“I Am Not Your Guru”: Tony Robbins and the Gospel

I am a Netflix docuphile. I have a particular penchant for war docos (World War II in Colour), geopolitical docos (Icarus) and biographical docos (Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru). The latter doco intrigued me more than the others. I found myself analysing it from a deep theological perspective. Tony Robbins’ conferences are drenched in the symbols of a Christian church but with the obvious exclusion of Jesus. I was particularly fascinated by the documentary as I had been musing on a recent Facebook post about Franklin Graham’s evangelistic tour of Australia. The sentiment of the post was that Graham’s political stance in the US does not align with a significant proportion of Christians in Australia and his stadium tours will be more like stones missing the line of cans on a fence. Sadly, I too sense that Graham’s tours will be underwhelming in the Australian milieu. If Tony Robbins was the keynote speaker, organisers would be adding additional dates to the tour.

One attendee sells her car, house and furniture simply to touch the cloak of America’s #1 Leadership Psychologist. They come and sit at the feet of him who brings good news anticipating that Robbins holds the elusive key to the Kingdom of Better.

Tony Robbins is tall with a square chin and a thick but chiselled physique. His deep, raspy voice is authoritative and penetrating to any listener. He has charisma and curious pre-show rituals. He resides in a stunning mansion that sits peacefully on the shores of Palm Beach, Florida. He is the epitome of success. Consequently, he has no trouble drawing a crowd to his conferences hosted in a nearby luxury resort. Even the US$8000 for premium seating at his six day Date with Destiny conference is no barrier; one attendee, straining at the finger nails on life’s ledge of despair, sells her car, house and furniture simply to “touch the cloak” of America’s #1 Leadership Psychologist.

It is clear that the crowds come in search of “better”. Believing that life should be more satisfying, more fulfilling, they try to articulate what “better” ought to be: “a more confident me”; “a healthier version of me”; “a ‘deeper connection with the universe through my feminised male partner’ me”. They have searched tirelessly for “better” but it was not where they expected to find it. They tried to be “better” but they fell short of it. They attempted to capture “better” in other people but were hurt, burnt, and disappointed by them. Finally, they come and sit at the feet of him who brings good news anticipating that Robbins holds the elusive key to the Kingdom of Better.

Not only is Robbins their archetype of “better” but also their saviour from their “sins”, their mediator into the presence of “better”. He is the evangelist for “better”. The prophetic voice for “better”. For “better” is their god but they have failed to attain the standard of their god. Their sins of fear, rejection and abuse have prevented them from accessing the Kingdom of Better. Robbins, sometimes aggressively, sometimes winsomely, but always confidently, taps into the brokenness of the human condition often attributing one’s current state of existence and self-imposed limitations to their impoverished relationship with others. For example, 19 year old Sienna takes the microphone to share her frustrations. She wants a better diet because “my body and health deserve better”. She is losing respect for herself which causes her to eat. Robbins is not convinced by this superficial goal. He digs deeper. “Why are you doing all this for? What is life about?” Sienna’s clichéd response, “It’s about finding love and happiness.” Robbins, still not satisfied, seeks justification, “What do you have to do to hit the target of love and happiness?” Sienna draws some ideas from her quiver, “Do something for others and do something that scares me. I need to give love to those who don’t have it. I have to receive love. I have to be worthy of it and be responsible for their happiness.” Robbins shoots his own arrow and shatters her worldview by interrogating her love for her father, “Who did you have to be for your father?” Hesitating, Sienna admits, “Ignorant to his drug abuse.”

Robbins, perceiving that her current relationship is founded on impure motives, commands a divorced woman to call her current boyfriend immediately and break up with him.

Robbins addresses the crowd, “She loves him and hates that she loves him so much.” The love she expected from her father was not enough for her and she has translated this unfulfilled expectation as rejection. Robbins highlights her symptoms, “Rejection breeds obsession.” Sienna’s divorced mother sits alongside in the conference and is soon drawn into the intervention. With some expletives to add emphasis, Robbins holds her responsible for her daughter’s skewed view of her father. “His drug addiction is not simply caused by your hate for him but he has hated himself more.” Robbins analyses their broken relationship before the crowd, not a dry eye in the house. At the end of the intervention he confronts the deeper issues by asking how they will take decisive action. This could be construed as, Robbins calling them to “Repent, for the Kingdom of Better is here.”

Their redemption is in taking immediate action through submission to the words of Robbins, sometimes in the very midst of a speechless crowd. In one instance, Robbins, perceiving that her current relationship is founded on impure motives, commands another divorced woman to call her current boyfriend immediately and break up with him. The crowd is obviously stunned, mesmerised and completely aligned with his authoritative words. Robbins liberates her from her shame. She can now live to her full potential; although, we find out later in the documentary that she rekindles the relationship with her boyfriend—sometimes the expectations of a messiah don’t meet our own expectations.

I watched, enawed by the grip Robbins had on his audience. He was their shepherd, they were his sheep. They heard his voice, they followed. I have been reflecting on it for days, trying to piece together the reasons for their attraction to Robbins. He is the hero in their narrative. He is the answer to their existential questions.

Humanity longs for deep fulfilment. They want purpose in a meaningless world. They want peace in a chaotic world. The want prosperity in an impoverished world. Despite the atheists’ denial of the metaphysical, humans are even willing to consider a divine authority if it means they can experience the “better”. Robbins, for a hefty price tag, offers this to his followers. He is the new evangelist. The minister of this age. At his conferences, people gather (like a church), sing together (like a church), lay hands on one another (like a church), are confronted by the message (like a church) and meet in small groups (like church Bible studies). All characteristic features of the Christian church but without the gospel of Jesus Christ.

All characteristic features of the Christian church but without the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This secular age is built on scepticism (nay, denial) of religion but has resulted in people still seeking a church to attend. They want a leader and a community. They want to be confronted with a truth. They are tired of the perfunctory offerings in a relativistic society. The world is screaming their version of the truth but no one is interested in or has the answers to their questions. So they turn to the one who is paid to listen. At one time it would have been the church minister, trusted in all matters of a pastoral nature. Now the minister of the new church is the charismatic and direct-speaking psychologist. We live in the age of the psychologist.

In times such as these, the gospel must continue to be forthcoming. Moreover, the preaching of the gospel must be aimed fair and square at the deeper issues in our parishioners’ hearts and minds. The Kingdom of God is not slightly better than this world. It is the superlative. It is the ultimate. When Jesus performed signs and miracles, free of charge on the streets and in homes, it gave humanity a glimpse of the ultimate. He witnessed the pain that sin had caused in people’s lives and gave society’s outcasts (Lk.5:1-20; Jn.4:-42; 5:2-9) through to society’s elite (Matt.8:5-13; Lk.5:21ff) the taste of true liberation. The experience of true joy. The sense of true identity. For he knew that the depth of their turmoil could not be resolved with superficial goals. God himself needed to show and give what life was intended be.

Yet, he was not simply a highly sought after miracle worker. Jesus intimately knew the entanglement of sin as he took it to the cross (2 Cor 5:21). His death reveals the end goal of sin, the depth of grief sin causes as it wages war on every human being. It drives a wedge between us that results in separation, divorce, abandonment, violence and war. It muddles our minds to the point of fear and despair. It afflicts the body with illnesses and fatal diseases. It drenches us in shame and guilt. That is because sin divorces us from the life giving relationship with our Creator. Therefore, the suffering of Christ is the most amazing gift to a world craving for life. Jesus recognises the disaster and destruction of sin, he empathises with our condition, he wants justice and he reveals his astonishing love by doing something about it. Consequently, the message of the cross cannot simply coach us into “better”, it needs to sink deeply into every crevice of our lives. It must speak directly into our personal narratives as the only true resolution.

I’ll be brash. If the post-sermon chat over fruit cake and lower-end speciality espresso based coffee is anything to go by, one may be forgiven to think that the preacher’s three key points each Sunday is the unusual weather patterns for Spring, the referee’s free kick to the full forward and the arduous commute to work on Monday. Our congregations need their longings of “better” to be saturated in the gospel. They need to be so thrilled and mesmerised by the gospel that they view Jesus than more than a kind bloke or that the Kingdom is just a bit better than our current situation. I believe this comes through listening to the individuals inside and outside of our churches, analysing the deeper torrent of their stories in order to diagnose their true condition. Then the gospel can be aimed to the proximal end of the heart.

The true hero in our narrative triumphantly conquers Satan, sin and death—the very cause and effect of our plight. We need not linger on our sins which Satan uses to pickle us in guilt. Jesus’ resurrection is the evidence that he has cancelled our record of debt and has renewed life through our union with him (Col.2:13ff). If that weren’t enough, he grants us the Holy Spirit who guarantees our inheritance (Eph.1:13-14). An US$8000 premium seat to Tony Robbins may result in a temporary experience of happiness, but the free gift of Jesus Christ does result in an eternity of true joy and satisfaction.

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