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The Survivability of Faith

Growth3Have you ever grieved over friends, who had pledged their lives to Christ and appeared to have been living for him, but who then gave it all up?  Have you ever been dumbfounded over faith that was a mile wide but only an inch deep?  Have you ever wondered why a person's faith in Christ was not able to withstand a crushing adversity or crisis they had encountered?

For as long as I've tried to follow Jesus, I've been taken back by the numbers of friends and acquaintences whose faith has been shipwrecked.  I suppose the causes are many, but it all leaves me haunted by the words of Jesus:

And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? (Lk 18:8, NRS)

This phenomenon is no respector of paradigms --  the survivability of faith remains as much a problem in the emerging church as it has been in more traditional communities of faith.  But why?  Is it a kickback to the "easy-believism" of recent decades?  Is it nothing more than rampant selfishness?  Whatever the reasons, it seems we have failed to embed the following resolve into the spiritual DNA of those we've nurtured in the faith:

"Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power...and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore..." (Eph 6:10,13-14)

And yet so many people seem unable to stand.  And when they do fall, they're not interested in getting back up! What is it, then, that will make a difference?  Is soley encouraging people to work out their own salvation the answer? I don't believe so. 

Within the "belonging before believing" paradigm that characterizes much of the emerging church, what should our proactive response to all this be?  (I'd honestly like to hear your thoughts)

As a student of John Wesley, I can't help but think that holiness may well be the key.  Without holiness, Wesley believed we end up with something less than true Christianity. Wesley considered repentance "the porch of religion," faith "the door," and holiness "religion itself" (The Works of John Wesley, Jackson edition, Vol. 8, pp. 472f). Holiness is meant to characterize our Christian faith. Yet many of us are the product of an age where the evangelical Church emphasized decision over discipleship.  "Fire insurance" was more important than the fire-which-purifies. Becoming a Christian was more of an "event" than a life-long commitment and journey. Perhaps the reason why many people's faith is a mile wide but only an inch deep is because that is exactly what we've passed on to them, even if unknowingly.

So what's your take on all this?  Why does people's faith often seem so fragile, and why is it so easily shipwrecked?  And what should we do in response?


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I think you're right about what the church as an institution has passed on to maturing believers. We've passed on a shallow faith; one that, in general, has a hard time surviving in the face of "crushing adversity." And I do think the fault lies with the discipling community if it lies anywhere--which you seemed to say by implication in your post, I think.

I'm not sure about holiness, though. What is it? Of course, I could cobble together a sort of definition from prooftexts, but the idea of holiness remains nebulous to me. Just as I'm not sure what the scriptures (or your post) mean when speaking of shipwrecked faith.

My point, I guess, is we can't really tell whether someone 'has' holiness or 'has' made a shipwreck of their faith. Sure, we can see the outward signs that appear to indicate one thing or the other, but how do we know either way? They may even confess to "not believing anymore" or something like that (in such a case, I think a question like "Tell me about this God you no longer believe in" might be a good conversation starter, if nothing else.)

It behooves us to remember "Judge not, lest you be judged." And "Examine yourselves, to see if you are in the faith" while we consider placing a definitive categorization on the state of anyone's faith, heart, mind, belief.

Sorry, somehow my URL got lopped off of that comment.

Jim, you're right in cautioning against judging others; we need to tread carefully there. The paradox surrounding "judging", however, must also affirm the truth of

1 Cor. 5:12 -- "For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge?" (NRSV)

Re: "Examine yourselves..." -- we generally do a lousy job of teaching people to do this. In part, I think it's because ours is a culture that is way too egalitarian -- wanting to view everyone's contribution as equal, irrespective of effort or merit.

"My point, I guess, is we can't really tell whether someone 'has' holiness or 'has' made a shipwreck of their faith."

I somewhat disagree, Jim. Jesus taught us:

"You can detect them by the way they act, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit. You don't pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles." Matthew 7:16 (NLT)

The paradox or tension in all this, is that we can discern things about people, yet this is not a license to judge or withold Christ's love.

Maybe the Church's phobia of making any sort of dertermination about a person is, in part, what's gotten us in this mess we're in.

Your thoughts?

some combination of innate personality and learned behaviors is probably behind the decision to stick with it or leave it behind.

Some people are just more determined than others.

DP - do you think there's less numbers of committed people out there? or are you just seeing it more as you live longer?

When he spoke of knowing them by their fruits, Jesus was speaking of false prophets and their teaching; hypocrites. He was warning his "flock" against such people. The statement about not judging anyone comes at the head of that same chapter (I'm sure you knew that, but I had to look it up).

There's a difference I think, between a false prophet and someone who is having second thoughts about their faith in the face of trials or adversity. If we didn't do such a lousy job at teaching people how to do their own life examination, maybe we wouldn't need to discuss and discern what constitutes judging others.

I question whether the church has much of a phobia against judging. My experience (limited though it may be) tells me that the church has no trouble at all doing that.

Maybe there are other factors at work concerning those who are survivors. Victor Frankl's work about concentration camp survivors had some character and personality issues, sort of the general makeup of a person that contributed to survival. There are studies that indicate married people live longer, and that optimists have a better chance at surviving illness.


I think the answer is both simple and devastating: when Christian people are hit hard by something awful, too often their church is not there for them.

I've lost count of the number of people who got ground up by life only to turn to their church and get a glazed look or a shrug. That speaks more than ten thousand sermons. To be rejected by a church body in your time of need is--by association--to feel the rejection of Christ Himself, no matter how terribly far from the truth that is.

My mother was a big cog in her church, but when she got brain cancer, good grief! it was like pulling teeth to get anyone from her church to even visit her. It was like she dropped off the face of the planet. Yes, a ton of people showed up for her wake and funeral, but when she was dying slowly, where was everyone? Not only were they not a help to her, but since she was living with us, they hurt us by proxy. Forever changed my opinion of that church.

And when my own family was in dire straits, we went to our church to ask if they could help us if we were to sink lower and we were told, "No way." As a result of this and a few other things, we are no longer a part of that church after more than thirteen years there.

For a lot of people, those two incidents would have been enough to break them. Now we are made from stronger stuff, but still. To think that the Body of Christ just dumps you when you get hurt? That's killed the faith of millions, I'm sure. two cents.

I've watched/and am watching people loose faith. I have actually experienced it myself at age 26. When the waves of disaster came, I wasn't ready to handle it. My faith in a loving God was not existent. The common thread I see is that we didn't really "own" our faith to begin with. Lot of us grew up in Christian homes, went to church 3 times a week, went to Christian school, and did everything a Christian should do. The problem is, we never chose this life or Jesus Christ for ourselves. It was a way of life, our parents carved it out for us. (Don't get me wrong, it was a big blessing.) When is the right age of accountability? As I look back, it was not age 5 when I raised my hand in 1st grade chapel and not age 9 when I was baptized. It wasn't until age 32 (I'm now 35) when I dropped everything I knew; and started all over again. By erasing my brain; with all the Sunday School stories, the do's and don'ts of Christianity; and removing myself from church culture; is when God began to speak to me. He became real to me as I explored His word for myself. I like the way some tribes baptize; they throw a party for you and make a special day of it so you remember it like your birthday. It is kinda like your "coming out" party as you declare to the world that you are a Christ follower.

When you truly "own" your faith for yourself, it could possibly save your life when the waves begin to roll.

Chris wrote: "For as long as I've tried to follow Jesus, I've been taken back by the numbers of friends and acquaintences whose faith has been shipwrecked."

My analytical and lutheran ear tells me that if a pastor can only "try" to follow Jesus, how can anyone else follow? Your words seem to set us all up to fail, as a psychoanalyst friend of mine would say.

Greetings from Iceland
Carlos Ferrer
Lutheran minister

Tammy and Charlie -- both of you have suggested "other" factors (e.g. personality traits) which may well play a significant role in all this. I think it likely does. And yet, what hope is there for people who are "wired" differently? DLE's post suggests that its others in the body of Christ who may hold the key (I feel awful about your mother's experience). He painfully reminded us of the communal nature of our faith. We normally talk about the benefits of authentic biblical community, but I fear that we normally experience the consequences of unhealthy or virtually non-existant community.

Jim, the reason why there is such a phobia of making any sort of determination concerning people is because -- as you have accurately pointed out -- the church has had no problem judging people (inside & outside) in the past. I'm seeing a theolgical tension in the scriptures that I'm attempting to get a handle on.

Carlos, I believe your analytical and Lutheran "ear" interpreted my use of the word "try" incorrectly. It was used in humility, not with doubt or tennativeness. And people who are close enough to know me, know that the survivability factor of my own faith is quite high (maybe Matt could chime in). That said, I think you raised an important issue: that what we model (as pastors and leaders) for others is very important. Like begets like. Right?

Tammy, you had asked me:

"DP - do you think there's less numbers of committed people out there? or are you just seeing it more as you live longer?"

That's a very interesting question. My "hunch", for whatever it's worth, is that there are fewer committed Christ-followers out there than in the past. Why is that? I think it's due to a variety of reasons. Rampant individualism and hedonism, the emotional abuse and neglect within the Church, and an emphasis on "decision" over "discipleship" are just a few.

I'm making somewhat of a generalization, I know, but I find it troubling that pastor-friends of mine are ready to throw-in the towel and leave their ministries because in recent years, so few people are willing to commit themselves to anything. I haven't seen that before. Have you and your husband witnessed any of that?

Perhaps it is our perception that is to be questioned. Chris, you asked about friends, "who had pledged their lives to Christ and appeared to have been living for him, but who then gave it all up." What happens if we move the word "appears" to the second part of the sentence? Then our question becomes concerned with friends who have pledged their lives to Christ and have been living for him, but who appeared to give it all up.

I just finished re-reading C. S. Lewis's little book, A Grief Observed, (which I reviewed on The Emmaus Theory blog). Lewis is a person who speaks great volumes to me. The wrestling with God through which he journeys after the death of his wife would be considered by many today to be a "giving it all up." He screams at God. He accuses God. He doubts His existence in one monment and in the next fears that He does indeed exist, but is a hateful God.

Having gone through a similar time in my own walk, I realized, as did Lewis, that while I was wrestling with God (and even doubting His existence), He was holding me in His arms the whole time.

I agree with your statement, "Holiness is meant to characterize our Christian faith." My problem is with how we jars of clay determine the definition of holiness. C. S. Lewis himself would not have been considered a real Christian by some holiness groups because he did not meet the criteria (he smoked, drank, and read literature). I know of one church that will not allow you in if your tie is tied with a double windsor knot. Too showy, too worldly. Single windsor is holy, double is not. If we can, as believers, limit holiness rules to the kingdom teachings of Jesus, then I think we will be on the right track. But these are the toughest rules of all! They demand that we love God and our neighbors and care for the poor and share our wealth and speak up for the downtrodden. Those are not popular areas of discipleship in USAmerican Churchianity.

Just a few thoughts.



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