When “Believing the Gospel” Doesn’t Work

Maybe you’re like the many men and women who I’ve talked to.  Having been through Sonship (a fairly well-known discipleship program in conservative Reformed circles) or having digested the writings of Keller or Powlison or Tripp, your still struggling.  Or, maybe your version of “believing the Gospel” came from a preacher who told you that the answer to your lifetime of guilt was greater “Gospel depth” or deeper “Gospel transformation.”  And so, you searched high and low for that newer and better way, the Gospel way, only to try to believe better and repent better and be less guilty.  And that, too, didn’t amount to much.

Just recently, I was talking to yet another person whose digested all the writings and listened to all the sermons and read all the tweets, and ‘Gospel repenting and believing’ isn’t working.  He went through Sonship.  And each time he talked to his Gospel phone coach, he’d confess his latest idol.  “I’m justifying myself through my attempts to repent better, and repentance is now my idol.  So, I’m repenting of my repentance, but I’m still neck deep in feelings of guilt.  What’s wrong with me?”

“Gospel Tweeting” is the latest phenomenon.  The answer to all our problems is this:  Just believe the Gospel!  If it was that easy. This seems to me to be the newest quick fix, the most recent Christian cliche, and I’m growing weary of it.  I’ve counseled people who’ve done the full Sonship workout only to be more racked with guilt than ever.  They are repenting of their failed repenting and repenting of their failed attempt to confess their failed repenting.  They’re more twisted in guilt than ever.  And the ‘Gospel Twittersphere’ isn’t helping.

This is oversimplified Calvinism.  Period.  It doesn’t take the complexity of sin seriously enough, though it claims to in every way.  It doesn’t take it seriously because it oversimplifies the remedy, leaving troubled and struggling people feeling even worse.  Gospel counselors tell people that their troubles amount to a failure to believe the Gospel.  Freedom is available, we’re told.  Just repent and believe! Over and over, preachers are trying to boil this down to 140 characters on Twitter.  And I think it’s Gospel arrogance.

The problem is that we’re far more complex and psychologically broken that we’re often aware of.  It’s not just “unbelief” that bears down on us.  It’s a whole host of things – neural pathways grooved by years of living a certain way, a “divided heart” that thrives on its habitual polarities, weakness of will, and the extraordinary brokenness manifesting in the systems we inhabit, whether in our families or workplaces or churches.  And if I’m not being pessimistic enough, consider John Calvin’s words:

“But no one in this earthly prison of the body has sufficient strength to press on with due eagerness, and weakness so weighs down the greater number that, with wavering and limping and even creeping along the ground, they move at a feeble rate. Let each one of us, then, proceed according to the measure of his puny capacity and set out upon the journey we have begun. No one shall set out so inauspiciously as not daily to make some headway, though it be slight. Therefore, let us not cease so to act that we may make some unceasing progress in the way of the Lord. And let us not despair at the slightness of our success; for even though attainment may not correspond to desire, when today outstrips yesterday the effort is not lost. Only let us look toward our mark with sincere simplicity and aspire to our goal; not fondly flattering ourselves, nor excusing our own evil deeds, but with continuous effort striving toward this end: that we may surpass ourselves in goodness until we attain to goodness itself. It is this, indeed, which through the whole course of life we seek and follow. But we shall attain it only when we have cast off the weakness of the body, and are received into full fellowship with him” (Institutes, 3.6.5 or pp. 1:689)

But the problem extends beyond understanding the complexity.  It’s the cure that is far more difficult.  Having counseled too many men and women who beat themselves up for not growing fast enough by repenting and believing, I’m convinced we do many people a disservice (and harm!) by oversimplifying both the problem and the cure.  Those fearful of modern psychology need to begin listening at this point, because what we’ve found is that growth and maturity isn’t found in a method or a discipline or a repentance exercise.  In fact, growth is harder, longer, more painful, and more puzzling than many of us care to admit.  People who we serve in the church would like microwavable strategies, but the fact is that growth and maturity isn’t microwavable.  It defies programs and methods.  It frustrates the most competent pastor or therapist or spiritual director.  And, it can’t be captured in a tweet, even a well-formed Gospel tweet.

I admire the hearts of my friends out there who attempt to tweet Gospel cures.  They mean well.  Most are pastors, and you know who you are.  And I really do like you a lot.  But, hear me when I say that people are suckers for your 140 word fixes.  Why do you think you get re-tweeted so much?  We’re suckers for remedies and methods.  We love a sound byte.  But I’m asking you to step back and consider the complexity.  Do you really see people growing that quickly in your churches?  Do you really see ‘Gospel transformation’ happening in a “repent and believe” moment?  I’m prone to think that this is where we need a good dose of those old stories, like Pilgrim’s Progress, that highlight the long and difficult journey.  Because most people I know don’t find that the methods work.  Most people I talk to struggle day to day just to believe, just to utter a one word prayer, just to avoid another outburst of anger or another deluge of cynicism. Most people find that it takes a lifetime to believe that they are the prodigal who is lavished with a Father’s prodigious love.

Gospel tweeters:  Relax.  You are far more screwed up than you think.  And your cure is far too simplistic to help.  This journey requires more than a 140 characters of Gospel happy juice.  A big and good God requires a long and difficult Exodus journey for real change to happen.

Liturgical Snobbery

We’ve been talking about the habits and practices that form us in our Newbigin Fellowship cohorts thanks, in part, to a stimulating first retreat of the year led by theologian and author James K.A. Smith.  The Fellows loved Jamie’s cultural exegesis, but the discussion became a bit more animated when the subject turned to worship and liturgy.  The Fellows wrestled with the ‘ritualism’ of liturgy, questioned the potential arrogance that comes with prescribing a formal practice, noted how it might restrict times for reflection or possibilities of uniquely experiencing God on our own terms.  In other words, they put words to what we all struggle with when engaging God – more often than not, we’re stumbling along the way in our attempt to find him.

But consider this.  Our habits, as American Christians, have been formed in the crucible of individualism, consumerism, and the therapeutic.  We’d like worship served on a buffet – “Pastor, I’ll order a clearly applicable sermon with a pinch of confession, a quick Communion, a tasty selection of songs, sprinkling in a little Jesus.”  If we commit an hour to something, we want it to have a kick.  If not, we’ll take our worship appetites elsewhere.

Yes, liturgical worship ought to irritate us precisely because it doesn’t promise instant delivery of all our needs.  Rather, it does really boring stuff – it re-uses prayers, features predictable rhythms, highlights our low moments (like Confession of Sin), invites prayer for everyone and their mothers (couldn’t we just focus on personal prayer?), and kills spontaneity.  For the over-achievers, daily prayer (aka The Daily Office) is even more irritating, particularly for someone like me…inclined to self-focus, with all the prayer buffet trimmings (the give me’s, I really need’s, I’ve been waiting too long for’s, etc.).

Yes, the liturgy is a downer.  It irritates me.  It seems way too un-concerned with my immediate gratification.

Why the liturgy?  For one, it’s chock-full of 4000 years of wisdom about how people grow and mature.  It’s also accessible.  During our Newbigin retreat, Jamie Smith argued that worship ought to be accessible to everyone, including the mentally disabled.  In other words, it’s not elitist…in fact, it’s welcoming to all.  Even more, it’s been used throughout history and is used by more Christians across the world than anything else.  You’ll find the liturgical rhythms contextualized in the unique practices of Africans, Asians, Latin American’s, or Eastern Europeans.  It is in America, perhaps more than in any other part of the world, that we insist on custom-tailored, personally gratifying worship.  We like the Buffet.

More compelling to me, though, is that thought that this might actually be a diet that would be good for me.  You see, I think I know what’s good for me.  I’d like to think that I need to manufacture my own instant fulfillment, my own way.  After all, the world I live in tells me I ought to have it my way.  But what if 4000 years of wisdom tells me otherwise?  The liturgy does strange things…it focuses on God, it requires me to look at my own crap, it tells me that I’m not going to find my hunger and thirst fulfilled elsewhere, it slows me down.  Could this be the diet that I need?

I’m convinced that I’ve been trying to find myself for 40 years.  The world I live in has tried to narrate me.  “Chuck, you need to be loved a bit more.  Chuck, you need to be respected.  Chuck, you need to be recognized.  Chuck, it’s not your fault.  Chuck, have it your way.”  The pattern of the liturgy, however, is counter-narrative.  In fact, it tells me that I’ve been narrated by the dominant worldviews of my day – individualism, consumerism, the therapeutic.  And it promises to re-narrate me.  It promises, in other words, that I’ll find myself…only as I find myself participating in the Grand Narrative of a God who calls me into a mission of redeeming and restoring a broken world for a better happy ending than any Disney movie could conceive.

Am I a liturgical snob?  I suppose so.  But it’s not because I think I’ve figured it out.  Yes, I think the liturgy has the benefit of history, wisdom, theological substance, and more.  But, I’m a liturgical snob because I need the liturgy.  My life needs to be re-narrated.

I think I’ll skip the buffet.