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Why I Avoided Christians Who Lost Their Faith

When faith is uncertain and clouded

This week I’m sharing a story from my Christian Survival Guide book about the time I avoided a man who was a former Christian:

From the post…

I had a lot of reasons to hate Clark.

We were polar opposites in every way. I’m a driven, self-starter who would rather die than break the rules. He was the atypical slacker who did the bare minimum to get by, letting others, namely me, do the heavy lifting for him. He’d chat up anyone near his office, and when company proved hard to find, he’d wander the building in search of anyone willing to kill a half hour with him.

When I didn’t cover for his deficiencies, Clark snapped that I’d better do my job.

I stormed away, swearing just loud enough for a co-worker to hear me.

Clark brought out the worst in me, and I let it happen rather than seeking to understand him or at least have a frank conversation about our differences. Over the years, we maintained an uneasy truce with our parallel careers within a small business of no more than ten employees.

At a company event, we happened to end up sitting next to each other. Seeking any kind of conversation topic, I asked him about his family who lived a few hours away. He mentioned that they were Christians, and he couldn’t stand the people at their church.

No surprise there. I was sure they felt the same way about him.

Clark went on to share that he had, in fact, been a Bible study leader and church elder before leaving the faith. I can’t tell you what we talked about after that. I just remember being shocked and then suddenly quite afraid.

Clark had a significant amount of Bible knowledge. He’d been taught everything that I knew. For some reason it stopped working for him.

Why? Why did he leave the faith? Honestly, I didn’t want to know.

Seeing Clark as a fallen Christian suddenly opened my eyes to my own hypocrisy. I had failed him greatly by hating him for his work habits. And when I learned that he had left the faith, I only wanted to write him off all the more. I didn’t want to wrestle with any of the questions or issues that wrecked his faith.

Fearing the fate of my fragile faith, I distanced myself from doubters like Clark.

Isn’t that something we’re all tempted to do when we meet someone who has left the faith?

Read the rest at A Deeper Story.

She Had Every Reason to Stop Believing: On Faith That Survives

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That night I met a young woman at an inner city church dramatically changed the way I think about faith and doubt. She had huge misgivings and questions about God and the Bible. She felt like the church hadn’t been a friendly place to deal with them. She’d even been spiritually abused by leaders who used the Bible as a weapon.

She had every reason in the world to walk away from her faith. Yet, she held on, served among the poor, and kept showing up each Sunday. The more we talked, the more I wanted to tell her that there are some reasonable explanations for her doubts. She didn’t have to continue on with her faith hanging on by a thread.

Couldn’t there be a place to honestly think through the tough questions we face? Can’t we do better?

I started thinking through the topics that she found troubling and then moved on to the topics that have been threats to my own faith over the years. It’s been a good five years of thinking, questioning, and even doubting. The product of that season of inquiry is my new book, A Christian Survival Guide: A Lifeline to Faith and Growth.

A Christian Survival Guide is on sale today wherever books are sold, and as part of the book release festivities this week, the publishers of my other books are also offering some steep eBook discounts, including two full length books for $2.99 each. Scroll down for the full list of discounted eBooks…

Survival Guide Order Button

 

DISCOUNTED EBOOK DETAILS: A Christian Survival Guide is available in print or as an eBook, with the eBook priced at $9.99. The Good News of Revelation and Hazardous (a book about making the risky decisions that result from following Jesus), are both $2.99 at Amazon. Unfollowers is $4.99 at my publisher’s website. Scroll down for the links. Offer ends August 1st!

 

Publisher’s Weekly shared about A Christian Survival Guide:

“Cyzewski approaches each topic with candor, sharing stories that make it easy to relate to the topic at hand. While many of the topics are complex, he provides a point of entry into each and raises thoughtful questions about how much importance Christians can assign to aspects of the discussion.”

After you’re done reading A Christian Survival Guide, I’d love for you to share what you think in a brief review.

Thanks so much for reading!

 

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The Good News of Revelation
$2.99 on Amazon

Purchase from the publisher.

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Hazardous: Committing to the Cost of Following Jesus
$2.99 on Amazon

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Unfollowers: Unlikely Lessons on Faith from the Doubters of Jesus

Purchase from the publisher for $4.99.


A Christian Survival Guide
$9.99 on Amazon
Learn More Here…

Purchase from the publisher.

Note: All Amazon links are affiliate links. 

Where Was God Last Week?

Family home destroyed in Gaza.

Let’s not mince words here. There were quite a few moments last week where a direct intervention by God would have been really timely:

  • Israeli bombs falling on children playing soccer on the beach in Gaza, to say nothing of the homes being demolished and the civilians who are losing their lives in the current conflict.
  • A civilian airliner was shot down over Ukraine.
  • Children from Central America are fleeing gang violence and rape, seeking refuge across the U.S. border.
  • Not to mention the communities in Africa struggling to find clean drinking water and viable farm land, human trafficking that’s destroying lives throughout Southeast Asia, and the civil war sweeping through Iraq.

Where is God right now?

When I wrote about this particular issue for my Christian Survival Guide, I had other tragedies in mind. However, we don’t have to look long before we find particular moments that punch us in the gut and leave us speechless. Perhaps one of these events from last week did that to you. I know they did that to me.

As I wrestled with these events and the place of God, I confess that I can’t line up certain ways of reading the Bible with what I’m observing. I can’t say that God is predestines every event according to a precise plan.

Also, throughout scripture, God routinely offers people choices, saying their actions will determine what kind of future they have.

I would rather have no God than a God who mysteriously orchestrates the death of children for a higher purpose.

I know that some people join me in that assessment, while others can handle that tension better (I only use the word tension to be charitable to their perspective). I also admit that my point of view doesn’t resolve every question or problem. Nevertheless, we are left with these pressing questions:

What should we make of a God who doesn’t always deliver us from evil?

Where is God when great acts of evil are unleashed in our world?

It’s not enough to say that Jesus bore evil on the cross. That’s a good starting point, but it comes up empty from my perspective. Yes, he didn’t fight back. Yes, he bore evil and defeated it by rising again. There is some comfort in that, but it doesn’t resolve the role of God right now. What is God actually doing about the problem of evil in our world?

I don’t think I can resolve this in a single blog post. And even my chapter on God and the problem of evil in A Christian Survival Guide is more of an overview, but let me offer a direction to explore.

What if part of the resolution to the problem of evil is Pentecost?

There is a trajectory throughout scripture of God desiring to dwell among his people, of renewing their hearts and minds, and even guiding them. “God among us” strikes me as the goal throughout the Old Testament prophets. When Jesus came, he wasn’t setting up a one-time, God among us event that ended with the cross and resurrection. He was leading us to something bigger: Pentecost.

The point on which everything in the ministry of Jesus turns for me is Pentecost. The cross and resurrection established God’s take on suffering—suffering alongside us, overcoming evil with resurrection. However, the power of God was released into our world through Pentecost.

Pentecost establishes God’s new way of interacting with our world—his Spirit working through us. Jesus reminded his followers that he would not leave them as orphans because the Spirit would come to dwell among us. That isn’t to say God’s presence in the world is limited to the Holy Spirit, but if we’re wondering “how” God interacts with our world, part of the answer may be found by looking at the indwelling Spirit.

Is God present in the world? Yes. In many ways and places.

However, one of God’s chosen ways of interacting with our world is incarnational and relational, guiding those who have received the Spirit and are willing to let him guide them. How is the Spirit leading us to interact with the pain and suffering in the world? How can God use us to bring redemption and restoration?

This isn’t the efficient, lightening strike resolution I’m personally longing for. I’d still like God to step in and shield the innocent from artillery and missiles. I can’t resolve the problem of a powerful God stepping back as these tragedies unfold. However, I don’t see God working behind the scenes to make these things happen.

I see God dwelling among us, mourning with those who mourn, and empowering those willing to change things.

If we want to find God in the midst of suffering, we should no doubt look to the cross, but don’t stop there. Look at Pentecost. God is bearing our pain alongside us. God is here to help us bring peace and redemption.

Pentecost means that God may well be right here alongside us, encouraging us to ask all of the same tough questions and to never settle for a trite answer.

When Debating the Bible Isn’t Fair for Anyone

Bible debate fight

I’m no longer in the reformed theology camp. That isn’t a shock to anyone who knows me. I left it after being immersed in reformed theology in seminary.

Nevertheless, I would lose every debate to a reformed theologian.

But then every reformed theologian would lose a debate with me.

Here’s the thing: We’re both playing by different rules, and until we can admit that, we’re going to keep talking past each other.

We most certainly begin with different experiences. There’s no escaping the stories that send us speeding off in different directions. Sometimes we crash into each other, able to only see the present, and fighting tooth and nail against what is before us instead of all that has preceded it.

However, the main difference is that I play by different rules when I read and interpret the Bible compared to five or ten years ago. I could handle ambiguity and mystery, but now I’ve realized that comfort with uncertainty isn’t enough.

I needed to understand the role of creatively listening to the ways God speaks through scripture without necessarily looking for scripture to spell everything out.

That is not a very evangelical sentence. It most certainly doesn’t fit with many of the conservative reformed traditions I know.

I use the metaphors of blueprints and paintings in A Christian Survival Guide to describe these two ways of reading the Bible.  Here’s the full explanation:

“Sometimes I’ve used the Bible as if it was a blueprint that spelled out the precise way to live as a Christian. I expected everyone to believe and practice everything just like me. I’m sure you’ve attended churches where you feel tremendous pressure to conform in all areas. I once met a pastor whose church was considering firing him because he didn’t believe in the rapture. Other churches put pressure on families to conform to their specific biblical guidelines. I’ve had my own narrow theological guidelines that I’ve used to neatly divide my friends into insiders and outsiders.

Is the Bible supposed to do that? Does it give us specific guidelines to follow in any and every situation?

I have since found that the Bible functions more like a work of art.

We all know that paintings, poems, or stories have a range of meaning and can be interpreted in several ways within that range. As new generations view a painting or read a book, they can appreciate what it meant to the original author, what it meant to previous generations, and what it means to them in the present.

A painting can accurately portray an actual event. A poem can communicate a truth. Then again, there is a significant difference between a portrait that aims to capture a precise image of a person and an impressionist painting of a wheat field on a warm summer day where the wind gently courses through the heads of grain. In art and poetry, truths aren’t always dropped on us in plain, bold letters. We have to talk about them with others and think about them, returning to them over time to ponder the meaning further.”

There’s no doubt that sometimes a plain, word for word, literal reading of the Bible leads to a direct, unavoidable conclusion. I think we all try to read the Bible like this sometimes.

A conservative may argue that Jesus is fully divine and human because he stated, “I and the father are one,” adding that he was born of a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit.

A liberal/progressive may say, “Christians should not support war because Jesus commanded us to love our enemies.”

Both adopt simple, literal reading of passages. Neither strikes me as a stretch, and both represent New Testament teachings that are worth affirming.

However, there are ways some conservatives explain away Christian opposition to war. There are ways some liberals explain away the divinity of Christ.

You would think that a clear, easily applied blueprint would lead all honest inquirers to the truth. It’s no surprise that followers of Jesus are fragmented and divided over how to read and interpret the Bible, but if we want understand why we are fragmented so much, we need to look at our starting assumptions about the Bible.

We all believe that the Bible is telling us how to do something, but we aren’t agreed on what that something is. If we view the Bible as more of a painting than a blueprint, then we have a place to begin:

The first and really only “how to” the Bible offers is this: “How to meet with God.” Scripture is a series of paintings that show how people have met with God and points us toward ways we can interact with God—through the mediation of the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit. However, we aren’t necessarily supposed to duplicate the details of these paintings precisely.

Just as a Picasso would feel out of place with medieval iconography, so too would a series of realist landscapes raise eyebrows in a museum filled with Jackson Pollock paintings and other modern works that defy a predetermined form.

The interpretive work of the Bible is a creative process where the Holy Spirit meets us in the pages of scripture and guides us closer to the presence and, consequently, will of God.

My more reformed friends begin at a different place, arguing that the Bible is God’s revelation for us that tells us how to live—that’s at least what I was told while immersed in conservative reformed theology. If you want to know how to conduct yourself, structure your church, or set up your family, look no further than the words of scripture for your inspired guide.

We’re both starting with different questions and assumptions about what the Bible is and how it guides us. When we discuss these differences, we could sell each other short if we make the mistake of assuming we’re both starting with the same assumptions and expectations about the Bible.

There are pejorative statements like, “Progressives have a ‘low’ view of scripture.” But then it’s really just a different view of scripture.

As my view of scripture has shifted from a blueprint to a painting, I’ve found that I take the Bible far more seriously now than ever before.  I believe that the Bible is a tool of the Spirit for ushering God’s people into his presence. I believe that the Bible is a guide for living, but it’s not necessarily a word for word blueprint for all people at all times.

There are times when we may interpret the Bible in a more straightforward, blueprint sort of way, but that doesn’t negate the fact that oftentimes we can’t simply drop the stories of another people at another time in history directly into today’s context.

If anything, the Bible shows us a God who is always reaching out to all kinds of people, using actions, symbols, and customs that are familiar to them.

Need a temple with sacrifices?  You got it.

Need to switch things up for the exile? No worries.

Want to obey the Law perfectly? Stop worrying about obeying the Law perfectly and just love people, showing mercy and compassion—even if that requires breaking the Law.

Ready for me to welcome all nations? Let’s drop mandatory circumcision and those rules about animals sacrificed to idols.

The Bible does not reveal a God of blueprints.

If there’s any blueprint for how God acts, it’s that God rips up blueprints, sets a table before us, and says, “Hey, let’s talk.”

Pick up A Christian Survival Guide to read more about how and why we read the Bible (see the chapter “The Bible: A Source of Crisis and Hope”) as well as how we interpret the Bible today (see the chapter “The Bible and Culture: Less Lobster, More Bonnets”).

Two Years Ago I Had an Anxiety Attack And Then We Had a Baby

Ethan birthday with Ed CyzewskiTwo years ago I was losing my mind. Fifteen years of dreading my (limited) role in the labor process and exponential fear about parenthood culminated in an evening when we wife walked into our bedroom at midnight and told me, “It’s starting.”

“Dear God, help me,” was about all I could pray as I writhed in the grips of an anxiety attack. My chest tightened and I puffed out my breaths, the prospect of sleep all but gone at that point.

This moment was the culmination of many, many anxiety attacks and public faintings.

Learning about the birth process in college?

Out cold in my desk.

Talking about having a baby four years ago?

Panic attack.

Going to Bradley birth class with my pregnant wife?

Panic attacks.

Infant CPR class?

Panic attack.

Thinking about birth?

Panic attack.

I nearly lost my mind anticipating the birth of Ethan. It was nine months of living in fear of what I wanted the most. I really wanted to have a child. I was just terrified of the labor process and of being a parent to a helpless little baby.

The fears kept invading my mind:

I was going to drop the baby, suffocate the baby, or expose the baby to innumerable dangers. I would surely do something to hurt our child.

And even if our child managed to survive my incompetence, I could also be a terrible father. Here’s the thing: I get bored around other people’s kids. I mean, they’re great. We interact and play. It’s a great time for 30, even 60 minutes. But could I survive an entire day of attentiveness to my own child? Would I just end up praying for him to leave me alone or take a nap or something?

My pounding heart aside, we couldn’t stop labor.

So this is what happened, we took a lot of walks. I tried to control my anxiety, and when things got totally insane and my wife went through transition in the car on the way to the hospital, I got my head in the game, guiding her through a calming breathing procedure that calmed myself as well.

We were in this amazing rhythm and kept it going on the way up the elevator to the delivery floor even as a nurse chided me for not “encouraging” her.

It was otherworldly to think that a baby would soon come out of my wife. I was relatively calm, and I had to keep telling myself that I wasn’t the one actually in labor. In fact, it helped to remember that I had a role to play as support for Julie.

The closer we got to the actual birth, the calmer I became, more focused, more aware of the moment. Anxiety didn’t have any space in my head to inject worst case scenarios. Soon we had a little baby snuggled against my wife’s chest as she said, “Oh sweetheart, sweetheart!”

When the nurses weighed him, I stood by his side and let him grip my finger, rubbing his head and belly.

Everything in the past two years has been wonderful and exhausting. Having my own child was completely different. It’s always a wonder to see your own child develop and change from day to day, learning and experimenting, improvising in his own ways.

You never know what he’s going to put in one of the pots in our kitchen. He may just as likely help me stir an egg as plunge his hand into the bowl. Some days he’ll throw a ball right to me and other days he’ll turn away from me and throw the ball as hard as he can.

You wonder, what is he thinking?

We’re anticipating our next son any day now. He’s due on July 22nd, but my wife has already had a few strong contractions that ended after she sat down for a while. On Monday she was exhausted and had a few contractions, and the old anxiety returned. I could barely focus on my work all morning.

What brought on the anxiety?

I’m not sure. I didn’t really have any concrete fears that morning. Just the waves of anxiety rolling in the pit of my stomach. Perhaps I feared change and the unknown. Perhaps I had no good reason for all of the anxiety.

I thought of Ethan and how wonderful the past two years have been.

He’s had his bumps and bruises that no parent could prevent. He’s stolen hours and hours of sleep. He pooped on me once. That’s about it. Generally speaking, there most likely isn’t anything to fear at all. It’s just one big unknown cliff I’m jumping off, and I don’t get to say when the leap begins.

When you leap into the unknowns of parenthood, you fall into the wonder of praying over your child and finding that it connects you with the heart of God like nothing else. It’s like getting baptized in the Holy Spirit every time for me. I’ve fallen into the joys of watching him play in his pool where he dumps after from one boat to another, seeing him build train tracks and push his trains around for hours, and reading books together that he later picks up to “read” on his own with crossed legs.

There are many unknown blessings that you land on if you leap into parenthood.

I know that my wife is healthy, the baby is in great shape for a safe delivery, and friends will care for Ethan’s every need. We don’t have much to fear.

Two years ago our life changed forever. Besides the lost sleep and the pooped-on t-shirt I threw out, I learned that the majority of my anxiety has no basis in reality. It’s just an exercise in my mind shadow-boxing, flailing against the impossibility of controlling the future.

After my anxiety attack this past Monday, I stepped back and saw all that has been wonderful and joyful about parenting Ethan. I saw that anxiety may come, but it doesn’t have to stay.

It took the arrival of a beautiful little boy two years ago with a perfect head of hair to show me that fear of the unknown cannot compare with the ever-expanding love of parents for their children.

Will American Christians Fail the Good Samaritan Test?

Christians immigration and good samaritans

He was traveling to the big city when the thing he dreaded most happened—robbers descended, beat him viciously, stole his money, and left him along the road for dead. He was miles from friends and family with no one to help him.

The religious leaders passing by were too busy to help him. It wasn’t their fault and it wasn’t their problem. He probably took risks that put his life in jeopardy any way. Who would take time out of his busy day and assume the financial risk to care for this vulnerable man by the side of the road?

We all know how this story ends: The Good Samaritan stepped up to care for the wounded man, but do we know WHY Jesus shared this story? Here’s a look at the questions that led to this parable:

“On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” 

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Luke 10:25-29, NIV BibleGateway

With that, Jesus launched into this well-known story where the least likely person had mercy on a stranger in need. It’s implied that the Levite and Priest in the story should have had every reason to help their countryman and fellow believer. However, it was the foreigner and, according to the Jews, heretic, who stepped in.

Even with his “flawed” beliefs about where to worship God and his different priorities as a resident of Samaria, he saw the human need in front of him and took care of it, no matter how inconvenient or unfair it was.

 

Today, Americans face a different sort of crisis, but the connections to the Good Samaritan story are still relevant. Tens of thousands of children are fleeing violence in the Central American nations of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvadore. They face beatings, rape, and murder at the hands of these gangs. It’s so bad that thousands of parents have calculated that their children face better odds at the hands of coyotes who lead their children across the U.S. border, even though children may well be raped or beaten along the way by drug smugglers.

Do you think any parents would want to be separated from their children?

Can you imagine a child who would want to leave his or her parents?

What were you interested in when you were eight, nine, ten, or eleven years old? I was interested in baseball and model ships. I went to movies with my family and planted tomato plants in the yard with my grandfather.

We lived across from a schoolyard where teenagers sometimes drank and did drugs in the evening, but I could look down at them from my bedroom window knowing that I was safe. We had locked doors and attentive police who would come and care for us if we called for them.

These thousands of children crossing our borders are fleeing violence that is far worse than anything the U.S. Army faced in Iraq during the violence of 2007. Their only hope is the mercy of America.

While there are fears that these children could be deported, some government officials have suggested that the U.S. will determine ways to provide asylum. Most children have been placed with relatives, but their long-term status remains uncertain.

I’m encouraged to learn that these children are temporarily safe and that few have been returned to their countries where near certain death or exploitation awaits them. I’m also encouraged to hear that the U.S. government is stepping up aid initiatives in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

However, in the interim, it’s our role as people of faith to advocate for these children and, when necessary, to provide sanctuary to those fleeing violence until a safe place can be provided. This is caring for neighbors 101. I don’t see this as a negotiable if you want to follow Jesus. When children are in danger, followers of Jesus, the one who said “Let the little children come to me” and told us to care for “the least of these,” must take the side of the children.

 

Jesus told us that the two most important commandments are to love God and to love our neighbors.

Who is your neighbor?

How can you become a good neighbor to others?

Helping children seeking asylum is as good a place to start as any other.

What if being a good neighbor who loves others means having compassion for these children in our detention centers and offering them sanctuary? Many of them already have contact information for their relatives and can become productive members of society if given a chance.

Americans can hide behind legal arguments… “They broke the law. Deport them now. No exceptions!”

That would be correct under American law. I won’t argue the point. That just wouldn’t be a viable Christian perspective. It’s OK to be an American. However, at a certain point you have to decide on your primary loyalties—you know, that whole “no servant can serve two masters” business that somebody mentioned in the Bible once.

Being an American does not relieve us of our Christian responsibility to love our neighbors.

The Good Samaritan didn’t send the wounded man back into the wilderness where the robbers could finish him off because it wasn’t his problem. He didn’t apply a bandage and then chase him away because he didn’t have the resources to care for him.

He bandaged the man and then set him up at a local inn to recover, paying for all of his expenses. It’s costly. It’s not convenient. It’s not even fair. It’s just necessary.

For all of the time Christians spend talking about mercy and grace, perhaps we forget that both are rarely fair or convenient. For all of the Christians making noise about employers challenging contraception laws, what of laws that prevent us from loving our neighbors?

Loving our neighbors isn’t a matter of picking and choosing which people get to be our neighbors. Isn’t that the whole point of the Good Samaritan parable? Vulnerable people cross our paths unexpectedly without announcing themselves, and sometimes they simply need our help. Loving our neighbors involves stepping in to help when the chance to show love presents itself, not when neighbors meet a government-specified checklist.

Jesus doesn’t give legal loopholes for “illegal immigrants” when loving our neighbors.

We aren’t supposed to check the documents of our neighbors before offering to help them, especially when they are terrified children seeking shelter from violence.

Those who don’t want to help children fleeing for their lives because they’re illegal immigrants are free to turn them away.

They’re Americans after all. That’s their right. They can uphold the law to the letter.

However, those Americans who also want to call themselves Christians, as in those who are committed to obeying the actual teachings of Christ, will need to chop Jesus’ most important teachings about caring for neighbors out of the Bible if they want to ignore the cries of thousands of children risking their lives in order to flee rape and violence in their homelands.

If Jesus is Lord, and if children are indeed in danger, then he’s going to take their side. If the Christians in America side with immigration laws that call for deporting these vulnerable (often abused) children back to the danger they are fleeing, then it’s likely that these Americans know very little of the Christ they claim to follow.

Free Books to Read This Summer

A Christian Survival Guide a Lifeline to Faith and Growth

Paying for books is so last century. This week you have a chance to pick up several of my books for completely free or to enter a giveaway to win a print copy.

For starters, my publisher is giving away 15 copies of A Christian Survival Guide in a Goodreads giveaway.

Just hop over to Goodreads to enter.

A Christian Survival Guide takes on some the most challenging questions in the Christian faith:

  • How do we interpret the Bible 2,000 years after it was written?
  • Is Hell really a place of eternal conscious torment?
  • Is God actually able to deliver us from evil?
  • Do we need someone to deliver us from God’s violence?
  • Are we unworthy of Jesus if we’re “ashamed” to share the Gospel?

These questions and many more are addressed in A Christian Survival Guide. It’s not a book that will give you all of the answers. Rather, you’ll be given a place to think through the options presented from scripture so you can take your next step.

Of course if you don’t want to take any chances, you can pre-order A Christian Survival Guide today so that it will arrive on its July 27th release.

Pre-order on Amazon or from the publisher

 

Over at NoiseTrade Books I’m currently giving away two eBooks:

The Coffeehouse Theology Bible Study Guide

If you’re tired of only reading theology from white North American males, this is the book that will introduce you to the conversational approach I take in Coffeehouse Theology and walk you through a series of Bible studies with insights from historic and global Christian perspectives.

Download the Bible Study Guide Today.

 

A Path to Publishing: What I Learned by Publishing a Nonfiction Book

A Path to Publishing is my big picture introduction to book publishing that walks new authors through the basics of book publishing from developing an idea, to writing a book, to marketing a finished book. It’s ideal for commercial and self-publishing, and I’ll answer every question that new writers ask because I wrote it right after I asked all of those same questions.

Download A Path to Publishing Today.

 

If you need some personal interactions, encouragement, and feedback in order to take the leap into publishing, but you can’t afford a writing conference that costs hundreds of dollars, you can also sign up for my Journey into Publishing online community. We start on August 14th and will meet for six online sessions. The cost is only $60

Learn more about my Journey into Publishing community.

Why Christians Should Not Make Safe Art

Christian art is limited by faith

Last week I learned about a former Christian hard rock musician who became an atheist at the height of his career, but he kept making music for the Christian market since the money was good. Presumably Christian parents encouraged their children to buy this band’s albums because they were expecting a particular message that would be safe and positive. Perhaps Christian youth believed they were protecting their faith.

They didn’t suspect that this band’s message was simply a sham for making money. According to this band’s front man, the majority of Christian musicians he knows are quiet atheists, cashing in on the demand for Christian music. That matches what I’ve heard from other friends.

How did we end up with a huge community of “Christian” music “artists” who aren’t really Christian and who, according to most experts I know, don’t usually make good art?

The problem from my perspective is that artists face ostracizing if they don’t arrive at a set list of answers at the end of the creative process. The subtext is clear: don’t wrestle with big questions in your art unless you’re ready to follow the evangelical script.

This represents the problem when faith becomes a barrier to art. Faith deteremines the answers and the final product without allowing time and space to ask the questions. The final product is vapid, unhelpful, and can hardly distinguish itself from art by a sell out.

In our quest to create safe art without swear words, sex, or violence (unless you count Christians who bow down to Brave Heart and MMA), we’ve stunted out ability to create honest art that fully engages our faith. The answer HAS to be Jesus died on the cross for your sins. That’s why the cross is all over Christian art, so many of our songs mention the cross, and so many books proclaim they’re offering a fresh take on the cross/Gospel—provided the Gospel is defined as Jesus dying on the cross for your sins.

While musicians who have left the faith mimick what a good Christian “should” say, Christian artists have to play games to make their work marketable. Writers have to clean up their novels, artists have to insert “Jesus saves” into their lyrics, and artists have to paint subtle (or not so subtle) salvation messages. Meanwhile, our world has big tough questions that our artists aren’t allowed to ask.

Christians should be the ones diving into the jaws of the beast, confronting the worst of this world’s demons, and making ourselves as “unsafe” as possible as we face the worst the world has to offer. Either Jesus is Lord or he’s just a clever fabrication of his followers who needs to be protected from our big bad world.

Are we doing anyone any favors when the most influential art is coming from people who don’t have any faith that can guide them?

Rather than encouraging Christian artists to speak to today’s issues, we’ve created a sub-genre that isn’t compelling to anyone other than Christians who want to play it safe and fear the loss of their faith. This is catastrophic. When the artists within that subgenre start asking questions they aren’t prepared to answer, they just keep plugging in the answers that they know activates record sales while their faith quietly dies.

This is how we ended up with the religious broadcasting group ostracizing Waterbrook Multnomah publishing because it published a book in its progressive imprint by a Christian man who believes the Bible supports same sex relationships. The message is clear: feel free to wrestle with the Bible, provided you arrive at our conclusions.

Honest reflection on difficult topics always brings up anxiety among Christian artists because we know that we could lose friends, struggle to make a living, and experience alienation from family and friends. As I started working on my Christian Survival Guide project, I felt a tremendous amount of pressure to settle for the answers I’d been given, even if I didn’t find them satisfying.

I had to force myself to look at scripture without the evangelical community looking over my shoulder with heresy stamps at the ready. I had to dig into my tough questions about the violence of God, the place of God in a world with evil, and the ways we interpret the Bible 2,000 years removed from the New Testament writers.

I didn’t always arrive at the answers I expected. I found that hell isn’t what I thought it was, the end times described in Revelation were actually good news to their original readers, and that the Bible can be easily abused. As I considered God’s place in a world that has evil, I arrived at a conclusion that I didn’t see coming.

I didn’t reinforce everything I beleived, but I also found that facing the tough and mysterious questions of today isn’t the end of my faith, especially if I arrived at a different conclusion than expected. I found that my faith is far more sturdy and capable than I expected.

Perhaps that is our problem in the Christian subculture. We’re so afraid of our faith cracking if we place too many burdens on it. On the contrary, I found that my faith can handle far more than I would have expected. If anything, I had been placing my faith in the wrong things.

When I started asking the questions I wasn’t supposed to ask and opened myself up to conclusions I wasn’t supposed to arrive at, I found that Jesus didn’t need me to protect him. Scripture is far more reliable than we realize. The Holy Spirit settles among us to give us wisdom.

Creating art as a Christian isn’t safe or simple. The way of Jesus requires taking up one’s cross. The presence of the Spirit brings tongues of fire. We may have to endure death and fire, but the art that comes out of the process has been pruned and refined. We will find that our best work comes out of the times we face what we’ve feared the most.

Learn more about my Christian Survival Guide project.

A note for bloggers, I wrote this post on a beta version of Blogo for Mac. It’s a new blog editor that is for WordPress only (for now). It still has some bugs and kinks to work out, and it’s still missing some key features (like centering text and adding headings), but I’ve been happy with it so far and encourage you to check it out and to send feedback to help their design team.

Hell Is a Made-Up Place

hell and its eternal flames

What are we talking about when we talk about hell? I’m convinced that many of us don’t know.

Is hell an actual place?

Can we know anything about what happens in hell if it is a place?

Where exactly do our details about hell come from?

I’ve heard from a number of pastors and scholars that we can’t deny the reality of hell as a literal place because Jesus talked about hell a lot. Since I was resolved to let the Bible determine what I believe about hell and eternal punishment, I hardly gave it another thought, even when Rob Bell told us that Love Wins and the collective evangelical church lost its mind over what exactly that means.

WA Christian Survival Guide a Lifeline to Faith and Growthhen I started exploring every topic that has ever shaken my faith or the faith of someone else for my Christian Survival Guide project, I had to face the fact that I’d been avoiding hell. I didn’t want to think about it.

And so I finally let myself ask the question I’d been avoiding, Does God punish humans eternally for a decision made during 80 years (give or take) of life?

I’ve heard the arguments that God’s gift of eternal life is so wonderful that denying it requires eternal punishment since God’s infinite holiness demands infinite torment for those who oppose him. That represents a line of thinking I simply can’t follow, and I don’t think scripture warrants it either. I’d like to offer a brief overview of the chapter on hell from the Christian Survival Guide that delves into the details about hell.

As an evangelical, I can’t help but begin in the most obvious place…

 

What Does the Bible Say about Hell?

Beginning with the question, “What does the Bible say?” hardly settles things for us. The Bible doesn’t even have a single word for hell.

If you’re reading the Old Testament, the Hebrew word Sheol tends to refer to the place of the dead. Jewish scholars later translated Sheol as “Hades” in their Greek translation.

While Hades tended to be viewed in a negative light, that was primarily rooted in the fact that those in Hades were no longer alive. While they weren’t able to enjoy the pleasures of the living, they weren’t necessarily suffering eternal conscious torment.

In fact, the idea of judgment and suffering in the afterlife took on a far richer form in the intertestamental writings. As the Jews suffered at the hands of foreign invaders, they looked ahead to a day when God would vanquish their enemies and punish them. By the time the writers of the New Testament came around, the concept of punishment after death had been evolving. It was far from a single concept that was passed down from one generation to another.

In the New Testament we find two words for “hell,” and neither necessarily demand an eternity of conscious torment. While you can certainly make a case for that based on several passages that mention “eternal fire,” it’s not as cut and dry as many believe.

For instance, Jesus spoke frequently of the Jewish leaders being cast into Gehenna, an alleged garbage dump outside the city of Jerusalem that had once been used for child sacrifices by the Judean kings. The word carried a clear implication of being outside of God’s Kingdom and separated from God’s people in some way, but it’s a theological leap to say that Gehenna equals eternal conscious torment in hell.

When Jesus speaks of God’s judgment, he speaks of eternal fire, but that’s not the same thing as saying the people “in” the fire are eternal. While one could argue for eternal torment based on those passages, they don’t demand hell as a place of eternal punishment. And it’s especially problematic to connect the eternal torment passages with the Gehenna passages since those are two different images given to two different people.

(Check out Scot McKnight’s series on hell for a bit more about the relevant passages, especially his overview of Jesus’ statements about eternal fire.)

As the early church fathers parsed the words of Jesus and the Apostles, they engaged in some of their sharpest arguments over the eternal nature of the soul. If your soul has suffered a “second death” and has been consumed by fire, can your soul exist forever?

In fact, the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles fail to clarify things. Rather, they focus primarily on God’s judgment. Mind you, that judgment is a frightening prospect, but we are also far removed from the literary and mythological world of the New Testament.

Even when the book of Revelation touches on judgment, the beast the devil are the only ones who are explicitly tormented forever (Rev. 20:10, NIV via BibleGateway). And let’s not forget that the ENTIRE book of Revelation is chock full of symbols, imagery, and metaphors. Even if we read about people being tossed into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:15), should we really expect a literal lake of fire?

(For more about interpreting Revelation, see my book The Good News of Revelation).

Based on the symbols and imagery connected to God’s judgment, there is no denying that disobedience is serious. Rejecting God’s ways in order to follow our own brings about disastrous consequences. I’m not making an argument for a “There, there,” grandfather-type of God who chuckles about “those kids” down there who are killing, violating, polluting, oppressing, and abusing each other.

Those who reject the mercy of God found in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ run the risk of being “left out.” God is just and sin must be eradicated. Evil and death will be defeated.

Does the New Testament give us cause to speak in great detail about the afterlife, let alone speak of a literal place of eternal torment called hell?

Can we precisely understand how the New Testament writers re-appropriated the Greek word Hades?

Can we dive into the first century Jewish psyche and grasp the meaning of Gehenna, with its burning fire and dark history?

Can we pinpoint what “eternal” or “everlasting” fire is or what its intended to accomplish?

Evangelicals committed to scripture are all over the place on hell:

  • The universalists argue that the fire of God’s judgment is purifying and restorative (I understand that traditionalists argue one cannot be universalist and evangelical).
  • The annihiliationists argue that it consumes the soul, rendering eternal life impossible.
  • The traditionalists argue that this fire means everyone outside of God’s Kingdom suffers eternal conscious torment.

Can you see how big this mess is?

Christians, at least American evangelicals, have become dogmatic about a theological concept rooted in terms we most likely fail to understand.

 

Can We Blame Dante for Our Concept of Hell?

This is something I’ve heard from a few people. While I have yet to see a truly compelling argument that traces the history of hell form the New Testament to the present day and makes the necessary literary connections to back up such a claim, Jon M. Sweeney has taken a strong step in that direction.

Sweeney’s book, Inventing Hell, argues that Dante’s version of hell has done more to influence the way we read the Bible than we suspect. While I felt that he fell short of proving that assertion, he did a masterful job of reconstructing the various ancient views of the afterlife and offers some thought-provoking reconstructions of the New Testament world.

Inventing Hell reminds us that the literary symbols and mythological stories of the past can’t be ruled out when we interpret the Bible. The writers of scripture were reacting against or recycling the ideas and stories of their day. Paul had no issue preaching about the resurrection to unwilling listeners, but he also used mythological figures such as the “Unknown God” and popular poetry to introduce the story of Jesus.

It’s quite likely that interpreters of scripture have allowed Dante’s epic poem to reshape how they read scripture. The Bible says very little about the actual details of hell, so if we think we know what hell is like, we may have to blame Dante.

 

Where Does This Leave Us with Hell?

If anything, I want to remind us that the traditional concept of hell as eternal conscious torment isn’t a done deal based on a “plain reading” of scripture.

I especially want Christians to take another look at scripture without assuming they already understand what words like Sheol, Gehenna and Hades precisely mean.

The truth is that Gehenna and Hades touched on both a mythological and religious way of thinking—a way of thinking that often blended myth with religion in ways that we find hard to grasp today. There were historical places, events, and stories that shaped what people made of these words when they heard Jesus and the early Christians use them.

Sincere followers of Jesus may believe that the fire of judgment is an eternal punishment, a final annihilation of those rebelling against God, or a purifying fire. We’re so far removed from the original languages and cultures, I don’t know how anyone today can claim to absolute certainty here.

Perhaps the most revealing question for us today is this: “Why do we need hell to be eternal conscious torment?”

If you’re convinced that the Bible teaches it, that’s fine. But Christians disagree on plenty of other issues related to biblical interpretation and translation. Why make more noise about this one in particular? Why excommunicate someone who believes God is more merciful?

Perhaps the fixation of American evangelicals with hell as eternal conscious torment has more to do with our desire to make heaven look better and to make ourselves into the ultimate “insiders” for all of eternity.

The afterlife has been evolving throughout the writing of scripture, and it’s fair to say that it has evolved as Christians continue to interpret scripture. God will judge sin and evil, but I have no idea what that will look like. Given that the Bible hardly has a uniform way of naming hell, let alone describing it consistently and explicitly with clear details, it’s far more likely that we’re the ones who have made up the notion that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment.

 

There’s a lot more I could write about this. In fact, I HAVE written more about this.

I’ve been intentionally light on biblical exposition in this post because I did a ton of that in my book. This post is more of a summary of that content. Check out the chapter in A Christian Survival Guide about hell for a more thorough exploration of the relevant passages and some other perspectives from theologians in the church. I spend quite a bit of time pulling together the relevant passages and offer up some points for further reflection, including a suggested reading list.


Order a Christian Survival Guide

Mercy for Our Brokenness-A Guest Post by Melinda Viergever Inman

Official Author Photo, Melinda Viergever InmanToday’s guest blogger, Melinda Viergever Inman is the author of the new novel Refuge. She serves in a prison ministry, and today she’s sharing how her own story of brokenness intersects with the women she meets in prison.  

The morning sun gleams on the razor wire. As we exit our cars near the prison yard, we hear the fourteen- to twenty-year-old inmates talking smack to a guard. Disciplinary action is brewing. They haven’t learned yet.

Inside we navigate the weekly routine of paperwork, newly changed rules, manifests, searches, pat-downs, safety devices, and cataloging of our personal effects. This process transports us through three locked-down security doors and multiple armed guards. And then we’re in, one with the prison population.

Every week our team enters the state penitentiary to shepherd imprisoned women through a Christian twelve-step program. We bring the best news in human history to women who long for good news: “No matter what you’ve done, Jesus wants you. His arms are open wide. Though everyone else forgets you, Jesus sees you in this place, and he loves you with a love that cost him his life.”

The harvest is plentiful.

We come to the prison because Jesus has a heart for broken people, and we have his heart beating in us. God forgives us, picks us up, and puts us back together over and over again. We know it, and we want them to know it, too.

Most of our team has traveled a road of tragedies and life experiences that we never would have chosen. Each endured unique circumstances that broke her heart and gave her compassion for other hurting people. For me, the path included sexual assault at age thirteen, the brokenness of handling it in silence, teen pregnancy, early marriage, a temper, parenting mistakes, and a bout of hardcore legalism as I tried to clean myself up.

Because God is merciful, he patiently and relentlessly works on my character, causing me to love him and to grow to be more like Jesus. Ridding me of my rigid and hypocritical religion has been his most persistent cleansing. I can’t live a godly life in my own strength by following bullet points and rules. No one can.

I am a redeemed prodigal, a lost girl who has been found. I still run from God in large and in subtle ways. I’m often angry at what he allows to touch my life. Of course, he always comes after me and woos me back. And I return. I yield. He’s irresistible.

God has planted within me a deep realization of my need for Christ alone. He continues to help me discover just how broken I am. If I weren’t so arrogant and hard-hearted, it wouldn’t take me so long to learn these lessons!

I am exactly like the women in prison. So are you.

We remind them of this every week. Everyone struggles. We have the same temptations. We could be the ones sitting in prison.

In prison, the facade has been stripped away. Incarcerated women have done something that has brought them to the end of themselves. And if the first time wasn’t enough, they’re back again. They’ve hit the bottom, and they know everything has to change.

When a woman voluntarily signs up for a Christian 12-step program in prison, she is wise enough to understand that she is powerless and her life is out of control (Step 1). She lays it all out there openly, and she means business.

In our program around 85% of the women have been sexually assaulted, usually as children or pre-teens. Most have difficult family histories. There’s a reason they ended up in prison. There are causative realities over which they had no control that we are prepared to walk through with them. They come with messy and wounded sexuality.

And where was God, they wonder? Can they trust him? And how can he possibly fix their mess? We comfort them with the same comfort God has given us in our messes.

All are welcome. All. No one is turned away. We tell them about Jesus. He finally has their attention. Over and over again, we hear the same story: God has brought them to prison to find him. They know it. It took this final breaking to see their need.

As we go through the 26-week program, the women bless us with their transparency, and we share our failings with them. I wish every believer in Christ could honestly address his or her broken places. The church would be more beautiful and less off-putting.

My brokenness, these women, and their prison experiences shaped my first novel.

Refuge is the story of Cain, his sister-wife Lilith (yes, that Lilith), and their brother Abel. Cain commits a crime. From firsthand experience I know what the tangled relationships and the remorse of a murderer look like.

How would Cain feel about killing his own brother? What would this look like? What would it do to his family? I’ve witnessed this as women share their stories.

Often the most heinous tragedy of our lives is the turning point, the breakthrough, the crux of God turning us toward himself. Just like our broken lives, because of God’s compassion, my novel doesn’t go the way you expect.

This is a story birthed from heartache, brokenness, and a deep personal awareness of God’s mercy and unmerited grace. His mercy in the prison, in my family, and to me—a seriously flawed sinner, was the catalyst.

Just how far does God’s mercy go in my tale? You’ll have to read Refuge to find out. What will our merciful God forgive? It’s always abundantly far above and beyond our expectations.

About Today’s Guest Blogger

Melinda Viergever Inman is a prodigal with a passion to write. She authors fiction illustrating God’s love for wounded people, including her new novel Refuge. She shepherds women in church and in prison ministry. She writes inspirational material and bible studies. With her family, she is involved in an Indian-founded church-planting ministry in Asia: RIMI at www.rimi.org