a more honest theology.

blog image a more honest theology“for my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.  – isaiah 55:8-9

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even though I find a lot of things in the Bible confusing, i have always been strangely drawn toward Jesus.  i can’t really describe it, but at the end of the day, no matter how hard i’ve tried to shake Jesus, i know i can’t.

my faith doesn’t all make sense to me.

but it doesn’t have to.

that’s what faith is–that leap we take between what make sense and what doesn’t.  

it’s why i never try to explain faith through logic and reason because it will never work. logic and reason are human inventions anyway and are imperfect.

plus, a life centered on the beatitudes will never fully align with the usual world.

there’s no doubt, my faith often wavers and i wonder why in the $*#^!&!*! God isn’t showing up to save the day in the ways i often hope for. people aren’t healed the way i want them to.  life doesn’t miraculously shift the way i think it should.  chronic illness, mental illness, death, divorce, generational poverty, abuse, and a whole host of other-hard-things-in-this-world continue to persist for so many.

there is so much about life that i will never understand.

but i also no longer think we are supposed to understand.

the other day i was with a friend who is healing from all kinds of hard things.  coming from a charismatic fundamentalist background, she was raised with what i call “if…then…” theology: “if we pray enough and in the right ways, then life will be easier….if we confess sins in a certain way, then we won’t be sick anymore….if we do this or do that then God will take care of us in the way we want to be taken care of.”

it creates so much shame when life isn’t going the way we had hoped.  oh, i know this feeling!

for me, even after all these years of becoming more free from jacked-up theology centered on performing a certain way for God in order to get certain things, when the going gets rough in my life my first weird thought is:  “am i somehow not right with God and that’s the problem here…if i only could ____, then God would somehow make everything easier.”  it’s crazy thinking to someone who has never been taught this kind of theology, but for those who have experienced it, you know what i’m talking about.

one of the reasons i go a little nuts when it comes to church stuff is that i end up talking to a lot of people who have been fed this kind of spiritual food for a long time.  it’s common in a lot of circles.  go to any Christian bookstore and see what i mean.  listen to some popular preachers or watch Christian TV and it gets even scarier.

everyone who’s been indoctrinated with an “if….then…” theology when it comes to God tends to be a bit of a head-case when it comes to freedom.  we’re easily convinced whatever-negative-that’s-happening-to-us is somehow our fault in the faith department.

we rarely feel free.

i’m learning more than ever that we can’t control God.

and it’s not fair to blame God for everything-that’s-wrong-in-the-world, either.

life this side of heaven is weird.  broken. hard. confusing.

but it’s also beautiful and good.

to me, the kingdom is God’s goodness seeping in, here, now, in little and big ways. it’s love piercing through the darkness. grace breathing new life into us despite our circumstances.  it’s being healed in some areas and still sick in others.  it’s miracles that don’t look like miracles but really are. it’s the weird paradox of dark & light mixed together in the same space.

Jesus was crazy in the eyes of the world.  and so not clear.  he told weird stories and healed in all kinds of creative ways.  he kept telling the religious leaders that they were on the wrong track and told the hurting and lost they were on the right one.  he honored pain & humility and railed against spiritual pride.

i have come to see that a more honest and practical theology is not a popular one.

because it doesn’t really sell.

we’d much rather get a solid “if i just do this, then God will do this….”nailed down and call it a day.  we prefer the law over mercy. certainty over doubt.  clarity over mystery. strength over humility.  works over trust.

these days, as a pastor and spiritual director, it is sometimes hard to offer this honest of a theology, one with more questions than answers. it’s painful to sit with friends who are struggling in all kinds of hard ways and tell them God loves them but i, too, don’t understand why life has to be so freaking hard all the time.  aren’t i supposed to have a better answer than that?

but i don’t.

because any other answer is dishonest.

i have so much hope in God. i believe God is alive & well & working in all kinds of beautiful ways that we don’t understand.  i think God is with us even when we can’t feel it, that he’ll never leave us, never forsake us.  that he weeps with us & rejoices with us. that he makes beauty from ashes.  that when we’re weak, we are strong.  that small mercies heal big wounds.  that a little love goes a long way.

and that i really can’t understand his ways because they’re higher than mine.  

Jesus did not promise an easy path or an “if, then” kind of theology to a more comfortable life here on earth.  he promised this:  we’re “blessed” when we are humble, mourning, merciful, meek, pure in heart, seekers of justice & peace, and persecuted (matthew 5:3-10).

yeah, living with more honesty does not mean living with less hope.

it just means living with more honesty and respecting there’s an awful lot we don’t understand.

i’ve come to believe we don’t really need to.

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ps: this will be my last post for a month; i’m taking a blogging sabbatical so see you in august! i love this space & am thankful for your readership and all the ways you challenge and encourage me, but i also love summer. it’s time to unplug for a bit and get some rest. if you are new here, there’s plenty to catch up on (warning: it’s sort of like drinking a water from a firehose). if you have been around a while, thank you for your faithfulness and all the ways you bring me hope. i look forward to being back in a month. peace, kathy

a few other things i wanted to pass on, too:

1. my friend and teammate in creating-safe-spaces-to-heal-from-church-wounds phyllis mathis and i are partnering with sophia grace and mars hill refuge to offer a special session of walking wounded online: hope for those hurt by church specifically for mars hill church/acts 29 network refugees starting july 23rd.  their experience is uniquely painful and destructive and finding a truly safe space is pretty hard to do so registration is not open to the public. email sophia directly for details.

2. if you haven’t seen it yet, i have a guest post up at rachel held evans’ blog for her faith & parenting series. it’s called anger is not a sin. so thankful for rachel’s willingness to engage in tough topics!

3. this wednesday, for july 4th, i’ve got a post going up at sheloves magazine that’s a little twist on independence day. i’ll share the link on facebook but for those of you who aren’t familiar with it yet, check it out. oh how i love those dedicated-to-justice-and-mercy sheloves women!

4. because i know the ex-good-christian-women post resonated with a lot of you, i wanted to share my friend pam hogeweide’s recent post called “i’m not a good christian woman. neither was Jesus.”

enjoy your july!

 

 

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

34 Comments

  • Jesus never said it wld b easy. He just said He wld b w us. living the life the beatitude is hard & not appealing, but that is what He wants from me. If we had all the answers we wld not need faith. His message was not popular then and it is not popular now. That is why the church feels the need to sugar coat it & tell us life w b great is only we ….. That theology dwells on “getting for me”, not on “giving to others, the way Jesus did.

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  • Kathy – I love this post. I come from a southern, conservative, evangelical background and it was/is very much an “if then” theology. I was just thinking this weekend that although I have a lot more freedom today (after separating from that community about 5 years ago) that I still have a lot of times where I have to fight off the shackles that kind of theology tends to create. The guilt and worry can be so paralyzing and overwhelming. The blaming of self for everything that has gone wrong can create so much misery and fear. Even putting everything on God in the name of “he controls everything” can become so toxic and can end up bearing so much anger. Although I still have to battle the demons I win more these days. I am more free to turn to God in difficult times and find comfort in believing that he IS there for me and that he DOES love me and that he isn’t creating some kind of uncomfortable situation for me to get my attention or change my behavior – he is just there loving me through it all. I am the first to admit that I don’t understand much about God or life but I am refusing to buy into the “if then” theology. Do I bear any responsibility for what happens? I think I do and I think it is good to be aware of how my actions affect me, others and the world I live in. What I don’t believe is that God is blessing me or cursing me according to things that have nothing to do with what happened to me! And I also get annoyed at people who give God credit for every little thing that turns out right. I was with some dear family members yesterday and they were moving some stuff. They had rented a truck and in the process they had planned to rent a 10 foot truck but had ended up going with a 14 foot truck because it had a ramp. When it was all loaded they noticed they didn’t have much room left and someone said something about them ending up needing the 14 foot truck. And then one of the women said “God was taking care of us” I didn’t say anything but I immediately thought about how her remark explained so much to me about why she seemed so stressed over the simplest decision – why she seemed to make everything more complicated than it needed to be. The theology she is living with are like a bunch of heavy chains that she is carrying around. It is sad.

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    • oh thank you so much for sharing, liz. so good and i can relate to that feeling of “even though i’ve come along way, sometimes i can feel those shackles start to creep back into my thinking…” i remember my friend karl saying how when there was a car accident that we avoided how we say “oh, God blessed me” but how obviously that means that he ruined someone else. it’s weird, all of the subtle ways we embrace such twisted theology so readily. i appreciate your story and you always give me hope!

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  • Love this Kathy!
    I am so happy to share the journey to being more free from “jacked-up theology” with you and others! LOL 🙂 I appreciate your passion for deep faith with more honesty and more freedom in Christ that still maintains great hope even though we don’t understand everything and even if we don’t have all the answers! Thanks for keeping it real. Thanks for the inspiration and insights and good theology. I hope you have a wonderful sabbatical from blogging and you and your family have a great holiday!

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    • i love that phrase jacked up theology 🙂 thanks, it was a nice break and i’m still sort of on it until my kids get back to school but it has been extra nice. so glad you are here.

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  • Nice way to end the month…with a big bang! Yes, God IS mysterious. You have done a great job of freeing Him from the tiny little box of systematic theology. Aren’t we blessed.

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  • Thanks for the great post. I am thinking the “if, then” theology may be even deeper than bad Christian theology. I think that most of us as humans prefer to feel guilty (I’ve done something wrong) than sad. It’s less painful and feels less helpless. If I can “whip myself into shape” and guarantee this won’t happen again, I am still in control and don’t need to weep. Enjoy the respite.

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    • oh this is so true, janet, i totally agree with you. we are addicted to some semblance of control and like you said “it’s less painful and feels less helpless” to somehow make sense of things. such powerful thoughts and reminds me of Jesus call to us in the first beatitude of spiritual poverty/humility. and then the second one, mourning. hmmm. lots to think about. thank you.

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  • Such good words, Kathy. Thank you for each one. And enjoy your month away – that’s sounding like a really, really good idea about now!

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    • it was an awesome idea! it’s been great and i can say that we have had our best summer yet. juggling all these kids (as you know) along with nutty life at the refuge is no easy task!

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  • Thanks for another great post, Kathy. You articulate stuff that is swirling around inside me.

    Back when I was a charismatic/evangelical (as recent as a short year ago) I thought I had the basics of the whole Jesus concept pretty well figured out. Now, with each passing day I have to admit that I understand it less and less. Some of it makes no sense. Yet, as you state, Jesus has a quality that transcends all of that. I am certain that Jesus did “something”, and that whatever he did was powerful, and I strongly suspect that it affected way more people than just the ones who believe correctly about him.

    And, in parallel with what you have observed, coming to grips with the fact that the if/then theology doesn’t work as advertised was a huge milestone in my progress.

    Have an awesome sabbatical!

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    • thanks, ed. i love hearing about your journey toward freedom. yeah, i can so relate. letting go of if/then and blaming God for everything has been very helpful to me but sometimes hard, too, because i, like so many others, like clear-er answers.

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  • I’ve been blessed by the words you share… always food for thinking deeper. Have a blessed summer.

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  • Thank you have been away for a while long story but great to be back and as always you give me hope. WaynO

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  • Hi Kath,

    I’ve been missing your posts, and am so glad I came back to find this one. I process a number of things much like you do, only wish I could articulate them near as well!

    I’ve struggled with wishing I could find words to explain “miracles that don’t look like miracles but really are.” When something life-affirming comes out of tragedy, it’s hard for anyone not to first ask why He didn’t just stop the tragedy in the first place. I think I’ve finally given myself permission to not have the answer. How to describe gossamer faith, the strongest substance you’ll never see?

    So many “if/then” ghosts still haunt the unliberated corners of my mind, but I have been able to let many of them go. I’ve learned that I don’t have to exhaust myself in gut wrenching pleading with God for the safety of my children. My co-dependancy combined with their love of all things unorthodox makes for a wicked sense of chaos in my soul. I was sure that “if” I begged and pleaded and cried and and and, “then” God would throw me a bone and I’d get good news from them. BUT “if” I heard that they were in trouble or in harms way, “then” I’d obviously failed in my obligation to petition God nonstop for His good graces. Draining, and hard to escape this mindset.

    The freedom that I’ve allowed myself to enter into is all about entering into a faith that God loves my kids so much more than I do. That He wants ME to live my own life, not just be all about theirs. That my prayers are to be more about acknowledging that I can trust Him, and also allowing them to be autonomous and myself to carpe my own diem!

    Funny thing is it may have been an if/then that brought me to this freedom. Maybe the only if/then I don’t want to let go of. I’ve seen this to be true over and over in my life, and the life of many others. “If” I abide in God’s word, “then” I’m more likely to be free to hear with His ears, see with His eyes, and be able to love better, in word AND deed.

    I love you Kath, and IF I am blessed to see you again, THEN I’m gonna give you a great big hug!

    xo~Deb

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    • always so great to hear from you out here. the letting go and trusting and not-trying-to-make-sense-of-what-can’t-be-made-sense-of is so freeing. in all kinds of ways, it’s being healed of our codependency with God, too, like “if i can just keep him happy, if i can just do this or do that or…” but learning to be secure in God’s love and let go of pleasing & performing & doing-anything-possible-to-avoid-pain seems to be where the most growth happens. love you, my friend. sure do miss your presence here!

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  • If we misbehave, God punishes us. If we’re good, God gives us presents. That idea permeates much of Christendom. There are all sorts of problems with that model, including that it usually doesn’t work.

    We learn it at church, then go home and try to rear our kids that way. Be good, and mommy will love you and give you presents. Be bad and you’ll get punished. No wonder they grow up with the idea that God does the same thing. We’re like a bug God is keeping an eye on. Mess up and He’ll mash us. I’d call that “misapplied theology”.

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    • misapplied theology. i like it. and yes, it permeates more than we probably even know. hoping to connect next time i’m in your stomping ground!

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  • I know someone who is struggling with some crazy God stuff. She believes she’s going to be wealthy and blessed when and if…. and it has carried her so far away from the mercy and grace in Jesus. Enjoy your blog holiday.

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    • thanks, laurie. yeah, i intersect with some folks here and there who believe that, too. it’s hard for me to hear but i guess it feels really real to them and helps them hold on to something to believe?

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  • Sometimes life is just hard. In this country, it’s easy to hear conflicting messages in the christian subculture. Like you, I’m with a lot of people every week who live with very real pain all the time and are bombarded with messages that say they are weak and that there is something wrong with them because they are suffering. My husband and I are both dealing with cancer and a lot of other things. I’m amazed at the “suggestions” well meaning believers give me all the time without even batting an eye. I know that God can heal and restore. I also know that sometimes He doesn’t do that, at least not in the way I think He should. But these days, I’m convinced that there is more real faith involved in the simple act of getting up in the moring and being able to still turn our faces in God’s direction as we live with the pain and the brokenness. I’m so thankful that through it all He walks with us through it.

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    • thanks for sharing, linda, and love and hope to you as you and your husband journey through this season together. that’s tough stuff. i can think of some other descriptors for “suggestions” argh, so hard when people offer them without thinking through what they imply. as you said, they are well-meaning, and i know i have said my share of dumb things, but i remember when i was going through my back surgery (and still, because now i have chronic pain and am learning more about what it’s like to live with it), some of the comments were so hurtful because they were about me not doing something i needed to do properly related to God. i had that reflex reaction, too, because of my jacked up theology and i still sometimes struggle with it. i so agree with you, just waking up and walking in God’s direction is a big step of faith. thank you !

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    • good to be back, mar. thanks for being here, just your presence always encourages me.

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  • “it’s why i never try to explain faith through logic and reason because it will never work. logic and reason are human inventions anyway and are imperfect.”

    I think I agree with the main thrust of your post, that Christian leaders ought to be open and honest about the limits of what they can know and assert, but this statement I quoted from the piece points us in the wrong direction.

    1. You use logic and reason to make the statement and come to the conclusion. In fact you use logic and reason throughout this post and through your other posts. Logic and reason are required to be coherent, and your coherence is valued. This would be like saying “I’ve decided that words are limited, and often lead astray so I really don’t use words to communicate anymore.” Don’t become a mime, keep using logic and reason. Once you start using the word “so”, you’re reasoning with us.

    2. All good gifts come from God, including logic and reason. I was reading Augustine’s confession where he thanks God for giving his mother and his nurse the milk he needed as an infant. He saw that the milk came from the LORD and through his agents for Augustine’s wellbeing. Logic and reason come from God, we just employ them imperfectly, like we employ all of his other gifts. Logic and reason in fact help us see our imperfect implementation of them. Our use of them is marred by sin, but we know this too by logic and reason.

    Using logic and reason I can affirm what you said about faith, it’s what fills the gap between our logic and reason and what God is up to that our logic and reason can’t fully grasp. pvk

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    • thanks, paul, for sharing. i hear what you are saying. written communication is a form of logic/persuasion for sure. for me, what i probably mean more of here is centered on the parts of the Bible that we try to make sense of but they actually can’t be completely & fully, and i’m okay with that.

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  • Kathy,

    I was recommended to your website from a friend. And I enjoyed reading what you have to say here. I walked away from the church scene 3-4 years ago when I realized that the church was more of an institution to stay “busy” doing things for the LORD (when it’s really about programs of a pastor). When I began to question what Jesus said vs. what the church was busy doing I instantly realized the church was wrong. After I left I began studying ancient history, philosophy, world religions, quantum mechanics, and whatever else I could get my hands on. I then went back and read the Bible and suddenly realized that not only did the church have it wrong, but so did I.

    I love how you point out in this post that so many people think others are hurting or are in the dumps simply because their faith isn’t right, or they are not pleasing God. It’s so nice to be free of that kind of theology which drives many people of faith today. It brings a liberation because it let’s us realize that God is not sitting up there and judging us for everything we do.

    More people should need to know this. Thanks!

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    • hey joshua, sorry for the late response. thanks for taking time to share. the numbers are becoming legion on the exact shift you described. so many people being set free and finding hope outside many of the confines of what was. glad you took time to share, it is always encouraging to me.

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