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Christians Who Leave the Faith

I recently read “I’m not a Christian anymore: a thread“, by a David Gass, on Twitter. I forget how I first saw it; maybe it was on my regular Twitter feed.

At any rate, as a person with books like “Losing Faith in Faith” on his bookshelf, it caught my eye.

This was an evangelical pastor, who declared publicly that he is abandoning Christianity. He was accepting his doubt, and dropping the sham of faithfulness – after 40 years of missing no more than twelve Sundays.

I don’t want to cherry-pick his thread; it’s not really fair to do so, as it’s not an apologetical missive. I think he’s writing honestly and emotionally, and a point-by-point rebuttal wouldn’t be kind to him…

And it would serve nothing.

I love apologetics; sophistry, the plays on words, the logic all appeals to me. But a good pastor of mine said that “nobody has ever been argued into Heaven,” and while “nobody” is a strong word to use there – surely in two thousand years of Christianity, someone has been argued into Heaven, right? – I still think the larger point is entirely valid.

Apologetics is fun. It’s not really useful as an evangelical tool.

But: looking at Mr. Gass’ thread… I feel like he’s been failed. Not by God, but by the Christian community around him.

He says he was raised in a hyper-fundamentalist environment, with the classic hallmarks of such surroundings. That implies strictness, an insistence on literal inerrancy of the Bible, an insistence that solutions exist for every problem… a sort of “prosperity Gospel” even if it manages to avoid material prosperity. The “prosperity” here isn’t money, or power; it’s that our side, God’s side, always wins. Everything gets fixed. We have it all.

And Mr. Gass saw through it: he saw no supernatural miracles in his life, his marriage struggled. When he read the books that purported to have the answers, he saw them as trite and dismissive.

I’ve read a lot of books like that. I can fully understand his viewpoint on that.

He watched people die of cancer. He buried people from “4 to 96” years old. He prayed for healing for people that didn’t come.

His parents were abusive; his kids rebelled; his marriage was painful to him. Where was God in all of this?

An inescapable reality that I came to was that the people who benefited the most from organized religion were the fringe attenders who didn’t take it too seriously. The people who were devout were the most miserable, but just kept trying harder.

https://twitter.com/DaveGass3/status/112327798932261274

He eventually found acceptance among people who didn’t believe – he said they were the most Christian people he knew, and they weren’t Christian. Given the abusive structure of the church, he just … couldn’t take it any more, and walked away.

I understand.

My heart breaks for him, because I think he missed it all.

At no point in his letter does he mention Christ. He mentions the religion, especially the structured aspect of it; he mentions the trappings, but nothing at the heart. At no point does he say anything about a God he felt was supposed to be out there.

He mentions the Magic Vending Machine, certainly; it was supposed to dispense health and happiness, after all! And it failed! How dare it!

… but nothing about God saying “I died for you, as you were, and for all those lost… no matter where they were or who they were or what they were.”

He points out that the church around him was abusive and caustic. I’ve been in church; it can be!

… but nothing about the Bible saying that that’s not how the Church is supposed to be.

I think Mr. Gass’ story is tragic, because it’s not a failure of God – it’s a failure of the church around him. It’s made of humans, it will fail, but it seems like his churches failed him consistently and in routine ways, all predicated on the belief that things can and should be perfect.

Yet the Bible never says that about our lives.

He wanted to see a miracle: the miracle was him! His life was exactly what the Bible said it would be.

His crisis seems to have been inspired by a lie, that his life wasn’t supposed to work out that way.

I pity Mr. Gass, and understand him, and pray for him and others like him: all of those people looking for magic beyond the magic around them, the people expecting answers to be written on Christian fortune cookies, the people depending on the people around them to be acceptable stand-ins for God.

I pray for the people who failed him, too, because they as well need God’s hand – instead of their own. His failure is theirs. What happens to his faith is possible for them, too, for the same reasons.

I pray for myself, as well, that God guides me in such a way that my own faith remains strong.

Christians and Covenant

Jeff Doles recently published “A Contractual View of the Gospel,” in which he makes a lot of good points – but he also de-emphasizes something that I think is crucial to the nature of our relationship with God.

He says that many Christians see our relationship with God as a contract; we exchange an act (of faith, in the Christian sense) for salvation, whereas some others attempt to exchange works for salvation. (I’m not sure which group he’s referring to here, but look around; it’s easy to find people who say they’re good Christians because they do good things, as opposed to the idea that they’re good Christians because they believe in Christ and act upon that belief.)

He says that when we emphasize the contractual nature of our relationship – “we have done this, now give us that” – that we have made the contract itself an idol, replacing our love for God with a desire for certitude.

It’s an interesting, and valid, point. In my cultural tradition, there’s the concept of Heaven and Hell, sort of – Judaism has a number of views about the regions inhabited by the soul, such as it is, after the passing of our mortal coils. But as I understand it, they’re more abstract than concrete, and their pull is more ephemeral than absolute.

Put more simply: if I go to Heaven when I die, that’s great. Likewise, if God sees fit to send me to the lake of fire, well, that’s His right and power. My desire is to glorify His Name, whatever that might mean and in whatever fashion I am able. I have an abstract covenant with Him, and I trust Him to act according to His Will; the reward for me is in that fulfillment, not in whether I get a cookie when my life is done.

But that doesn’t mean there is not a covenant! Christ is our High Priest, after all; the priesthood was founded on a covenant. If the covenant is not fulfilled – if we don’t have that certitude – then our faith is in nothing, and I don’t think that’s the case.

So the crux, for me, is in the nature of the relationship to Christ. Am I faithful because I want the quid pro quo of salvation, or am I faithful because I love the Lord? if it’s the former, I run the risk of idolatry, as Doles suggests; if the latter, then salvation is a promised result (and that’s good, right?) but that’s a secondary effect.

Desires

I went to a small group meeting yesterday, where the leader asked each person to describe what they wanted God to show them through this year. It was an interesting question, because it makes you think about what, specifically, you expect from God.

I didn’t have a good answer, not really; I don’t think mine was impressive or surprising. (It was: “aid in transitions,” because I have three young men who are getting older – two of which are actual adults at this point, and I want God to guide their steps and grant them wisdom, whether they want it or recognize it or not. And I also want peace in my own heart as I watch them go through these transitions.)

But one other person there just wanted God to restore faith, and felt like she’d let Him down by … you know, living. Living a busy life, where sometimes we don’t have time to spend lots of time doing the things that we consider visible manifestations of faith, like explicit prayer or Bible study. (She said, rather tearfully, that she liked watching Downtown Abbey, and felt terrible that she spent time watching the TV show rather than in some kind of holy living.)

It got me thinking. One of my priorities this year is to do more explicit, self-directed Bible study, and another is to try to establish a habit of prayer every day; I’m sort of an informal guy when it comes to these things myself. (I pray, but it’s very much not something that you would describe as regular. It’s sort of a daily “Hey, where am I? I probably should remember to honor the Name…” thing. I’ve been trying to make prayer something I do when I wake up, and when I lie down.) So I know exactly where my friend was coming from; I’m there myself, really.

I’m there even though I know that that’s not quite how God works. Feeling like that paints God as a vending machine: if I show this kind of faith, God will reward me – perhaps by doing that, perhaps by doing this other thing. I don’t really care how the reward is manifested; maybe the reward is ephemeral, as simple as “I know I’ve done what God wanted me to do,” and that’s fine…

… but I can’t help hoping that He will reward me by lightening the burden I bear.

Maybe He could see fit to showing me His Hand on my son, for example, or maybe even dropping me a check to pay for the various expenses that come with a newly-minted eighteen-year-old.

Or maybe He could be a little sneakier, and somehow give me a bonus check from work (can you tell I’m enjoying various financial pressures right now?) or maybe He could even just take the stress I have in my heart and disperse it. (“Peace,” I call it, even though I don’t know if I would recognize it if He gave it to me like that.)

But… it’s still not how God works. I know that, intellectually and spiritually, but it’s still very tempting to want to define God that way. And how pleasant would it be to use a reward as a measure, like a prosperity gospel? (“You are making lots of money, you must have great faith and God loves you…” except if you don’t make lots of money, the prosperity gospel implies that God’s actually in the process of smiting you, you unfaithful slacker. The prosperity gospel is a lie, folks.)

It’s just curious how tempting it is to see God through invalid lenses to make ourselves feel better.

More Persistence

I still feel like I’m on a plateau, writing-wise. I am feeling a little sorry for myself, and I keep thinking of Nehemya in the process.

But it struck me, in the midst of my mild self-pity, that Nehemya isn’t the only example of dogged persistence in the Bible. Instead, you find many, many, many people who stuck it out despite long odds and stretches of despair.

I was trying to think, “Who would have been the earliest?” but I think as soon as you hit any form of history you have the story of persistence in motion. Even in the bits of Bereshis that are pre-modern history (i.e., before Avraham) you have that same record of “I will persist.”

I think Avraham, though, is the start of persistence, someone standing in faith against everything around him. Ur was polytheistic; Avraham was a monotheist, and held his own as a champion of the One. Even though he failed (presenting Sarah as his sister, for example, which I don’t quite think I understand) he kept his faith – in stunning and frightening ways. (I don’t think I would have had the faith to sacrifice Yitzchak.)

Then you have Yaakov, waiting fourteen years to marry Rachael. Then he ran and reconciled with his brother Esau, whom he cheated.

Then Yosef, in Egypt, forced into slavery by his brothers and then rescuing his family from starvation.

Then Moshe. Then Y’shua bin Nun. Then the judges of the tribal league… even Yiptach, who sacrificed his daughter.

David, too, persisted. Shmuel.

In the end, I had a harder time figuring out the protagonists in the Bible who did not show that their lives were their worship of the One than finding examples of persistence. In other words, everyone showed that persistence was one of the core values – not just faith, but faith in this and every other moment.

In a way, that’s encouraging – it means that their faith isn’t being measured in the moment. Having faith when the chips are down, or up, isn’t the point, although it’s a point.

The key is realizing that faith is a picture, painted over a thousand days – from its birth in your soul to your last day on Earth. By trying, by living, you’re having faith, even if you may not feel like it.

Nehemya, for example… he probably had his down days. He probably looked around at the wall around Yerushalaim being slowly built, at the enemies around him who didn’t want the wall built, and had his moments of despair and ennui.

Then he might have remembered why he was there, and remembered the progress shown despite the obstacles, and decided that it didn’t matter how he felt – he could see the wall from his dreams, and see a world in which Yerushalaim was rebuilt and repopulated.

And he kept going – showing the faith and persistence he’s known for.