Faith, Doubt and Authenticity

My friend Darren and I were meant to have a “Doubt Night”. But we haven’t had time to do one yet.

In our cell group, we’ve been talking about Timothy Keller’s message The Prodigal God. And the concept of how the younger brother was self-motivated. He is a model of a person who wanted to find meaning through self-discovery. The elder brother was a person who based his life on moral conformity.

But Jesus says that both are lost. In both cases, they were trying to find a way to get the Father’s things. They weren’t interested in the Father Himself.

There is a “third way” – the way of relationship. The third way which Jesus wants us to see is the one where the person of the Father is valued above the Father’s things. This is how gospel-centred Christians should live.

And yet, I have found that often in church settings, we tend to fall into the error of moral conformity. To allow a person to rely solely on a relationship with God makes that person very difficult to control. After all, a relationship is incredibly unpredictable.

This is how unpredictable a relationship is: the longer you are in a relationship with someone, the more predictable they become in terms of expectations, behaviours, stimuli and reactions. But then, when predictability becomes the norm, we say the relationship is in a rut, and we need to introduce new elements of unpredictability to breathe fresh life into the relationship. And so the cycle of unpredictability continues.

The institutional church likes predictability and control. And the only way to do that is through moral conformity.

A culture of moral conformity however only causes us to become performance-orientated Christians. We try hard to perform to the required level, to look like we’ve got it all together, to tick all the moral boxes of the expected “Christian norm”.

By the way, I heard someone once say that “normal” is one of those words that have lost its richness of meaning through common usage. These days, “normal” means “average”. Originally however, the word meant “upright”, “or 90 degrees against a plane” (as measured by a plumb line). In that sense, a “normal” Christian life means one which is infused with the righteousness of Christ – the only righteousness that is perfect and pure and that can restore us to right relationship with God.

So back to my point: a culture of moral conformity means we can seldom express our doubt. Because if we do, we are seen as questioning that which is accepted. At best, we might be seen as exhibiting weakness in our faith.

I actually think it is healthy to express our doubts. Hence, the idea of having a Doubt Night. I was going to trial it with Darren first, but the idea is to have a night when people can just come and express doubt. Others can provide a perspective, or attempt to address the doubt, but we won’t guarantee that there would be any resolution. We will openly discuss hard issues without judgment. It will be a place where we can be transparent and no one will/should think “what’s up with that? That guy must be a messed up Christian”.

In conventional Christian culture, faith is celebrated. Doubt is frowned upon. But in my view, faith cannot exist without doubt. Doubt is in fact the context in (or the process through) which faith emerges.

In The Reason for God, Timothy Keller says:

A faith without doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it…. A person’s faith can collapse overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.

Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts – not only their own but their friends’ and neighbours’. It is no longer sufficient to hold beliefs just because you inherited them. Only if you struggle long and hard with objections to your faith will you be able to provide grounds for your beliefs to sceptics, including yourself….

I love the authenticity of the man who cried to Jesus in Mark 9 “I do believe, help my unbelief!”. I love that when the resurrected Jesus challenged Thomas to believe, He still responded to Thomas’ request for more evidence. Sometimes, the church is more afraid of doubt than Jesus is.

I think it is high time for our contemporary church culture to entertain doubt again. When we can authentically express our doubt in a safe environment without fear of judgment, we will not only express beliefs because we have inherited them, or because it seems like the right behaviour to display, but we will emerge with stronger grounds for our beliefs. In other words, we will grow a stronger body of authentic, sold-out believers. So bring on Doubt Night.

The Church as Family

I’ve just finished reading Messy Church and for the past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of church as family.

We often like to think of the church in one of the following different ways: a corporate entity (with strict lines of authority, structures, rules and regulations), a movement (a group of people rallying behind an idea or cause), or an event (a gathering for a specific purpose at any one point in time). But the more I think about, the more I know it’s true that church is family.

So here are a few things I’ve gleaned as I’ve meditated on that concept:

1. Being a Multigenerational Church

I have already dealt with this point quite a bit in my previous post. There is a lot we can learn from the different generations. The wisdom and experience of the old must be matched to the freshness and innovation of the young.

The multigenerational mandate is found in Psalm 145:4, which calls one generation to commend God’s works to the next generation.

I want to take a moment to highlight another one of Ross Parsley’s points on this: if we don’t raise up the generation, then the current generation will die without a successor. On the other hand, if we grow the next generation, then the church will experience both success and succession.

Parsley says this:

It takes no skill or expertise for a church to grow older….

We don’t really have to work at growing the church older because it happens naturally. It happens automatically. People work together and live life together, and they grow old. All the hard work for a church is in continually reaching down to the next generation and including them in the life of the family.

Let’s make it a point to continually grow the next generation so that they can stand on our shoulders and reach higher than we could have ever done on our own!

2. Relational Accountability

I like this idea.

For a long time, I think the church has taught a very artificial form of “submission to authority”, almost as if submission is arbitrary because it is a command of God. During the Shepherding Movement of the 80s, this reached ludicrous heights when shepherds were able to dictate the minutest details of a believer’s life, from the clothes they wear to the people (I mean, person) they should marry.

It wasn’t even acceptable to question that authority because, as much as the command was a “stick”, the “carrot” was that if one remained under authority, one also remained under divine covering and protection.

Postmoderns completely abhor this “mindless follower” mentality.

Parsley makes this point:

I don’t believe in trying to create accountability. I believe in relationships where accountability is the by-product. If we try to set up accountability without relationship, we’ll be tempted to hide our failures. If we build relationships with those whom we love, we won’t want to lie. We’ll endure painful truth because love is at stake. Accountability without relationship can easily turn into empty legalism and broken rules. But relationships filled with love create the seedbed for honesty and integrity.

I’ve been in many accountability relationships, but I agree with Parsley completely. The ones where the other party speaks into your life the most is the one where relationship has come before accountability.

And I think we also need to allow the relationship to flow both ways. Just because I’m the more mature one doesn’t mean that I can’t learn from a younger person. On the contrary, we should, as Parsley suggests, “practise a leadership style that says we can’t learn everything from someone, but we can learn something from everyone”.

3. Grace the Basis of Authenticity

The last point I want to make is the importance of authenticity.

One of the things I’ve found about being in a family is that all your bad bits are there for your family to see. It’s pretty hard to hide stuff from your wife! Your family sees your inconsistency, your failures, your character flaws, your bad habits. We don’t like to display those things at church! Instead, we want to to portray consistency, successes, character strengths and good habits. Who we are in church is definitely not who are at home, no matter how much we want to believe otherwise.

I like worship leaders like Carlos Whittaker. In a very public domain (such as his blog), he uses some pretty “colourful” language. I’m beginning to think that that’s okay.

I have a friend who is always telling me how in his church, it’s okay to be real. I love talking to this guy because what you see is what you get. And it makes me feel unguarded.

Even if being real jars our “good Christian sensibilities” sometimes, it creates a stronger sense of relationship and ultimately accountability and growth. It’s better in my view to lay all your cards on the table (as I say, to be “unguarded”), so that as a family of believers, we know what we are dealing with, we accept each other, and we challenge each other to grow.

To do this, we need to come back to the grace of God and realise that none of us are perfect, none of us could have been accepted by God, except through Christ’s sacrifice and blood that covers all our sins. But we also need to flip this on its head too, and realise that once we “in Christ”, we are made completely righteous.

This is how Martyn Lloyd-Jones puts it in his exposition of Romans:

Have you really seen yourself ‘in Christ’? …. You have been put there, you have been engrafted, you are in Him, and therefore you are constituted a righteous person. That is how God looks at you. God no longer looks at you as a sinner and as you were in Adam. That is the whole point of the Gospel, and you must never look at yourself as a sinner again. You are not a sinner, you are child of God. You are a child who fails, and who falls, but you are not a sinner any longer. For a Christian to call himself a ‘miserable sinner’ is to deny this entire argument. He was a ‘miserable sinner’, but he is now a righteous person; and when he fails and falls he does so in the realm of family, in the realm of love. But, thank God, he does not change his position; his standing is not changed, the relationship to God is not changed. Look at yourself always exclusively and entirely in Christ, even as, before, it was all entirely and exclusively in Adam.

I love that phrase: “when you fall, you fall in the realm of family, in the realm of love”. Just as God sees us as righteous in Christ, we need to start seeing each other in the same way. This requires us to embrace a revolution of grace in our churches.

My old church, with all its good qualities and all its flaws, was very much a family.

We’ve now been in Faith Community Church for about 5 months now, and even though it’s a larger church, I’m glad to say that there is still a strong sense of family and belonging. For this, I’m really grateful for a wonderful bunch of people in my cell group, who’ve really taken us in and involved us in their lives. We’re still in the honeymoon phase of course, but I’m glad to say that the foundations are there for the church to really be family through thick and thin.

Authenticity Attracts

Here is another brilliant thought from Pastor Benny Ho’s sermon yesterday at Faith Community Church:

Authentic people attract.  Weird people distract.

And he was talking about the church!

I think we’ve all seen our fair share of weird Christians.  I certainly have, especially because in most of my early years growing up in the church, there was such a pervasive performance mentality in the church that it just forced people to pretend they had it all together.  It was almost like no one wanted to admit to any shortcomings in case it reflected on their spirituality (or lack thereof).

But the more I became secure in the grace of God, the more open I was to being authentic and transparent.  I don’t think I can say that I’m completely transparent yet.  But I’m certainly less bothered by people’s shortcomings and sin than I used to be and I’m more open about my own struggles and shortcomings.

I wonder whether, when James said “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (Jas 5:16), he was talking about a transparent and authentic lifestyle amongst believers, rather than some form of liturgical confession done behind a closed booth to a church leader.  Maybe if everyone was more open to talking to each other about the sins they struggle with, they might not need to struggle alone.  And maybe if the Christian community was more willing to really acknowledge that all of us fall well short of God’s glory apart from Christ that we will be more willing to accept people – especially fellow believers – as they are and be less ready to judge.  Perhaps then, we might find healing for our souls.

And then maybe, just maybe, the church will once again be an attractive force for those who are wounded and broken, knowing that there is no safer community on earth than the body of Christ.