Christianity is NOT Problem-solving

Many conceive of Christianity as another power-bloc that should exert its resources to solving the world's problems. Christianity does not exist to solve all the world's problems, but to manifest the character of Christ in the midst of whatever problems may exist.

©1998 by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved.

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Christianity is NOT Religion series

   In raised gold letters over the ornate entrance, the sign read "Global Repair and Rehabilitation Enterprises." The corporate offices of this successful worldwide business were topped with a spire, and the windows were formed of stained-glass designed by the world's best artisans. The founder of this enterprise, Mr. J. C. Soterion, was known throughout the business world as "Mr. Fix-it." His hand-picked successors had built up the business with the stated objective to fix, correct and solve every problem known to man. By aggressive marketing and multinational franchising the incorporation was eventually able to engage in corporate diversification that allowed for specialization in every area of problem-solving. By the further development of political alliances with "the powers that be" throughout the world, this institution was engaged in every feasible solution to relieve, resolve and remedy the needs and problems of mankind.

   This tongue-in-cheek parody obviously portrays Christian religion and the institutional church as a business enterprise dedicated to solving all the problems of the world. Has not Christendom often projected this to be the objective of its religious business? Perhaps it is time to question and evaluate the legitimate objectives of Christianity.

   At the outset, one must admit that there are "a million and one," i.e. innumerable, needs and problems in the world today. In the fallen world-order of depraved humanity and the consequent corruption and perversion of all social structures and institutions, the needs and problems are never-ending. They go with the territory. They are part and parcel of the problematic nemesis brought on by the introduction of sin in the human race.

   The question is, though, "What can be done to resolve these needs and problems of mankind?" Can mankind, individually or collectively, find solutions and remedies to rectify the situation? Do Christians have any responsibility to attempt to deliver and "save" the fallen world-system from their problems? Jacques Ellul, French sociologist, historian of social institutions, professor of law, and an active Christian leader in the Reformed Church of France, asks the question thusly,

"Who tells us anyway that all human problems should or can be solved? Perhaps unsolved problems are more important for God than solutions are...since they remind us of man's sin and the divine redemption. Perhaps man's problems are so complicated and so badly put that they are in fact insoluble. The problem of wealth and poverty will never be solved except as it remains unsolved. The organized battle of the Church against temporal evils like slavery, intemperance, and national division runs into the same difficulties as the Crusades. Its experience gives us good reason to ask to what extent it is the church's mission to solve these temporal problems."1

   It is certainly legitimate to question whether it is the task of Christians to attempt to solve problems within the arena of the fallen world-order.

   The story of Daniel and King Belshazzar, recorded in the fifth chapter of Daniel (5:1-31), seems to set the stage for a consideration of whether we have any responsibility to engage in problem-solving in the context of the world-system. King Belshazzar, son of King Nebuchadnezzar, while in the midst of idolatrous carousing saw some handwriting on the wall. Disturbed by what he saw, he determined to seek an alliance with religion to interpret and solve the problem (a mutually expedient alliance throughout human history). Eventually Daniel the prophet was summoned to interpret the situation, be an "answer man," and "solve difficult problems" (cf. Dan. 5:12,16). King Belshazzar offered to reward and remunerate Daniel, to praise and promote him, but Daniel was not interested in the baubles and benefits of engaging in religio-political problem-solving, and told the King to "keep his gifts." Daniel was willing, however, to proclaim what God had revealed to him, and forthwith told the King that his life and kingdom was full of sin, didn't add up to the character of God, and would soon be decimated and brought to an end. That very night King Belshazzar was slain, and his kingdom was divided among the Medes and the Persians. Is there a "message" here that warns against the mutually expedient alliances that would seek to interpret, answer and "solve the difficult problems" of the world? Should Christians, likewise, be making a proclamation of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, which explains that He has "overcome the world" (Jn. 16:33), that "the ruler of this world has been judged" (Jn. 16:11), and "shall be cast out" (Jn. 12:31)?

   If we look at the life, ministry and redemptive efficacy of Jesus Christ perhaps we shall see even more clearly the pattern of approach to the world and its problems that Christians should have. British Bible teacher, Maj. W. Ian Thomas notes that

"the Lord Jesus Christ refused to be committed to the parochial needs of His own day and generation; He was not committed to the political situation in Palestine, or to the emancipation of the Jewish nation from the Roman yoke! He was not committed to the pressing social problems of His time, nor to one faction as opposed to another, any more than today He is committed to the West against the East, or to the Republicans against the Democrats (as though either were less wicked than the other!). Christ was not even committed to the needs of a perishing world; He was neither unmindful nor unmoved by all these other issues, but as Perfect Man He was committed to His Father, and for that only to which His Father was committed in Him ­ exclusively!"2

   Despite the incessant religious calls to respond to the "needs" of the world, and to dedicate and commit ourselves to solve the physical, psychological and spiritual problems of mankind, it does not appear that these guilt-producing obligations are consistent with Christian responsibility. Rather than being religiously committed to responding to and solving the problems of the world, we are to be submitted (cf. James 4:7) to whatever God in Christ is committed to being and doing in us. What a relief and release from the performance-oriented burden of religious obligation! In the obedience of "listening under" (hupakouo) the direction and leading of the Spirit of Christ (cf. Rom. 8:14), we live and act by the grace-dynamic of God as He leads and empowers genuine Christian ministry.

   Some have attempted to portray Jesus as a political and religious revolutionary-activist. Such actions as overturning the tables in the temple and standing up to the religious and secular authorities can easily be misconstrued as having such motivation, but a larger perspective of Jesus' ministry does not lend itself to the support of such an agenda. His intent was indeed revolutionary, but not in the sense of political insurrection or social transformation, but rather in a radically different concept of "kingdom" wherein He as the divine king would reign and rule as Lord in the lives of the people of God, manifesting His character which is diametrically opposite of that evidenced in the fallen world-order. Indeed, there was a predicament or problem to solve in order to effect such a kingdom ­ the alienation of man from God by his spiritual condition and behavioral expression of sin. In an act that accepted the appearance of powerlessness and weakness, Jesus voluntarily submitted in obedience (cf. Phil. 2:8) to vicariously and substitutionally take the consequences of humanity's sin in death. In this remedial action of redemption He would take the death consequences of our sin, in order that the reality of His divine life might be restored to mankind. From the cross He exclaimed, "Tetelestai!" "It is finished!" "Problem solved!" (Jn. 19:30). Inexorably setting in motion the entire restorational objective of restoring God's life to man, Jesus knew that the resurrection, Pentecostal outpouring and consummatory glorification were assured. In this "finished work" of Jesus Christ, God graciously solved the ultimate problem of mankind.

   When Christian religion reverts to secondary efforts of problem-solving as their primary mission in the world, they are in effect denying the "finished work" of Christ by focusing on and engaging in "works" that attempt to "finish" God's work on His behalf, instead of relying on what has been accomplished once and for all mankind in Christ. Yet, Christian religion has often projected itself as the "force of good" to change or transform the world of evil, perceiving its role in a "savior-complex" that sets out to deliver the world from its problems. Robert Capon's remarks are pertinent:

"Christianity is not a religion. Christianity is the proclamation of the end of religion, not of a new religion, or even of the best of all religions. ...If the cross is the sign of anything, it's the sign that God has gone out of the religion business and solved all of the world's problems without requiring a single human being to do a single religious thing. What the cross is actually a sign of is the fact that religion can't do a thing about the world's problems ­ that it never did work and it never will..."3

   Failing to recognize the grace of God in Jesus Christ, Christian religion marches on to garner its forces for a particular cause celebre in order to create a social movement to attempt to fix the ills and woes of the world. Rather than explaining the victory won by Christ over all evil, they seek to expunge the perceived evils in the world, often by socio-political and religious reform movements that offer a pseudo-salvation. This is ever so close to the Marxist objectives to "change the world" through socio-economic transformation.

   Commenting on this tendency of Christian religion to become involved in socio-political transformationism, which he terms "the false presence of the kingdom" in a book so entitled, Jacques Ellul observes that

"every time the Church has gotten into the political game, no matter what the manner of her entry, no matter what her opinion or opposing choices in a political situation with regard to an institution, she has been drawn every time into a betrayal, either of revealed truth or of the incarnate love. She has become involved every time in apostasy. ...Politics is the Church's worst problem. It is her constant temptation, the occasion of her greatest disasters, the trap continually set for her by the Prince of this world."4

   When religion engages in social problem-solving, especially in alliance with the secular governmental structures which have succumbed to the evil of fallen men and thus designated as opposing "principalities and powers' (cf. Eph. 6:12), then it has joined the action on the devil's playground. They participate in the diabolic power-struggles of human social pyramids. To be sure, there is a place for such social problem-solving. Secular governments are obliged to engage in such. Religion will inevitably advocate such. Genuine Christianity does not seek to eliminate, destroy or debunk such involvement by these human institutions, but only to devalue such by recognizing that it is not an end in itself, and will not ultimately solve the world's problems. All the while Christians must recognize that peripheral problem-solving in the arena of the fallen world-order is not the primary task or mission of the church, and that there is no particular "Christian solution" for every perceived problem in the world.

   Problem-solving religion becomes but another social agent utilizing expedient tools of force as clubs by justifying the "might of the right" in the power-plays of the world arena. Playing the world's game by using their methodology, such religion does not help the situation, but becomes part of the problem in their self-effort to provide remedies. When Christians think that they are "serving" God by attempting to solve the problems of people and the world, they fail to understand that "God is not served with human hands" (Acts 17:25) and their attempts to help God out in problem-solving is not helpful. Human helpfulness is not helpful from God's perspective. If it is not His activity, done His way by Him, then it is not worth doing. In addition, problem-solving religion is impatient in its desires to achieve its objectives. It wants to perform, attack, assault, seize the day as it engages in its agenda of activistic resolution. Waiting upon God and allowing Him in His sovereignty to deal with life and the world in His time and in His way can only be conceived as passivistic acquiescence by those who view the Christian purpose as problem-solving.

   Christians have failed to understand the reality of the "good news" they proclaim. Christianity is not a premise, proposition, program or procedure to be applied to the problems of the fallen world. What we have to share is not a magic potion; an elixir that makes everything turn out right. The gospel is not a panacea, a cure-all, a remedy for all ills. It is not a "philosopher's stone" that conjures up some imaginary spiritual substance that will turn the base metals of society into utopian gold, as the catholicon of the world's woes. The "good news" of Christianity is the living Person of Jesus Christ, rather than a packaged solution to an identifiable social or personal problem. Even if the perceived problem is the spiritual depravity of an unregenerate individual, we do not extend or apply a packaged salvation to fix their spiritual problem, but point them to, and seek to introduce them to the risen Lord Jesus as their Savior. And even this mission objective must not be perceived as a problem-solving project to win the world to Christ by a particular point in time. Christianity is not a problem-solving project to create perfect individuals, perfect churches, a perfect society, or a perfect world. Rather, Christianity is a personal Savior, Jesus Christ. He did not come to be a remedy to problems, but to be the Redeemer of mankind.

   When Christianity is regarded as a packaged solution to identifiable social or personal problems, the reality of Christianity becomes objectified as an "it," some "thing" to be applied to a problem as a utilitarian instrument. The message of Christianity is thus static and objectified, linear and causal, historicized and theologized as a personal and social solution. Jesus is not a solution! He is "the way, the truth and the life" (Jn. 14:6), the modality, reality and vitality of God who has invested Himself into the human condition and situation. He is the ontological Being who activates His creation.

   We must recognize that there will always be problems in this fallen world-order. They are intrinsic to the character of the Evil One, the "god of this world" (II Cor. 4:4), as he causes and creates his character to be energized in the individuals (cf. Eph. 2:2) and social structures of the world-order of evil. The Scriptures do not "sugar-coat" the situation for the Christian who is "in the world, but not of the world" (cf. Jn. 17:11,14). Poverty is perennially present (cf. Matt. 26:11). We are promised tribulation (Jn. 16:33) and "difficult times" (II Tim. 3:1). It seems that one of the greatest temptations among Christian peoples is to aspire to be free of any problems here on earth.

   Lloyd Ogilvie explains that

"the greatest problem we all share, to a greater or lesser degree, is a profound misunderstanding of the positive purpose of problems. Until we grapple with this gigantic problem, we will be helpless victims of our problems all through our lives."5

   Tim Hansel amplifies this theme by noting that

"most people think of problems as something bad, as some terrible interruption in their lives which they wish they did not have to endure. In truth, problems in and of themselves are not necessarily bad. It is interesting to note that the actual Greek root of the word 'problem,' namely, probalein, means to throw or to thrust forward. Problems are the very means by which God drives us forward. Without problems, there would be no growth."6

   Although these authors are addressing personal problems of the individual instead of the general problems of the world, the common thread is the necessity of accepting problems. In fact, Thomas Merton comments that "a life without problems is hopeless." Biblical hope is the confident expectation that things will be better than they presently are. Those who yearn for a life without problems ­ the esoteric mystic and the social liberal both seem to share this unachievable objective ­ thus yearn for an overly-realized eschatological situation absent of hope.

   Until the consummation of the grand experiment of humanity on earth, when Christ shall return and there will be a "new heaven and a new earth" (II Pet. 3:13), we can expect personal and social problems. To think that Christians are going to solve all the problems of the world is akin to thinking that a forest fire that is engulfing our planet could be quenched by Christians collectively beating back the flames with their Bibles. It is all going to burn up eventually, and the fires of hell are not going to be quenched.

   In the meantime we must recognize that the presence of the Christian kingdom in the context of the fallen world of evil, instead of solving all problems, creates a whole new set of problems. The anomalous reality of kingdom-living in the world exposes, subverts, and upsets the modus operandi of the world-system. That is why Jesus warned that His presence would bring the family dissension of "brother against brother" (Matt. 10:35), and the conflict of a "sword" (Matt. 10:35). Christian reality, being antithetical to the world's ways, creates but another insurmountable problem for the world-order as it seeks to solve the world's problems.

   We must not leave the impression that Christianity necessarily advocates a passivistic acceptance of the status-quo; that it is unconcerned about the world situation in a retreat from cultural relevance. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The love, mercy, and compassion of God in the Christian seeks the highest good of suffering mankind. Evangelism, social action, political involvement, relief efforts are all legitimate, as long as we realistically realize that we cannot and will not solve all the problems of the world; and we will not produce a perfectionistic, problem-free utopian existence here on earth. Misguided religious efforts to manipulate such results through man-made techniques and timetables, only reveal that religious man is still attempting to set himself up as God to "play Holy Spirit," without reckoning on God's grace-action in His due time.

   An historical example of God's timely action apart from religious orchestration might be the effect that Christianity has had upon slavery. Human slavery had been a social ill throughout human history, but

"neither Jesus nor the apostles thought they could solve the problem of slavery as a social problem. They did not revolt against the practice. They did not contend for the dignity of the human person. They did not attempt institutional transformation. The first Christians were content to adopt an individual relation to slaves which changed the situation from within. This is what finally brought about, after many centuries, the abolition of slavery."7

Slaves were encouraged to obey their masters as "unto the Lord", and masters were encouraged to treat their slaves with loving kindness, fairness and justice (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-4:1). The tragic situation of human slavery was gradually diminished as the character of Christ was expressed in the midst of the problem. Such is the revolutionary permeation of "salt" and "light" into the world (cf. Matt. 5:13-16).

   Christianity is not problem-solving! Christianity is Christ! Christianity is the ontological dynamic of the divine life of the risen Lord Jesus lived out in the active behavior of receptive Christians, and that within the perplexities of a plethora of personal, social, and world problems. Christianity is Christ's life lived out in Christians in every context of clashing cultures, differing ideologies, and pluralistic perspectives. Such manifestation of Christ's life (cf. II Cor. 4:10,11) may resolve some perceived problems among men, but problem-solving is not the mission objective of Christianity.

   The teleological purpose of Christianity is not utilitarian solutions to perceived problems, but receptivity to the ontological character of God expressed in behavior that glorifies God. We are "created for His glory" (Isa. 43:7). God does not give His glory to another (cf. Isa. 42:8; 48:11) in the form of accolades and "atta-boys" for the results of man-made resolutions and transformations of the world's problems. God is glorified only as His all-glorious character is lived out by the ontological dynamic of the presence, person and power of Jesus Christ by His Spirit.

   Our Christian responsibility is to be available and receptive to what God in Christ wants to be and do in us. By the "obedience of faith" (cf. Rom. 1:5; 16:26) we remain receptive to His activity; submitted to whatever God is committed to in us; blooming where we are planted by bearing the fruit of His character (cf. Jn. 15:5; Gal. 5:22,23). Nothing is so contrary to our natural human tendencies, even as Christians, as the acceptance of such powerlessness, weakness, inability and inadequacy that must rely on God's action of grace in all behavior and action. Every tenet of the fallen humanistic perspective posits human productivity and activity as the causal element of the betterment of mankind, so for the Christian to accept the radical modus operandi of faithful receptivity of divine activity in what by all appearances seems to be inutility and uselessness8 is diametrically different than the way the world operates. Jesus was so right when He said, "My kingdom is not of this world" (Jn. 18:36).

   In explaining The Presence of the Kingdom, Jacques Ellul writes:

  "Our world is entirely directed towards action. Everything is interpreted in terms of action. People are always looking for slogans, programmes, ways of action; action for action's sake. Our world is so obsessed by activity that it is in danger of losing its life. A man who spends all his time in action, by that very fact ceases to live.

   The world only desires action, and has no desire for life at all. ...What matters is to live, and not to act. ...What we need to do is to live, and to refuse to accept the methods of action proposed by the world,...(even) the church's 'calls to action' made in miserable imitation of the world.

   Men should be alive, instead of being obsessed with action. To be alive means the total situation of man as he is confronted by to the glory of the Creator."9

Ponder the succinct statement that Ellul makes: "A man who spends all his time in action, by that very fact ceases to live." That is worthy of repeated contemplation. When Christians spend all their time in activistic problem-solving, they cease to live abundantly (cf. Jn. 10:10) as Christ intends. The objective of Christianity is to allow for the ontological Being of the Life of God in Christ to be expressed in the character of our behavior unto the glory of God, rather than to engage in humanly conceived and executed utilitarian actions and religious endeavors.

   What, then, is the active responsibility of the Christian individual? We actively make the choice of faith to be receptive and available to all that God wants to be and do in us by the grace-dynamic of the Person and work of Jesus Christ. In obedience we "listen under" the guidance and direction of God's Spirit to discern His course of action; how He desires to enact His Being in our behavior. "He who began a good work in you, will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil. 1:6). Herein is the freedom from the performance of problem-solving programs; the individual freedom to be man as God intended man to be. Once again Ellul so aptly notes:

"There are no clear, simple, universal, Christian solutions to all the problems which arise. We can only put the problems as clearly as possible and then, having given the believer all the weapons that theology and piety can offer, say to him: 'Now it is up to you to go and find the answer, not intellectually, but by living out your faith in this situation.' There is no prefabricated solution nor universally applicable model of Christian life. ...Freedom implies that each Christian discovers for himself the style and form of his action."10

   In the freedom of faithful receptivity, we the Christian kingdom-community, individually and collectively, allow for the radical and revolutionary life of Jesus Christ to be incarnated and manifested in our mortal flesh (cf. II Cor. 4:10,11) by the Holy Spirit.

   Problems will inevitably present themselves in the midst of the fallen world-order (and perhaps intensify) until the end of time. Christians should not expect to solve the world's problems. Living, as we do, in the enigma of the interim between Christ's "finished work" in the crucifixion and resurrection, and the consummation of that victory upon His return, the problems of the world may seem to be overwhelming, but we live in the confident expectation of hope that all will be resolved in the final casting out of evil and its problems, and the restoration of creation in "the new heaven and new earth."

   Christianity is not problem-solving! Christianity is the life of Jesus Christ lived out in the midst of present problems, evidencing His sufficiency in all situations.


1     Ellul, Jacques, The Ethics of Freedom. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976. pg. 373.
2     Thomas, W. Ian, The Mystery of Godliness. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House. 1972. pg. 17.
3     Capon, Robert Farrar, The Mystery of Christ. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1993. pg. 62.
4     Ellul, Jacques, The False Presence of the Kingdom. New York: Seabury Press. 1972. pg. 125.
5     Ogilvie, Lloyd, If God Cares, Why Do I Still Have Problems? Minneapolis: Grason, 1985.
6     Hansel, Tim, Eating Problems for Breakfast: A Simple, Creative Approach to Solving Any Problem. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1988. pg. 17
7     Ellul, Jacques, The Ethics of Freedom. pg. 475.
8     Fowler, James A., The Uselessness of Usefulness and the Usefulness of Uselessness. Fallbrook: C.I.Y. Publishing. 1996. cf. Usefulness of Uselessness
9     Ellul, Jacques, The Presence of the Kingdom. Philadelphia: Westminster Press. 1951. pgs. 91-93.
10   Ellul, Jacques, The Ethics of Freedom. pg. 300.