I’m Think I’m Gonna Puke If…

photo via Flickr from ranguard

…if I get to the end of one more Bible study lesson and have to answer questions like, “How can you be more [XXX] (loving, joyful, peaceful, gracious, etc.) this week?” “What is one thing you can do to walk more in love this week?” “How can you be a good representative of Christianity?” “Who are you going to reach/pray for/forgive this week?”

…if I hear another pastor talking about how important it is to pass out “application cards” at the end of every single sermon, and require people to “do something.”

…if I read another book talking about how we can call people to ever higher levels of effort, striving, and intensity (modern church code-worded: “passion”).

That’s stuff I obviously feel strongly about. I feel as strongly as I do because this is stuff propagated by those who presume to teach others. I feel a bit less strongly, and a bit more moved with compassion, by the results of this Puritan-work-ethic-do-it-yourself-with-a-bit-of-God-on-the-side Western/evangelical madness in the lives of the people who sit under this teaching every day of their lives. Here’s how this comes out of the average Joe/Josephine in the pews:

  • I’m trying to be more…(probably whatever their answer was to the first question at Bible study, above)
  • I know I don’t do enough… (witnessing, Bible reading, praying, going to church, etc., etc., etc.)
  • I know I don’t know…(the Bible well enough, how to lead a small group well enough, as much about God as my neighbor, etc.)
  • I wish I could just…(be like Stan the Man, be a powerful witness, defeat my flaws, etc.)
  • God is…(hidden, hard to find, hard to know, cold, etc.)
  • Obviously, that person is…(gay, Democrat, crude, slutty, super-conservative) so he/she can’t really be known by God.  At least not in the way that I am.
  • I love God, but I am…(divorced, gay, a smoker, an alcoholic, a Buddhist, a progressive, sinful, unstable, burdened by guilt, not quite with it yet)

I’ll stop there.  These statements above are what we teach to the mostly good-hearted people in our congregations when we take the approaches I’ve listed at the top.  Unwittingly we teach, “There is a good side and a bad side.  The good side looks like us.  If you are not on the good side, God does not love you — at least not in the same way.”  Unwittingly we teach, “Being a follower of Christ is about you.  It’s about what you do.  It is about your efforts, your feelings, your commitments, your striving, your opinions of who is right and who is wrong, etc.” We teach, “Get out your Bibles and hold everything up to “the light” of “the Word,” so I can measure and evaluate you, your thoughts, your feelings, your opinions, and your actions, and I can render a verdict about whether you are right or wrong, and therefore decide whether or not to validate you as someone worthy of the love of God.”

Do I seem angry?  I just went back and re-read this post and it feels a little angry to me.  It actually even sounds a little self-righteous.  That is obviously because I am part of the very system which I critique.  But not to be so is to leave it — to stand outside of it and kick dirt at it.  I can’t do that, because the truth is that I love it.  I do love the church.  It is so easy to be critical of what we refuse to invest in.  Far harder is to invest, to pour our lives in, and to live with results that are a lot less than the always-hoped-for stellar.

So this is all I have.  I do not pretend to have a handle on God, but I think that a good starting point is facing our cluelessness.  If I ask where any anger comes from that is in this post, it comes from being a pastor and seeing person after person in whom the fundamental pain in their life is a complete illusion, passed on to them largely by what we have taught them in our churches.  The illusion is that they are not good enough, and it is an illusion because the Christian message itself is that you are already good enough — you are already there — you are already in the loving presence of God.  Of course we really AREN’T good enough, but God loves us anyway in spite of our brokenness, and through every inch of it, and his love is what makes us good.  If Christians got their heads around this, the market for Christian books would drop drastically, as most of them are trying to help you learn about more efforts you can make, more things you can do, to “get closer” to God.  You’re already as close to God as you are to your own heartbeat, and the biggest tragedy in life is that you may not know that.

I am in the process at Wildwind of forming (this is not a secret — I’m preaching on this constantly) a community of people who are sick of trying — sick of measuring and evaluating their own spiritual performance and that of others — sick of finding themselves (and therefore — necessarily and always — others as well) lacking in some critical way — sick of feeling that God is out there and I have to find him.   Sick of deciding who does and does not get in on the love of Christ, and increasingly grateful to simply realize that we are loved.  Sick of putting faith in baptism, the sacraments, “personal confessions of faith in Christ,” “salvation experiences,” “the traditions and teachings of my denomination and religion,” and the ornaments of ritual and religion, instead of where faith alone belongs — in the risen Christ who created all people and all nations and all that there is and ever will be — who loves all, who came for all, and in whom every single one of us on the planet lives and moves and has our being.

Paul said, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”  In that he speaks of the entire construct by which we understand ourselves, by which we defend ourselves, justify ourselves, try to appear good and deserving of grace, by which we make judgments (even good judgments) of ourselves and other people and the world around us.  The whole body, the entire thing, is corrupt at its core and needs to be put to death.

QUESTION: How does this “putting to death” occur?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. A request for me to defend some of my comments does not obligate me to do so.

  • Incidentally, I am NOT saying in this post that there is not a really important place for such things as baptism and the sacraments, etc. They are the external forms that help us sustain a relationship. I will write a separate post on this, as it’s an important issue.

  • Janinne Garrett

    And the guilt that comes from not being a good enough Christian is often just too much for people. I think this is one of the reasons I’ve had such a hard time finding a church here in our area this move. Do, do, do, busy, busy, busy. Everybody comes with enough baggage and too often todays Christianity just piles on more. Yuck! I’ll say it again Dave – you’re a smart guy!

    • Yes! On the one hand, we do not want to teach that no growth is possible — that it’s just one long slide toward death, and we’ll be “liberated” in the next life. On the other hand, we do not want to teach that we can cause growth to happen. That is what I believe, in fact, we end up teaching people because we do not teach enough about being, about living from a place that is rooted in what is already there — the unconditional, relentless love of God.

  • Yes, you sound angry and I think you have a right to be angry.
    I think we must make a private declaration to ourselves that we are going to trust in God, and forgive ourselves when we fail which we will.
    I want to serve Christ. I trust in Him to show me the way He wants me to go. I actually enjoy classes and small groups on how to be a better Christian, evangelist, and small group leader because I honestly want to do these things and do not do them to the excellence that I want to give to my Lord.
    I feel sad that anybody has to attend any of these kinds of things they do not want to be at.

    • It comes down to the fact that doing comes out of being. In our teaching, we are asking people to do things they have not yet lived into. Yes to some limited extent, we can “fake it until we make it,” but much deeper emotional and spiritual work needs to be going on before we can do a lot of the “doing” stuff without perfectionism and the despair that it leads to.

      • Jeremiah Diehl

        Is “faking it until we make it” ever acceptable? I really struggle with this question but I can’t help but feel like it’s not. Essentially you are saying “I’m going to pretend to be somebody I am not, until that I am.” In which case I wonder if there would ever be a time after that in which you are not faking?

        I found your post very thought provoking. I think I too often get caught up in feeling like I need to “Do” more Christian things to maintain my feeling that i’m a Christian, as if I have to work at it. I then remind myself that it’s not about what I can do, that there is nothing I can do and I tend to use that to make excuses to allow myself to live sinfully.
        It’s like I live on a giant teeter-totter, tipping back and forth between guilt over legalism and guilt over grace.

        • In some ways I’m a big fan of “fake it ’til you make it.” For example, I may feel extremely angry about something and want to blow my stack, but I might decide to try to act as if I am calm. This doesn’t mean I’m being a hypocrite in any way, it would just mean that I’m trying to “live in” to the behaviors I truly desire for myself. Everyone who has achieved moral greatness has followed this path. Much of the idea of a discipline like fasting is to deprive one’s self of comfort and then practice patience and grace in those times when they are most difficult.

          There is only one effort in the spiritual life that is required, I believe, and that is the effort spoken of in Hebrews (14, I think?) — make every effort to enter God’s rest. Getting away, being quiet, meditating, and allowing the spirit of God to do what only God can do.

  • Laura

    The picture is great! The questions in the study guides as one friend put it are redundant. I saw myself of course in this post and will try to keep the thought that we are ALL “already in the loving presence of God”.
    BTW-I’m glad to hear you don’t have a handle on God,that would be pretentious, how could anyone really claim that? I love your sharing of your weaknesses.

  • Gayla Ignacio

    I too love the church, but get frustrated with the Western ideals we have infused into it. It feels narrow-minded, as if we only see the Gospel through our own Western lens. I think it leads us into a dysfunctional narcissism when we become overly focused on our own abilities and efforts, skills and models. It’s like we deny the love, power and faithfulness of God.

    After all, …it is God who works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” It’s not that we don’t want to learn and grow, but we would all be better served if our focus for ourselves as pastors and for our congregant were on God, worshiping Him, loving Him, experiencing His love, healing, and grace. The other stuff, Bible-reading, church attendance…that would all just come naturally if people were led to dwell in His presence.

    Recent psychological studies in the area of addiction recovery show that the least effect means of helping someone break an addiction is to tell then that they cannot have whatever it is they are addicted to. Rather, the most successful treatment programs find something fulfilling and meaningful and led the person to that over and over again until it replaces the addiction, all the while addressing the unmet, underlying psychological needs that played into the addiction in the first place. In minister, have seen this model the most effective means of real, long-lasting change in people….getting them to fall in love with Jesus and allowing His love and healing to work in their lives.

    Well, I really wrote more than I planned, but I think this topic was at the forefront for me for several reasons. One being the disappointment in the fact that “Competent” comes before “Christlike” in our new church initiative. I feel like the pumpkin.

  • Joanna

    Have you read “Love is an Orientation” by Andrew Marin. If you haven’t I strongly suggest you pick it up.