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All posts from "November 2012"

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November 26, 2012

Does Doubt Have a Place in the Church?

I found my suspicions were necessary for my faith. Here’s why.

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I remember lying on my bed on my 16th birthday, staring at the ceiling through tears, and admitting to the wide-eyed parents standing in my doorway that I just couldn’t believe in God anymore. We’d just had an argument, and somehow the conversation led to the real issue: the doubt that had crept into my heart over the past year.

The minute the words left my mouth, I felt honest and empty. The façade of a safe, “Sunday school” faith was gone forever.

I vividly recall how calm my parents were when I voiced my confession. My mom didn’t yell; my dad didn’t try to persuade me. They simply told me that everyone has to doubt or else their faith won’t be their own. Then they told me they loved me and walked out of the room, undoubtedly heading to the living room to pray for their broken daughter.

From that moment on, I desperately sought ways to claw my way back into the safety net of the belief I’d grown up in.

I spent the next few months reading the historical facts. I read about the empty tomb and about how unlikely it was for Jesus’ body to have been stolen by his disciples. I read about creation, theology, and philosophy. I read personal testaments. I talked to people I trusted, and in the end, what I’d sensed to be true all along was what I came back to: the love of Jesus. I can’t see Christ, but in the same way that I know my family loves me, I know God loves me.

I don’t see the love; I see the effects. The never-ceasing provision, the peace in the most difficult times, the beauty in the sunsets, the scandalously redemptive story of the gospel, and the warmth within those I know who are closest to Christ—these are the things that keep me believing. Faith came in and through these realizations.

Without the space my parents gave me to think, doubt, and ask hard questions, though, I probably would have walked away from the whole thing a long time ago.

As a matter of fact, everyone I’ve ever talked to who’s walked away from his or her faith has started out with the same story: “I began to ask questions, and people told me I just needed to have faith.”

When you look into the eyes of these people, they all seem to wear a thin veil of defiance over an abyss of pain. They’ve been hurt by the church, hurt by its impossible “standards,” and bruised for their lack of faith.

I fear that in the American church, we use the idea of faith as a catch-all scapegoat. Instead of diving into the questions of fellow believers and looking for the answers together, we at times suggest that they just need to believe more. We tell them to pray about it. And eventually, those people get sick of our lame responses, and stop showing up to church. They start hanging out with people who aren’t afraid of questioning things. And then, more often than not, they leave the faith altogether.

I’m curious about whether we do this out of ignorance or out of fear. Are we afraid that exploring doubts will open a Pandora’s box of theological confusion and stories that don’t line up? From the outside, nonbelievers often see Christians as individuals who have convinced themselves that Christianity is true, not using logic and research, but because they want to have something to believe in. I fear this is also how doubting Christians within the church begin to see themselves and others as they spend their Sunday mornings looking around at the smiling faces in nearby pews, wondering why they feel so alone with their struggles.

The truth is, those who fearlessly dive into the investigation of their faith rarely resurface disappointed. In the early 1980s then-atheist and hard-core journalist Lee Strobel, author of The Case for Faith, set out to investigate his wife’s newfound faith, only to come to faith himself. C. S. Lewis converted from atheism to Christianity during his time at Oxford University, after spending time talking to G. K. Chesterton and J. R. R. Tolkien. History is full of men and women who came to faith through asking the difficult questions, not shying away from them. And those who asked the hardest questions came out, it seems, the strongest and most effective for the kingdom.

In a world where information is so readily available and questioning millennials are leaving the church in droves, I feel deeply convicted by the importance of knowing the Bible, knowing history, and never, ever being afraid to ask the tough questions. If Christians never doubted their faith, they’d also probably know little about their faith. Encouraging one another to question is the best way to learn.

God walked with me through the doubt and the tears, and he has again, many times since my 16th birthday. His words are true—he never leaves us or forsakes us, even in times when we can’t see him. My prayer for the church is that it becomes a place for doubters, as well as believers.

Was there a time when you doubted God? What brought you back? Are there any books you recommend for the doubting believer?

Ashley Moore is the editorial coordinator for Today's Christian Woman, GiftedforLeadership.com, and ChristianBibleStudies.com, and is also a contributing writer to the TCW blog. Follow Ashley on Twitter @ashgmoore.

November 12, 2012

What Shalom Taught Me about Reaching the Lost

When we approach evangelism with the sole purpose of restoring people spiritually, we’re missing our calling.

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Have you ever been treated as only a portion of yourself?

I was once asked to be part of a group simply because I was a young woman. The other members expected me to represent all young women and help them pave a path that made them more appealing to a younger demographic.

I was offended when I found out. I am, in fact, a young woman, but I’m also much more. I have unique roles, passions, interests, goals, and talents. Instead of being recognized for my whole self, I was simply filling a quota.

When we’re seen for only one role we play or as having only one talent, it can hurt. Maybe you’ve been the token woman on a committee, or you were invited to serve on the church board to represent all young moms. Or perhaps you’ve always wanted to be involved in the discipleship team, but instead you’re only known for the excellent dinner rolls you bring to the potluck dinners—so you’re stuck helping in the kitchen. Or maybe you’re the happy Sunday school teacher, and no one has ever bothered to ask how you’re doing—because they assume you’re always happy.

It’s far too easy to do this to one another in our culture. What disturbs me is that we also typecast people in the church. We base our understandings of others on one small piece of their identities or lives. Although this worries me, what worries me even more is how often we do this to unbelievers and the unchurched.

Many approach evangelism believing the most important piece is preaching the gospel, telling people about Jesus, and helping people begin a relationship with him. While these components are key, taking this view means we are seeing the unchurched and unbelievers as one-dimensional people—people who simply need Jesus in their lives. We neglect their uniqueness, their past, their desires, and their needs—physical, emotional, mental, or financial.

I’ve come to believe that, as Christians, we are called to bring about shalom, what John Driver describes as an all-encompassing wholeness and health resulting “from authentically whole (healed) relationships among people as well as between person and God.” We’re called to restore the whole person—not just meet their spiritual needs. When we approach evangelism with the sole purpose of restoring people spiritually, we’re missing our calling.

Bringing shalom requires so much more. It requires that we are people who preach and live the gospel. This matches our account of Jesus in the Bible—we have both his words and his actions. And I have to believe they’re both important if they’re both included.

So when we seek to meet others’ needs—to restore them, to bring about shalom—we need to approach them as whole, unique people, completely loved by God. We must listen to them before jumping to assumptions and be genuinely interested in learning about their passions, desires, and needs.

We must pray about the best ways to restore these people to wholeness, asking God to guide us. We must serve them in ways that are helpful to them—not just what we assume will help. And we must tell them our story—the story of what Christ is doing in our lives, the reason we seek to meet their needs.

In The Cost of Community, Jamie Arpin-Ricci writes that the ways we help those in need “are not reflections of some noble gestures of holiness and self-sacrifice, but rather declarations of our satisfaction with Christ’s kingdom as it breaks forth into our lives and the lives of those around us.” If we are happy with the shalom that we experience as a result of our restored relationship with Christ, we will be compelled to bring shalom to the lives of others—and that requires total restoration.

I’m learning this lesson over and over as my small group helps under-resourced people in our community. We have to throw our assumptions about the nearly homeless, malnourished family we’re assisting out the window. We have to get to know what the 70-year-old recovering alcoholic man loves, desires, and lives for before we can assume we know what he needs.

It’s only when we get to know whole people that we can work alongside God, bringing about shalom everywhere we go.

How has helping others helped you dig deeper into your relationship with God? For more resources on outreach and evangelism, explore TCW’s “Deeper Faith: Outreach” collection, and read these two articles from ChristianBibleStudies.com: “What is True Evangelism?,” and “No More ‘One Size Fits All’ Outreach.”

Amy Jackson is associate editor of SmallGroups.com. Follow her on Twitter @amykjackson.

November 8, 2012

How I Freed Myself from Biblical Limits

What I do when I get trapped in the pharisaical maze of having to do everything right.

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It was nearing eight o’clock, and my sinful flesh was screaming for me to catch up on Grey’s Anatomy before drifting off to dreamland. On this particular evening, I nearly skipped my Beth Moore Bible study lesson, but something, or more accurately, someone, kept nagging at me.

I knew I’d feel guilty if I chose McDreamy over McSavior, so my Bible study won by default, and I proceeded to take part in a lesson on the meaning of diligently seeking God.

Citing Hebrews 11:6 and Revelation 4:11, the study concluded that our chief purpose in life is to please God, and the primary means to that end is having faith. With my heart and spirit truly refreshed by this truth, I was ready to tackle the “Faith Journal” at the end of the lesson, where the following fill-in-the-blank was posed:

“Lord, I want to please you, but . . . ”

There they were—seven words that stirred my soul and subsequently kept me up all night. The Sunday school answers of “sin” and “pride” could have both answered the question, but those weren’t good enough for me. Sure, there are all sorts of sins that hinder my ability to please my perfect, sin-hating Savior, but I wanted to be more specific. And of course, so many things fall under the umbrella of pride—laziness, selfish desires, and skewed priorities, to name a few.

There they were—seven words that stirred my soul and subsequently kept me up all night. The Sunday school answers of “sin” and “pride” could have both answered the question, but those weren’t good enough for me. Sure, there are all sorts of sins that hinder my ability to please my perfect, sin-hating Savior, but I wanted to be more specific. And of course, so many things fall under the umbrella of pride—laziness, selfish desires, and skewed priorities, to name a few.

Then it came to me: “Lord, I want to please you, but . . . I often get caught up in ‘biblical limits.’ I feel restricted in the freedom of my faith because I so badly want to do right—to follow the rules as an act of obedience.”

Wow, I thought, that was a deep reflection—even for me!

Part of me feels like a well-intentioned Pharisee. As someone with a pretty clear understanding of right and wrong, obedience to biblical principles often ranks at the top of my to-do list. However, with my desire to do the right thing comes a monster dose of guilt at the slightest violation of any rule—I was the young child who simply needed a disappointed look from my mom or dad to make my eyes well up with crocodile tears.

What’s so ironic, however, is that my uncanny desire to please others and do right is actually restricting me in pleasing God. While my intention to follow rules is motivated by a godly desire to be obedient, the outcome is, more often than not, a decrease in my faith.

How often have I held back in worship because I believe in reverence? Yes, corporate worship is to be orderly and edifying for all, but how is it wrong to celebrate a joyful spirit in the moment of genuine worship? I’ve taken God’s command to maintain order to such an extreme that I’ve ignored his call to lift my hands (Psalm 134:2), shout and sing (Isaiah 12:6), and praise him in the highest (1 Chronicles 16:25).

How often have I doubted his willingness to answer a prayer because I’ve gotten so caught up in trying to pray the right way or determine his will? In my fear to pray the right way without offending God, I’ve often decided not even to ask. Other times I ask and then second-guess myself, concerned about whether I’m asking the right way.

While I know he’s capable of doing anything, I often doubt he’s willing. In an instant, my hope has diminished, my brain begins to overanalyze, and doubt overshadows my faith. If he’s not willing, he’ll let me know, I think, but I need to let him decide that—not me!

If I’d stop overanalyzing long enough to understand the freedom and confidence he’s given me in approaching him (Ephesians 3:12), I’d take hold of the promise Paul reminds us of in Ephesians 3:20: that he is “able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.”

There can be no freedom of my faith if it’s handcuffed to doubt and mistrust.

So I guess it’s that old “too much of a good thing” concept. Is too much obedience a bad thing? I can’t help but think the answer to that is “quite possibly,” especially if I’ve become so focused on following the rules that I’ve forgotten the freedom that comes with knowing and experiencing grace.

Although we never want to use God’s grace and mercy as a crutch to condone our sin, we also never want to miss feeling his gracious arms hold us instead of being held in the clutches of guilt. I don’t know about you, but I seriously doubt God’s intent in creating biblical limits was to restrict our freedom—and that’s a McDreamy worth holding onto.

Holly Mickler is a teacher, writer, and humorist who lives in Florida.

November 5, 2012

Is “Overthinking” a Blessing or a Curse?

How I turned my excitable stream of consciousness into a daily devotional practice.

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I used to think I had an overactive mind, like it was some kind of disorder. It just never seemed to turn off. One day after a particularly obnoxious amount of thinking, I googled overactive mind disorder. When no legitimate medical results popped up within the first page of search results, I breathed a sigh of relief.

With a clear prognosis, I perused the rest of the results and found I was in good company. Though I don’t share all their worries and concerns, the Google search returned hundreds of stories from people whose overactive minds made my excitable stream of consciousness seem mild.

Anyway, all of this is to say I over-think things. A lot. But when all I hear is my own voice repeating my own problems over and over, I have little space to hear God’s voice and the encouragement and direction he has for each day.

To help create margin in my cluttered mind and so I can better experience the presence of God throughout my day, I’ve developed some strategies:

1. Start each morning by “receiving the day.” This means turning my heart toward God, giving each day to him (Psalm 74:16), and receiving his agenda, with all its joys and frustrations, instead of obsessing over mine. What this looks like for me is sitting for one minute with my hands palms up and asking God to help me think the way he wants me to think today. I also take time whenever I’m doing something routine and frequent, such as washing my hands, to reopen my hands and my heart to God. Doing this helps me recenter my day around him who is before all things and in whom all things hold together (Colossians 1:17).

2. Take a break from music and other media. Instead of distracting myself from life as I go from one thing to another, I now use my driving time to transition and process in silence. I turn off the radio and pray about what I’m driving to—whether it’s about being sensitive to the friend I’m meeting or something else. Sure, I’m not up to date on the top 40 hits, but is that such a bad thing? The silence has helped me create space to notice beautiful things as I drive around town and it helps me hear God better.

3. Look at the sky at least once a day. This handy tip comes from Mma Ramotswe of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. She’s a fictional detective living in Botswana who has surprisingly deep insights into life. She often takes time to look at the endless skies in Botswana as she thinks about life and the cases she must solve. I started noticing the sky a lot more as I read these books last summer, and I realized there is something humbling and quieting about looking outside your world and worries to the beauty of the sky.

4. Set a physical boundary to stop thinking about work. A friend told me a rule her dad made for himself: he would stop thinking about work when he passed the bridge on his commute home. Brilliant! I do the same thing. Now on my way home, once I turn onto a specific street, I can’t think about work any longer. Work worries try to sneak back in within 10 seconds, but I say aloud to myself, “You can’t think about work anymore because you’re not on Geneva road.” Some days I have to remind myself four or five times on my 10 minute commute—sad, I know—but I’m thankful for the peace that eventually comes from this discipline.

5. Turn off the TV, computer, iPad, and smartphone at least an hour before bed. Although this may seem like a no-brainer, it is surprisingly easy to entertain or inform myself right up to the time I need to go to bed. And then I’m surprised that my mind is racing as I try to fall asleep! Well, there’s research that shows screen time before bed interferes with sleep. If research proves it, then I’ll put my information addiction on hold. This time has now turned into my daily quiet time. I thank God for his strength during that day, and I ask for his continued strength not to dissect and overanalyze it. I often remember this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” And then I move on to spending time with the God I love.

These five things have helped me create space in my mind and heart for God—he is with me! I want to be aware of his presence and delight in it, instead of getting lost in the maze of my mind.

What has helped you with worry, over-thinking, and practicing the presence of God?

Beatrice Schoenrock is Today’s Christian Woman’s marketing project and social media manager.

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