Who’s Insane?

Robert Pirsig’s book Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (1991) includes the infamous statement, “when one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called religion.” Evidently Pirsig was asserting a connection (and equation) of the terms “insanity” and “religion.” Of course, many of the so-called new atheists love to quote Pirsig.

As a Christian I find it fascinating that the Bible suggests a situation exactly opposite to the assertion of Pirsig. According to the biblical authors, “insanity” can result when one refuses to acknowledge, obey, and honor God. The truly sane person is one who trusts, honors and obeys God.

When God laid out his law for Israel, he devoted significant scriptural real estate to a pronouncement of blessings for obeying and curses for disobeying. In the “curse” section of Deuteronomy 28 God said, “If you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (v. 15). God then patiently catalogued a variety of curses that would befall Israel if she lived in disobedience to the covenant. Included in that catalogue is verse 28: “The LORD will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of mind.” If the people broke covenant with God, they may find themselves in sudden mental disarray.

Daniel 4 provides a great portrayal of Nebuchadnezzar’s hubris. In earlier days of his life Nebuchadnezzar had been given several opportunities to turn toward Israel’s God and turn away from his wickedness (see Daniel 2 and 3), yet he remained aloof to God. Daniel 4 reports a troubling dream that God gave graciously to Nebuchadnezzar, and as Daniel interpreted the dream for Nebuchadnezzar it became crystal clear that the dream was meant to drive Nebuchadnezzar to repentance (see Dan 4:27). Yet Nebuchadnezzar remained narcissistic and self-focused, refusing fealty to God. A year later he spoke words that reflected the depths of his pride (see Daniel 4:30), and even as he spoke the words God arrived to implement judgment. Nebuchadnezzar quite literally went insane. “He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws” (Daniel 4:33). Daniel 4:34 is key: “At the end of days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever.” The reader will note that the restoration of Nebuchadnezzar’s sanity is connected directly with “lifting his eyes to heaven.” His insanity had been connected with his hubris and Godlessness, his sanity is connected with his looking to God. After his sanity was restored, the next thing Nebuchadnezzar did (as a sane person) was to hold a little praise and worship service: “I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever.

In Romans 1:28, the reason God “gives” people up to a “debased mind to do what ought not to be done” is explicit: the people “did not see fit to acknowledge God.” One wonders if current symptoms of cultural insanity are the result of this terrifying “giving” of God.

To return to where we began, at the risk of many people writing me off as irretrievably insane, for the purposes of this blog entry I’d like to change just one word in Pirsig’s statement so that it reads: “when one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Godlessness.”

Grace and Peace,



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