“The time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3).
That passage was running through my mind recently while reading Agatha Christie‘s short story “The Flock of Geryon.” In this tale, the great detective Hercule Poirot is approached by Amy Carnaby (a companion from a previous episode in the Labours of Hercules series) who is worried that her friend—a Mrs. Emmeline Clegg—is in mortal danger. Clegg has, we learn, been taken in by a cult. Carnaby fears that the group has designs on Clegg’s fortune—and her life. Carnaby explains to Poirot that a number of wealthy older women who recently joined “The Flock of the Shepherd” (for so the religious group was called) had died. They all died of common enough causes, it was believed, but not before changing their wills to leave everything they owned to the Flock.
The sweet-talking Master offers his followers enthusiastic (in the religious sense) experiences, visions, a sense of community, empowerment, and the comfort of his own stirring presence. [“The whole sect centers round the head of the movement,” Carnaby informs us, “the Great Shepherd, he is called. A Dr. Andersen. A very handsome-looking man, I believe with a presence.” “Which is attractive to the women, yes?” Poirot asks. Carnaby responds in the affirmative: “I am afraid so.”] His followers soon desire nothing more than the peace of his pasture. But his peace is a sham. Together Poirot and Carnaby undertake to flush out the wolf hiding in sheep’s clothing.
The story illustrates a problem all too common in our time. Instead of seeking the God in whom our restless hearts find rest (à la Augustine), we accept the restless desires of our hearts and fashion gods as restless as we. We want peace, but we do not want peace as Christ gives it—a peace that passes our understanding and which divides father from son, mother from daughter. And so we elect leaders to preach an easy peace—peace where there is no true peace. We want reward, the promise of family, land, and possessions, but we do not want it “with persecutions,” as Christ offers it. We want rather the assurance that moth and flame will not destroy earthly treasure; and the prosperity preachers answer our call. We want joy and spiritual fervor, ecstasy and radical emotion; we do not want pain and suffering and dying to the self. We want miracles of power; we do not want water or bread and wine. We want glory; we do not want the cross.
We want miracles of power; we do not want water or bread and wine. We want glory; we do not want the cross.
The God who meets us in Scripture is not a god we could have predicted. Nor is He the god we would want. He is rather a god we innately hate: a God who tells us our hearts are disfigured. A God who tells us that judgement is necessary. A God who tells us we can never—never—measure up, and that we are best suited for the trash heap.
And yet the glorious mystery remains: this severe Judge is also the fulfilment of Love. He doesn’t abandon us to the trash heap. Instead He transfers all of our disfigurement, all of our foulness away from us and onto Himself. He heals us by disfiguring His Son; He cleanses us by befouling His Only Begotten. He forgives us and condemns to death instead Jesus the Christ.
He heals us by disfiguring His Son; He cleanses us by befouling His Only Begotten.
This is the God of Christianity. A God who humbles Himself and becomes obedient to death—even a criminal’s death by capital punishment. His death saves us from death, and by His wounds we are healed. So let us not run after the desires of our heart; let us instead crucify our wants and desires, so that we who die with Christ may also be raised with Him. Thus raised, we shall find true peace, true treasure, true joy, true love, true God. Not as the world desires, but as He truly is.
Like the Mrs. Clegg in Agatha Christie’s story, we are drawn to leaders who offer us easy reward; itching ears will always find voices to speak what they want to hear. But God has already spoken in the Word made flesh; he who has ears, let him hear.