Myths Christians Believe (finale)

Completing my multi-part (and too long) series on the subject of Myths Christians Believe, here’s the latest installment.

  • For Part 1 (myths 1 and 2), go here.
  • For Part 2 (myths 3 and 4), go here.
  • For Part 3 (myths 5 and 6), go here.
  • For Part 4 (myths 7 and 8), go here.

Myth 9: A Christian place is an easy place to be a Christian.

The first Christian school I attended was seminary, and in my first week of classes I observed a fellow student cheating on a Hebrew quiz. Cheating in seminary. Let that sink in. The experience struck me as totally ridiculous, but also taught me that seminarians are people, and just like people everywhere, some are dishonest. Many seminarians played the religious game. They discussed theological topics, engaged in religious activities, but they were in it for the money. The seminary degree was their ticket to a job that would pay the bills, or in some extreme cases, help make them rich and famous mega-church pastors. Seminary shattered my idealistic notions of Christian education. I needed my idealism shattered, but I sometimes found it difficult to maintain a genuine faith and not become cynical.

Now that I work and teach on a campus with a Christian identity and mission, I see some students playing that same religious game, and other students becoming cynical. Some students are shocked that their roommates use profanity or alcohol. Some are appalled by the obscenity they see from their classmates on social media. Others are generally irritated by all the Christian bragging they hear, the Bible studies, mission trips, small groups, etc. that people use to build their résumé. I sometimes talk to students (usually upperclassmen) who are so tired of the Christian culture that they find it all difficult to stomach.  Some ask, “Shouldn’t a Christian place be different, better, or more genuinely Christian?”

Some of the diversity stems from the fact that the school where I work doesn’t hand pick its student population so that every student fits a particular mold, religious persuasion, or ideological perspective. Some of the frustration comes from the unrealistic expectations of people who expect a Christian school (or church or organization or family or whatever) to be a utopia. It turns out that Christian schools are full of people, and people are sinful, and sinful people do sinful things. Perhaps we need a more realistic understanding of what a Christian school is.

Strictly speaking, an organization or institution cannot be “Christian,” only a person can.  A building is not Christian because it is adorned with a cross or stained glass any more than putting a Jesus fish on the bumper of my Toyota makes it a Christian truck.  A school isn’t Christian because it has a chapel on campus, a Bible verse on the front gate, or because it requires students to take a religion class or two.  In fact, it might be more accurate to talk about “schools with a Christian mission” rather than “Christian schools.” Maybe this is linguistic hair-splitting, but when you think of a school or a church or an organization in this way, maybe it eliminates the pressure to be perfect. People can be genuine about their hurts, struggles, and shortcomings. Somehow this type of vulnerability seems to lessen the cynicism. At the end of the day, even the most faithful believers are, all at once, both saints and sinners.

Myth 10: If I live well my life should go well.

The corollary to this myth is that if my life goes badly, I must have done something wrong. While few people will actually admit to this belief, they nonetheless become angry with God when life doesn’t go well. The view that a life of ease is a reward and that trauma is punishment gives rise to the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The very question expresses the false belief that good people shouldn’t suffer.

In truth, there are many explanations for the existence of evil and suffering (I’ve written about that subject here) and retribution is one of them. But it is one thing to say that bad behavior is usually punished, and quite another to say that my current suffering must be punishment. If I eat bad oysters I’ll probably get an intestinal illness. But an intestinal illness may have nothing to do with oysters. We all get sick. The reality is that life is difficult and painful for everyone. Your own sense of personal virtue does not mean that God owes you a good life.

When you think about it, blaming God for pain is illogical. If God is powerful enough to be blameworthy, then he is powerful enough to have reasons for my pain that are beyond my ability to understand. Ironically, to blame God is simultaneously to credit God with the ability to be blameless. Here I am not trying to trivialize evil by suggesting that God causes all suffering as a means to a greater good. I am saying that whether God causes or allows my pain is simply beyond me. I cannot always know. I know that ultimately God redeems all pain and injustice in Christ and by Christ’s own suffering and death, but I do not claim to understand fully how that happens or when it will happen fully. I simply know that my responsibility is humble service, not to earn God’s grace but because God has given me grace beyond what I deserve. Grace persists, even in the absence of intellectual understanding.

If you are hurting, it may not be your fault. If you are doing well, it may not be to your credit. “The race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

Theology

Myths Christians Believe (Part 2)

Continuing in my multi-part series on the subject, here’s the latest installment. For Part 1 (myths 1 and 2) and the appropriate footnotes and credits, go here.

Myth 3: It is wrong to doubt.

In support of this myth, I have heard some quote James 1:5-7: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

This passage does not constitute a blanket condemnation of doubt. In this context, James is speaking to the instability of one who has confidence enough to ask God for wisdom (believing that God is able), but simultaneously doubts that God will give it. This double-mindedness is not a fault of the intellect, but rather a fault of the will, an unwillingness to hold fast to what the intellect has already accepted in the face of changing circumstances. I know that airline travel is relatively safe. I have good evidence to support this belief. So if I get nervous when I fly, I am double-minded in the way James condemns. If, however, I have doubts about the safety of a particular mode of travel based on evidence, that doubt is not only justified, it is wise.

Nowhere does the Bible condemn honest, intellectually curious doubt. The Old Testament book of Job expresses that kind of doubt. Thomas expressed that kind of doubt about the resurrection. Jesus expresses that kind of doubt when he prayed before his execution, “Father, if it is possible, remove this cup from me.” If Jesus had doubts about the necessity of his primary mission, then surely our intellectual doubts are equally legitimate, and sometimes necessary. Of course, Jesus also added, “Nevertheless, not my will but Yours be done,” proving that sometimes faith and doubt necessarily coexist. As the theologian Paul Tillich argues, doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt is an unavoidable element of faith (Dynamics of Faith, Chapter 1, section 5).

There is no shame or guilt in honest intellectual doubt. There is, however, guilt associated with the kind of laziness that holds fast to a belief with no evidence to support it. Faith is NOT belief in the absence of evidence. Faith is the conviction to hold on to a belief that logic has convinced you is true, even when it is uncomfortable or inconvenient to do so.

Myth 4: The more exotic the more spiritual.

I work at a Christian college where, in a few days, students will return to campus and begin to compare their summers. Among those who served the poor in India or started a non-profit in Africa, there will inevitably a student or two who shamefully admits that his/her job was to babysit for a family in Atlanta or to work at McDonalds, as if somehow these job choices represent lesser ways to live out the Christian life. I read books advocating for believers to live a radical life. I hear sermons advocating international adoption, life in the inner city, and international missions among unreached people groups, worthy and needed objectives all of them. Yet I fear that these constant refrains run the risk of marginalizing those who live in the suburbs, own a small business, and work hard every day to raise their kids. Normal people can be people of faith too, yes? In fact, if I’m called to campus ministry among the world’s educated elite, and I choose instead to dig wells in the African dessert, haven’t I forsaken my gifts and my calling in a way that dishonors God?

We sometimes forget that Paul, the radical apostle and missionary of the New Testament, also suggested to believers in Thessalonica that they “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4.11).  It took skilled workers, craftsmen, and artists to design the ancient Jewish tabernacle and its accompanying furnishings, yet of these very normal, hard-working people, the book of Exodus (chapter 31) says, “I have filled [them] with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship….” God ordained these workers to the very ordinary task of building things. This was their purpose and calling, and to denigrate the ordinary, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is to denigrate the wisdom of God. Obedience, whether in the exotic or the ordinary, is the appropriate faith response to God.

Biblical Interpretation Campus Ministry Theology

10 Myths That Christians Believe (Part 1)

“Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly.” – 1 Timothy 4:7

Sometimes Christian culture helps popularize some ideas about faith and spirituality that are simply false. These myths are false because either they plainly contradict the testimony of scripture or they run counter to the experiences of wise believers through the centuries. After over 24 years of work in ministry and higher education, I have seen these myths in many forms and know the disillusionment that they can cause. I am sure there are other myths that I still hold, and I can only hope that people wiser than me will eventually help disavow me of those myths, as others have pointed these out to me.

Along those lines, I owe a special thanks to Andy Byers who gave a talk on this subject at Samford University and later wrote a book that includes some of this material. Students have frequently told me that Andy’s talk on this subject was among the most memorable of their college experience, so the idea obviously struck a nerve. I have used the idea (with Andy’s blessing) for talks at Mississippi State University and Southeastern Bible College. I have both borrowed from Andy and inserted my own ideas in the posts that follow. If there’s anything true here, then thank Andy. If there’s anything false, blame me. Because of the length of this particular topic, I will post these myths as a series, with links to each of the earlier posts in the later ones.

Myth #1: The Bible answers all your questions.

While I appreciate the sentiment behind this common remark, it is simply false, primarily because we so often ask the wrong questions. The Bible was written in a culture very different from our own, and so people tend to seek answers to questions that the Bible’s authors never intended to answer. Most biblical authors were Hebrew in ethnicity, culture and thought, but the education system in the U.S. is a by-product of the Western intellectual tradition. If you ask Western questions of an ancient Near Eastern text, you aren’t likely to get coherent answers. Students often look to the Bible for advice on dating. They want guidance for choosing a university, or academic major, or career, or spouse, or political party. They want help solving their problems and sorting out the mess of their everyday lives. But if you use the Bible primarily in these ways, you are likely to find it difficult, boring, confusing, or disappointing.

Teachers know that when students ask, “Will this be on the exam?” that they are missing the point. Similarly, students of the Bible often miss the main point of the Bible. The Bible isn’t really about you and your life and your decisions, as much as it is about God, and God’s plan, and God’s love for his people, and by extension his love for all people, and the extent to which God demonstrates that love in Christ. So the next time you open up the Bible hoping that it will help you decide for whom you should vote in the next election, don’t be angry if your neighbor does the same thing and comes up with a different answer.

Myth #2: God will never give me more than I can handle.

The problem with this notion is that it actually contradicts the Bible outright. One of the Bible’s main characters, a missionary named Paul, had a pretty difficult life during his final years. He did not suffer due to his mistakes, but because of his faithfulness to God’s mission. By his own account, he experienced trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword (Romans 8:35). He survived stoning (an ancient form of execution), several beatings, shackles, chains, stocks, and multiple imprisonments. Writing to his friends in Corinth, Paul admits, “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).

If we take these words seriously, then we cannot accept the idea that God never gives us more than we can handle. Apparently God does, for at least one specific purpose – that we might renounce the myth of self-reliance. We often harbor the notion that we can make it alone, that we don’t need others, that we don’t need God. Unless you take it by faith that something comes from nothing, then at the very least, the world we inhabit and the life we live originates from his creative design. Sometimes it takes pain to remind us of that. It takes situations that we cannot handle to remind us of God, by whose strength we can handle anything. And that really is the point of faith isn’t it, to release our obsession with self and rely on someone else?

[Myths 3-5 will follow in the next post.]

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