Follies Into Which Christians Tend to Stumble

Follies Into Which Christians Tend to Stumble

The following items are not in any particular order. Several of these topics have earned entire essays elsewhere on this website. It seemed possibly helpful, however, to concisely describe common deceits into which we as Christians often fall. Many of the following errors are in this list because I recognized them in myself.

Most but not all of the following items address primarily Christians of the more pneumatic persuasion—i.e., who acknowledge the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit and who seek a personal, dynamic relationship with God.

1. It is next to impossible for Christians in the West to rid ourselves of our Western-centric view of God’s actions on this planet. We tend to believe, even if we would never admit it publicly, that all those zillions of believers in Africa and Asia and Latin America, as they become more mature in their relationships with Jesus, will look more and more like us in their beliefs and practices.

Please note: Those African and Asian and Latin American believers are really, really screwed up, and they are ignorant, and they are foolish, and they are sometimes selfish, and their misunderstanding of scripture is staggering; moreover, we Western believers are really, really screwed up, and we are ignorant, and we are foolish, and we are often selfish, and our misunderstanding of scripture is staggering.

We’re blind and deceived in different areas. It’s not that they need to become more like us, or even that we need to become more like them. We all need to become more like Jesus.

2. A common misunderstanding has plagued God’s people since the second century—i.e., belief that God is highly partial to our holding correct doctrine. I can assure you that no mortal on this planet has anything close to a truly deep and comprehensive rational understanding of God and of spiritual stuff, no matter how many biblical proof texts s/he can quote. You don’t. I don’t. It’s OK to play around with various ideas, but it’s not OK to insist that, in order for someone to be an acceptable part of our in-group, they must believe (or practice) certain things the way we do. Correct doctrine is way down on God’s list of priorities for us. That list is topped with items such as God’s wanting us to love our neighbors, to open our hands and our hearts to the poor and helpless, to develop more intense prayer lives, to work for justice, and even to develop talents in music and the arts and theatre. I dare even to speculate that, given the choice between our taking care of our bodies through regular exercise and our holding correct beliefs concerning the Trinity or biblical inspiration or evolution or church polity, God would go for the jogging option almost every time.

3. Everything does not have a Significant Spiritual Component. There is free will. Accidents and coincidences do happen. Randomly. There are events that occur because of the basic natural laws that God created bazillions of years ago. If a believer experiences a rash of illnesses or accidents, that does not necessarily mean s/he is “under spiritual attack.” Many people at a retreat I attended several years ago came down with nausea and diarrhea; it might have been a result of spiritual attack, as some proposed, but it probably meant simply that a lot of people were exposed to a stomach virus. I am thoroughly aware of the reality of the demonic, and have occasionally engaged in rather dramatic spiritual warfare. Connecting nefarious spiritual activities with bad things that happen to us certainly can be valid at times—but it is very often a symptom of egocentrism in which we imagine that we are so very important that Satan and his minions are highly focused on bringing us down. I repeat: In some cases, that’s valid. But much (most?) of the time, in my observation, we’re just puffing ourselves up when we make such statements.

Ditto for tragic events. Please, please, never let the words pass through your lips when you are addressing someone who has just lost a loved one, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away (quoting Job 1:21),” or “The Lord knows what he is doing,” or “We just can’t understand God’s ways.” That is so, so wrong. God had nothing to do with it! We die. Sometimes we die prematurely and/or tragically. God still has nothing to do with it. He doesn’t want it to happen. He doesn’t cause it. He doesn’t “take” a loved one. Pardon the crudity, but I think sometimes it’s helpful to publicly admit the common saying that “Shit happens.” Yes it does. This is a fallen world. The good news, of course, is that ALL these bad things are redeemed!

4. Beware of unconsciously inventing spiritual justifications for personal beliefs. This happens frequently with political convictions: We fantasize (incorrectly in so many cases) that we have learned spiritual principles based on scripture. We often read into scripture what we want to see, however. We arrive at our political (or cultural or artistic) beliefs as a result of cultural and familial factors, then find scriptural “proof texts” to Christianize those beliefs, thus making them Much More Important than they otherwise might appear to be—e.g., bringing up the wickedness of gun control in America in a teaching about love (if you’re politically conservative); or describing how capitalism may be a major “principality” against which to pray (if you’re politically liberal).

5. We should be much more parsimonious in use of phrases such as, “The Lord told me. . .” or “The Lord has shown me. . .” We tend to use such phrases when we have developed a strong conviction about something, or when we have made a significant decision, and we assume that the strength of our feelings indicates that said feelings are from the Holy Spirit. In my observation, in many such instances the Lord said no such thing. Besides, even if I am correct and God did tell me something, more often than not there is no compelling reason why I should communicate that fact. If it is truly from God, then God himself will validate what I say or do. Broadcasting the idea that what I am doing or saying is from God is often simply a sop to my ego.

When I prophesy (a calling from several decades ago) I rarely say, “The Lord says. . .” or “God told me. . .” or whatever. I simply speak what I believe to be the truth that the Holy Spirit has revealed to me. Alas, more often than not God’s word through me doesn’t “take.” People in my local Christian fellowship are quick to dismiss my words because they don’t value me. I suppose people might pay a little more attention to my pronouncements if I were to insist, “Listen, folks, you don’t understand, what I just said is from the Holy Spirit—it’s not my idea but God’s, and you really need to strongly consider it.” But even in that circumstance, in my experience, people tend to accept or reject truths not so much on their merits but on the basis of who the messenger is; whether or not I claim to be speaking God’s word, the ultimate judgment of what I say will often be made according to people’s opinion of me instead of their willingness to consider and pray about the words I have offered.

It is extremely important that we keep our spiritual antennas tuned at all times. God speaks through unexpected messengers—according to Numbers 22, he once spoke through a donkey! We must always test messages we hear, no matter their source.

6. Beware of inventing “spiritual principles” based on a single verse or even a small handful of statements in scripture, especially when using English translations. An example: I recently read a claim that Psalm 32:3 reveals failure to confess sin as the cause of osteoporosis—although the better translation of the Hebrew is probably strength, not bone, in spite of how the Greek translates it.

RSV Psalm 32:3 When I declared not my sin, my [bones/strength] wasted away through my groaning all day long.

ὅτι ἐσίγησα ἐπαλαιώθη τὰ ὀστᾶ μου ἀπὸ τοῦ κράζειν με ὅλην τὴν ἡμέραν

‎כִּֽי־הֶ֭חֱרַשְׁתִּי בָּל֣וּ עֲצָמָ֑י בְּ֜שַׁאֲגָתִ֗י כָּל־הַיּֽוֹם׃

The Bible is not a book of magic. It is not appropriate to search through it in order to uncover cool new doctrines. Beware the temptation to invent new concepts or spiritual principles or even terminologies that appear to be based on a “deeper understanding” of scripture than other people have. More often than not, such “new revelations” or understandings are based not on God’s wisdom but rather on one’s vain desire to appear exceptionally wise and spiritual.

Here’s an example from the internet (accessed 6 August, 2012, http://www.godspeak.org/hs_lessons/hs25_week6.html):

Did you know that God releases angels to guard our health when we live in a way that honors and obeys Him? That comes right from Psalm 91:9-12: “Because you have made the Lord, who is my refuge, even the Most High, your dwelling place—no evil shall befall you, nor shall any plague come near your dwelling; for He shall give His angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways.” This means that most of the time God protects our health when we honor Him with a holy lifestyle.

This person apparently discovered a “spiritual principle” based on a strongly mechanistic/legalistic reading of a single verse. There are thousands of such examples among evangelical Christians, and for the most part they occur because people hold a quasi-magical view of scripture. It’s a dangerous practice.

7. Beware the strong tendency to assume that you’re in a particular situation because God wants to minister through you. That may be the case, of course, at least in part. But often it’s not. When “experienced” Christians visit our small group or any other small Christian meeting, I can almost count on their making many extended, “wise” comments during a Bible teaching. It appears to be their assumption that they have been sent to spread true biblical wisdom to this group of strangers. They are here, and ipso facto God must intend to use them as the primary ministers. Ditto during prayer time—strangers almost inevitably will dominate the time, apparently assuming that, because they are present, God must want to provide his blessings through them. Rarely do such people ask to receive prayer.

In a new setting, consider the possibility that God may want you to learn from or be blessed by others. It’s not always about you.

8. Don’t misinterpret Romans 8:28-29:

28We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren.

Paul is not saying that, through some mysterious ability, God is able to transform reality so that everything that happens becomes a good thing. Evil remains evil. Always. The Bible proclaims loudly that evil exists and that it is contrary to God’s will. God does not want bad, painful, dark, evil things to happen. It appears, however, that he is unable to prevent them without creating even greater evil in the long run. What God promises is that, for those who love him, he will take everything bad that happens to them and use it to bless them. The specific way in which he will do this is that he will use any situation—no matter how evil, how horrible, how painful—to make us more like Jesus (that’s the point of verse 29). And that, after all, is his ultimate goal for us.

9. To varying degrees almost all of us confuse emotions and/or unusual mental phenomena with spirituality. By definition, spirituality has to do with the spiritual world, which is inhabited by God, by angels, by demons, etc. Emotions and mental phenomena are functions of our brains, and although they can and do interact with the spiritual world, cerebral activities are their own thing and need not reference spiritual stuff. If during a powerful worship service I experience extremely strong emotions, that does not mean that I have had a spiritual experience or have encountered God in an especially intimate way. That may have happened, because when we have close encounters with God it’s pretty rare that such phenomena fail to flow over into our emotional experiences. But it’s quite possible my strong emotional experience occurred solely because of the music or my lack of sleep, and God had nothing to do with it. Aesthetics does not equal spirituality. Emotion does not equal spirituality.

10. We easily slip into the error of seeking to please God rather than to know him. The former is the basis of religion, including the Christian religion, and no religion (including Christianity) can in fact help us be acceptable to our Creator. From the beginning, what God sought was to have a relationship with his creatures; he did not create us to be a race of sycophants or spiritual groupies. A delightful presentation of this concept is in the short children’s story The Reluctant Princess, found on this website.

11. Corollary to the previous item: Legalism has always been the default error of the human race when people consider relating to God. It is our (fallen) nature to seek Rules that we can follow in order to please God. And our strong tendency is to select only rules that we believe we can follow, while many others cannot, thereby showing us to be the in-group while many other miserable souls are in the out-group. Rules are about us—what we need to do to be considered righteous, to please God. That’s not what God is about. He wants a free, loving relationship with us. Anytime we begin fixating on “correct behavior” (our own or others’), that should be a warning flag that we are focusing more on ourselves and not on our Lord and his presence with us and love for us.

12. A corollary to the previous corollary concerning legalism: Especially in certain parts of Western Christianity, there often is a strong tendency to believe that God’s highest will is for us to be involved in professions/activities that care directly for others. Caring for others is great, of course. Loving our neighbors is God’s second highest priority for us. But being a nurse or preschool teacher or a social worker or a counselor or professional church worker (i.e., “minister”) is not necessarily a more noble calling than being an ice cream salesperson or an asphalt worker or a banker. In most cases we should simply work out our professional goals in accordance with our own predilections and accompanied by much prayer, since God knows a lot more than we do and (1) he may have a specific professional calling for us (or he may not, delighting rather in letting us make our own choices)—in which case it would be good to know that; and (2) since he is so much smarter than we, he can provide a lot of feedback about paths that, contrary to our personal preferences, may be really bad ideas, in which case it would be good to know that.

Absent divine revelation about a career, however, we shouldn’t feel any kind of burden to go into a “helping” profession. That’s great when it suits our personalities and desires—but we should not go in that direction because of a misguided idea that it’s more pleasing to God than other paths. It gives God no greater delight when I become a missionary than if I decide to be a steelworker. Often we pursue helping professions out of guilt or out of ego or out of an unconscious desire to earn our way into God’s favor—and all those motives are in the end destructive.

13. Although not inherently wrong, overuse of Christian jargon can be annoying at best, and at worst can needlessly alienate nonbelievers and new Christians. Those of us who are quite familiar with the English scriptures often use biblical metaphors when modern ones would do just fine and would not sound as hackneyed.

*I know what you mean when you refer to having your quiet time, or a season of prayer, or sanctification, or being lost (or saved). But a non-Christian may find such terminology rather cultish.

*Is there a compelling reason to refer to “the years that the locust devoured” rather than “some really tough times”?

*Whether or not I am speaking prophetically, must I draw my fellowship’s strong attention to a spiritual attack by crying, “I sound the trumpet!,” when I could just as easily use standard English terms that would not disaffect nonbelievers present, such as, “All right everyone, pay attention?!”

*I don’t know if it’s regional, or if I was simply protected during the first eighteen years of my Christian existence, but after I moved to Illinois I began hearing a phrase that still makes me cringe: If I’m going on a trip, various people will promise to pray for travel mercies. Ouch! Why not just say, “I’ll pray for you”? Again, there’s nothing at all wrong with that, and it’s sweet and generous of people to wish me well. I only hope they don’t use such language in front of nonbelievers.

We use jargon so often that much of the time we may not even realize we’re doing it. Here’s my suggestion: Always try to place yourself into the mind of everyone who can hear you, and seek God’s wisdom about the vocabulary you use, given your audience. Even if you’re speaking only to people who have been Christians for many years, it may be a useful exercise to practice using standard English rather than jargon—after all, one of those Christians may be someone like myself who cringes so strongly in response to Christianese that in the midst of his pain he may miss what you’re saying. And if you’re addressing a nonbeliever or someone who has only recently started reading the Bible, you would do well to consider using common language rather than ancient-metaphors-translated-into-English, lest your religious practice (and use of jargon is a function of religion rather than of true spirituality) deceive your listener into believing that she must surrender her intellect in order to be a follower of Jesus.

I have no desire to establish a new Rule here. I’m simply saying, Think before you speak.

14. Many of us unconsciously let news media inform the focus of our prayers and our attention and our discussions/thoughts. For example, international issues that the popular press covers are what we tend to pray about and bring up in discussions, even though we may be ignoring much more significant events because they’re not covered by the media. An example of such misplaced attention: the fact that as many people have died in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the past generation as were killed in the WWII Holocaust—and yet Christians rarely talk about or pray about the Congo because it’s not covered by the media. We should NOT let news media direct our prayer lives!