When Our Principles Don’t Survive Contact with Pain

There’s an old military adage: “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Its meaning is plain enough. The best-laid, comprehensively PowerPointed plans can and do fall apart when the enemy appears and chaos ensues. After spending my entire life in America’s Evangelical Protestant churches, I’ve discovered the moral corollary to this military maxim: “No principle survives first contact with pain.”

The most recent and notable example is of course Senator Rob Portman’s conversion on the marriage issue. He was for traditional marriage until the personal cost grew high, then his principles changed. But I don’t want to pick on Portman. He was, after all, living the life our church has taught him to live for a very, very long time — and within the very arena, marriage, that the lesson has been made most plain.

For the Christian, marriage should be a covenant relationship, between a man and woman, that is designed to last for life — with the only scriptural grounds for divorce being adultery or abandonment by an unbelieving spouse. Yet our pews are full of divorced Christians, and many of these are not people who’ve divorced, repented of the sin of divorce, then sought forgiveness and redemption (though some are). Instead, they are people who’ve divorced wrongly, sought acceptance of their choice, salve for their emotional pain, and now seek to remain in fellowship — on their terms.

In fact, an entire industry of psychobabble has built up around our millions of “Christian” divorces. Adultery has been redefined to include “financial infidelity” (said one woman of her spendthrift husband) and abandonment morphs into “emotional abandonment” (said another of her aloof spouse). “God doesn’t want me to be miserable” becomes a declarative, authoritative statement, and friends nod along lest they be thought guilty of the one unforgivable sin: judgment.

God the Holy, the Infinite, the Sovereign becomes God the self-help guru, with Biblical passages that feel harsh (“But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler — not even to eat with such a one”) disregarded in favor of the “over-arching themes” of love and compassion — as we define love and compassion.

Much of this is fruit of the poisonous tree of modern evangelism and prosperity theology, which replaces the call to repent with a “What can I do to put you in this car today?” spiritual sales job, designed to demonstrate the many wonderful benefits of belonging to a spiritual community. Good friends! Good casseroles! Good schools! In other words, the church adds everything — and takes only what you’re willing to give. We elevate emotion over obedience.

God calls the Christian to lose his life. God calls the Christian to take up his cross. God calls the Christian to deny self. And not because we are seeking a better deal for ourselves in this life, but because He is God, and we are His people. While America’s Christians remain our nation’s most generous citizens — more willing to give of their time and money than anyone else — I fear that many millions of us are rotting at our core.

I was reminded of the weakness and superficiality of so much of modern faith by a profound and moving conversion story featured in this month’s Christianity Today, which provided some contrast. Titled: “My Train Wreck Conversion: As a leftist lesbian professor, I despised Christians. Then I somehow became one,” Rosaria Butterfield tells of a journey few people make — one where obedience came before understanding, where surrendering to God meant losing everything she’d known before. It’s a powerful story, and ends with these words:

Then, one ordinary day, I came to Jesus, openhanded and naked. In this war of worldviews, Ken was there. Floy was there. The church that had been praying for me for years was there. Jesus triumphed. And I was a broken mess. Conversion was a train wreck. I did not want to lose everything that I loved. But the voice of God sang a sanguine love song in the rubble of my world. I weakly believed that if Jesus could conquer death, he could make right my world. I drank, tentatively at first, then passionately, of the solace of the Holy Spirit. I rested in private peace, then community, and today in the shelter of a covenant family, where one calls me “wife” and many call me “mother.”

I have not forgotten the blood Jesus surrendered for this life.

And my former life lurks in the edges of my heart, shiny and still like a knife.

Jesus didn’t die to become our therapist, and God is not our life coach. Our joy is in service to Him — wherever that may lead and whatever He may ask.

This article first appeared here on National Review, where it’s generated a lot of conversation.

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  • Jada Edwards

    Highly recommend the book “A Long Way Off: Lessons from the Prodigal’s Father” by Steve Sherriffs, which addresses this topic head on!

  • Mom of Four

    Well said. I am also concerned about this. I read a book called THE DIVORCE CULTURE that left me shocked to my core, and that was written in about 1994. We have abandoned marriage and left our children to be raised by others. And now we wonder why those very children never marry even when they have children. Marriage means nothing to them because it had meant so little to us. But now our children are absolutely committed to men being permitted to marry other men and women marrying women. Marriage is meaningless to them, so why not hand it out to whoever really wants it. Then, of course, we’ll need to pay for their fertility “challenges”since they deserve to have children even though heterosexuals are too busy with their careers and their world travel to bear and rear children. People like my husband and I, married for nearly 25 years with no divorces, raising and paying for our own children as my husband has supported our family, are quickly becoming the minority. I receive plenty of contempt from the world for having no income in spite of my college degree. My 15 year old daughter was asked by a friend at school what I do for a living. My daughter said, “My mom is a professional mom, and you can tell she’s good at it just by looking at me.” So many of these kids are being raised in homes where their parents aren’t engaged in parenting, or where they are too afraid of being “judgmental” that they won’t give their children any real guidance in life.

  • Lila

    Interesting word in the middle of your Pauline quote:
    “not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed”
    – I stopped at the word, “greed” and wondered why I would continue when that word describes so much about the prosperity gospel and the God-as-my-personal-servant attitude.

  • rumitoid

    Christianiity is a train wreck, especially here in America. Most principles seem not to survive a wave or wink from worldliness, let alone pain, the Prospertarians being the chief offenders but with ample company.
    I thoroughly agree with this article and know it was meant to deal with just one of the problems rampant in the Church, but there are a few areas I would like to add that barely get any attention, except derision as liberal theology.
    Politics is an entanglement which is not intended for those who have been “separated out.” We are strangers in a strange land…but not for the vast majority of Christians, who know the possible pain and cost for being a “stranger.” The ugliness displayed by so many, many Christians toward both the president and Democrats these last four years at least, is a shame that will not be soon forgotten. That alone should be enough to wake us up, seeing as being friends with the world and at enmity with God was not.
    The avid support of American wars and capitalism is another disgrace. Flags on the altar? Patriotism is, for me, a sin. And it is not possible to love our neighbor through a sniperscope. Yet the pain and the cost of not supporting these wars and capitalism is known, such as what it would mean to be a conscientious objector.

    I want to thank you for this article because this will most likely cost you. Speaking out against divorce today is probable as unpopular as speaking out against political involvement or war.