Resolved: 20 Decisions for Surviving the Church with Your Faith Intact

Resolved: 20 Decisions for Surviving the Church with Your Faith Intact June 12, 2018

Jesus famously said that the road that leads to life is narrow and only a few find it. So we can’t leave it to others to be mindful of our path—that’s our responsibility. In a world where the public expression of Christianity seems to be lost in the woods, we need to be very intentional about the way we choose to live.  If we don’t, we’ll end up expressing attitudes and behaviors that make us unteachable and disagreeable—and ultimately unchristlike.

Here are 20 resolutions I’ve made so that I can hold onto my faith (and my sanity) in the midst of the church:

Resolution #1: I will not confuse discernment and judgment. I refuse to devalue anyone based on my convictions or preferences.

“And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.”—Philippians 1:9–10

I remember being distracted as I preached on judgment one Sunday morning. I was talking about how we always seem to be sizing each other up and trying to decide who’s in and who’s out. Throughout the message, a woman was becoming more and more agitated. Eventually, she shot up, noisily grabbed her stuff, and stormed out. As she left, she yelled, “shame on you!”

For a lot of Christians, judgment is an important responsibility. In fact, many people assume that orthodoxy revolves around whether or not you cast judgment on the right things.

We all struggle with a constant internal dialogue of judgment. We size people up and accept and dismiss them by whatever criteria we find most important: fat, skinny, smart, dumb, conservative, progressive, gay, straight, etc.

There’s a reason the serpent tempts Eve with the promise of becoming like God. Eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil puts us in the position of making judgments that aren’t ours to make.

Judgment makes us God over the object we judge. And that’s why it’s not our business. We don’t have to look at everything through a simple binary of good or bad. The world is too complicated for us to do so.

But we’re still called to be discerning. The difference between judging and discerning lies in deciding which behaviors we find acceptable or harmful for us (and to a lesser degree for others).

This is Paul’s point when he says, “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive” (1 Corinthians 10:23).

I am much better at discerning what’s constructive than I am what’s good or bad. The problem is that a lot perfectly good things are harmful to me, even though they might be harmless for you. Judging that Oreos are good affords me the opportunity to eat them all with no regard for their benefit.

In this meshuga world, we need to be wise about ideas, systems, behaviors, practices, and legislation that has the potential to harm ourselves or others. The challenge comes in doing so in a way that doesn’t devalue individuals that Christ seeks to reconcile with himself.

This doesn’t mean that I always have to be “nice” or that I can never be angry. It means that I can never write others off as worthless or irredeemable.

Those kind of judgments aren’t mine to make, I don’t have the goodness, the wisdom, the knowledge, or the authority.

Resolution #2: I will not shy away from being the dissenting voice to keep the peace. The majority opinion is not necessarily the right opinion, and I won’t be shamed into silence.

We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”—2 Corinthians 10:5

This resolution is not about regularly and loudly sharing whatever opinion or preference jumps into your head. It’s not about bickering over nonsense like carpet colors or musical styles. The church has wasted too much valuable time bickering about ridiculous garbage.

This about not being silent when you feel like you hold an important, but unpopular, position.

It takes real bravery to speak up when you feel that the everyone will disagree. When you’re in a group of gossipy people. When everyone is on board with an idea that’s going to be a disaster. When the common opinion or perspective hurts and abuses others. There comes a time to throw caution to the winds and yell, “Enough!”

If you truly want to share in Christ’s sufferings, you do it by going against the grain. You do it by risking the alienation that comes with resisting the status quo. History is replete with examples of the majority being dead wrong. So don’t be afraid to speak up—even if your voice shakes.

The moment you do, you’ll discover all the others who were too scared to raise their voice. Be the person that others can look to for courage and inspiration.

Resolution #3: I will not meddle in the lives of others where there is no relationship and invitation.

If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler.” 1 Peter 4:15

It’s one thing to say, “My faith will not allow me to do that.” But it’s completely out of bounds for me to say, “Because of my faith, you shouldn’t be allowed to do that.”

My convictions are precisely that—my convictions.

It doesn’t matter how passionately I believe that I could make better decisions than someone else. If I haven’t built a relationship with them, I’ll keep it to myself.

To be invited into someone’s story is an awesome privilege. So I won’t use “love” as a pretext to pry into the affairs of others. Instead, I choose to merely love them until they open their life up to me . . . and even then, I will tread lightly.

Resolution #4: I will not focus on outward behavior over inward transformation — in myself or others.

First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.”—Matthew 23:26

Every religious group develops its behavioral expectations for holiness. It’s easy to use external behavior as a measurement for spirituality.

But the fact that you can mimic these expectations without having any spark of spiritual vibrancy makes them extremely problematic. Too often, the proofs we demand of each other become roles we play—and the better you are at faking it, the higher you climb in the ranks.

We toss around the word “hypocrite” a lot. To us, it’s someone who intentionally deceives others. But when Jesus used it, he was talking about stage actors.

We train each other to fake righteousness, and over time, we believe the act is legitimate. But when true goodness is required of us (the kind that requires sacrifice and depth), everyone discovers that we’re bankrupt.

If you can follow all the rules and not be close to God, then it seems likely that there are those who appear to be messy on the outside who have an honest and vigorous relationship with God.

Learning to develop eyes that see past the window dressing of external godliness in yourself and others is so critical. Without that skill, the church is nothing more than a hypocrite factory.

Resolution #5: I will not make conformity, theological or otherwise, a prerequisite for community.

Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Romans 15:7

A friend of mine was recently asked to read a 200+ page book from the 1960s as part of the process of joining a local church. After reading the book, she must sit through an interview with the church elders to determine whether she’s aligned with their vision and theology enough to be a member of their community.

This seems like an incredibly un-gospel way to do community. Is it possible that unity is more important than uniformity?

The Celts thought so. Instead of embracing the Roman model (1. Present the Message, 2. Call for Decision, 3. Welcome into Fellowship), they revolutionized Ireland with another method:

  • Establish community
  • Serve and engage
  • Invite belief
  • Welcome commitment

Time after time I’ve seen how a loving community can naturally and organically transform people’s perspectives. But I’ve never seen it work where conformity was expected first.

When homogeneity is required, it forces people to hide the truth about who they are. And community is an impossible expectation when people are pretending to be something they’re not.

Resolution #6: I will not exalt any theological principle or duty above love.

The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.“—Galatians 5:6b

Soteriology, eschatology, pneumatology, apologetics: there’s no end to the theological issues people get passionate—and divisive—about.

It’s too easy to become entangled in never-ending study, reflection, and disagreements, believing that we’re advancing God’s work in the world when we’re not.

Love is not some small minded ideal that we bypass on the way to weightier theological principles. Love is PhD-level Christianity. In our pursuit of Jesus, we will spend the rest of our lives learning to love more passionately, intimately, intentionally, and transformationally.

There is no higher call.

Resolution #7: I will not penalize others for being honest and transparent.

Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” — Ephesians 4:25

True transformation only happens when we create an atmosphere of openness and genuine trust. People need to know that they can share their struggles and failures without fearing a backlash of judgmentalism and gossip.

Our tendency to immediately condemn every behavior or attitude that displeases us forces people into hiding. They either abandon community entirely or fashion a false self that conforms to our expectations. Either choice makes true and healthy renewal impossible.

Honesty is a dangerous business. You’re not always going to like what you see or hear, and you’re not always going to know how to respond. That’s okay. Our job in community is to provide a safe place where everyone can “walk in the light as he is in the light.” (1 John 1:7)

If you’ve been in the church for any amount of time, you know that it’s hard to find people who practice courageous acceptance (although it isn’t difficult to find a church who says they do).

It has to start with us.

Resolution #8: I will not conflate Christianity and nationalism.

Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, And are regarded as a speck of dust on the scales . . .” — Isaiah 40:15

The Kingdom of God was at the center of Christ’s message. In fact, if you don’t read the New Testament through the lens of a coming kingdom that’s replacing all others, you’ll never truly understand it.

To follow Jesus is to exchange our citizenship. We now take up physical residence in the countries of our birth as ambassadors. We’re travelers and sojourners here, and we can’t afford to confuse the broken, faulty kingdoms of man with our true home.

It’s wonderful to love my homeland, but it’s not my home. By prioritizing my citizenship in Christ’s kingdom, I gain a better perspective on my place in the world—and I recognize the diabolical counterfeits that compete for my allegiance.

Resolution #9: I will not behave as if truth only exists in my denominational or interpretive cul-de-sac.

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”—1 Corinthians 2:2

Our community and culture shape our views. We believe that we’ve come to our conclusions through careful study, but that’s often not the case. Most of our firmly held opinions and positions aren’t discovered—they’re inherited.

There are more than 30,000 Christian denominations and a myriad of theological frameworks. To assume that you’ve just stumbled upon the one that has everything right is absurd.

Luckily, it’s not by our “rightness” that we’re held fast by Christ, but by his mercy.

When you carefully examine your non-negotiables, you find that there’s not as many as you once imagined. The key is to hold onto your convictions firmly, but with the humility and self-awareness that it might be you who’s mistaken.

Resolution #10: I will not confuse forgiveness and trust.

Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”—Colossians 3:13

Scripture tells us that because we have been forgiven, we’re to forgive others. This is wonderful and great, but the way it’s been implemented in the church has caused a lot of undue pain in the lives of many.

Too often, the church has heaped all the work of relationship maintenance onto the people who have been wronged. But is that the gospel’s intention?

What exactly is forgiveness and how can we it in a way that doesn’t put us in a position to be continually victimized? Are the words “forgive” and “forget” synonymous?

To forgive someone is to release them from your debt. It frees you from the need for retribution. But it is not a promise to trust them, and it doesn’t instantly restore your relationship.

I might forgive you for stealing from me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to trust you to house-sit. I may forgive you for the wrong that you’ve done and I might release you from your outstanding debt, but that’s not the end.

You still owe it to yourself and me to pay back what you’ve stolen. It’s just that restoration is now a choice that you have to express your sorrow and not a requirement. If your response to my forgiveness is to assume that we’re square, it’s probably a sign that your despair isn’t entirely sincere.

This is what Scripture calls “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Mt. 3:8). Forgiveness is a bridge that allows for the promise of a renewed relationship. It’s on the forgivee to put in the post-forgiveness work of restoring and rebuilding trust so that both parties feel comfortable crossing that bridge.

Resolution #11: I will not treat people as stereotypes.

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”—Ephesians 2:14

When we label people by their race, gender, profession, religion or any other facet of their personhood and use that information to dictate how to treat them, we have diminished the kingdom.

I imagine God prides himself on the diversity of people he has created. Every attempt of ours to generalize and stereotype others depreciates all of humanity in a lazy attempt to simplify and qualify traits, types, and groups.

No one deserves to be a stereotype. No one.
Everyone deserves to be adored or disliked on their own merits.

Resolution #12: I will not shy away from difficult questions or apologize for my doubts.

Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.”—Mark 9:24

Faith isn’t the same as certainty. In fact, I’d wager that there are areas where we all struggle with doubt and confusion (whether we’ll admit it or not).

The problem is that many churches penalize us for our doubts. There’s an unspoken expectation that we should have no area of our faith where we’re unconvinced or unsure. Every question mark needs to be beaten into an exclamation point.

When I look at the gospels, I get the feeling that the Pharisees could have used a little more doubt. They would have benefited by not having all the answers. It was their complete confidence in their perspective that caused so much misery for everyone.

Imagine staring the truth in the face and missing it because it doesn’t conform to your expectations. In fact, imagine putting truth to death because you think you know better.

I trust that, by being open and forthright with my doubts and faith struggles, I give permission to others to be comfortable with their own questions—and we can all stumble out of the dark together.

Resolution #13 I will not cultivate a theology that ignores the experience of Christians around the world.

We are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming.”—Ephesians 4:14

I remember sitting with a friend and his wife and listening to them say that Christ had reversed the curse and it was against his will that any of his children suffer poverty or sickness. If we had enough faith, we wouldn’t suffer.

I remember thinking that means that only people in industrialized nations have enough God-pleasing faith to keep them free of poverty and illness. That just can’t be right.

Jesus says it plainly: blessed are the poor, the hungry, the mourners, the persecuted. How can they be blessed if the reason for their struggle is their lack of faith?

Did the worldwide infant mortality rate fall because we just have more faith than our predecessors? Do drought and famine simply spring up in areas where church attendance is low?

The truth is that our comfortable, affluent lifestyles might be more of a judgment against us than a reward.

An essential question for assessing any theology should always be: does this make any sense for anyone outside of my cultural frame of reference? If the answers no, it’s nonsense.

Resolution #14: I will not get embroiled in arguments that reduce complexities into simple black and white issues.

“’For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord.”—Isaiah 55:8

Christianity’s relationship to the Bible creates some unique challenges. Instead of using Scripture’s narrative to teach us how to think, we come to it to be told what to think.

When we interpret Scripture in a way that yanks modern prescriptions from ancient texts, we end up oversimplifying complex and vital issues.

It’s important to be a person that genuinely listens to the questions, frustrations, and struggles of others. Providing simple formulaic responses tells others that you lack empathy and understanding.

Life is complex, and the Bible doesn’t provide an answer to every problem. Faith is about learning to trust God in the midst of life’s complexities, and not about pretending they don’t exist.

Resolution #15: I will not serve or do good for recognition. Whenever possible, I will practice spiritual and benevolent behavior in secret.

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.“—Matthew 6:1

An atheist friend of mine once told me that all charitable behavior was ultimately selfish. People either do nice things for applause or because it makes that feel like a good person. Either way, he argued, no one is benevolent out of pure altruism.

I think my friend was irritated with me because I didn’t disagree. I got the impression that I was supposed to be scandalized by such an idea. But the same argument can be made from Scripture.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus communicates how crucial it is that the vulnerable are cared for. But because of our selfish nature, he uses both a carrot and a stick (Matt. 25:31-46) to motivate us.

Regardless of the incentives and threats of punishment, most Christians are still pretty negligent in the benevolence department. And when we do anything good, we still fight the temptation not to tell everyone about it to get an immediate pat on the back. Doing good doesn’t give us the endorphin rush that we get by being told we’re good.

Ultimately, charitable giving is one of the greatest expressions of my faith. The things that I truly believe about Scripture are identified in my willingness to share with others—and by what I do afterward.

I don’t get exasperated when my secular friends need to update me in a Facebook post every time they do something nice for someone. I get it. It’s nice to have confirmation from others that you’re awesome.

I just want a faith that recognizes that an “atta-boy” from Jesus is going to feel 100 percent better than the one I get from the people around me. And I kind of want to know what it’s like to have God in my debt (Prov. 19:17).

Resolution #16: I will not demand that Scripture conforms to the theological framework I’ve already embraced.

And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.“–John 8:32

I’m pretty color blind. I can’t tell the difference between a lot of browns and greens. So I have to trust my wife to help me discern appropriate outfits. I’ll look at a sweater and swear it’s brown, and discover it’s not. Now that I’ve had to conclude that I could be wrong, I compensate by getting other feedback.

I wish people were like that with the Bible.

I’m not a relativist. I believe various biblical authors intend to tell us something specific. I just distrust our ability to always discern what it is. We might look at a verse convicted that it’s “brown,” but in truth, it’s “green.”

We have to negotiate a lot of barriers if we want to interpret the Bible rightly. There are all sorts of boundaries between us and the text. We have to navigate impediments like language, geography, culture, literary expectations, and just usual differences in communication.

But the biggest problem we have is that we approach Scripture already convinced that we completely understand the message. Like the Pharisees, the truth is unable to shock, surprise, or delight us because we’re already sure that we know it. We no longer read Scripture for illumination—we come to it for confirmation.

There are 30,000+ denominations out there—each with its own form of color blindness. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with the concept of denominations, they can put us at a disadvantage. Once you associate yourself with them, you associate yourself with their understanding of the theological color spectrum. And it becomes incredibly hard for the Bible to tell you something’s green when you’re surrounded by people who’ve labeled it brown.

There’s a challenge to holding our convictions loosely enough that we’ll allow the Bible to convince us we’re wrong—many never find the balance.

Resolution #17: I will not succumb to a treadmill of perfectionism, or expect it from others.

My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.“—2 Corinthians 12:9

It doesn’t matter who you are; being a person is hard. We’re all beset every day by a million little expectations. Most of them aren’t particularly life-threatening on their own, but together it feels like you’re being stabbed to death by toothpicks.

Instead of alleviating these expectations, Christianity often amplifies them, creating a whole next-level set of demands. We may not know anyone who lives up to 1 Corinthians 13’s definition of love, but we expect everyone to.

This creates a demoralizing culture where everyone feels disappointed in themselves and everyone around them. It’s difficult for people to flourish when they’re always feeling like they’re good not enough or not measuring up.

We might think, “I don’t expect too much from that person.” But it’s not just your expectations doing them in. Your feeling is the equivalent of a raindrop refusing to take responsibility for its part in the flood.

If we want people, community, and the Kingdom to grow, it can’t be under the weight of expectations and judgments.

Resolution #18: I will not demand that the culture around me conforms to my ideals.

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?“—1 Corinthians 5:12

For as long as I’ve been a Christian, evangelicalism has been in the midst of a culture war. To drum up donor support, Christian organizations have often relied on us-vs.-them language, vilifying the godless, liberal hordes threatening to destroy the culture.

Unfortunately, this posture creates hostility. It’s like a mean-spirited uncle that spends his whole life criticizing everyone in the family for the animosity his constant complaining, harping, and finger pointing created.

For too long, the church’s message has been “Jesus loves you (so get your act together you irreligious, immoral monsters).” In the meantime, we can’t seem to keep our own house clean.

The culture war’s mantra is “Look at all the bad stuff in the culture. It’s because we’ve kicked God out of the public square. We don’t allow prayer or Scripture in schools.”

Do you know where we do allow those things? Church. And yet all the sins that we berate the culture for can be found in the pews. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to expect the world to live up to the expectations of a club they haven’t joined—especially when we can’t seem to keep them ourselves.

I have a lot of respect for people who say, “I must abstain from this behavior because it contradicts my religious principles.”

I have zero appreciation for anyone whose message is, “You must abstain from this behavior because it violates my religious principles.”

Resolution #19: I will not idealize the past or fear the future.

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”—2 Corinthians 4:18

No one would argue that we live in perfect times. Many social and political ills need to be fixed—so many injustices that need to be made right.

On the other hand, I refuse to believe that there was a magic era where things were so much better and that we need to fight to return there.

We tend to fear the future, resent the present, and romanticize the past. But the truth is that every generation is subject to unique challenges and perspectives that bring out their best and worst characteristics.

When some preacher or politician tempts you to pine for some better, holier bygone era, consider these facts:

1.) Many historians place the number of children born or conceived out of wedlock in the 1700’s at approximately one out of three.

2.) In many states in the 1800’s, the age of consent for young girls was nine or ten. In Delaware, the legal age at which a girl could consent to sexual relations was seven. This means there was no way to criminally prosecute men who had sex with girls of this age.

3.) Christian historian Marvin Olasky asserts that “There were roughly 160,000 abortions in 1860 in a non-slave population of 27 million. (The numbers among slaves are unknown.) This was almost the equivalent of our current figure of 1.6 million abortions in a population of close to 250 million.”

4.) Due to poverty issues in the early seventeenth century, the rise of gang activity in New York was through the roof. As an anxiety-ridden populace sought solace in religious revivals, they also blamed other groups for America’s troubles: Catholics, foreigners, bankers, etc. This tension erupted often. In 1834 there were 16 urban riots—this number jumped to 37 in 1835.

5.) In 1916 Jesse Washington, a teenage African American field hand was falsely convicted of rape in Waco, TX (there was nothing fair about his trial). He was dragged from the courtroom, tortured, lynched, and burned alive. A professional photographer snapped pictures of this lynching and sold the photos as postcards in Waco. There were thousands (including children) present at Jesse’s death. This was not a rare occurrence. From 1882–1968, there are 4,743 “documented” lynchings—at least 73 percent of the victims were black.

America doesn’t have a golden age, and that’s good news. It means we don’t have to fall victim to any religious or political hucksterism that would tell us otherwise. And we don’t have to struggle to recreate some imaginary and pre-existing era; we can embrace today and make an even better tomorrow.

Just remember, the people that lived in the “good old days” lived in difficult and trying times, too.

Resolution #20: I will not promote the idea that Christian community exists for the civilized and dignified.

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.” –1 Corinthians 1:26-30

Christianity has a rich, full history, which theobrogians often exploit. It’s way too easy to misuse the language and ideas in a way that glorify ourselves rather than elevate Christianity’s object—Christ.

Complex and convoluted discussions often seem to diminish the gospel rather than elevate it.

The truth is that Christianity allows someone with a diminished mental capacity to enjoy the same benefits and joys of reconciliation with God as the most intelligent people. Being smart doesn’t make the gospel deeper or better.

That’s always been one of the most troubling aspects of Christianity. It’s easily within reach of the dumbest and most morally bankrupt individuals. And if the Bible is to be believed, God intentionally designed it that way.

It seems that all the best things in the world are seized by the smartest, wealthiest, and most aggressive individuals. They scoff at the gospel because it’s accessible to everyone; therefore, it can’t be valuable.

So we take this precious thing and try to make it more valuable by adorning it with lofty, technical language. But we need to learn to celebrate the faith’s simplicity. After all, God uses the foolishness of the gospel to shame those who only want what’s out of reach.

As Shakespeare says, “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, to throw a perfume on the violet, to smooth the ice, or add another hue unto the rainbow, or with taper-light to seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish, is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”

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