Reviewed by Carol. K. Tharp, M.D.
Stylistically, Broken-Down House: Living Productively in a World Gone Bad1 by Paul David Tripp will likely be popular. Most chapters begin with an entertaining therapeutic vignette that dramatically illustrates the subject of the chapter. These are case stories written in a manner attractive to the average casual reader. Problems are diagnosed, explained, and resolved by Tripp’s “wise counsel,” with each case report justifying the chapter’s message: “Know Where You Are”; “Know Who You Are”; “Admit Your Limits”; “Listen to Eternity”; and “Be Good and Angry.” The chapters in the “Doing” part of the book clearly reveal his self-cure doctrine: “Reject Passivity”; “Pursue Community”; “Determine to Love”; “Celebrate Grace”; and “Examine Your Legacy.” Concern about leaving a legacy increases in our man-centered churches and today rivals the Roman Catholic desire for canonization of the saints.
Christians unfamiliar with the Bible as a whole might be impressed with Tripp’s generous use of Scripture. He selects passages that supposedly illustrate and support his views. However, consider the following:
1. In a chapter titled “Know Where You Are,” Tripp says, “we all get so used to the hardships of life in a broken world that we just quit paying attention” (24) such that “many of us live in a permanent state of location amnesia“(25, italics his). He describes the Bible as “a gritty, honest book” (26) that “accurately diagnoses the human condition” (27). As examples of this he cites Genesis 6:5, Romans 3:10-18, Romans 8:18-23, and Ephesians 6:12 and gives the symptoms:
Great wickedness … only evil … no one who understands … worthless … open graves … deceit … poison … cursing and bitterness … swift to shed blood … ruin and misery … no fear of God … subjected to frustration … bondage to decay … groaning … struggle … this dark world … evil (p. 28, ellipses his).
From that he concludes, “a primary goal of all this diagnosis, description, warning, comfort, and counsel is to call us to certain ways of living” (29) and “to face the facts” that “brokenness presses in on every side” (30). His response to this, however, is to suggest “five ways to … prepare ourselves to participate more effectively in the great task of restoration” (30). Without any reference to Scripture, he calls his readers to: “Determine to be honest…. Let yourself mourn…. Fight to be dissatisfied…. Be glad…. Live with anticipation” (30, italics his). Having begun with Scripture, Tripp concludes with psychological maxims of Christ-less self-improvement.
2. Relying upon invented psychological categories, he says, “if you are going to live the productive life … you need to stay very clear about who you are,” avoiding what he calls “identity amnesia” (34). He says, “While it is vital to accept your identity as a sinner, it is not sufficient. You must live out of a sure grasp of your identity as a child of God’s freely given and personally transforming grace” (42). Rather than using the truth about the struggle between the flesh and Spirit from Galatians 5 and Romans 6-8, Tripp simply directs his readers to hold “these two identities” in “a healthy tension and balance” (42). From the story of the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-47, Tripp concludes that the grace of God’s forgiveness is good because it “relieves my guilt” (45) and “confronts me with how expansive my potential actually is” (47). For him God’s forgiveness is a useful “force” that will “change the way you live” (43) and that “relieves my guilt,” (45) imparting “power” (46) and making one “utterly unafraid” (45). God’s forgiveness is thus construed, not as a gift of reconciliation, but as a tool for personal empowerment and accomplishment.
3. As one of the “five ways to … to participate more effectively in the great task of restoration” (30), Tripp says, “Let yourself mourn” (30). He quotes “Blessed are those who mourn” from Matthew 5:4 as if it refers only to the fact that “the condition of the world we live in should make us weep” and says, “We mourn to see the broken world around us” (30). He makes no mention of the obvious fact that a believer will mourn over his own sin: “O wretched man that I am!” (Romans 7:24). For Tripp, mourning becomes just another motive and method to improve one’s broken-down environment.
4. From various verses that describe God as angry (Exodus 32:10, 34:6, Romans 1:18, and others), Tripp says, “You cannot be like God and be free of anger as long as you live in a sin-broken world” (130, bold added). Ignoring “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9) and “Let all bitterness and wrath, and anger … be put away from you (Ephesians 4:31), he claims that “it is not merely possible to be holy and angry at the same time, it is for believers a calling” (130, italics his). Once again echoing the “missional” language of the emergent church, he says, “We must pray that we would be angry until there is no reason to be angry anymore,” and challenges his readers: “Will your anger propel you to be a healer, a restorer, a rescuer and a reconciler?” (134). Anger thus is seen as a useful self-propelling attribute in the great task of restoration.
5. From 1 John 4:19 “We love him because he first loved us,” Tripp concludes that “loving God is a prerequisite to loving others biblically” (210). He ignores the reality that fallen man cannot love God or anyone “biblically” unless God has descended with His free gift of (agape) love. Man cannot truly love God because it “is a prerequisite” to do so (210). This false doctrine drove Luther to whip himself in the monastery cell in the attempt to create within himself such love. Only when God gives it, can man receive it; he will then always give it back to God and neighbor.
6. From the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 12:2-3), Tripp emphasizes that “God’s purpose in working through Abram’s life was corporate” (154). Accordingly, he says, “My walk with God really is a community project” (156). From “exhort one another” in Hebrews 3:12-13, he amazingly concludes that “personal spiritual insight—an accurate knowledge of self—can only come when I am actively engaged in a community” (156, italics his). He insists, “It is time to face the fact that your walk with God is a community project…. You’re not designed to live without it. Life in this broken-down house really is a community project” (161). In such statements Tripp reveals his reliance upon the psychological doctrine of the therapist—that troubled people must avail themselves of an expert therapist, a therapeutic group or a therapeutic community to achieve self-cure. He appears to ignore the fact that God “hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness through the knowledge of Him…” (2 Peter 1:3). He ignores the apostle Paul’s description of his own “walk with God” in Galatians 1:16-22, which contradicts Tripp’s insistence on the necessity of a counseling, confronting community for Christian growth:
…immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood … but I went into Arabia … after three years, I went up to Jerusalem…. But other of the apostles saw I none save James…. I came into the regions of Syria…. And was unknown by face unto the churches….
Tripp’s insistence on the necessity of a counseling, confronting community for Christian growth not only exceeds what is supported in Scripture, but also raises the specter of a similar emphasis on “corporate” justification/sanctification in the New Perspective on Paul heresy sweeping the church today.
Like most self-help authors and motivational speakers, Tripp is adept at the use of words that sound emotive, therapeutic, introspective and romantic, but which are utterly devoid of objective meaning, a practice Francis Schaeffer called “semantic mysticism.”2 What does it mean to “listen to eternity” (103)? What does it mean to “embrace the sadness of seeing myself accurately” (36) or to “live life based on … your interpretation of your experience” (79, italics his)? How do we know if we have “embraced fallen imitations of wisdom” (81)? What is it to practice “prepared spontaneity” (84), to be “more authentically human” (91), or “to be fighting for our hearts” (187)? What is it to “embrace the promise and possibility of a restoration lifestyle” (20), to be changed “at the causal core of our personhood” (117), or to be “assaulted by the acrid air of a world gone bad”(26)? What do such phrases actually mean? While giving an appearance of being heavy with meaning and sensitivity and creating an atmosphere of seeming intellectual profundity, such psychobabble conveys feelings without facts, impressions without information, and a sense of understanding without wisdom.
Some secularists see clearly the harmful effect of counseling psychology. Critiquing a new performance of Hamlet, Keith D. Williamson says it well: “Shakespeare had no language for psychology and, having art at his disposal, needed none; in our own leaden times, psychology has largely supplanted art and religion, and so the temptation to treat Hamlet as an exercise in psychoanalysis—one that marginalizes the remainder of the drama—is near irresistible.”3 The gospel of Paul David Tripp truly marginalizes the drama of Scripture and sadly seems near irresistible. Unless the reader has a Berean stance (Acts 17:11), the facile nature of Tripp’s presentation, the illustrative stories, and the heavy use of Scripture passages can produce the casual acceptance of such false teaching.
The reader who examines “the Scriptures daily” to see if what the apostle Paul said was true, will recognize Broken-Down House as a psychotherapeutic self-help book in Christian guise. It springs from theories and offers practices long-standard in the psychotherapy industry presenting them in a fresh, engaging style designed to be maximally acceptable to modern Christian readers. In the church where tolerance, ecumenism, seeker-friendliness, experience, introspection, and so-called community-relevance are priorities higher than truth, there will be many readers who believe that they can, with a little help from a “wise counselor,” restore their “broken-down house.” Tripp’s teaching is common to Roman Catholics, “faith promise” preachers, liberation theology, postmillennialists, and the emergent church. It contradicts Scripture but has a strong appeal to the natural man. Tripp panders psychotherapeutic doctrine undergirded with false eschatology. He goes beyond the usual empty psychotherapeutic promise of self-cure by adding the claim that man can restore his own fallen world. In so doing, he turns people’s ears away from the truth and unto fables (II Timothy 4:4).
Cowboys in 1954 were closer to truth when they sang Stuart Hamblen’s song called This Ole House:
This ole house is a-gettin’ feeble;
This ole house is a-needin’ paint.
Just like me it’s tuckered out,
But I’m a-gettin’ ready to meet the saints.
1 Paul David Tripp. Broken-Down House: Living Productively in a World Gone Bad. Wapwallopen, PA: Shepherd Press, 2009, p. 10. Hereafter references to this book will be in parentheses in the text.
2 Francis Schaeffer. The God Who Is There. Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, 1968, p. 57.
3 Keith D. Williamson, “Antique Romans & the Dane,” The New Criterion, November 2009, p. 39.
(PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter, May-June 2010, Vol. 18, No. 3)