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.

The Dogs of Heaven

Two Dogs Playing

My little dog died last week. Her name was Gidget. The end was sudden. That is to say, it was unexpected by me. Looking back I can see that my pup’s health had been in decline for a few weeks, perhaps even for months, but I was unable to recognize the signs. We took her to the vet hoping for an easy fix. There was treatment available but the cost was prohibitive and the overall outcome uncertain. We chose to put her to sleep. This is the second dog I have lost. I was hoping that the experience would be easier. It wasn’t.

Picturing a world without my beloved pet is hard. There are moments when I forget that she is gone. I think that I can hear the jingle of her tags or the sound of her paws as they pad across the floor. I listen for her quiet breathing at night. Then with a stab of sorrow, I remember that she is gone. I am alternately impatient with God and irritated with myself. Is this an example of the goodness of God we read so much about in the Bible? Wasn’t there something he could have done? Should I have done more? I am an adult and not a child. I am a person of faith. I have experienced losses in my life that were far more serious than this. I should just get over it. But I don’t.

I can’t decide if the grief that I feel is for myself or for my pet. I suppose it is both. Each time I have watched a pet die, the experience has prompted me to ask questions about death, eternity, and God’s goodness. How can I love something so much and suddenly find that it no longer exists? My theological sophistication evaporates along with my detachment. I am shaken to the core. I ask the question that every child asks: Do dogs go to heaven? If not, why not?

When I examine the question through more detached eyes, it seems foolish to me. What would heaven be like for dogs? When I look back on my dog’s short life, I realize that it consisted mostly of sleeping, eating, and sitting on my lap. She did not read books or think deep thoughts. She did not even watch television. She did not have a job or contribute to the greater good of society. Indeed, she did not have a regard for society at all. Only for the squirrels who sometimes strayed into our yard.

The prospect of a heaven which includes dogs raises any number of theological questions for me. What would they do? To whom would they belong? Some dogs have had more than one owner in their lifetime. Some have no owner at all. The Pharisees once asked a similar question about wives. Jesus was impatient with them. “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” he said. “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 29:30-31).

Might not the same be true when it comes to our pets? Perhaps in eternity the need we feel for their companionship disappears along with the rest of the old creation. Or is it possible that at the end of all things when the world is made new they too will be changed along with us? C. S. Lewis seems to suggest that such a thing is possible. As Lewis puts it in The Problem of Pain, “…the man will know his dog: the dog will know its master, and in knowing him, will be itself.” Lewis later admitted that he was on speculative ground when making this statement. He was not stating a fact: “All that we can say for certain is that if God is good (and I think we have grounds for saying that He is) then the appearance of divine cruelty must be a false appearance.”

When we cannot understand God’s actions or the reasons behind them, we must cling to what we do know. Jesus is right, of course. My doubts, as well as my questions, are born of ignorance. I do not really grasp the extent of God’s power: “In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:10). The eye that sees the sparrow fall sees the falling tear as well. I do not think God will answer my questions. But his word does assure me that my pup’s life was in his hand. Just as mine is.

Shadow of a Doubt

I had a friend in college who said that Jesus appeared to her in her dreams. The two had long and meaningful conversations. I was terribly jealous. I wondered why Jesus didn’t appear to me too. Then one night I had a dream about Jesus. He sat at the end of my bed and spoke to me. He didn’t look like I had imagined he would. For one thing, he had blond hair that looked like it had been shaped by a stylist. He grinned at me, his white teeth shining in the dark. He looked like the host from a TV morning show. But it was the conversation that bothered me most. He just wasn’t making any sense. When at last I realized that what he was saying to me was only gibberish, I woke up.

I have to confess that my first thought was, “Yeah, that’s about right. That’s just the sort of Jesus who would appear to me.” Not the Jesus I read about in the gospels. No, I get surfer dude Jesus with blow-dried hair and dental implants. Then, for a brief moment, I felt a stab of panic. What if it really was Jesus? What if, up close and personal, Jesus turns out to be a figure sold to me by the church’s public relations machine? Would I someday discover that what I believed about Jesus had all been a carefully manufactured façade? Like a celebrity who has evaded his handlers, would he prove to be only ordinary in the end? What if the light that had blinded me on the road to Damascus was only the flash of the paparazzi’s cameras? Or, perhaps even worse, what if I got to know the real Jesus and realized that I didn’t especially like him? I know that such a question is unimaginable to most evangelicals. But you have to admit that such a thing does sometimes happen in our other important relationships. We all have people to whom we must “relate’ but with whom we feel distant or uncomfortable. It may be a boss, coworker, parent, or sometimes even a friend.

Evangelicals often say that Christianity is a “relationship” and not a religion. I understand what we are trying to do when we say this. We want to humanize Jesus for people (as if the incarnation were not enough). We do not want them to confuse faith with the rituals that are associated with the Faith.  But sometimes I wonder if we make too much of it. Is it possible that the “relationship” frame is as liable to misunderstanding as the “religion” frame? Many of our notions of relationship are sentimental. This is especially true of our idealized relationships. What is more, many of our relationships (especially in the dating realm) are voluntary associations that are a function of personal attraction. We meet somebody and if we like them we enter (or attempt to enter) into a relationship with them. But what happens if, after we enter into a relationship, we find that we don’t like their personality as much as we thought we did at first? What if “relating” to the person makes us uncomfortable or our sense of that individual’s personality is elusive?

I am not suggesting that we may find, upon closer inspection, that Jesus really is the shallow creation of some public relations machine or that we will hate his personality once we finally come to know it. My point is that the rhetoric of ordinary relationships is probably not an adequate framework for understanding all that it means to be joined to Christ. Such language predisposes us to expect certain kinds of experiences with Christ that we rarely have. I can’t help noticing that Jesus’ own disciples did not always feel comfortable with him. Sometimes, like the disciples in the storm, it was because Jesus far exceeded their expectation (Luke 8:25).”Who is this?” they asked. There is a measure of distance implied in such language. The effect of such experiences on the disciples was not a sense of casual familiarity but one of awe and sometimes even terror. This does not change after the Resurrection. If anything, it intensifies the experience. When John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” comes face to face with the glorified Christ, he is so startled that he faints dead away (Rev. 1:17). At other times, the discomfort experienced with the disciples was because Jesus disappointed them. They looked for bread and Jesus offered himself instead (John 6:53-54, 60). They expected him to drive away their enemies. Instead, he surrendered to death at their hands and then walked out of the tomb they buried him in (Luke 24:19-24).

Either way, the disciples sometimes found their experience with Jesus to be profoundly unsettling. For those who were able to successfully make the transition from surprise or disappointment to faith, the result was not comfortable familiarity but a sense of mystery. There was apprehension (in the old sense of the word) but not comprehension. They were able to grasp something about Jesus but not with comprehensive understanding. John, who arguably “knew” Jesus better than any of the other disciples, tells us that such knowledge is yet to come for us (1 John 3:2).

In an essay on the subject of faith, Dorothy Sayers observes that a faith is not primarily a comfort, but a truth about ourselves. “What we in fact believe is not necessarily the theory we most desire or admire” she explains. “It is the thing that, consciously or unconsciously, we take for granted and act on.” Her friend and peer C. S. Lewis made a similar observation about faith. Faith, as Lewis defines it, is “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.” I am suggesting that the same thing is true of the “relational” faith that joins us to Jesus Christ. Although faith often includes an experiential dimension, it does not require a particular kind of emotional experience in order to be genuine. Instead, faith requires that I take certain truths about Jesus and his relation to me for granted and act upon them. The relationship that I have with Jesus Christ is not dependent upon the way I feel about the relationship. This relationship is a fact before it is an experience. As C. S. Lewis has wisely observed, it is not a mood. Indeed, according to him, one of the functions of faith is to teach your moods “where they get off.”

It was not a carefully argued apologetic that reassured me after waking from my dream. Instead, I was reassured by the Jesus I encountered in the Bible. He was nothing at all like the Christ of my imagination. He exceeded my expectations. He disappointed me too. Fairly often, I might add. On too many occasions I came to him like the disciples, with my own assumptions about what he should say and do, only to have those expectation shattered. I quickly discovered that the Jesus of the Bible was beyond my control. I could not manipulate him with my prayers, bribe him with my behavior, or wheedle him with my praise.

We often treat doubt as if it were mostly a matter of unsettled reason. If we can prove that the Bible is historically accurate or that it agrees with science, we feel that we will overcome the doubter’s objections. But I think there are other factors in play when doubt’s uncertain shadow looms over our hearts. Certainly, it is a lack of confidence. Like Eve, we hear a whispered question which undermines our thinking and unsettles our soul: “Did God say?” However, more than anything else, I suspect that most doubts arise from our own lack of imagination. We cannot really envision Jesus as he truly is. We prefer a more controllable version to the one we read about in the Scriptures. Someone who is more comfortable and predictable. If such a Jesus shows up in your dreams with his shining smile and comfortable patter, you should probably ignore him. He is only a figment of your weak imagination. He bears as little resemblance to the real Jesus as a kitten does to a lion.

Disappointed With Jesus?

I just started reading the new Ravi Zacharias book Has Christianity Failed You. I have enjoyed Ravi as a speaker but I came away from the first chapter disappointed. I am not able to assess the book as a whole, since I haven’t finished it yet. But I did find myself wondering how you engage someone who is genuinely disappointed with Christianity. I know several people who fall into that category, some who are very dear to me, and have not yet discovered the secret to connecting with them on this subject.

The first step, I suppose, must be to at least acknowledge that Christianity can be profoundly disappointing. Unfortunately, we do not seem to be able to do this without adding some kind of caveat like: “Christianity may disappoint you, but Jesus never will.” I do not believe this for a moment. I find that Jesus often disappoints me. He is almost as disappointing as the church. He works out his plans without regard for my opinion of them. He has almost as much disregard for my plans. The suggestions I make for the advancement of my personal interests are frequently rebuffed. He does not rebuke me openly like Peter. Instead, my good ideas are treated, or at least seem to be treated, with silent disregard.

If I sound ungrateful, I do not mean to. It is not anger but embarassment that I feel. I do not attribute such treatment  to contempt so much as to dismissal. Like a child who has said something in the midst of adult conversation and knows by the ensuing silence that what they have uttered is foolish.

Maybe a book about disappointment with the church ought to begin with a chapter that says, “So you’re disappointed with the church? Me too. That’s not the half of it.” But I don’t know what I would say after that. Probably that I am even more disappointed with myself.