“Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, ‘This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.’ But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god” (Acts 28:3-6, NIV).
In my college Adolescent Psychology class, I was introduced to a concept called “All or Nothing Thinking”. This is the perception that young people often have that causes them to think in extremes (ie., something is either totally good or completely bad). An example of “All or Nothing Thinking” might be a teenager thinking one moment that he is the most popular kid in school, but, after an argument with a classmate, concluding that he has no friends at all. “All or Nothing Thinking” may seem innocent enough, but its consequences can be quite severe, even deadly. But here’s the truth. This kind of thinking doesn’t occur among adolescents only. Rather, it can influence people even into adulthood.
When I think about the above story concerning the Apostle Paul and his encounter with the islanders of Malta, I’m reminded of my lessons in “All or Nothing Thinking”. An unlucky Paul is bitten by a poisonous snake, leading the islanders to the conclusion that Paul is facing some sort of justice as a murderer. But, when Paul doesn’t keel-over dead, the same group of people determines that he must be a god. Talk about extremes in thinking! One moment has these islanders identifying Paul as the prime suspect in a murder, and, in the next moment, they are ready to fall down and worship him!
Jesus had a similar experience as he entered Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday. The people cheered and praised him. They celebrated and waved palm branches. They hailed him as a king. Just a few days later, however, many of these same individuals would be yelling for Jesus to be crucified as a criminal. That is thinking in extremes. That is “All or Nothing Thinking”.
Sometimes our spiritual lives take on the characteristic of “All or Nothing Thinking”. We want God to be a certain way, to act in a manner of our own choosing. We attempt to define the Divine with human language, to neatly confine God to our own understanding. And, when we are unable do these things, we might just conclude that God does not exist at all. Or, we demand from God everything our hearts desire, but do nothing in response to his kindness. We seek all the benefits of his amazing grace all the while avoiding the true cost of discipleship. “All or Nothing Thinking” makes a real mess of our spiritual lives.
But God is full of grace and has already dealt with the problem of our “All or Nothing Thinking”. He gave his all, his everything in his only Son, Jesus who died on a cross to take away all our sins. Paul wrote these words: “…Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8, NIV). In other words, God became nothing on Earth to gain for us everything in Heaven.