The following is a guest post by Casey McCall, Student Ministry Director at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, KY.
“I just wish I had a better work schedule. If only my shift would change to that of a normal person, I don’t think I would be struggling the way I am.” The young man who uttered those words sat in my office, discouraged over his perceived inability to thrive in the Christian life. He’s not the first person to express such sentiments to me in the context of biblical counseling. In fact, I believe this type of thinking marks the dominant way most American evangelicals approach the Christian life. “If only my job situation would improve, then I could be the husband God calls me to be.” “If only God would give me a wife, then I wouldn’t look at pornography,” which becomes, after marriage, “If only my wife would just try harder to please me sexually, then I wouldn’t look at pornography.”
In my ministry context, we call this outlook on the Christian life “Utopian Spirituality.” Here I’m also calling this mindset “If Only…” Christianity, because true thriving as a Christian is always an “if only…” away. It is the belief that there’s some point in the future when all of one’s life circumstances will finally become ideal in enabling him or her to live faithfully for Christ. It’s a view of life with a future focus, but it’s not the type of future focus that is rooted in the kingdom of Christ. Instead, Utopian Spirituality replaces the kingdom of Christ with a self-defined kingdom of ideal circumstances. When we live for the kingdom of Christ, we are able to live faithfully in the present, regardless of the situation. On the other hand, when we live for the utopian kingdom of self, we refuse to live faithfully in the present because of certain hindering phenomena that are beyond our control. Faithfulness and contentment, under this mentality, are always “out there”—beyond our grasp—awaiting ideal conditions. Utopian Spirituality is a lie from Satan himself, and it has devastating, soul-destroying consequences for followers of Christ.
Below I have outlined several dangers of “If Only…” Christianity:
1) “If Only…” Christianity denies the power of the gospel.
Peter seems to be attacking an early version of Utopian Spirituality when he writes to the first century church: “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence” (2 Pet. 1:3). Now I have no doubt that many of us face circumstances that are challenging as we seek to live in faithful obedience to our Lord, and I’m certainly not advocating insensitivity to such trials. Because of our sin and the ensuing curse, this world is a difficult place to live and all of our relationships are estranged—relationships with God, with other people, and with creation. Life is hard, and Peter certainly knew that. In fact, the early believers to whom Peter is writing likely faced persecution. And yet Peter does not shrink from reminding them that they possess in Christ everything they need, regardless of circumstances, to live godly lives.
All counseling must begin here. When people come for biblical guidance, they often come as people who lack hope. Many times scheduling an appointment with a pastor or counselor is a last resort. By the time they reach the point of seeking counsel, the repetitive cycle of folly in their hearts has likely blinded them from seeing the power of the gospel. We must remind them that hope for change does not lie in the distant future of their utopian dreamland. Circumstances may never change in this life, but the gospel brings the dead to life, causes the blind to see, and changes rebellious enemies to obedient sons.
My very first meeting with any counselee has only three goals: 1) get to know the counselee and their specific situation as well as possible, 2) shatter any utopian illusions about the process, and 3) inspire hope for change by reminding them of the power of the gospel. If they do not believe change is possible in the present, counseling is futile. If they do not start off believing change requires hard work, they will lose heart quickly. The gospel is powerful enough to change any human heart, but the person must be realistic about the fight that lies ahead.
2) “If Only…” Christianity completely misses the point of trials.
Utopian Spirituality looks at the various trials of life as hindrances to living for Jesus. However, the Bible presents trials as opportunities to live for Jesus. James writes, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jam. 1:2-4). The trials we encounter are not detrimental to living faithfully. Instead, they are ordained by God as the very means through which we grow. There is no growth apart from trials. Hebrews 2:10 tells us that Jesus himself was made “perfect through suffering.”
As we counsel people to think about their trials through the lens of the gospel, we must remind them that trials are not enemies to be avoided at all costs. Trials provide the necessary heat needed to refine us (1 Pet. 1:6-7). Utopianism may dream of paradisiacal conditions with the perfect spouse, an abundance of financial resources, and a stress-free job, but the present kingdom of God knows nothing of it. In fact, Jesus warns against this dream of trial-less Christianity when he asks, “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:25). If Utopian Spirituality is what you’re after, you pursue it at the expense of your soul. Christianity without the cross does not save; nor does it sanctify.
3) “If Only…” Christianity is not real life.
As long as we are awaiting the perfect conditions for growth, we will be waiting for the rest of our lives. The single woman just wants to be married, the married woman just wants kids, the married woman with kids just wants to get them to the next stage of childhood, and on and on. There’s always a more ideal setting off in the distance, and the process of getting there is unvalued. If you live your whole life pursuing the greener grass, you will look back one day and realize you wasted it.
All too often Utopian Spirituality manifests itself in the search for spiritual experiences. We look for mountain-top experiences where we feel closer to God, but God rarely meets us on mountaintops. Instead, he usually opts to show up in the mundane details of our daily lives. Christianity looks a lot more like daily plodding than Mount Sinai. Eugene Peterson calls it, “a long obedience in the same direction.” That vision may not look glamorous on the surface, but God tells us that’s exactly where we will find him—in the rides to baseball practice with the kids, the conversations around the dinner table, and the weekly meetings with our church small group. We must teach people to appreciate the dailyness of life in Christ. We must counter the vacation-mindset that values above all the manufacturing of memorable experiences with the kingdom mindset that calls us to faithfully grind it out wherever we are in the process.
4) “If Only…” Christianity debases both God and people.
When my utopian dream replaces God’s kingdom as the goal of my life, God becomes the servant of my utopian dream. He is no longer the end goal—the One worthy of my devotion and worship. He is now the means to my dreamed-up end. Functionally, once this happens, I become my own god, because I am the one determining where my life should be heading and what my life should look like on the way there. Utopian spirituality says to God, “My plan is better than your plan.” It’s the same deal Eve took in the Garden when Satan offered to make her “like God” (Gen. 3:5). It’s the same deal Satan offered to Jesus when he took him up on a very high mountain and offered him all the kingdoms of the world without the need to suffer on the cross (Matt. 4:8-11). Of course, Jesus opted for his Father’s eternal kingdom through the cross, and because of that righteous decision, you and I have access to that very same kingdom.
Our relationship with God is not the only relationship that gets debased by our pursuit of Utopia. When we pursue our own dreamed-up kingdoms, we see human relationships in functional terms as well. People become tools to be used, instead of image-bearers to be loved on their own terms. When we replace God’s kingdom with one of our own, we evaluate other people solely on their ability to help us reach our dreams. If you help me get what I want, I can appreciate you. However, if you hinder me from getting my desires, I despise you. Abortion, divorce, abuse, and anger are all tragic results of people getting in the way of our utopian dreams—sometimes the very people we claim to love the most. James asks, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?” (Jam. 4:1a). His response may seem surprising, “Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (Jam. 4:1b-2). Utopian spirituality and love cannot coexist.
As ministers of the gospel, we need to be aware of this tendency toward Utopian Spirituality so that we can gently squelch it at every opportunity. “If Only…” Christianity is an unrealistic enemy of the soul that denies the power of the gospel, misses the point of trials, and ruins our relationships with God and other people. True Christian growth can only happen when God’s kingdom in Christ is the dream we are pursuing—an eternal kingdom that is here now in the Spirit-filled community of the redeemed, but also not yet consummated. As we counsel our brothers and sisters in these last days, may we hold up the consummation of the kingdom of Christ as the only “If Only…” worth waiting for.