eldredge's use of the text to bolster his idea that God promises to speak with us on a minute-by-minute basis concerning every detail of our daily lives.

Several thoughts come to mind at this point. Certainly every believer desires a stronger relationship with God (and, indeed, trinitarian theology is about this relational life). And, no doubt, each of us can point to multiple times when God "spoke" to us in one way or another. But doesn't the notion of attempting to hear from God about every little detail of life tend to discount the need for living in faith - the need for faith in the perfect faith of Christ? And don't our lives often contain things that bring doubt and fear? Don't we sometimes face unresolved issues? And yet are we not reassured by Jesus' enduring promise to never leave or forsake us (even if it might "feel" that he has)? In this regard, I appreciate Christian Kettler's book, "The God Who Believes: Faith, Doubt, and the Vicarious Humanity of Christ."

I have seen some of the unintended consequences that come from a reliance on the approach advocated in WWG. It tends to create two groups of people - one claiming to hear regularly from God, and another that feels somewhat inadequate (even guilty) because they can't seem to hear from God in the same way as the other group.

I conclude by noting that there are no perfect books that contain perfect teaching, but I have significant reservations about WWG and thus do not recommend it. Any comments and insights readers of this blog might have would be appreciated.

Comments

  1. Anonymous9/05/2009

    I have read WWG by Eldredge, and noted that his "listening to God" process is not that different from what others have said before (i.e., Dallas Willard in "Hearing God"). Although I understand your concern with any attempts to manipulate God, I view Eldredge's suggestions more as a way of tuning in to God (quieting our minds) rather than magical thinking (like an incantation). It's helpful to offer a model when learning something new, with the understanding that each individual will mold it to themselves.
    I think that some people are more wired to "hear" God from reading,studying, and teaching, not even realizing that God is speaking to and through them, while others have a more mystical bent which seems, at first glance, to be questionable or not based on "fact."
    There is a danger in thinking one approach is better or more valid than the other, instead of seeing our Triune God seeking expression to us and through us according to the way we were created.

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  2. I appreciate this response. A way of communing with God that is helpful for one, may not be for another.

    We must always take care not to limit how God works by reducing our response to God to some sort of one-size-fits-all formula. To do so is to risk diminishing the freedom we have in the dynamic (non-magical) relationship we are given with God in our union with Jesus.

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  3. Anonymous9/07/2009

    I have no doubt that God desires to relate intimately with His creation. His actions from the time of Adam and Eve to the time of Jesus' incarnation and beyond evidence that fact.

    I have no doubt that it was and continues to be the initiative of God that keeps us being drawn to Him. Were it not for His action in our lives, we would not be drawn to Him at all.

    He wants the relationship, and He makes it possible for us to want the relationship. Ultimately, it begins and ends with Him. It succeeds and remains alive because of His solid, unwavering commitment, even when our own is so often porous and compromised.

    Given that He wants the intimacy, and we want the intimacy (admitting to our own conflicted desires), why does there appear to be such silence on the part of God when we seek His advice? Why do we need to beg Him for a year to show us how to hear His voice? Why do we have to experiment with different prayer formulas, as Eldredge seems to have done, and I have done in times of despair, as if a different combination of consonants and vowels changes the deepest desires of the heart, desires that God already knows?

    I don't doubt that God is here with us, but I sometimes wonder what He's doing while He's here with us, and I don't mean that disrespectfully. We can long for Him with every fiber of our being, to the point that we have to admit that we have nothing left to offer, and yet silence is the only response that can be sensed.

    I respect Eldredge's efforts, but something is missing in his approach as you've described it. Something very fundamental must be happening in the spirit and by the Spirit when we cry out in heartfelt prayer, but I must admit that I don't know what it is.

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  4. Dear anonymous,

    I'm deeply moved by your heartfelt comment concerning prayer.

    I'd like to invite other Surprising God readers to share their thoughts in reply to your important comment.

    -Ted

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  5. I want to thank anon. of 9/7 for his truthful and helpful comments. Here's how I would summarize my own thoughts about it: what kind of passive-aggressive, manipulative being demands that we jump through the hoops described in Eldredge's (and a thousand other) books on God's will?

    Can you imagine being married to a person who made you say "is this what you want? what about this? what about this?" ad nausea? Such a marriage would be hell.

    I think modern Christianity has grossly over-complicated the subject of God's will because we keep talking about "God" instead of talking and thinking about our Daddy in heaven, his Spirit, and his Son as the man Jesus Christ in union with all humanity and all creation. Eldredge, and others, all start with a functionally unitarian God who is distant and separated from us and creation and then try to figure him out apart from the basic question "who is Jesus?"

    Here's my very brief attempt to think about my own seeking of God's will and voice from a Trinitarian perspective:
    I get up in the morning and say "God, what do you want me to do?" The answer is silence.
    Then I think of how much my Father loves me and how he has included me in his life through Jesus. I am secure - it doesn't matter what I do today, good or bad, I will always be the beloved son in Jesus that my Daddy in heaven has always wanted. I realize that I am only able to think of these things because the Holy Spirit is constantly speaking into my soul the assurance of my adoption into the Triune Life every minute of every day. Perhaps there is some specific word that my Daddy has to tell me. If so, he will speak it clearly to me through Jesus, in the Spirit, when the time is right. In the mean time, I don't need to sit around worrying about it. My Daddy has already told me the most important thing I ever need to know: I am his in Jesus - and so is everyone I will meet today. If he has a specific task for me to accomplish, he'll let me know, I don't need to worry about it.

    Having experienced that baptism of assurance, I think proceed with my day. My kids need breakfast, I fix it for them, just like Jesus would do if they were his kids - will of God accomplished. My wife tells me she loves me, just like Jesus, his Father, and their Spirit do - Jesus has just spoken to me through my wife and told me that I am loved. A member of my church calls and needs someone to talk to - I listen for half an hour - will of God accomplished once again. I see the single mom two doors down struggling to get her mower started, I go help - will of God accomplished again!

    That night as I fall asleep I say "Daddy, thank you for letting me be a part of creation and humanity together with you, your Son, and your Spirit."

    I'll finish with a little confession. I haven't read Eldredge's book and I probably never will. I've stopped reading Christian writing that isn't fully immersed and rooted in the Trinity. Which pretty much rules out 95% of modern Christian writing. It's not that there aren't nuggets of good information in these books. And it's not that Eldredge isn't my brother in Christ - he is. It's just that I find it too damaging to my soul to think of anything else in the world other than the assurance of how Jesus has baptized me, humanity, and the whole creation into his life with our Daddy and their Spirit.

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  6. Anonymous9/19/2009

    This is a followup to my Anonymous comments of September 7.

    I appreciate Pastor Jonathon's response. Maybe prayer and discerning God's will has been overcomplicated by Christianity today. With regard to the latter, unless God makes His will otherwise clearly shown, discerning it may primarily be a matter of acting on the opportunities to love and serve in Jesus' name that confront us every day.

    My concern is less with God's will per se and more with the relational aspects of Trinitarian theology, since that appears to be one of its fundamental points.

    Again, God wants intimacy with us, and He gives us the desire to want intimacy with Him. Trinitarian theology is about the relationship, the binding together of one life to another.

    But if that's truly the case, where is God in times of crisis? Where is God during the crisis of divorce, during the crisis of a child's unwanted pregnancy, during the crisis of the death of a loved one, during the crisis of destitution brought on by a recession? I could go on and on.

    Where was God when Habakkuk wrote, "How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?" Where was God when the writer of Psalm 22 wrote, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent." Or the writer of Psalm 88, "Why, O Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?"

    God was there, and none of these writers had any doubt about it. And so they kept pleading, they kept begging Him for help, for some little bit of guidance, for a hint of how to deal with their personal crises. THEY YEARNED FOR A SENSE OF HIS PRESENCE. And yet they felt ignored and rejected.

    If a friend came to me in a time of crisis and I ignored him, how would God look on my inaction. God expects us to act, even if our action is nothing more than making our presence felt. If nothing else, the friend would not feel alone in the time of trial. And yet the writers cited above felt alone. They weren't alone, they knew God was there, but they had no sense of what He was doing. By their own candid admission, they had no sense of even His reassuring presence AT THE TIME THEY NEEDED IT MOST.

    Frankly, I am trying to reconcile the practical experience of those who have no sense of His presence in a time of crisis with God's stated desire for intimacy as emphasized in Trinitarian theology. If God wants intimacy and we want intimacy, why isn't there more intimacy at the time it's needed most?

    During these periods of God's seeming silence and in the times of our most anguished prayers, something very fundamental must be happening in the deepest recesses of our hearts and minds. I don't believe for a moment that God is actually ignoring us or has rejected us. But from the Trinitarian perspective, what's going on?

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  7. I appreciate the responses to this blog post. They remind us that God's way of working among us can not be reduced to some sort of formula, no matter how attractive that formula may seem, or how successful it may be for an individual or even for a particular group.

    Certainly we can (and should) learn from one another's experiences with Jesus - but always we look first to Jesus, and we allow the Spirit to do his amazing, and often mysterious work among us, as he leads us deeper in sharing in Jesus' love and life. A principal tool the Spirit uses is Holy Scripture, our objective guide for the journey forward with Jesus, in the Spirit.

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  8. I liked Ted's latest post in that he mentioned God's (and when I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit!) "often mysterious work among us." I have been struck by that word in scripture. There is a mystery about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit...still. Kind of like the mystery of a woman? Maybe, but bigger, more... something. I do like that about God. The mystery of God is attractive and frustrating at the same time, isn't it? So, we spend our lives here on earth, like Paul, wanting to "know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead." (Philippians 3:10) Knowing Christ (verse 8 NLT) has infinite value! Everything else, by comparision, is garbage! We pursue him during this life, as he reveals more to us and draws us more and more by the light of his Son by his Spirit but it is only at the end, "when he shall appear...(that) we shall see him as he is." (I John 3:2) In glory. Even then, I don't think we'll totally comprehend our awesome Triune God! But that's OK. One of the mysterys of our life in the Trinity is pain. Our world is immersed in it, and we suffer daily. Paul said later in Philippians 3 that he wanted to "suffer with him, sharing in his death." If we've lived any time at all, we know that our loving God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) works in the midst of bloody, unfathomable suffering and pain. We've seen it, we've read about it, and we've experienced it. It drives us to our knees to cry out, if we will let it. What a mystery. Through Christ's pain, our tortured minds are healed - what a mystery! In closing, I'd like to defend Eldredge a bit. In his little book "Epic," he talks about the mystery of the Trinity by sharing the story of his childhood. Growing up in Los Angeles, as a teen, he was prone to wanderings that led his parents to ship him off to his grandfather's ranch in eastern Oregon. He described life there as a pre-existing communion of family and neighbors. This fellowship of people had been living a life of love and inclusion before Elldredge was born. When he arrived, he was drawn up into it with acceptance and love. Elldrege's point was that we come into this universe where there has pre-existed a communion of fellowship and love into which we are purposefully drawn into and accepted into. It is a lovely description of the Triune Life.

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  9. Anonymous9/26/2009

    Just a brief comment about Pastor Jonathan's entry...I'm not sure you can critically evaluate a book without having read it. That said, I appreciate your practical application of "hearing God," and I think that most of the time, that's the way most of us hear God without even realizing it. It's good to acknowledge that, for we miss it too often, and in doing so, we fail to see the sacred in the ordinary.

    Eldredge's book, "Walking with God," is actually his personal journal over the course of a year. During that year, he was thrown from a horse and suffered a serious shoulder injury. He expresses the frustration of enduring pain, of not being healed immediately despite the fervent prayers of others, and all the other aspects of a crisis. I think he offers valuable insight (for the anonymous poster of 9/7 who wishes for a more certain feeling of God's presence in a tough situation)as he walks through this situation. Here's a quote from pg. 81: "When it comes to crises or events that really upset us, this I have learned: you can have God or you can have understanding. Sometimes you can have both. But if you insist on understanding, it often doesn't come. And that can create distance between you and God, because you're upset and demanding an explanation in order to move on, but the explanation isn't coming, and so you withdraw a bit from God and lose the grace that God is giving. He doesn't explain everything. But he always offers us himself."
    I think Eldrege's book offers insight that shouldn't be dismissed because he doesn't spell out that his theology is trinitarian. Much of his insight, in my opinion, does jive with trinitarian doctrine, although I'm not sure about his stance on evil spirits and their influence on us.

    I read a lot of books by Christian authors, and much of the time, I don't think they offer me anything I didn't already know. Those books I recycle or donate. This book has remained on my shelf because, for me, it offers a realistic view of a walk with God, the ups and downs and trying to make sense of it all. For those who would like to see snippets from the book in video form, Eldredge provides short personal videos at www.walkingwithgod.net.
    Thanks for the discussion on this!
    Nan

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