When Your Parent’s Simple Religious Answers Don’t Work

 

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I have watched time and time again how the older generation of evangelicals interacts with the youth and young adults. I have seen parents supply the answers to their children before they even knew what the children were asking. It’s like the teens and young adults with questions and, gasp, doubts are laden with theological TNT that could demolish the whole enterprise of the Gospel.

I see the appeal of the safety of evangelical Christianity for some, especially the churches and denominations that thrive within largely closed theological systems. Within the system and the community, you have the assurance of answers and practices that all work… as long as you stay within the system. Frankly, it doesn’t even matter if all of the answers are proven true because you’ve learned that they HAVE to be true. If the answers of your group don’t work, you’ve got nothing left—no community, hope for the future, and no way to explain how the world works.

Teens and young adults are often caught in the bind between the simple answers of their communities and their honest questions. And don’t think for a moment that children can’t tell when they’re safe to ask questions and when they’re not.

Having been that young teenager within the closed system of the Catholic Church, I knew exactly what was going on. When a priest met with me to “answer” my questions, I could immediately tell that he was fully confident in his ability to smash my answers into his tidy box of Catholic doctrine.

There was no mystery, no humility, and no mercy for my dissatisfaction. Either I accepted his authority and his theological system, which was all presented as reasonable and fully true, or I was just being rebellious and sinful, rejecting my God-given spiritual leaders and the truth of the Bible.

Is it any wonder that closed religious systems like conservative evangelicalism and Catholicism are both equally capable of creating mini inquisitions of their own? Their adherents learn that truly embracing what is taught and seriously practicing it will require them to at one point or another to stuff their questions and doubts down deep and to ensure that everyone else does the same. If you let someone else doubt or ask the hard questions, what will stop you from facing your own uncertainties and misgivings?

What so many young people suspect and what so many religious leaders fear is this: our beliefs, practices, and institutions are deeply flawed and in error.

Here’s what I suspect: We’re so flawed and in error that we don’t even know which parts are flawed and in error. We could spend the rest of our lives attacking the mistakes and hypocrisies of each other while defending the purities of our own traditions without realizing we’re really all in the same boat.

Yes, if you’ve ever doubted what you’ve been taught in church, you’re not rebellious. You’re just being honest. Most importantly, you could even be on the right path. Not that we want to spend the rest of our lives doubting, asking questions, and deconstructing so that we never find anything. I assure you, Jesus said that those who seek will find, but he doesn’t guarantee what we’ll find.

The problem is that those raised in closed religious systems think that these tiny little havens are the only places to find God. While God is most certainly within these systems in one way or another, there is a larger reality that is often obscured in the midst of the rule following and defenses of doctrinal territory.

There is the bedrock certainty of God’s grace and mercy that roam free regardless of our systems and boundaries, his endless oceans of love for us, and his streams of life that promise us a different kind security. I have found that I don’t need to worry about defending doctrine or truth, I need to live in it. The simple answers and the doctrines we’ve learned had their place, but as many of us suspected, these were just scratching the surface. The difference then is whether you toss all pursuit of God aside or you take the risk of seeking God’s larger reality of presence, mercy, and love—truth isn’t opposed to these, but it can stop you from pursuing them. At one point or another your religious system will fail you, even if you don’t admit that it has failed you.

I’ve been there, clinging to the fragile structure of theology, Bible study, a few seemingly spiritual experiences, and the hollow assurances of others around me. God’s love for me was strictly theoretical and largely wrapped up in the acceptance or rejection of those around me. If they could reject me because of what I said or believed, then God could do the same. If I was expendable to them, then it seemed like I was expendable to God.

I am learning to surrender to the darkness and the silence. I have done so kicking and screaming, wanting to keep shouting praise songs, hoping I could think my way out of this vast unknown land, and trying to spark a light by reciting one scripture verse after another.

Most days I feel like even less than a novice when it comes to the still small voice of God or the presence of God. For as little as I know and have experienced, it has been a true awakening to God’s mercy for me and for the religious leaders and their closed systems.

I see the well-meaning spoon feeding teens and young adults simple answers and doctrines that they can take or leave but must take if they want to be accepted and loved. I see some slump over with indifference because deep down they know that they’re wasting their time. As soon as they can make their own decisions, they’ll most likely drop away from the faith because it never was their own.

They never learned how to receive nourishment from God directly because their parents or church leaders feared that they may leave the faith if they start asking too many questions or let their doubts take root. I have seen the exact opposite among so many of my friends and colleagues. Once we stepped into the darkness and learned to make our faith our own, however imperfect it was, we found a God who is deeper and stronger than the simple answers and systems.

Speaking for myself, I’ve found a presence and love that I can’t explain or quantify, and it can co-exist with my imperfect theology and the theological questions that hang in the wind without resolution.

If I could say one thing to these teens and young adults who slump in the back rows of church today and hope to make their escape in the not too distant future, I would say that my faith never took root until I surrendered everything I thought I knew and learned to receive God’s mercy and love on God’s own terms.

God’s love for you and for me doesn’t change if I rebel against the answers and systems we were told to accept. Jesus has already overcome the world. He alone is worthy to unlock the deepest secrets of eternity past and the mysteries that await us. Are you tired of lugging around these questions? Are you weary of hiding your doubts? Are you thirsting for God’s presence and life instead of demands for spiritual conformity?

Jesus has a single word for you and for me: Come. There are no strings attached or limitations. Come to him with your reservations, disappointments, discouragement, and brokenness. He alone can give us rest and peace.

After spending most of my life fearing that I wasn’t good enough for God or that my doubts were too much, I found that his love for me truly overcomes every barrier I could put in the way.

Why Evangelicals Lack Compassion for Doubters and Doubters Lack Compassion for Evangelicals

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When my faith hit rock bottom at the end of seminary, I became spiritually despondent. I also became very, very angry that the religious practices and beliefs I’d been given let me down.

As I voiced my doubts and anger, I received some pretty strong pushback from evangelicals who had no tolerance for my doubts and felt personally attacked. On the other side of that time in my life, I can see with greater clarity some of the reasons why we struggled to show compassion to each other.

How Do You Grow Spiritually?

In evangelicalism, there generally isn’t very much language or conception of spiritual formation or practice. We have tended to focus on “saving” and then preserving the soul. You save your soul by making the proper profession of faith and then learning more biblical truth. You remain “in Christ” by safeguarding that truth.

If you look at the broader Christian tradition that stretches back to the early church and desert fathers, there was a greater emphasis on solitude and prayer. This tradition had been preserved by the monastic tradition, and its influence has increased and decreased over the years. As the church grew in power and influence, it’s not surprising to see those spiritual practices decrease.

As our access to monastic and desert father writings has increased, we can read that the three words that drove their spirituality were: “Flee, be silent, and pray,” as Nouwen writes in The Way of the Heart. Most importantly for our discussion about doubt and compassion, Nouwen notes that solitude (the fleeing and being silent parts) grow compassion in us as we encounter the love and mercy of God.

If we contrast the evangelical and the contemplative approaches to spirituality, we can see that one is focused on preservation while the other is focused on surrender. When I was trying to defend, preserve, or guard my spiritual life, I had little time or capacity for others unless they could help defend or teach the truth.

The surrender of solitude has forced me to face my darkest thoughts, resentments, and failures. When I resist solitude, it’s often because I’m resisting these dark sides of my life. I can only find relief and freedom by surrendering to God’s mercy, and that makes it significantly easier to show mercy to others.

Within the evangelical mindset, I learned to defend my faith from my own doubts and from those who would cast doubts on my faith. There was no room for failure. It was an all or nothing mindset. Without a more robust language of “spiritual practice” to provide an actual grounding for my faith, I had placed my confidence in study and orthodoxy. After immersing myself in study throughout my undergraduate and seminary years, while also going all in with everything the church asked of me, I saw just how fragile my faith had become, and I was angry.

I had invested years of my life into the study of scripture and defending particular viewpoints of the Bible. When those defenses fell apart and I realized that I was still just as far from God as when I started out, I had a “burn it all down” mindset toward theology and the church systems I’d given so much of myself to.

The hardest part of this is that the people in the systems of church and theology didn’t do anything malicious to me. They were just passing along the best things they could to me. We were all acting in good faith.

We all also lacked the very practices that could cultivate compassion in us. We were both trained in systems that valued conformity and checking particular boxes. As I left the conservative system, I just replaced it with a more progressive one but maintained the same mindset that lacked compassion or any kind of meaningful spiritual practice.

As I enter into completive prayer, I have to face my dark side and the only way out is to accept God’s mercy.

I am finally seeing the evangelical subculture with more compassion and grace because I can see how badly we both need the same mercy from God. I still have my insecurities. I have plenty of rage for the evangelical captivity to politics and cultural influence. But I at least can detect when I’m moving toward an unhealthy place.

When I sense myself moving toward my unhealthy stress points of anxiety and fear (hello, enneagram 9’s!), I now have spiritual practices I can turn toward with hope. Under the mercy of God, I have found the great equalizer of humanity, and that has helped me start to become kind to others, even the ones who would rather excommunicate me for my doubts.

The Lie about How to Live the Life You Love

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I’m not saying anything novel or shocking when I declare that the contemplative stream of Christianity is a completely different mindset compared to the self-help strategies of the business world and Christian self-help subculture.

I’ve read enough of both contemplation and self-help works, and in my unprofessional opinion, there is one core difference between contemplative Christianity and self-help Christian/self-help business world:

Christian contemplation differs from Christian self-help based on the promise of delivering fulfillment and happiness.

This is the difference between finding happiness, fulfillment, and meaning in what you do each day. It’s the promise that taking certain actions, following a program, or designing a particular business or spiritual program will bring you the fulfillment and joy that you want from life.

There’s a mechanism to the self-help mentality. For self-help Christianity, one must design the right mechanism with the right mix of Bible study, prayer, and service.

For self-help business, one must design the right balance of sleep, family/relationships, exercise, and work, preferably with some kind of automated function or outsourcing for the business that relies on selling high end products.

The more you see the self-help Christian world and the self-help business world in action, the more they appear to be different sides of the same coin.

The more I’m exposed to the Christian contemplative stream, the starker I see it in contrast to the self-help mindset.

The self-help Christian/business world tells you that you must work harder to build something so that you can find peace and fulfillment. And here is the dirtiest trick of all in the self-help world: so many of these people who promise to show you the way that they have blazed aren’t going to actually deliver. Sure, they can help us do a few things better. They aren’t completely useless. They have learned about time management or other productivity skills in some cases, and they do have wisdom to share at times. However, the whole self-help program will fail the majority of those who read the book, take the course, or join the community.

The truth is that most of these business bloggers and self-help Christians aren’t going to tell you “exactly” how they achieved their peace and status. They can’t. There are too many factors that go into success or personal fulfillment in the first place, the promises they make are too hollow, and many of these high profile experts have gotten support from each other in order to “make it.” There’s only room for so many experts at the top to realize their “dreams” or lead the “life that you love” if their financial success hinges of getting you to want they have so that you buy their books and courses.

The self-help world says that you don’t have the life that you love because you aren’t doing the right things or investing in the right systems. For a small fee, that is really a bargain compared to what the OTHER GUYS are charging, you can find the happiness and fulfillment that you deserve. Can you really put a price tag on that? All of your competitors are signing up for the course; do you really want to be left behind?

Before you start pulling out your wallet, let’s step back for a look at contemplation.

Contemplation tells you that your true self and the identity you have longed for with all of your heart already belongs to you in God. You can only find it with greater clarity and learn to live in it. You can’t build something that has already been given to you.

You can only find that you are deeply loved by God if you take time to live in your belovedness.

Of course you can make your life better with certain decisions and your work plays into that, but your happiness isn’t tied to a career or a lifestyle. That is too fragile and small-minded an approach to life.

With the Christian contemplative stream, there’s no course or program that maps a path to success, fulfillment, or the “life you want.”  You can only find practices that you can literally practice daily. The results aren’t guaranteed in any way other than the promises of scripture and the examples of those who have gone before us. Somehow, this works, but if it’s going to work, it probably won’t look like what you’re expecting.

While the self-help world tells us ways to put ourselves first, Christianity says that you find life by “dying” to yourself. You can’t come up with a much stronger contrast! However, Christians who affirm “dying” to yourself can also slip into the self-help program. We can fight and scrap and plan and take courses to find the things that God has given to us already.

I spend most of my day circling back to the love of God. Yes, I have tried to focus my work on the things I’m better at doing and that I find enjoyable. Yes, I’ve limited my work hours when possible in order to prioritize time with my kids. However, at the root of my happiness, fulfillment, and personal quest for meaning, I spend most of time shoving aside the things that the self-help people tell me I need.

I feel the pull toward the quest for personal comfort, fulfillment, and success. It haunts and grabs at me every single day. And so I circle back in contemplation onto the present love and mercy of God. I circle back with the Examen to remember where God has been present and where I have gone off on my own.

I’ve found that I live the “life I love” when I live in the love of God. No membership fees are required other than a deep need for God.

 

Evangelicals Need to Sit in a Room and Say Nothing for a Long Time

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I solve most of the world’s problems right before I go to bed. It’s true. Ask my wife. I have so many amazing ideas, and she gets to hear all of them right before she falls asleep.

I recently solved the central problem with my evangelical tribe.

You know us, we’re the people who claim to have the “good news” and then we basically spend a lot of time worrying about being damned to hell, praying enough, proving ourselves worthy of God, proving we hold “sound” doctrines, defending those sound doctrines from atheists and “liberals,” fearing the fiery destruction of the world, and jumping into the political fray as if the death of America is the same thing as the death of God.

Evangelicals are anxious. We are anxious people who need to sit in a room and say nothing for a long time.

We fill concert venues with blaring worship music and shout, “Come Lord, Come! Come! COME!!!!”

We study, study, study the Bible.

We serve and minister and volunteer.

And then? The crash. So many of us crash and burn with our anxious, hard-working faith. I gave myself to all of this. I’m an evangelical who studied, served, worked, and defended, and all I got was a lousy crisis of faith. Almost every evangelical I know has had a crisis of faith in their 20’s or 30’s. Those who haven’t had a crisis of faith yet are the ones who could really use it the most.

Sure, we trust that Jesus has saved us by faith and grace, not by our own merits. But then we expend SO MUCH energy working and worrying in order to prove that profession is true. We struggle with holy living. We wonder if the defenses for the Bible will be enough to shore up faltering faith. And most importantly, we lose our ever-loving minds because God feels so distant and silent.

So we study harder, we worship with even more passion than the trademarked PASSION events, and we plead and beg with God: “Please show up. Please tell me that you’re real. Please tell me that the years of guilt, shame, repression, and fear were worth something.” Something has to give.

Some snap out of that phase, and realize that the game is over. God isn’t real. How could he be? What God would want people to live with such fear, misery, and uncertainty?

Others harbor those doubts, fears, and illusions, but they stick with the practice of their religion. Jesus matters so much to them. They want the story to be true. They want to believe that God is somehow involved in the world, but they simply can’t figure out how to find that God. They settle for mystery, but end up living without any search for or experience of God.

There’s another option that takes the beliefs and, don’t miss this word, practices of historic Christianity seriously. In fact, the problem that plagues evangelicals today may best be described as a selective amnesia. We have fought tooth and nail to uphold the scriptures and doctrines that the early church passed on to us, but we couldn’t give a flying fig (that’s an evangelical swear word) about the practices of the early church.

There is a stream of Christianity that takes the foundational teachings of our faith seriously—so seriously that they are viewed as givens—without devoting our entire lives to defending them from skeptics. This is the contemplative stream that pre-dates the canon of scripture. This stream has been practiced in quiet and solitude, as well as in cities and small towns. It has driven some to serve actively and it has driven others deeper into the desert. Ironically, those who traveled the furthest into the desert were eagerly sought out by many from the cities. These desert contemplatives exercised tremendous influence and their words remain powerful, relevant, and formative until this day.

The contemplative stream of Christianity tells us to sit in a room by ourselves and to be quiet for a long time. It challenges evangelicals to consider how much we’ve become like the ecstatic prophets of Baal who shout and dance and make a tremendous scene before an unseen god while Elijah watches with quiet confidence.

Evangelicals, we have a lot of good things going for us, but underneath all of our media empires that promise to defend us from the big bad world, our universities that continue edging toward sheltered fundamentalism, our large churches packed with programs and offices (not with prayer chapels), and our deeply flawed hero-worship and business-influenced leadership culture, there is a deep need for the loving search for God. By and large, we are not known as people who love.

I know that “love” is my deepest struggle. How do we generate love for God? How do we love people?

If Jesus’ two most important commands are to love God and to love my neighbors, if Paul said everything he does is “shit” (that’s only a translation of a Greek swear word, so we’re cool) without love, and if the apostle John used love as the only measure that matters, then our disconnect from love has to be addressed.

So far as I can tell, I have found love so difficult because I have been cut off from the source of love. This brings us back to our quiet room where evangelicals need to sit and say nothing for a long time.

The contemplative stream echoes the Psalms that tell us to wait on the Lord, to wait in silence.

For being people who love the Bible, cherish the Bible, defend the Bible, and who attack people who don’t love, cherish, or defend the Bible as much as us, evangelicals do a pretty terrible job of actually believing what the Bible says about God’s love.

I know this first hand because the foundational teachings of contemplative prayer are two things that are both very true in the Bible and very hard for evangelicals to believe:

  1. God is here.
  2. God loves you.

Evangelicals could spend years digging up scripture verses to disprove the very two things that we have longed to know all of our lives. This is why we need to sit in a room all by ourselves and say nothing for a long time.

We need to make a space to become aware of God and of God’s love. This isn’t necessarily a space for epiphanies or visions or amazing spiritual encounters. In fact, the contemplatives warn us that desiring spiritual encounters or amazing visions could become quite dangerous, as they can be self-serving and manipulative toward God. We begin to crave validation and experience over choosing to rest in the truths that God is here and God loves us.

This is a far cry from the anxious, hard-working evangelical subculture. Evangelicals don’t have language for a dark night of the soul. We can only think of ways to shine “light” into a dark night of the soul. When we are given the option of silence before God, we are quick to quote scripture and to begin another freestyle, “Lord we just…” prayer.

We desperately need silence. We need to learn what it means to abide. We need to learn what it feels like to finally be still before God for a long time.

This is the path we walk by faith. This will take all of the faith that we can muster.

I have taken a long, winding path into contemplative practices. They were the only things I could hold onto when my evangelical faith crashed and burned. I spent years worrying that they didn’t work, that God wasn’t real, or that I had somehow alienated myself from God. I freaked out because nothing was happening. I have since learned that this is by and large the point.

People who abide and live by faith don’t need God to constantly poke them in order to prove that he’s real. It took years of learning to search for God before realizing that I’d already been found. I couldn’t make God any more present. I couldn’t plead with God to be with me more than he already is. I couldn’t say anything to make God love me more. I couldn’t add any spiritual practices that would change the way God loves me.

I am loved and you are loved right now. This is the deep, abiding mystery of our faith. This is a truth that can revolutionize our lives.

This love of God is so deep and unfathomably wonderful that the only appropriate response is to sit in a room and say nothing for a long, long time until we accept that God is here and God loves us.

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

Based on my own resistance to and experiences with contemplative prayer, I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice. The book is titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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I Tried Quiet Prayer Once and It Didn’t Work

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How many things in life work great the first time around?

Is there anyone who can just pick up a worthwhile discipline or skill after reading a book and trying it once?

Can you learn to paint, knit, sew, or cook with one shot?

Can you remember the first time you tried to ride a bike? I was taking spills all over the school yard for weeks until I caught on and learned how to balance myself. I eventually spent hours riding down a small hill that would have been terrifying at first.

This past summer I started running regularly. I had been somewhat active in the winter by taking the occasional long walk, but running was a different animal altogether.

I huffed and puffed, forcing my aching legs to keep going a little further before taking a walking break. My runs were something like 60% slogging along and 40% walking at first. I eventually started to run a little bit more evenly and started eliminating the walking breaks.

At a certain point around the middle of the summer, I realized that the first 25% of the run will just be miserable. I’ll start to find my stride about the mid-way point, and then the last 25% will require a bit of intention to keep my pace.

Finally, this September, I started to feel strong and confident during my runs. I didn’t even need headphones in order to play distracting music. Sure, the first bit of the run was still hard, and I had to be intentional about pushing myself to finish strong, but I finally reached a point where I felt strong and confident enough to run at a steady pace without slowing for a break.

If I had stopped running after the first day or even the first month, I would have told you that running is difficult and miserable and no one should ever try it.

If I stopped running today, I would genuinely miss it. It has proven an important way to start my day, and I have seen the benefits in my mental and physical health.

Over the past year, I’ve also taken my exploration of Christian prayer into a deeper pursuit of silence, waiting on God and letting God show up in whatever way God wants. There have been times when I’ve just watched my mind unwind with worry and rambling ideas. Other times I have experienced genuine peace and awareness of God’s love.

Then again, there are plenty of times when it has just felt like I sat by myself for 20 minutes repeating a word to myself like “beloved” or “peace.”

I have long practiced short stretches of silent prayer, say for about five minutes, at the end of my daily Examen. I’ve also meditated on scripture. This pursuit of God through silence and waiting is really, really biblical since the Psalms constantly tell us to wait on the Lord. However, I feel like I’ve been trained to demand.

I’m a recovering anxious American evangelical who loves quick fixes and spiritual growth charts.

Silent prayer feels like: I want my gold star for praying, Jesus. You’ve got 20 minutes to pay up…

This journey into silence is not easy for me. My mind is rowdy and difficult to tame.

I find myself slipping back into bad habits, comparing myself to others and wanting what God hasn’t given to me. Contentment and faith gives way to envy, greed, and discouragement as I look at all of the other people who appear to have it together.

I keep reminding myself of that runner who huffed and puffed along the bike path a few months ago who could barely string together 20 minutes of sustained running. That guy felt so weak and pathetic. He didn’t see how things could get better.

Honestly? I never saw things get better. The improvement in my running was so gradual that I couldn’t see it happen. I couldn’t control it.

My growth as a writer was like that too. Suddenly, one day I started writing markedly better manuscripts compared to the drivel I used to submit to my editor. Yes, there are always revisions, but the process is less painful.

I’ll be the first to tell you that prayer isn’t quite as difficult as it used to be. I can now sit for twenty minutes in a row with a relatively focused mind. Sometimes I sense God moving, and sometimes my mind does all of the heavy lifting.

It’s a long-term process that you can’t plug into to your life for predictable results every time. Prayer isn’t a life hack or commodity that you can install in your smart phone for an instant solution to a problem.

There’s a whole industry that promises quick, cheap, simple serenity or spiritual enlightenment. Just read the book, try something for five minutes a day for a week, or install an app in your phone, and you’ll make amazing strides in your spiritual life!!!

God’s love is a free gift that we can never earn, but each day feels like a knock down, drag out struggle to find it and experience it. My life is so full, my mind moving so fast that it’s hard to slow things down for God to settle in.

I can’t track my progress. I don’t get stickers every time something good happens while I pray.

But it sure seems like any kind of meaningful development in a lasting practice calls for this kind of dogged, determined pursuit for what matters the most.

It’s galling for the American in me to come to terms with a lifelong approach to discipleship, what Eugene Peterson called a long obedience in the same direction. Each day I’m training myself to believe that I am loved by God and that this love can gradually change me into the kind of person who is also able to extend a kind, gracious, patient love to people who would rather just grab the quick fix.

This is the first time I’ve ever practiced such intense, expectant waiting. It’s no wonder that I feel like I’m not very good at it yet.

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

After years of anxious, hard-working spirituality, I found peace with God by practicing contemplative prayer. I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $9.99 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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