So here are three reasons why Christians (and Messianics!) fall away from God.
#1 – Doing “church” in place of discipleship.
Jon, who is now 37, recounts how even as a teen he was “uncomfortable with certain things” in the church, yet kept his concerns to himself. The fact that he kept his “process” a secret—apparently only revealing his doubts in “private conversations with trusted friends” over the last few years (and presumably with his wife of 13 years)—illustrates the lack of understanding and implementation of discipleship in contemporary Christian culture.
The deficient model of “church,” coupled with an inadequate approach to discipleship, creates a false sense of security in the life of the believer. Facing the backs of peoples’ heads for hours at a time is anathema to true discipleship, as are the programs (“ministries”) and small group activities that allow only superficial interaction—or, worse, mental or emotional interaction that gives the illusion of spiritual learning and discipleship.
Hebrews 10:24-25—which, ironically, is often and erroneously used to tell people they need to go to church—gives us the key to real discipleship:
And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and to good actions, not forsaking the gathering of ourselves together, as is the custom of certain people, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day coming near. (MJLT)
“Provoke one another,” “exhorting one another”—these are not things you can do from a pew or in a group of functional strangers. Discipleship requires genuine trust, openness, honesty and accountability (“submitting yourselves to one another,” Ephesians 5:21), but it does not require clergy or lay leaders. On the contrary, leaders can only reach so many people personally, which necessarily means that their ministry will be superficial (not to be confused with meaningless). Anything else is a false expectation. They cannot know the deep, inner thoughts of every soul to whom they minister. That responsibility falls to the rest of us, with the older teaching the younger, the more seasoned in the faith watching out for those who are newly planted, and, believe it or not, parents instructing their children. When we rely upon the professional clergy / programmatic model of “church” for so-called discipleship, it is to our detriment. The responsibility to be and make disciples—to be a pattern for others to imitate (2 Thessalonians 3:9)—is on each one of us.
In order to be truly discipled (or to be truly parented, for that matter), disciples (and children) are not supposed to be left to “process” ideas on their own. Disciplers are supposed to be deeply involved in their disciples’ lives, having intimate knowledge of what the disciple is thinking and feeling and going through. Disciplers cannot assume anything, or leave it up to the system, or be naïve to the lurking presence of temptation, sin and the worldly influences working to undermine our beliefs. Disciplers cannot be hypocrites—saying one thing and doing another—or blasé or unavailable. Disciplers should be able to tell that something is wrong with their disciple because they talk to each other—meaningfully—every day, engaging face to face regularly, not shying away from confrontation or tough topics. Disciplers never stop trying to answer a question that is putting the disciple’s faith in jeopardy.
We fall away because we keep secrets. We keep secrets because we mistake “church” (and youth groups and bible studies and small groups and prayer groups, etc.) for real discipleship.
#2 – Judging legitimacy and truth according to feelings and experiences.
Jon compared prayer to feeling like a child “having an imaginary friend,” rejecting the idea that God is “obvious” and “NOT silent.” Certainly there is a level of subjectiveness to just how obvious and unsilent God can be in each one of our lives. But Jon’s argument to not being able to overcome this need for a non-mysterious, let-me-hear-you-plainly God is, “I simply have yet to experience it myself.” Jon tragically spent the last quarter of a century feeling that God was distant at best, or a fairy tale at worst. As he attempted to remake God according to his own feelings and expectations (probably fomented by his religious culture), he missed the fact that belief does not require experience—a point of view not held by contemporary Christians (or, again, Messianics).
It is unreasonable—not to mention unsupported in Scripture—to require a voice from heaven, a burning bush, a miraculous sign, or some kind of non-descript, acute or chronic “experience” with God before we can fully believe in Him. In fact, when the Pharisees started disputing with Yeshua (Jesus), asking him for a sign in order to prove something to them, He replied, “Why does this generation seek after a sign? Amen, I say you to you: no sign will be given to this generation” (Mark 8:12, MJLT). To require an experience is to require proof, but the Creator of the universe is not subject to our requirements.
Nevertheless, God does prove to us that He is, merely by virtue of His creation (Romans 1:20). He further proves Himself to us by impossibly preserving His Jewish people (2 Samuel 7:22-26). Really, if anyone has any unmet expectations, it is probably God. We are the ones who are the frequent disappointment. God says through the prophet, “[R]eturn to me… and I will return to you” (Zechariah 1:3). James exhorts us to “draw near to God, and He will draw near to you” (James 4:8, MJLT). Turning toward and drawing near to God are both actions that we can and should be taking independently of any voice from God, or help from Him, or sense of love or joy or peace or euphoria that we may feel is lacking. We are not limp, helpless globs of people goo that are incapable of pursuing God without Him going first.
By faith, we can “experience” God daily as omnipresently as air—as long as we are not obstructing our knowledge of Him by our arbitrary expectations and unsatisfied feelings. Rather, we are to be “sober-minded, serious, of sound mind, and sound in the faith” (Titus 2:2, MJLT). Emotions and experiences are fickle and fleeting. We cannot judge God’s presence or absence according to how we feel.
#3 – Not fully believing that the Bible is the written word of God.
Lack of true discipleship and reasoning according to our feelings are just symptoms of the fundamental, underlying reason why believers fall away from God. It takes Jon a while to get to it, but he ultimately identifies the moment his faith was as good as gone.
I was raised to believe that the Bible was the perfect Word of God…. I began to have questions and doubts about that. It seemed like there were a lot of contradictions in the Bible that didn’t make sense…. Suffice it to say that when I began to believe that the Bible was simply a book written by people as flawed and imperfect as I am – that was when my belief in God truly began to unravel.
Jon stopped believing in God because he doesn’t believe that the Scriptures are God’s perfect word. The end.
In a way, Jon never really stood a chance, since, by his own admission, he has been inundated by what C.H. Mackintosh calls “hostile influences” all his life. Though for as long as he can remember, “life was all about the church,” he has been pelted by the influences of tradition, expediency and rationalism. (These concepts are thoroughly explained and developed in my book Bearing the Standard: A Rallying Cry to Uphold the Scriptures, which addresses this epidemic in the Body, and how to overcome it.) Jon refers to the “weird performance art” of public praying and the “clunky and awkward… emotional cries” of worship that were part of his long-established faith tradition—traditions that a young, questioning mind was unable to reconcile with Scripture. Jon also revealed how he had learned the art of expediency—shortcutting the Scriptures for the sake of doing “good”—by not being “totally honest” about his disbelief until he was confident the public revelation would not adversely affect his ability to earn a living. And by inviting us into his inner dialogue, offering us questions such as “If God is all loving, and all powerful, why is there evil in the world? Can he not do anything about it?” and “If God is loving, why does he send people to hell?” Jon revealed how he was also influenced by rationalism—allowing his own reasoning (or, perhaps, the reasoning of others) to rise above the word of God. The question of evil, for example, while difficult at first blush, has been asked and answered many times by many people from the Scriptures. It is no surprise that the Scriptural answer can be unsatisfying, if, in our supreme reasoning, we feel there should be a better answer.
Jon tells us that his “questions and doubts aren’t arising out of a lack of study of the Bible,” and I believe this is true—that he has been trying to find God in the Scriptures. However, he also says that he has been studying “Christian theology,” and has “spent the last couple years devouring books from a wide range of views on these things.” Despite the fact that two years of intense research is unlikely to undo the damage of two decades of doubt, the reality is that he simply exposed himself to more tradition and different rationalisms that ultimately undermine and compete with the word. The more one entertains man’s theological ideas—as if God needed one of us to tell us what He means—the more distorted the Scriptures will seem to become. Sound biblical teaching is hard enough to come by—the last thing one needs is “a wide range of views” on it.
Jon himself sums it up best in saying, “Once I found that I didn’t believe the Bible was the perfect Word of God – it didn’t take long to realize that I was no longer sure he was there at all.” Most of us don’t realize how quick we are to dismiss the word when it interferes with or contradicts our feelings, experiences, thoughts, priorities and ideas. This will inevitably put us on Jon’s slippery slope—or, at least, cause us to slide down to a comfortable level of lukewarmness and ambivalence toward our walk with God. When we can no longer trust in the Scriptures—the only objective authority by which we can find, fix upon and follow the Master Yeshua (Jesus)—of course we will no longer believe. Of course.
The end of Jon’s sad journey toward disbelief has been publicized because of his celebrity, but, according to him, “nearly every close friend [his] age who also grew up in the church” and a “stunn[ing] number of people in visible positions within Christian circles” share his doubts and “feel the same way” as he does. I have no doubt that because of lack of discipleship, feelings-based spirituality, and a defective belief in the sufficiency of Scripture, a whole generation of believers has been wiped out—if not in presence, then in spirit. Believers in Jon’s generation and others have either created their comfortable version of God that they can live with, or admitted that what they have believed in and practiced all their lives has been a sham. The only way to stop the bleeding is to restore peoples’ trust in the Scriptures by demolishing the things in our religions and lives that are at variance with it, to champion the objective word of God over our subjective feelings and experiences, and to reclaim our personal responsibility to truly be disciples and disciple-makers.
Jon says he is still “open to the idea that God is there.” But without the Bible, where does he think that “idea” will come from?
‘[Men] must either deny that the Bible is the Word of God, or admit its sufficiency and supremacy.’ There is no middle ground. The Scriptures must be either complete and outright foolishness, or the unrivaled pronouncement of God’s revealed wisdom and truth.
–Preface, Bearing the Standard
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