Podcast: Play in new window | Download
Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Email |
Dale and Nancy had just started dating when someone who
claimed to be speaking on God’s behalf told them that their relationship would
“flow like a river.” They took it as a sign and got married. It didn’t take
long for things to unravel. Dale was controlling and abusive. He went back to some
of the habits of his pre-Christian days. Drugs, pornography, and threats of
violence turned the beautiful promise they had heard into a nightmare. If you
had asked Dale and Nancy why they married so quickly, I’m pretty sure they
would have said that it was a simple act of faith. They believed they were
supposed to be together.
People make decisions like this all the time. Someone hears
a sermon about the unreached masses and quits his job to go into the ministry. An
older couple decides to adopt after their own kids are grown and gone because
they believe it’s what God wants. But faith decisions don’t have to be big.
Sometimes they’re small. We say something to a stranger because we feel the
prompting of the Spirit. We give money to a panhandler we pass on the street.
Sometimes things work out. Sometimes, like Dale and Nancy, the wheels come off,
and we’re left wondering whether we got it wrong. Maybe it wasn’t God’s voice
Simple or Simplistic Faith?
When I was a new believer, we used to talk a lot about having
a simple “childlike” faith. But looking back on some of the things we did, what
we practiced was not faith but naiveté. Our faith wasn’t simple; it was
simplistic. At times, maybe even childish. One Saturday night a bunch of us
piled into a car and drove down into the city of Detroit. We had no real
destination in mind. We expected to be “led” by the Holy Spirit, stopping to
pray at every intersection before deciding which way to turn. We ended up in a
bad part of town, where we stumbled on a drunken man lying in a doorway. “He
must be the reason God sent us here,” Ron said. Ron, a shifty-eyed prophet with
a receding hairline and a penchant for falling into the folding chairs whenever
the Spirit came upon him, was one of the self-appointed leaders of our little
group. Ron thought we should take the stranger with us, but the man only wanted
a few dollars to buy another drink. Despite his protests, we pulled him to his
feet, bundled him into the car, and drove back to the suburbs.
Our faith wasn’t simple; it was simplistic. At times, maybe even childish.
The next day Ron brought our new friend to church and asked the
pastor to take a special offering. The pastor politely declined. Maybe the
pastor was suspicious. Perhaps he didn’t think it was the best way to help the
man. Whatever the reason, Ron didn’t take the refusal well. He stood up in the church
service, and in a prophetic tone declared, “I was hungry and you gave me
nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a
stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe
me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” Then he and the
stranger walked out, followed by several chagrined church members who offered him
In a day or two, the stranger disappeared. Ron didn’t know
where he had gone. Some hinted that he might not have been a man at all but an
angel that we had entertained “unawares.” But I suspected that the poor fellow
had made his way back to the doorway where we first found him. The whole affair
bothered me. Was it really God who had guided us? Or had we merely gone
downtown on a whim? Was ours a bold act of faith or a naive exercise of middle-class
guilt? It is tempting to think that the answer these questions is in the
outcome. If God had been in it, the man would have stayed, and his life would
have turned around. But the stranger might have gone back to his old ways, even
if God had prompted us to rescue him. Would things have been any different for my
friends Dale and Nancy, if they had waited longer and gone through a
traditional courtship? Perhaps. But there are plenty of people who have taken
the long path only to call it quits in the end. Joshua Harris comes to mind.
Sincerity Instead of Faith
Sometimes, what we think of as faith is merely sincerity. We
are convinced that we are doing the right thing. We think we are acting in
God’s interest and at His prompting, but we are mistaken. Not only do we misunderstand
what God wants from us, we misinterpret our motives. Like James and John, who
wanted to call down fire upon the Samaritan village that refused to welcome
Jesus, we think we are doing God’s will (Luke 9:51-56). In reality, we don’t
know what kind of spirit we are of. James and John had sincerity enough to
spare. What they lacked was self-awareness
In the past few months, we have seen a flurry of notable church leaders turn their back on the things they once believed. We want to know how such a thing can happen. How can people whose faith once seemed so prominent suddenly throw it away? Many conclude that such people were never really Christians to begin with. They “went out from us” because “were not of us” (1 John 2:19). Perhaps this is true. The Bible has many warnings about those who profess the faith but are imposters (1 Tim. 4:1).
But I wonder if some of those who have walked away believe
that it is God who has broken faith. They
have turned their backs because the Christianity they embraced did not deliver on
its promise. In most cases, as far as I can tell from the outside, it was not
the gospel promise itself that has disappointed them but something else. It is more
a vision of what their lives would be like if they only believed that has
failed them. They are like those that Linda Kay Klein profiles in her book Pure, a blistering critique of the
purity movement of the 1980s. Many in the movement seemed to believe that if
they followed the rules and pursued sexual purity with a passion, they would
live happily ever after. Klein describes
the reaction of Muriel, one of the subjects she interviewed, this way: “How
could she believe anything evangelicalism taught her if the one thing they said
was most important–remain pure before marriage and you will have a blissful
sexual life after marriage and be supported by the larger community–wasn’t
The Game is Rigged
Of course, it doesn’t have to be sex. The promise we believe
might be something else. Maybe it is the expectation that the church’s leaders
will behave like shepherds and care for the church. Maybe it is the conviction
that if I put Jesus first, I will succeed. I’ll get the job I want. My ministry
will grow and expand. Life will go the way I want. Sometimes the things that shake
the foundations of our faith are embarrassingly small, but the basic reasoning
is always the same. I have believed, so why aren’t things working out better
for me? I am following Jesus, so why isn’t He doing more for me? Why aren’t
I am following Jesus, so why isn’t He doing more for me? Why aren’t things easier?
These kinds of questions aren’t asked just by apostates and
people who have been taken in by the prosperity gospel. They are more common
among people of genuine faith than you might think. This is the sort of
questioning the Psalmist describes in Psalm 73: “Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I
had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the
prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 73:1-3). The Old Testament patriarch Job also had
questions for God. Job’s questions are the obverse of Asaph’s. Job doesn’t ask,
“Why do the wicked prosper?” but instead “Why do the righteous suffer?” In each
of these cases, the frame is a narrow one. The circumstances that cause us to
question God’s goodness, and sometimes even our faith, are not always as noble
as theirs. Our disappointments aren’t great disappointments like those of Asaph
or Job. Too often, they are petty and self-absorbed. But for some reason that
doesn’t make them easier for us to bear.
To the person who struggles with such questions there only seems to be two possible answers. Either there is something wrong with us, or there is something wrong with God. Of course, anyone who has spent time in the realm of faith knows that the latter possibility is not really on the table. The game is rigged, and the odds always favor the house. God is never wrong. The problem is always us. But the thing that is wrong with us may not be what we think. We thought the problem was in our execution. We weren’t playing the game the right way. If we just tried a little harder–if we followed the rules–we could make it work for us. When it doesn’t, we are tempted to give up not only on ourselves but on God. We are tempted to give up on God so the fault won’t be with us.
We are tempted to give up on God so the fault won’t be with us.
When my oldest son was about to graduate from high school, I had one of those parental conversations with him about adulthood, duty, and the necessity of doing things one doesn’t really want to do. When I was finished, he said, “So what you’re telling me is that life basically sucks.” That wasn’t what I was telling him, but I could see why he thought it was. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that you think I’m saying something similar about God. Does it seem to you that God’s primary agenda is to disappoint you? Perhaps you think I am saying that the “chief end of man” is to suck it up and lower your expectations. If God intends to leave us disappointed, His goal is that we would be disappointed with ourselves and the simplistic, bargaining faith to which we are so addicted. Like a doctor who must break a bone to set it, God shatters our misaligned expectations, so that faith will have room to grow in the right direction. He does not do this lightly but carefully. And often, I think, with tears.
The Danger of Smugness
What are we to make of the defections from the faith of so
many prominent Christians? I think we ought to be careful not to be smug in our
rush to judgment about them. It may be true that they were never “of us” to
begin with. But we too are guilty of naïve faith and unreasonable expectations
of the Christian life. We shouldn’t shrug off their repudiation of the
foundational truths of the Christian faith. Their defection is a sin, and their
loss is a tragedy. They are responsible to God for the decision they have made.
However, some of the comments I have seen about their departure from the faith
sound too much like gloating to me. Besides, we don’t yet know how their story
Several years after my friends Dale and Nancy divorced, I talked with Nancy on the phone. She told me how terrible the experience had been for her and how, after the divorce, she had walked away from the church and from God. The promise had failed. She spent years feeling like damaged goods. She believed that God no longer had a purpose for her life. Then one day she realized that what she had believed about herself was a lie. Not only was God waiting, He was welcoming. At the time she and I spoke, Dale was still far from God. In a way, their story is a kind of parable. Some who have renounced their faith will discover that what they have rejected is not God or the gospel but a counterfeit. Others will continue to live in a way which suggests that “they were not of us” to begin with. But either way, God will be waiting.
John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.