Will I Be a River or a Cistern?

Publication: Pastoral Letter, April 2003

Dear Friend in Christ:

Greetings in the name of our Lord! I pray this letter finds you and yours well. To be honest, this is one of the more difficult letters that I’ve ever tried to write; but I believe it is also one of the most important. I write this letter in prayer and in hope. If you have children or grandchildren – or if you are part of this young emerging generation yourself – I urge you to read this letter in an attitude of prayer and hope as well.

In his first epistle, Peter wrote: “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time” (1 Peter 5:5-6).

There are all kinds of pride, and all kinds are dangerous because God opposes it in any form. Lucifer himself provides the prime example, both of pride and God’s opposition to it. It seems to me that pride is a “mental condition” – how one thinks of him or herself. Perhaps the most striking form of pride is intellectual arrogance that exalts itself against the knowledge of God. Intellectual pride and arrogance give us a false sense of confidence in our own abilities and rob us of the need to trust God. In our arrogance, we become susceptible to deception and degradation. Arrogance is, in fact, ignorance.

The only cure for pride is to humble ourselves before God and wait to be lifted up. But the cure often comes too late to salvage our resources and accomplishments.

No Other Gods
God’s Covenant with Israel began with the command, “No other gods before Me.” All of the rest of the covenant flowed from Israel’s relationship to Jehovah. Whenever Israel forsook God, because of pride, it turned to gods which were not gods, and lost its glory. Israel’s arrogance was ignorance.

Jeremiah the prophet wrote these challenging words 2600 years ago: “Has a nation changed gods, when they were not gods? But my people have changed their Glory for that which does not profit…For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:11, 13).

Jeremiah’s inspired assessment diagnosed Israel’s problem in the twilight of their existence. Babylon was poised to plunder Jerusalem. The question that I pose to us here is this: Have America, Europe and Western Civilization forsaken the fountain of living waters for broken cisterns of intellectual pride – cisterns that hold no water? Has human intellect become a god? Is it idolatry? Has this idolatry marginalized the true God and set us up for deception and degradation? Let’s look at history for answers.

At the same time Jeremiah was warning Jerusalem, Western civilization was being born in Athens, which was home to noted philosophers, glorious art and architecture, classic literature, handsome and skilled athletes, and democracy – pure democracy. Athens was also home to a plethora of idols. One observer said that it was easier to find an idol than a person in Athens.

The “high place” of Athens was the Acropolis. Atop the Acropolis was the Parthenon_a temple to Athena, from whom Athens got its name. The massive columns of the Parthenon were imperceptibly bowed to form imaginary lines that intersected 11,500 feet above sea level – thus forming a throne for Athena, the goddess who protected Athens. Could such human intellect and skill be subject to such rank superstition? The truth is that it was Athens’ pride that opened the door to its darkness and ultimate moral and physical decline.

Athens was like other Mediterranean cities in that it worshipped a goddess. Other cities worshipped Sophia (wisdom), Isis (Queen of Heaven), Aphrodite (sexuality), Venus (love), Artemis (prostitution), and Astarte (human fertility). Prostitution and promiscuity were frequently part of the worship experience.

It is hard to imagine the likes of Plato or Aristotle being part of such a culture. However, intellectual arrogance, worship of the human form, and idolatry flourish together. The apostle Paul addressed this seeming contradiction in Romans chapter one. He also addressed the tragic results of any society that loves knowledge but will not acknowledge God.

The apostle Paul visited Athens and was provoked in his spirit by the multitude of idols. His visit was later commemorated by an avenue on the west side of the Acropolis and the Parthenon. The “Hill of Nymphs” sits across “Apostle Paul Avenue” from the Acropolis! Athenians saw no contradiction in honoring such vastly different ideals. Athens is the mother of “pluralism” (see Acts 17). Paul would later write to Timothy a verse that could have been his take on Athens, “they were ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (see 2 Timothy 3:7).

It was Athenian pride that caused them to dabble in inconsistency, to be connoisseurs of contradiction, and to be deceived. When Paul preached about Jesus, the Resurrection, and the coming judgment, some scoffed, some waited to hear more, some believed, and some followed. (The four responses – scoffing, waiting, believing and following – are still the responses that a preacher receives today.)

It would be easy for us to attack idols and “gods” – which are not really gods – as cisterns which hold no water. Idolatrous societies always fall. However, in doing so, we could miss the real problem that leads to idolatry – intellectual pride. Athens’ primary problem was pride in its own achievements. Today it remains a monument to the intellectual arrogance that leads to idolatry and moral decline.

Children of Athens
I have often wondered if the Greek architecture that houses our Western temples of intellectualism does not in fact display a deeper kinship to Athens. Let me clear, we should honor intelligence and applaud those to whom we owe so much. Modern technology and medicine have given us better lives. But when intelligence is divorced from moral government – from God – it unleashes monsters in our midst.

“Intelligence” and immorality make an uncivilized cocktail. It turns intellectual achievement into barbarianism. The human manipulation of life, and the resulting savagery, have accompanied numerous “intellectual” societies. Without accountability to God, arrogant humanity becomes destructive and is capable of animalistic behavior. That danger is as modern as it is ancient.

Our young people today are particularly vulnerable to the temple of Athens. Each year, we spend billions of dollars to send our youth away to be processed by purveyors of intellectual arrogance. No, we should not indict all institutions of “higher learning”. But all too often, we send our most valued treasure – our youth – to be indoctrinated in “pluralism” akin to the Greek model. They are all too often unprepared to reason with older, “smarter” skeptics whose primary goal is to strip away their “Sunday school faith”.

I have personally witnessed examples of the devastation when a student went away with at least some faith and then returned with little or none. Parents were stunned to hear, “I am now an atheist,” “I am a homosexual,” or “I don’t know what I believe anymore.” The apostle Paul called it “shipwreck”. We could say that they have become “children of Athens.”

How can we prepare ourselves and our youth to deal with a culture that has become increasingly Athenian? How can we help them to have faith at a time when there are making some of life’s most vital decisions? Here are some things that we must do:

  • Be an example of faith and biblical discipleship.
  • Lead them to experience Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.
  • Teach them the Word of God.
  • Teach them how to select friends and models by observing fruit.
  • Teach them to read broadly and reason well.
  • Teach them to articulate their own convictions.
  • Teach them history and how it teaches us.
  • Teach them sound doctrine: God, man, incarnation, atonement, justification, the kingdom of God, and godly behavior.
  • Teach them the stewardship of resources and diligent labor.
  • And teach them humility and how to trust God. God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

The apostle Paul was intelligent by any standard. But he makes it clear that he did not trust in the wisdom of man, but in the power of God (see 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16). It took a light from heaven to blind his natural eyes so that his spiritual eyes could be opened – to God’s wisdom.

As I write this letter, the United States is beset by enemies within and without. “Hell is breaking loose.” But God has many people in this land and around the world. We need the wisdom that comes from above and is available to all who ask. What wisdom can we employ in these crucial times?

We could attack secular institutions and groups that seem to oppose God. We could be fearful and defensive. We could, as some have done, forsake the fountains of living waters and make cisterns which will ultimately hold no water. These are not solutions!

What we must do is become personally engaged in sharing our faith – one-to-one. There is a vast army of followers of Jesus in our nation. But we must cease to be intimidated by the arrogance and intellectual pride that characterizes much of our populace.

Also, we must cease to depend on “Christian institutions” to overcome secularism. We are at a crossroads. Will we become personally involved in the mission of extending the kingdom of God one person at a time, or will we catapult our faith, our values and our children to those whose gods are no gods?

Please continue to keep CSM in your prayer and in your giving. This is a critical time for this ministry, and I believe the Lord is leading us to be even more effective in making a strategic difference in this emerging generation. Would you stand with us in this cause? May the Lord continue to bless you and yours in this season and always.

In Christ,
Charles Simpson

Scripture References: 1 Peter 5:5-6; Jeremiah 2:11,13; Acts 17; 2 Timothy 3:7; 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16


About the Author:

Charles Simpson

Charles Simpson is an internationally-known author, Bible teacher, and pastor, serving in ministry since 1955. He is also Editor-in-Chief of One-to-One Magazine and ministers extensively throughout the United States and the nations.