Has the Western Church forgotten God?

(Photo: Unsplash/MattBotsford)

Someone once said that if you took the Holy Spirit out of the Western Church, 90 per cent of what we do would carry on as if nothing had happened. As I reflected on recent sad events, and how the Church has reacted to them, it struck that there is a great deal of truth in that. And then I noticed in the Bible just how often God warns his people about the danger of forgetting Him:

"They forgot the God who saved them, who had done great things in Egypt." (Ps 106:21) "Then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." (Deuteronomy 8:14)

"You have forgotten God your Saviour; you have not remembered the Rock, your fortress." (Isaiah 17:10)

"Does a young woman forget her jewellery, a bride her wedding ornaments? Yet my people have forgotten me, days without number." (Jeremiah 2:32)

We don't really think about forgetting God. We will instinctively say "of course we remember Him". We use the language of God all the time. But should we be so quick to dismiss the divine charge. What if it is true?

Take the horrible situation with Ravi Zacharias. He taught about God but surely, he forgot Him. He forgot that God is omniscient, seeing and knowing all things. He forgot that human beings are made in the image of God; therefore to abuse them, is to abuse Him. He forgot the Day of Judgement, and the atoning sacrifice of Christ. He forgot that those who are teachers will be judged more harshly. He forgot the warning of Jesus, that on the last day there would be many who will say "Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name, and in your name have cast out devils, and didn't we do many wonderful things in your name?" and be told by Christ "I never knew you. Depart from me you that work iniquity" (Matthew 7:22).

It's easy to preach what we have forgotten and no longer feel.

Or what about the hope and trust that so many professing Christians put in Donald Trump (and some now in Joe Biden)? Have we forgotten that we are not to "put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save" (Psalm 146:3)? Have we forgotten that the Lord works by His methods, not ours?

There have been many words and declarations from Church leaders about Covid. But I suspect far more of them have just been echoes of health advice, political statements and vacuous spiritual truisms than they have been God speaking. Those who ask, 'Is there any word from the Lord?' are met with a deafening silence. Our priests are more politicians than prophets!

Then I read Brian McLaren's fascinating interview with CT on his new book "Faith after Doubt". We heard a great deal about white supremacy, American evangelicals, global warming, authenticity, belief and church – but precious little about God. Oh sure, we were given two caricature versions: the nasty controlling Deity who sends people to Hell, or the nice God of love and liberation who cares for all people. But these are more reflective of Brian's perception of right-wing vs progressive than they are of the God of the Bible. God has been reduced to a bit player in our politics – a supporting actor for our views. We doubt Him (even if He exists) but we seem to have enormous faith in ourselves and our political views.

We have so forgotten God and his precepts that we have become near-sighted and blind, forgetting we have been cleansed from our past sins (2 Peter 1:9). It was astonishing in the blame game that followed the Zacharias debacle how we struggled to mention God. David, after his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband stated, "Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight" (Psalm 51:3). David had forgotten this and thus was able to excuse even the harm he had done to others - until he was creatively reminded by the prophet Nathan just who he ultimately had sinned against.

We seem emotionally, if not intellectually, to have bought into Rousseau's version of God – "Of course he will forgive me, that is his job". We are far too quick to say, "they have sinned" rather than "we have sinned against the Lord" (Lamentations 5:16). As a result, we not only blame others, but we think we can fix it – with our inquiries, words, restructuring, courses and consultations. Who needs the Cross?!

We have forgotten that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding" (Proverbs 9:10). We are not wise but there is a wise word from the Lord, and it is the same that was given to Jeremiah:

"I have listened attentively, but they do not say what is right.

None of them repent of their wickedness, saying, 'What have I done?'

Each pursues their own course like a horse charging into battle.

Even the stork in the sky knows her appointed seasons,

and the dove, the swift and the thrush observe the time of their migration.

But my people do not know the requirements of the LORD." (Jeremiah 8:6-7)

And to Isaiah....

"All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;

we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.

No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you;

for you have hidden your face from us

and have given us over to our sins.

Yet you, LORD, are our Father.

We are the clay, you are the potter;

we are all the work of your hand" (Isaiah 64:6-8)

It is because we have forgotten God that we don't know the seriousness of sin. As Richard Sibbes in preaching on Jeremiah 8:6-7 points out: "Sin defiles our souls and takes away the sweet communion with God. It puts a sting in all our troubles, grieves the Spirit of God and does more harm that everything else in the world – nothing hurts us but sin, because nothing but sin separates us from God."

God does not tell us this to condemn us, but to cause us to flee to Christ. When the Holy Spirit tells us that "God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have", He gives us the reason: "because God has said, 'Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you" (Hebrews 13:4-5).

It is only when we forget God, forget his Word and reduce him to a tame god made in our own image, that we then turn away from Him and become shallow, self-obsessed, super spiritual hypocrites. If we paid more attention to what God says then surely that would do us far more good than all the pontificating of men? It is only in losing ourselves that we find ourselves.

In the Western Church today there is a famine of hearing the words of the Lord (Amos 8:11). Maybe it's time for us to remember, repent and be restored? The Lion has roared!

David Robertson is director of Third Space in Sydney and blogs at www.theweeflea.com