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As you can imagine, the topic of faith comes up frequently when talking with Missionaries Kids. We do a lot of processing about the messaging that is confusing to them and the mischaracterizations that are often unintentionally communicated in broader conversations about Christianity. It’s a bit of a minefield—full of hidden implications and dangers.
That’s why I was so excited a few years ago to discover Skye Jethani’s book, simply titled With. (A link to the book is in this episode’s notes.) It has become a crucial resource in helping me to understand the root of so many of the contradictions MKs grapple with when it comes to who God is.
In the book, Skye outlines four erroneous faith “postures” (that’s his term for them) that are common in Christian circles. They are:
- Life Under God
- Life Over God
- Life For God
- Life From God
I’ll be exploring three of those in this article—and I’ll illustrate them with real-life stories plucked from MK headlines. The names and identifying details, of course, have all been changed.
Distortion #1: Life Under God
“If we obey his commands, he’ll bless our lives, our families and our nation.”
In this scenario, “Our primary role is to determine what God approves (or disapproves) of and work vigilantly to remain within those boundaries.” Because then God will bless us.
It gives insecure people the illusion that they can control their world by pacifying their God.
Skye writes: “It is a potent mix of pagan superstition and biblical morality.”
Think of the ways we inadvertently reinforce this posture. “If we obey God, he will bless us.”
- If we pray hard enough, he’ll heal us.
- If we fast long enough, he’ll provide for our building project.
- If we tithe often enough, he’ll make sure we never go without.
There may be a story or two in the Bible that seem to support these equations, but if we look at the whole scope of the Scriptures, is this a universal promise God makes?
For every person healed, there are 1000s who die.
For every need met, there are thousands that aren’t.
The problem with the sweeping false promises we make is that they can be lethal to faith, particularly when we express them without caveats to young believers still discovering God. And perhaps especially when he doesn’t seem to live up to his end of the bargain.
Here’s an example of how that messaging can be troublesome. Tony grew up in Africa. He was home-schooled by his missionary mom while his father traveled to speak. The unspoken family mantra was that as long as they were doing God’s work, he’d protect and provide for them. After all, “The safest place on earth is the center of God’s will,” right?
It’s an easy statement I’ve heard so many times. “If you’re doing God’s will, nothing bad will happen to you…”
But what happens when he fails to live up to his end of this man-manufactured bargain?
When Tony’s family’s supporting church withdrew their funds, Tony questioned God’s promise to provide if only they’d obey. He questioned again when their Jeep broke down and they couldn’t afford to repair it. He questioned even more when his little sister was bitten by a poisonous snake and, because they didn’t have a working car, they couldn’t get to the clinic fast enough.
Tony’s sister didn’t survive—and he concluded that God didn’t exist. Or even if he did exist—that he didn’t keep his promises. Tony had grown up being told, “If we obey his commands, he’ll bless our lives and our family.”
His family had sacrificed everything to be “in the center of God’s will,” but in Tony’s mind, God had failed to provide and protect.
The thing is, the universal promises God gives us aren’t about outcomes or wealth or immunity from harm. What he does promise is peace, courage, hope, joy, comfort—despite the circumstances.
The MKs I work with wrestle with the guarantees we falsely attribute to scriptures. They want to believe in a life with no pain, no loss, no discomfort or illness. I want to believe that too. But that’s not what the Bible promises, despite the many miracles we see in it.
I invite you to join me in being careful not to unwittingly perpetuate the “If I obey, nothing bad will happen” overstatement. And I’m going to outline a bit later what we can actually emphasize that will be less damaging to young believers growing up in the world of ministry.
Distortion #2: Life Over God
“We […] reduce the Bible from God’s revelation of himself to merely a revelation of divine principles for life.”
Let me introduce you to Caitlyn. She’s ashamed.
She knows she should read her Bible every morning—she’s been taught that her whole life. She knows she should get more out of it when she does. She knows she should be bold, not embarrassed, when speaking of her faith. She knows her frequent depression is evidence of her spiritual weakness. She’s got a little pamphlet about “finding joy in your daily devotions” tucked into her Bible. There’s a “how to tell your friends about Jesus” book on the chair next to her bed. And her mom has signed her up for a series of online seminars that will help her to make lasting friendships.
That’s what Life Over God means. Instead of seeking relationship with God through his Word, Life Over God looks for practical concepts to live by. Principles to make life more fulfilling. Instructions to help us steer clear of pitfalls.
A majority of the self-help books you’ll find in Christian bookstores perpetuate this notion that the Bible is little more than a manual.
Relationship with God—which the Bible was written to establish—takes a back seat to five-step plans and checklists.
Does the Bible provide guidance? Yes! But is that its central goal? I don’t think so. The danger is that if we consider the Bible to be merely a series of life lessons, it can fulfill its purpose with no need for relationship with Jesus. “Just do steps 1, 2 and 3 and you’ll be fine.”
But that’s not what God draws us to.
Following the guidance of the Bible may be essential to deepening our faith, but it’s not the heart of what God offers us.
We need to do better at communicating to growing souls that the Bible is so much more than a manual.
Distortion #4: Life For God
“The most significant life is the one expended accomplishing great things in God’s service.”
This is the posture I wish I had a lot more time to unpack!
Particularly in the North American church, we’ve developed a bit of an elitist theology, predicated on the notion that the lives of people devoted to ministry are somehow more valuable and significant than the lives of those who are not.
Here’s the way that played out in the life of one young lady I know:
Josie had always wanted to be a dancer. She started lessons in Prague when she was 5. She loved the pink tutus and pirouettes and music. She studied hard, progressed fast and showed true promise. When she was 18, she earned scholarships to two prestigious dance academies.
It was a huge honor and the culmination of her years of arduous training. She looked forward to being a performer for a few years, then becoming a dance instructor when her stage days were over. But she was convicted by a sermon her pastor preached on the nobility of missions. Josie wanted her life to matter—to make a difference. And she couldn’t figure out how “just dancing” could do that…
After some painful soul searching, Josie decided that God had allowed her to enjoy the art of ballet during her youth, but that now he wanted her adult years to actually make a difference.
So she declined the scholarships she’d been offered and put away her pointe shoes. She enrolled in a four-year theology program at a reputable institution—because she needed her life to mean something to God.
After all, God values missionaries over ballerinas, right?
There’s an unspoken, subconscious belief there…
- Missionaries are more important than plumbers.
- Missionaries’ lives are more significant than those of businesswomen.
- Missionaries leave more of an eternal imprint than teachers—unless they’re missionary teachers.
Right? Wrong. I fiercely believe this: I am no more special because I work in ministry than anyone else. What I do is no more valuable that what a lawyer, painter, taxi driver, banker or a stay-at-home parent does.
Ministry is NOT a higher calling than any other activity or career. Yet I see the lie playing out in some of the MKs I serve. Imagine the guilt they feel when they’re drawn to non-ministry jobs. Imagine their frustration they feel when they find themselves trapped in something that is not their calling.
In their eagerness to become significant, too many MKs give up the lives they’re specifically designed for.
Like dancing in Josie’s case.
If you’re wondering what happened to Josie, the answer is…she burned out. After getting her degree and joining a church-planting team abroad, she discovered that devoting her life to something for which she was entirely unequipped and passionless was sapping her joy and purpose. Yet she’d been so sure that this was the only vocation that could possibly lend significance to her existence.
And that brings us to what the Bible actually tells us about what faith is. The spiritually sound posture Skye Jethani defines is not Life Under God, not Life Over God and not Life For God. It’s:
Life With God
The goal is not to earn God, the goal is God.
The goal is not to use God, the goal is God.
The goal is not so to serve God, the goal is God.
Life With God is about treasuring him above all else. The payoff? It’s meaning. Hope despite the circumstances. Relationship.
Skye writes: “It is not our circumstances or behaviors or radical decisions that give our lives meaning and hope, but our unity with God himself.”
How often do we distort the simple truth that God came to be with us?
- Not so we could follow rules that would earn us his favor
- Not to use his words to us as a self-help manual
- Not so we could devote our lives to a narrowly defined, specific kind of work
He wanted to be with us. He wants to be with us.
That is the message we need to communicate to the young believers in our lives. If we center our faith on being with God, those other things—obedience, service, trust, reverence—will naturally flow from it. And not as a means to earn his love, but as an expression of our love for him.
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So beautifully written and just what I needed to hear this morning as I was just wrestling with some of these exact suppositions. My word for 2013 is ABIDE, so it was good to be reminded of what really matters – being WITH God.
Immanuel! How many ways can I say amen? I believe the greatest tragedy of the fall is that it rendered us relationally dysfunctional. Thank God he takes the initiative in establishing and developing relationship with us.
Hi thank you very much for this. Having brought up five children in a small evangelical church it’s not just MKs who might get wrong emphases. As we grew as parents, made mistakes, struggled to keep going, wrong views of God sometimes crept in. I’m grateful that along the way we had godly examples among us and in other fellowships to help. Now with more time to pray and ponder I know that my relationship with God through the Lord Jesus Christ is the most Important matter, and His grace draws me back time and time again. It’s a life journey, not perfect till heaven.