Why do so many people—people with incredible conversion stories—parent children who abandon Christianity?

History overflows with great saints whose offspring lose faith:

  • Samuel was a mighty prophet of God. His sons were a mess.
  • David was a man after God’s own heart. His children were a disaster.
  • Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were founded on the gospel. Now they lead the opposition.

I’ve witnessed dozens of couples, churches, ministries, and prayer groups who began with a furious fire of love for God whose next generation couldn’t blow a smoke ring.

Our children lose that fire because of the simplest and silliest of reasons: we assumethe gospel. The following downhill slide reveals the stealthy creep of the lost gospel:

  1. The gospel is Accepted —>
  2. The gospel is Assumed —>
  3. The gospel is Confused —>
  4. The gospel is Lost                         (Mack Stiles, Marks of the Messenger)

The author continues, “For any generation to lose the gospel is tragic. But the generation that assumes the gospel … is most responsible for the loss of the gospel.” That generation is us. We are most responsible.

What happened to us?     

We’re converted by one message but we teach another

A friend of mine lived wildly until the age of thirty. He slept with scores of women, drank an ocean of beer, and was a self-admitted, abusive jerk. In a desperate time of brokenness, he heard the hope of the gospel for the unworthy. He prayed, met and heard God, and he became a pastor.

He was converted by a flood of grace yet his sermons bullied, badgered, nagged, and scolded:

  • You should never tell coarse jokes, nor should you cuss.
  • You should be generous, and that includes tipping at least 20%.
  • You should never come to church without your Bible.

Day after day, week after week, he proclaimed the Nike gospel, “Just do it! Be faithful; be loving; be generous; have hope; trust God; be nice!”

It’s virtually 100% predictable that we are converted by one message and then preach another. We are converted by the unbelievable hope of God’s love for the undeserving.

But we lecture on behavior. A list of Do’s and Don’ts that veil the message that originally changed our hearts.

The damnable presumption of assumption

One day I asked my friend why he neglected the gospel while lecturing on behavior. He said, “My congregation knows the gospel. Now they need to know what to do.” But he admitted to a confusion: why was his shrinking congregation so joyless?

Martin Luther wrote in his Commentary on Galatians,

“Continually listen to the gospel that teaches not what I ought to do (for that is the job of the law), but what Jesus Christ has done for me.

This is the gospel. It is the primary article of all Christian truth. It is most necessary that we should know this article well, teach it to others, and beat it into our heads continually” (slightly edited).

We need at least to remember the gospel, if not to beat it into our heads continually; the reminder of the God who left heaven to live, die, and rise again. For us.

The gospel that tells us it’s a gift that cannot be taken; that we are his treasure; that we are his delight; that his Spirit makes a home in our hearts to live the life we’ve failed to live on our own; and that we have a future life that can be had now, a life richer than we can imagine.

Let’s remember the gospel. Or we’ll assume it, confuse it, and lose it. And so will our kids.

Sam

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To learn more about grace, buy my book, Is Sunday School Destroying Our Kids. Chapters include:

  • Graceless Goodness: The Problem with Moralism
  • The False Gospel of “Just Do It”
  • The Ugliness of Religious Righteousness
  • The Insidious Danger of “I’d Never Do That”
  • We Read the Bible the Wrong Way
  • If Grace is True, Why Be Moral?

Sometimes God speaks through a careful choreography of life events: conversations, readings, observations, and even the occasional media clip. Suddenly, all the pieces snap together, and we sigh (internally so no one hears us), “Aha!”

This morning, I had one of those moments of clarity. Over the past couple weeks:

  • With friends, I pondered why some people and ministries are wildly successful while other people and ministries—equally gifted—struggle for survival;
  • I heard a quote by Oswald Chambers: “Is He going to help Himself to your life, or are you taken up with your own conception of what you are doing?
  • I read a passage using the Scripture Meditation Plan: “We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:18)

These three events were preceded by a video I watched that smelled … funny. And the odor lingered. The creator of the video is a famous Christian writer who has morphed his verbal skills into marketing skills, and he wanted to help churches sell themselves.

In his video, a pastor shared the key to his own wildly successful church. I forget the exact words but he essentially said:

“I realized that too many churches make the pastor the hero. I decided to make the congregation the hero, and my church’s attendance exploded.” (Name withheld)

It reminded me of a conversation early in The Lost World movie. Repentant Jurassic Park creator John Hammond cries: “Don’t worry. I’m not making the same mistakes again.”

To which Ian Malcom retorts: “No, you’re making all new ones.”

It’s All About the Hero

The essential distinction between Christianity and all other religions—including secularism—can be boiled down to one question: Who is the hero of your story?

The human race was cursed when Adam and Eve decided to be the heroes in their own story. When they took God’s place in the Garden. All subsequent sins are variations on that theme: we are usurping God’s place.

I agree that our primary heroes ought not be the pastor, priest, or even other great Christian “heroes.” They aren’t celebrated because they were great; they are celebrated because God’s greatness worked in them. (I suspect that the greatest Christian heroes–of all time–will turn out to be thousands of men and women the world  never heard of.)

But to actively move the hero-spotlight from the ordained (which I applaud) to the congregation (which I deplore) is to nurture our idolatry: “Hey, let’s just eat Eve’s apple all over again.”

Clergy-worship is sick, but self-worship is suicide.

True Fruit, The True Hero, and God’s Plan

This morning I read, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:8). I’ve always thought—though perhaps subconsciously—something more like, “If I’m successful and bear fruit, it proves that my ideas and plans were right. Possibly brilliant.”

In other words, that I’m the hero of my own story.

But Scripture says that real fruit, the fruit that endures for eternity, is fruit that brings glory to the Father. It makes him the hero; God’s power shown through our weakness. And it’s always been that way:

  • God didn’t give Isaac to Abraham and Sarah until it was impossible for them;
  • God didn’t make Moses a leader until he was too old to lead;
  • God picked cowardly Gideon and then reduced his army from 32,000 to 300.

And the reason God cut Gideon’s army down so dramatically was because he knows the human heart, that Israel “would become boastful, saying, ‘My own power has delivered me’” (Jud. 7:2).

Which is just another way of saying, “I’m the hero in my own story. Worship me.”

It takes a great human heart to be a hero. It takes a greater human heart (tempered with humble honesty) to admit, “I need a hero.”

Sam

[For another hero story, see Is Sunday School Destroying Our Kids?]

How God Turns Evil to Good

I reached my fitness high water mark at the age of twenty-four. I ran thirty miles a week, sweated three hundred pushups a day, and I brawled each week in the local boxing club.

In the midst of my peak physical prowess (never mind its short duration), I met a man with a black belt in Judo. He was forty-ish, chubby, and he wheezed as he walked. I think his exercise routine consisted of lifting large bottles of beer rather than heavy barbells.

He was the first black belt of any kind I had ever met. He intrigued me. Could this chubby, middle-aged man really beat me in a friendly fight? The fool inside me challenged him to hand-to-hand combat.

Not since infancy have I spend so much time on the ground. The lawn and I became intimate allies. I huffed, puffed, wheezed, and groaned (and maybe cursed, but it’s still all a blur) as he repeatedly—and effortlessly—tossed me to the ground.

It didn’t matter what punch I threw. Each jab, hook, and uppercut finished with me staring at the sky, gasping for air, and wondering what had happened.

How Do They Do That?

After my embarrassing attempt to box a black belt, my pudgy pal explained the mechanics. He said that the secret is to get your enemy’s strength to turn traitor against him, to redirect his force so that it is working for you.

Whenever I tried to punch, my friend slipped aside and pulled. My own momentum—aided by his tiny tug—threw me off balance. My own strength became my biggest enemy. The stronger I attacked, the harder I fell.

God works the same mysterious way in our lives.

He doesn’t create the evil in this world, but he redirects it so that it battles its own architect. As Joseph said to his brothers, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”

It’s called spiritual judo.

The Runt

Look at the life of David. Samuel comes to David’s father to anoint a king, but David isn’t invited to the party. The prophet asks David’s father if anyone is missing, and David’s father responds, “Everyone is here but ‘the youngest’” (1 Sam. 16:11).

But the Hebrew word translated “the youngest” (hakaton) has layers of meaning. It’s hard to translate because it combines the picture of youthfulness with a sense of insignificance. To merely translate it as “the youngest” isn’t disparaging enough.

A better translation is to say, “Everyone is here but ‘the runt.’”

David was considered so insignificant by his family that he was left in the fields. There he practiced the slingshot to perfection. If the runt David had been treated with respect—if he had trained with King Saul’s army like his brothers—David would have cowered before Goliath like the rest of them.

Instead, God turned the wounding insult—“the runt”—on its head. He used the wound to create a hero. He hired the enemy’s force to fight against the enemy.

Where Is Our Hope?

David became King of Israel through spiritual Judo; and your life and my life depend on this spiritual truth:

God is unsatisfied with merely neutralizing evil; God employs even evil to effect its own destruction.

God is the ultimate Black Belt. Our hope for the suffering of our lives is our Father’s spiritual redirection, our Father’s spiritual Judo.

Psalm 57 describes it this way: “They set a net for my steps; my soul was bowed down. They dug a pit in my way, but they have fallen into it themselves.”

Sam

Used with permission of: http://beliefsoftheheart.com/

Business and Christianity?

Is modern business wisdom destroying Christian spirituality? Oswald Chambers once asked, “[Do we consider ourselves] so amazingly important that we really wonder what God Almighty does before we wake up in the morning?”

Contemporary sages tell us to apply business models to our spiritual work. They admonish us to make S.M.A.R.T. goals: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-bound. They teach us that the closer we follow these instructions, the more effective our lives will be.

But natural insight doesn’t translate into spiritual wisdom. It’s not even a dialect.

The author Oswald Chambers was mostly unknown during his lifetime. Before he died (at the age of forty-three) only the tiniest circles of believers had even heard of him. And at the time of his death, he had only glimpsed a proof of the manuscript of his first book. If he leaned on S.M.A.R.T goals, how would he have evaluated his life on the day of his death?

But since his death, his words have influenced tens of millions, and his classic devotional, My Utmost for His Highest, is one of top selling books of all time.

Instead of leaning into worldly wisdom, Paul encourages us:

“Judge nothing before its time; wait for the Lord. He will bring to light what is hidden and he will expose the motives of the heart.

At that time each will receive their praise from God” (1 Cor. 4:5 emphasis added).

The world tells us to measure our results. God says the only result that matters is found in a personal connection with him. In that connection, he takes the broken bread-crumbs of our lives and feeds thousands.

How many of our S.M.A.R.T. goals are measured to make ourselves the hero of our own little mini-series?

It’s Not That S.M.A.R.T. Goals Are Dumb

Jesus commends our natural understanding; he just questions our spiritualunderstanding: “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:56).

There are all kinds of personal intentions that will be aided by S.M.A.R.T. goals. You might say:

  • I plan to lose ten pounds in ten months by eating only 1600 calories a day and running three miles three times a week; or
  • We want strengthen our marriage by improving our communication; we will attend a Love Languageconference, spend twenty minutes a day listening to each other, and have a date night once a week for the next year.

I don’t mean we should abandon natural goals. It’s just that the deepest legacy of our lives will be accomplished only–only!–through God’s hidden work in us. When we die to ourselves and let him live.

As Jesus once said to Peter: “What I am doing now you do not understand, but later on you will” (John 13:7). And then Jesus washed his feet.

Which made absolutely no sense to the SMART-goal driven Peter. But later on, it did.

We Just Don’t Know

We are the worst judges in the world when it comes to interpreting spiritual reality. Two sad stragglers on the way home to Emmaus told a stranger that they were despairing because:

“Jesus of Nazareth was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, but our chief priests and rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and crucified him.

“But we had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:19-21)

They hoped Jesus would save Israel, but instead he was killed. The irony was: the only way he could save Israel was to be killed! They saw life from the wrong side of the grave.

As long as we continue to deify natural common sense we will strangle supernatural sense. The way up is down. Peter said “I will lay down my life for you;” then he abandoned Jesus. His natural strength was useless until he let it die in humiliation and was raised by the supernatural love of Jesus.

We worry too much about the wrong stuff. There is only one way to Get SMART, and that is to join Agent 86 and humbly admit: “Sorry about that Chief … would you believe … I missed it by that much.”

Sam