I was in the library one afternoon six weeks ago, feeling particularly strongly the absence of a sense of closeness to God, and wishing for a way to be closer to Him. I went upstairs to the shelves where I knew the books about religion were (a section I’ve looked through many times), and looked through the titles again, hoping to find some book that would help me.
I’ve known since I was a young Christians that the instructions for Christian growth, according to evangelical churches, are
- Read the Bible
- Go to church
- Share your faith with others.
I’ve always gone to church regularly. (There was one six-week gap while I was at Middlebury College, and the only evangelical church I knew of was one reputed to be even more legalistic than the one I had gone to back home. It would have required a long bike ride, as I had no car. It would also mean having to switch from speaking Spanish exclusively to using English for an hour, and then switching back. It was easy to decide to take a hiatus from church attendance.)
My prayer and Bible reading have often been sporadic. For a time it will go well, as I find encouragement and insight from reading Scripture, and pour out my heart to God in sorrow for my sin and gratitude for His forgiveness, and my desire to be the person He wants me to be. But inevitably, after a while I have to push myself more and more to keep up the routine, which comes to feel like something I’m doing because it has to be done, like washing the dishes or doing the laundry.
Finally I decide to give myself a break from what hardly seems like it can be any more satisfying to God than it is to me. Eventually some book or sermon, or some circumstances, or just thinking about how I really need to get back to doing it regularly, will motive me to try again, and for a while it is good all over again.
Given that up-and-down nature of my relationship with God, I don’t feel that I have a faith that would be all that appealing to others. If the topic comes up, I don’t mind sharing what I believe and why, or ways that God has worked in my life. But it’s hard to share it with the sense of “Listen to what a wonderful thing I’ve discovered that you’ll want to experience also!”
There have been times I’ve wished that I believed that saying certain prayers and doing certain good things were enough to bring me closer to God. If I just had to do A, B, and C, and it didn’t matter whether I did them gladly or out of duty, it would be much easier. Sometimes I have found saying prayers written by others to be helpful, when words of my own do not come easily. But other times such words seem as meaningless as if they were nonsense syllables.
It was with all those thoughts in mind that I went looking for a book six weeks ago. No, I didn’t expect to find Three Easy Steps to a Fantastic Christian Life. (I would be very distrustful of a book that claimed it could be easy.) But I thought if I just found some formula to follow, it could hardly be less effective than my own on-again, off-again approach.
Instead, I found a book that says there is no formula. Author Larry Crabb says that any approach to faith that claims a certain cause-effect relationship between what I do, and experiencing God’s blessings, is actually idolatry. It’s what he calls Old Way thinking, that obedience guarantees blessings and disobedience guarantees hard times. (I found it somewhat confusing when he cited Old Testament passages, as to whether he was saying that God used to work that way prior to the coming of Jesus, or just that Old Way thinking was the norm before Jesus taught the New Way. I eventually concluded that he meant the latter.)
I don’t think I’ve ever attended a church that didn’t remind believers to expect to go through trials, even when they were walking in close fellowship with God. As a matter of fact, I have often heard Christians talk about the tests they are going through as evidence that they are faithfully living for God, because Satan has to try so hard to throw roadblocks in their way.
The kind of trials that tend to be expected, however, come from “the world.” Crabb gives examples of believers whose marriages fall apart, or whose children rebel, or whose ministries fail, and who conclude that it must be because they didn’t do it right. In general, Crabb says, living according to Scriptural principles will result in strong marriages, children who follow God, and ministries that show fruit. But it’s not a guarantee.
One danger of thinking it is guaranteed is that when things go well, people attribute it to what they have done, even if they acknowledge that God helped. They become proud, and pride drives out gratitude for God’s grace. On the other hand, when things go badly, people become angry at God for not doing what they think He promised, or are filled with despair because it seems no matter how hard they try they just don’t get it right.
I don’t think I’ve ever thought that way consciously. But if I give up on Bible reading because “it’s not working,” I must be thinking, at some level, that if I do it right it would be satisfying, and if it’s not then I must be doing it wrong, so why keep doing it that way. I’m not aware of being under pressure to get it right. But I suppose the desire to find substitute forms of satisfaction (as I blogged about a few weeks ago, when I was reading the earlier chapters of this book) fits Crabb’s description:
You’ve felt the shallowness and pressure of life for a long time. The pleasures you experience don’t seem to reach all the way into your soul. They leave you empty and under pressure to keep them coming. You feel a little like Atlas holding the world on your shoulders, but your shoulders aren’t as broad.
Crabb describes two ways that people try to respond to the pressure. One is what he calls the “adjustment cycle.” People start by denying difficult realities. They may use alcohol to shield themselves from life’s hard edges. Or entertainment. Or, Crabb suggests, even prayer or memorizing Bible verses. Then they work on strategies to help them cope. Exercise might help. Spending time with friends – including Christian friends – makes life seem better.
Whatever seems to work, keep doing it. Try a few improvements – find a more interesting Bible study, perhaps. If it’s working, it must be that God is blessing now. Life seems better now, you just have to keep doing things right.
The other Old Way approach is what Crabb calls the Therapeutic Cycle. Instead of denial, people admit how bad they feel. A Christian counselor may help them get insight into what is causing their anger or sorrow or fear. They choose a course of action to deal with those issues, and seek out a support group to help them. As they deal the right way with problems, life gets better. Now they can enjoy life as God meant them to.
Both of those approaches can involve doing much that seems right. There’s nothing wrong, in and of itself, with a great deal of what people do to improve their lives. The problem, Crabb points out, is when their highest goal is improving their lives. Anytime we value God’s blessings more than God Himself, it’s idolatry. And no matter how hard we try to make it work, we don’t find true satisfaction because we were made to enjoy God Himself.
There’s a better way, Crabb says, the New Way. But this post is getting long and the time is getting late, so I’ll continue this in the next post.