The worship wars finally found their way into our small network of churches. After so many other believers had battled over how a church meeting should look in the twenty-first century, it was our turn. A group of our leaders met together in a room trying to keep irritations under control. Though we sat there in crisp gentlemanly form, underlying tensions hummed like low voltage. If you’ve never been in these exact shoes, picture yourself in a room full of relatives who have decided to settle some long-standing disagreements. You know it’s going to get hot. And there’s always a few fellows like old Uncle Joe, who can’t wait to have his say.
The usual suspects were on the table:
Music (traditional, contemporary, or homegrown ditties)
Technology (PowerPoint, overhead projectors, or chalkboards)
Structure of worship (meeting length, sermon length, in-house oriented or visitor friendly).
Even our promotional materials went under the magnifying glass (first, the exact wording—is the word fun biblical? Are color graphics worldly?).
On our way through the issues, we ran into a lot of indispensable items—we had to have this, this, and this…or we thought we’d lose God’s blessing. We’d forfeit our unique identity. Finally, one man, tired of the volley, said, “If our previous way of doing things was wrong, then I’ve wasted my whole life.”
The remark was stunning. If you’ve never said it, you might have at least felt it before. It’s the feeling that if you lose a good, useful, God-given gadget, you’re going to lose the farm. Without it, you have no purpose, you could never be happy again, God will never again look kindly upon you. At this critical moment, a man or woman of God needs to identify those assumptions for what they are—as living unto something other than Christ, as living unto the gift, but not the Giver.
This sad reality materializes in real-time when leaders fail or when a ministry implodes. Photos of devastated Christians then show up online. The faithful are pictured weeping, in some cases not for the situation, but for their own shipwrecked faith. And so they determine never to trust again, never to believe again. It all indicates that whatever came to occupy their personal center stage got bigger than it was ever supposed to be. The iguana that seemed like Godzilla is—surprise!—really just an iguana after all. People of God are not immune to these forms of deep disillusionment.
We easily grow roots of attachment into good things and begin to mistake gift for Giver. It might be a Brady Bunch family life, the ultimate job placement, the romance of your dreams, an approach to church that once worked, a certain gift, a special blessing on a particular way of doing things, a ministry, a position, golden experiences of yesteryear—these are just a few of the popular candidates. At a certain point, clutching the particulars of them with kung-fu intensity may not be faithfulness at all, but a subtle form of misdirected trust. In essence, idolatry. A large part of redemptive drama involves God helping us tell the difference between what is Him and what is His stuff.
Nowhere does this come more sharply into focus than with Abraham. After many years of hearing God’s repeated promise of a seed, the elderly patriarch and his wife finally experienced the impossible—they had a biological child together. They were so delighted with God’s miracle, that they named Him Isaac (meaning laughter).
Then God said in Genesis 22:2, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” The gift had to be given back. Suddenly, nobody was laughing anymore. Abraham and Sarah were back to zero—no son, no heir. For God, no nation of Israel, and no redemptive history. Everybody stood to lose on this deal. The short sensible answer to God’s command to sacrifice would have been, “No way. Isaac is too important. I’ll feed him and clothe him and strengthen him, but I’ll be a monkey’s uncle before I sacrifice him.”
Yet this crisis moment was all about Abraham’s personal loyalty to a personal God. At the moment of sacrifice, the Angel of the Lord stopped him, saying, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen. 22:12). In giving the test, God had wanted to manifest what this man really felt for Him. What did Abraham really value? What would influence him the most? Eventually it wasn’t Sarah’s tears. It wasn’t his own happiness and future. It wasn’t even his concern for God’s “future.” When Abraham raised the knife that day, he was in effect saying to God, “You are real and awesome to me. You know best. If you kill, you can resurrect. If you take, you can give back. The only way I will lose is by not obeying you.” Abraham, who was called the father of faith, put God on center stage, not God’s gift.
In fact, subtract the personal focus of God from any of the Bible stories and they become a bleached mosaic of what they used to be. Everything turns into a history of mere human heroes and what they managed to attain.
When your first loyalty is to a blessed thing, then compromise, disappointment, and failure is sure to follow. You need a regular check up that asks, “Now what am I living unto?” If your “Isaac” is too wonderful to place on the altar, even at the express command of God, then you had better tread carefully. Something else in your life is parading around as Lord. It is only a matter of time before that “Lord” fails you miserably.
I am not discouraging commitment in general. Family, Christian community, jobs, and ministries thrive on commitment. It just means we have to be realistic about what we get into. No leader is perfect. No church is paradise. No ministry has a corner on truth. Being aware of these things, there’s no reason why we can’t deeply bond with others and with activities. The issue is about being realistic. In fact, I expect the church to fail. I expect to find disappointing things in people. In the name of love, I give myself to them, but I’m clear that the people I’m giving myself to are far from perfect. However with Christ, I expect and can rest in the fact that He is faithful. He will never cease to be what He has promised. And He is worthy. The Bible communicates His glory in every way from narrative to teaching to prophecy to poetry. He’s worthwhile. The scenery surrounding Him may change considerably. He doesn’t. This attitude saves you and will save you from soul-crushing disappointments.
“The Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.'” (Rom. 10:11)
(Continued in Introduction part 3)