Dealing With Doubt And Failing Miserably

Dealing With DoubtWhile reading some blogs today, I ran into a quote on Rachel Held Evans blog which has encouraged me to open my heart on the matter of doubt and Christianity.

It was a quote from Tim Keller:

“A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection. Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts —not only their own but their friends’ and neighbors.”

Unfortunately, for many Christians and church leaders, doubt is something simply to be conquered.  It is something to be beaten as an addict beats the very thing that controls him.  For many it’s like this…if we head down that road, we’re sure to be enticed by the all-encompassing logical process of understanding all too much for our own good.  So what becomes of us?  Do we put our heads in the sand and ignore the ache forming on the edges of our mind, trying to numb our problematic noggin with an overindulgence in church activity?  For many that is the solution.  If we ignore it, maybe it will go away.

Doubt is a lonely road to travel in the church.  I mean really, who can you tell?  What kind of advice are they going to give you that will make you feel better?  They’ll probably load you up with platitudes like, “you just have to believe” or “faith is about believing even  when you don’t understand”.  While these statements are undeniably true, they don’t usually help an ounce in a crisis of faith.  I recently had one guy try to encourage me with his story.  It was extremely fresh for him, but actually made me laugh out loud, especially after it went on for about ten minutes.  I managed to cover my laughter with an appropriate comment and tied it back into his story.  I think I had more doubts after I talked to him than I had before.

So here it is…

I deal with doubt.

In fact, I have dealt with doubt lately more than ever before.  Yes, I’ve been a pastor for 13 years.  Yes, I’ve been a Christian for 33 years.  But never before have I dealt with the onslaught of doubt that I’ve been dealing with lately.

The source of this doubt, this faith crisis, is not sin.  It is not laziness.  It’s not even rebellion in my heart.  It comes from one thing…revelation of truth.  I know that sounds rediculous, but let me explain.  I grew up planted in a garden of impenetrable pentecostal theology, reinforced the fencing at a local pentecostal bible college and enjoyed a careful diet of food grown only in my own truth garden.  At the same time, as an extreme charismatic I was taught to not over think things and to just embrace whatever the Spirit was doing.

My world started unravelling as God began undoing theology that was so central to my very belief system.  For a while I embraced the new understanding I had of God’s word, but who could I talk to about it?  Nobody was on the same page, in fact most people would have considered me a heretic if I’d shared what I now believe to be true about God.  Most denominations (yes I realize this is a very big generalization) are only interested in convincing you that their theological stance is right.  They usually stop discovery at some point and start to put up fences, drawing lines in the biblical landscape of truth in order to resist heresy and maintain order.

Doubt is difficult for the church to deal with because it flies in the face of a faith culture.  Jesus was hard on those who faltered.  He said things like, “you of little faith” and “where is your faith”?  The difference is that those whom Jesus rebuked for their doubt had just witnessed incredible miracles and were on the verge of becoming recipients of miracles themselves.  His rebuke was reinforced with proof!  The only logical argument involved was of the “seeing is believing” type.

As I question my Christianity and my understanding of the word and my understanding of what God is really like and whether or not I believe in Him or even if I want to believe in Him, there is one glaring problem.  What do I do with my experience?  I can explain God away all I want with logical arguments and reasoning, but what do I do with the things that my eyes have seen and the imprint of His presence on my life.  Bill Johnson says, “The person with an experience is never at the mercy of a person with an argument.”

Through my doubt, I have learned to be open to new ways of looking at things.  Doubt has opened the door for God to reveal truth that was missing from my knowledge base.

God is not locked into our understanding of His word.

God has never been about us understanding every theological argument in scripture.  I’m not against  an understanding of who God is and developing personal theology, in fact I see more and more value in it as I’ve come to discover truth about God that I hadn’t previously seen in scripture.  But the ultimate truth is that He has only ever been about two things…

YOU and ME.

So my advice…relax and stop taking yourself so seriously.  Leave that up to God.  He’s pretty serious about us.

Some final thoughts:

I think as a church, we could do a way better job of working through doubt.  Doubt is a reality, but doubt doesn’t have to be lonely.

Pain and doubt usually go hand in hand, and when we are asking the age-old question, “where is God when I really need Him?”…that is the moment we most need a friend who will not judge us and will refrain from Christian clichés.

Do you have an experience you can share?

Are you walking through some doubt right now?

What are the questions you deal with?

Two Reasons People Stop Attending Church

How many people do you know who just stopped going to church?  Since leaving ministry I’ve run into a few who used to attend church regularly and for varying reasons stopped attending.  I am also aware of many more out there who’ve silently dropped off the roster.

I was listening to a sermon the other day.  It had been dominating space on my iPod for about 6 months and I hadn’t gotten around to giving it an hour of my time.  I love sermons from Bethel church in Redding, CA.  They have molded a lot of my faith, theology and understanding of who God is.  But the reality is, in our journey of faith we will never agree 100% with everything everyone says.  If we do, we are probably not thinking for ourselves.  Bill Johnson himself says his father taught him to “eat the meat and spit out the bones”.  That very statement means something different to each person.

In my faith journey, I’ve learned that I’m rarely always right and I’m often wrong.  My faith in God has been constant, but my theology and understanding of who God is and what He is like is always evolving.  As time passes and faith grows, I gain deeper revelation of His heart and His ways.  If I hold my theology too close, I may miss out on something that God wants to show me because it doesn’t fit in my “faith box”.

Anyways, back to the sermon.  Bill said something that a year ago I would have heartily agreed with and even preached myself.  He said, “believers who walk away from fellowship have something to hide.”  I’ve heard and preached the words, “Let us not forsake the assembling of ourselves together” (Hebrews 10:25).  Having rarely missed a Sunday service, I felt confident in my stance.  Who in their right mind would ever want to miss church?  I could never relate to those who only came to church once or twice each month.

The reality is that not everybody leaves church because they are hiding something.  The first reason that comes into most believers minds is sin They must be hiding some horrific sin.  Maybe they’re an axe murderer…an adulterer…living a secret lifestyle that they just aren’t willing to give up.  Yes that can happen, shame can overpower a person’s will to remain in the church, but I don’t believe that’s the norm in today’s society.

I think most people leave church for one of two reasons:  boredom and hurt.

BOREDOM

What?  Boredom????  Yes boredom!  For those of us in the church, who’ve grown up in the church and have gorged our childhood Sundays on the chewing gum glued to the bottom of the pew, we may not see it.  We’ve become so accustomed to the weekly fair spread before us each week that we just keep on chewing it as if it still has flavor.  A lot of what we call church today is filled with form, but very little substance.  But we have fantastic music, great preaching, dramas, special music, hilarious videotaped announcements that kill it.

People don’t come to church for entertainment.  If they want that they go to the theater, the bar, or the football game!  What’s next?  We’re gonna be handing out peanuts at the door if we’re not careful.

People come to church for an answer.  They come in hopes of some kind of encounter.  If we can’t offer them more than a momentary sensory experience, they ARE going to leave.  Unless they encounter the God we claim is real and alive today…poof!  They’re gone.

HURT

Pain is one of the most powerful immobilizers.  It causes a confident, powerful person to curl up into a ball and hide.  Maybe Bill is right.  Those who stop going to church are hiding something…only it’s not sin, it’s hurt and pain.  On average, about 50% of churches I’ve attended over the years, have some history of infighting and power struggles.  When you attend those churches, it doesn’t take long for the history to come out.  Whether you want to know or not, you’ll find out the grisly details within a few Sundays of attending.  People love to talk about the bad things their church has gone through.

But those disagreements in church culture have casualties.  Some who are directly involved in the conflict get shot down.  Innocent bystanders who watch the melee unfolding are completely turned off not only from church, but from Christianity.  We are so worried about transient church-hoppers that we’ve forgotten about the fallen.  At least church hoppers are hanging in there.  They haven’t completely lost hope and faith, but they are a little skittish.  Too many believers have either dropped out of church or fallen away from faith, simply because of our arrogance and need to control.  As long as we continue pointing the AWOL finger at them, there will never be an opportunity for healing and forgiveness.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Manipulation is a tactic used for control.  Let’s be careful with our words lest we become the very things that reduces people’s freedom.  We should never use Hebrews 10:25 in an attempt to manipulate people to stay in our “organized religion”.  If people feel guilty leaving a church, they are never going to experience real freedom in attending one.

Why are we so afraid of people leaving our churches?

Are we building empires?

Are tithes and offerings the only things keeping the doors open?  Is money King?

If we have to warn people not to leave, have we really made a place for them?

Is patching things up and asking for forgiveness an option?

Are we content to keep talking about the past and chew our second-hand pew gum until Christ returns?

Am I A Dirty Rotten Scoundrel?

One of Steve Martin’s masterful performances came in the movie Dirty Rotten Scoundrels where he plays a character whose sole aim is to try to swindle people out of their money.  Steve Martin and Michael Caine team up in this movie to work their magic against unsuspecting victims.  They were proud of the fact that they were filth.  They wore the title, “dirty rotten scoundrel” with pride.  The more they swindled people, the happier they were.  As a church person I could never relate.

Dirty Rotten ScoundrelsOver the years, I’ve been told again and again that sin will satisfy for a season, but will ultimately leave a person feeling empty and void of life.  It was like a subtle warning to reduce the desire to follow through on sinful desires.  Sort of like a scare-tactic to keep me in line.  And then I was warned, “be sure your sins will find you out” (Numbers 32:23).  Yikes!  I’m going to feel bad and I’m going to get caught.  Kaboom!  Pow!  Double-whammy.

What I find super ironic about the contemporary church is that even though we agree that sin leaves a person empty, we have a fascination with it!  Sunday School, youth group, bible college…they all taught me this one “great truth.”  Are you ready for it?  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  I had this verse pounded into me over and over and over again.  I earned special stars and prizes for memorizing it in Sunday school.  I literally learned and relearned that I was a dirty rotten scoundrel.  And over and over I repented for being a dirty rotten scoundrel.  It was a vicious cycle.  A cycle I could never escape.  No amount of confession, repentance, accountability or self-loathing helped me breakout of the unstoppable rut.

As a church, we’ve done a good job of making people feel like crap.  Weekly repentance sessions through habitual calls to an ever inviting altar only to leave church ever looking for an answer.  Resulting in a repeat appearance at church next week to get our soul run through the car wash again.  There’s always another puddle awaiting just beyond the church door.  It’s obvious we have an issue with sin.

I only wish someone had encouraged me to memorize Romans 3:24-26.  That would have made a huge difference to my Christian life.  Romans 3:24-25 goes on to say, “being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.”

There is an answer for sin preceding and directly following Romans 3:23.  Look it up for yourself.  It’s called faith.  Faith in Christ absolutely trumps sin and the power of sin in the life of the believer.  Our error has been identifying with sin and the name “sinner”.  As part of our struggle against sin, we’ve become accustomed to empathizing with Rom 3:23.  In effect it’s given us comfort in our inability to live holy lives.  We think things like, “I’m a sinner.  I sin.  I can’t help it”, which only serve to justify our bad choices.

The issue at hand is not really an issue of inability, but rather identity.  When we identify with the title of “sinner”, we will naturally give in to sin.  When we identify with the title “saint”, the very desire to sin becomes irrelevant.  Some would say these are two sides of the same coin, but I would argue that one side is a lot more deadly!

Knowing your nature allows you to live accordingly.  Understanding that my sins (past, present and future) were all dealt with at Calvary gives me complete freedom.  I don’t have to live under a cloud of guilt and shame, constantly confessing my failings before God lest judgment should suddenly fall on me.  The road before me is clear.  My conscience is clear.  My hope is sure.  I will not beat myself up for inadvertently hitting a bump in the road here and there, because I know who I am…forgiven.  I have an advocate at the right hand of God, namely Jesus Christ who’s got my back.  And He’s got yours too.

“Knowing your nature allows you to live accordingly.”

As we approach Easter and celebrate the work of Jesus on the cross, I have one warning for you.  Don’t pick up the weight of sin and try to “feel” it.  Christ carried the weight of sin upon his shoulders and dealt with it once and for all, so that you and I wouldn’t have to carry it ever again.  He said those words, “It is finished” for a reason!

Aren’t you tired of being a dirty rotten scoundrel?

DISCLAIMER:  Please note that I am in no way endorsing personal non-accountability for actions.  When we stumble and sin we often hurt others.  Christ has forgiven us, but we still have to patch up our relationships with those who experience the fallout of our actions.

As an added bonus…here’s my favorite clip from the movie.  Enjoy!

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqMc9B7uDV8]

You Are A Ticking Kingdom Time Bomb

I was at a conference a couple of years ago and I recall the speaker saying something that still resonates in my spirit.  He said, “The kingdom of God isn’t about our strongest asset.  It’s about our weakest.”  I wouldn’t say this is something new to me, but it is something I need to remind myself of regularly.  It’s not about my strengths and my talents and what I can do for God through them.  It’s about what God can do in and through me in what I can’t possibly do on my own.  For example…spiritual gifts inventories/tests are really a strength/personality assessment.  What we usually conclude from them is that our Spiritual Gifts are whatever we are good at.  It’s like a false positive.  It may or may not be a Spiritual Gift.  It may just be a talent.

In life it is so easy to rely on our strengths.  Our abilities.  Our talents.  If our worship sounds good and we are feeling the music, we can potentially conclude that we’ve encountered God. But it’s not just about what we can offer God in worship.  It’s also about Him moving in our weakness, our inability, to bring moments of greatness and encounter with Him that go beyond anything we could ever offer on our own.  Birds quickly learn that they can fly higher by catching the currents of the wind rather than flapping their wings faster.  There is a partnership that takes place in the Spirit-filled life that requires us to rely less on own ability and more on God.  It’s not that our talents and abilities aren’t useful, but he struggle is in trusting God. The wind of His Spirit can take us places and do things through us that we’ve never dreamt possible. Sometimes the fear of where He might take us is enough to keep us from stepping out.

One of the pastor’s I worked with loved the phrase, “you’ve gotta do what you can’t!” When I do the things I don’t have the talent for, or even the God-given ability to do, I feel empowered! That’s why I love the healing ministry. I can’t do that. None of it is me. By the grace of God, I can lay my hand on a sick person, His Spirit touches down on human flesh and bam! The Kingdom of God comes in power through my weakness. That’s where grace comes in. I don’t deserve to be trusted with that kind of power, but through God’s great mercy and love He chooses to work through my weakness to make His name known in the earth.

Your weakness is a ticking Kingdom time bomb just waiting to go off. What are you waiting for? Just pull the pin already and get ready for the aftermath. Do what you can’t!

 

Thoughts from beyond the pulpit: Invisible

InvisibleHave you ever felt invisible?  Like someone is talking about you as if you’re not even in the room?  They aren’t usually talking about positive things either.  Parents do it all the time when talking about their children to other adults and usually the children don’t hear or are just too busy playing to care.  However, when this happens to you as a grown adult it can hurt a lot more!

I imagine a lot of people feel invisible while attending church.  OK, I might have to explain this one a little.  A person who hasn’t made a commitment to Christ walks into a church and what does he/she hear?  Often they hear judgment and condemnation for the lifestyle they may be living at that very moment.  It’s not directed directly at them, but they get hit with it regardless.  They are the unseen casualty of zealous preachers and law-abiding Christians.  Sometimes we call it the conviction from the Holy Spirit.  No matter what we call it, it’s still outside our job description.  Condemnation and judgement have no part in the believer’s response to a broken and hurting world.

At times believers can also be the invisible subjects of unnecessary reproach.  As a pastor, I found that one of my favorite means of getting believers to do what I wanted them to do was to talk about them as if they weren’t even in the room.  I would start sentences with the phrase, “some believers…” and then go on to describe how they miserably fail to attain the high moral standards of holiness or fail to maintain a daily relationship with God.  Then I would contrast that with how a believer should really live, giving compelling scriptural support to my chastisement.  The reality is that most of the people I was talking to were struggling.  Although I had great intentions and my heart was to see my congregation grow, my approach was little more than a manipulation tactic incorporating shame to propel people toward holiness.

It is way more effective to speak to people’s potential and call out their God-given purpose.  You can even do that right to their face, without fear of retribution.  It allows the individual to grow and find confidence in themselves and with God without shame.  That is a win, win!  Church is supposed to be a safe place.  Let’s stop throwing rocks at invisible targets.  You may not hear an audible cry of pain, but anytime you throw rocks, someone gets hurt.