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No Shortcuts to Growth

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I’m still amazed whenever I see the bumper sticker that reads, “Visualize world peace.” The idea is that if I, and enough other people, create the right mental picture of peace, it will soon come to pass. It’s astounding that some people actually believe that silly technique will bring about such a desirable goal.

Then, there’s the popular “Coexist” bumper sticker. You may have seen it, the one spelled out with the symbols of different religions—the Islamic crescent forming the C, the Christian cross forming the T, and so on. The idea seems to be that if we religious people would just stop focusing on our differences, we could achieve world harmony. If we understood that our beliefs are all ultimately the same, all of the problems of war and strife would go away.

The funny thing is, we’ll reject such sentiments when they appear on a bumper sticker, but we’ll accept them elsewhere. How many business seminars promise increased profit if we only focus on the positive or visualize a goal? Eastern mysticism, where much of the bumper-sticker theology we’re talking about finds its ultimate origin, dresses it up with more acceptable religious practices. Meditate regularly, repeating a mantra as you visualize the oneness of all things, and the human race will move toward unity. But there’s also a version sold to us as the Christian key for victorious living. Speak your desire, claim it’s yours in Jesus’ name, visualize it will happen, and then it will be yours. Your healing, wealth, relationship success, happy family, improved marriage will come as soon as you name it and claim it or practice the power of positive thinking.

We’re looking for the right technique, the secret that will turn our wishes into reality. We laugh at the world’s spiritual magic, only to baptize it and practice it ourselves. We’ll read Scripture hoping to find the shortcut to spiritual growth while missing the true but non-shortcut answer—the key is not in the Bible; it is the Bible.

One reason we look for spiritual shortcuts is related to our modern age where shortcuts and rapid results abound. We can quickly relieve pain with medicine, find our way to restaurants with our smartphones, and get immediate answers to our questions online. These aren’t inherently bad things, but they tend to foster false expectations. If technology can relieve our illnesses and make our jobs easier, it surely can give rest to our souls, right?

We assume the answer is yes, and there are all too many “experts” out there who’ll encourage that assumption. Just look at the self-help section at your local bookstore, even at your local Christian bookstore. Book after book promises to hold the key to our happiness in twelve steps or less. The fact that none of the promises pan out doesn’t deter people from buying those books or new authors from repackaging old, ineffective answers in fancier dress.

But we can’t ultimately blame our search for shortcuts on modern technology. Our innate desire since the fall for autonomy, to be masters of our own fates, drives us to search out soul-building techniques that will improve us. We see our faith not as an end in itself but as a means to greater fulfillment. Evangelists routinely implore people to come to Christ, saying that He will make them happier, more confident in themselves, and more spiritual. Jesus becomes a means to improve our marriages and finances while releasing us from all manner of compulsions and negative character traits.

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1939–2017: founder of @Ligonier, founding pastor of Saint Andrew’s Chapel, and first president of @RefBibleCollege.