Ill at Ease in Zion: Why You Don’t Fit in at Church

The first major challenge I faced after I became a serious follower of Jesus in the 1970s was that of telling my friends and family that I had “decided to become a Jesus freak.” The second was the decision to start attending church. I navigated the first fairly quickly because I knew that if I didn’t, I would never follow through on my commitment. With the sea at my back, I burned all the boats, along with a few relationships that I later came to regret. I was brash in my new found faith and a touch obnoxious. To be fair, the obnoxiousness was not a necessary component of my new Christian identity. It was a feature of my personality that was already there. I merely baptized it and put it to use for the sake fo the kingdom.

The decision to attend church took longer. My lifestyle was not especially conducive to the practice. I normally worked midnights and tended to stay up to the early hours of the morning on those days when I didn’t work. The thought of getting up early on Sunday morning to attend church seemed impossible. Besides, going to church had never been an especially important feature in my life. My family didn’t go to church when I was growing up. My neighborhood friends who did attend, forced to do so by their parents, did not seem to enjoy it. Besides, this was the anti-establishment era. Institutions, in general, were under fire and the church along with them. Jesus had bad things to say about “the traditions of men,” which seemed to me to be a pretty good description of church life. And hadn’t Jesus’ enemies mostly come from the religious establishment? I had the Bible. I was spending time with my new Christian friends. Why should I ruin it all by adding the church?

When I feel out of place in the church, I’ve noticed that it is usually the result of one of three factors: treatment, style, or identity.

Two things changed my mind. One was the patient and loving invitation of Mike, one of my new Christian friends. The other was a growing desire to preach. A preacher needs an audience, and the best place to find one was the church. Of course, I didn’t attend church one Sunday and then preach on the next. My first task was to try to fit in.

In a way, fitting in was easier than I might have expected. The people in that little church were glad that I came. They didn’t seem put off by my long hair or blue jeans. If anyone was stand-offish, it was me. I tried to fit in. I learned to say “Praise the Lord” and to call people “brother” or “sister.” But the music was strange, and at times the people seemed even stranger. I could tell that this was all familiar territory for them. They seemed comfortable. But it was an alien landscape to me. Even though I wanted to fit in, I often felt like I didn’t belong.

The Challenge of Fitting In

That was almost fifty years ago. major challenge I faced after I became a serious follower of Jesus in the 1970s was that of telling my friends and family that I had “decided to become a Jesus freak.” The second was the decision to start attending church. . I have learned the words to the songs, figured out the dress code, and discovered the secret handshake. I’ve also listened as the music styles have changed several times over, seen the dress code grow so casual that I’m wearing pretty much the same kind of clothes I was in 1972 (though with considerably less hair and no bell-bottoms), and learned the new secret handshake. I know that I belong. I am still going to church, but there are times when I am still ill at ease. I don’t always feel like I fit in. When I feel out of place in the church, I’ve noticed that it is usually the result of one of three factors: treatment, style, or identity.

Sometimes we feel like we don’t fit in because of the way others treat us. The church is not always good at making people feel welcome. During my years as a pastor, I served in a small farming community. There was a plaque in the town hall which celebrated the beauty of small-town life. High on the list was the way people cared about one another. But in our first week there, my wife Jane and I took a walk down the main street to get a feel for the place. A little girl who was playing in her front yard stared at us. As we drew near, she turned and ran to her mother. “Mommy, I don’t know them!” she said. When we walked into the local diner, we were greeted by the same kind of stares and sidelong glances.

Every church is a small town. A congregation is a cultural eco-systems as well as a spiritual institution. They have their own customs, lingo, and tribal structures. Sometimes we feel like outsiders in the church because culturally speaking, we are outsiders. It takes time before things feel familiar to us. We may need to figure out how things work. Who makes decisions, and how are they made? What is the path to involvement?

Cliques and Culture

People sometimes complain that the church is full of cliques. This isn’t a new problem. The first major conflict the New Testament church faced was the cultural clash between two sub-cultures (Acts 6:1). A clique is really just another word for a tightly knit but closed community system. Some churches are better at creating on-ramps for those who are new to the community, but every church has cliques. The same dynamics that make a church’s culture “sticky” for insiders will erect walls for those who come in from the outside. This is the catch-22 for any tightly knit church. The closer the church, the harder it is for newcomers to find their place within it.

Membership classes, Bible study groups, affinity groups can all help. But they probably won’t work without a Barnabas to help people make a personal connection.

Paul had trouble finding a place in the church at Jerusalem because of his personal history as a persecutor. Things changed after Barnabas took Paul under his wing as a kind of sponsor and introduced him to the community of believers (Acts 9:26-27). Most newcomers to a church need someone who is already established in the community to help them find a place. These community gatekeepers explain the culture, teach them the secret handshake, and help them make connections with other people with whom they can bond. Intentional structures are often needed to help outsiders become insiders. Membership classes, Bible study groups, affinity groups can all help. But they probably won’t work without a Barnabas to help people make a personal connection.

Tightly knit subgroups are not necessarily wrong. Indeed, they are the glue that is necessary for creating a cohesive church culture. But they can also be sinful. Sometimes the church is responsible for making people feel like they don’t really belong. James 2:2-4 warns of the danger of practicing discrimination by showing favoritism: “Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” Class, race, gender, age are all areas where the church is vulnerable to this sin.

Is there anything we can do if we sense that the church’s culture has relegated us to outsider status? Acts 6 may provide us with a helpful model. First, talk to the church’s leaders about it. Many churches are not self-aware. They may think they are opening doors when in reality they are building walls. Second, take initiative to connect. This may mean trying to form your own affinity group within the church. Or it might mean making an effort to join those that already exist. Join a small group. Invite someone out to lunch. If the walls are impermeable and deliberate, you may find that you need to look for another church.

Differences in Style

Style is another reason that people sometimes feel out of place in the church. This is really a subset of culture. Churches do not all have the same style of worship. Some are expressive, while others are more reserved. Some use set forms and liturgies while others are informal or spontaneous. There are churches that prefer a classical style of worship, others like contemporary, and some try to blend the two. The same is true when it comes to preaching. Sermon styles differ as do the personalities of those who preach them.

Not every style resonates with everyone. What is more, our tastes and our needs often change. When I first started attending church, it was in a context where the worship style was casual and expressive. We clapped, lifted our hands, and shouted, “Amen!” Although it was meaningful to me at first, after a while, I began to feel like I was performing, not just for God but for the people around me. Eventually it no longer seemed genuine to me. I felt out of place.

The church member who struggles with the feeling that the church “just isn’t like it used to be,” has a decision to make. How much discomfort are they willing to tolerate?

It can be traumatic to church members when a church suddenly changes its style. Churches usually do this because they think it will attract newcomers. If it works, long-standing members often feel disenfranchised. All too often, church leaders respond to this understandable discomfort with impatience. The church member who struggles with the feeling that the church “just isn’t like it used to be,” has a decision to make. How much discomfort are they willing to tolerate? We may grow to like the new style with time. But in most cases, a decision to stay is also a commitment to endure. Such a commitment is easier to make if it is values-driven. We might stay for missional reasons because we hope the things we don’t like will help the church grow. Or we may decide that the friendships we already enjoy or the ministry we have in the church are more important than those aspects of style that we dislike.

Doctrine as Style

Doctrine is another element that can make us feel out of place in the church. When I include doctrine in the elements that make up a church’s style, I am thinking here of those secondary doctrines that shape a church’s theological identity. Some doctrinal differences are more important than others. Foundational doctrines are those non-negotiables that are essential to the faith. Doctrines like the deity of Christ and justification by grace through faith are so foundational that without them, you no longer have Christianity. But there are also doctrinal differences that aren’t as consequential. They are not exactly unimportant, but they are differences we are willing to agree to disagree about.

There are some doctrines that aren’t exactly fundaments but we deem them to be important enough to warrant differences in practice and sometimes even fellowship. We would still consider those who differ with us on these matters to be Christians but they are imporant enough to the church’s theological identity that we might make agreement about them a pre-condition for membership or ministry.

If a church champions a doctrine that does not agree with the theological views you hold, sooner or later you’re going feel like you don’t fit in. You might enjoy the worship and love the people. You may agree with 90% of what they teach, but if the difference is significant enough, sooner or later, it’s going to create a rift. The church is unlikely to change its views. If you try to make it your mission to change the church’s theological identity, you’re only going to create division. If it is that important to you, then you  probably need to find a new church.

Feelings of Inferiority

When I first started attending church, I had a lot of rough edges. I didn’t know it at the time. But I began to sense differences in values and behavior almost immediately. I felt a little intimidated by those who had attended the church their entire lives. They knew where to find the books of the Bible. They knew the songs. They seemed more comfortable with the whole experience. In Paul’s case, the church in Jerusalem felt nervous about his history as a persecutor. But it often works the other way around. We can be embarrassed by our moral past, or we may be frustrated with our status as a newbie in the faith. In such cases, it is not the church that makes us feel like second class citizens in the Kingdom of God. We do it to ourselves. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Paul thought of himself as the worst of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). He readily admitted that he did not deserve to be called an apostle because of his past (1 Cor. 15:9).

How should we respond when we begin to feel like we don’t deserve to be numbered among the saints because of what we’ve done in the past? We can begin by admitting that this is indeed the case. It is true of everyone who is in the church no matter what their background is. Like all struggles that have to do with identity, we need to let the Bible shape the way we think about ourselves. Belonging in the body of Christ is not a function of feeling. It is a result of Christ’s work. By His death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has secured our place in the church. We may feel out of place, but that feeling cannot undo the work that Christ has done on our behalf.

What is more, 1 Corinthians 12:24-25 says that “. . . God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.” Belonging isn’t just for those who look good, feel good about themselves, and have all their rough edges smoothed out. It is as wrong for me to think that the church doesn’t need my presence as it is for others to make that judgment about me (1 Cor. 12:15 & 21).

The only way to deal with feelings of spiritual inferiority is to take God at His word.

The only way to deal with feelings of spiritual inferiority is to take God at His word. Not only do I belong, but I am necessary. The language Paul uses when dealing with this erroneous thinking is strong. He says that “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor. 12:22). The apostle’s example has to do with spiritual gifts but it applies equally to those who feel they don’t belong based on their moral past, spiritual background, or social class.

The discipline that has probably helped me the most in grasping this truth has been the regular observance of the Lord’s Supper. Every time we participate in the church’s meal, we not only remember the Lord as Jesus commands, but we are reminded of who we are. This is what Paul meant when he warned the Corinthians about the importance of “discerning the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:29). In the context, the sin of the Corinthian church as they observed the Supper, wasn’t the way they treated the elements but the way they treated one another (vv. 20-23).

We are not the best judges of the value we add to the church. Ultimately, it is our union with Christ that gives us the right to belong. When we trust in Christ, we are united with Him in His death and resurrection (Eph. 2:5-6). Union with Christ also joins us to every other member of the church. This is true whether we like them or not. It is just as true whether we like ourselves or not.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.

Help My Unbelief

The first believers I knew talked a lot about faith. As far as I could tell from what they said, faith was a variable commodity. Some had more and others less. The difference mattered since the results one might expect from God depended upon the amount of faith one was able to muster. Perhaps that’s why we spent so much of our time declaring our faith. When it came to prayer, it seemed that quantity was associated with volume. The more faith we wanted to prove that we had, the louder we prayed. I am not sure who we were trying to reassure more. Was it for God’s benefit or ours? It did not seem to make a difference either way. I felt no more certain no matter what the volume, while God did not seem to give my loud prayers any more attention than my soft.

In those days, it also seemed to me that the measure of one’s faith was determined by the size of the request. I thought faith was a muscle and praying was like weight training. The more you exercised it, the greater it grew. The larger the request, the greater the faith. I decided that my requests were too timid. I was asking for pennies when I should have been seeking gold. I decided that if I was going to become a person of faith, I needed to believe God for greater things.

I decided my requests were too timid. I was asking for pennies when I should have been seeking gold.

About that time, my mother’s health failed. She grew so weak that my father had to carry her to the car and drive her to the hospital. The doctors performed exploratory surgery, and she grew worse. I stood at her bedside and prayed that God would heal her. She died instead. I prayed that God would raise her from the dead, the way that Christ called Lazarus from the grave. The casket remained closed. In the months after my mother’s death, my father’s alcoholism worsened. I prayed that God would deliver him from bondage. His alcoholism eventually killed him.

But this is a one-sided picture. It leaves out all the prayers that God did answer, requests both great and trivial. They seem to fade in my memory. Somehow, it is the refusals that stick. Perhaps I don’t want to think about the others because they remind me how often I have been anxious about trivial matters. Each time I have asked for bread, the Father has never given me a stone. Or maybe it is because listening to the full scope of my requests is an uncomfortable reminder of how shrill my voice often sounds when I cry out to God. I may come into God’s presence kneeling like a petitioner, but I speak to Him as if He were a servant. My requests sound more like demands. I sometimes wonder why I even have to ask at all. Why doesn’t God just give me what I want?

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus invites His disciples to make requests of their Heavenly Father. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” Jesus says. “For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8). Jesus signals the Father’s welcome by piling on imperatives of invitation: “Ask…seek…knock,” Jesus urges. But there is also embedded in this language a subtle indication that the answers to our requests may not come as easily as we might like. Before we can receive we must ask. Before we find we will need to seek. Before we may enter we must knock.

“Ask…seek…knock,” Jesus urges us. But there is also embedded in this language a subtle indication that the answers to our requests may not come as easily as we might like.

There is a hint of persistence in all of this. For some things, we must ask and keep on asking. We will seek for some time before we find what we want. We will knock, and the door will not swing open for us at once. Nevertheless, Jesus invites all those who are His to bring their requests. The quiet reminder of our need to persist, which is implied in both the word choice and the verb tense, is meant to relieve our fears. Delay does not always signify refusal and refusal is not necessarily a rejection. Like any parent, the fact that our Heavenly Father does not always give us what we want does not mean that He does not love us.

It is a mistake to measure our faith based on the size of the request. It is equally a mistake to place our confidence in the measure of our faith. Some of us have more faith than others. But if prayer is a lever, it is God who acts as the fulcrum. The power of faith depends upon God not on the size of our request. It only takes faith the size of a mustard seed to move a mountain (Matthew 17:20). The thing we ask of God, whether it is great or small, is not the object of our faith. Our faith rests in God.

God is not the object of our faith either. God is not an object at all. We are in a relationship with Him. When we objectify God, we turn Him into an idol. Jesus condemned the objectification of God in prayer when He warned about the babbling of pagans, who “think they will be heard because of their many words” (Matthew 6:7). Prayer does not work like magic. You cannot recite a formula and compel God to do what you want. Prayer is a relational act, and a central feature of any relational request is the right of refusal. Even a child can refuse, though there are often consequences. It is only the slave who cannot refuse, and God will be no one’s slave.

Prayer is a relational act, and a central feature of any relational request is the right of refusal.

Of course, this may offer only cold comfort to those for whom God’s answer is no. Given a choice between a genuine relationship with God and the thing we want, many of us would choose the thing. A relationship seems like small compensation compared to health or love or that job we had hoped to get. We aren’t exactly mercenaries where God is concerned, but we are often little better. We are like the crowd that came looking for Jesus on the other side of the lake after He had fed the multitude. “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill” Jesus chided. “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval” (John 6:26-27). When the crowd asked Jesus what kind of work He had in mind, His answer to them was faith. “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29).

Well, we do believe. Or at least, we want to believe. We want to believe enough to get what we want. I admire the great men and women of faith whose biographies once fueled my fantasies of how my Christian life would turn out. But I do not see myself in them. Instead, my prayers sound more the man in Mark 9 who brought his demon tormented son to the disciples. “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid” the man told Jesus. “I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”

I admire the great men and women of faith whose biographies once fueled my fantasies of how my Christian life would turn out. But I do not see myself in them.

I can easily imagine a note of reproach in the man’s voice. “What kind of slipshod operation are you running here, Jesus?” the man seems to say. But Jesus refuses to accept the blame. “You unbelieving generation,” Jesus says, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.” To whom is this rebuke directed? Is Jesus speaking to the father? Is He criticizing the disciples? The answer is that Jesus seems to be talking to both.

Whatever the disciples’ failure was, it was not a failure of confidence. They seemed to have plenty of confidence. They were as surprised as anyone that their attempt to help the boy had failed. Later on, when they were out of earshot the crowd, they asked Jesus to tell them where they had gone wrong. “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” they asked. “This kind can come out only by prayer” Jesus replied. So if the disciples hadn’t attempted to drive the demon out with prayer, what had they done? At least in this instance, theirs was a faith without reference to God. Indeed, this wasn’t faith at all. It was confidence. They had cast out demons before. They could do it again. They thought they had this.

Whatever the disciples’ failure was, it was not a failure of confidence.

Once in Jesus’ presence, the demon threw the boy into a convulsion. He rolled around on the ground and foamed at the mouth. Sounding like a doctor, Jesus questioned the father about the boy’s condition. “How long has he been like this?” Jesus asked. “From childhood,” the father answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

If I were writing the story, Jesus would give His bumbling disciples a sidelong glance to remind them of their failure. He would say something compassionate to the father and command the demon to depart. Instead, Jesus reproves the father. “‘If you can’?” Jesus says. “‘Everything is possible for one who believes.’”

I see myself in the father. Only my point of doubt is slightly different. It is not “if you can” but “if you will.” I know that Jesus can. I’m just not sure that He will. Especially when it comes to those things that I have been praying about for a long time and haven’t seen any evidence of His interest in my case. The father’s prayer is also my own. “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

Here is the measure of faith that God seeks. It is not great faith, equal to the size of the request that we are making. It is not even perfect faith, one that is unmixed with any doubt. It is not self-confidence. If anything, it is the opposite. To me, this man’s request is the purest form of prayer. It is not the blustering assurance of the apostles. Nor is it the scolding complaint of the father in His first approach. This is the cry of the helpless.

God does not scorn our requests, but He will not be manipulated by them either. We cannot use faith as a lever to force God to do our bidding. We cannot bully God with our prayers or make Him feel guilty. Indeed, Jesus has assured us that such measures are not needed. “Do not be like them,” Jesus says when He compares the prayer of faith to the prayer pagans, “for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8).

Here, then, is what faith looks like. Faith is trust. It is the assurance of a child who relies on a parent to provide what is needed. Faith is a trust, which does not always make us feel comfortable, but which is nevertheless convinced that God ultimately knows what is best and that He will do what is right. Faith is our helpless reliance upon God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.

Direction

The other day a woman stopped me on the street and asked for directions. Not wanting to be rude, I did my best to guide her and then went on my way. But after walking two blocks, I could tell I’d given her bad advice. I realized too late that she was trying to find the intersection of two streets that run parallel to each other. I’d pointed her in a direction that would never lead her to her desired destination because her desired location didn’t exist. For some reason, it never occurred to me to check the map on my phone.

I’ve found that this is often the case when people give directions. Those who tell you what direction to take mean well. Some even know where you’re trying to go. But often their guidance is less than helpful. Sometimes, as in my case the other day, the fault lies with the one providing guidance. They think they know the landscape better than they really do. At other times the problem is with the one who receives the directions. Maybe they don’t understand them. Or perhaps they don’t trust them. Sometimes they just decide to go another way.

When I was a pastor I found that the majority of people who came to me seeking direction in their lives were really looking for permission. They already knew what they were going to do. They just wanted a spiritual authority to tell them it was o.k. If I was unable to do so, they went in search of another counselor. Sometimes they just ignored my advice and did it anyway.

There were also times when I gave bad advice or at least inadequate counsel. I thought I knew the landscape. I tried to provide direction. But sometime later I realized that what I said was too simplistic. This usually happened when I found myself in the same situation and my advice came back to haunt me. What seemed clear and straightforward before now looked like unfamiliar territory.

I suppose at this point I should compare the Bible to the GPS system on your phone. Just take it out and ask it where you’re supposed to be and you’ll never go wrong. But it never seems quite that easy. At least, not when it comes to the finer points of guidance. The big things are simple. At least, they are easy to know. They aren’t always so easy to do. All the big things we are supposed to do (or not do) are pretty much boiled down to ten things. Jesus narrowed them down to two: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

But honestly, it’s the street by street navigation that gives us trouble. Many times when we are trying to make decisions, we are looking for an intersection when the choices before us lie on parallel tracks. The decision is not binary. It’s not a matter of either or. When faced with a choice between option A and option B, we could choose either and still remain within the boundaries Jesus sets for us. Neither one violates our love for God or our obligation to love others. Yet we would still like to have a sense of God in our decision.

There are some who say that in such cases God doesn’t have a preference. If both your options fall within the broad boundaries God has set for your life, choose the one that pleases you most. It seems like sound advice, as long as your options remain binary and you have a clear preference. But what if you have more than two options? What if you like them all? What if every one of them is something you hate? What if you don’t have a strong feeling about any of them?

There have been times when I wished God would just come out tell me the way He wanted me to go and relieve me of the responsibility of making any decision. An angel visitation might be nice or maybe a cloudy pillar by day and one of fire by night. It seems like a good idea until I realize how often that kind of direct guidance from God didn’t really seem to help God’s people stay on the right path in the Old Testament.

Knowing the direction we should take is no guarantee that it will be the direction we want to take. It is also no guarantee that we will actually choose to walk the path marked out for us. We might just bolt like the prophet Jonah and run in the opposite direction.

Lately, friends have been questioning me about a major decision I’ve made. “How do you know God wants you to do that?” they ask. I can only offer them negative proof. “He hasn’t given me any reason to think otherwise,” I say. Does God really want me to do this? How would I know? Dreams and visions? God doesn’t work that way in my life. There is no chapter and verse to cover the choice I’m making. I am left with preference and even then there are times when I feel ambivalent. St. Augustine said, “Love and do what thou wilt.” He didn’t mean that we should always do what we want. But what we want is often a good place to start. Augustine’s point was that whatever path we do take must fall between the two poles of two great commandments Jesus emphasizes. No matter whether we do what we like or like what we do, everything that we do must be shaped by God’s definition of love.

Sometimes what we must do pleases us. Sometimes the things we would prefer to do fall outside the bounds of God’s plan for your lives. Sometimes we don’t know what to do but must make a decision anyway. God does not always shine a light on the path before we walk it. But He does always travel it with us.

Divine direction is no small thing. It is pretty important. But there is more to guidance than navigation. God’s guidance operates by faith. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” Proverbs 3:5 tells us.

This implies that the path is not always clear and our ways are not always straight. We rely upon God to handle the course corrections. Then we trust Him for the trajectory those changes introduce into our lives. They don’t always make sense to us. Or to others. But God is really the only one who sees the entire landscape of our lives. He knows where we should be and how to get us there. He knows how to nudge us in the right direction when we drift off course.

When my children were small, we sometimes took long family trips in the car. We didn’t have GPS in those days. Every so often my kids asked the question that every child asks at some point during a family trip: “Are we there yet?” “No,” my wife Jane would always answer. “But we’re closer than we were before.”

Praying to a Silent God

The house I grew up in had one phone. It hung on the kitchen wall and had a long cord that stretched to the end of the hall. It was barely long enough to reach my bedroom. If I really wanted to talk in private, I had to walk to the nearest payphone. This was long ago, in the days before everyone had their own cell phone. In my teens, I mostly used the phone to talk to girls. But I wasn’t very good at it. I never knew quite what to say. I had trouble reading the mood of the person at the other end of the line. Did they enjoy talking to me or were they rolling their eyes, just waiting for the call to end? My phone conversations were made up mostly of insecure chatter interspersed with awkward pauses. Much like my prayer life and for the same reason.

Those calls, as I remember them, were usually one-sided. My prayer life feels the same. I seem to do all the talking. I know that there are some Christians for whom prayer is a dialogue. They come away from prayer filled with thoughts and impressions from God. It’s as if he has a conversation with them. That has never been true for me. For me, talking to God is a lot like trying to talk to an introvert. He is a really good listener. But he never seems to have much to say. In fact, he never seems to have anything to say, at least not out loud.

The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews says “God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways” (Hebrews 1:1). But I don’t always feel like God is talking to me. I have often wondered why. Maybe it’s like the phone on the kitchen wall. Because I can’t see his face or hear the inflection in his voice, God seems to be inscrutable. I am tempted to interpret God’s silence as indifference toward me or worse.

I find God’s silent nature to be a mystery. At times it is a frustration. After all, it’s not as if God has trouble with words. He was the first to speak. Genesis 1 tells us that God spoke the worlds into existence. He is also a prolific author. I’ve read his book more than once. Yet for some reason, God prefers to speak through others. He does not use his own voice. Instead, God communicated through prophets and the writers of Scripture.

It has occurred to me that God’s silence may actually be an act of mercy. When the Israelites heard God speak on Mount Sinai, they begged Moses to act as their go-between so that they wouldn’t have to hear it again. “We will die if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer,” they said. “For what mortal has ever heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and survived? Go near and listen to all that the Lord our God says. Then tell us whatever the Lord our God tells you. We will listen and obey” (Deuteronomy 5:25-27).

It seems that prayer isn’t about hearing God’s voice at all. It is about speaking.  “Prayer is the simplest act in all religion. It is simply speaking to God” the 19th-century church leader J. C. Ryle observed.  “It needs neither learning nor wisdom nor book-knowledge to begin it. It needs nothing but heart and will. The weakest infant can cry when it is hungry. The poorest beggar can hold out their hand for alms, and does not wait to find fine words. The most ignorant person will find something to say to God, if they have only a mind.” The essence of prayer is in the asking.

Although the answer to a prayer is no small thing, it is not the only thing. We do not always get what we want when we pray. Sometimes we make our request and find that we must wait for the answer. Sometimes we ask and get something different. There are times when we ask and it seems that we do not get anything at all. Prayer is not about getting but about being heard. It is also about being known. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” Jesus assures us in Matthew 6:8. I usually know what I want, but I do not always know what I need. My prayers are often ignorant. God’s answers are not.

We find God’s refusals, when they come, hard to accept. Indeed, we have such an aversion to them that some of us have developed a theology of prayer which leaves no room for God to say no. If we do not get our request it is our fault. It means we do not have enough faith. Or the right kind of faith. But God’s right of refusal is proof of the relational nature of prayer. “The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted” C. S. Lewis observes. Lewis offers the prayer of Jesus as irrefutable evidence. “In Gethsemane the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from Him” Lewis explains. “It did not. After that the idea that prayer is recommended to us as a sort of infallible gimmick may be dismissed.”

I think my problem with prayer is that I have misread the silence. Silence can mean many things. It is true that silence is sometimes a signal of irritation. It can be a mark of contempt. But silence is also the comfortable space that has been carved out by long familiarity. Two people who sit together for hours in silent happiness do so because they enjoy being in one another’s presence. Silence is a mark of someone who is listening carefully.

I am not a great man of prayer. I know that don’t pray as I ought. What I have to say to God is usually dull and unimaginative. I am repetitive and sometimes whiney. I am pretty sure that if I had to listen to myself pray, I would soon grow bored. I have moments in prayer when I lose heart. I also know that the fault is mine. I misinterpret the silence on the other end of the line, mistaking it for boredom or contempt when in reality it is the silence of presence. I know that I do not pray well. But perhaps I do not have to pray well to know that God has heard me.

Stuff Christians Hate

The other day I was thinking about the stuff Christians hate. In particular, I was thinking about the people Christians like to hate. Well, maybe hate is too strong. Let’s say, the people that Christians like to dislike. Or maybe, the people that Christians like to deplore. I was reviewing an article for a conservative publication which included a quote from a noted theologian whose views have sparked controversy in the past. I wondered if I should mention it to the editor. There was nothing wrong with the quote. But you know how these things go. Sometimes the mere mention of a name is enough to spark outrage among Christians. It’s not what is said that prompts the reaction. It’s the person who said it. We often don’t even understand the nature of the controversy. We just know that someone told us that the author said something somewhere else that was bad.

Concerns about what people have said or written are reasonable, especially when it comes to the faith. It’s not so surprising that we don’t understand finer details of such matters. Most of us rely upon the opinion of others to help discern good teaching from bad. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Bible says that it is the duty of the church’s leaders to warn God’s people about false doctrine. Even theologians depend upon other theologians for their opinions.

I’ve noticed that our tastes in these matters also tend to be cyclical. That was the question I wrestled with when it came to the quote. We hated this guy five years ago. But do we still hate him today? Well, maybe hate is too strong. Let’s say that he made us uncomfortable. We didn’t doubt that he was a Christian. As far as I know, his Christian walk is exemplary.  But people in my theological tribe disagreed with his position, some of them strongly. But after a while, something changes. We feel differently. Maybe we decide this issue that separated us wasn’t that important after all. Perhaps we are tired of controversy and decide to overlook it. Or more likely, some new person or issue captures our attention and pushes our discomfort with the other guy to the margins.

If we wait long enough our old enemy might even become a new favorite. It’s like furniture. The ugly furniture my parents used to decorate our house in the 1950s is now hip. Theology is like that too. Some of the people we used to decry are now merely thought to have been misunderstood. When I was in seminary, my conservative teachers considered Karl Barth to be a liberal. Today he is insightful.

This doesn’t just happen with people. When I started to follow Jesus, I smoked a pack and a half of cigarettes a day. I liked smoking. Well, all except for the cancer part. But in general, I like the smell and the way I felt when I smoked. I thought it made me look intellectual. Then an older believer I respected told me that serious Christians don’t smoke cigarettes, so I quit. It wasn’t easy for me. It took me a while. It took the grace of God.

These days, such a warning would be considered legalistic. Christians don’t hate smoking anymore. Indeed, I know some Christian leaders who are proud of the fact that they smoke. Of course, it has to be the right kind of smoke. Cigarettes are still considered gauche among conservatives, but not cigars and pipes. They are a common accessory with a certain brand of pastor. He is usually Reformed, young, and bearded. The nagging issue of cancer is still there. But we won’t think about that today. We can think about that tomorrow when the doctor calls with our test results.

The same leaders who don’t hate smoking don’t hate drinking anymore either. They have cast aside the old misgivings some Christians used to have about the consumption of alcohol. They consider abstinence to be an outdated vestige of the sort of legalism that once claimed: “real Christians don’t smoke, drink, or chew or go with girls who do.” Jesus drank, they point out. He changed water into wine. Paul advised Timothy to “use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake” (1 Tim. 5:23). Not only does this new order of Christian leader like to drink, but they like to post selfies of themselves drinking on social media. This practice seems to be a kind of manifesto, a testimony to Christian liberty.

However, just like smoking, to be truly acceptable, it must be the right kind of drinking. It has to be craft beer or at least wine. One can hardly imagine Jesus tipping a can of Bud. In the interest of fairness, I must confess that I am not a neutral observer on this issue. Both my parents were addicted to alcohol. I also recognize that, although the Bible does condemn drunkenness, it doesn’t condemn the consumption of wine outright. I understand that not everyone who drinks is a drunk. But I also know that ten percent of drinkers consume sixty percent of all the alcohol that is sold. Maybe alcohol isn’t as hip as we thought.

The list of things we used to hate is growing, but that doesn’t mean we hate fewer things, it just means we have exchanged the items on the old list for new things. There is still plenty of stuff for Christians to hate. For example, we hate to sit down while singing in church. We hate to go to church on Sunday night. We hate to go to church on Sunday. Some of us hate to go to church, period. We hate one another’s politics. We hate the music in church if it’s not ours. Sometimes we even hate each other.

It’s a challenge to hate the right things. We often fail to get it right. Some of us don’t want to hate anything. Others hate everything. We seem to have a penchant foolish alliances, like Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah. I sometimes wonder if the prophet would say to us what he said to him: “Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the Lord?” In the end, our real problem it isn’t about what we hate at all. It’s about what we love.

Extraordinarily Ordinary

When my friend Ray was diagnosed with cancer, he started reading obituaries. He found comfort in the newspaper’s daily litany of the departed. Somehow it made him feel less alone. Like a pilgrim who is traveling in company, instead of someone who stumbles along a difficult path by himself. It was the ordinariness of the thing that helped him the most.

I feel something similar whenever I thumb through the old yearbooks in the faculty lounge. Their faces framed in horn-rimmed and cat-eye glasses, the images of former faculty gaze back at me with pursed lips or shy smiles. I do not recognize any of their names. They are long forgotten by the school they once served. Along with them are rank upon rank of students who are also long gone. They are not remembered either. Indeed, most of them were hardly known when they were here. Like the majority of us, they were just ordinary people.

It is hard to be ordinary. Especially in a culture which worships the heroic. This is particularly true of the Christian world. Wendell Berry observes that the Judeo-Christian tradition favors the heroic. “The poets and storytellers in this tradition have tended to be interested in the extraordinary actions of ‘great men’–actions unique in grandeur, such as may occur only once in the world” he explains. This is a standard that is impossible for ordinary people to live up to.

As a young Christian, I remember being captivated by the story of Jim Elliot, one of the five missionaries who lost their lives when they attempted to bring the gospel to the Huaorani people of Ecuador. When I was finished I got down on my knees and prayed that God would make me a martyr too. It was a foolish prayer, prompted more by romanticism than by devotion. It was a request born of youthful impatience and a rash hunger for glory. Not at all like the real martyrs, most of whom stumbled into their unique calling.

It takes another kind of courage and a different skill set to follow the path assigned to the majority. “The drama of ordinary or daily behavior also raises the issue of courage, but it raises at the same time the issue of skill; and, because ordinary behavior lasts so much longer than heroic action, it raises in a more complex and difficult way the issue of perseverance” Berry observes. “It may, in some ways, be easier to be Samson than to be a good husband or wife day after day for fifty years.”

On some days we feel like we are only going through the motions, merely shuffling along as we pass into oblivion. Instead, we are traveling in company. We are upholding the world with hundreds of small and ordinary efforts. We make the bed. We drive the kids to school and worry about the kind of day they will have. We go to work. We clean the bathroom. We wait for the end of the world and the dawning of the age to come. It is a kind of liturgy.

The world needs its heroes. It may be true that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Yet both the church and the world at large are vastly more dependent for their daily functioning on the common efforts of those who are extraordinarily ordinary. The writer George Eliot observed, “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

The Man Christ Jesus

A few years ago, it was popular to emphasize the masculinity of Jesus. This was not just an assertion of his humanity but something more. It was an attempt to attract men to the Christian faith by showing that Jesus was a man’s man. This vision portrayed a well-muscled Jesus who worked as a laborer, slept in the open, and hung out with the guys (twelve guys to be specific). It was a theme that coincided with the rise of men’s movements both secular and sacred in the culture at large and which was fueled further by angst over what some called the “feminization” of the church.

But the notion of “muscular” Christ did not begin with the Promise Keepers Movement of the 1990’s. The idea of muscular Christianity was popularized during the 19th century and connected the development of Christian character to athletics. What is more, it reflected a way of thinking that was not limited to the Christian sphere. It is interesting to note that Nazism later espoused a similar view, linking the shaping of German character with a national emphasis on athleticism. The Nazi vision of muscularity sprang from a desire to produce a race of warriors and reflected the movement’s affinity with paganism. I am not suggesting that the idea of muscular Christianity is similarly pagan, only noting that there is nothing distinctly Christian about muscularity.

One perceived obstacle in the campaign to rehabilitate Jesus’ muscular image was His affirmation of the virtue that the Bible calls meekness. This was reflected in the third beatitude, which promised that the “meek will inherit the earth.” The Nazis tried to take the earth by force. The athlete relies on superior skill and training. But Jesus points in an entirely different direction. According to Jesus, the meek will win the day. So many have pointed out that meekness is not weakness that the observation has become a cliché. But we also make a mistake when we try to buff up the term.

We get a better idea of what Jesus really means by meekness when we note how he applies it to himself in the invitation of Matthew 11:29: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” The image is soft rather than hard. The man Christ Jesus is “gentle” and approachable. Although the highest rank is his by right, he does not demand the prominence that goes with it. Instead, he associates with the lowly. He was, as Martyn Lloyd Jones observed, the most approachable person the world has ever seen.

The New Testament does not seem to be especially interested in protecting the muscular image of Jesus. This may be frustrating to those of us who live in an age where hypersensitivity about sexual identity is a feature of daily life. Nevertheless, when 1 Timothy 2:5 speaks of “the man Christ Jesus,” it emphasizes his humanity rather than his masculinity.

What implication does this have for those who are trying to understand what it means to be a man or a woman? It points us in the direction of deference and mutual respect instead of power. Rather than striving for ascendancy, we yield. Instead of demanding our rights, we leave it to God to give us our due. This is a bitter pill to swallow for those who have come to calculate their worth in terms of strength. It also puts a very different cast on what it means for a Christian male to “act like a man.” Apparently, it has more to do with meekness than with muscles.

Secular Eating and Daily Bread

Wendell Berry has pointed out that most eaters these days are passive consumers. “They buy what they want–or what they have been persuaded to want–within the limits of what they can get” Berry explains. “They pay, mostly without protest, what they are charged.” It seems as though we can get almost anything but that does not necessarily mean that we can always get what we want. We can only get what is made available to us. It certainly does not mean that we can always get what we really need or what is good for us. Berry points out that specialization of production leads to specialization of consumption. To explain how this affects our eating, Berry points to the entertainment industry as an analogy: “Patrons of the entertainment industry, for example, entertain themselves less and less and have become more and more passively dependent on commercial suppliers.”

Anybody who has spent hours scanning the vast selection offered by their cable provider, only to give up in disgust or settle for something they have already watched once or twice before and for which they are paying too much, will understand his point. Just as we have lost the capacity to entertain ourselves and must now settle for options chosen for us by the entertainment industry, we have also lost the ability to eat for ourselves. We are dependent upon food that has been selected and prepared for us by those who are far more interested in our wallet than our health, despite the nutritional information on the back of the package. We are what Berry calls industrial eaters. “The industrial eater is, in fact, one who does not know that eating is an agricultural act, who no longer knows or imagines the connections between eating and the land, and who is therefore necessarily passive and uncritical–in short, a victim.”

Eating and the economy are obviously linked. We must buy our daily bread since most of us do not produce it for ourselves. Those who do produce food are in the business of selling it. But eating is a matter of economy in a much larger and more theological sense. The term economy comes from the Greek word for household. It speaks of more than buying or selling. An economy is really an ecosystem. It is part of a larger whole. In this respect, every community is also an economy. Daily bread is much more than an individual act of consumption, it is a community enterprise.

The communal implications of eating are in evidence all through Scripture. They are embedded in the Law of Moses, which required growers to leave behind the grain that was dropped in order to provide for the poor (Lev. 19:9–10; cf. Ruth 2). They are implied in the biblical rule of hospitality, an exercise which always involved eating (Rom. 12:13; 16:23; 1 Tim. 5:10; Heb. 13:2; 1 Pet. 4:9). The link between eating and communion was especially evident in the practice of sacrificial meals. Several of Israel’s sacrifices involved eating in God’s presence. This was most vividly portrayed in Exodus 24, which describes how the elders of Israel ate and drank in God’s presence. In 1 Corinthians 10:18 Paul calls those who offered such sacrifices participants in the altar. In saying this he seems to be drawing a parallel with the Lord’s Supper in an effort to persuade the Corinthians to pagan idol feasts (1 Cor. 10:16, 17, 21).

Eating is a communal activity that is tied to the means of production and the well-being of the community at large but it is also a sacred act. In other words, our problem is more than the fact that we have been turned into industrial eaters. Our chief difficulty is that we have become secular eaters. We fail to see the connection between God and our daily bread. Food is still a common feature of the church’s life, but eating is not generally viewed as a context in which we experience fellowship with God. We expect to have fellowship with others but God is mostly on the sidelines when we eat. Indeed, we do not even see our observation of the Lord’s Supper as a meal in any real sense. We regard it as a valuable symbol but do not consider it to be spiritually sustaining in any meaningful way.

In the Genesis account, we find that four of the most fundamental aspects of human life are interrelated: the need for daily bread, work, community life, and fellowship with God. They were not originally the separate and unrelated spheres which we so often experience today. It is just here that Jesus chooses to engage with us on this subject. He does not speak about our quest for daily bread from the comfort of Eden before the fall. He faces it head-on in the broken world in which we now must make our way. His message to us is that the God who provided for our needs in the garden continues to provide for us in the fallen world. He teaches us to pray that our Heavenly Father will provide our daily bread (Matt. 6:11; Luke 11:3). He tells us not to be anxious about what we will eat, drink, or wear because our heavenly Father knows we need these things (Matt. 6:31-32).

But how can we not be anxious in a world where the ground that bears its fruit also produces thorns and thistles and where we must eat our bread by the sweat of our brow? Jesus does not say that our daily bread will come without effort, but rather that we must not think about these things like orphans. “Thank God that this Father is so compassionate and realistic that he appraises the little things in our life (included a warm sweater and our daily bread) at exactly the same value that they actually have in our life” theologian Helmut Thielicke observes. “Thank God that he accepts us just as we are, as living men, with great dreams, but also with many little desires and fears, with hunger and weariness and the thousand and one pettinesses and pinpricks of life that fill even the lives of the great of this earth (one need only to read their memoirs).” Give us this day our daily bread.

Grace & Personality

Not long ago I had dinner with an old college friend named Dave. I reconnected with him last year through the magic of social media, but until the other night it had been 25 years since the two of us had talked face to face. Dave was just as I remembered him. Older, of course, but the same essential person: a serious follower of Jesus Christ who is devoted to his family, his church and his friends. He has been in the same church and has been teaching the same Sunday school class for over 25 years.

Dave is a people person. He is someone who is energized by the crowd. He loves being part of a small group. In other words, he is pretty much everything I am not. I am energized by the crowd, but only when there is a pulpit between us. I hate small groups, for the most part. I am, as Dave told me at dinner the other evening, the same curmudgeon that I was in college.

This came as something of a shock to me. Because to tell you the truth, when I was a young man I did not see myself as a curmudgeon. In fact, I thought I was a people person: an outgoing, vivacious, life of the party sort of guy. Looking back on it, I can see that what is true of Dave is also true of me. As far as my personality goes, things have not really changed much. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Jesus hasn’t made any difference in my life. He has. My values and behavior have changed radically since I began my walk with Jesus in the early 1970’s. But being a Christian does not seem to have changed my personality, at least not fundamentally.

The late Martyn Lloyd-Jones once observed, “There is no profounder change in the universe than the change which is described as regeneration; but regeneration–the work of God in the soul by which He implants a principle of divine and spiritual life within us–does not change a man’s temperament.” In other words, what the gospel does promise to do for us is something more radical. Instead of changing our temperament, it promises to set apart what I am and have for God. The shy person does not suddenly become outgoing but learns to glorify God with his or her shyness. The surly person does not lose the capacity for surliness but will be able to subject this natural tendency to the purpose and power of God through the Holy Spirit (often with great struggle).

What I saw in my friend Dave the other night is what I see in my own life. Jesus Christ set us on a trajectory of grace and we are still following its arc. We are further along than we when we last met face to face. The intervening years have altered our appearance. But the aim is still true.

My latest book Folly, Grace & Power is now available from Zondervan. You can order a copy at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com or Christianbook.com. Click here to learn more about it.

What I Learned from Dave and Paul

For some time now I have been puzzling over God’s tendency to expect more of me than I expect of myself. Every time I read the Scriptures I get the sense that my standard of expectation and his are not the same. He tells me to love God with all my heart, soul and strength and to love my neighbor as myself. He tells me to be patient and show mercy. I like the “me” I find in these commands. The person reflected in these divine expectations is compelling. It is the kind of person I would like to know–the sort of person I would want as my friend. But it is not me. Not as far as I can tell.

 If I were speaking of anyone other than God, I would be tempted to say that such expectations are marked by a certain naïveté. You know what I mean. This is the kind of insipid good nature found in the person who mixes unfounded optimism and denial in equal measure. It is the sort of person who “expects the worst” but “hopes for the best” in others. They are not truly optimistic. They are either blind or foolish. This cannot be the case where God is concerned. The Bible which calls me to such a high standard is also marked by a stark realism. God knows my frame. He knows that “nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature” (Rom. 7:18). He knows that I have repeatedly disappointed him on every count.

 This morning it dawned on me that this same mixture of honest assessment and gracious expectation is reflected in two of my good friends and colleagues. Dave DeWit and Paul Santhouse both work in the publishing division of the organization where I teach. Their personalities are very different but they both have the same capacity to look “through” my shortcomings and see me in a different light. They are patient and gracious in their friendship but they are also truthful. Although they know what I am really like, they have high expectations of me. Higher expectations than I have of myself. When I see myself through their eyes, I do not see the person that I think am but the kind of person I want to be. They make me want to be a Christian like them.

 This is the kind of remarkable vision that God’s word provides. It is one which compels me to “see through” myself. With its “unrealistic” call to obedience, God’s word offers me a vision of the person I was meant to be. With its unflinching truth, God’s word shows me what I am now. This is the love of Christ which “does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Cor. 13:6-7). But it is a love which does more than show me the gap between what God expects and how far I have fallen short. It is a love which has closed the gap with the bridge of the cross. It is a love that empowers me by grace and promises to carry me across. This is not the kind of love that makes me want to be a Christian. It is the love that has made me one.