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Sometimes I think we lack a really good picture for Christian maturity which is integrate and sustainable. I think this issue is especially present when thinking about spiritual formation for young people. My fear is that the version of the Christian life we uphold is radical and extreme bordering on legalistic and isolationist. The only reason we don’t recognize a problem with this is because few live close enough to the communicated ideal to be burned by its flaws. Often times the damage of extremism burns others (who are non-believers), but any objection from their part reinforces our isolationism. Sometimes, however, the damage hits ourselves. I remember when it hit me.
I was driving to a girlfriend’s cottage. She was the most amazing woman I had ever met. Beautiful. Spiritual. Prettiest handwriting ever. And she liked me. And I liked her. I was on the way to her cottage to spend time with her and her family when I heard a message on “giving everything to God”. “Think of the money that instead of spending on a boat, you could give to God which could translate into saving souls!” On this long drive I started to get overwhelmed with the confusion of how to resolve my love for this woman with my love for God – which was to be all consuming – in one heart. The answer was clear. I needed to “give her up for God.” That sort of black and white all or nothing thinking is hard to argue with. It’s youthful and radical. But it is not sustainable.
No one was there to challenge the errant notion in this message that dollars automatically translate into souls. No one raised the point that getting guilted into giving something up for God is not what God has in mind. No one was there to show me the way of integrating my life and faith – to love this woman with the love of Christ realizing it could bear fruit to a watching world. (By the way, our relationship was very honorable and pure). No one was there to call into account the motives of this speaker who was there to raise money and perhaps prove his own ego and abilities. (Actually, my father was there to question this errant notion, but no one listens to their dad when they are in college).
Certain extreme sermons sound good. They preserve the ideal and make us feel secure – even if we can’t hold the standard. They can make us feel guilty. In a weird and twisted way we may even want to feel bad. You see, if we feel bad then it feels as though we’ve done some penance for our sins or inadequacies. So then, we feel better (for feeling guilty) even though the message provides no livable way forward.
If a sermon requires an approach to life which isn’t attainable, what good is it? I’m not talking about challenging believers to strive to be godly. Sure we want to support godly development, spiritual growth, and a nearness to and likeness of Christ. I’m talking about an idealized and extreme version of Christianity especially in how we relate to the world which can easily become a false god of defense from the dirt of the world. I’m talking about some weird cocktail of isolationism and legalism.
The black and white version is hard to argue with. It is so motivating, and clear, so obvious and yet often so… wrong. Remember, the point of our faith isn’t to reach the extreme ideal! The Pharisees had the black and white version. They had scripture to back it up. Yes, it was Biblical. They had loads for people to carry. They were eager to get things right but Jesus clearly communicated that they missed the point.
In contrast, Jesus shows us a radical difference that we still miss today. It’s “both” – “and”. It’s integrated. It’s hard. It’s fun. It’s unnerving. It is with Jesus. It includes fasting and self-depravation and drinking and extreme feasting. It includes calling and affirming people to take challenges and calling people on their crap in a way that looks to life change. To quote Wes King, a Christian songwriter of that time, “It’s living and dying and trying.”
Perhaps the memorable and sad ride back from a girlfriend’s house was what would later set me on a path to find a more integrated and sustainable faith – individually and communally.
Welcome to my world. The problems are real… but resolvable. They are challenging… but the success is enjoyable… and joinable. Welcome.
Live it Out: To join this journey with me, consider trying out the application sections. This one is the easy one for you introverts but important for all. Take some time (an hour) and journal about where God has failed you, or where the church has failed you. Seriously, let it rip. Were there assumptions that you had on God or the church that haven’t materialized? I’m guessing yes. Journal. Please be honest about these. The purpose here isn’t to have you doubt your faith, but instead to spark your thinking that perhaps your Christian education is incomplete and immature. Not necessarily untrue. Just incomplete. Therefore it is hard to reconcile or integrate certain experiences with your faith. Your faith is not yet comprehensive enough to integrate and absorb them. Were you given assumptions about how life would work as you followed God that ended up not materializing? When was the last time you heard a sermon on failure or the silence of God or the dark night of the soul? They exist. They’ve been around a long time. But they are forgotten. Again, my point isn’t to disrespect or challenge your Pastor. (He (or she) is a good person that has a difficult role – please be supportive). At this point, my goal is to help you see that while your pastor may know pretty much everything, the role he has of challenging and motivating the masses often misses the nuances and specificities we occasionally need.
If you are a new believer, stop reading this blog and go read the bible.