One of the most popular rides at the carnival was the roller coaster. In my preaching and teaching, I have more than once referred to “roller coaster Christians,” people who are always looking for a new “spiritual high” but do nothing but go up and down, never really maturing in the Christian life. They don’t seek to become like Jesus; they only want to experience “religious stimulation” that will assure them they are “spiritual.” One day they are “up” and are sure they can conquer the world. The next day they are “down” and even question whether or not they are saved.
Those people are suckers for the con artists at the carnival, and they often fall prey to the media ministers who peddle a false gospel and a phony Christian life. There are no short-cuts in the Christian life, and there are no “spiritual secrets” that can eliminate discipline, dedication and obedience. Over these many years of ministry, I’ve tried to help the “new translation addicts” see that the next version of Scripture will not make them biblical experts. There is the conference crowd that runs from meeting to meeting, looking for that missing ingredient that will once and for all transform them. Up and down, up and down, but ending up where they started.
The Christian life is not easy, but it is simple. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). The daily discipline of reading the Word, meditating on it, praying, obeying it and seeking to serve others in the name of Jesus will not produce roller coaster thrills, but it will develop balanced believers. These are the people whose prayers God answers, the people who get the work of the Lord done and keep the churches serving the Lord. They haven’t found any “magic formula” for success, but they keep devoting themselves to “prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4), and God helps them.
Cotton candy was one of the delights we looked for at the carnival because we rarely saw it the rest of the year. We watched it being spun out of nothing in that amazing machine, and then wrapped around a cardboard cone and sold for such a small price. Our parents thought it was a waste of money, and they were right. They suggested ice cream or popcorn, but we insisted on cotton candy. Lick it and it vanishes. Try to take a bite and swallow it and you have no success. It’s gone. They ought to print on the cardboard holder, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Ice cream or popcorn would at least have some substance and perhaps give us a bit of nourishment, but not cotton candy.
Have you ever heard a cotton candy sermon? It sounds nice but there’s nothing there. Try to get your hands on it and it’s gone. No substance, no nourishment, nothing lasting. After a service at a church where we were visitors, somebody said to me, “Wasn’t that sermon wonderful?” I replied, “Tell me what he said?” The man blinked his eyes and said, “What do you mean?” “The pastor spoke for thirty minutes,” I replied, “What did he say?” The man couldn’t tell me because we had listened to a “cotton candy” sermon that very enchantingly said nothing and accomplished nothing, except to send people home with the dangerous illusion that they had heard the Word of God.
When I was teaching homiletics to seminarians, I gave them a list of questions they should ask themselves after they had completed the sermon outline. One of the first questions was, “In one sentence, what am I talking about in this sermon?” This was followed by, “Is it worth talking about?” Question three was, “Is what I’m talking about biblical?” We must never peddle cotton candy from the pulpit; we must preach the Word and give our people something from the Word to chew on, something to give growth to their spiritual stature. Religious fast-food may be easier to prepare, but it will never build spiritual giants. That is why I have preached and promoted expository preaching because too many topical sermons are cotton candy.
At the carnival, the key word was “novelty.” The merry-go-round replaced their little ponies with automobiles or space ships and the spook house frightened us with fierce aliens from outer space instead of the more familiar ghosts, skeletons and corpses. But change is no guarantee of improvement, and as we grew older, the only fun at the carnival was watching the younger kids get scared at the spook house or scream in fear on the roller coaster. We stopped going ourselves and looked around for something more substantial, like a summer job. We were maturing and decided to put away childish things (1 Corinthians 13:11).
“Maturity” is the word we need, not “novelty.”
There is really nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9, 10). To a large extent, even the latest electronic gadget is only a recombination of existing elements that have been improved. God commanded the people of Judah, “Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths” (Jeremiah 6:16). While preparing a message on Psalm 23, I checked the Hebrew word translated “paths” in verse three and was shocked to learn that it means “deep ruts.” Successful Christians don’t wander all over looking for new ways to pray, to study Scripture, to overcome sin. Successful Christians walk in the same “deep ruts” that Abraham, David, Paul, Augustine, Wesley, Spurgeon, Jim Eliot, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and a vast host of other godly believers have walked in!
On a shelf in a closet I have some Bibles that publishers have sent me with the hopes that I would tell others to buy and use them in their own Bible study. I never use them. Some have different colored inks to distinguish one theme from another. If you became colorblind, the Bible would be useless to you. Others have systems using various symbols (printed on an accompanying card) and a glance at the symbol is supposed to unlock the verse or the passage. It doesn’t. Another Bible puts a paraphrase of the passage in the margin in the first person singular–“I will love my neighbor,” etc.–and this makes it personal. It doesn’t. All of this is carnival stuff. It is novelty, not creativity.
The problem is not with the Bible. The problem is with the human heart. Apart from godly living, prayer, persistent study led by the Spirit, and a deep hunger to know God, we will never mine the deep truths of Scripture, no matter what edition of Scripture we use. Study Bibles are a big help and I use them, but you and I still have to do the studying, never forgetting to pray, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from your law” (Psalm 119:18).
One more thought.
Take the “iv” out of the word “carnival” and you have the word “carnal,” a word often used in the King James Version. In modern translations it has been replaced by “worldly,” “unspiritual” and other contemporary equivalents. It refers to what is done by the “flesh”. The NASB uses “flesh” and “fleshly.” We all know what it refers to: that which belongs to the old nature and the old life.
It’s the sort of thing you might find at a carnival–and possibly at a church!
(All rights reserved. Copyright Warren W. Wiersbe. Not to be used without permission.)
Dr. Warren Wiersbe (1929-2019) was an internationally known Bible teacher, author, and conference speaker. He graduated in 1953 from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. While attending seminary, he was ordained as pastor of Central Baptist Church in 1951 and served until 1957. From September 1957 to 1961, Wiersbe served as Director of The Literature Division for Youth for Christ International. From 1961 to 1971 he pastored Calvary Baptist Church of Covington, Kentucky south of Cincinnati, Ohio. His sermons were broadcast as the “Calvary Hour” on a local Cincinnati radio station. From 1971 to 1978, He served as the pastor of Moody Church in Chicago 1971 to 1978. While at Moody Church he continued in radio ministry. Between August 1979 and March 1982, he wrote bi-weekly for Christianity Today as “Eutychus X”, taught practical theology classes at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and wrote the course material and taught a Doctor of Ministry course at Trinity and Dallas Seminary. In 1980 he transitioned to Back to the Bible radio broadcasting network where he worked until 1990. Dr. Wiersbe became Writer in Residence at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids and Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. In his lifetime, Dr. Wiersbe wrote over 170 books—including the popular Be series, which has sold over four million copies. Dr. Wiersbe was awarded the Gold Medallion Lifetime Achievement by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA).