23 September 2011

Stunned, sidelined and stymied by Sarkicophobia

by Dan Phillips
From 2009; Brian Thomasson (then of David C. Cooke) suggested that this post might be a good sparking idea for a book. I mulled it over, worked up a much larger vision, and the result was The World-Tilting Gospel, in which Chapter Twelve develops these ideas at greater length.
New year — new word! Sarkicophobia.


In the NT, the term σαρκικός (sarkikos) is commonly translated "fleshly" or "carnal." It is an adjective derived from sarx, "flesh," and means belonging to the flesh, pertaining to the flesh. It occurs in Romans 15:27; 1 Corinthians 3:3 [twice]; 9:11; 2 Corinthians 1:12; 10:4; and 1 Peter 2:11. Sometimes it is used simply of material things (Romans 15:27; 1 Corinthians 9:11), and sometimes of attitudes or thinking that is dominated by the flesh (i.e. unredeemed, un-Christian thinking or attitudes; 1 Corinthians 3:3; 2 Corinthians 1:12).

Formation: Unlike nomicophobia, there actually is an existing (if little-used) English word to use: sarkic. The rest is easy.

Meaning: I would use this of folks who so fear obeying God "in the power of the flesh" that they'd rather do nothing, than do something carnal. Whatever their theory, their practice can be summed up in this motto: better to disobey God outright, than obey Him in the flesh! Or, Better do nothing for God's glory, than do something fleshly for God's glory!

The result is not only paralysis, but a particularly repulsively and repugnantly pious form of paralysis. You dursn't confront these folks for their sin in disobeying God. Do that, and you mark yourself as shallow and — well, carnal! Because clearly, you don't understand: when they disobey God, it's really because they love God so much! It's because they just want Jesus to be all, and God to be all, and themselves to be nothing, like little lead soldiers melted down into the big molten vat of Godness.

It's the "thinking" that underlies the ever-popular (and never-Biblical) mantra for daily living: Let Go and Let God.

Illustration: reading Andrew Murray and the "higher life" sorts will freeze you up like this. Murray will so terrify you of the thought of acting in the flesh, that you'll collapse into goo. You will want to be a glove on Jesus' hand, moving only when He moves, dissolving into nothing that He may be all in all.

Among these folks, it's all clothed with (masked in?) gloriously spiritual and mystical language, and sounds absolutely wonderful. I mean — who wouldn't want that? What Christian wouldn't like to quit striving and struggling and battling and sweating and groaning... and failing? What Christian wouldn't like to be so mastered by Jesus that he lives and breathes and emanates Jesus, so that Jesus lives through Him in the sense of replacing his will and responsibility?

Again, this is seen in the phrase: "Stop trying to live the Christian life, and let Jesus live it through you!"

Aside: do you see, though, that this only moves the goal, the marker? It doesn't remove it? The idea is that I stop getting my grubby hands all over everything, and let Jesus control everything. Stop trying to do things right — in fact, that's the problem: I keep trying to do things right. And that's wrong. I have to stop trying, and let Jesus do it.

Okay, so then... why isn't He? Who's stopping Him? Well, I am. Because I haven't let Him right. I haven't yielded right. I haven't adopted the right resting, yielding attitude.

So you see, it's still me, me, me. It's just that we've moved the focus from my obeying right, in faith and by grace (which is an explicitly Biblical focus), to my yielding right (which is not). And I still fail, because I have to strike the right mystical attitude to shift into "J" for Jesus-life. If I'm not there, there's something more for me to do.

So even apart from being un-Biblical, it's nonsensical. It collapses on itself.

Anecdote: I was infected with this very early in my Christian life. It seemed natural enough to me because of its similarity to the cultic teaching from which I'd been saved. Then we believed that God was all and in all, and we just needed to "manifest" the God-life. This teaching is very similar, only it focuses more on Jesus rather than the mysticized redefinitions of Religious Science.

So, like J. I. Packer and many Americans as well, I tried and tried. That is, I tried not to try. I tried to melt... er, that is, to let myself be melted. (But wait, if I'm doing the not-doing... if it takes me to not take me to... whoa, like I said, this gets really confusing....) And, like J. I. Packer, it made me pretty miserable.

But my circle of Christian friends was also infected, and we all had the same fear: acting "in the flesh." We were afraid of going to church in the flesh, witnessing of Christ in the flesh, praying in the flesh, studying the Word in the flesh, obeying the Word in the flesh. So, for fear of doing any of those things in the flesh, we'd stop doing them altogether. Some of us could be pretty smug about it, too, and could look down on others who were very energetically involved in church, witnessing, and holy living — but we were pretty sure that it was, you know, in the flesh.

It came to a head for me in my first course of pastoral training. It's quite a long story in itself, but the bottom line is that I'd gone from being a lazy, undisciplined student before my conversion, to being very committed to immersing myself in Greek so as to master the New Testament.

But many of my fellow-students wouldn't. They wouldn't study too hard, get into it too deeply. Why? Whyever not?

You've already guessed: all that studying was in the flesh.

The effect of sarkicophobia on me was that I was ever taking my spiritual pulse, ever checking within, freezing up, paralyzed, spiraling down into deeper and deeper morbid introspection. In the name of "looking to Jesus" (revealed in His Word) I was constantly looking to myself, within myself.

And so what should I do? Should I leave off the hard, sweaty, grueling work of study and "let God," for fear of studying in the flesh?

In short: God set me free. Somewhere around that time I began to realize how comparatively simple, straightforward, and in-broad-daylight New Testament Christianity was. Never ever did you see an apostle or Christian on the side of the road, locked in a whirlpool of introspection over serving God by Spirit-enabled, faith-motivated, grace-empowered obedience to Gospel commands in the flesh. Nor did we ever read of an apostle issuing a series of commands in Christ's name, then immediately cautioning his readers against obeying them in the flesh.

Nor was the concept of flesh introduced by Paul to make Christian living more complicated. True, he depicted the fact that the flesh complicates Christian living (Romans 7:14-25); but he never compounds the issue by horror-stories of grace-saved, born-again, Spirit-baptized Christians living for God's glory in the flesh — as if it were some sort of indefinable mystical state of being, more powerful than the Holy Spirit and the new nature.

True, the apostles warned against pride, arrogance, lust, covetousness, divisiveness, bitterness and such things; and, true, these are works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21). But Paul says those works are "obvious, apparent, plainly evident" (Galatians 5:19). Never would Paul have interrupted an aglow, on-fire, Christ-loving Christian from telling the Gospel, and told him to go to his closet and stop witnessing until he was sure he wasn't doing it in the flesh.

And so I decided — about Greek and a great many other things. I'd give it everything God gave me to give, out of love for Christ, and to be of use to His church. And if it made me arrogant, I'd take the arrogance to the Cross, and deal with it. And get on with keeping His commands.

Because that's what love for God is (1 John 5:3), and that's what people who love Jesus do (John 15:14)..

I wasn't going to use sarkicophobia as an excuse to avoid all-out living for God's glory, through grace, by the Spirit's power, in obedience to the commands of God.

In sum: sarkicophobia creates people locked in perpetual self-absorption in the name of Christ, ever taking their spiritual pulse, immune to direct appeals from Scripture to believing obedience. The last thing it produces is Christ-centered, God-glorifying, robust, hearty, daring, fruitful, pioneering, world-rejecting Devil-defying Christians.

And that's a bad thing.

Dan Phillips's signature


Anonymous said...

You know this exctly what I have been struggling with having escaped the doctrines of Pietism,...

Chaotic Order said...

I just bought your book. It's funny you posted this today as I just wrote an email to my pastor the other day talking about roughly the same thing.

John Dunn said...

The struggle with the "flesh" has long been viewed in terms of a deeply personal and individualistic spiritual battle. This is the result of our Western worldview, the very lenses which we wear when reading the NT. We view the "flesh" only in personal terms and not in its proper corporate dimension. A fantastic new book in the evangelical world seeks to correct our Western view of the Scriptures and give us a corporate Jewish understanding of the Gospel.

May I commend to you, "Romans: The Divine Marriage" by Tom Holland.



Blessings to all!

lee n. field said...

sarkicophobia creates people locked in perpetual self-absorption in the name of Christ, ever taking their spiritual pulse, immune to direct appeals from Scripture to believing obedience.

Ending with either a Pharisee, or someone who rightly despairs of pulling it off.

And, of course, how do distinguish what's Jesus working through you from you yourself? We're back to discerning bumps and urges and signs. All very superstitious.

(Dan, have not yet ordered out WTG. Soon, soon. I came back from youth sunday at church and decided Christian Smith's Soul Searching was probably a more urgent read.)

Esther said...

I once spent an entire 4 hours trying to "Let go and let God". I determined that I would not do anything at all that day unless God specifically told me to do it. Figured I'd avoid sinning that way, too.
Then the baby cried because she needed changing. I changed her and came back to my seat. The older children awoke and needed breakfast. I sighed, fed them, and returned to my seat. The phone rang, and I answered it, to find a friend needing prayer. I prayed with her, hung up the phone and trudged, frustrated back to my seat. How could I hear God with all these interruptions? Didn't He want me to hear Him? Or was it that I was too spiritually deaf? Oh, yeah, that was probably it. I was too deaf. So I listened harder--but nothing came, and the interruptions continued.
I'm a weak person. 4 hours was all I could take it. I ended the day certain that I was a complete failure at Christianity. It was years later that I realized i WAS hearing from God, and He WAS directing and guiding my life every minute of every day...and I laughed, and still laugh at myself out of joy and gratefulness to God, Who works in me both to will and to do of His good pleasure.

This quote made me realize something I need to adjust:
>>And if it made me arrogant, I'd take the arrogance to the Cross, and deal with it. And get on with keeping His commands.<<
I'll spare you the details, but thanks for the ouch.

Cathy said...

Loved this the first time I read it- still love it. Haven't made it to that chapter in TWTG yet.
In some Christian circles, to "obey" God's clear commands at all = works righteousness.
It's okay to study and know God's Word, but when you start trying to actually apply it - whooaaa, now you've gone too far.

ANiMaL (richard) said...


I started reading and was thinking, oh bother; who in the world is he talking about? This some sort of straw man?

Wow, was I off base.

Thank you. This last year I was deeply struck by Philippians 3:12-14, and the general theme of running the race to obtain the prize. What an antithesis to "Sarkicophobia".

Ebeth said...

Been there and still this is something I struggle with. It is a unbiblical paradox and paradigm, and I thank God for helping me see that. Philippians 2:12-13 helped and help me greatly.

Rachael Starke said...

lee field - Brother, the "Soul Searching" book won't tell you anything that we don't already know about the problem. And TWTG, IMHO, is a tremendous antidote to the problem, for anyone from jr. high age up.

Just my humbly offered $.02. :)

mike said...

I also encountered this teaching decades ago when I was a new believer. I still remember one pastor trying to teach that Exodus 4: 2-4 where Moses' staff was turned into a serpent then back into a staff meant that if you weren't sufficiently yielded and pietistic any work you tried to do for God "had a snake in it." Talk about immobilizing.

Kenan said...

Great article, Dan. It's a good way to start off the Spring.

I'm looking forward to reading your book once I return to the US.

pdug said...

Philip Cary's Good News for Anxious Christians is also a good antidote against this tendency