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.

Clay Feet

When I was a student in college, a Christian writer and speaker that I admired visited our campus on a lecture tour. A young believer at the time, I had been greatly influenced by one of her books. She was the kind of person I aspired to be. A writer, speaker, and a serious Christian. After she spoke to our student group, several of us took her to lunch, where I was thrilled to get a seat at her right hand. I didn’t elbow anybody out of the way for the privilege, at least not much. I didn’t want to miss a word.

I don’t remember much of what this famous author said during lunch. What I do recall is being puzzled by her tone. She didn’t seem to be nearly as excited to meet us as we were to meet her. Maybe she was tired from her long travel schedule. Perhaps she was coming down with something. For whatever reason, most of her comments to us were terse, almost impatient. If you had forced me to put a name to her mood, I would have said that she was grumpy. But of course, that couldn’t be true. Here was a person who had written several no-nonsense books about discipleship and the Christian life. She was famous for her faith. Her spiritual lineage qualified her as Christian royalty. I was sure it was only my imagination.

When the visit was over, some of us asked the staff worker who had picked her up from the airport what it was like to spend time with so distinguished and spiritual a person. The staff worker was silent for a moment. Then she said, “Well, all I will say about it is that sometimes you need to allow your heroes to have clay feet.” I remember being troubled by her answer. I didn’t like what it seemed to imply about one of my heroes in the faith.

These days heroes are hard to come by.

These days heroes are hard to come by. We have galaxies of stars, swarms of celebrities, and an abundance of influencers. But bonafide, pedestal-standing heroes are in short supply. It is hard to find heroes in an iconoclastic age. We love to tear down the idols of earlier generations. Once, we built monuments for our heroes and wrote biographies in their praise. Now we would rather expose flaws than laud virtues. The histories we write today reconstruct those old narratives using a wrecking ball. The new standard leaves no room for moral ambiguity or the limitations of cultural context.

In the church, we used to call our spiritual heroes saints. But Protestantism divested itself of most of those champions of old during the Reformation. The Reformers did not deny the existence of people with remarkable faith and exemplary lives. But they did object to the way the church had exaggerated their accomplishments and elevated them, as Calvin put it, “into copartnership with God, to be honored, and also to be invoked and praised in His stead.”

But our greatest problem is that our heroes always turn out to have feet of clay, no matter how good they appear from a distance. Some years ago, I took a class with a professor who was famous for his books on spiritual formation. More than one person told me that he was the most Christlike person they had ever met. During one of our class sessions, this professor told us that ordinary Christians could live the same kind of life that Jesus did. I was troubled by his assertion and asked him if he thought that his life met that standard. “I’m not going to answer your question,” he replied. “Because if I said yes, you wouldn’t believe me anyway.” The rest of the class laughed, feeling that his answer had put me in my proper place.

I won’t deny that there was a challenge implied in my question. But I meant it sincerely. If the professor had answered in the affirmative, I would have gone on to ask what such a life looked like and how it was possible. I genuinely wanted to know the answer to those questions, because his assertion made me realize that, although I wanted to live like Jesus, I didn’t actually believe it was possible. Instead of helping me resolve the contradiction, it felt like he had shamed me in front of my peers. It made me question the validity of his assertion. Would Jesus have treated my question the same way?

In the church, we used to call our spiritual heroes saints.

He might have. Jesus wasn’t afraid to leave his listeners feeling awkward and confounded. Still, I felt stung by the embarrassment of the encounter. In my mind, it eroded his credibility. I found it hard to remain open to the rest of what he had to say. I admired his work but not his personality. At least, not that sliver of personality that I came into contact with that particular day in class. For his part, I doubt that my discomfort even registered on his consciousness. I’m certain he did not even remember my name.

Some years after this painful exchange, at the Bible college where I taught, one of my students asked to meet with me. I could tell he was uncomfortable. He told me that the appointment hadn’t been his idea but his wife’s. Something had happened in one of my classes that left him deeply discouraged. So much so that he was thinking of dropping out of school. His wife felt that he should at least tell me about it before taking such rash action. He had said something in class, a question or a comment, I couldn’t recall what it was. I had dismissed it with a joke. He had been earnest in what he had said. My flippant response embarrassed him and left him feeling stupid. I hadn’t even noticed.

He went on to say that he had initially come to the school because of something I had written. Perhaps he was exaggerating when he said this. It doesn’t make much difference if he was. The exchange had hurt and embarrassed him. What do you say to someone who has put you on a pedestal, only to discover that you have clay feet? There isn’t much that you can say, except to show them the whole ugly picture. You gently try to help them see that your arms, legs, head, and heart are made of clay as well.

Mark Twain once wrote that the traits that we admire in our heroes are usually the qualities that we lack. “If everybody was satisfied with himself,” Twain observed, “there would be no heroes.” When our heroes fail us, it’s not just the fact that they have fallen from their former height that leaves us so disillusioned. It is that they have come down to our level. Indeed, this may be the bitterest discovery of all. The dismay we feel comes from learning that those we used to hold in high esteem are no better than us. Certainly, their sin disappoints, but it is their ordinariness that causes us to view them with contempt.

If everybody was satisfied with himself there would be no heroes. Mark Twain

For most people, coming to terms with this kind of disappointment is the first great challenge we face on the path to mature adulthood. We learn that we must forgive our parents for being human. And as every adult son or daughter knows, the hardest parent to forgive is the one we most resemble. The great torment of our adolescent struggle with our parents is the fear that we might one day grow up to become “just like them.” But the real tension actually moves in the opposite direction. It comes from our growing awareness that our parents are like us. “The natural or normal course of human growing up must begin with some sort of rebellion against one’s parents, for it is clearly impossible to grow up if one remains a child,” Wendell Berry explains. “But the child, in the process of rebellion and of achieving the emotional and economic independence that rebellion ought to lead to, finally comes to understand the parents as fellow humans and fellow sufferers, and in some manner returns to them as their friend, forgiven and forgiving the inevitable wrongs of family life.”

Whatever pedestals we build for our spiritual heroes must leave enough space to include things like Moses’ petulance, David’s lust, and Peter’s hypocrisy.

It’s not wrong to have heroes. We need them. Hebrews 13:7 urges us to: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” But if the Bible’s unvarnished portrayal of those leaders reveals anything, it shows us that we must also leave room for their humanity. Whatever pedestals we build for our spiritual heroes must also leave enough space to include things like Moses’ petulance, David’s lust, and Peter’s hypocrisy.

In the end, we will find that all our heroes have clay feet. All except for one. He is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). His feet are flesh, not clay (John 1:14). Those hands and feet were pierced, wounded by those who should have been His friends (Zechariah  13:6). We will not be sorry when we find that this hero was like us, because Jesus had to be made like us, “fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). He was tempted too like us, “yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus is the church’s only real hero because He is everything that we lack. Because He is everything we are not, He is the guarantee that one day we will be like Him.

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

Stop Shouting: A Few Quiet Thoughts About Writing & Publishing

If I had to give a label to the year that just passed, it would probably be the “year of shouting.” From that internet lady who is always pointing her finger at the cat to both sides of the aisle in the United States Congress and the Senate, everybody seems to be trying to make an emphatic point. But was last year louder than any other? I’m not sure. Sometimes I feel like we are all shouting all the time.

Some years ago, when I was preaching every Sunday, someone came up to me after the morning service and began, “Don’t take this the wrong way. . . .” This is a phrase that nobody really wants to hear. Especially pastors.  Especially after the sermon. Painful experience has shown that every time someone says this, there is a high degree of likelihood that you will take it the wrong way, even if what the other person is saying happens to be true.

‘Don’t take this the wrong way . . . .’ This is a phrase that nobody really wants to hear.

In this case, the concern had to do with my tone. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” the person said, “but lately, it seems like you are always yelling at us.” I was bothered by the comment because I knew it was true. I had noticed the same thing myself. Every once in a while, during a blast of prophetic fervor, the detached part me which has the capacity to step outside and listen to the sermon as it is being preached, would ask, “Why are you talking so loud?”

Most of the time, the honest explanation was not that I was angry, or even being prophetic, it was that I was nervous. Some in the audience were beginning to look bored. They appeared to be drifting. One or two were even asleep. Without thinking about it, I tried to compensate by cranking the volume. I probably got the idea from J. C. Ryle’s account of George Whitefield’s ministry. One day as Whitefield was preaching, he noticed a man in the front row who had fallen asleep.  Whitefield stomped his foot, and the man awoke with a sudden start. “I have waked you up, have I?” Whitefield said. “I meant to do it. I am not come here to preach to stocks and stones. I have come to you in the name of the Lord God of Hosts and I must and will have an audience.” The man woke up and so did the audience. “The hearers were stripped of their apathy at once,” Ryle declares. “Every word of the sermon was attended to.”

My attempts to follow Whitefield’s example were never as successful. The sleepers occasionally awoke, sometimes with a start, but more often than not, the result was a sheepish grin and a shake, rather than a look of mournful contrition. You can demand that the audience listen but you cannot compel them. Like it or not, “haters gonna hate” and sleepers gonna sleep. Not everyone has ears to hear. But such knowledge never seems to make me less anxious or less loud. In an age where everyone seems to be speaking at maximum volume, I feel the pressure to get noticed.

Like it or not, “haters gonna hate” and sleepers gonna sleep.

Digital culture has not helped matters. Publishing has never been easier. Just pay a few dollars and press a few keys, and before you know it, you have a website. With a click of the mouse, you can push your most reluctant thoughts out onto the stage for all to see. Eventually, you realize how crowded that stage actually is. You thought it would be enough just to put your thoughts out there. Now you find that you also have to get someone’s attention. You must say or do something to stand out from the rest.

The most common strategy is to lean into the extreme. Craft a startling lead. Say something outrageous. Take off your clothes (both literally and figuratively). It may seem like a good strategy until it dawns on you that everyone else is doing the same. Besides, you don’t look all that glamorous naked. So you decide to Photoshop your image. You employ a little poetic license. You favor hyperbole or magnify something at the margin of your story until it looks like it’s at the center. You don’t exactly lie about yourself, at least not consciously, but the result isn’t entirely honest either. What is worse, the steps you’ve taken don’t seem to make a difference. You still fail to stand out from the crowd.

I used to think that writing and publishing were the same. The two are related, of course. But the main difference between them is that writing has to do with art, and publishing is concerned with marketing. I am not saying that publishers don’t care about art. They do. But publishing costs money. Quite a bit of money, it turns out, which means that publishers must concern themselves with selling in order to support the art. This inevitably squeezes publishing into the territory of production. No matter how high its aspirations, as long as publishing depends upon selling for its survival, it has to deal with the cold realities of markets, margins, and cost. Publishing is a world of charts and statistics as much as it is a world of ideas.

Art is something else. Art belongs to the realm of contemplation. It involves work. But it is the kind of work that, as theologian Josef Pieper observes, is “meaningful in itself.” Pieper describes it as “an activity that does not need something other for its justification, that is not defined as producing useful goods and objective results.” Publishing, because it has to do with costs and return, cannot hope to meet this definition.

As long as publishing depends upon selling for its survival, it has to deal with the cold realities of markets, margins, and cost.

One practical implication of this distinction (practical for the writer at least) is that writing is not the same thing as getting published. It’s easy to see how a writer might confuse the two. I always felt that getting published validated my writing. It exposed my art to the world. In the best-case scenario, I got paid as a result. When I started writing, I did not think that I could legitimately call myself a writer until somebody published my work and paid me for it. These days we don’t need a publisher to present our art to the world. The internet has handed the power of the publisher over to the author.

Unfortunately, the fact that anybody can write a blog or record a podcast has not made it any easier for writers to find an audience. It has had the opposite effect. With so many voices speaking at once, ours cannot help but get lost in the clamor. Meanwhile, those who are looking for something to read or hear find themselves overwhelmed by so many options. This is one of the things that makes writing so difficult. We never know whether our labor is going to be “productive.” Will we be able to finish the project once we have started? Will we find an outlet for our work? Will we get paid for it? Even if it does get published, can we be certain that anyone will actually read it? What if, like Emily Dickinson, we die without seeing the bulk of what we have written published? The romantic in me says that it doesn’t matter. I am a writer. Therefore, I must write. But it is often the pragmatist who sits at the keyboard. I am afraid I am wasting my time. I worry that no one is listening. I begin to increase the volume, and it won’t be long before I start to shout.

There is only one solution for this. We need to learn how to view this act of writing as something meaningful in itself. Three conditions must be met before this can be true. First, we need to allow ourselves to be unproductive. It is important to me that others read what I have written, but the absence of a reader does not necessarily make the act of writing less meaningful. Writing has worth all its own apart from being published. I won’t deny that I still want to be published. And I like getting paid. But the real value is in the writing. Second, we need to learn how to take pleasure in our craft. Writing is hard work. It can be tedious. Yet at its worst, there is still a kind of joy that the writer experiences when putting words, phrases, and clauses together to express a thought. The painter takes pleasure in the stroke of the brush and the potter in the feel of the clay. The writer finds pleasure in crafting sentences. Third, we need to stop worrying about whether we will be noticed.

This is easier said than done. Maybe it’s impossible. But the truth is that most of those who write will not enjoy recognition. The majority of people who want to write never do. Of those who do write, only a minority get published. Of the few who are published, only a very small handful turn out to be popular. Keep writing but try to stop worrying. It doesn’t increase your chances of getting noticed. And stop shouting. It isn’t helping your art.

Practicing the Present in the New Year

Of all the holidays in the year, I must confess that New Year’s Day has always had the least appeal for me. It is not a bad holiday. New Year’s Day just suffers from comparison with its more glamorous sibling Christmas, which comes robed in red velvet and laden with gifts. The best that New Year’s Day seems to offer is a football game, chips, and dip,  and for some people, a hangover. Between the two, it is Christmas that appeals most to my mercenary nature.

Apart from the presents, Christmas celebrates a historical event: the birth of Christ. New Year’s Day is more abstract. It celebrates a change in the calendar. But I think it is this abstraction that makes New Year’s Day so appealing for many. New Year’s Day is a celebration of the passage of time. But it is more than this. The turning of the year is also a kind of reset. The clock starts over. The calendar begins its cycle of months again. It is a little like the video games some of us played when we were children. We struggled hard but failed to beat the big boss. Then when the music stopped, we popped back up and began again.

When the New Year arrives, for a few moments, at least, we feel as if time has granted us a “do-over.” Like the new calendar, all the days seem to lie before us with nothing written on them. As the clock strikes midnight, it is easy to convince ourselves that our life is a blank page upon which we might write anything we please. But when daylight comes, we will quickly discover that this isn’t exactly the case. The old year follows us into the new whether we like it or not.

As the clock strikes midnight, it is easy to convince ourselves that our life is a blank page upon which we might write anything we please.

To admit such a fact is not pessimism. It is physics. Isaac Newton observed that a body in motion will stay in motion unless acted on by an outside force. The same is true of time and circumstances. The changing of the year does not automatically create a wall between us and all the things we have set in motion during the previous year. The cycle of the year begins again, but our lives will continue along the same trajectory they were on before, unless some other force comes along to redirect us.

One of the side-effects of the turning of the year is a kind of double vision. When the clock chimes twelve, we feel caught between the past and the future. The result is a sense of weightlessness that is disorienting but not altogether unpleasant. Depending upon our bent, we may lean either into the past or into the future. Some feel the weight of the past, as the wreckage of the old year comes to rest in the new. They sort through the debris and grieve. It is not an accident that suicide attempts often spike during the New Year’s holiday. Others are eager to hurry into the future where they have set all their hopes. Whether we focus on a future that has not yet materialized or either long for or regret a past that cannot return, the effect on the present is the same. Both perspectives tend to marginalize the present. The present seems like nothing to us.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that we respond this way. The Christian faith has a vested interest in the future. The return of Christ is in the future. The ultimate fulfillment of all His promises about the Kingdom will take place in the future. Our resurrection and final deliverance from our struggle with sin remains in the future. It is true that where the Christian is concerned the best is yet to come. Likewise, our Christian faith has deep roots in the past. Our hope is grounded upon promises made long before we were born. The Bible upon which we have staked our faith and our lives was written by and addressed to people who are now long dead.

The present seems like nothing to us.

The Bible admonishes us to remember what we have received and heard, as well as to remember those who have believed before us (see Revelation 3:3; Hebrews 13:7). Remembering is a fundamental discipline of the Christian life, and the primary reference point for those who remember is the past. Jesus said that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not the God of the dead but of the living (Luke 20:38). This makes Him the God of our past and of our future as much as He is the God of our present. He is the one who has promised and called in the past. His grace is the remedy for all our regret. His assurances are our guarantee and our hope for the future. But our experience with Him is always in the present.

God’s ultimate purpose for us lies in the future, but His business with us is always in the present. He has left us a record of His faithfulness in the past, but that is so we can be confident of His dealings with us in the here and now. Satan’s strategy is to distract us from the divine present by directing our attention either to a past that we can no longer affect or to a future that does not yet exist and may never come to pass. This may take the form of a dogged pursuit of the future, which leaves us blinded to or dissatisfied with the present. Or it may be an obsession with the past, whether it is a longing for the glory days or an overwhelming sense of regret over decisions, actions, and experiences that we now cannot change. Each of these perspectives makes us vulnerable to the same error made by the people of Haggai’s day. Either we will not see what God is doing in the present or we will note it and dismiss it as “nothing.”

As another year passes away and a new one dawns, I am suggesting that we reorient our thinking to the present. Or more accurately, I suggest that we reorient our thinking in the present. Practicing the present is not a matter of forgetting the past or dismissing the future. It is not a meditative state. Practicing the present begins with the recognition that, to some extent,  we cannot help but practice the present. We have no other temporal framework within which to live. We may remember the past, but we cannot return to it. We may place our hope in the future or dread its approach, but we cannot suddenly transport ourselves there. The present is the only context available to us for living out our lives. When we practice the present, we view our present circumstances, whatever they may be, through the lens of the sacred. We live our lives in the here and now. The present is where we learn to obey God. The present is the place where we experience God’s presence.

The first step is to put the past behind us. This begins not with forgetting but with honest reckoning. The sentimentalist recasts the past, smoothing out its sharp edges and minimizing the damage done. The cynic looks at the past through a jaundiced eye. Practicing the present involves the double discipline of honestly assessing the past while recognizing the hand of God in it. We are not the cause of all the problems that follow us into the new year, but we are certainly the cause of some. Like Adam after his sin, we too are prone to denial and shifting blame. We are inclined to blame others and especially God for our problems. Taking ownership of the present does not necessarily mean that we take all the blame for our current circumstances but it does require that we accept that they are what they are.

Taking ownership of the present does not necessarily mean that we take all the blame for our current circumstances.

The second step to practicing the present in the new year is to sanctify the ordinary. Part of the allure of a new year is the implied promise of adventure. The blank calendar seems to tell us that anything is possible. Who knows where we might go and what we might do? The answer is that most of us will go back to our old jobs. We will engage in the same tasks that we did before. We will live in the same place and with the same people. We will like the people we liked last year and the ones who irritated us will continue to do so. If the new year does bring about change, those changes, whether we perceive them to be good or bad, will be attended by many of the same mundane duties that were ours before.

Those who practice the present cultivate a sense of the eternal significance of the mundane spaces in our lives. We don’t do this by trying to change the quality of our experience in those areas. The mundane will still involve the mundane. We sanctify the mundane by accepting the ordinary as a context in which God is present. The ordinary tasks assigned to us by our calling and life situation are no less meaningful to God than those that are extraordinary. We do not need to be attempting great things all the time. We do not need to make a name for ourselves. As far as we know from Scripture, Jesus spent most of the first thirty years of His earthly life doing very little that was worth writing about. He lived in Nazareth and worked an ordinary job. To the people in His hometown, there didn’t seem to be anything particularly special about Jesus. He was “the carpenter,” just somebody from the village (Mark 6:3).

A third step to practicing the present is to align our vision with God’s. This is a matter of allowing the truth of God’s word to define our reality. We acknowledge our circumstances for what they are and offer ourselves to God as we are. The Psalmist describes this kind of reality check in Psalm 73, where he describes the bitterness he felt when he saw the prosperity of the wicked. The turning point came when he entered the sanctuary and considered God. The Psalmist’s circumstances hadn’t changed, but his perspective did after he traced God’s larger design on the field of his experience. The psalmist’s experience is a helpful reminder that practicing the present is not limited to those times when we feel good about God or our circumstances. It is a discipline for times in the valley as well as for those on the mountaintop. Our problem is not the questions that plague us but the danger that we will ask them dishonestly. We will come wearing a mask instead of showing up as our true selves. Instead of taking stock of things as they really are, we will engage in premature apologetics and attempt to explain away our pain, doubt, or difficulty.

When we practice the present, we do not try to work ourselves into a state of spiritual bliss. We do not need to elevate our feelings or put a good face on our bad mood. It is important as we begin to simply take note of things as they are without rendering judgment. This is the way things are. This is where I am. This is how I feel. This means calling our feelings by their correct names. Owning up to our anger, hate, and disappointment is all part of owning the present. To do otherwise is not only dishonest but dangerous. It is only when we show the doctor our wounds that we can be treated. But more than this, ignoring what is really true about me closes the door to genuine communication with God.

When we practice the present, we do not try to work ourselves into a state of spiritual bliss.

We do not need to be spiritual giants to practice the present. Is it the spiritual work of ordinary people. We live in an age of life hacks. There are thousands of websites, podcasts, and books that promise to provide us with simple steps that will improve and even transform our lives. Sometimes they even work. Unfortunately, the spiritual life tends to be impervious to hacks. It is not easily reduced to five steps, simple tricks, or quick shortcuts. When I talk to people about Christian living in the present tense, most of them ask the same question: “That sounds good, but exactly how do you do that?” Living in the present tense is not a methodology so much as it is a way of seeing the world. Still, there are a number of spiritual disciplines and practices that can help us acquire such a point of view. Some are disciplines of abstinence, practices intended to wean us away from patterns of thinking and acting that crowd out our awareness of the importance of the present. Others are disciplines of engagement, activities we undertake to add a certain perspective or response. They may be venerable, having been practiced by the church for thousands of years, or they can be situational, because they arise out of our modern circumstances.

None of them is a life hack. They will not provide you with a quick fix or substitute for long obedience that is characteristic of a life of discipleship. Nor are they guaranteed. You will not be able to apply them to your life by way of formula. They are not a doctor’s prescription. You will need to experiment and discover for yourself which ones work best for you. You will probably find that this will be tied to your season of life and your circumstances. The disciplines that work for you now might not be the same ones that will work for you best later on, while others will be perennial. The one thing they all have in common is the assumption that God is always present and engaged in our lives.

I said at the start that the trouble with the New Year is that it does not come laden with gifts the way Christmas does. It seems that I was wrong. The New Year does come bearing a gift. It is the same gift we receive every year. It is the gift given to us with each new day. The gift of the New Year is that it ushers us into the present, that same present where God is also always present. We cannot stop the flow of time no matter how hard we try. Indeed, in a way, our sense of the present is itself only an illusion. The world is always in motion, and so is time. We cannot help being carried along as each passing second hurtles us toward the future. Yet if we can learn to be attentive, we will discover the presence of God in this fleeting succession of moments. We are changing, but He is not. We are aging, but He is not. It is not the present that is the still point in all of this but God Himself. Even as we are caught in the slipstream of busy lives and of circumstances beyond our control, we are always at rest in Him.

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

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

A few months ago, my next-door neighbor told me that the house down the street is haunted. She used to own the place and claims she saw the spirit who inhabits it more than once. She says that it is the ghost of a little boy from the early 1900s, with bobbed hair and knickers, who occasionally appears in the kitchen. I’m not sure what to make of her claim, but I do believe that many of us are haunted. Especially at this time of year. Not by literal ghosts but by memories. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, who was visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, we are visited by the flickering memories of Christmases that are now gone.

Scrooge’s visit was a kind of reality check, but ours is something else. Ours is a reconstruction. We sort through the fragments of past experience scene by scene, the way an archaeologist sifts through the debris of an ancient civilization. Instead of bits of pottery, we handle shards of memory. Some are broken and fragmentary. These recollections are tinted by the soft glow of nostalgia, a spice that is sweet as powdered sugar but can leave a bitter aftertaste. The recollection of others is more spectral in form. They are haunted in the classic sense, as they contemplate the remains of things that have gone to ruin. The memory of someone whose space is empty casts a shadow on the table. The memory of a past offense or some horror puts a nightmare cast on their recollection.

When Scrooge asked the Ghost of Christmas Past what business brought him to his bedside, the Spirit’s answer was: “Your welfare!” But our ghosts seem to have a more malevolent intent. They aim to disturb. Those memories that trade in nostalgia want to make us jealous. They show us shadows of things that never were and leave us longing for a world we never knew. Those whose trade is fear want to bring us to despair. They show us a world of sin but one without a savior. The pain they bring to mind is real, but it is not the whole story. Hidden from those haunted memories is the hand of God moving in the shadows.

When Scrooge asked the Ghost of Christmas Past what business brought him to his bedside, the Spirit’s answer was. “Your welfare!” But our ghosts seem to have a more malevolent intent. 

We prefer our holiday season to be serene and magical. We are hoping for a moment of transcendence. We deck the halls and trim the tree. We bake and buy and then settle back to wait. But all too often, our experience is the opposite. Instead of Christmas magic, we get the critical mother-in-law who thinks their child could have done better. The kids like their toys but only for a day or two. The dysfunction that has stalked the family for the previous eleven months refuses to take a vacation. Somebody we love gets sick. Another dies. Or we discover that the real spoiler is our own heart, which leads us on as the day approaches, and then suddenly turns a cold shoulder after it finally arrives.

Before you dismiss me as a curmudgeon (perhaps it is already too late), let me say that I have been a devotee of Christmas for as long as I can remember. Christmas has captivated me since childhood. I can feel its approach as soon as the winds turn to chill in the fall. I start listening to Christmas carols on November 1 and it is only with effort that I manage to restrain myself from starting earlier. I smile every time I watch Scrooge’s gleeful repentance on Christmas morning and weep when George Bailey learns that no man is a failure who has friends. But I must tell you that Christmas has let me down every time. By the time the 26th arrives, I am done. The tree and all its decorations can go back to their place. They seem awkward and out of place to me, as wizened and worn out as Miss Havisham’s wedding dress.

I won’t deny that there are moments of transcendence during the holiday season: The peal of the trumpet during the resurrection sequence in Handel’s Messiah. The sight of wind driven clouds flying across the moon at night. The constellation glitter of the snow as it falls. But these are only momentary stabs of joy. These sensations, as C. S. Lewis has pointed out, disappear as soon as we become aware of them and cannot be manufactured. Play the same song. Visit the same spot. Try to reproduce the circumstances exactly, and you will only be disappointed. But this is, I think, what we are often trying to do during the Christmas season. We are attempting to manufacture joy and hold on to it, at least for a few days.

We are attempting to manufacture joy and hold on to it, at least for a few days.

Unfortunately, the fallen world conspires against us. If it is not the harsh croak of misfortune that bursts in and interrupts our revels, it is misfortune’s plainer sister boredom. We go looking for the sublime only to find the usual. The enchanted world we hoped to create for ourselves proves to be a tangle of colored lights and a pasteboard tableau of the three kings with a camel. The choir is singing off-key, but it really wouldn’t matter if they weren’t, because we hate the song anyway.

Yet we may have more in common with the true Christmas experience than we realize. After all, Jesus didn’t descend from heaven in a cloud of glory. He came into the world by water and blood, as all infants do. There were signs and wonders that marked His birth. But there was also misunderstanding, jealousy, and terror. Joseph considered divorcing Mary. Herod slew all the children of Bethlehem that were two years old or younger. The Holy Family fled for their lives and relocated to Egypt for a time. The version of these events that we see on our Christmas cards or in our imagination is a sanitized one. There is no hard traveling, no fear, and no violence. Our version is a kind of fairy tale, the sort we might read to our children at night to lull them to sleep.

What I am trying to say is that the world Jesus entered was far more like the world we know than the one we fantasize about, whether those fantasies are good or bad. When the Apostle John describes Christ’s entrance into the drama of redemption in Revelation 12, we see a very different portrait. Admittedly, John’s narrative is oblique and far-reaching. He speaks in visions and goes beyond the nativity stories of the Gospels. Yet John’s wild images make clear what the Gospels’  more narrow and literal depictions confirm. The world that the Son of God entered, when He took human form and was born in Bethlehem, was not a tranquil one. Jesus did not come into the soft bed of a manger lit by twinkling starlight and serenaded by the lullaby of angels. He entered a world of blood and tears. Jesus came to a habitation of dragons (Revelation 12:4). The angels who announced His arrival were not plump cheeked cherubs or fragile seraphs with gossamer wings. They were an armed troop who announced the arrival of the Lord of Heaven with a shout of victory.

Jesus did not come into the soft bed of a manger lit by twinkling starlight and serenaded by the lullaby of angels.

Don’t misunderstand me. There is nothing wrong with remembering the past. Remembrance is a sacred discipline in the Christian faith. When Jesus handed the disciples the bread and the cup, He told them to eat and drink in remembrance of Him. But I think we should approach our memories, especially at this time of year, with a degree of skepticism. Enjoy the vision, but don’t try to recreate it. Appreciate the memory the way you would a passing fragrance and then let it dissolve into mist the way that all dreams do.

The same is true of those memories that terrify us. They appear suddenly, like Lazarus from the tomb, still wrapped in their grave-clothes. But unlike Lazarus, they carry the smell of the grave and the clench of fear. They rear up like a shadow cast upon the wall by a guttering candle and want us to believe that they still have the power to threaten us. But they are only ghosts and echoes.

Despite our expectations, Jesus did not come into this world to create a magical Christmas season. His sights were set on the cross. The ghosts in Dickens’ tale came to help Scrooge understand his past, but Jesus came to purchase our redemption. To do this, He not only entered into our suffering; Jesus took our sin upon Himself. “When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son,” Galatians 4:4–5, says, “born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.”

“Who is He in yonder stall, at whose feet the shepherds fall?” the old carol asks. He is the Ancient of Days, the God of the Past. He is the God of your past. This is the God who made the light and who seeks you out in dark places. He is the God who knows your dreams and meets you in your disappointments. But more than this, He is the God who saves. “’Tis the Lord, O wondrous story! ’Tis the Lord, the King of glory!’ At His feet we humbly fall, Crown Him, crown Him Lord of all!”

The Things We Take for Granted

Many years ago, I had a friend who suffered from a brain tumor that affected her motor control. One day when I was visiting her, I watched as she slowly navigated a set of steps in her apartment. “I never realized how difficult it was to walk down a flight of stairs until I had to think about it,” she said. There was no self-pity in her comment. She said it with a smile. She was genuinely surprised at how complicated the process was.

I, of course, who had never given any thought to the mechanics of walking, felt guilty. And so, for the next few days, I tried to think about it. I tried to be conscious of what it was like to take each step. I gave up after a few attempts because I found that I couldn’t think about it. I just walked. I couldn’t help it. Which I suppose is what my friend meant.

There are many things in our lives like that. They are the things we take for granted. Things that are so commonplace we hardly think about them. They comprise the vast bulk of the world around us. We feel bad when we notice the fact. But I am not sure that we can do anything about it. I am not sure that we should.

Awareness of those things we take for granted usually comes only after we have lost them.

Awareness of those things we take for granted usually comes only after we have lost them. We get a promotion or change jobs and miss the familiarity and ease of our former position. We move to a new location and suddenly realize what we miss about the place we used to live. In his essay entitled “Creatures of Place and Time,” theologian Gilbert Meilaender describes the sense of loss he felt after he moved from Oberlin, Ohio to Valparaiso, Indiana. He notes that it doesn’t matter much whether the place where we used to live was desirable or not. “One walks certain routes, enjoys certain trees, recognizes certain people” he observes. “We have doctors and dentists, grocery stores and shopping malls, baseball fields and banks, churches and schools. All become deeply embedded in a pattern of life.” It is the comfortable familiarity of that pattern we miss.

This is true of other changes as well. I’ve heard married people wish for the days when they were single, and the suddenly single speak wistfully about the days when they were married. We all have moments when we take note of someone else’s loss and worry what the experience might be like for us. The sense that we have taken something for granted is rooted in the knowledge that something has changed. It doesn’t have to be significant. Often the things we notice are so mundane that the only remarkable thing about them is that they are now gone.

Sometimes this sense of what has been lost makes us aware of other things we take for granted. When my dog died last year, I became aware of how much I missed the sound of her breathing at the foot of my bed during the night. One evening, as I was thinking about the silent space my pup’s death left behind, I started listening to the quiet rhythm of my wife’s breathing as she lay beside me. I am thankful for it. It is precious to me. But would I want to notice it every night? Would I want to lay there and dwell on her every breath? There are times when this happens to couples. It’s called snoring. The beauty of Jane’s quiet breathing, or my dog’s for that matter, is that it is quiet. It is unobtrusive. It is familiar. It is the background noise of my life.

Jane and I live in a lake town. Our house is only a few blocks from one of the loveliest beaches in the state of Michigan. Before we moved, we used to visit during the summer. Every time we came, we made it a point to watch the sunset over the lake. But after we moved here permanently, we found that we did this less frequently. It’s not that we have forgotten about the sunsets or find them to be less beautiful. But we do feel less of a sense of urgency than we once did. If we miss a sunset today, we know that the sun will go down again tomorrow. I think this is true of most of the things we take for granted.

Often the things we notice are so mundane that the only remarkable thing about them is that they are now gone.

The things we take for granted are often a part of the familiar landscape of our lives. They are a display of what the theologians call “common grace,” a demonstration of the goodness of God which has been granted with such extravagance that we hardly notice it. They are evidence of the generosity of the One who “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45).

What, then, are we to make of the losses that suddenly and painfully make us aware of the things we take for granted? Are they a kind of punishment? This is how we often view them. We worry that God has taken these things from us out of spite. Maybe if we had been more aware, if we hadn’t taken them for granted, they would still be with us. We should know better, of course. God is not spiteful. But I do think that God sometimes uses loss to bring past goodness into sharp relief and to provoke us to gratefulness. This, too, is a grace, but it is a grace with a bleeding-edge since the gratefulness we experience feels so much like regret.

“God ties our hearts to particular times, places, and people—and then the same God tears us away from them so that we may learn to love him with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind,” Gilbert Meilaender observes. God does this, he explains, not to hurt us but to help us. Such experiences are designed, not only to help us recognize the beauty or value of what we have lost but to remind us that our true home lies elsewhere. They show us with a kind of blunt force that, like the patriarchs of old, we too are aliens and strangers on the earth, who welcome God’s promises “from a distance” (Heb. 11:13).

Occasionally we try to bully ourselves out of taking things for granted. We attempt to shock ourselves into gratefulness by saying things like, “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.” This kind of reasoning never seems to be especially helpful. It sounds more like a threat than a blessing. In a way, this sort of reasoning is merely a reversed form of envy, which seeks to comfort us in loss by pointing out that we still have more than somebody else. “I may not have what I want,” it says, “but at least I have more than that guy!”

Those who say that we should never take anything for granted are asking for the impossible.

Is it wrong to take things for granted? Sometimes. They say that familiarity breeds contempt. Familiarity can also breed entitlement. If taking something for granted means that we are not grateful, then it is a problem. But I don’t think we need to feel guilty about many of the things we take for granted. It can’t be helped. In his book The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis points to an ancient distinction between pleasures which are pleasures preceded by desire and those pleasures which are pleasures in their own right and need no preparation. A drink of water is “a pleasure if you are thirsty and a great one if you are very thirsty,” Lewis explains. “But probably no one in the world, except in obedience to thirst or to a doctor’s orders, ever poured himself out a glass of water and drank it just for the fun of the thing.”

Those who say that we should never take anything for granted are asking for the impossible. It is like expecting someone to be in a continual state of awe or ecstasy. Even if we could achieve such a state, it would eventually become a new normal and descend to the level of the mundane. The awareness that we have taken something for granted is the tension created by absence that fuels our sense of gratefulness. There are moments when we become sharply and often painfully aware of what was once ours but is no longer. But most of the time, we make our way along common streets. We work at our familiar jobs and have our small conversations. We awake to the sound of the rain as it drums on the roof in the heart of the night. And with a quiet sigh, we turn in our beds and go back to sleep.

Click here to listen to John’s conversation with Chris Fabry about the things we take for granted on Chris Fabry Live.

The Christian Art of Incivil Discourse

John Calvin and Sebastian Castellio used to be compatriots. Until they weren’t. Calvin was initially so impressed with Castellio that the iconic Reformer invited him to serve as rector at the college of Geneva. Things changed when Castellio started to disagree with Calvin. The two Reformers began to take aim at one another, with Castellio publishing tracts that criticized aspects of Calvin’s theology and Calvin answering him in kind. One of Calvin’s responses was entitled A Brief Reply in Refutation of the Calumnies of a Certain Worthless Person. The first line reads, “There has come to my notice the foolish writing of a worthless individual, who nevertheless presents himself as a defender and vindicator of the glory of God . . . .”

I thought of Calvin’s essay recently, when the furor over John MacArthur’s dismissal of Beth Moore’s ministry erupted. When MacArthur was asked what he would say to Beth Moore in one or two words his answer was, “Go home.” MacArthur’s remark was relatively tame compared to Calvin’s, at least when you consider that in the Reformer’s day theological disputes often ended in prison or even death for those who disagreed. I guess we live in a kinder and gentler age by comparison. But that doesn’t make disagreement more comfortable for us. Especially when it is between people that we look up to. Listening to Christian leaders that we admire when they disagree with one another can be like listening to your parents fight. We aren’t sure whose side we should take. We just want it to stop.  

Listening to Christian leaders that we admire when they disagree with one another can be like listening to your parents fight.

In our digital age, where it only takes a click of the mouse to enter the fray, it is easy to turn a disagreement into something more. Like players pouring out of the dugout to protest a bad pitch, each side piles on the other using their words as fists. The fact that our theological brawls are mostly verbal may not be as much of an improvement over the old days as we thought. It is true that we no longer burn people at the stake. But we do occasionally burn one another in effigy via social media. Words can be weapons. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment,’” Jesus warns in the Sermon on the Mount. “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

 I suppose it might be different if our verbally violent exchanges led to mutual agreement. But they do not. How can they, when the views in contention are mutually exclusive? Neither side can capitulate to the other without compromising their convictions. Each finds it equally difficult to speak in moderation. The greater the conviction, the stronger its expression. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that both will eventually agree to disagree, but neither side can say that the other is right.

Don’t misunderstand me. The tone certainly matters. 2 Timothy 2:24–25 warns that “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.” In other words, if we are going to disagree, and we are going to disagree, we need to learn to disagree like Jesus. But what does that look like? Is it the gentle Jesus of the children’s hymn, who is meek, and mild? Some envision a Jesus who never said a harsh word to anyone. But that is not the Jesus described in the Gospels. The Jesus of Scripture called those who rejected His teaching “blind fools” and “hypocrites” (Matt. 15:7; 23:17). He grew angry when the religious leaders tried to accuse Him of Sabbath-breaking for healing a man with a shriveled hand (Mark 3:5). He made a whip of cords and used it to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple courts (John 2:15).

Some envision a Jesus who never said a harsh word to anyone. But that is not the Jesus described in the Gospels.

Likewise, the same apostle Paul, who wrote that the Lord’s servant must be gentle, is the one whose disagreement with Barnabas over ministry personnel was so sharp that the two of them went their separate ways (Acts 15:39). Was their dispute a sin? I guess it might have been, but the Scriptures don’t call it that. Paul also said that he wished those who were preaching circumcision to the Galatians “would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Gal. 5:12).

If we look beyond the New Testament, we can find other examples of strong disagreement expressed in passionate language. There is Moses, the Psalms, and the prophets, of course. When the returned Jewish exiles compromised their lifestyle, Nehemiah rebuked them, called down curses, beat some of them, and pulled out their hair (Neh. 13:25). I am not saying that moving forward we should adopt Nehemiah’s behavior as a pattern for our disputes, only that we shouldn’t be so shocked to find believers with opposing views expressing themselves with conviction.

For those who already agree with his views, MacArthur’s remark was simply a tersely stated biblical correction. For those who disagreed, it was a case of mean spirited bullying and prejudice.  But given the nature of MacArthur’s convictions, it is hard for me not to see the resulting outrage as somewhat disingenuous. How could MacArthur have said any different, given what he believes? Of course, he might have said nothing at all. I suppose that would have been more polite. But when he said that Beth Moore should “go home,” I suspect he meant it literally. Likewise, I think Beth Moore was right to be equally dismissive of John MacArthur’s suggestion. Her implied response to him, posted on Twitter, stated, “I did not surrender to a calling of man when I was 18 years old. I surrendered to a calling of God.” In a subsequent tweet, she added, “Whether or not I serve Jesus is not up to you. Whether I serve you certainly is. One way or the other, I esteem you as my sibling in Christ.”

The real rancor in this dispute didn’t come from MacArthur or Moore, so much as it did from their followers and other observers who piled on via social media. Those who took issue with MacArthur criticized his tone, but what they ultimately objected to was his view. Would they have felt any better if he had expressed his remarks with a sweet smile and a soft-spoken explanation, supported by extensive Scripture references? I doubt it. What was really at issue for them was not whether he should have used a different tone, but whether he had the right to hold his convictions at all. The same is true on the other side. In the end, both sides in the controversy essentially share the sentiment that MacArthur expressed. Each would like it better if the other would go away. Neither is likely to do so anytime soon.

In the end, both sides in the controversy essentially share the sentiment that MacArthur expressed. Each would like it better if the other would go away.

So how should we manage disagreements like this in the church? We can start by recognizing that complete agreement is unlikely, if not impossible. Our differences matter and they are not always able to be reconciled. If merely holding the opposite conviction is incivility, then incivil we must be. But it may help to recognize that not every doctrinal disagreement is a matter of life and death. It has helped me to sort through these matters by drawing a distinction between three levels of doctrine. First, there is a basic shortlist of fundamentals. These are the truths that are foundational to the Christian faith. They are so essential that if you eliminate them you no longer have Christianity. These are the truths that show us which hill we should die on.

Second, there are those truths over which Christians disagree and which are important enough to warrant a separation in fellowship or practice. These doctrines are essential to one’s theological identity or express convictions which shape essential ministry practices. But we would still consider those who hold views different from ours to be Christians. The difference between MacArthur and Moore falls into this category.

Third, are doctrines that we might call disputed matters. These are doctrines about which we will agree to disagree. We cannot all be right about them. Perhaps we are all wrong. But we will fellowship and minister together in spite of our differences. These truths are important, but they are not so important that tolerating those differences does damage to our identity or compromises our practice.

Of course, distinctions like these, which look neat on paper or in a diagram, are always messier in practice. One person’s disputed matter is another’s distinctive and sometimes even their fundamental. We will not always agree. Where convictions are strong, we should expect that their expression will be equally strong. Beth Moore is right when she observes that even in our differences we remain siblings in Christ. And anybody who has taken a long trip in the family car knows that siblings don’t always get along.

Faith, Anxiety, and Sloth

A few years ago, I was diagnosed with a form of cancer and was treated. The treatment was successful, but I found it hard to enjoy that success because I was afraid my cancer would return. Once a year I am required to take a blood test to make sure that my condition hasn’t changed. During the weeks that lead up to the test, I always find it hard to concentrate. I feel agitated and unfocused. I am busy but not productive. In Luke 21:34 Jesus warned: “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap.” According to Jesus, we can waste our energy in worrying just as easily as we can on carousing. This anxiety is a peculiar form of sloth.

The stereotype of sloth is a lazy person. Someone who won’t get off the couch or get out of bed in the morning for work. But sloth is much larger than the stereotype. The way of sloth is a path of ill-conceived short-cuts and ignored responsibilities. Sloth practices neglect under the guise of simplicity and mistakes apathy for ease. Sloth is a sin of omission, but that does not necessarily mean that sloth is inactive. Sloth is a sin of rationalization. Those who ignore responsibility always have an excuse for not doing what they are supposed to do.

Sloth is a sin of omission, but that does not necessarily mean that sloth is inactive.

Sloth exerts the minimum required effort and would prefer to exert no effort at all. When sloth makes an effort, it is usually under duress. Sloth is listless and half-hearted. Imagine the worst stereotype of the sort of service we receive at a bureaucratic hub like the division of motor vehicles and you have a picture of sloth. Sloth seems like a pretty harmless sin compared to the sort of things that others do. We kind of admire it. That is until we have to depend upon a slothful person. Or are put into a position where we have to work with them. Or are waiting in line.

The sin that the ancients called sloth includes laziness, but it involves more. Sloth can manifest itself in many forms. At times it looks like ennui, an immobilizing lethargy that leeches away our interest in those things that ought to concern us. But sloth can also be active and profligate, causing us to squander our time and energy on meaningless trifles at the expense of other obligations.

Sometimes sloth is the person who can’t get up off the couch, but it is also the person who won’t sit down. When sloth manifests itself as agitation, it is filled with the kind of empty activity that fails to provide results, rest, or even pleasure. The agitation of sloth is to work what junk food is to nutrition. It burns hot but adds no value. We are busy but busy with the wrong things. In its agitated form, sloth is a particular form of dissipation, squandering our energies in empty pursuits. These may be pursuits of the flesh, the concerns of ordinary life, or even misguided spiritual pursuits. 

Sometimes sloth is the person who can’t get up off the couch, but it is also the person who won’t sit down.

Sometimes this agitated form of sloth is situational. It is the result circumstances. Some situation comes into our lives over which we have no control: a family crisis or a medical diagnosis. Things change at work, and we are uncertain how it will affect us. Suddenly we find ourselves in a new normal that is a cause for worry. In other cases it is result of temperament. Some of us have a natural tendency to worry about things that are purely hypothetical. Our anxiety does not spring from things that might take place. It does little good to remind ourselves that none of these things has happened to us yet. It is possibility that grips us not the actuality. In these cases sloth is not so much a matter of laziness as it is paralysis. Anxious sloth can also have the opposite effect so that we exhaust ourselves in an attempt to prepare for all the possibilities and ignore the bread and butter concerns of daily life.

I have learned from painful experience that anxiety adds no value to my life. The anxiety I feel will not change the outcome of the test. Nor can it prepare me to face a relapse of my cancer, should it come pass. Anxiety only drains my energy and distracts me from the things that I need to do. Anxiety creates an environment where sloth can flourish by pointing out our helplessness without pointing us in the direction of God’s loving care or powerful support. Anxiety whispers in our ear each night but not in reassuring tones. Its counsels are counsels of despair.

We think that the solution to this problem is more power or a change in our circumstances. But Jesus points us in a different direction. He urges us to view our powerlessness through the lens of faith. “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” Jesus says. “Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matt. 6:25-27)

The implied answer to Jesus’ first question is yes. We are much more valuable than the birds of the air who are cared for by our heavenly Father. The answer to His second question is no. Worrying cannot add a single hour to your life. In Luke’s version, Jesus adds, “Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?” (Luke 12:26). The impossible thing for us is a “very little thing” to God. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that God will always give us what we want. What it does mean is that God will always have our back. What does this truth mean for those of us who sometimes suffer from the paralysis of worry? It means that the God who gives us our life as a gift will sustain that life until it is time for Him to reclaim it.

The God who gives us our life as a gift will sustain that life until it is time for Him to reclaim it.

I know that the day is coming when my body will eventually fail me. My cancer may never come back. Indeed, I hope and pray that it doesn’t. But sooner or later, my body will betray me. My heart or my lungs will give out. Some unexpected disease will claim me. Or my aging body will call it a day and quietly shut down. My body will betray me, but God never will. The fact that we are not in control does not necessarily mean that things are out of control, even when things are at their worst.

Os Guinness has said, “Sloth is so much the climate of the modern age that it is hard to recognize as a deadly sin.” Guinness calls sloth, “the underlying condition of a secular era.” He might also have said the same of agitation. Agitation is so much the climate of the modern age that we don’t recognize it as agitation. It is simply the environment in which we live. It is also the underlying paralysis which keeps our culture in a perpetual state of motion but which does not deliver us to any satisfying destination.

Our agitation is actually pretension.  It is a disguise we wear for our own benefit, a mere affectation we use to persuade ourselves that we have more power than is truly the case. And in my own case, it is a kind of sedative which I use to distract myself from the fear I feel. Because, in the end, it is not cancer that I fear but death. And the only remedy for death is Jesus Christ. He is the one who shared our humanity “so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14-15). Even though I cannot always feel the truth of this promise, I have staked my life on it. And my death.

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.

When Faith Fails

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 after all.

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 money.

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 true.”

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 things easier?

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 will end.

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.