Are We Faking It? What Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche can teach us about our faith

In his book Suspicion and Faith (Eerd-mans, 1993) philosopher Merold West-phal makes the provocative suggestion that preachers use Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche as the starting point for a series of Lenten reflections. Since these men were all profound atheists, Westphal's suggestion may at first seem merely absurd. But upon closer examination, it becomes apparent that the idea has merit.

Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche are what Westphal calls "atheists of suspicion." Unlike some atheists, these three did not advance philosophical, logical arguments against Christian beliefs. Rather, they became atheists because they suspected that religious practices were usually motivated by very non-religious desires.

In short, they suspected that Christians are shams. While claiming to be inspired and motivated by God, these atheists maintained, Christians are actually driven by more common appetites. Although Christians may genuinely believe they are doing God's will, they are deceiving themselves. "God" is the religious persons excuse to justify self-serving lifestyles and convenient belief systems. In other words, it was the practice of Christians, more than their beliefs, that offended and annoyed these atheists.

God, as the Bible points out, is also interested in the practice of our faith and is mightily annoyed by false practice. As we can see in both the Old Testament prophets' sermons against Israel and in Jesus' New Testament confrontations with the Pharisees, God's interest lies not simply ill our doing the right things but in our doing them for the right reasons. As the prophets repeatedly make clear, right actions done for the wrong reasons do not please God, for he sees the heart. Unhappily, the history of Israel (and now also of the church) demonstrates that often our religious practices are motivated by unhealthy, unspiritual, self-serving drives.

Sometimes outsiders can take on the prophetic role of helping us see how and where this happens. So Westphal asserts that before we refute these atheists from a logical standpoint (which is also appropriate for Christian philosophers to do), we should listen to them to see "if the shoe fits." Westphal believes that while some of their premises and most of their conclusions are wholly wrong, Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche are at least partly right. Each is on to something.

In the service plans that follow we will attempt to let these men tell us what they've seen in Christianity. Our purpose will not be to study their philosophies. Rather we will use some of their basic critiques as jumping off points for biblical reflections designed to strengthen and reform our faith (a tactic that would likely have infuriated these atheists!). Since our Reformed tradition has long affirmed a "common grace" by which God gives gifts, talents, and insights to all people, we should not be surprised (though we may be unsettled) to find some helpful insights even among atheists.

In this Lenten season, when we are called to an honest examination of our hearts, lives, and practices, let's listen carefully to how some famous outsiders to the faith see us. Let's allow our God to speak to us through these unlikely spokesmen to see if some of what they allege might be more true than we'd care to admit. If we find that their words have some resonance in us, let us then confess our sins and reform our ways. In these five Sundays of Lent, let us nail also these sins to the cross, being crucified with Christ that we might also live for him in a purer practice of that most precious of gifts: our faith.

(Note: The passages used in the sermons, prayers, and calls to worship all come from Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary. The prayers could either be prayed by the minister following the sermon or altered slightly for unison reading.)

A Convenient God?

Call to Worship

Let us worship God.

"He is our refuge and our fortress, our God in whom we trust" (Ps. 91:2).

Let us confess with our mouths, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead.

"Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Rom. 10:13).

Let us than call upon our true God, believing him in our hearts, confessing him with our mouth, worshiping him in Spirit and in Truth.

Sermon Ideas

Text: Matthew 4:1-11*

(*Note: The Lectionary refers to the Lucan account of the temptations, but Matthew's version has some homiletical advantages for this message.)

Sigmund Freud believed that Christian doctrines are not revealed by God but are rather invented by Christians as a way to sanction their wishes. These doctrines, and the religious ceremonies by which they are expressed, said Freud, serve as ways to legitimize peoples desires.

For example, Freud viewed the Christian ceremony of marriage as a way to legitimize sexual relations. To his way of thinking, it was not that God established marriage as the place in which to enjoy sexuality, but rather that marriage was invented by Christians so that they could enjoy sexual practice without guilt. In short, God did not create Christian doctrines; Christian doctrines created a God of convenience.

The Lectionary readings for the first Sunday in Lent remind us of the need to bow only before the true God as revealed in Scripture. But Jesus' temptations teach us that Satan regularly attempts to make us worship anything but the true God. As Richard Mouw wrote, "The Devil does not want us to worship God, but outside of that he's flexible—anything goes."

In the temptations the Devil tries to distort Jesus' view of God. First, since God had just declared Jesus to be his Son (cf. the baptism in Matthew 3:17). the Devil tries to make Jesus doubt God. "If you are the Son of God, prove it! Turn stones into bread, and then we'll know whether or not God lied back there at the Jordan!" But Jesus takes God at his Word. Next the Devil tries to make Jesus doubt that Word (the Scriptures). "If God's Word is true, test it—step out onto it!" Again, Jesus resists by relying on the Word. Finally the Devil tips his hand and shows what has been his goal all along— worship of himself instead of the true God. In the end the Devil is defeated through the one verse that always slays him, "Worship the Lord God and serve him only."

In our lives the Devil is equally interested in distorting the Bible's presentation of God. If Satan can't keep us out of church, he can at least try to distort our view of the God we worship there (cf. Lewis's The Screivtape Letters). Freud thought that Christians always distort God into someone more to their liking. By pointing this out, Freud unwittingly unmasked one of Satan's more common tactics.

As a Lenten message, this sermon focuses on the ways in which we distort God and so end up worshiping a God of convenience. Self-deception is that powerful player in our hearts by which we justify our sins (or by which we simply fail to notice them in the first place). In our self-deception we also make God what we want him to be—someone who ignores our sin by sanctioning our lifestyles.

In the temptations Jesus was essentially being asked to bargain with God. "Lord, I'll believe you if..." But the true God is not a God of bargains. Our role as Christians is not to negotiate our sins with God but to confess them and then, by the Spirit, to reform our ways. Our true God encounters us through the Word and sacraments not to do our bidding but to remake us into his image through Christ. Only a true, thorough knowledge of God's Word (note Jesus' refrain "It is written...") can serve as a defense against the distortions of God to which the Devil tempts us.


Eternal God, you do not change. You have revealed yourself to us in your Word. You call us to worship you in Spirit and in Truth. But we confess that we often worship not your true Self but who we wish you to be. We too often ask you to bless what we do rather than seeking to do what you bless. Forgive us for seeking concessions when we should be seeking guidance. Forgive us when our worship shapes you into what we want instead of shaping us into what you want. Help us to meet you here in your house that we might bow before your unspeakable majesty and so live for you now and ever, in the Christ. Amen.

Psalm and Hymn Suggestions

Opening Hymn

"Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise"
[PsH 460, PH 263, RL 7, TH 38]

"He Is Lord"
[PsH 633]

Hymn of Confession

"My Faith Looks Up to Thee"
[PsH 262, PH 383, RL 446, TH 528]

Hymn of Preparation or Response

"O Jesus, Joy of Loving Hearts"
[PsH 307]

"At the Name of Jesus"
[PsH 467, PH 148, RL 336, TH 163]

"O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High"
[PsH 364, PH 83, RL 342-3, TH 155]

A Christian Nation?

Call to Worship (based on Psalm 27)

Let us worship God who is our light and our salvation.

The Lord is the stronghold of our lives.

We desire to live in God's house and to seek him in his holy Temple.

We have come with shouts of joy, to sing and to make music to the Lord.

Let us worship God in Spirit and in Truth.

Teach us your ways and make straight our paths in this hour of worship and always.

Sermon Ideas

Text: Philippians 3:17-4:1

Karl Marx believed that Christianity is frequently used to "deodorize" or legitimize the sometimes evil practices of governments. Marx asserted that instead of shaping and, where appropriate, decrying the policies of the state, the Christian religion is very often used as an ideology to justify those practices in the name of God (thus placing them above reproach). Unhappily, the history of the church bears out much of what Marx asserted.

Today American civil religion (and its equivalent in other nations) proclaims that America is a Christian nation, founded by Christian people, established and regulated by Christian principles. Whether and to what extent those ideas are accurate is a matter of heated debate. But whatever their political views, all Christians should agree that their highest allegiance must be to the kingdom of God. Christians are called to incarnate the ways of Christ, whether or not those ways are in accord with or approved by the state.

As members of free nations, we Christians can be profoundly thankful for our country. The Bible frequently calls on us to pray for our leaders, pay our taxes, and be law-abiding citizens. But we must be wary of baptizing any one nation as "Christian."

Lent is a time when we need to be reminded that the cross, unadorned by any nation's flag, determines our true citizenship in God's kingdom. In Philippians 3 Paul makes clear that a focus on earthly things can lead us to neglect the cross, which in turn malforms our Christian lives. The cross, Paul says, is to shape us in every significant way. Our lives are to be examples of humble service, of self-sacrifice, of obedience, and of dying to sin that we might live for Christ (cf. Philippians 2:5-11).

As a Lenten message, this sermon need not be "political." Rather, given Paul's clear concern for the cruciform life, the message could highlight ways in which the "earthly things" of our own culture may distract us from the way of the cross. Some sample ideas might include the influence that capitalism has on our perceptions of grace; the influence that radical individualism has on our sense of community in the body of Christ; the influence that our culture's infatuation with power (power lunches, power ties) has on the humble way of the cross.

These days the media and many Christians focus on "litmus test" issues like abortion or homosexuality, often in an attempt to make a "Christian nation" out of our land. But while such issues may be of proper concern for Christians (cf. the message for next week) we should acknowledge that God's kingdom will never be built on this earth or represented by any government. When we attempt to make it so, we easily come to believe that our culture's patterns are the patterns of the kingdom. And when this happens, we cease being what we should be: namely a distinctive, counter-community of the cross.

In Lent we are called to walk with Jesus on the way of the cross, the only way that leads to life in God's kingdom in which all believers are citizens.


God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we are your covenant people—-one church, drawn from all nations. Our citizenship is in heaven. Yet we confess, O Lord, that we sometimes lose sight of your kingdom and its ways. We confess that we sometimes live more as citizens of our own land than as citizens of your kingdom. By your truth you call all peoples into account. Forgive us for losing our distinctiveness. Focus us on your cross and on the salvation we await from heaven, from him who is the Lord and King and Judge of us all, Jesus the Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Psalm and Hymn Suggestions

Opening Hymn

"O Lord, You Are My Light" (Psalm 27)
[PsH 164]

"Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies"
[PsH 481, PH 462-3, RL 463, TH 398]

Hymn of Confession

"Lord, We Cry to You for Help"
[PsH 261]

Hymn of Preparation or Response

"O God of Every Nation"
[PsH 606, PH 289]

"Christ Shall Have Dominion"
[PsH 541, PH 439]

The Monday Gap

Call to Worship

Let us worship God, for whom our souls thirst and our bodies long (Psalm 63:1).

"Listen, listen to me, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare" (Isaiah 55:2).

We have come to hear the Word God has sent.

God's Word will not return empty but will accomplish through us his holy purpose.

Let us worship God in Spirit and in Truth.

Then we will go out with joy and be led forth in peace, the mountains and the hills will sing, the trees of the field will clap their hands.

Sermon Ideas

Text: Luke 13:1-9

The most well-known line Karl Marx ever wrote is doubtless "Religion is the opiate of the masses." Marx, like Freud, believed that Christian beliefs are not revealed from heaven but are invented on earth. Actually, Marx approved of Christian concern for justice, righteousness, and peace. The problem with religious people, Marx thought, is that instead of working to make this life more just, righteous, and peaceful, they pin all their hopes on a future world.

When Marx called religion "an opiate," he meant that religion is like a drug that numbs people's minds to the injustice around them. Because they anticipate a better world to come, religious people fail to work to make this world a better place today. A pie-in-the-sky hope for the future makes people passive in the present.

Marx's message, shorn of its political baggage, convicts us that at times we are guilty of religious quietism. Too often our lofty spiritual talk never leaves the sanctuary. Someone once wrote about "The Monday Gap." What they meant is that Sunday's message often doesn't have an impact on a person's business practices come Monday morning. On Sunday we sing that "Jesus loves the little children of the world," but during the rest of the week we don't do much to improve the lot of this world's children. Although we all know that the Christian life is to be one of spiritual fruit-bearing, the limbs of our spiritual trees seldom sag under the weight of too much holy produce.

This Sunday's Lectionary reading from Luke 13 touches on the Lenten theme of repentance but follows that immediately with a parable on the need to bear fruit—or else. In last week's sermon we touched on the notion that we are not to look for the kingdom of God to be institutionalized in any government or society of this earth. But that does not mean we are to withdraw from society or that we should not be concerned with issues like justice and peace for all. The kingdom of God is not of this earth, but it does impinge on our lives now. So we must work in all segments of life to trace out the kingdom's holy contours.

During Lent we speak much of the cross and of the repentance that it properly inspires. But repentance devoid of a subsequently changed life is false and hollow. God is only interested in a repentance that issues in clusters and clusters of rich, succulent, spiritual fruit. If our Lenten repentance does not issue in a vibrant post-Easter life of service, then we may have followed Jesus part of the way to Golgotha, but we obviously never finished the journey.

So this sermon should focus on overcoming the Monday gap by connecting our liturgical words and deeds of Sunday to our ordinary speech and actions during the week. We dare not allow our Sunday worship to be a narcotic that soothes our hearts but paralyzes our hands. "Liturgy" means "service," but when the postlude is finished our service has only just begun.


Word of God Incarnate, you came to this world to accomplish salvation. By your grace you call us to repent, to be crucified with you that we might be raised as a new creation. But we confess that we often do not live as renewed people. We confess that often we "go with the flow" instead of stemming sin's tide. Forgive us when we do not show evidence of renewal. Forgive us when we let the fruit of the Spirit be choked by the weeds of evil. You have made us your children, members of your kingdom. Help us to show evidence of that every day as we work to bring your justice, peace, gentleness, goodness, love, joy, and hope to all we meet. For Jesus' sake, Amen.

Psalm and Hymn Suggestions

Opening Hymn

"O Lord, My God, Most Earnestly"
[PsH 63]

"O God, You Are My God"
[PH 198-9]

"The Trees of the Field"
[PsH 197]

Hymn of Confession

"Not What My Hands Have Done"
[PsH 260, TH 461]

Hymn of Preparation or Response

"Fill Thou My Life, O Lord, My God"
[PsH 547, RL 147, TH 589]

"God Works His Purposes in Us"
[PsH 563]

"The Fruit of the Spirit"
[PsH 224]

"O God, My Faithful God"
[PsH 574, RL 69, TH 602]

A Squinting Confession

Call to Worship (from 2 Corinthians 5:16-21)

Let us worship God who reconciled us to himself through Christ.

We are new creations, the old has gone, the new has come!

Let us worship God as Christ's ambassadors.

Through us and through our worship, may we announce the Good News to all.

Let us worship God in Spirit and in Truth.

Praise God! We are reconciled, redeemed, renewed!

Sermon Ideas

Text: Luke 35:1-3, 11b-32

Unlike Freud and Marx, who looked at broader religious movements, Friedrich Nietzsche hits closer to home by probing the believers heart. Nietzsche believed that actions, including apparently virtuous ones, are never what they seem and that people are always seeking after power, mastery, and fame. With narrowed eyes, Nietzsche would squint at even the most humble of acts and conclude, "He's not really self-effacing! This, too, is just a power play!"

Although he carried it to an absurd extreme, there is merit in Nietzsche's "genealogy of moral virtues." Where do our virtues come from? What is motivating us when we act morally? Christians have always acknowledged that self-deception is an exceedingly powerful player in our hearts. Hence Scripture's call to rigorous self-examination.

For instance, let's say an attractive (albeit married) coworker presents us with the temptation to flirt or be suggestive. But then let's say we resist. Later we may pat ourselves on the back for doing the Christian thing—even though our motivation sprang less from virtue than from sheer cowardice. Perhaps we feared rejection. Perhaps we feared getting caught. The most frightening question a Christian can ask is, "How much would I do if I knew I'd never get caught?"

Scripture clearly teaches that God has little use for right actions done from wrong motives, Wrong motives for the Christian can include social convention, fear, Nietzschian desires for power or acclaim, or the desire to make God love us so we can earn our salvation. And once we start thinking our morality is earning us points, we soon begin using our virtuous lives to elevate us above those who do not live so well. In any event, we lose sight of grace.

As Westphal points out, this is also the theme in New Testament clashes between Jesus and the Pharisees. This sermon and the next center on God's grace. This week we focus on how the Pharisees (represented in Luke 15 by the prodigal son's older brother) lost sight of God's grace and so had impure motives for even the most virtuous of their actions.

The older brother spent his life doing the right things. But to him it was merely a "slaving away" and not, as it may have appeared, a genuinely loving service to an abundantly loving fa-

ther. By focusing on the older brother and what motivated him to do good in his life, the congregation can ponder what motivates many of us. When we act morally, are we expressing gratitude for grace or are we trying to earn it? Are we acting out of love or fear? Are we self-effacing or self-serving?

The sin that dwells in the fruit of the Spirit when our motives are bad is like a worm in an otherwise good-looking apple. This message calls for recognition of such sins. Of course, unlike Nietzsche, we believe that genuine, rightly motivated virtues are possible. Yet we confess that many times our deeds are not so pure. Squinting at even our own virtues should become a daily part of our confession of sin. No matter how glittering our lives appear on the outside, we are all finally prodigal sons and daughters who every day need grace—often for what's wrong even with what we do right! (Note: The next message will try to detail what should motivate our moral lives in the light of grace.)

Prayer (from Psalm 32)

Righteous God, in Christ you became sin for us. You took what we are so that we might become what you are. But we confess that often we ignore our sin. We confess that we too often do not confess. We keep silent about the sin that clings to us. But our sins are too great a burden for us. Forgive us. In Christ take away our iniquity. You are our stronghold, our hiding place. May we confess our sins that we might then rejoice and be glad in you and in the righteousness that flows over us as a mighty stream of grace. In Christ, Amen.

Psalm and Hymn Suggestions

Opening Hymn

"Amid the Thronging Worshipers"
[PsH 239]

Hymn of Confession

"Out of Need and out of Custom"
[PsH 259]

"How Blest Are They Whose Trespass"
[PsH 32, PH 184, RL 97, TH 551]

"Lord, I Pray"
[PsH 268]

Hymn of Preparation or Response

"When I Survey the Wondrous Cross"
[PsH 384, PH 100-1, RL 292-3, TH 252]

"Have Thine Own Way, Lord"
[PsH 287, TH 688]

"Lord, I Want to Be a Christian"
[PsH 264, PH 372, TH 530]

Lent, Grace, and Gratitude

Call to Worship (from Isaiah 43:16-21)

Let us worship God who has done great things.

We rejoice in our God who had made a way through the desert of this world.

Let us worship God who has caused streams of mercy to flow in the wasteland;

We are the people God has formed through Christ, we worship him and we rejoice!

Leader: Let us worship God in Spirit and in Truth.

People: We praise God for the grace that has saved us. Alleluia! We rejoice!

Sermon Ideas

Text: Philippians 3:4b-14

Last week we considered a Nietzsche-like squinting at our virtues in order to recognize and then root out the sins that often cling to them. When our virtues spring from improper motives (like trying to make God love us or trying to gain public approval) they do not please God. We must recognize that we are saved by grace alone and that nothing we do will ever add to or detract from that perfect work.

But where does that leave the moral life and all the religious practices we've been considering this Lent? If living virtuously will not save us, then why be good at all? Paul's words in Philippians 3:4b-14 give us an interesting opportunity to explore this theme. Paul is at pains in this passage to make clear that in the light of Christ's ultimate sacrifice on the cross (a light that literally blinded Paul on the Damascus road) even our brightest efforts look like a 25-watt bulb on a sunlit beach. In fact, Paul claims, our moral efforts are not only dim, but are exposed as rubbish (and no one is saved by accumulating rubbish!).

But all is not lost: God's love is not earned but is freely given. Salvation is a gift. Paul states that earlier in his life he thought salvation was all about ow doing, but in Jesus he learned that it's all about Gods doing. Still, receiving this gift does not render us inactive. No sooner does Paul distance himself from his former life of legalism than he begins to talk about earnest striving, pressing on toward a goal, and, most incongruously, earning a prize. If salvation is a gift, why would Paul still focus on our strivings?

The answer has to do with the awesome power of God's grace—a power so mighty that it not only saves, it transforms. After baptism, we Christians start to become interested in matters in which we previously took no interest. Principally we become interested in Jesus and his resurection power. "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection."

Nietzsche was convinced that there are never pure motives behind even the most virtuous of actions. We Christians know that having such pure motives is possible, but only through the Spirit. The only motive that is finally proper for living the moral life is that of gratitude. The person who is truly self-forgetful, who focuses on Jesus and on the glory of God, who does what is virtuous because this has become second nature to her—this is the one whose Christian life has the right focus.

As a Lenten message, this sermon climaxes our look at religious practice by focusing believers on the awesome love of God displayed in Holy Week. When we see the cross, our mouths drop open, our minds go numb, and we desire fervently to become better acquainted with the God who would go so far to save. We Christians confess that often we do have mixed motives, as Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche grimly suspected. But Lent and especially the upcoming Holy Week fill us with the proper motivation of gratitude and God-glorifying praise in the wake of Jesus' awesome sacrifice of love. Following Jesus down the way of the cross is our task as we strain by the Spirit toward that lofty goal of being Christlike in gratitude for all God has done. Such a life truly does worship God "in Spirit and in Truth."

Prayer (from Psalm 126)

God of salvation, in Christ you have done great things— our hearts are filled with joy. By your power you lifted us out of the wasteland of sin and brought us with j oy and laughter into your kingdom. Salvation is your gift to us. But we confess that often w

Rev. Scott Hoezee is director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching ( at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Reformed Worship 34 © December 1994, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.