What the Resurrection Really Means: An Invitation to Discovery

In 2013, I hired a guy named Casey to be the Worship Leadership for Shepherd’s Community UMC. My wife, Emma, and I became great friends with Casey and his wife, Cindy. Early on, they shared with us that they had lost a baby at birth, a little girl named Selah. Upon hearing this, I felt compassion but didn’t give it much thought until it came up in other conversations. From my perspective, their loss didn’t affect the way our friendship developed or how I saw them as people . . . until they invited me to a gathering called Compassionate Friends.

If you’re not familiar, Compassionate Friends is a support group at First United Methodist Church in Lakeland, FL for parents who have lost children of all ages. My first encounter with them was around Christmas time when I was asked to deliver a message for their holiday gathering. Casey, Cindy, and Emma were also asked to lead worship, so it was an opportunity to serve together. Upon arrival, I felt like a fish out of water. How could I possibly speak to this group of people when I didn’t share their unique loss? I was fearful of having no credibility or unintentionally offending them with presumption.

I am happy to say that all went well that night. However, the greatest blessing for me was the opportunity to gain a better understanding of my friends, Casey and Cindy. Prior to that night, I really didn’t get it. I did not understand the full significance of their losing a child, and how this event deeply shaped them as people. As I stepped into their world and watched them interact with others who were suffering a similar heartbreak, I began to understand an important part of their identity.

Has this ever happened to you? You thought you knew almost everything about someone but were missing something important. something that you could only discover by stepping into their world.

 

Resurrection as Disorienting

Well, this happened to the disciples too in their relationship with Jesus.

According to the gospels, Jesus told the disciples that he was going to die and be raised from the dead by God, but by all accounts, they just didn’t get it. It is not that resurrection was a completely foreign concept (it already had a history in their native religion, Judaism), but when Jesus talked about it they did not understand the significance of what he was saying. It did not seem to affect how they saw Jesus or how they lived their lives . . . until they discovered an empty tomb.

This was a confusing, disorienting, and terrifying discovery. Since we know the whole story as recorded in scripture, we tend to see the resurrection as the solution to all life’s problems, but this was not the case for the early Christians. Their experience of the empty tomb did not function as a solution but created a whole new set of problems that, up to that point, they did not have. At first, they did not understand what was happening—they did not get it.

 

The Original Ending of Mark

It is difficult for us to put ourselves in the shoes of the disciples. We forget that no one in the ancient world had their own copy of the Bible. We forget that there was a time when the early Christians did not have the New Testament because it had not been written yet. Furthermore, we forget how these books came to be, one at a time, and that even after they were written the early Christians had limited access to a few handwritten copies passed around in house-churches. For these reasons (and many more), it’s difficult for modern people to read the gospels from the perspective of their original audience. However, there is much to be learned by this imaginative effort.

For this article, I am most interested in the Gospel of Mark, which was the first gospel to be written. At the time of composition, there was no Matthew, Luke, or John. Furthermore, the oldest manuscripts of Mark end at chapter 16, verse 8. If you have a study Bible that is informed by modern scholarship, the textual notes will alert you to this fact as well as the two different endings that were added later.

For whatever reason, after the Gospel of Mark was written, the early church was not satisfied with its original ending. Thus, a short addition was added in which the women tell the disciples about the empty tomb and the resurrected Jesus appears to them. As time went on, this ending did not satisfy either, because the early church came back and added an even longer ending, which made it sound more like Matthew and Luke.

Remembering that there was a time when the earliest Christians only had one gospel, the Gospel of Mark, let us try to hear the original ending without filling-in the blanks with the additions or other gospels.

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. [THE END.] (Mark 16:1-8).

Do you see why the church may have found this ending inadequate, especially since there were no other gospels to fill out the story? The truth is, we probably do not like this ending either. However, there is much to be learned if we try to imagine that we are hearing this gospel for the first time, that this is the only gospel we have, and that this is the only ending we have. What could this teach us about the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection?

 

Resurrection as Invitation

As mentioned above, the empty tomb by itself does not answer questions, it raises questions. According to the story in Mark, it evokes fear, amazement, and confusion, leaving the women stunned and asking, “What in the world is going on here?” The empty tomb and the claim that Jesus has been raised from the dead created a problem for the earliest witnesses. It apparently raised so many questions and evoked so much fear that they refused to tell anyone about it!

Knowing their initial response, the man in white apparel gives them further instruction: Go and tell the disciples, and then go to Galilee, because the risen Jesus goes ahead of you and “there you will see him, just as he told you.” If they want to see the risen Jesus, they must leave the empty tomb and go to where he is—ahead of them.

Importantly, Galilee is not a town or a city, but a region. It is the region where Jesus spent most of his time serving the poor, marginalized, vulnerable, and rejected. So, the angel seems to be saying: There is only one way for you to begin to understand the empty tomb, one way to begin to understand what resurrection might mean, one way to trade your fear for wisdom—to personally encounter the resurrected Jesus for yourself. And the only way that you can do this is to go where he went, to do what he did, and to serve who he served. If you do this, then you will encounter Jesus and will finally start to get it. By serving the friends of Jesus, you will come to know in the deepest part of your being that, somehow and in some way, Jesus is still alive and at work in this world.

As it was with the disciples, so it is with us.

However, just because the claim, “Jesus is alive,” strikes us as true does not mean that we have it all figured out. What is interesting about deep truth, wherever we find it, is that it creates a weird experience in which we believe that something is true, but we are not exactly sure how it is true. Why? Because the most profound truths of the universe are beyond human understanding, beyond human categories, language, and explanation. In this way, the dawning awareness that something is true serves as an invitation to a process of discovery in which we gradually get glimpses of what this truth might possibly mean.

According to the Gospel of Mark, this is what the divine messenger does for the women who discover the empty tomb, at least in the original ending. He doesn’t answer all their questions or give them miraculous knowledge. Rather, he invites them to a way of life in which they can (1) come to believe that the resurrection is in some sense true, and (2) enter a process of discovery that will help them see how it is true. In my own experience, when we gain this kind of deep insight through personal experience, how something is true can be surprising. It might be true in a way we never expected.

 

Challenge

When Christians say that Jesus was raised from the dead, they are saying that Jesus is still alive and at work in the world today. He is still out ahead of us with his friends, abiding with the poor, outcast, rejected, and vulnerable—with those who suffer. If we want to encounter the risen Christ, if we want to understand him and his resurrection, then we must go where he went, do what he did, and serve the people that he served. We must step into his world and see it as he does. This is the only way that anyone can make sense of the resurrection and truly come to believe it. Just like I could not really understand Casey and Cindy until I stepped into their world and served their friends, I cannot truly come to know Jesus and his resurrection until I imitate his life in ministry to his friends. It is in their eyes that we meet the risen Christ, come to believe that he is still alive today, and get glimpses of what this might possibly mean.

The resurrection is an invitation to a way of life that ends-up being a process of discovery.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, as I learn the stories of Jesus, empower me to go where he went, to do what he did, and to serve the people he served so that I may come to believe and understand his resurrection.

 

(This post is the fourteenth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

Dying to Live: Suffering for a Higher Purpose

A few weeks ago, I was in the gym and noticed a guy working with a personal trainer. He was doing an abdominal circuit, and after a few supersets of planks and crunches he started groaning in pain. Now I work out, but my routine is not as intense because I have two simple goals: to not look fat in clothes, and to stay fit enough to surf. So, as I watched this guy, I thought, “Why would anyone submit themselves to this?” Then it occurred to me, he has different goals. Like my friends who do CrossFit, some people push themselves to the limit, enduring discomfort and pain, because they want to get in the best shape possible for their age and body type. If that were my goal, I would probably be doing the same.

Indeed, most of us are willing to make sacrifices and endure pain for a higher purpose. Think about the sacrifices that parents make for their children, that students make for a degree, that professionals make for their careers, that soldiers make for their country, or that missionaries make for the mission of Jesus.

 

Choosing Suffering for a Higher Purpose

All of us experience suffering that we don’t choose, and when this happens we try to stay close to God and do our best to handle it with faith and maturity. In the process, we hope to learn important lessons, grow spiritually, and become better people.

But not all suffering is forced upon us. Sometimes we choose it in service to a higher purpose. This is certainly true as we seek to follow Jesus, who says in Mark 8:34-35:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

Jesus is saying that sometimes we are called to choose suffering, to carry a cross, to experience a kind of death. Furthermore, he teaches that there are at least two higher purposes that empower us to be obedient.

First, suffering can serve as a catalyst for our own spiritual transformation. It can help us become more compassionate, loving, kind, wise, strong, virtuous, and faithful. It can help us become more like Jesus. Part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus is to choose a life of self-sacrificial love.

I’ve heard countless testimonies of how people felt closer to God when going through suffering than in any other time of their life, and how God used their pain to change them in positive ways. While they didn’t necessarily enjoy the pain, they felt called to take-up a cross, and by faithfully carrying it became a better version of themselves. God expanded their capacity for compassion and gratitude, which helped them to live with more purpose, value, meaning, and joy. In short, when we are called to travel the road of suffering and are obedient, we can learn many lessons that make our lives better in the long run.

Second, God can use our suffering to help accomplish God’s great rescue mission of this world. The biggest source of inspiration for me in becoming a more faithful follower of Jesus has been other Christians. Not heroes of the faith, but ordinary men and women who handle great adversity and pain with grace, patience, and courage. These living and breathing examples of Christ inspire me to step-up my commitment and be more faithful in my own devotion and service. In this way, God uses our suffering, especially the way we move through it, to help and inspire others, which is one important way that God transforms the world.

In summary, if we are going to take-up our cross and follow Jesus, then we need a clear vision of a higher purpose, something that is compelling an inspiring, something that is bigger than ourselves. According to scripture, that higher purpose is spiritual transformation, which not only makes our own lives more meaningful but also makes us useful in God’s great rescue mission of this world.

The best example of this is Jesus himself. To accomplish his mission and serve the greater purposes of God, he was required to choose suffering. The gospels make clear that no one took Jesus’ life from him, but he willingly laid it down for the salvation of the world. This was so counterintuitive that Peter, one of his greatest disciples, refused to even consider the idea, pulling Jesus aside and rebuking him in private. Turning to his disciples, he scolded Peter: “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind on human things not divine things” (Mark 8:31-33). Jesus continued by teaching the disciples that if they wanted a life worth living then they had to be willing to suffer, to take up a cross; that they must crucify their ego and completely surrender to God. And Jesus didn’t just teach this, he also lived it to the end, even to the point of death on a (literal) cross.

Following the example of Jesus, many others have witnessed to these truths about sacrifice and suffering. Think of all the biblical characters who illustrate the value of suffering for a higher purpose, people like Abraham, Mary, Peter, and Paul. Think also of the great cloud of witnesses throughout Christian history, culminating in our time with people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Jr. And think of all the faithful Christians with whom we have the privileged of sharing life even to this day.

As we learn and meditate on these stories and countless others, we get a clear vision of the higher purposes of discipleship, especially during seasons of suffering. They remind us of some essential truths:

  • God will not allow our suffering to last forever. It’s only for a season.
  • Our suffering is not meaningless, nor is it in vain. While God does not cause our suffering, he certainly finds ways to use it for our own transformation and that of the world.
  • God suffers with us, so we never face our pain alone.
  • God gives us everything we need to move through suffering with grace, maturity, and faithfulness, and when we fail God offers grace and forgiveness.
  • Our suffering will eventually give way to joy.

These are the promises of God that together generate a vision of a higher purpose that empowers us to choose the way of self-sacrificial love. Without them our suffering becomes meaningless and death-dealing. Without them we’ll never be able to faithfully follow Jesus during seasons of great suffering and learn the lessons therein.

 

The Dialectic of Suffering and Hope

All of this leads to an important truth: we should never collapse the tension in Christian life between suffering and hope, because that tension is creative and transformative.

It is true that all of us experience suffering, and part of what it means to be a Christian is to learn how to handle our suffering in a Christlike way. Wisdom teaches that we should expect suffering, so we can prepare for it. However, Christianity cannot be reduced to suffering, nor does it seek to glorify suffering in and of itself. It never has the last word in the Kingdom of God. There is never a cross without an empty tomb, never a death without a resurrection. Christianity is about the good news that love wins, life wins, God wins, and when we talk about the necessity of suffering it’s always in the context of God’s ultimate victory over sin, evil, and death. Therefore, as we anticipate and prepare for seasons of suffering, as we take-up our cross and follow Jesus, it’s important to remind ourselves of the higher purposes of God. Suffering without hope leads to an unproductive and death-dealing despair that has no place in the Kingdom of God. Likewise, hope without sacrifice leads to empty wishing, and joy without an honest acknowledgement of suffering leads to a kind of sentimentality that make it hard to take Christianity seriously.

True Christianity acknowledges the truth and importance of both suffering and hope, holding them in productive tension. As we live in this tension, as well as that of law and grace and love and justice, God recreates us in the image of Jesus and gives us the possibility of a truly good life.

 

Challenge

Remember the words of Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Where do you find yourself in all of this? Is God calling you to something higher? Is there a sacrifice you need to make or a season of suffering you need to endure to achieve the higher purposes of God? Do you need to get into recovery, spend some time grieving losses in therapy, do some painful emotional work with your spouse or kids, give-up something that is blocking your own spiritual growth, sacrifice more time for deeper spiritual practice, or make a major decision that you’ve putting off too long?

We are all in different places on the disciples’ path, and God calls us to different seasons at different times. Only you know what God is calling you to do. In your own discernment process, remember that God is with you, and that if you stay close to Jesus and move forward with faith then your suffering will not be in vain. God will use it to transform you and others. Remember the promises of God and allow the hope transmitted therein to give you want you need to keep moving forward in ways that are life-giving and productive.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, show me your will, and give me the courage to carry it out, even if it requires taking up a cross.

 

(This post is the twelfth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

Suffering, Confession, & Repentance

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’”

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  (Mark 1:1-5)

 

A Call to Repentance

The gospel of Mark begins with the announcement of good news to a people enduring great suffering. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not begin with a birth narrative. Rather he jumps right to a message that the people needed to hear: you do not suffer alone; God suffers with you. This is communicated by evoking a prophecy in Isaiah of a suffering servant sent by God to save his people, and by suggesting that Jesus is the fulfillment of this prophecy.

The appropriate response upon hearing this good news is to receive “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” which seems odd. Why would the first message to a brutalized people be a call to repentance? At first glance, this may seem like victim blaming. What exactly are the sins from which they need to repent?

Remember that when Rome burned in 64 C.E., Emperor Nero blamed the Christians and a mini-genocide ensued. Roman soldiers knocked on every door of the Jewish quarter demanding to know if anyone in the house was a Jesus follower. If a believer was identified, either by admission or because of someone else’s testimony, everyone in the house was publicly executed. If the soldiers came to a house and no one was identified, then those living there were required to name someone else living elsewhere. Neighbor turned against neighbor as self-preservation became the order of the day.[i]

As they were subject to unimaginable horror, some people acted out of character, doing things that they deeply regretted. Some denied Jesus by denying their faith. Others betrayed friends to save their own families. Resentment and hatred poisoned their hearts in the face of unjust violence.

These are some of the sins from which they needed to repent because they created heavy burdens of shame. Seen in this way, repentance was a gift from God insofar as it provided a release from these burdens through the process of forgiveness. They needed to forgive themselves, as well as their family, friends, community, and enemies to move forward, live full lives, and be transformed into the image of Christ, the suffering servant.

According to the Gospel of Mark, the arrival of Jesus the Messiah makes all this possible because he baptizes the repentant with the Holy Spirit, the one who empowers us to find freedom through repentance and forgiveness, both of which are miracles of God’s grace.

 

Suffering, Self-Discovery, and Forgiveness

In my own experience, suffering functions to peel away layers of old beliefs, thoughts, and patterns of action that cloud a true understanding of our pain. So often we don’t really know the source of our pain or what drives it because our understanding is distorted by false assumptions and stories we tell ourselves that are simply not true. Suffering can initiate a process of self-discovery that strips away the things that deceive so we can get to the roots of our suffering, which is the only place where true healing can happen.

However, this itself is a painful process. When our illusions and defense mechanisms are stripped away, we are required to face the fullness of our suffering. This is experienced as a kind of death—the death of ego. Many try to shorten this process by rushing forgiveness, as if it were a momentary decision of the will: “I forgive you. Yes, yes, all is fine now.” But all is not fine because forgiveness has not really happened. Rather this is an exercise in denial that sweeps the wrongdoing under the rug and prevents authentic forgiveness, which includes naming and condemning the offense, grieving losses, processing resentment, converting bitterness into compassion, and reassessing the boundaries in the relationship. Although denial may appear to work for a little while, over time it proves to be another deception that must be stripped away by suffering, so we can get in touch with deeper currents of anger, pain, and shame. Healing from brokenness and betrayal, the kind inflicted on us by others and the kind we inflict on ourselves, is a process that takes time. It cannot be rushed. And part of this process involves the confession of sin and repentance.

This is hard to hear when you’ve been the target of mistreatment or abuse. We must be very careful not to blame victims for offenses inflicted on them by others. (See the comments below on appropriate and inappropriate guilt.) But even truly innocent victims sometimes discover that they need to repent from their reaction to the offense. For example, some retaliate with violence, repaying evil with evil, while others nurse resentment for years.

These examples illustrate a more general truth: it’s hard to focus on our part in wrongdoing when our part is very small. Except in extreme cases of victimization, we usually bear some responsibility in the conflict we experience with others. Sometimes our part is easy to see because we’re mostly to blame, or at least a 50/50 participant. But when the offense of another is pronounced and obvious, it can eclipse the small ways that we may have contributed, making it appear as if the other person is 100% to blame.

Imagine having a difficult conversation with someone where you honestly spoke the truth in love. He gets furious and retaliates by mistreating you for months, trashing you behind your back to anyone who will listen. Resisting the temptation to repay insult for insult, you remain loving and continue to act morally. Then, one day, after a particularly nasty attack, you lose your temper and send an email in which you speak more truth, but this time it’s in anger not love. You’ve had enough, and your primary goal is to hurt him in the same way he has hurt you. Your enemy then takes the email and makes it public to continue hurting you. The wrong doing of this disgruntled man is so obvious and prolonged that it is easy to saddle him with 100% of the blame. By highlighting his gross wrong doing, you can eclipse your own small part and act as if you’re totally innocent. But if you want to be healed and spiritually transformed, you must own your part, even if it’s so small in comparison that it’s hard to see. Indeed, even if the other person is 99% to blame, you still must confess and repent of your 1%.

 

Understanding Confession and Repentance

But what do we mean by confession and repentance? Neither one of these spiritual practices can be reduced to a fleeting memory of wrongdoing acknowledged by an obligatory, “I’m sorry.” Many of us know from experience how these words can be used to avoid the natural consequences of bad action.

In contrast, true confession is about making a searching and fearless moral inventory. By seriously reflecting on the full scope of our wrongdoing, we gain a better understanding of the nature of our offense, what causes and motivates it, and what negative consequences ensue for everyone involved. Having done this, true repentance requires us to feel the pain we have caused others through genuine empathy, so when we say the words, “I’m sorry,” they are heartfelt. After connecting with the pain we’ve caused others, true repentance also requires us to fully accept the consequences of our actions, to become willing to make amends, and to commitment to addressing the roots of our problem so we can make lasting positive changes. Taken together, confession and repentance expose the character defects that drive our sin, putting us in a position to receive healing and liberation.

It’s important to note that repentance is not about self-hatred or beating ourselves up. Just as we seek to be compassionate with others, we also seek to be compassionate with ourselves. Just as we seek to forgive others, we also seek to forgive ourselves. This means that while we should accept the appropriate guilt that we deserve, we should not accept inappropriate guilt that we do not. This requires good boundaries because some people will try to blame us for things we haven’t done or manipulate us into assuming a disproportionate amount of the blame. But honesty cuts both ways. Just as we should not try to hide or deny our contribution (no matter how small), nor should we accept blame that does not belong to us, or the false narratives spun to legitimate the offering of inappropriate guilt.

 

Challenge

True repentance is an exercise in honesty, a gift from God in the larger process of forgiveness that can heal our pain and set us free for deep spiritual transformation. So, if you are suffering today because of sin, either your own or someone else’s, then remember that God has given us a way out. It takes time to work through confession, repentance, and forgiveness, but if you stay close to Jesus and get the help you need, your pain will not last forever. As you heal you will experience fundamental changes that will serve you well on the path to freedom, peace, and joy.

How your pain changes you is partly dependent on your willingness to deal with it in God’s way.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, help me to be honest about my own wrongdoing so that I can truly repent and be set free. Forgive my sin, heal my pain, and empower me to forgive others.

___________________________________

[i] Alexander John Shaia, Heart and Mind: The Four Gospel Journey for Radical Transformation (Journey of Quadratos, LLC: Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2017), 131.

 

(This post is the tenth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John Shaia. Each post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

Questioning Religious Authority: Faith, Doubt, and Truth

Sally met Peter when she was in her mid-30s. When dating, he showered her with affection, and although she was not initially attracted to him, he eventually won her over. Unexpectedly, his personality changed on their honeymoon when he screamed at her for sleeping late. The verbal and emotional abuse escalated and turned physical as he demanded routine intimacy, often against her will.

Sally’s only support system was the church she regularly attended. Eventually, she opened-up to Christian friends and counsellors, but instead of helping her exit an abusive relationship they told her to forgive him and try to make it work. Eventually, Sally left Peter, seeking help through the legal system. She also left her church, feeling isolated and unwanted as a single mother. Ten years later, she still suffers from the trauma of abuse. If only she had heard one good sermon on domestic violence or had one Christian counselor help her find a safe way out.[i]

 

Using Scripture to Perpetuate Violence

Given all that we know about domestic violence today, it’s astonishing to me that there are still Christian pastors and leaders who use a handful of verses in the Bible to encourage women to endure abuse. They often start with Jesus’ prohibition of divorce:

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32)[ii]

Then they reference prohibitions in the New Testament letters:

To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband . . . and that the husband should not divorce his wife (1 Corinthians 7:10).

In good patriarchal fashion, they wrap-up their arguments by citing verses commanding wives to be submissive to their husbands:

“Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church . . .” (Ephesians 5:22-23).

In some of the most egregious cases, some pastors misuse 1 Peter 3:1 to convince women that they can convert their abusive husbands by simply submitting to the violence as an act of love and humility:

Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives. (1 Peter 3:1)

By pulling these kinds of verses out of context and flatting them into absolute moral rules, some of the very people entrusted with the good news of the gospel come to facilitate evil.

 

Thou Shalt Not Blindly Assent to Authority

I realize that the story of Sally and Peter is an extreme example, and that most mainline Christians would be appalled by the idea of using scripture to excuse abuse. However, these kinds of stories are real and can help us see a more pervasive problem in religion: the idea that people should blindly follow rules and refrain from questioning the religious leaders that teach and enforce them.

To illustrate the point, let’s return to Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). What changes when we raise the simple question, “Why?”

Why does Jesus offer such strong prohibitions of divorce, especially when men during that time were permitted to divorce according to Jewish law? This kind of question encourages us to consider the historical, cultural, religious, and literary context of Jesus’ words, as well as the overarching message of his gospel. In the light of these considerations, we discover the possibility that Jesus was trying to protect women in a patriarchal society.

In ancient Palestine, women were considered the property of men. As children they were under the authority of their father, but growing-up they were expected to get married and have children, preferably male children, to carry on the husband’s family name. This is where women found most of their value in the ancient world, and those who could not have children were often considered cursed by God. But to find a husband and earn her father a good bride price, a woman needed to be a virgin. Of course, all of this changed on the wedding night when the marriage was consummated, and she became the property of her husband.

Now imagine several years later that her husband grows tired of her or falls in love with another woman, provoking the temptation to divorce. Importantly, he was the only one who had this option because women didn’t have the legal right to seek a divorce in the ancient world. Nevertheless, what would happen to her if she were abandoned by her husband? Since she is no longer a virgin and already deemed unfit by her ex, no reputable man would want her. If she were lucky, her father or eldest male relative might allow her to come home, but this was not a guarantee because of the shame that her divorce would have brought on the family. Even so, she would have lived a life of perpetual shame. If going home wasn’t an option, she could have been reduced to begging or prostitution. In short, if a man abandoned his wife in the ancient world, it would have had life-altering negative consequences for her (and possibly her children).

While not perfect, things are very different in America today. Legally, women have rights that are equal to men. They can own property, get an education, pursue a career, choose to get married or remain single, initiate a divorce, choose when and if to have children, live independently, and largely determine the trajectory of their own lives. While divorce is often emotionally, spiritually, and financially devastating, women can and do find ways to recover and go on to enjoy happy, healthy, independent lives. But this was not the case in ancient Palestine—it was a different world.

Then Jesus comes along and says, “Men, don’t divorce your wives. I know the law gives you this right, but if you want to be one of my disciples then I’m telling you stay married and keep your promise to protect your wife from the dangers of a world that can be cruel.” In this way, Jesus is not so much offering an absolute moral rule that applies to every person in every situation in every generation. Looking deeper into his historical-cultural context, we see how he may have been trying to protect women in a patriarchal society, which is consistent with his overall message and treatment of women in the gospels. In a world where women had few rights as the property of men, Jesus saw them as equal in the eyes of God and suggested that men should not participate in their objectification and oppression by availing themselves to a one-sided, patriarchal form of divorce that caused long term damage.[iii]

When seen in this way, the spirit of Jesus’ prohibition of divorce is diametrically opposed to the way that some fundamentalist Christians have used his words to excuse the abuse of women. Indeed, this is one example of how human interpreters can really mess things up when they insist on a naive, flat, literal reading of the Bible that ignores its historical, cultural, and religious context. What’s even more concerning is how such misinterpretations can become requisites of faith as religious leaders equate them with the infallible word of God and command blind assent.

Jesus was fully aware of this persistent temptation in religion, which is why he questioned the religious leaders of his day and their interpretations of sacred texts. Repeatedly, throughout the Sermon on the Mount he says, “You have heard that it was said . . . but I tell you . . .” (Matthew 5:21ff.). It’s like he was saying: This is how the religious leaders have interpreted our sacred texts for years, but don’t blindly assent to their authority and mindlessly capitulate to their rules. Rather, look deeper and you will see that in most cases specific moral rules are applications of larger ethical principles addressed to a specific group of people in a specific time and place. While the rules may have been life-giving in one context, they can prove to be death-dealing in others.

 

Life in the Spirit: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience

When specific moral rules are disconnected from the larger ethical principles from which they derived, we lose the reasons behind those rules. Purposeful action becomes meaningless acquiescence, and living faith is reduced to dead moralism enforced by religious authoritarianism. The antidote is a life awake in the power of the Holy Spirit—a close, loving, vital relationship with the living God. While God speaks to us through sacred texts, and even through religious leaders seeking to faithfully interpret these texts, God speaks to us in other ways too.

In the United Methodist Church, we believe that God speaks through scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, and that all four are important to consider when evaluating moral and religious claims. When we remember that the Bible must be interpreted and that are interpretations are sometimes mistaken, it becomes clear that vital faith requires us to question how the Bible is interpreted and used to derive religious and moral claims. [iv] Listening for God’s voice at the point where the spirit of the gospel intersects with the best of Christian tradition, reason, and experience can help us in this endeavor.

Life in the Spirit of God is awake, alive, thoughtful, and critical of all absolute claims uttered by human beings. Instead of blind assent and meaningless acquiescence, we are encouraged to question religious authority and test religious claims according to the Spirit of the gospel and what we know to be true through reason and experience, both of which are progressively illuminated by the Holy Spirit as we practice a wide variety of spiritual disciplines and mature in our faith.

 

Challenge

Be bold and courageous in questioning religious authority in the pursuit of truth. If a pastor or religious leader tells you to believe something that everything else in your experience tells you is wrong, then there is a good chance that it is wrong! In the least, be willing to think critically and entertain questions. If your church teaches that faith requires blind assent and discourages you from raising questions, then you should consider finding a more open-minded and safe spiritual home. True faith will never require you to park your brain at the door or deny what you have learned in all other areas of life. While this kind of authoritarian strategy may temporarily give you the false security of belonging to an exclusive tribe, eventually it will require you to betray yourself and lose the living connection with God that makes our transformation in love possible.

This is especially true when we find ourselves on the first path of the Quadratos, when we are trying to navigate change and are faced with fears of the unknown. Instead of retreating to the illusion of certainty or mindlessly doing what we have always done, we can find the wisdom, courage, and strength to question religious claims as we seek a more integrated knowledge that broadens our horizon of understanding and facilitates our journey toward wholeness.

God is not only big enough to handle to your doubts and questions but loves you enough to encourage them.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, as we hold fast to the teachings of Jesus, help us to know the truth in a way that sets us free (John 8:31-32).

 

(This post is the sixth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

_____________________________________

[i] Baird, Julia. “’Submit to your husbands’: Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God.” ABC News, 23 January 2018, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-18/domestic-violence-church-submit-to-husbands/8652028.

[ii] In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus doesn’t even make an exception for infidelity: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18)

[iii] One thing that really bothers me about Jesus’ prohibitions (and does not support my argument) is his command for men not to marry divorced women. Since divorced women were so vulnerable in the ancient world, this would seem like a very compassionate thing for a man to do. Why not allow men to make personal sacrifices to help vulnerable women without being condemned to deadly sin? Remember, according to Jewish law, men and women both could be stoned for adultery (Leviticus 20:10).

[iv] As Paul Tillich once said, doubt is an important element in faith.

Abandoning Inerrancy: Authoritarianism and the Journey to Freedom

Like many in the south, I grew up in a church that placed high value on the Bible. As the the inspired Word of God, it was considered factually inerrant and demanded a strict literal reading. It was as if God had dictated the contents of the Bible to passive secretaries who wrote in a way that precluded errors of any kind, including scientific or historical inaccuracies. Devoid of all humanity, this book was God breathed and perfect.

Armed with this view, Christians could simply quote a specific chapter and verse and then claim with confidence, “God said it, I believe it, and that’s the end of it!” There was no need to wrestle with counter-arguments or to give reasons why your interpretation was better than another. There was no need to identify the type of literature you were reading or to learn anything about the life and times of the original audience. There was no need to prayerfully discern which parts of the Bible communicated God’s enduring message and which parts were reflective of evolving human culture. In fact, many would deny they were interpreting the Bible at all, but simply quoting God’s Word, the meaning of which should be obvious to anyone with real faith.

This way of understanding the nature of scripture created problems for me as I got older. For example, when my 9th grade biology teacher introduced the idea of evolution, I remember people saying things like, “Don’t believe that garbage. We didn’t come from monkeys. The Bible says that God created Adam on the sixth day of creation and any claims to the contrary are wrong. You have to accept God’s Word over man’s word.” The challenges only grew as I moved through high school and college.

I eventually started to feel like I had to choose between being a real Christian and accepting what I was learning in class. Being a real Christian meant reading the Bible as the factually inerrant Word of God, and this interpretation necessarily conflicted with modern science and history. Since faith required me to choose God’s Word over human words, I felt pressured to reject–out of hand–the Big Bang, the theory of evolution, carbon dating, and the historical method of inquiry. I was also expected to affiliate with a specific political party and ideologically submit to their talking points.

But these authoritarian claims did not ring true to my experience, and I got this scary feeling that the religion of my youth was wrong about many things. However, because I knew no other way to interpret the Bible, I tried to deny my internal conflicts for a long time, pretending that the teachings of the church worked fine in real life. This created what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” Instead of an integrated life characterized by peace, I was riddled with internal conflicts and anxiety.

Looking back, I was not living an authentic life. By denying important questions that sprang from rational reflection on my experience, I was denying my true self. But things began to change when I started taking religion and philosophy classes at Florida Southern College.

The transformation didn’t happen all at once. In fact, I entered FSC as a combative fundamentalist, ready to argue against the onslaught of heresy being propagated by my liberal professors. It took time to build trust and drop my defenses, something that happened as my theology professor, Dr. Waite Willis, counseled me through some painful personal problems. I experienced his genuine care as an expression of God’s love and acceptance, which left me thinking, “My professors are not trying to hurt me, they are encouraging me to build a more authentic faith that matches my reason and experience.” Finding a safe place to wrestle with difficult questions opened my mind to new ways of understanding the Bible. This was a humbling and freeing experience.

And once the damn broke, it gushed for years. I became passionate about biblical and theological studies, reading one book after another as if trying to make-up for lost time. I wrote more papers than I can remember, trying to articulate a faith that integrated what I was learning in religion, philosophy, science, history, psychology, and sociology. Although it was a long and sometimes scary process, I was progressively set free from the authoritarianism of the church (along with its fear of going to hell). I came to believe that God is the source of all truth—sacred and secular—and that I didn’t have to be afraid to learn new things that challenged old ideas.

Looking back, these experiences probably saved my faith. If I had not learned a new way of reading the Bible that helped me deal with my doubts and internal conflicts, I may have walked away from Christianity altogether.

After experiencing this transformation, I was flabbergasted when I realized how few of my colleagues were teaching these ideas in their churches. Candidates in ministry would get a world-class education, learn sophisticated ways of interpreting scripture, get ordained, take a church, and then preach and teach as if they had never been to seminary! Why were they assuming a pre-critical, literalistic reading of the Bible and propagating a 4th grade Sunday school class theology? Why weren’t they sharing with their churches the gifts that set them free and deepened their faith?

The answer was simple: fear.

These pastors knew from experience the difficulty of traveling the path of change. They understood that most people upon hearing new religious ideas—especially new ideas about the Bible—would initially have a defensive reaction. Why? Because when everything we have always believed is called into question, it’s disruptive and destabilizing. When new ideas emerge to challenge old ways of thinking, most people feel threatened, which triggers a fight or flight response. You either fight for the old ideas by ferociously rejecting the possibility of something new, or you run away from the new ideas and bury your head in the sand.

As pastors try to share new ideas that lead to deeper spiritual insights, they face many challenges. It takes time and energy (in an already busy schedule) to do your research, think through the issues, and make good arguments supported by evidence. It is difficult, and sometimes painful, to endure defensiveness and stay in conversation with people who lash out in fear and anger. It hurts when people reject you as a heretic and break fellowship. Change is hard, and even though it promises a more authentic existence, the process of getting there is messy, anxious, and painful.

It is this in-between time that pastors fear the most, the time between the presentation of new ideas and a potential spiritual awakening. As people experience the birth pangs of anxiety, pastors fear that people will leave their church.

(This fear is exacerbated by the capitulation of many pastors to the worldly standards of success. See my articles “How the Devil Directs a Pastor’s Prayer: Careerism and the Corruption of Our Calling” and “Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?“)

Pastors, you should not live-out your calling to ministry in fear, nor should you treat members of your congregation as children when it comes to the Bible and matters of faith. While we know that the path to transformation is scary, we have been privileged to make the journey ourselves, and God calls us back to the church to proclaim that the struggle is worth it.

It’s worth wrestling with the fear that you might be wrong. It’s worth the grief that comes from letting go of old ideas that don’t work anymore. It’s worth time spent in the spiritual desert when old religious ideas have vanished and no new beliefs have yet to take root.

People in the church need to know that being a Christian is not about blindly assenting to authoritarian preachers that require you to deny your experience, repress your questions, and check your brain at the door. They need to know that following Jesus is not about embracing an inerrant view of scripture, denying science, or excluding LGBTQ persons. (It is this view of Christianity that has led to a mass exodus of Millennials from our churches.)

Rather, we are called to teach them that true faith is about a life-long journey that includes work, study, conversation, and ongoing struggle, a challenging journey that leads (through the mystery of grace) to a deep spiritual transformation characterized by love, peace, joy, and inclusion.

My prayer is that pastors will find the courage, strength, and hope to share the gifts of their own experience in ways that open the path of transformation to the people who are looking to them for spiritual leadership.

 

Helpful Resources:

Fundamentalism and Mainline Christianity

I’ve recently been telling different groups of people that the United Methodist Church is a mainline, not fundamentalist, denomination (although some of our pastors prove to be unfortunate exceptions). I assumed that people knew what I meant, but they didn’t understand the terms I was using. I tried to remedy this problem in an email to a friend, and my wife suggested that others might be interested in my response. What is written below is the beginning of a sketch outlining some main ideas. I know it is limited, but I’m also hoping that it will be helpful.

Fundamentalism is grounded in a specific view of scripture. Adherents typically embrace (usually unwittingly) a theory of divine inspiration developed by a Presbyterian Princeton professor named Charles Hodge in the 1800s. The technical name of the theory is Plenary Verbal Inspiration, and it basically teaches that every word of the Bible is historically, scientifically, and factually infallible or inerrant. In the imaginations of some, it’s as if God dictated the Bible and human beings served merely as passive secretaries. This view erases the humanity of the biblical authors and focuses almost exclusively on God giving us a perfect and divine book. Furthermore, according to fundamentalists, a strict literal reading is the only correct way to interpret the Bible (and some would say that they are not even interpreting but simply reciting the Word of God). In this way, the Bible is pitted against modern science and historiography, and being a “real” Christian means rejecting what science teaches about cosmology, evolutionary biology, archaeology, etc.

The final step is to say, “Our way of understanding inspiration and how to interpret the Bible is the truth, and, therefore, the only legitimate way of thinking.” Do you see the subtle shift? They slip from biblical infallibility into assuming that their theory about infallibility is infallible! Furthermore, these truths are to be protected at all costs from any competing theories or interpretations, which are invariably seen as corruptions or heresies. People who hold different views (and there are many) are to be corrected, converted, or excluded. Fear of false teaching leads fundamentalists to study apologetics from other fundamentalists so they can mount what they believe to be incontrovertible arguments, and the only proper response to these arguments is, “I have seen the light and you are right!” Any push back leads to more forceful arguments, sometimes buttressed by the threat of eternal hell, in a last attempt at conversion. If the person with a different view does not convert, then they are excluded from the community of true Christians (if not physically then theologically and/or socially). So the key elements are:

1. We have the only true understanding of the inspiration of scripture and the only proper way of interpreting the Bible. All other views are necessarily wrong.

2. If you don’t agree then you must be corrected with arguments, converted with threats of hell, or excluded as a corruptor of the true faith.

In stark contrast, mainline Christians believe that God inspired human beings to record the words of scripture, but didn’t erase or bypass their humanity in the process. God worked in, through, and with their humanity to communicate what is necessary for our salvation. This means that the divine message of the Bible is communicated through the human words of the authors, and these words emerged from their own personal and corporate experiences of God. In short, God does not need a perfect, inerrant, infallible book to effectively communicate with us.

Mainline Christians often point out that the Bible is not the Word of God—Jesus is the Word of God (John 1), and the reason the Bible is important is because through its words (in the power of the Holy Spirit) we encounter the risen Christ. Given the ways that fundamentalists erase the humanity of the Bible, some mainline and liberal Christians accuse fundamentalists of “bibliolatry” (turning the Bible into an idol).

Once you acknowledge the humanity of the biblical authors and the Bible itself, you can also see that it is not a single author book. It is a library of books written by many people, living in different cultures, who spoke different languages, and wrote in different genres over the course of 100s of years. Instead of insisting that every letter of every word of the Bible is literal and factual (in terms of history and science), we can begin to discern different genres, and different genres warrant different interpretive methods. So we read the historical parts differently than the poetic parts (e.g. the Psalms), and we read the poetic parts differently than the gospels, and we read gospels differently than letters, and we read letters differently than apocalyptic, etc. In all of this, we realize that the Bible is a religious text, not a modern historiography or science book. A fortunate consequence is that Christianity does not have to be an enemy of the natural and social sciences, but can engage them as conversation partners from whom we have much to learn.

Finally, another significant difference between fundamentalists and mainline Christians is that mainline Christians uphold intellectual humility as a virtue. We insist that we are not saved by our interpretation of scripture or by having the right theory of inspiration. We are saved because God loves us and offers the gift of reconciliation through forgiveness. This means that we are not required to have all the answers, that we can hold our theories and interpretations loosely, acknowledging that we could be wrong. At the end of the day, God is greater than anyone can conceive and we are all rendered speechless before the divine mystery. Part of faith is learning to be comfortable with the fact that we don’t have all the answers, which allows us to trust God and relax into God’s mysterious and active presence.

Consequently, we don’t feel compelled to proselytize and convert people. Only God converts people, and this usually happens over a long period of time. All that Christians are called to do is live like Jesus and share their stories, allowing people to draw their own conclusions as the Spirit leads. All of this happens in the awareness that creation is floating in a sea of grace and that God is working with us on God’s own timeline.

For an accessible introduction to a United Methodist view of scripture, see Adam Hamilton’s book, Making Sense of the Bible. For a more academic read, see the articles on my website under the heading, “Course in Understanding the Bible.”

Why Culture Is More Important Than Programs When Trying to Grow Your Church

If you want your church to grow, you need to focus less on programs and more on culture.

Effective marketing, strategic preaching, and good online ministries can help get people through the door. If newcomers experience warm hospitality and some of their needs are met in worship, they might even stick around for a few months. But if people don’t develop a sense of belonging in the larger community within the first three months of attending, they will likely go looking somewhere else. Most people crave life-giving friendships in a genuine community of love, and this is the main reason why people stay at a church.

This is why the first part of our mission statement at First UMC Cocoa Beach is so important to me. It reads, “Our mission is to learn and practice the teachings of Jesus in ways that create communities of love . . .” In many churches, first, you are expected to believe certain things. Second, you are expected to behave in certain ways. Third, you finally get to belong, which is typically formalized in official church membership. However, if you are trying to grow your church, these priorities must be reversed. First, you should accept people where they are, so that from the beginning they experience a sense of belonging. Second, you should model how followers of Jesus treat each other when cultivating a community of love. Third, you should offer a lifegiving theology that can sustain and support deep spiritual transformation in the real world.

In growing churches, believe—behave—belong gets switched to belong—behave—believe.

The important point is that if people do not experience a sense of belonging in a community of love, then your odds of keeping them in your church will drastically decrease. And if you can’t keep them around, you will never change their beliefs or behavior.

 Communities of Love

What distinguishes a community of love has everything to do with the way that people treat each other. The New Testament is instructive.

Take for example Colossians 3-4. The author instructs followers of Jesus to die to self (ego), and to resist anger, rage, malice, slander, and abusive or critical language (3:8, CEB). He also tells them not to lie to each other (3:9).

After explaining what must be eradicated, the author goes on to say that we should treat each other with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (3:12). Followers of Jesus are called to clothe themselves in love, exercise tolerance, practice forgiveness, and be united in peace (3:13-14). Our attitude should be characterized by gratitude (4:2), our speech should be gracious (4:6), and everything we do should honor Jesus (3:17).

Likewise, the author of 1 Thessalonians says that we should live in peace with one another, respect each other, and build each other up (5:11-12, CEB).

Organizational Culture

How we treat each other over time creates a unique culture. Organizational culture can be a difficult concept to grasp, but it is like the water in which fish swim. Healthy culture is like clean water in which wildlife thrive, and unhealthy culture is like toxic water that destroys an ecosystem. Another helpful metaphor is that of eyeglasses. Healthy culture is like a good prescription that helps us see our relationships accurately, and unhealthy culture is like a prescription that distorts how we see ourselves and others.

If we are not intentional about eradicating attitudes and behaviors that destroy loving community, then our church culture will be dysfunctional and toxic. Paul describes the kinds of things that characterize toxic culture: hostility, strife, jealousy, envy, conceit, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and competition (Gal. 5:19-21). However, if we are serious about following Jesus, we can cultivate a healthy culture supportive of communities characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Gal 5:19-26)

Drawing from passages such as these, we can clearly distinguish between healthy and toxic organizational cultures.

COMMUNITIES OF LOVE COMMUNITIES OF DESTRUCTION
Positive Negative
Hopeful Despairing and Cynical
Optimistic Pessimistic
Joyful Disagreeable
Generous Withholding and Critical
Gracious Demanding
Gentle Harsh
Kind Dismissive or Nasty
Courteous Rude and Crass
Forgiving Unrelenting
Respectful Demeaning
Flexible Rigid
Helpful Obstructive
Compassionate Judgmental
Humble Arrogant
Patient Compulsive and Reactionary
Thankful Unappreciative
Builds-Up Tears-Down
Self-Sacrificial Self-Serving
Open to Feedback Defensive and Blaming
Direct, Respectful Communication Gossip and Backbiting
Peace Conflict and Anger
Unified Divided
Accountability Anything Goes

Who in their right mind would want to invest in a community characterized by the qualities in the right-hand column? A culture built around these kinds of attitudes and behaviors will run-off every single newcomer who has a modicum of emotional health. This kind of culture literally repels people.

In contrast, who in their right mind would not want to invest in a community characterized by the qualities in the left-hand column? A culture built around these kinds of attitudes and behaviors attracts people, because it creates safe environments where people can learn, grow, and change.

 Leaders as Cultural Architects

So, how do you grow a healthy culture? It starts with your leaders. The number one predictor of organizational culture is the way leaders treat each other and those they serve. If your leaders do not understand and seek to embody attitudes and behaviors that reflect the value system of the Kingdom of God, then you will probably never cultivate a culture in which communities of love can grow and flourish.

Consequently, if you want your church to grow then your number one priority should be discipleship. The pastor, staff, and leaders must seek to follow Jesus daily and be transformed in ways that make them more loving. Remember, you can’t share what you don’t have. If the pastor, staff, and lay leaders are not willing to treat everyone in ways that reflect the teachings of Jesus, your church will not grow. It’s that simple.

This means that a handful of people at the top who are left unaccountable to the gospel can poison your entire culture and keep the church from fulfilling its mission. The reason is because the attitudes and behaviors of your leaders are contagious and will create an invisible but pervasive presence that will either feel emotionally safe or dangerous. The former will attract and the latter will repel.

Since change is difficult, if you are working within an unhealthy culture you will need to do at least three things with your staff and leaders to accomplish lasting change: (1) clearly communicate the attitudes and behaviors that are acceptable and unacceptable, (2) put effective accountability systems in place, and (3) regularly and consistently apply these accountability systems until the culture changes and you have the right people in place. (Not to discourage you, but some studies show that creating lasting culture change can take up to seven years.) Leaders must be firm and gracious, remembering that none of us follows Jesus perfectly. However, we should cast God-sized goals for our relationships, and when we fall short of our goal it should lead to repentance and renewed effort.

Culture > Programs / Maturity > Execution of Skill

The upshot of all this, is that churches should focus less on programs and events and more on developing a healthy, loving culture reflective of the values lived and taught by Jesus. In terms of hiring, managing, and disciplining staff, supervisors should focus less on talent and execution of skill and more on attitude, commitment, and spiritual/emotional maturity. This means that the primary job of the pastor is not to be a manager of ministries, but a spiritual leader making disciples that make more disciples. So, the order of importance in evaluating staff and leaders should be: (1) faithfulness in discipleship, (2) commitment to working cooperatively to accomplish the mission of Jesus, and (3) execution of skill and accomplishing mutually agreed upon performance goals.

Accountability Tools:

There are two resources that I have found helpful in discipling staff and leaders when trying to effect cultural change.

Faithfulness and Fruitfulness Accountability Sheets

Before a one-on-one staff meeting, I require everyone to complete a “Faithfulness and Fruitfulness Accountability Sheet.” The idea for this kind of worksheet came from Jorge Acevedo’s book, Vital. This is what we use at First UMC Cocoa Beach:

Faithfulness and Fruitfulness Accountability Sheet

Name: _____________________________

Date:   _______

  1. Faithfulness: How is it with your soul? Are you abiding with Jesus?

“Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me” (John 15:4).

  • How is your personal devotional life?
  • How have you denied Jesus this week?
  • How have you glorified Jesus this week?
  • How are your most important relationships?
  • On a scale of 1-10 how have you lived into the following biblical values:

______    I have been positive, optimistic, and hopeful

______    I have been flexible and open to feedback

______    I have been gracious, generous, compassionate, and forgiving

______    I have been humble, respectful, kind, and polite

______    I have been joyful, thankful, and content

______    I have directly shared concerns only with appropriate people (no gossip).

______    I ‘m pursuing excellence while being encouraging to those I serve.

______    I’m working cooperatively with others to accomplish the mission of the church.

  1. Fruitfulness: How is it with your ministry? Are you abounding with Jesus?

“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

  • Program and Administrative Staff: Where are you in your long-range strategic planning? (You should develop 3, 6, and 12 month SMART goals that will help accomplish the mission of the larger church.)
  • All Staff: What progress have you made in your work plan?
  • What do you need to Stop? Start? Continue?
  • What challenges are you facing and what do you need to be successful in your specific area of ministry?
  • How are you serving, nurturing, discipling, training, developing, and resourcing your volunteers? How are you growing those in your care individually and as a team?
  • How can I hold you accountable for your area of ministry?

 ____________________________________________________________

The day before a meeting, I ask the staff person to spend some time praying and reflecting on the questions outlined in the worksheet, writing-in short responses. At the beginning of our meeting, they give the completed sheets to me and we spend about thirty minutes on each section (totaling one hour). Every three months, I give them feedback on how I think that they are doing, creating change plans where necessary. Honesty is very important in this process.  The supervisor must be willing to initiate difficult conversations, and the leaders must be willing to receive feedback without deflecting or blaming.

Social Covenants

A second tool that is helpful in creating cultural change is the social covenant, which I learned from Rev. David McEntire. After making sure that your leaders understand and embrace the church mission, go away on a retreat and work with them to develop agreements regarding how you will treat each other. Importantly, the pastor should not write a covenant (or borrow one from another church) and impose it on their team. Rather, the pastor leads a discussion using the four questions below, which empowers the leaders to develop something that belongs to them. Ownership is critical if the covenant is going to work.

  1. How does the leader want to be treated by the team?
  2. How does the team want to be treated by the leader?
  3. How are the members of the team going to treat each other?
  4. How is the team going to resolve conflict?

Once adequate brainstorming has happened in a group setting, a couple of people from the team who are skilled writers are delegated to organize, distill, and write a rough draft. The draft is then brought back to the team for final revisions. Once a final draft has been written, all leaders sign it around the margins of the first page, which is then copied and distributed. The first ten minutes of every meeting is used to silently reflect on the covenant and publicly self-rate on a scale of 1-10. No one rates anyone else, and no feedback is given (positive or negative) unless the person sharing explicitly asks for it. If the covenant is not used in this kind of way, it will become a useless piece of paper.

Conclusion

These tools are not perfect, and there are many others you can use. But the main idea is that if you want your church to grow then you must focus on cultivating spiritual and emotional maturity in your leaders. You must help them develop the attitudes and behaviors necessary to create and nurture communities of love. Don’t focus on programs, events, and hiring a superstar staff. Focus on discipleship, spiritual maturity, and cultivating a loving culture that models the values system of the kingdom of God.

The Land Between: Navigating Transitions

The “land between” is the place of change and transition. It is where life is not as it once was and there is uncertainty about the future. Some people are suddenly thrown into the land between without any warning.

  • Your boss says, “You are being transferred” (or worse, “Your position has been eliminated”).   
  • Your partner says, “I don’t love you anymore.”
  • Your daughter says, “I’m pregnant.”
  • Your son calls and says, “I’m at the police station.”
  • The doctor says, “The tumor is malignant.”

In a matter of seconds, you are ripped out of your normal life and find yourself in a new and uncertain world.

Others gradually slip into the land between.

  • A marriage slowly erodes until both feel like roommates.
  • The business slowly bleeds out until there is no more money and you have to close. 
  • A parent’s memory slowly fades after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
  • Your health deteriorates after a cancer diagnosis.

This message series (see below) is designed to give you tools to navigate this kind of transitional space in healthy and faithful ways. The land between is a challenging place, and if we are not careful we can slip into self-destructive behaviors that undermine our faith and cause us to lose our way. However, if we stay close to God we can navigate transitions in ways that strengthen our faith and lead to a brighter tomorrow.

Video Links:

Message 1: “I’m Sick of This! Complaining in Times of Transition.”

Message 2: “Bring Your Pain to God: Dealing with Discouragement.”

Message 3: “Divine Provision: How God Works Through Others.”

Message 4: “From Tribulation to Transformation: Finding Purpose in Your Pain.”

Steps Toward Forgiveness: Discovering Healing and Freedom

INTRODUCTION

Forgiveness is one of the most important and one of the most difficult things we do as human beings. It is also one of the most misunderstood commands of scripture.

How is forgiveness possible? What do we do with our anger, fear, and hurt? Does forgiving meaning forgetting? Is it the same as reconciliation? Does forgiveness always restore a relationship to the way it used to be? Is forgiveness something that happens in a moment of decision, or is it a process that takes time? What if the offender never apologizes? Is forgiveness for me, for them, or both? How does my willingness to forgive impact my relationship with God?

In what follows, you will find concrete steps on the journey toward forgiveness that will help you start answering some of these questions. While these steps will prove helpful for anyone seeking healing, they are intended for those who have experienced “normal” levels of hurt (for lack of a better term). Those who have experienced intense, chronic abuse resulting in psychological trauma should seek professional counseling as part of their spiritual program.

The most important thing to remember as we proceed is that forgiveness is not a magic trick. It takes time, and some people need more time than others. Be kind to yourself in the process.

 

HELPFUL STEPS IN MOVINGTOWARD FORGIVENESS:

Fully acknowledge the wrongdoing. When we say to someone, “I forgive you,” there is an implicit condemnation of wrong doing. Imagine how strange it would be if someone said to us in a first encounter, “Hi. I’m Jim, and I forgive you!” We might reply, “Forgive me! For what?” The reason is because we only forgive people who have wronged us in some way.

In the Christian tradition, honest condemnation of wrongdoing is part of the logic of forgiveness. First we say, “What you did to me was wrong,” and then we say, “but I will not insist that you get what you deserve.” True forgiveness cannot happen unless we fully acknowledge the wrongdoing and find ways to speak our pain. Sweeping it under the rug, pretending that nothing happened, making excuses, and other kinds of minimizing behavior, does not facilitate forgiveness—it hinders and prevents it.

However, in most cases, it is not wise to immediately confront the offender. Christians are called to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), but we typically cannot do the “love thing” without the spiritual and emotional work that enables us to gain clarity, process our feelings, and seek wisdom. We often make things worse when a compulsive overreaction is triggered by emotional flooding. Unfortunately, some Christians who have a hard time disengaging when emotionally triggered appeal to Ephesians 4:26 (“Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry”) as a way of forcing a conversation that should wait. Rather than compulsively reacting, consider disengaging and working the following steps (being very careful not to use the need for a break as an excuse for stonewalling, a passive-aggressive expression of anger in which we withdraw from the other to punish them).

Prayer and journaling provide helpful ways to fully acknowledge our pain, not only to ourselves but also to God. There is something healing and empowering about speaking our truth before God, as is illustrated in the complaint Psalms (e.g., Ps. 3, 6, 60, 90) and the book of Lamentations. In addition to some healthy venting that can diminish the emotional charge and deescalates the situation, the Holy Spirit can work through prayer and journaling to help us sort out our feelings, gain clarity about the real issues, own any wrong doing on our part, and reclaim our identity in Jesus Christ so that we can act accordingly.

Conversation with wise friends, spiritual directors, or professional counselors can also be helpful.  These conversation partners should be chosen carefully, and what is said should be kept in strict confidence. The goal is not to ruin the reputation of the offender through gossip, but to process our feelings and receive wise counsel in moving toward forgiveness.

One very important task in sorting out our feelings is to discern whether or not they are proportionate to the situation. If the emotional charge outstrips the severity of the offense, then it is almost certainly triggering old wounds that have not completely healed. In this case, we can ride the present pain like a horse back to the old wound and continue our spiritual and emotional work in this area. In this way, we distinguish between past and present offense and refuse to make the present offender responsible for something she or he didn’t do. The goal is to fully acknowledge the present offense without conflating it with similar wrongs in the past and projecting the whole shebang on the present offender.

All of this creates a huge challenge when trying to forgive someone who continuously hurts us. Before we can calm down, process our feelings, and discern a way forward, the offender does something else to hurt us again! Since forgiveness is a process, some people hurt us so frequently that it feels impossible to keep up! This is a complex topic that deserves its own article, but suffice it to say that if you are in a relationship with someone that is constantly hurting you, then you need to take steps to change or end that relationship. In the least, you should think carefully about establishing appropriate boundaries (see Cloud and Townsend, Boundaries).

If safe, appropriate, and wise, speak your truth assertively to the offender. Part of the spiritual and emotional work mentioned above is to prayerfully discern if and when to confront the offender. Sometimes it is wise, and sometimes it is not.

As you pray, journal, and talk with trusted friends and counselors, ask God to disclose your real motivations for wanting to confront the person who wronged you. Also, ask God to surface the outcomes that you hope to achieve and whether or not these are realistic. In terms of motivation, your primary reason for confronting another should be to speak the truth in ways that make genuine forgiveness more likely.

Importantly, while true forgiveness always aims at reconciliation, it does not always lead to that outcome. It only takes one to forgive, but it takes two to be reconciled.  However, you can still forgive someone even when reconciliation is unlikely. You can forgive someone even when you know that the relationship will never be the same, when you know that new boundaries must be established or that a necessary ending is required. Even in the best case scenarios, when someone has been seriously injured (physically, emotionally, or spiritually), forgiveness does not always restore the relationship to the way it used to be. For example, you can forgive someone for abusing you as a kid without giving them access to your children. All of this leads us the question of our primary goal in confronting an offender.

The goal of confrontation is not to make everything the way it used to be (although this might be the fantasy of a remorseful offender seeking absolution). Nor is the primary goal to create a change in the offender. Rather, it is authentic self-presentation in obedience to Christ—honestly speaking our truth in a way that is consistent with our Christian values. We might ask the other person to hear, understand, and acknowledge our feelings. We might hope that in doing so the offender will acknowledge the offense, ask for forgiveness, and work with us to renegotiate a healthy relationship. But at the end of the day, we have no control over how people interpret and respond to our assertiveness. And remember, you can forgive someone even if they refuse to acknowledge wrongdoing and reject your forgiveness. Again, the main goal is to speak the truth in love, which can help you find freedom from hurt and move on with your life.

If you have prayerfully discerned that speaking your truth to the offender is appropriate, wise, and safe, then you want to proceed assertively. Assertiveness is the healthy alternative to passive, passive-aggressive, and aggressive behavior. Here is a helpful model for assertive communication.

  1. State the facts clearly. Pretend you are a reporter responsible for explaining as concisely as possible exactly what happened, without any interpretation or value judgements. Avoid generalizing (“You always . . .”) and keep a laser focus on the facts of the specific situation.
  2. Use “I” language to express how you feel. Don’t blame, judge, or condemn with “you” accusations, but use “I” language to honestly and clearly express your feelings.
  3. Focusing on the specific situation at hand, say clearly what you want to happen in the future. If you are feeling unimportant because your spouse is always late, you might say, “I want you to be on time when we make plans with each other.”
  4. Say how your relationship will improve if they are willing to negotiate that change with you. “If you are on time then we will be able to better enjoy what we have planned.”

In all of this, do not get distracted by argumentativeness, and if you feel yourself getting emotionally flooded, disengage, calm down, and try again later.

While proceeding in this way will make it more likely that our concerns will be heard and addressed, it is not a magic formula that makes people acknowledge wrongdoing and conform to our expectations. Again, our goal is authentic self-presentation. We express our feelings, make our requests known, and invite the other person to join us in working on the relationship. But then we release the situation to God and take the other person’s response as information as we find our next steps.

Make a decision to let it go. This is the heart of forgiveness. Instead of seeking revenge, punishment, or vindication, instead of insisting that the offender gets what she or he deserves, we decide to forgive—we let it go so we can move on. This should not be confused with rescuing people from the natural consequences of their actions. In fact, natural consequences are life’s best teacher. If your husband will not sever all ties with his mistress, you can forgive him and file for divorce. A natural consequence of serial infidelity is a loss of trust, and you cannot have a healthy marriage with someone who is fundamentally untrustworthy. So the suggestion is not to rescue people from natural consequences, but to resist the temptation to willfully dig-in and stick-it to the person who hurt us.

Part of letting it go means refusing to bring up the offense in the future for the sole purpose of hurting the offender or ruining his or her reputation with others. We don’t forever forget the offense, and trying to do so is often unwise. Remembering what someone did to us can provide valuable information for discerning healthy and wise next steps. Also, there are situations in which it would be appropriate and necessary to discuss the offense (either with the offender or with someone else) later down the road. But all of this is different from using the offense as a weapon for the sole purpose of ongoing punishment.

The most difficult battleground for the task of letting go is our imagination. When the offender or offense comes to mind, we are tempted to fantasize about retaliation, but generating and dwelling on these imaginative scenarios can be like drinking poison. The initial adrenaline surge might make us feel powerful, but ultimately the fantasy will trigger and intensify the very feelings we are trying to resolve, making us feel even more powerless and victimized. And if the content of the fantasies is contrary to our value system as a Christian, they will have the added effect of creating unnecessary guilt.

(Some psychologists suggest that we can heal memories by reexperiencing them through fantasy with compassion and power. For example, if we cannot confront a parent who abused us as a child because they are deceased, then we might fantasize about a memory of abuse and imagine our adult-self standing beside our child-self and speaking-up in assertive ways. Or if we cannot confront someone as an adult because she or he is violent and unsafe, we might fantasize about standing-up to him or her and speaking honestly about our pain. What distinguishes this kind of fantasy from what is discouraged above is that it is not punishing, vengeful, or retaliatory. It is self-healing not self-wounding.)

Rather than getting lost in punitive fantasies, pray for the offender every time they come to mind. Pray that God will heal whatever brokenness drives their bad behavior, and that God will help them honestly see what needs to change. We consciously choose to let go of the offense and then pray for the offender, not primarily because it has some good psychological effect for us (although it does) but because this is what Jesus commands:

“But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:28).

This is an essential part of being a follower of Jesus, and true forgiveness happens only when we come to see the offender through the eyes of compassion. This usually doesn’t happen unless we pray for them so that God can change our hearts in the process.

Finally, forgiveness includes consciously and continuously rejecting any toxic messages about ourselves that are triggered by the memory of the offender or offense. Sometimes conflict makes us fear the worst about ourselves, leading us to accept false, negative judgements made or implied by the offender. (See my article, “Don’t Label Me! The Subtle Violence of Judgmentalism.”) If we are not careful, we find ourselves myopically focusing on our failures and growing edges, which generates distorted stereotypes and leads to relentless self-recrimination. This is not to say that we should avoid honestly owning our part in conflict, but beating ourselves up with false stereotypes actually makes it more difficult to accurately assess the situation and move toward genuine forgiveness (which might include forgiveness of ourselves too). As those toxic message pop into our minds, we should ask, “Is it true? Is this what God says about me? Is this what people who know and love me say about me?” If not, surrender it in prayer and reclaim your identity in Christ.

 

CONCLUSION:

As stated at the beginning, forgiveness is a process that takes time. There is no magic formula or quick fix. It is difficult spiritual and emotional work. Some people have been so betrayed or traumatized that forgiveness seems impossible. For those people, I would suggest that it is an “impossible possibility.” It might be impossible for you on your own strength, but it is not impossible for God to do through you, if you are willing to stay close to God and give yourself time to heal. Wherever you are on the journey toward forgiveness, I pray that God give you courage, strength, and hope, as well as a couple of good friends who can walk beside you.

(If you liked this article, you might also like “The Power of Weakness: How Attempts to Be Strong Lead to Impotence.“)

 

Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?

(This article by Pastor Mark was originally published on “Philosophy Goes to Church” and is reprinted here with permission.)

Introduction: What Did Jesus Really Say and Can We Hear Him Today?

I recently attended a lecture given by John Dominic Crossan[1] on the violence of God in the Christian Bible.[2] His central thesis was clear: “If the biblical Christ is the norm, criterion, and discriminant of the Christian Bible, then the historical Jesus is the norm, criterion, and discriminant of the biblical Christ.” After making some cursory remarks about how to distinguish between the words of the historical Jesus (or the earliest oral tradition attributed to Jesus) and the words of the early church placed on his lips, Crossan developed an argument for the historical Jesus as a non-violent Jewish revolutionary who cast a radical vision of peace through (distributive) justice.

As the lecture drew to a close, what stood out as most interesting to me were the sayings that Crossan, in some sense, attributed to the historical Jesus:

  • Bless those who persecute you.
  • Don’t return evil for evil, but overcome evil with good.
  • Be kind to your enemies.
  • Give away your possessions.

It occurred to me that although there is rigorous debate about the authenticity of other sayings (much of which revolves around whether or not Jesus’ message was apocalyptic), the vast majority of historical Jesus scholars, whether liberal or conservative, agree that Jesus said these kinds of things. What is even more striking is that these sayings that have garnered scholarly consensus in the Twenty-First Century are precisely the ones that are most problematic for the American church today.

When thinking about why this might be the case, I have a nagging suspicion that it has something to do with our preoccupation with success. In what follows, I simply try to voice some of my informal reflections in hopes of generating a discussion. Although I have been trained as an academic theologian, this is not a scholarly article. I mean no offense to academics, but after leaving the academy almost ten years ago to devote my life to pastoral ministry, I am not interested in crafting an airtight argument supported by long footnotes that can withstand the rigorous critique of people who are much smarter than me. This qualifying statement is my way of asking for grace from those who serve the world well in an academic setting. Rather than seeing yourself as a respondent on a panel at the American Academy of Religion (and hence seeking to refute my claims), my hope is that you will read as a friend (and try to help me, as a pastor, to wrestle with a problem that is very real in the church).

Success: Trying to Understand the Problem

As I serve in the local church, I get the feeling that Christianity is being co-opted by a preoccupation with success. Many pastors (including myself at times) want to be more like Steven Furtick than like Jesus, and to lead churches that look more like Fortune 500 companies than the ecclesia described in the book of Acts. In terms of the laity, instead of renouncing their quest for worldly success, many convert to Christianity in hopes that it will provide them with more effective strategies for achieving such worldly acclaim!

I have come to believe that the success culture in America has its own vision and prescription for salvation, and one of the biggest challenges for pastors is figuring out exactly what this looks like. My hunch is that the logic of the success culture is driven by a notion of power construed as willful and controlling, even manipulative and coercive. It takes many forms, including wealth, fame, charisma, intelligence, and sex appeal. To be successful means to possess and effectively leverage power to achieve a series of goals that are themselves designed to increase power, expand freedom, and merit the praise of others who have already joined the club. Inherent in all of this is the ability to control oneself and others, to effectively manipulate resources, and to manage external circumstances.

Successful people exercise the power to control their thoughts. They cultivate the “power of positive thinking,” which not only helps them manage their outlook but can even bring external circumstances into alignment with internal desires. Don’t you know The Secret of how we can leverage the “law of attraction” by the power of positive thinking to create life-changing results of increased happiness, health, and wealth? Successful people also control their emotions and exhibit an internal strength that precludes neediness, vulnerability, and anything else that can be perceived as weakness. Winners are of sound mental health, evidenced by the power to manage and eradicate anxiety, guilt, depression, and other undesirable feelings. In the parlance of much that passes for women’s ministry today, strong people “choose joy.” They don’t really need anyone else to be happy, but create their own happiness and then design relationships in ways that enhance and protect it. Successful people also possess the personal power to transform a “normal body” (which is an entry-level requirement for the school of success) into a beautiful body, which always increases one’s power! Even in the church, people are encouraged to follow biblical diets like The Daniel Plan and commit to exercise as a fifth spiritual discipline. If you can leverage personal power to control your thoughts, emotions, and appearance, then you are well on your way to managing the perceptions of others (in both real and virtual environments), thereby gaining greater influence over people who can advance your quest for success. (Who cares about people who lack the power to promote, or derail, your agenda?)

Although I am no Clifford Geertz, it seems to me that all of this has generated a powerful cultural stream in America that exercises a gravitational pull on the church. To shift metaphors, it creates a pair of glasses through which we see all of life, including the life of faith. Read through these glasses, the Gospel is not seen as a call to abandon the quest for worldly success, but a new and improved strategy for successfully completing the quest! In the most concrete terms, when I preach on Sunday mornings that we should fully surrender our lives to Jesus as Lord and Savior, which includes allowing him radically to redefine our values and goals in light of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, I fear that many hear, “Jesus can empower me to return to work tomorrow and be more effective at what I am already doing in pursuit of goals I’ve already set.” Our “personal relationship” with Jesus can easily become another way to access the power needed to become successful, admired, and well-respected.

One symptom of this problem is the way some clergy preach the Bible and, consequently, how many lay people interpret it. Instead of the biblical Christ (perhaps normed in important ways by the Jesus of history) serving as our guide for the faithful interpretation of scripture, those breathing the air of the success culture tend to give hermeneutical priority to passages that support the logic and value system of hard won success. The clearest example is found in the “prosperity gospel” with its focus on Deuteronomic theology, but there are subtler forms that infect the American church in innumerable ways.

When confronted with the sayings of Jesus that contradict the logic and value system of the success culture, many find ways to reinterpret those passages to marginalize the intended message. For example, when confronted with Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek, some say, “Well, what he really meant was that violence should be a last resort and only in self-defense. If someone hits me rather softly and doesn’t draw back for a second blow, then maybe I should exercise the power of self-control and suggest a non-violent solution. But if someone hits me hard and keeps coming at me, then surely Jesus would not object to me defending myself. To turn the cheek in a real fight would simply be crazy!” If pressed harder on this issue with a clear presentation of Jesus’ direct command, some are honest enough to say something like, “Well Jesus was the Son of God, and I’m only a sinful human being. So if someone hits me, I don’t care what Jesus said, I’m fighting back and asking for forgiveness later.” Only a loser would allow himself to be assaulted without some kind of retaliation.

The problem, of course, is that the passages being ignored or reinterpreted in service to the success culture are not merely ornamental, but rather absolutely essential to Christian faith and practice. More precisely, the logic and value system of the success culture is antithetical to the logic of the gospel. Indeed, even a cursory reading of the Sermon on the Mountain shows Jesus completely reversing the logic and value system of the success culture, effectively saying, “This is not only wrong—its wrongheaded! This will not only fail to deliver happiness but it will prevent you from seeing the true way of salvation and accelerate your journey down the highway to hell.” The success culture is all about acquiring, consolidating, and leveraging personal power to achieve self-determined goals (not least, security), and to do it in a way that will merit the praise, admiration, and respect of others perceived to be more powerful and successful than we—thereby increasing our power and positioning us for even more success. In stark contrast, the logic of the gospel can be found in Matthew 16:24-26: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” In our efforts to acquire and consolidate power to secure our interests and accomplish our self-determined goals, we lose our lives (even more so, not by failing but by accomplishing those goals) and become powerless to do anything about it. The only way to truly be saved is to completely abandon the quest for worldly success and totally surrender our lives to Jesus as Lord and Savior, a surrender that is so complete that it leads Paul to confess, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2: 19a-20b).

The power of success is characterized by willful grasping, while the power of the gospel is characterized as willing surrender.[3] The former is the way of conquest; the latter is the way of the cross. The former focuses on predetermined outcomes; the latter focuses on faithfulness. The former is self-defeating, self-destructive, and self-condemning; the latter—according to Jesus—is the way of salvation and abundant life.

I want to make this point as strongly as possible. Jesus does not say, “If you do all that I have commanded then you will be successful” (and in several passages he suggested the opposite). To assume this is absolutely to misunderstand his message. Everything Jesus teaches—the logic of his gospel—runs contrary to the vision of salvation promised by the success culture and the concomitant strategies that supposedly make it possible. But this logic and this culture are exactly what we are up against in the American church, and this raises a critical question: Is a Christianity that is co-opted and reinterpreted by the value system and logic of the success culture still rightly described as Christian at all? If not, then what is the way forward?

Conclusion: Questions for Conversation

I want to end my reflections by posing a few questions to academics and pastors alike.

In your research and experience, how is success defined in American culture? How does our pursuit of success shape and reinforce American culture? Does success have its own logic and value system?

To what extent has the American church been influenced or coopted by the culture of success? Does this lead to a reinterpretation of the vision and way of salvation as proclaimed by Jesus, and does it go so far as to undermine the logic of the gospel? What is the difference between success and abundant life?

What resources would help us clarify the problem, gain a more faithful understanding of the gospel, and deepen our relationship with Christ?

As we seek answers to these questions, let us remember the words of Paul: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)

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Notes:  

[1] Bible Symposium, “Reading Between the Lines: Recent Research on the Gospels and the Quest for the Historical Jesus,” Florida Southern College, 14 April 2016.

[2] The arguments in his lecture are more fully developed in John Dominic Crossan, How to Read the Bible the Bible & Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis to Revelation (HarperOne 2015).

[3] I first discovered this distinction between willful and willing ways-of-being-in-the-world in Gerald G. May, Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology (HarperSanFrancisco 1982). However, it is assumed and taught by all contemplative Christian traditions.