Reader’s Digest Christianity

Google Images
photo credit: Google Images

For a while, my parents were getting Reader’s Digest every month while I was growing up. Because they were stored next to the toilet, they were widely read. In each and every issue there was an interview with some celebrity, usually an actor or an athlete. Reader’s Digest‘s favorite kind of celebrity was the “self-made” variety: someone who had come from nothing, preferably a broken home in which the single mother had to work multiple jobs to afford the windows that protected the family from the ceaseless gunfire outside. The interviewers inevitably ended their pieces by asking the celebrity something like, “If you could offer one piece of advice to our readers, what would it be?” (In fact, this makes up the bulk of Reader’s Digest…the part that isn’t ads. It’s full of pithy little pieces of advice for an improved life: “For a fun afternoon with the kids, try making caramel apples! To sleep better, try eating more blueberries! For a more fulfilling marriage, try going camping together!”) The celebrity would always say something like, “The one thing I would like to tell your readers is that you can’t let anyone tell you that you can’t accomplish your dreams. I’m walking evidence of that. If you want something badly enough, and work at it hard enough, you can accomplish anything at all.”

So much Christianity has become Reader’s Digest Christianity: “Jesus can help you achieve your dreams. He’ll go ninety-nine yards if you just go one. Do a little and he’ll do a lot. God helps those who help themselves.”

The Kingston Trio has a great song called “Desert Pete” about a man crawling through the desert, dying of thirst, who comes upon a decrepit old water pump. Next to the pump he finds a bottle of water. There’s a note, too. The note next to the bottle says that he has to use the water to prime the pump before he can drink any. Here’s part of the chorus:

You’ve got to prime the pump. You must have faith and believe.
You’ve got to give of yourself ‘fore you’re worthy to receive.
You’ve got to give before you get.

That sounds like a lot of preaching these days. “Do for God and then he’ll do for you”, “Do your best and then God will do the rest.” It’s Reader’s Digest Christianity.

I’ve said before that for every good story in the Old Testament, there is a bad children’s song. Perhaps one of the most well-known is “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.” You know the one:

Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho;
Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, And the walls came tumbling down!
You may talk about your men of Gideon,
You may talk about your men of Saul;
But there’s none like good old Joshua and the battle of Jericho.

I know what you’re thinking: “C’mon, Tullian. Don’t be such a cynic. It’s just a cute, harmless way of helping children remember the story.” Ok, ok. I’m not saying that knowing, liking, or even singing that song is bad. But the song doesn’t really tell the story. Or, more accurately, it leaves out the most important part of the story.

But it’s not only the children’s song that leaves out the most important part of the story. More concerning to me is the fact that most sermons and Sunday School lessons do too.

You remember the story, don’t you? Joshua comes up against the city of Jericho. The people of Jericho built huge walls around their city because they wanted to protect themselves from this “God” they had heard so much about—a God who split the Red Sea in half for his people. Verse 1 says that the inhabitants of Jericho hid behind those walls, “not going out and not coming in.” And God’s big plan was to have Joshua’s army walk around the city for six days and then on the seventh day, walk around the city seven times concluding with a huge shout from God’s people. When the walls of Jericho “come tumbling down,” it seems as though Joshua’s faithfulness (and willingness to follow through on this ridiculous plan) is being rewarded. So this Joshua-at-Jericho story seems, at first glance, to fit perfectly with Reader’s Digest Christianity.

We read the story (or hear the sermons) and sing the song and make this whole account about Joshua and how he bravely fought the battle of Jericho and how as a result of his great faith, the walls came tumbling down and he led his people into the Promised Land. And then we turn it into nothing more than a moral lesson: “If we, like Joshua, have great faith and bravely fight the battles in our lives, we will see our personal walls of sin come tumbling down and enter into the Promised Land of spiritual maturity.”

When we read the story of Joshua this way, we demonstrate that we’ve completely missed the hinge on which this story turns. This whole story hinges on the placement of one verse: “See, I have handed Jericho over to you, along with its king and soldiers” (Joshua 6:2). The key point is that God hands Jericho over to Joshua BEFORE Joshua does what God wants! We expect God to say something more like, “If you do this crazy thing—if you prove your faith to me—I’ll reward your faithfulness by being faithful in return.” But in God’s economy, his promise precedes our faith! In fact, his promise CAUSES our faith. So, as it turns out, this story completely breaks down Reader’s Digest Christianity. It’s like a wrecking ball. God’s economy is the opposite of Desert Pete’s: you get before you give!

God’s word is creative (his words “let there be light” actually create light): when he calls someone “faithful” they become so. When he declares someone “righteous,” they are righteous. God makes his pronouncements at the BEGINNING, before any improvement or qualification occurs—before any conditions are met. God decides the outcome of Joshua’s battle before anyone straps on a shield or picks up a sword. And he not only decides to deliver unconditionally; he does so single-handedly. No one lifts a finger to dismantle the wall—the promised victory is received, not achieved. So, in the end, the seemingly harmless song is wrong and misleading because Joshua did NOT fight the Battle of Jericho. God did. Joshua and the Israelites simply received the victory that God secured.

Of course, this battle points us to another battle that God unconditionally and singlehandedly fought for us. It points us to another victory that God achieves and that we receive. We are the ones trapped inside the fortified walls of sin and death—of fear and anxiety and insecurity and self-salvation—and Jesus’ “It is finished” shout from the cross alone causes the walls of our self-induced slavery to come tumbling down. Real freedom, in other words, comes as a result of his performance, not yours; his accomplishment, not yours; his strength, not yours; his victory, not yours.

That’s good news!

Watch Pastor Tullian preach on Joshua here:

Hero of the Faith: Part 6 | TullianTchividjian from Coral Ridge | LIBERATE on Vimeo.

  • Beth N. says:

    Thanks for this.

  • Lela B says:

    Just downloaded and listened to your sermon of Oct. 20th which preaches this very thing. I believe it is the best sermon I have ever heard. As an “Old Baptist” I have been taught for many years, that it is of God and not man, but you have explained it in so much more explicit, and easy to grasp terms. Thank God for your teaching of His word.

  • Aaron Fletcher says:

    I hate clichés more than anything, but I feel like I have to use them here. This literally took my breathe away and left me absolutely speechless. I have heard the story of Joshua and the battle of Jericho dozens of times in my life. I’ve even read it several times on my own, but never once did I ever realize that the victory came BEFORE the battle. When I read that, I gasped, and the tears started welling up as I read on and realized all that that means for me as a Christian. Like I said, I was speechless. God’s grace is so amazingly huge that it is almost incomprehensible. God Bless Tullian for his amazing gift of being able to communicate the truth of the gospel with such clarity and insight. I love the way he deconstructs these wrong-minded notions we Christians seem to buy into all too easily.

  • John Reid says:


    I agree with the other comments, I just can’t thank you enough for teaching the Word from a Grace perspective. Just received your new book, “One Way Love”, can’t wait to dig in. Your teaching via the web and iTunes has helped me to remember how I felt when I was first saved: free, forgiven, loved and amazed by God’s Grace that would save a wretch like me.

    I have been a Christian nearly 40 years. Most of that time I felt like I was never doing enough, never “getting after sin” enough…frankly I felt like a failure much of the time not being able to “measure up”, or even when I did it just didn’t seem right, it felt like I had to crank up my own power rather than letting God live through me. Thanks to you and a few others I listen to, I can let go of the performance and enjoy the love of God which humbles me to my knees.

    This song by Mercy Me causes me to tear up every time I hear it because finally understanding and allowing myself to experience Grace on a consistent basis truly does feel like “The First Time”, every time. I hope it’s OK to post this video. It is not an official Mercy Me video (could not find one) but the song is. I don’t think Bart and the group would mind the exposure.

    I pray that God would continue to bless you and your ministry so others can hear and return to “the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ”!

    ~ John

  • Ken Mullins says:

    Joshua 6:20 When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. 21 They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.

    Yes, God did “delivered Jericho into your hands,” but Joshua still had to “charged straight in, and they took the city.”

    Bottom line: Would the walls have still fallen down if Joshua had not obeyed God’s command?
    In the following chapter, Joshua was defeated at Ai, but God had previously promised in Chapter 1.
    Joshua 1:2 “Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them—to the Israelites. 3 I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. 4 Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates—all the Hittite country—to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. 5 No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you. 6 Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.

  • LIBERATE says:

    Ken –

    You ask if the walls would have fallen down had Joshua not obeyed God. This question, I think, misses the point. God announced victory to Joshua, which created Joshua’s faithfulness. God’s promise precedes Joshua’s obedience. If the walls tumbled down only because of Joshua’s faith, then God’s promise is meaningless. God’s promise is the “let there be light” that enables the good works that are prepared in advance for Joshua (and us) to walk in.

    This kind of “but he still had to…” thinking doesn’t, in the end, hold water. Imagine a drowning swimmer (to whom we might compare ourselves…drowning in sin, on death’s door) and the lifeguard who rescues him. Does the swimmer reach the beach and then immediately tell people, “Sure, the lifeguard threw me the life preserver, but I had to reach out and grab it.”? Of course not.

    The lifeguard saves, as Jesus does. We can’t then take (or give Joshua) subsequent credit for any part of it.

    – Nick

    • Richard UK says:


      As soon as you talk about ‘enables’ you have allowed in a role for Joshua’s faith.

      As soon as you allow the drowning man to grasp the life preserver, you do in fact allow him some synergistic role (even if only 1%)

      The more precise picture is of a sailor dragging a drowning, or comatose, or dead man from the sea – and bringing him back to life.

  • Bob Schilling says:

    Ken Mullins makes a great point above – the walls wouldn’t have come tumbling down if Joshua and the children of Israel hadn’t in obedient faith marched around the city for six days and then seven times in the seventh day & the priests “as Joshua commanded” hadn’t blown the seven trumpets (6:8ff).

    The book opens with the conditions plainly stated to Joshua: “Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. (8) This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. (9) Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go” (1:7-9).

    Joshua, do you want your way prosperous and do you want good success? Quite a few things are then stipulated.

    Why did God so bless Joshua? In 11:15 we read, “Just as the LORD had commanded Moses his servant, so Moses commanded Joshua, and so Joshua did. He left nothing undone of all that the LORD had commanded Moses.”

    It’s not an either/or; its a both/and – God working in us as we work out a life of faith, obedience, etc (2 Peter 1:3-11).

  • […] Reader’s Digest Christianity […]

  • Liberate says:

    […] couple weeks ago I talked about Reader’s Digest Christianity, and how it reduced the Christian faith to pithy, easily-achievable goals that ensure our personal […]

  • […] couple months back I wrote about Reader’s Digest Christianity, and how it reduced the Christian faith to pithy, easily-achievable goals that ensure our personal […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Related Articles

The following is an excerpt from Preston Sprinkle’s new book, Charis: God’s Scandalous Grace for Us (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook,…
Flannery O'Connor on Grace
In the late 1800’s, Edwin Abbott wrote a curious novel about a two-dimensional world called “Flatland,” the occupants of which…