Whenever a book written for men (notoriously known for their lack of interest in reading) sells 500,000 copies, you can be sure that it has made a clear connection. There is a lot that is right with John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart, and with his compelling style of writing it is no surprise that thousands of men all over the country have been drawn to it. Eldredge has called attention to some problems with which most men seem to intuitively resonate:
- Our culture (and even our churches) has adopted a strategy that facilitates the feminization of men.
- Masculinity, with its predilection to adventure, rowdiness, and risk has become a condition to be cured.
- Consequently, boys are in big trouble. School systems and churches have not taken the unique features of masculinity into consideration when designing curriculum or programs.
- Our culture, intent on emasculating its boys, has produced a huge sense of withdrawal and boredom from its men.
- As disconcerting as it may be to mothers everywhere, masculinity can only be imparted by masculinity. In other words, a young boy is never really sure he has become a man until another man, or group of men, tells him so.
- Sadly, many, if not most, men have abdicated this responsibility.
- Every man needs a battle for which he can live and die.
Eldredge clearly knows how to write to men and by the testimonies of many, he has achieved one of his objectives, which is to give men permission to be men. With all of the good insights Eldredge offers in this book, it is actually a little painful to mention two of what should be considered very significant problems which undermine the entire book.
Problem One: An Unbiblical View of God
The first problem is that Eldredge appeals to a wrong view of God as his foundation for masculinity. Part of the thesis of Wild at Heart is that men have a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to fight for. The problem occurs when he tries to project these activities onto the life of God. In the words of the title for chapter two, God is “the wild one in whose image we are made.” Eldredge’s description of God and his “adventure” leave the reader with a confusing and unbiblical picture of God. For him, men are risk-takers and adventure-seekers at heart because God is a risk-taker and adventure-seeker. He claims,
In an attempt to secure the sovereignty of God, theologians have overstated their case and left us with a chess-player God playing both sides of the board, making all his moves and all ours too. But clearly, this is not so. God is a person who takes immense risks. No doubt the biggest risk of all was when he gave angels and men free will, including the freedom to reject him–not just once but every single day . . . there is something much more risky here than we are often willing to admit. (30)
He goes on to say,
[God] did not make Adam and Eve obey him. He took a risk. A staggering risk, with staggering consequences. He let others into his story, and he lets their choices shape it profoundly. (31)
It’s not the nature of God to limit his risks and cover his bases. (31)
God’s relationship with us and with our world is just that: a relationship. As with every relationship, there’s a certain amount of unpredictability, and the ever-present likelihood that you’ll get hurt . . . God’s willingness to risk is just astounding–far beyond what any of us would do were we in his position. (32)
While one can appreciate Eldredge’s desire to root his understanding of men in the character and nature of God, these statements do not portray God in the same way that the Bible portrays him which leaves Eldredge’s understanding of manhood fundamentally flawed. The Bible depicts God as knowing the beginning from the end. He is aware of our thoughts before we say them. He knew all about us before we were formed in secret in our mother’s womb. He removes kings and establishes kings. He holds the heart of the king in his hand. He is the potter and we are the clay.
In fact, the view of God that Eldredge proposes does not inspire my risk-taking, adventuresome inclinations, but quite frankly, it demotivates me. I am willing to take risks, not because God takes them too, but because I am confident that he knows no uncertainty. I engage in spite of my lack of knowledge, not because God shares my plight, but because he knows everything. I press on in spite of my powerlessness, not because God has limited himself, but because his power is unlimited. If God takes risks (which requires he is uncertain of the outcome) then I am left with a sense of hopelessness. If he doesn’t know then who does?
For those familiar with the current debate over what is sometimes called open theism, Eldredge explicitly states that he is not advocating this position. But this is even more problematic. If he is familiar with the debate, and he is not an open theist, then why would he use language that is so closely tied to that position?
Based on the language that Eldredge uses, there are several problems. First, the sovereignty of God is placed in subjection to man’s freedom. It is a man-centered model that develops a picture of God based on a particular understanding of human relationships. The best approach would be to begin with the nature of God as revealed in Scripture. Second, if God is taking risks, there are no assurances that God’s purposes will actually be accomplished. If God is uncertain abut how his creatures will respond, then how can we really be guaranteed that he will be ultimately victorious over evil in the end? Third, if Eldredge is correct, there is a diminishment of the power of God since there is no certainty regarding the outcome of his “risky” decision to create. God’s power would seem to be limited to his creation’s willingness to cooperate. The biblical view of God’s omnipotence, his ability to bring about his will, shows that God is not subject to or dependant upon his creatures (Isa 14:24-27; Matt 19:26; Eph 1:11; Luke 1:37).
A biblical view of manhood should be connected to the roles and responsibilities assigned in Scripture. Why not just argue that while God has made men and women in his image, he has also given them particular roles and functions that correspond to their gender? This can be easily seen in the warp and woof of Scripture where men are consistently called upon to lead and protect. They are called upon to fight and defend. In the contexts of homes and the community of faith, they are given the responsibility of headship and oversight. In cases where men like Moses or Abraham faltered in their courage or faith, they hear from the God of the universe that He will bring about his plan. He is in control. This is where they place their confidence. This is the point from which they draw their strength.
Problem Two: An Unbiblical View of the Believer
The second problem is that Eldredge, in his effort to encourage men to follow their heart in these matters of masculinity, has given a false view of the condition of the heart of the believer. His line of thinking can be seen in what follows:
Too many Christians today are living back in the old covenant. They’ve had Jeremiah 17:9 drilled into them and they walk around believing my heart is deceitfully wicked. Not anymore it’s not. Read the rest of the book. In Jeremiah 31:33, God announces the cure for all that: ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.’ I will give you a new heart. That’s why Paul says in Romans 2:29, ‘No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly, and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit.’ Sin is not the deepest thing about you. You have a new heart. Did you hear me? Your heart is good. (133, Italics his)
Later in the book, he takes up this topic again. He says,
To put it bluntly, your flesh is a weasel, a poser, and a selfish pig. And your flesh is not you. (Italics his) Did you know that? Your flesh is not the real you. When Paul gives us his famous passage on what it’s like to struggle with sin (Rom 7), he tells a story we are all too familiar with . . . (144)
After quoting part of Romans 7 from The Message, he picks up the discussion once again:
Okay, we’ve all been there many times. But what Paul concludes is just astounding: ‘I am not really the one doing it; the sin within me is doing it’ (Rom 7:20 NLT). Did you notice the distinction he makes? Paul says, ‘Hey, I know I struggle with sin. But I also know that my sin is not me (italics his)–this is not my true heart.’ You are not your sin; sin is no longer the truest thing about the man who has come into union with Jesus. Your heart is good. ‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you . . .'(Ezek. 36:26). The Big Lie in the church today is that you are nothing more than ‘a sinner saved by grace.” You are a lot more than that. You are a new creation in Christ. The New Testament calls you a saint, a holy one, a son of God. In the core of your being you are a good man. Yes, there is a war within us, but it is a civil war. The battle is not between us and God; no, there is a traitor within who wars against the true heart fighting alongside the Spirit of God in us. . . . (144)
These descriptions of the life and heart of the believer drastically misconstrue or overstate the principles behind the doctrines of justification and sanctification. First, to say that the heart of the believer is “good” is not even biblical language. Eldredge makes a jump from the Bible’s use of terms like “saint” and “child of God” to the conclusion that the heart must, in its converted state, be good. The Bible never uses language like this to describe the heart of the believer. Eldredge has confused the biblical concept of newness with complete goodness. Descriptions in the Bible such as the old passing away to make way for the new, being born again, being a new creature, and receiving a new heart are certainly helpful and instructive when trying to understand the life of the believer. There is definitely something new and the beginning of something good. But our confidence is not in the idea of goodness, but in God who started the good work. This is why Paul said to the Philippians, “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 1:6) However, glaringly absent from Scripture is the kind of goodness to which Eldredge seems to allude. The Bible describes the act of justification as a declaration of righteousness upon a heart that is not righteous. In fact, this is at the heart of the Christian message. The righteousness of the believer is not his own, but is the righteousness of Christ. So contrary to Eldredge, here is the Big Truth in church today: We are merely sinners saved by grace!
Not only does Eldredge confuse the doctrine of justification, but he also misrepresents the doctrine of sanctification. Once we are justified by faith in Christ, the indwelling Holy Spirit begins to conform us into the image of the One through whom we were justified. Eldredge’s explanation that “my sin is not me” only adds to the confusion he began. If it is not you, then who is it? In fact, the Bible, when describing the battle regarding the flesh, typically uses the word “flesh” to describe the unified actions of the physical body along with the emotions, mind, and will. The problem here is not one of passivity (it is not the real me) but one of activity (it really is me), emphasizing our own complicity in the sin that we committed. Only now, through the Holy Spirit, I am able to overcome these sinful inclinations of my flesh. This is not about whether or not my heart is good but about whether or not I will yield to the Holy Spirit (made possible by the new life in Christ) in these various battles with the flesh.
The distortion of these crucial categories has produced an unbiblical and confusing approach to the Christian life. Men do not need to sense confusion over their identity in Christ and how their sin impacts their decisions and inclinations. The overtones of this book to follow your new and good heart only help to create the “false self” that Eldredge is so intent on destroying. What men need is a clear picture of who God is and the truth about their own sinful tendencies as they attempt to follow him. What they need to know is that their regenerated heart still has an inclination to sin, but they can overcome their inclinations to sin by the power of the Holy Spirit who indwells them. They do not need to place confidence in their “good” heart but in the God of the Bible who is not taking risks, wringing his hands, or waiting to see how all of this turns out.
Eldredge has some good things to say to men today, but coupling these good things with an unbiblical view of God and the believer in Christ, deals a blow to the entire book from which it cannot recover.