Not crazy about Crazy Love

I came late to Francis Chan’s Crazy Love party.  I heard about it a couple of years ago, and more and more people I love and respect were beginning to talk about it.  Which is why I have been hesitant to be in the least critical of the book.

I finally gave in and decided to read it about nine months ago.  I loved the first few chapters.  I didn’t think they were revolutionary or anything, but Chan didn’t write as if he was saying something revolutionary.  He wrote with an earnestness, reminding us of basic but important things, like the big, huge, amazing love of God, our constant vulnerability to death and other unexpected things (how small we are), and God’s right to run the world the way he chooses.

So far so good.  But after the first few chapters, the tone of the book began to change.  Crazy Love moves into a discussion of what is wrong with Christians today, taking on the perennial pastor’s-favorite-topic — apathy and lack of vitality in the expression of American Christian faith.  As a pastor myself for 15 years, I do not dispute that the American church is languishing and have no problem with Chan pointing out the problem.  It is the solution that bothers me.

One chapter of Chan’s book is basically a list of ways that you can know if you are one of the apathetic Christians Chan is writing about.  In a later chapter, he lists the qualities that are possessed by passionate Christians.  In other words, here’s what bad Christians look like, and here’s what good Christians look like.  How do you get to be one of the good Christians?

Chan’s answer: try harder to grasp the relentless (crazy) love of God, stop being apathetic, and start doing the stuff passionate Christians do.  The whole book works toward this solution to the problem of apathy in the church; and Christians all over America (many whom I respect very much) are crazy about Crazy Love.  The problem is that this solution isn’t a solution.  This solution strikes me like a psychologist who, upon being told by a client that the client is depressed, responds, “Well cheer up, man!  Think of all the good things in your life.  Here’s a list of things happy people do.  Go out this week and do those things, and you’ll be all set.”

Now without question this would work for some people.  It is true that all some depressed people need is to start doing the things happy people do, and they will begin feeling happier.  But this solution misses something huge: depression is more than the cause of a lack of happiness.  It is often a symptom of much deeper issues that are going on, and until those deeper issues are addressed, the depression will remain.  Just telling people to cheer up (and making sure they know how bad they are for being depressed in the first place) is not going to help them the majority of the time.

Chan kind of seems to assume that if bad Christians just start acting like good Christians, things would be better.  But he also decries the kind of legalism that would be satisfied with merely external changes in behavior.  He clearly wants this to be a deep, heart thing.  (I certainly never doubted the passion of Chan’s own faith.)  Chan’s solution, like the psychologist’s, misses something huge: apathy is more than the cause of lack of passion, but apathy is a symptom of much deeper spiritual issues that are going on.  Just telling people to act like more passionate Christians (and making sure they know how bad they are for being apathetic in the first place) is not going to help them the majority of the time.

Chan’s approach reminds me in some ways of 18th and 19th century preachers, who would just hammer and hammer on sin and tell people to cut it out and remind them of the spiritual danger they were in if they didn’t give up their sin.  This may (and without doubt did) bring in large numbers of converts, but I’m not convinced that it led to wholeness in people, or an understanding of the very kind of love Chan so much wants his readers to experience.

I think a big problem in the church, ironically, is that many Christians have grown up under years of teaching similar to Chan’s.  When we sit under teaching that tells us what we should do, makes it clear how terrible it is that we’re not already doing what we should do (Chan tries to be gentle about this in several places, but this is what he proceeds to do anyway), and then tells us what we should be doing, now go out and start doing it, something critical is missed in the human soul.  There is a reason that people who know what they should be doing aren’t already doing it, and the gap between what most people know they should do and what they are actually doing is usually filled with guilt.  Ultimately I see Chan’s book just piling on more of that guilt, and doing little to actually bridge the gap.  As I said, most Christians know what they should be doing, and there’s a reason they’re not doing it.

What is that reason?  Lack of spiritual formation.  Jesus made clear that what comes out of us proceeds from what is most deeply within us (Mt. 12:34, 35).  If this is true, then simply changing external behavior is not usually going to lead to a real change of heart within (changing behavior without the underlying heart change is the essence of the hypocrisy Jesus points out in the Sermon on the Mount).  What leads to a change of heart is enrolling in Christ’s school of discipleship, and beginning to learn how to do what Jesus said to do: how to cultivate his character (because no amount of “acting as if” is going to give that to us), how to understand his mind, and how to increasingly come to live in the moment-to-moment reality of — yep — God’ s crazy love.  There’s a big difference between saying on the one hand, “God’s love for you is HUGE – think about it for a while and then go do this,” and saying on the other hand, “God’s love for you is HUGE – here’s how to enter into that love, to live it, to experience it, to feel it in your bones and know it in your deepest heart.”  The message of Christ (and of scripture in general, evidenced in many places, such as Psalm 1, Psalm 16, and John 15:1-17), is that we are to live in the light of the reality of God’s love.  But the message, also, is that simply being told to do this isn’t enough — we must learn to do it.  That is what discipleship is.  Discipleship, literally, is learning.

I don’t think Crazy Love is taking the church in the right direction.  The church is not going to be changed because Francis Chan (or anyone else) clearly wrote out what bad Christians do, what good Christians do, and explained that if you really love God you’ll start doing what the good Christians do (which, of course, is precisely the approach most preachers take).  What if the problem is that a lot of the Christians who might fit into the category of “lukewarm” simply don’t grasp the love of God?  Are the first few chapters of Chan’s book going to fix that?  Of course not.  What will fix it is teaching our people how to abide in Christ — to be conformed to him in word, thought, and deed, in the process of discipleship (written on much better by guys like Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, etc.).  In that process, some of Chan’s suggestions will no doubt end up being things that we determine to do as disciplines, to help us live more fully in the love of God.  In that way they can bring life.  But if we simply adopt the practices of passionate Christians because we think that is what will make us more spiritual, we’re in for disappointment — and more guilt.  No matter how hard we try, we cannot glue the fruit to the tree.  It has to come out of who we are becoming.

In my next post I will address what I believe accounts for the success of Crazy Love.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. A request for me to defend some of my comments does not obligate me to do so.

  • I think what’s coming out here is the reformed root of Chan’s thinking. If the problem with Christian apathy is that the elect just need to be woken up and live into their regeneration, then you don’t need to do a lot more than say GOD REALLY LOVES YOU (and if you don’t feel that way, it’s because He hates you and decided before time to damn you). This points to the Pelagianism at the core of the doctrine of graces. If God has picked his team ahead of time, then the way to “prove” that you’re on his team is to talk about how “amazing” God is all the time and hide from yourself the fact that you’re earning your salvation with doctrinal patriotism. Crazy Love sounds like a rewrite of Piper’s Desiring God (which has good points in it but has a very creepy “If you’re not excited about God, then you might be damned” subtext). We should absolutely enjoy God in all things but when we justify ourselves by “glorifying” God, then that’s no different than the terrified applause that North Korean schoolchildren erupt into when Kim Jong Il comes to speak at their school. The biggest problem in reformed thinking is its reliance on nominalism. When Calvin read Augustine’s words about enjoying God, he was operating from a completely different ontology than the sacramental perspective Augustine had. At least that’s the thesis for the dissertation I may write one day. It’s entirely different to talk about enjoying God when you understand Him to be the source of all being (sacramentalism) versus an entirely detached and transcendent outsider who intervenes in creation but doesn’t emanate creation (nominalism).

  • nathan

    Serious concept for thinking Christians — thinking, being, and not just mindlessly doing — though that would be easier.

  • Dave … I’m there with you on this information. Funny, how sometime the “religious community” is so hungry for something — someone — to rally around. I appreciate Chan and others who are looking for a fresh take on faith, but … guess I’m not a “band wagon jumper.” Thanks for a thoughtful, alternative view to some of this stuff!

    • wildwinddave

      Thanks for checking out the blog, Gina. After the recent overhaul of the site, it feels good to be back up and running again.

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  • Mindi Cromwell

    Dave,

    I, too, came late to “Crazy Love” and I, too, couldn’t figure out why I not “feeling the love” that everyone around me was feeling in regards to Chan. I haven’t taken the time to really sit and think it out, but your post has made me go back and think about my issues with “Crazy Love.” I recently read “Acedia & Me” by Kathleen Norris and in many ways this book highlighted many of my own issues with CL. (I highly recommend “Acedia & Me” by the way) In the end, Norris’ account of her own struggle with depression (really, Acedia, but you need to read the book to get into the distinction)avoids that all too common naval gazing prose and instead draws a profound picture of the state of many of our souls. In the end, I think books like CL make it seem so easy to turn your life around…and, it usually does seem easy at first…but then as your real life impinges there are more and more issues to deal with. “Acedia” deals with those life-long issues that many of us need to learn to overcome over our whole lives. Okay, that was a spur of the moment response and I need to reexamine all of this..but those are my thoughts on a Sunday afternoon.

    • I will definitely check out the Norris book. All I know about acedia is that I think it’s a term the desert father’s originated that has to do with a feeling of emptiness or heaviness in life. But even that is sketchy. I’m not sure how or if it equates to the dark night of the soul. I’d be especially interested in those nuances that distinguish it from depression.

      I was starting to wonder if I was the only one who had misgivings about the Chan book.

  • Dana

    Read this book early on this year and came to the same thought pattren you did. I kept waiting for Chan to tell me how to grasp the love of Christ he was talking about. All I found out was that I was a “bad” christian and just need to start doing a list of things and my Christianity would change.
    It was not until I started learning and reading about spiritual formation that I have seen what is involved with finding the love that produces the fruit.

    • That’s it. HOW DO I DO THIS? That’s what people need to hear, and the answer, like Mindi indicates below, will be one that will take a while to deal with.