It Doesn’t Work for Me


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So far in this series we have considered among the causes of Christian doubt, of a shaken faith, either teachings of the Christian faith that cause concern or offense – the doctrine of hell, for example – or facts of life that we struggle to reconcile with our Christian convictions – for example, that so many have lived and died in the world without ever hearing of Christ and the good news or the terrible suffering that is so commonplace in God’s world – or the assertions of others that our faith is unworthy of credit – for example, the modern challenge to religious belief mounted by so-called science – or the existential problems caused by personal disappointment – for example, the experience of unanswered prayer. We also considered last time a reason for all of those doubts that can arise in a Christian soul, namely the mystery of God’s ways. How little we understand of what happens in the world; how little is explained to us in the Word of God! In all of those respects life and faith would be so much easier if only God explained himself. But he rarely does except in his Word and even there only in general. His ways remain far above ours and a large part of what it means to live by faith turns out to be accepting by faith that his ways, impenetrable to us, are nevertheless just and right. God being God and we being his creatures, this ought not to surprise us or discomfit us as often as it does. Tonight I want to consider another case of Christian doubt that comprehends in itself a good many of the types of Christian doubt, both doctrinal or intellectual and existential or experiential. I am speaking of doubt caused by the sense that for one reason or another, in one way or another that the Christian faith simply hasn’t worked for a particular individual.

I think that this is, in fact, a very common reason why people leave the faith. Whether or not they would put it this way to themselves or to others, what happened was that, or so it seems to them, they gave it a try and it didn’t work; it didn’t deliver the goods for them, whatever they imagined those goods to be; it didn’t provide the help, the strength, the particular blessing, whatever it was that they were expecting. It might work for others, but it didn’t for them.

It isn’t, of course, difficult to understand what they would be thinking and feeling. If, upon confessing faith in Christ, they found their hearts regularly full of joy, if they carried with them wherever they went a sense of peace, if they found gratitude perpetually welling up unbidden within them, if their relationships were transformed for the better, if they found power in dealing with their sinful and destructive tendencies, if they made all manner of new friendships that were deeper and more satisfying than those they had had before, and if the Lord answered one prayer after another, they would never leave, never turn their backs on what had proved to be the secret to a happy, holy, fulfilling, and altogether fruitful life, life as any human being knows life was meant to be.

But what if it is not like that? What if a new Christian’s most urgent prayers are not answered? What if the old sins continue to bedevil him or her? What if some relationships grow not better but worse? And what if the heart is still full of sadness and confusion and worry? What then?

You know the beautiful hymn whose title and first line were given an update in the new edition of Trinity Hymnal, “Art Thou Weary, art thou languid, art thou sore distressed?” has become “Are You Weary, are you languid?” John Mason Neale, the 19th century Anglican priest and poet, wrote an unusually rich and suggestive hymn, based very loosely on a text by a Greek father. It is also the sort of honest hymn, psalm-like in its candor that appeals to thoughtful Christians. The hymn acknowledges in a very straightforward way a fact that you rarely find put so clearly in a Christian hymn or song or, for that matter, in Christian preaching.

If I find him, if I follow, what his promise here?

Many a sorrow, many a labor, many a tear.

That is certainly not the way the Christian life is, if you will, usually sold to the yet uncommitted. And understandably enough. We urge people to be saved for all the good it will do them: for the forgiveness of their sins, for a relationship with God himself, and for an eternal future of boundless pleasure. And, of course, all of that is true; gloriously true. But we do not ordinarily tell them that becoming a Christian can often, and in a variety of ways, make matters worse, not better, at least so far as the immediate experience of life is concerned.

But we know well enough how it is so and why it must be so. Others in the family may not welcome your new commitment to Christ, indeed may resent it and resent you for it. Some of your relationships may not survive your new interests, your new friends, and, especially, your interest in seeing your old friends likewise come to your new faith. We’ve all heard of, if we have not ourselves known, people who lost their marriage, or lost their job, or lost their friends because they began to follow Jesus. We know of others who were mocked by their friends, pitied for their new faith. In some parts of the world today it is much worse. You take your life in your hands by being baptized.

Many of us have read Rosaria Butterfield’s memoir, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. A lesbian English professor at Syracuse University, she became a Christian through the faithful witness of a Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America pastor – this is the exclusively psalm-singing, no musical accompaniment Covenanter Church – through her own reading of the Bible, and her own thinking through the challenge posed by the Christian faith. But upon the discovery that she was becoming a Christian, her students – many of them gay and lesbian themselves – turned against her, her colleagues likewise, her partner, of course, neither could nor would remain in the relationship she once had, and eventually her entire life as she had known it had to be exchanged for another. Here is her description of what happened, a description, I’m quite sure, a great many Christians through the ages would immediately identify with, recognizing it in a general way as what had happened to them.

“Although grateful, I did not perceive conversion to be ‘a blessing.’ It was a train wreck. After we profess faith in Christ, the next morning, the alarm still rings and we have to swing our feet out of bed and do something. And while we cannot lose our salvation, if we are not growing in spiritual maturity, we can lose everything else.

“When I became a Christian, I had to change everything – my life, my friends, my writing, my teaching, my advising, my clothes, my speech, my thoughts. I was tenured to a field that I could no longer work in. I was the faculty advisor to all of the gay and lesbian and feminist groups on campus. I was writing a book I no longer believed in. And, I was scheduled in a few months to give the incoming address to all of Syracuse University’s graduate students. What in the world would I say to them? The lecture that I had written and planned to deliver – on Queer Theory – I threw in the trash. … I was flooded with doubt about my new life in Christ. Was I willing to suffer like Christ? Was I willing to be considered stupid by those who didn’t know Jesus?

“What does joy in Christ mean when faced with duties that you don’t want? As I am sure it is clear by these concerns, I did not, in any way want to ‘share the hope that lies within me.’ I wanted to go back to bed and draw the covers over my head.

“Conversion put me in a complicated and comprehensive chaos.” [25-27]

Actually, matters soon got worse. As a new Christian she planned marriage with a fellow from her church who had himself long struggled with homosexuality. All her new Christian friends were excited but shortly before the wedding date he called off the marriage; he wasn’t ready for marriage; he had stumbled a number of times during their engagement; he wasn’t even sure he was a Christian. What seemed to be a perfect resolution turned into an embarrassing and confusing nightmare. “How’s this new Christian faith working out for you, my friend?”

At the same time, Rosaria was sure that the gospel was true and it was, for that reason, worth submitting her entire life to Christ no matter the consequences. But she wasn’t so much exhilarated by the truth as she was stuck with it. She had a friend in the gay community, a transgendered woman, who could tell that Rosaria was changing and wanted to know what was happening.

“At first I denied it, but she pressed. Finally, I said, ‘What would you say if I told you that I’m beginning to believe that Jesus is real, is a real and risen and loving and judging Lord, and that I am in big trouble?’ She sat down at the kitchen stool, exhaled deeply, took my small hands in her large ones, and said, ‘Rosaria, I know that Jesus is a risen and living Lord. I was a Presbyterian minister for 15 years [– this was when this transgendered woman was still living as a man –], and during that time, I prayed that the Lord would heal me. He didn’t, but maybe he’ll heal you. I’ll pray for you.’ The next day, when I came home from work, I found two milk crates over-filled with books: J gave me her library of theology…” [17]

“I prayed that Jesus would heal me. He didn’t.” That too is the story of Christian faith and experience in this world, of faith being overcome by doubt, and sometimes, alas, eventually by unbelief, precisely because its promised blessings seem not to be realized in the experience of life. We may wish that a new faith in Christ would enable us to surmount our sins and correct the all too obvious defects in our character, but one learns, usually quite soon, that such changes in our character – what Christians call sanctification – come only slowly and amid many setbacks. It is, again, one of the great mysteries of life and of Christian life. If God wants us to be holy, if he saved us to be holy, if he gave us the Holy Spirit to make us holy, why, for goodness sake, do we remain so unholy, even after so much effort to put on holiness in the fear of God?

John Mason Neale’s hymn, a verse of which I cited earlier, continues in the very next verse:

If I still hold closely to him, what has he at last?

Sorrow vanquished, labor ended, Jordan passed.

Hold on through the fires, through the disappointments; it will be worth it at the end. But the promise of some distant reward is often not enough to make up for the failure to obtain at least some considerable measure of the promised blessings now. True enough, if the Lord regularly granted every new or young Christian a powerful experience of his presence and filled the heart with ecstasy, suffering for the faith, enduring personal disappointment, struggling to grow, and  waiting for blessings not yet received would seem a small price to pay. But we all know that such powerful experiences of the nearness of God are not the believer’s ordinary lot and for some believers – real believers – they are rare.

You will not be surprised to hear me say – this has been a persistent theme in these sermons – that we must begin to address doubts of this kind by making sure that we have understood the Bible correctly and that our doubts are not being fueled by a mistaken view of what the Christian life actually is and what the Bible actually describes it to be.

For example, two Lord’s Day evenings back Pastor Nicoletti took us through the first paragraph of 2 Cor. 6. Listen to Paul describe his own life – certainly a triumphant Christian life – and, by implication, at least the pattern of the life of every Christian.

“We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.” [6:8-10]

In other words, however unlike the description of the Christian life a great many outsiders would expect Christians to give, Paul seems to say that the happy realities of our faith are not as visible as the troubles that go with them. Christians do not live happy, uncomplicated, untroubled lives. Quite the contrary in fact. Or consider the Lord’s description of the blessedness of his disciples in the opening verses of his Sermon on the Mount.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit

“Blessed are those who mourn

“Blessed are the meek

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake…

“Blessed are you when others revile you…and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely

That is the not the description of a life of ease or happy unconcern. It is rather the description of a life of wanting what one does not have, of suffering for one’s commitment to Christ, of enduring difficulties of many kinds, of humbling oneself before God and others, and perhaps supremely of disappointments with oneself. True enough, in that same description the Lord promises great reward and perpetual gladness, but they are to be found in the world to come; they are the blessings of heaven, not so much of earth. We all crave happiness, peace, love, and success, but the gospel does not promise them to us immediately.

I read some time ago that the average length of stay in the churches of a well-known American denomination that stresses prophecy and miracles of healing was two years. If you promise to heal a person’s sicknesses, to steer them infallibly to the path of blessing, not only to make up all their needs but to supply all their wants, you will find a large number of people willing to give you a try. After all, there is so much to gain if you are right and only their time will be lost if you are not. But after two years or so people figure out that their sicknesses will not all be cured, their problems will not all be solved, and their desires will not all be fulfilled. And they move on to look for someone else who can actually deliver the goods, or give up looking altogether.

Now, of course, you will not take me to mean that there are no present blessings to be enjoyed by Christians. Of course there are. Love, joy, and peace are real things and Christians find them in their walk with God. A Christian’s life changes for the better in many ways. But such blessings are not unmixed with sorrow, trouble, and disappointment, and, sometimes, as the Psalms bear their eloquent witness, there seems more of the latter than the former.

It is highly interesting and important that in his first letter, the Apostle John, in explaining how one knows that he is indeed a Christian, that he or she has living and saving faith, never says a word about the things that figure most largely in so many TV preachers’ account of the faith. He never asks how happy you are, how completely you have conquered your sins, how much everyone else likes you, how much the Lord has blessed you financially, how healthy you are, and so on. He is interested in your theological commitments, your obedience, and your commitment to the Christian brotherhood. Surely if all Christians were distinguished by a greater measure of this world’s pleasures, both of the heart and the life, John would have used that standard by which to measure the genuineness of faith. But he does not!

Or consider the accounts given in Holy Scripture of the lives of faithful men and women, from Abraham to the Apostle Paul. No doubt these men and women had their share of happiness in love, in peace, and in accomplishment, but the biblical narrative does not feature that dimension of their lives. It is much more often an account of crisis, of difficulty, and of faith surmounting their troubles over time. The trial and testing of faith seems a more important part of the story in the Bible itself than the present reward of faith. And that is confirmed, of course, in the Psalms, only some of which give expression to the happiness of believing life. Most of them, as you know, are prayers uttered to God, sometimes in a voice of desperation, in times of trouble, disappointment, doubt, and spiritual confusion.

When the Lord Jesus told Ananias what to say to the just converted Saul, soon to be the Apostle Paul, it was not only for Saul’s benefit, but for the benefit of every Christian. Ananias was sent to Straight Street in Damascus with this message to communicate to the former persecutor of the church:

“Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” [Acts 9:15-16]

We might have expected a more encouraging introduction to the Christian life! But, then, the Bible is an honest book! And, it says the same thing over and over again. What did our Savior say? If you wish to be his disciple, you must be willing to take up your cross – a grotesque and repellant image in that time and place – and follow him. The Christian life in some significant way is going to look like a crucifixion, the most horrible method of execution ever devised by human beings. The gospel in the New Testament never promises an immediately happy and trouble-free life. In fact, the reverse. And if the Lord is the example par excellence of the godly man, what do we learn about true godliness but that it is a hard road, exhausting, perpetually demanding, often misunderstood, faces opposition, with its triumphs often known only to faith. Christ’s life was a triumph, the accomplishment of everything he set out to do – the eventual transformation of the entire world – but it didn’t always feel like that to him and it certainly didn’t look like that to anyone else as his life leaked out of him on the cross, his followers scattered to the four winds, his enemies congratulating themselves on the humiliation and extermination of their nemesis.

If God wanted his children simply to be happy and successful and satisfied in this world, all Christians would be happy, supremely happy, and very successful, so obviously happy and so obviously successful that the entire world would recognize that it is happiness and success that separates Christians from non-Christians. But God wants us to Christ-like, to be holy, to be men and women of faith, and that requires testing, trial, the experience of difficulty and disappointment, and years of longing for what one does not yet have. Like it or not, God intends to give us what we need and what we will forever rejoice to have, not what we, in our present state of ignorance and immaturity would choose for ourselves if we could. That is the whole story of the Christian life in the Bible!

So, to those who find that the Christian life isn’t working for them and begin to doubt the faith for that reason, the first question to ask is: “what do you mean when you say it is not working?”

Do you mean that it is not shaping you into the person God wants you to be? Do you mean that the life you are living is different than the Christian life described in the pages of the Word of God? They rarely mean that. What they mean is that God has not delivered what I was expecting when I put my faith in Christ. That is a very different thing. What the Lord promises to those who follow him is blood, sweat, and tears and then, at last, the world of peace, love, and boundless joy. What he asks of his disciples is sacrifice, grit, endurance and what he promises them is his help every step of the way and, eventually, a reward that will make all the pain seem nothing in comparison. That is the deal, the only deal; one takes it or leaves it. And the Bible is perfectly clear about that. It doesn’t promise you what you want, but what you need; it never says that God and Christ await your instructions so as to fulfill your desires; it says that they know precisely what you must become and will set out to order your life with that end in view. Now tell me that the gospel hasn’t worked. Now tell me that you trusted the Lord but he didn’t give you what he had promised.

But that is not the only answer to give to those with such doubts, who feel that they have tried the Christian way and it hasn’t worked. There is also this: what is the alternative? Where will you find another view of life so honest, so high-minded, and so serious about human life in all its aspects and yet also provides such firm, convincing, and beautiful hope for us in the future? In what other way will you hope to fulfill your longings? By what other means do you expect to find the answer to the great questions of human existence? It is all very well to reject the Christian faith, but what will you put in its place? To what worldview, to what faith, to what philosophy of life will you now devote yourself?

You want what you want. You want to be happy and whole and successful. Presumably, like every other human being, you want to live and not die. There is within you the witness of your own nature to the fact that you were made to live, not to die, and to live forever as a human being. You were made to love, to be happy, to do worthwhile things with your life, to find satisfaction in your work, to be important to others as they are important to you. You want to find your place, your home in this vast universe. You want to be good, admirable, a worthy human being and you know you are not nearly as good or worthy as you ought to be. The animals don’t have such thoughts or longings. But you do and you can’t help yourself. But then are those longings, are those convictions that mean so much to you, only a fantasy, a charade? Of course not. You cannot escape them precisely because they are real and you know they are real.

But then do you really think that in this world of sin and death, with a heart like yours, the way to the fulfillment of those deeper desires for purity, for meaning, for goodness, for purpose, for true satisfaction, and for eternity are going to be fulfilled through some easy, uncomplicated, undemanding process. What makes the Christian so realistic about the Christian faith is the hard, cruel reality that lies at its center. It took the suffering, humiliation, and death of God himself, now come in the flesh, to pay for our sins. It takes the Holy Spirit in the heart to break our pride, to humble us, to purify us, to mature us. And, even at that, it takes time, it takes difficulty, it takes trial and testing, it takes all manner of difficult experiences before we can ever become the people we ought to be, the people Christ taught us to be, the people we all want to be.

I don’t know about you, but when doubts begin to trouble me – I have never been one who has been given to doubts, but from time to time a doubt surfaces in my mind – I say, when doubts begin to trouble me, this is almost always the first thing that occurs to me to think: what is the alternative? The other religions of the world fail to do justice to some of the most distinctive and ineradicable features of human life and fail to offer what I most crave and know I ought to crave, what any human being most craves. Nirvana is not heaven; it is not even human; it is, in fact, nothing at all. The paradise of Islam is a caricature, its theology a rather obvious mishmash of several other faiths, and its ethics are the ethics of the Arab tribes of the 7th century. But then the secular philosophies are no better. The honest ones leave you with no answer to any of the important questions of human life. The worst ones degrade you to nothing more than a talking animal, condemned to eat, drink, and be merry until the lights go out. But, of course, you know already that you cannot find happiness that way, not the happiness for which you were made and for which you long, and you know that seeking happiness in that way you would make those around you miserable.

The reason I’m a Christian is not because the Christian life has given me all that I could ever want in this world, has solved all my problems, delivered me from all my troubles, and made my life easy. It hasn’t. The Bible never taught me to expect that it would. The reason I am a Christian is:

1) I hear the bell-like tone of the truth when I read the Word of God; I find it describing the world as it actually is and myself as I actually am in a way other faiths and other philosophies do not;

2) The reason I am a Christian is because the account of the history of redemption provided in Holy Scripture and supremely the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus strikes me as true; marvelous and remarkable as it is, I find many convincing reasons to believe the biblical story is real history. The more I consider it, the more sure I become that these things are what really happened in the world in those long ago days. So many things are impossible to explain if in fact these things did not happen. So many utterly unlikely things must be believed if one imagines that they never happened.

3) The reason I am a Christian is that in so many other ways unbelief would require me to crucify my intellect and come to believe things I know are not and cannot be true. For example, that this world and human life and I myself are nothing but meaningless accidents. That my conviction that certain behaviors are right and others wrong is nothing more than the firing of neurons in my brain. That love is nothing but mindless biological processes.

I could go on and on. But I will end with this. If Jesus Christ is the Savior of sinners, if he is the incarnate God, if he lived the life that he lived and died the death that he died for us, then if someone says to me that the Christian life doesn’t work, or didn’t work for him or for her, I will demand to know precisely what that person means. Does he mean that his sins were not forgiven? Does she mean that she was not changed immediately in all the ways that she desired to be changed? Does he mean that his new faith in Christ created difficulties for him? And I will reply, the only perfect human life ever lived in this world was that of Jesus Christ, who said,

“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” [John 4:34]

That is the Christian life! It is to seek to do God’s will. It is hard work. It takes a long time to learn how to do it rightly and well. We often fail because we are still sinners and must try again and again and again. But that is the Christian life. Tell me then: how does that life not work? The only one who could honestly say that the Christian life doesn’t work is someone who could say, “I found it too easy and needed something more demanding.” But even the God-Man could not say that!