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Is religious legalism wearing you down, your resentment growing? Where is the joy of the Christian life? Arterburn explains how man-made rules are often mistaken for spiritual accountability, resulting in an unhealthy faith. With Scripture as his guide, he leads you back to the liberating, grace-based faith that God designed for you!
One decade ago, best-selling authors Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton exposed the dangers of what they called "toxic faith," helping countless believers to understand and overcome their religious misconceptions.
Now, drawing upon an additional ten years of observation and experience, these authors go one step further, offering new insights and a positive approach to the dilemma in this long-awaited follow-up to their ground-breaking work.
Be set free from man-made rules, "churchianity," and legalistic religion.
Learn to recognize serious misinterpretations of vital biblical concepts such as "accountability."
Return to the roots of a strong, obedient, yet grace-filled relationship with your Creator.
To all who want to enter into deeper joy, fuller obedience, greater influence, and a healthier experience of God, More Jesus, Less Religion points the way back to the grace of the Lord and shows what it takes to avoid the pitfalls of toxic faith.
Stephen Arterburn is the founder and chairman of New Life Clinics, which provide Christian counseling and treatment throughout the United States and Canada. He is the host of the daily "New Life Live!" national radio program and creator of the Women of Faith Conferences, which have been attended by over 800,000 women across America. Stephen Arterburn is also a nationally known speaker, licensed minister, and best-selling author of more than two dozen books, including The Seven Keys to Spiritual Renewal and Mastering Your Moods. He resides with his family in Laguna Beach, California.
Jack Felton is a licensed therapist and an ordained minister at New Hope Christian Counseling Center and is president and founder of Compassion Move Ministries. Jack Felton is a frequent lecturer in the Southern California area and has numerous local and national television and radio appearances to his credit. He and his wife, Robin, and his children, Jack and Christy, live in Huntington Beach, California.
THE WAY THINGS ARE
A Healthy Faith Is Based in Reality
Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train
yourself to be godly.
1 Timothy 4:7
David wrote, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me" (Psalm 23:4).
That’s the expression and expectation of a healthy faith. Not only that God’s presence will go with us, but that there are some dark, deadly, shadowed places on this old planet of ours. The valley of the shadow of death exists in this world. I have seen it. So have you. It exists because we live in a fallen world. A healthy faith gets us through that dark valley. Unhealthy faith makes us pretend the valley doesn’t even exist!
The same David also penned these words:
For troubles without number surround me;
my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see.
They are more than the hairs of my head,
and my heart fails within me. (Psalm 40:12)
That, too, is an expression of a healthy faith. David told God (who already knew) the precise condition of his heart. And it wasn’t pretty. Earlier in that same psalm, he described this incident from his own life story: “I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God” (verses 1-3).
Slimy pits exist in our world just as dark valleys exist. And just as surely as believers must pass through dark valleys, so they occasionally fall into “the mud and mire,” needing rescue, cleansing, and comfort.
It’s true. It’s real. It’s the way things are—and David never shrinks from telling it all. Healthy faith helps us embrace who we are, what we are, and where we are. David declares a failing, fallible humanity and a loving, powerful God, who chooses to involve himself in the lives of individual men and women. A healthy faith acknowledges that we are neither infallible nor omniscient nor omnipotent nor omnipresent. (I have met some capable people in my life, but to this day I’ve never met anyone who could be in two places at the same time!) It’s only by dependence on a loving God (who is all those things) that we can get through the shadowed valleys and out of the slimy pits.
Reality says we are the creatures, not the Creator.
We are vulnerable, not invulnerable.
We are flesh and blood, not steel and stone.
We are men and women, not cherubim and seraphim.
We are his sons and daughters; we are not him.
We have to embrace the fact that we are a people who must live by grace through faith every day of our lives. I’m impressed that the writer to the Hebrews urged his flock to “encourage one another daily…so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Hebrews 3:13). In other words, we need grace, encouragement, wisdom, and mutual accountability every day of our lives to keep from being hardened or deceived by sin.
That’s the way it is. That’s the black and white of it. That is reality. And we must either deny our vulnerability or deal with it.
REALITY CAN HURT
Discomfort is reality. Pain is reality. Conflict is reality. Spiritual warfare is reality. Healthy faith helps us embrace all of these biblical realities, constantly availing ourselves of the reality of Christ’s help and presence. Unhealthy, toxic faith denies the dark side, thus creating an even greater conflict.
A healthy faith accepts who we are and where we are rather than trying to conjure some artificial image for people who are not comfortable accepting us as we are. If we’re based in reality, then the reality is that we’ve all failed, we’re all sinners, and we’re all stumbling along the way. We thrash about in slimy pits now and then; we feel fear as we walk narrow trails in dark valleys.
In other words, we are 100 percent, certifiably fallible—that is, human. David reminded his readers that God never forgets that fact (even though we may). He wrote: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13-14).
Some branches of evangelical Christianity teach that believers can achieve a level of “sanctification” where they no longer sin. That is not only unbiblical, it is just plain unrealistic. Reality means seeing, understanding, and accepting the truth about who I am. And how could the old apostle have said it any plainer?
If we say that we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves,
and refusing to accept the truth. But if we confess our sins to
him, he can be depended on to forgive us and to cleanse us
from every wrong.… If we claim we have not sinned, we are
lying and calling God a liar, for he says we have sinned.
(1 John 1:8-10, TLB)
Do you see what John was saying about living in reality? If we choose the path of deception and deny the obvious truth, in so doing we call God a liar!
If, on the other hand, we walk in reality, that is, “if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (verse 7). That’s where I want to be. Walking in the light. Admitting who I am. Enjoying the companionship of Christian friends and the Lord Jesus himself, experiencing daily cleansing from sin.
Sometimes a believer, while not outwardly denying his own sin, gets so caught up in focusing on the faults and shortcomings of others that he becomes oblivious to his own problems and blind spots. A wife, for instance, may absorb herself in the task of “helping hubby grow and change.” Under such pressure, however, that husband may decide he will never change or yield ground. But if that wife would begin to face the truth of her own weaknesses, discovering strength and help in the living Christ to gain spiritual ground, she might find she has freed her husband to grow and change in the same way.
THE WAY I T REALLY I S
Growing Christians strive to see the world and their lives as they really are, not through some stained-glass filter, not through the grid of some externally imposed myth or make-believe worldview. They do not feel compelled to “explain away” hardships or events that mystify them, but are willing to live with some ambiguity, trusting God to rule the world in righteousness—even if that means difficulty for them. As with Job, we must sometimes come to that place of humility before God where we say, “Behold, I am insignificant; what can I reply to You? I lay my hand on my mouth” (Job 40:4,
Healthy faith refuses to sweep suffering, daily struggles with the sinful nature, and inevitable relationship difficulties under a rug, pretending they don’t exist. Instead, it brings those issues into the light of Scripture, the scrutiny of the Holy Spirit, and under the mutual counsel and care of trusted brothers and sisters in Christ. Unhealthy faith, on the other hand, denies reality. For those who subscribe to such false belief systems, faith is not based on a belief in the supernatural power of God, but on a desire to see magical solutions that stop pain. They hope in a servant God determined to make life easy.
Healthy faith acknowledges the supernatural power of God and does not need miraculous intervention to prove that God is real. The healthy believer does not look for God to magically change the circumstances, but looks to him in the midst of trials. Because faith grows strong, there is no need to deny reality. Believing God is faithful to help them through their trials and tribulations, healthy believers have no need to run from reality. They see the problems before them, do what they can to resolve them, and trust God to do the rest. It’s dangerous to live any other way. Just ask Rebecca.
REBECCA’ S STORY
Rebecca Grant had lived a hard life in the hot desert town of Barstow, California. Her father died when she was very young, and her mother struggled to keep her and her sister in clothes. They rented a small house and her mom worked two jobs. During the day, her mother sold tickets at the Greyhound Bus depot; at night she sold tickets at the theater. On her days off she cleaned the house and did chores. It wasn’t a wonderful existence, but her persevering spirit kept the family going.
Rebecca loved her mother and knew how hard she worked to provide the family with the basics of food and clothing. Some of her friends made fun of her because she didn’t have a dad and because her mother had to work so much. Their comments bothered Rebecca, but they made her respect her mother even more.
At fourteen, Rebecca began to work. All the money she earned went into a bowl along with her mother’s money. They took out only what they needed for the essentials. Rebecca’s mother put the rest in a passbook account for the days when Rebecca and her sister would need assistance with college fees.
Rebecca’s mother was a woman of faith, a Christian who believed God had a plan for her life. If she was faithful, she believed she would see that plan and God would bless her faithfulness. She didn’t waver from her beliefs. In the toughest of times she didn’t doubt God’s love for her. She trusted him to take care of her and her two daughters. She would do all she could to provide for her family and would leave the rest up to God. She never worked on Sunday and always took the girls to church, where they prayed and sang together.
Rebecca was close to her mother, but not to her mother’s God. She enjoyed going to church because of the people there. It was something out of the ordinary routine of the week. She liked it, but she didn’t become a Christian. In fact, she doubted there was a God; if he did exist, she felt distant from him. He had never spoken to her or shown himself to her, and he certainly hadn’t made life easy for her. She wanted to believe, but she rejected what she heard in church.
What Rebecca heard in her mother’s church was a gospel that many preachers dispense, a distortion of truth that is sometimes manipulative. She heard that if a person becomes a Christian, life will become easy. God will take care of everything. Miracles will occur and there will be no more problems. She was told that true believers in Christ are protected from the evil of the world. Faith in Christ was presented as an insurance policy against pain in the present. Rebecca couldn’t help but wonder, If God is so loving, why does he allow my life to be so hard? Why does he force my mother to struggle so much?
If there really were a God, he would help us.
The expectation that faith in God would yield a problem-free life caused Rebecca to abandon her search for truth and latch onto anything that would bring relief. First, she turned to alcohol. Then drugs. Finally, she became so promiscuous that she contracted incurable genital herpes. Her maladies only proved to her that God either did not exist or was not interested in her. Her toxic faith caused her behavior to become increasingly self-destructive.
THE MYTH OF PROBLEM- FREE LIVING
Rebecca’s experience is not uncommon. The expectation of an easy life from God has produced more agnostics and atheists than has any other false belief. When people live faithfully but suffer pain and discomfort anyway, many turn from Christianity. They never grasp that a healthy faith does not shield a believer from pain, but rather gives a new perspective on life and a renewed trust in God that lessens the pains of existence. Each time a negative event occurs, God can use it to bring greater faith and deeper peace.
But what many people hear is entirely different. They hear that acceptance of Christ or belief in God causes all problems to vanish; they learn that present problems go away once a person has turned his or her life over to God.
But it just isn’t so. That isn’t reality.
Those who cling to this unbiblical myth insist: A strong faith will protect me from problems and pain.
Did it protect James, the brother of John, whom Herod put to death with the sword? Did it protect Jim Elliott from being murdered by Auca Indians in Ecuador? Did it keep Navigators founder Dawson Trotman from drowning in a lake as he attempted to rescue another swimmer? Did it protect Cassie Bernall when she said, “Yes, I believe” to the murderers at Columbine High School?
For many, a belief in God and the practice of faith are just fine until tragedy strikes. Then comes the realization that the practice of faith does not accumulate brownie points of protection. It does not guarantee God’s intervention. Bad things do happen to good people, and it has nothing to do with degrees of faith. We live in a world where big animals eat little animals. Decay, rot, and death are realities. Faith provides perspective, perseverance, and purpose through the tough times, but it will not invariably protect anyone from the hard realities of life.
Those who have walked with Christ through the centuries have always been beset by pain, poverty, tragedy, illness, beatings, and other hardships. But the problems helped build their faith, not destroy it. The trials drew believers closer to God because their faith was real before the difficulties started.
Those who believe because they want infallible protection have picked the wrong faith; in believing, we often invite problems that we would not have otherwise. So Paul writes, “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (Philippians 1:29).
This is one of the problems with faith healing on television. Now, don’t get me wrong; I believe God can and does miraculously heal people. But true miracles, by definition, happen rarely. If a healing occurred every time a preacher stood in front of an audience or a television camera, it would not be a miracle, but the norm. Supernatural healing is not the norm. It happens, but usually when the cameras are off.
The problem with claiming “common healing miracles” is that it produces false hope in some and shame in others. Some think that if they can just be good enough, God will heal them. That is not reality. You can’t be good enough, because we all mess up every day. If God heals you, it is by his grace, not your goodness. Others think that if they are not healed, then God is angry with them or their guilt is greater than that of others. This is not reality either. I know personally of instances in which God healed someone in the midst of his or her sin. Their sins were the worst of the worst, but God’s grace touched these people, they were healed, and he drew them to Jesus.
The theology of many faith healers has caused serious problems in the Christian church. A great friend of mine is the wife of a man who pastors a charismatic church. They believe in speaking in tongues and in a God who is powerful enough to heal anyone, anywhere, any time. But this dear friend and her husband are rooted and grounded in reality. They believe it is far more important that a heart be healed than an ingrown toenail. They believe God is more concerned about the secrets of the soul than the length of a leg. She said that she and her husband got tired of the show of people falling backward, so they stopped the show and went to work with Jesus on the hearts of their people. They have never been the same, nor has their church.
Be sure that what you look to as evidence of the power of God is real. And do not draw conclusions about God from people who are more focused on a rolling camera than a real God.
THE MYTH OF “INSTANT PEACE”
Another form of denying reality often says words like these: “If I am truly faithful, I will not experience grief, sorrow, anger, or confusion in the face of tragedy or loss. Instead, I will keep my chin up, my eyes dry, my lips smiling, so others will see how strong I am as a Christian. When tragedy strikes, true believers should have real peace about it.”
Really? Since when? This serious problem leads to unresolved emotions and a complete split from reality. I have heard people who have lost children, spouses, fortunes, and dreams say that they have this “wonderful peace” just moments after they hear the awful news. What they have is shock, not peace! Shock is a natural reaction designed to protect us, to cushion the reality and depth of our pain and other feelings. Those who profess instant peace will suffer a troubled future full of a greater pain than the original loss and disappointment.
Often those who express their anger and disappointment are challenged to be stronger, to trust more, to find peace. It is true that the genuine believer will find peace, but it will be on the other side of resolving the rage that comes with almost every lost expectation. I have heard “spiritual giants” tell people in pain to have more joy. But these sufferers cannot even spell joy while trying to grasp a life with the pain of divorce or the void of a lost child. People need time to resolve emotions. Instant peace delays and prolongs the time it takes to adjust and move on to a new life.
Someone will say, “But doesn’t Scripture tell us to be thankful in everything?” Yes, it does. But while true faith will lead a person to gratitude for adversity, it is not instantaneous. Scripture does not demand that we be grateful instantaneously. It takes time, often lots of time. Those who experience instant peace are not showing instant gratitude to God; they are denying how God made them as physical, spiritual, and emotional beings.
Tragedies bring various responses. God does not seem to deal with them or the people affected by them in a predictable manner. For some, there seems to be a gift of peace that prevents a total collapse. For others, that peace does not surface for months or even years. Whatever the reaction, those who experience peace early are no better or worse, no stronger or weaker. The experience of one person should not be demanded for another. Lack of peace does not mean lack of faith. People in pain do not need sermons on peace. They need love and care and assistance. Remember, faith in God will produce a peace that will go beyond all understanding. It probably won’t be an instant peace, but it will be a real peace.
THE POLLYANNA MYTH
In this version of warped reality, believers tell themselves, “Everything that happens to me is good.”
Who says? Where does the Bible state such a thing?
A godly woman married a man, lived with him ten years, and watched him die of cancer. Another woman in her church insisted she be happy about it: “God has done a good thing. Everything he does is good.” Two years later, the woman was married again, and after one year of marriage, her husband died. Again, the lady from church demanded her friend claim this as a great and good victory provided by God. The bereaved woman recovered from her loss, married for a third time, and shortly afterward discovered that her husband had cancer.
This was not good; this was horrible. It comes under the classification of catastrophic loss. There is nothing good about three dead husbands. There is nothing good about a disease that eats your flesh and organs and then leaves you for dead. There is nothing good about watching three men die. To throw this at someone in the midst of such horrible loss is gross insensitivity.
Can God produce something good from it? Oh yes—and he will. That he can take something this horrible and transform it into something powerful for this woman is part of his wonderful and miraculous nature. But first, when we are with someone like her, shouldn’t we just be with her? Shouldn’t we leave our pat answers at home and just be there and share her grief? I think so. If Jesus can weep at the death of a friend, I think we can weep too. And I think we can weep with others rather than sweep their trauma under the rug of shallow faith.
Some church people believe everything is an immediate blessing. To them, only a real Christian is able to say, “Praise the Lord!” as the house burns down, the car is totaled, a child is hurt, or the cow dies. I believe if you told these people that they were going to be fried in oil, they would grin and say, “Praise the Lord anyway!”
Is this real? Can a person in touch with reality be grateful for times of crisis? Is it a measure of one’s faith to be able to greet each new piece of bad news with a big grin and a trite expression? I don’t think so. I think it is evidence of unreal people manufacturing an unreal response. They try to rationalize that everything is good, even though it looks bad, feels bad, and is bad. They grow up believing that a positive attitude must be used to face every crisis. They deny how they really feel and thus delay dealing with the pain and agony.
The woman who lost two husbands and was about to lose another was not grateful for their deaths, nor did she believe the events were good. She was quite angry until she resolved her hurt over the losses. Years later she looked back and said that none of the problems was good, but that God used each one for her good. He took the crisis and made it a faith-building experience.
The widow’s perspective is much more accurate than the lady who demanded each new loss be viewed as a good thing. They were not good; they were terrible losses. But God takes such losses and over time makes them into something good. God will work everything together for our good if we will allow him to do so. Bad things provide God with a stage to produce something good.
Consider the first time the phrase “not good” is used in Scripture. God himself uses it to describe Adam’s condition without a wife. The Lord said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18). Surely if the Lord himself could say it was “not good” for Adam to be alone, we do not have to say it is good when a wife or husband is left alone through an untimely death. The Bible does not insist that we call “good” every event that happens in this fallen world. What it does insist is that God will take even the bad events of life and work them together for the good of his children. And that’s quite a different thing.
People in pain have enough problems without some well-meaning folks trying to short-circuit the grief process by declaring that everything that happens is a good event sent from God. While God allows bad things, he does not cause them. The toxic thinking that all things are good makes people wonder whether God might not really be cruel. It forces them to see God as a grim joker who inflicts pain and expects his followers to be happy about it.
This Pollyanna perspective may produce quick relief, but it blocks reality. A loving God wants the best for us and is grieved when we miss it. True faith in him allows these bad things to be woven together in a protective covering that grows stronger in fiber and softer to the touch.
My mother grew up with a version of warped, unhealthy faith. She believed that dedicating her sons to God would spare them the heartache that other children were forced to endure. She felt that somehow her prayers and faith vaccinated us from evil, that temptations would not likely come our way or, if they did, we would not succumb.
Then her father committed suicide. His death hit her much harder than it would have most people, because she thought she and her family were protected. Still, despite her devastation, she didn’t give up her belief in a God who would prevent the natural course of nature or evil from harming her family.
But when my brother contracted AIDS and eventually died, my mother was confronted in a most painful way with the fact that her faith provided no supernatural vaccination against terrible events. She struggled with my brother’s illness; she struggled with her faith. She slid into a deep depression, and at times I didn’t know if she would return to being the wonderful woman we had always known.
Fortunately, she did recover. How? She dealt with her confusing ideas about faith. She yelled at God. She told him it wasn’t fair. She admitted she had come to her faith as a way of making life easier. As she shared her anger and frustration with a God who did not do things according to her fondest wishes and expectations, she slowly recovered from the death of my brother. She also recovered her faith.
Today that faith is whole. It has brought my mother into a new understanding of who God is and how he works. Today she is more deeply committed and better equipped than ever to help others who are looking for someone who understands.
As I look back on that time, it seems to me that God was building her faith, rooting her more deeply in reality than ever before. When my father died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of sixty-eight, it became apparent that she would need the deeper faith God’s grace had forged within her through the death of my brother. My mom and dad loved each other dearly and their lives were each other’s. To be left alone so suddenly was a burden she never could have carried with a naive faith. But she did carry that burden, even growing under it. Within a year of Dad’s death, Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. She sailed through what would have wrecked a weaker person. Her ability to accept reality equipped her for a tough turn of events. And through those tough times I watched her grow in wisdom. I am so proud of her and what she has become through the power of God’s grace!
YOU’RE NOT ALONE
If you’re disillusioned because you were sold a form of faith that didn’t pan out, you’re not alone. Your pain is shared by many others who must deal with tragedy and at the same time resolve many issues of toxic belief. Their disappointments in God increase their pain, just as they may have increased yours.
Let the Great Teacher use your pain to bring you closer to him. It does not have to be a barrier to God. It can be a bridge.
Jesus, the real Son of God who calls us to live in reality, gives us this counsel: “I have told you all this so that you will have peace of heart and mind. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows; but cheer up, for I have overcome the world” ( John 16:33, TLB).
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