“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.” – 1 Timothy 4:3-4
As a general rule I do my best to adhere to the policy that one ought to promote what one loves rather than bashing what one opposes. But today, I feel the need to warn y’all about the ear ticklers. “Have their ears tickled” was something of an idiom in ancient Rome which meant that a person was listening for things which were pleasing to them rather than the truth. What people looking to have their ears tickled really had a preference for were ideas which were new or novel. Paul warned young Timothy that the day would come when ear ticklers would be all the rage in Christian circles. And people being people, the accusation of tickling ears has probably been thrown around among Christians who disagree with each other ever since.
Now, I must be upfront and let y’all know that I have myself been accused of being an ear tickler on more than one occasion. If you can believe it. And I’ve noticed that whenever I’ve encountered someone warning about ear ticklers, the underlying assumption is always that ear tickling starts with rejecting a wrathful, condemning, harsh God. For some reason these people seem to be under the impression that it is a common problem that human beings would desire a nice, squishy God whose motto is “I’m OK, you’re OK.” Only I’ve yet to see any evidence of any such thing. Just the opposite, in fact.
Any clear headed assessment of the evidence would lead one to conclude that there’s nothing more common, more universally accepted and more fervently defended than angry, wrathful deities. You can’t throw a stone in a history book or at a map without hitting a religion or teacher which says that God is good and pissed all the time – especially at those guys over there – and that to be faithful to him, one must be a good rule follower, willing to be belligerent, rude and unbending in dealings with others – sometimes even to the point of violence. This isn’t just a Christian thing either. You see it in Islam, in Judaism, Hinduism, some tribal religions, and believe it or not, even among some Buddhists in central Asia.
On the other hand, spiritual teachers have been trying to convince us that the most important things are love, compassion, mercy, forgiveness and humility since time immemorial. Clearly that message has struggled mightily to really take hold, although I think we’re making progress. So, based on the evidence, I think that it’s reasonable to assume that the ear ticklers probably aren’t those who err on the side of grace and love over condemnation and judgment. Rather. there seems to be something very deep in the human psyche which is drawn to wrath and condemnation and fear. And I think that the people Paul is warning Timothy about are those who appeal to this darker, uglier side of human nature.
In fact, Paul specifically says that these teachers and their adherent will not tolerate sound doctrine, but prefer to substitute myths. Like say, the teaching of eternal hell. Or horror story sermons like “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”. Or the rapture. Or the entire Left Behind series. None of those are sound doctrine, but rather depend on myth, folk tales and 15th century poetry and the like. All of them appeal to humanity’s deep seated desire to believe in whoop-ass deities. And tellingly, all of them are Johnny-come-lately teachings. In fact, the very idea of the Rapture is less than 150 years old! Even the teaching of eternal hell took 6 centuries to gain traction in the church. But try telling someone of the ancient teaching of universal reconciliation or that the new heaven and new earth and going to be part of the normal development of life on this planet or that God’s not going to come down and stomp the place to bits while throwing fireballs and you are quite likely to garner an accusation that you’re just an ear tickler.
The truth is that while only a fool would say that God is happy for us to be as self-indulgent and undisciplined as we want – such things being destructive in and of themselves. But beyond that, it is actually impossible for us silly, wicked humans to exaggerate just how loving, kind, compassionate, forgiving and good God is. And that’s the sound doctrine which many people simply can’t endure. The God who would pay the lay-about hired just before quitting time the same as the man who worked all day. The God who would praise the man who stole from his master and then ingratiated himself to the community rather than relying on more money to save himself when he was caught. The God who would praise a prostitute for accosting him with public acts of indecency. The God who isn’t going to throw masses of humanity into the fires of hell for all eternity. We humans can be an evil, wicked lot and so simply cannot endure a God and a universe which works like that rather than according to the myths of wrath and destruction we consistently turn to over and over again.
In the chapter prior to his warning about ear ticklers, Paul describes the sort of people who lead others astray. And it’s not the sinners or the social justice types or the soft hearted and squishy brained Paul warns of. Instead it’s quite a different sort of person Paul warns against. A sadly familiar sort of person, I’m afraid:
“lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.”
Doesn’t that read like a list of traits which many people would attribute to Christians? People who are more concerned about making sure they get what they think they have a right to than about another’s suffering. People who are clearly unloving, yet cannot be brought to repentance because they have redefined love to suit their own desires. People who believe that their cause is important enough to justify reviling another or gossip or dishonesty. People with short tempers who turn on their own fallen and wounded and will not be reconciled to them due to their supposed virtue. People who are not grateful to practice their faith without threat of death, violence and destitution yet somehow think they are being persecuted and oppressed when they can’t get their way. People who would rather consign masses of children to fatherlessness and families to destruction than teach self-denial. People who resent being forced to provide for the poor through the government more than they care that some people don’t have enough to live without help from the government. In short, people who look and behave nothing like the Christ they claim to follow.
Paul goes on to say that these people have “a form of godliness, although they have denied its power”. Like, for example, claiming that Jesus is savior and Lord and yet does not have the power to save the majority of humanity from eternal suffering. Or who claim that God can be kept out of places where forced prayer is not allowed. Or that scientific discoveries can discredit God and must be denied and fought.
Like I said at the outset, I general avoid pointing to the darkness in favor of reveling in the light. But I regularly hear from people who are struggling to come out of legalistic, harsh and condemning environments. Good people who love God and want to follow his ways. And a continual stumbling block which for them is the idea that maybe God really is angry all the time. Maybe humanity really is that bad. Maybe they just aren’t strong and faithful enough to cut it among the “true believers” and they are taking the easy way out. So for all those who are finding their way out of the darkness and into the light, let me assure you – there are ear ticklers in this world. They have enjoyed their power and influence by appealing to the worst of human nature and calling it of God. But here’s sound doctrine: God is good. Better than you can imagine. In him there is no dark. There is no suffering. All has been forgiven and paid for on the cross. There is no fear in his presence. There is nothing that can threaten him. He doesn’t need our protection. He is love. If you want to follow him, learn how to love. No matter the cost. Over and over. And his kingdom will come. That’s the truth as it was at the beginning, is now and ever shall be to the age of the ages. No ear tickling needed.