4 Ways Fear Disguises Itself as Responsibility
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and anyone who fears has not been perfected in love.
1 John 4.18
One early morning last September, I was fending off a panic attack while driving through the endless cornfields of southern Illinois. Maybe it was a rush of fatigue from getting up before it was light, or the crazy-making influence of being on the road for four days straight. Either way, I suddenly felt my position on the surface of the world was teetering like a circus bear dancing on a ball.
I called my pastor back in San Diego. I told him I was terrified–of my car breaking down, of running out of money, of getting hurt without health insurance, of all the things that could happen that I couldn’t even imagine.
“Those things could happen,” he said. “But they could always have happened, you know. It was just easier to ignore those possibilities when you lived among your friends and family. The only thing that’s different now, is that you have a front-row seat.”
The Western church has nearly always struggled with interpreting earthly safety and prosperity as a thumbs-up from God. I’d lay money that this fallacy is what perpetuates many of the church’s chronic problems: divorce, materialism, gossip, abuses in leadership.
If people were to quit chasing comfortable, one-size-fits-all lives in the name of holiness, and instead seek God’s will in the desires and talents He gave them, they’d be forced to refine their recognition of His voice in their lives. Rather than rely on the assurance of conformity, they’d have only His Spirit to guide their choices.
I’m saying “they;” I should be saying “I.” In fact, I’ve been avoiding writing this blog post for most of the day, because it seemed more prudent to comb through LinkedIn for the kind of work that I loathe, but which pays a lot more than the work I love.
Join me in raising a big, collective glass to the obliteration of fear as a basis for making life decisions, starting with stripping it of the spiritual language it uses as a hiding place.
“I don’t want [fill-in-the-blank] to become an idol in my life.”
I’ve long since stopped being surprised at how I, and others I’ve seen, get right up to the porch of what we’ve always wanted, ring the doorbell, and then run away. Blame it on the lizard brain, or on some deep masochistic instinct planted by the Fall. Everybody seems to have this cut-and-run reflex when presented with the answer to their prayers.
Disposable things — iPhones, jewelry, mediocre jobs and relationships — are easy to lose. Annoying, sure, especially if losing them hurts our pride. But such things are infinitely replaceable.
But when you get what you really want… well, there’s only one of those. Screw that up, and what do you have left?
Put another way, if the donkey reaches the carrot on the stick, does he quit walking?
So we find ways to keep that carrot leading us forward. We can couch it in spiritual language, calling a desire an “idol,” or saying that we’re giving something up for God’s sake.
Of course, these can be genuine acts of faith. But sometimes they’re just an excuse to forego God’s purpose for you because you’re freaked out by your own inadequacy.
“I don’t want to store up treasures on earth.”
What do Bob Dylan, Switchfoot, and my dad all have in common? They’ve made famous the phrase “Happy is a yuppie word.”
To which I’d respectfully respond, “Whatever, guys.”
I vaguely remember hearing of a precedent in church history for feeling guilty over one’s happiness. (I hate to blame things on the Puritans, but I feel like it might have been them.) Anyway, it’s still fairly rampant in the church, the mentality that our happiness pisses God off.
If we really knew God, we wouldn’t be afraid of this. Which leads me to believe that we’re not so much worried that we’ll offend God with our happiness, as we are afraid that He’ll take corrective measures by taking what we love away from us because it makes us too happy.
So this leaves two options. We can try to have a relationship with someone who we secretly believe hates to see us happy (meanwhile dealing with the impulse to blame Him for our unhappiness). Or we can make strides toward happiness at the risk that God might take it away/let us ruin it. (Which, if you believe in the sovereignty of God, kind of amounts to the same thing.)
The advantage of going the second way is that you’ll find out the truth, about yourself and about God. I think that’s healthier. You could also end up living in a way that you truly enjoy.
“I’m preparing for marriage/kids/the ministry/[fill in the blank].”
Some very godly people will disagree with me on this. They can write their own blog posts.
A friend of mine was recently agonizing over the decision whether to stick with his grad studies at a very expensive university, or to take a job playing music on the other side of the country.
“So are you going to take it?” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I want to. But I keep thinking that this degree would be a really good thing down the road, if I get married and have kids.”
Here’s the DL on my friend: he’s very musically talented, he’s sick of the finance job he’s held down for a number of years, he wants to get away from the area he grew up in, and there’s nobody in his social circle that he’s interested in dating. I cannot stress enough how theoretical this marriage and kids are, for which he’s delaying this exciting risk. Yet there are people around him that call what he’s doing ”wisdom.”
I don’t care how church-friendly your goals are. Making decisions solely on behalf of something that doesn’t exist is irresponsible. It’s like keeping your car parked out on the street, to make room in your garage for the boat you can’t afford to buy.
It’s not just an irresponsible use of your present resources. It’s also irresponsible behavior toward your future goals. I think of my friend’s theoretical kids being raised by a father who put off his dream at the opportune time to fulfill it, months and maybe years in advance of their arrival…that’s a counseling session waiting to happen.
“I’m waiting on God.”
Nobody waits silently. Some defer their dreams with an aura of cheerful peace that even they hardly understand. Others sigh and moan their way into the hearts of a hundred other frustrated church folks; together, they may even pool their sense of entitlement into an accountability group.
The difference between these forms of “patience” is something that an elder in my church calls “holding God’s goodness hostage.”
Basically, it means stiff-arming all of God’s other possible blessings for you, until He gives you the thing you want right now. Think of a kid opening a billion presents on Christmas morning, then refusing to play with them because he didn’t get a pony.
Personally, I prefer not to take a step forward toward what I want without a fail-safe guarantee of the results–preferably, good times and easy money. All this “patience” yields is a lot of shoegaze blog posts about my noble frustration that God is holding out on me, responding with silence to my prayers of “when” and “why?”
Really, though, these weren’t prayers. They were the terms of a standoff.
While I can’t find a verse to back this up, I feel confident saying that I don’t think God does standoffs. He has nothing to prove.
People talk about this moment of clarity that comes after they have a near-death experience, where they realize that, despite all their precautions, they have no control over the moment of their death. The only thing they can control is the way they spend their time until it comes.
At bottom, every fear is rational. Whatever it is, it could happen, you know. How would you prefer to live, until it finally does?
Consumer culture and the mission of God
Photos by Geoff Heith
The church had shaggy green carpet, and a musty smell to boot, but that didn’t seem to bother the worshippers. That Sunday morning, as my family passed through the glass doors of the old brick building, we were greeted by smiles and gospel choruses. The foyer bustled with people coming and going between services — each making their way from the engraved wooden pews to their cars outside, but not without hugging a friend and sharing a story or two.
We heard various accents as we were ushered to our seats. The congregation synchronized their tapping feet with the retro beats. The music, led by an African American woman, was accompanied by horns, drums, keys, and a choir. “Whose report will you believe!?” she sang in call. We responded in shouts of praise: “We shall believe the report of the Lord!” “His report says I am healed, His report says I am filled, His report says I am free, His report says, victory!”
After upcoming events were announced and offering plates were passed around, the pastor approached the pulpit to preach a sermon. But before he opened his Bible, he said, “Despite what has recently transpired in this church, the Lord is with us, and we are stronger than ever.” I soon learned that he had been promoted from youth pastor to lead pastor overnight. A few weeks prior to our arrival, the former lead pastor was asked to resign for having an affair.
The youth group crumbled in the wake, but for the most part, the congregation held strong. Despite the news, everyone in my family confirmed that we were called by God to be a part of this new church community. Since we were new to the area, we had been looking for a church to call home. Some churches we visited were extravagant and modern, others archaic and empty. Some were vibrant and friendly, and still others lacked any sign of Christ’s love in the lives of its members. Yet this urban church, warts and all, was where we felt the call of God to serve and belong.
Today, with several styles available within each church tradition, how do you find the right one? There’s the deep church, the emerging church, the modern church, the missional church, the seeker-sensitive church, the high church, the low church, and the community church. Before automobiles were invented, it was easy to pick a church; you simply attended the parish closest to your home. Now with highways and subways, the options are endless. So how do you determine the right place to attend church? Some people choose a church based on theological categories, even within the same denomination, but most church-seekers are more inclined to choose based on visceral forces. Some settle on a church because of the quality of its music and preaching. Other seekers attend a church because of developing friendships or proximity to home. And still others just follow the latest fad.
Given the complexity of finding the right church, it only makes sense to consult the Bible, since it has a lot to say about the gathering of God’s people. In this way, we will be equipped to critique a few dangerous traps in contemporary church-hunting that have resulted from consumer culture.
Tweets and Tabloids
The old adage in stock trading is “buy the rumour, sell the fact.” In other words, optimistic rumours lead to heavy buying, and hard facts (usually not-so-impressive facts) lead to major sell-offs. Sometimes our churches face similar treatment. The masses tend to flock to trending churches, hip worship bands, and charismatic preachers. Vibrant people follow and re-tweet every move. This sounds like great news for the Christian movement, but what happens when there is bad news? The same people quickly “un-follow,” sell out, and move on. It’s the age we live in — where being current on all the gossip and news is as important as the news itself. Bad news in a church can bring about a fire sale of membership, abandoning the church to dust and mice. What they fail to recognize is that bad news can also force a congregation to come together in greater unity.
Unity in Christ is the greatest weapon against gossip and hype. Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians that we have all been called into one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism. In Corinthians, he reminds us that we all have a contribution to make to the body of Christ. God calls us to a community, and furthermore to a new family. Jesus rhetorically asks, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” and answers, “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” No matter the news — whether good or bad — God calls us to stick together (Ephesians 4:3). Some people leave one church to go to another because a member hurt them somehow, but that is the very moment God calls us to forgive. It’s much easier to find another church than to be a peacemaker and look for solutions. We will not be so quick to abandon ship at the sound of bad news if we view the church as a family from which we cannot easily divorce ourselves.
The Demand for Entertainment
The act of choosing a church based on the style or quality of music and preaching comes dangerously close to a market decision, where the products on the stage or in the pulpit are scrutinized for value to the consumer. Our capitalist societies are inextricably linked to market values — supply and demand — and in this church-hunting context, these forces are all-too-easily transferred. Consumerism in North America is not declining, despite the recession. Instead, consumers have simply chosen to be more or less frugal. Those who apply this conceptual framework to their hunt for churches are not unlike bargain shoppers. When their desires are not met, they hop between churches until they feel just right. Churches are reduced to what they produce for the consumer. Consumers gladly pay, or add money to the offering plate, when they are satisfied or entertained. When dissatisfied, they may withhold their giving and leave begrudgingly.
Jesus tells his disciples, “I don’t come to be served, but to serve.” We must therefore shift our view from egocentric to exocentric; that is, from self-centeredness to other-centeredness. In our selfishness we desire personal entertainment and fulfillment, which together drive our consumerist culture. Entertainment isn’t bad in itself, but it should not be the driving force of our decision-making. God calls us to reach out and make a difference in the lives of our neighbours, and to look out for their best interests before our own. “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple . . .” (Matthew 10:42). The interesting thing about the allusion to giving a cup of cold water is that it is something we would so readily take for ourselves. Jesus asks us to think of others as greater than ourselves. Therefore, church-going isn’t just about what we can get, but about what we can give. Since Christ has graciously given us life, we are now participants in giving joy and life to the world.
With gas prices reaching all-time highs, it’s understandable that people want to drive their vehicles less and take public transit more. A person will likely choose a job closer to home to avoid a long commute. Some families will even forgo their yearly road-trip vacation to save on the cost of transportation. Furthermore, time itself is becoming an increasingly precious commodity, and less time on the road (or at work) means more time doing what we love. Many Christians decide where to attend church based upon the same reasoning. Recently, a churchgoer was overheard mentioning she chose a particular Sunday morning gathering because the service lasts only one hour; it fit nicely into her scheduled day off. While we make everyday decisions based on priorities and opportunity costs, is it right to choose our church using thesame decision-making process?
Here we have a problem of worldview. When we view ourselves as children of God, who has a limitless supply of everything we need, then decisions based first and foremost on cost come up short on faith. It is one thing to be a good steward of time and money, but another thing entirely to use it as a basis for choosing which church to attend. If God is calling us to a particular church, we must trust he will provide the means for us to serve there. The Apostle Paul writes, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:7-8). Cost itself is a genuine factor in the Christian life — it’s costly with regard to time and money, family and friends, and personal wants and desires (Luke 14:25-33). When we let the gas gauge or long-winded preacher determine where we attend church, we are faced with the danger of ignoringGod’s input altogether.
The church with the shaggy green carpet was not the closest church to my home, and it needed a fresh coat of paint, but God called us there. Our commute to church and the cost of getting there are incidental, compared to the leading of the Spirit. We must remember that where the Lord leads us, he also provides for us.
My own pastor once said that we minister to a rootless, transient, and dare I say fickle society. It is true that today, many people refuse to be tied down to anything. However, commitment makes all the difference in lasting relationships. Friendships take time to build. Healthy marriages sweeten with age. If we think of ourselves as trees, and our commitments like roots, it is easy to see why staying in one place for a while is the key to significant growth. We might not always find ourselves in the most popular churches, but that’s okay, since God is more concerned with our commitment to Him.
Lesslie Newbigin writes in Discovering Truth in a Changing World that the church’s mission is not to win a popularity contest. The church’s mission is rooted in ancient history; it has outlasted 2000 years of totalitarian regimes, mighty empires, and philosophical systems. Newbigin adds, “Within twenty years the things that today seem to occupy the whole horizon of public thinking will become half-remembered phantoms, mere ephemera, of a past age. But the church will still be there . . . The church is a sign and an instrument — a foretaste of the kingdom of God.”
“The church cannot be separated from its universal calling to be God’s mission to the world. Every confessing local church is privileged to be sent by the Triune God to fulfil His mission of revelation to every tribe and nation. “Mission is not something the church does; mission is the essence of the church . . . ” said Dr. Ross Hastings in a 2008 course at Regent College called Christian Thought and Culture. (His forthcoming book on the subject, Missional God, Missional Church: Hope for Re-evangelizing the West, is anticipated Fall 2012).
I emailed Dr. Hastings for his thoughts about the influence of consumerism on today’s churchgoer. I asked, “Instead of choosing a church based on commute or trend, should we not ask the Lord, ‘Where are you calling me to serve?’ as part of the overall mission of God?”
He promptly fired back an email with the following response.
“The greatest challenge we face is actually wrapped up in our language — we speak about going to church when we are the church . . . We also employ a consumerist mindset which we have uncritically imbibed from our prevailing mall culture, and we apply it to church. What if we stopped asking ’who is the preacher?’ or ‘what’s the worship music like?’ and started asking ’how can I be the church and help others in my church be the church?’”
Dr. Hastings pointed out that our personal identity and the corporate identity of the church are related. “We don’t exist as the church for ourselves. If we understand the missional identity of the church we will understand our own missional identity as persons and as contributors to the life of the church, and then as agents of mission, in its broadest scope to the world. I honestly believe that one major cure for consumerism in the church is to make the Lord’s Supper the centre of the church. Then we’d stop coming to consume church or the pastor, and we’d start coming to church to meet Jesus and consume him, and be consumed by him!”
A beautiful aspect of the Lord’s Supper is the way it unites all believers together in Christ. Our churches are meant to be intergenerational — full of children, the elderly, and everyone in between — with both age-specific and cross-generational ministries. One of the many benefits of having the older generation in the local church is their wisdom and experience. Most of them have passed through dark valleys and experienced God’s repeated love and faithfulness.
When we are plugged in to a specific community of believers, we allow ourselves to be known. Our gifts are developed as part of the local church’s mission, and we find a safe place to be mentored by elders. If we leave every time things get ugly, we’ll never know the victories God wants to bring us. King David cried, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me.” Many of us try to circumvent life’s difficulties when God wants us to steadfastly endure. For this reason, it is important we allow God to lead us to the family of believers that will help us along our faith journey, rather than looking for the most comfortable, entertaining, or convenient church.
Consequently, our question ought to be “Where is God calling me to be and to serve?” rather than “Which church should I choose to attend?”
My family looked forward to the church with the shaggy green carpet every Sunday morning. Despite its imperfections, we never thought to leave it, and by choice we shared that space with our new faith family. I was only in junior high school then, but my faith found strong roots. My dad and I served breakfast to the homeless on Sunday mornings, and I attended my youth pastor’s program on missionary evangelism. I regularly confessed my sins to my brothers in Christ, and found comfort in our growth together.
The mission of God to reveal and redeem himself was realized in that urban church, where saints and sinners met with his grace. Churches will never be perfect until the coming of Christ, because people are not yet made perfect. Our calling to the mission of God is to be the church, both inside and outside of its cracking brick walls.
Photo by Geoff Heith
I think we need to remember two really important lessons from Scripture when thinking about this. First is the existence of Satan. We don’t talk about him much, but the Bible teaches that when Satan was cast out of God’s presence, he was sent to earth. Earth then became a sort of battleground between God and Satan. So when we think that God is in control, ordaining everything that happens, that’s not exactly the whole picture. Satan has some control too, and he is trying to mess with God’s plans by bringing chaos and destruction wherever he can. We are not living in a perfect world with a God who just likes to torture us with bad things: we are living on a battleground, and their are casualties because of this. Sometimes it doesn’t seem fair, but that’s just how things are.
Second, remember that God has a plan for our lives, but he also gave us free will. He wants the best for us, but he doesn’t force us to do anything. When we choose to do drugs, we are choosing Satan’s path of destruction over God’s path of life, and sometimes those choices have consequences.
This kid I was talking too also mentioned he had a friend die in a car accident. I asked him, ‘Would you rather that nobody be allowed to drive cars?’ Sometimes, for the sake of our freedom, bad things happen. Would having no freedom be a better option? We have the freedom to listen to God’s voice, or Satan’s voice: God’s path, or Satan’s path. We make the choices, and we have to live with them.
Fortunately, even when we screw up, that’s not the end of the story. God made a way for us to reverse our bad decisions, and come to know him. He also has a plan of redeeming creation and resurrecting us to new life, to live with him in his new kingdom, where he says he will set a table for us with our enemies. God is working on a project of building a peaceful world, and not even death can stop him.
So in the midst of our hurts, we can have hope that we will see our friends again, and that death will not have the final word. Is there any other way of looking at a friend’s death that doesn’t end in despair?
Finally, I asked him what his favorite movie was. He mentioned that it was Forrest Gump. I asked him if Forrest Gump would be interesting if nothing bad happened in it. He said ‘probably not.’
Bad things can happen in good stories. You don’t judge a story by the bad things that happen in the middle: you judge it by how it ends. And our ending is still to come.