1 Comment

I’m Not So Sure About Certainty

Certainty is kind of a tricky thing.

I mean, there are some Bible passages that seem to make certainty something we all should not only strive for, but already have in spades. The flagship verse for certainty is probably Hebrews 11:1.

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1, NIV)

(I have to admit, in my own memory that verse reads slightly differently, something closer to: “Faith is being certain about what we hope for and sure of what we do not see.” The change is subtle, but perhaps significant. I wonder if we have, in our collective North American Church subconscious, slightly shifted the meaning of these words to align more with a Modern logical positivism. Your own culture always affects how you read Scripture, and it is hard to notice, let alone be free from, those kinds of cultural filters.)

Faith, it seems to me, gets equated with certainty; and if you are not sure, you must not believe. We don’t leave much room for doubt in the lives of people who have faith. Look at Doubting Thomas: he often gets almost as bum a rap as Judas. Doubt is treated as something of a taboo, the opposite of faith.

And to some extent, I get it: I mean, I want to have confidence, and trust, and assurance about my faith and my Jesus. And while “certainty” feels like one step farther down the path than “confidence,” I can see why it appears to be on the same path. Why wouldn’t we want people to be certain about their faith?

Maybe that’s the problem: maybe the problem with certainty is when it becomes a way of measuring or evaluating faith, ours or others’. The problem with looking directly at your faith to measure your faith is that you can always get another layer deeper in your analysis: “Do I believe … ? Yes, but do I really believe … ? Yes, but do I really, really believe … ?”

Faith doesn’t turn towards itself for analysis; faith turns to Jesus. I think confidence and assurance work the same way. If I want to know if I am certain–really, truly certain–there will always be one more layer to the onion. “Are you sure … ? Yes, but are you really sure … ? Yes, but are you certain that you are really sure …?”

My confidence is not in my confidence, and I don’t take assurance from my certainty. Rather, the object of both my faith and my certainty is Jesus. Let him be true, and even my own heart false, and I will still trust he has me. Even when I doubt.

I resonate with the father in Mark 9, who cries out with tears:

Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief! (Mark 9:24, KJV)

(It just sounds cooler in the King James …)

That’s a man whose faith is mixed with doubt, but he doesn’t let that keep him from clinging to Jesus. That father came looking for Jesus somewhat desperately on behalf of his son. The followers of this Jesus had already failed miserably. When Jesus finally shows up, this man asks Jesus for any possible help he may or may not be able to give. He asks with little hope or confidence, but in profound dependence and need.

When confronted with the feeble character of his request and the weakness of his faith, this man doesn’t turn away. He doubles down on Jesus. “If you can …” turns into, “Lord, I believe; but I need your help, because I also don’t believe at the same time.”

If you were grading that man’s faith based on Hebrews 11, he probably wouldn’t pass. D- at best. The problem is not, I think, with Hebrews 11, but with using Hebrews 11 to “grade” anyone’s faith. Since when did “certainty” become the measuring stick we use to distinguish those who “believe” from those who don’t?

Another one of my favorite scenes comes early in the Gospel of John. Philip gets to know Jesus, and goes and tells his friend Nathanael: “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nate’s response is not exactly a hallmark of faithfulness.

 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 2:46, NIV)

But Flip doesn’t chastise Nate for his lack of faith; Flip doesn’t even defend his own faith, or give all the logical positivist reasons for why his faith is right and Nathanael’s doubt is wrong. Instead, Philip does something I think we all can learn from in our age of skepticism and doubt: Philip extends an invitation.

Philip practices hospitality, not apologetics. “Come and see,” Philip says. And getting to know Jesus changes Nate’s worldview. Philip didn’t beat Nathanael up over his lack of faith; Flip brought Nate to Jesus.

I think our current cultural setting requires us to be comfortable around people who have their doubts. And that may mean being comfortable with our own doubts, as well. Your faith in Jesus doesn’t have to be perfect in order for it to be true. Just like faith, certainty is a gift from God, worked by the power of the Holy Spirit. When you are certain, thank God for that gift; when you struggle or doubt, lean on the Spirit of Jesus to strengthen and console.

Maybe owning up to the weakness of our own faith will not only make us more dependent on Jesus, but more open to walking with other people who aren’t so sure they believe. And they are out there. All over the place. And they desperately need to find people who accept their doubt along with their faith so they can take a next step following Jesus.Not Sure

I recently read a newsletter a friend forwarded to me; it was about a youth event in a large US city. The organizers provided a way for the youth to make a commitment toward life change at the event. They used language I probably wouldn’t have used for the ask (looking at your decision is like looking at your faith or your certainty: “Did you decide … ? Yes, but did you really decide … ? Yes, but did you really, really decide … ?”), but what caught my eye was the third option you could check: “I am not ready to follow Jesus today because …”

One teenage girl checked that box and wrote on the line provided the reason she is not ready to follow Jesus today: “I’m not 100% sure I believe.”

And that’s why I’m just not so sure about certainty: it gives the impression to real people in the midst of real struggles, that unless you are 100% sure, you can’t follow Jesus, you can’t take a step forward in faith, you don’t belong to our club, you’re not in the Kingdom.

Coming out of an Age where the only things that were real or true were the ones you could objectively prove mathematically or by scientific experimentation, and coming to terms with an Age where even science and math will tell you there is no such thing as an objective viewpoint, the Church needs to be able to deal graciously with people who aren’t sure. It has to be OK to have doubts. We need a new liturgical prayer, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”

I think that teenage girl who isn’t 100% sure she believes is the kind of worshiper the Father seeks, one who worships in Spirit and in truth; not in some objective, abstract, disembodied Truth, but in the Truth who is a Person; the person of Jesus, who heard a father’s cry, and helped him overcome his unbelief, and healed his son.

My friend Doubting Thomas actually deserves all the bad press he gets, because the word we usually translate as “doubt” is in point of fact much worse. The opposite of faith isn’t doubt; faith and doubt exist together (Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief!). The opposite of faith is unfaith, the absolute refusal to believe, no matter what. 

We should actually call him “I Refuse to Believe” Thomas. (Not as catchy, I know.)  Thomas gives doubt a bad name. This isn’t weak faith, or little faith, or faith mixed with doubt: this is UN-faith. In fact, Thomas expresses a kind of certainty: Thomas has no doubt about his unbelief.

“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” (John 20:25, ESV)

And we tend to treat the 17-year-old girl who isn’t 100% sure, as if she had made Thomas’s faith commitment: “I will never believe … !”

“I Refuse to Believe” Thomas is way worse than a Thomas who has faith mixed with doubt. And yet–! And yet even Unbelieving Thomas, who at that moment probably is outside of the Kingdom, is not outside of the faithfulness of Jesus to bring him home.

Jesus shows up again, even to Thomas who has made a confident commitment to unbelief. “Here Thomas! Put your fingers in my nail marks! Put your hand in my side!” And I think we do a disservice to all who have ever doubted, even a little, when we get the next verse wrong. Jesus does not say, “Stop doubting…” Jesus says, “Give up your commitment to unbelief, and start again to believe!”

I don’t know if I can stop doubting. I don’t know how capable I am even to give up my commitment to unbelief. But I trust that I have a Jesus who shows up and makes himself available to those who are not 100% sure.

Jesus’ final words to Thomas are actually intended for us:

“Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29, NIV)

Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe. Faith is having an assurance of things not seen. Maybe that’s like, “when I am weak, then I am strong …” A kind of paradox of our faith: seeing isn’t believing, believing is believing (even when you aren’t 100% sure).

So I’m not so sure about certainty, at least when it becomes a grading scale for your faith. As we do with so many gifts from God, we can turn certainty from a gift into a burden. But the certainty, assurance, confidence of your faith is not a burden to carry; if the certainty is a measuring stick, your faith will never measure up. (Yes, but are you certain that you are sure?)

Instead, certainty is a gift and a delight. Enjoy it. Seek it. And when your faith seems less than certain, don’t try harder to make yourself more sure. Instead, turn to Jesus and pray, “Lord, I believe; help!”

And if you meet a teenage girl who isn’t sure she believes, don’t try and convince her that you are right and she is wrong; instead, extend an invitation to the presence of Jesus, and let him figure it out.

And if one of your closest friends has made a faith commitment, “I refuse to believe,” don’t give up on him. Instead, just keep hanging out together, living life together, spending time together. For some strange reason Unbelieving Thomas was back in that Upper room the following week. Don’t reject your friend because of his doubt, or even because of his unfaith. Do keep looking for Jesus to show up.

Can I tell you a secret? I’m not 100% sure I believe. But I trust that Jesus will deal with me by the power of his Spirit. I trust that Jesus accepts me as I am and invites me to keep following. I trust that his faithfulness is stronger than my doubt. To me, that’s real certainty; the assurance of things I can’t see, I don’t see, I’m not supposed to be able to see yet, which is why I still need my faith.

My faith may be feeble; it may even be mixed with doubt at times. But you should see the guy I have faith in! His faithfulness is certain! (What a relief!!)

Leave a comment

A Loving God with Dirty Hands

Your Heavenly Father rejects a remote control approach to your discipleship walk. You know: God way up there somewhere, pushing some buttons or pulling a few levers behind the curtain to make things happen in your life. Instead, in the person and work of Jesus, God rolls up metaphorical sleeves, puts on an artist’s smock, dips those divine fingers in the water, and engages your life the way a potter engages the lump of clay spinning on his wheel.

If you ever get a chance to see a potter shaping and molding clay—whether in person or on YouTube—watch the potter’s eyes! As that potter shapes and molds, her full attention is on what she is doing, on the pot she is starting to form. If the potter dares do something drastic—and I have seen potters take take a piece of wire or even a fork to use on their clay—if the potter does something unusual or unexpected, she doesn’t do it with her head turned, looking in the other direction! Instead, she focuses her full concentration and energy on the pot while she shapes and molds the clay. When the shaping gets most dramatic or difficult or sensitive, that’s when the potter is more engaged than ever.

As you go through something in your life that is causing you to be shaped and molded—and for the clay, that’s always uncomfortable!—when God allows something difficult in your life, and then uses that difficulty to make you look more like Jesus, you can trust that your heavenly Potter hasn’t abandoned you. It’s not that God is absent from your life and therefore difficult things are happening. No! In the difficult things God’s eyes and heart are focused on you more than ever! Pots get special attention when the sculpting is most drastic. When your life feels like it’s spinning out of control, divine eyes and divine hands are focused on you. You have a loving God with dirty hands.

Dirty HandsThat’s what the message of the incarnation is all about. As God shapes and molds the lives of real people, God ends up with dirty hands. Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, just like you and I were born; in the same, messy way. And his dad probably wiped him off and picked him up by the feet and spanked him on the butt to make him cry. He came into the world just like you and I did.

Jesus walked–that’s what he did! He didn’t have an angel chariot that whisked him wherever he wanted to go! He didn’t even have a bike. Jesus walked everywhere he went, and his feet got dirty, and his legs got tired, and he got hungry; even, at times, exhausted.

Jesus knows what it’s like to bury a father; Jesus knows what it’s like to stand at the graveside of a friend and weep; Jesus knows what it’s like to be betrayed by someone you trusted. Jesus was willing to get his hands dirty.

Jesus got his hands dirty when he touched a woman who was ceremonially unclean because of an illness she had carried in her body for years; Jesus got his hands dirty when he made mud and put it on the eyes of a man born blind, in order to heal him. Jesus got his hands dirty when he knelt down and washed his disciples’ feet; Jesus got his hands dirty when he let Roman soldiers nail them to the rough wood of a cross.

God was not willing to play remote control with your discipleship walk from a distance. God rolled up potter’s sleeves and, in Jesus, touched your life to mold you and shape you in love. You have a loving God with dirty hands.

Whatever you are facing this week, you can trust the God who is willing to have a potter’s dirty hands. You can pray with the Psalmist: “Your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever; do not forsake the work of your hands!” (Psalm 138:8)


V6 Discipleship: Social Influence (Part 2 of 3)

V6 Discipleship: Social Influence (Part 2 of 3)

This three-part article is looking at six sources that influence change, for better or worse. Research has shown that the more of these sources are functioning at the same time, the more likely you will be propelled forward on your journey (see VitalSmarts Influencer training for more in depth theory). That’s why I like to think of these six sources of influence as a V6 engine: if you can get all six cylinders firing at the same time, you’ll really have momentum!

V6All change—discipleship or otherwise—requires both motivation and ability. You have to want to do it, and you have to be able to do it. In Part 1, we looked at personal factors that influence your motivation and ability. But personal factors are only two of the six cylinders! Social factors can also influence your behavior.

And it’s a good thing, too! I was telling you about my friend who lost some weight and managed to keep it off with real life change. But when he started, he didn’t have with personal motivation or personal ability.

Discipleship can be like that: you can want to change, but not really want to do what’s necessary for change, or not even know how to do it! Don’t throw in the towel. Let’s look at how Social Motivation and Social Ability can help you move forward on this journey of faith.

V3 and V4

So my friend knew he needed to change, but he didn’t want to change and he didn’t know how to change. He needed help. (Don’t we all?)

The third cylinder of our V6 change engine is Social Motivation. These are the people and relationships that help you want to do the kind of things that bring positive change. I like to think of this source of influence as Your Cheering Section, the people in your life who help motivate the right kind of habits and behaviors.

Once my buddy made the decision to change, he needed people to cheer him on. In this case, his wife was also on board with losing weight and getting a little healthier. That’s a huge plus. When you interact with someone you care about daily, and they encourage the change you want, and they want the same change, it starts feeling like you have somebody on your team.

Again, discipleship is like that. Discipleship is a team sport. We follow Jesus better when we follow him together, for lots of reasons. Encouragement, support, sharing burdens, forgiving sins, speaking truth in love, listening with compassion—all of those elements of discipling relationships fit in this third cylinder of Social Motivation. (Check out We Are the Coals for another take on the importance of mutual encouragement on your faith journey.)

But all the encouragement in the world won’t bring about change unless you also know what to do: change takes motivation and ability. So the fourth cylinder of our V6 change engine is Social Ability and includes all the ways relationships help increase your knowhow.

Reddit logoWhen my friend went to lose weight, he knew he had to pay attention to what he ate, but he didn’t know what tool in the diet bag would be a good fit for his family. He told me about some of the conversations he had with friends at work who were fired up about different kinds of diet plans that involved everything from no carbs to balancing fat intake to eating kale three times a day… But ultimately he used Reddit to get this Social Ability cylinder up and running.

Reddit is a group of online communities organized around interest areas. These interest groups, or Subreddits, discuss specific topics, and the quality of the content and the kinds of answers that get seen most are determined by the group itself. You don’t have to add your two cents to the discussion to follow along, and my friend checked out some Subreddits on losing weight just to get a handle on all of the information out there.

Although those communities were online, they functioned in the Social Ability cylinder; they helped move the needle on my friend’s own Personal Ability when it came to losing weight. Based on what he read, he chose a kind of intermittent fasting as a primary tool on his utility belt for losing weight. He doesn’t eat or drink anything but water or black coffee between 7:00PM and 11:00AM. Cutting back on late night snacking and a free doughnut in the morning workroom of course cuts down on calorie intake, but there are other benefits as well. (I’ll let you explore Reddit if you are interested in learning more…)

The point is, my buddy didn’t have the Personal Motivation or the Personal Ability to lose weight, so he found a way to affect both of those areas through relationships. His relationship with his wife brought significant and daily encouragement to the change he was trying to effect: she is definitely in his Cheering Section! And the internet provided a community of specific shared knowledge that, with some trial and error, allowed him to gain skills he had never had before. That’s why I think of this fourth cylinder as Your Reference Section: it’s the place you can go to learn how to do what you need to do from people who are already doing it.

car need help smallerIs there an aspect of your faith walk that really needs an upgrade? Is there an area of your relationship with Jesus that is really exciting right now, and you want to build momentum? Is there a next step you feel the Spirit is inviting you to take on this journey? To take even a small step, you will need Personal Motivation and Personal Ability.

But that’s only one small part of the equation. We follow Jesus better when we follow him together. You’re going to need people on this journey with you, people who will encourage you and cheer you on and pick you up when you fall down. And you will need people who know something you don’t, people who can help you experiment with and learn new ways of growing and new tools for change.

Can you think of people like that in your life? Who’s in your Cheering Section? What kind of help do you get from your Reference Section? Who are the people that increase your ability or your motivation to take a next step following Jesus?

If you have all four of these cylinders firing together, you are well on your way to positive change in your discipleship walk. But wait! This is a V6 discipleship engine! In Part 3 we’ll look at how your motivation and ability can be affected by other external factors. The more cylinders you have firing together, the more inevitable the change will be!


We Are The Coals

As Paul begins his second letter to Timothy, he makes reference to Timothy’s living faith:

I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. (2 Timothy 1:5-6, NIV)

Paul seems to think that faith is a living thing that gets passed on from generation to generation. Passing on a living faith isn’t restricted to families: Paul even says the gift (I think he must be referring to Timothy’s faith at least, though “the gift” could be broader than just faith)—Paul says the gift came to Timothy through Paul’s ministry. But family certainly plays a primary role.  Grandma Lois is involved; Mother Eunice is involved; and Paul (adopted “faith father”? He calls Timothy “my child,” in verse 1) Paul is also involved in passing down a living faith to Timothy.

This faith that lived in Louis, and in Eunice, and in Paul now lives in Timothy, too; so Paul encourages his young friend to “fan into flame” this gift that now dwells in him.

That’s a really interesting image for a living faith, a faith handed down from one generation to the next.

“Fan into flame.” The Greek verb Paul uses shows up only here in the New Testament. The verb is anazōpuréo and it comes from three distinct Greek words:

“Ana-” as a prefix means “up, anew, over again;” “zō” is a contracted form of the Greek word for “life” or “living thing” (maybe you know the name Zoe means “life”); and “pur” which means “fire.”

Ana + zō + pur = anazōpuréo: to enliven the fire anew; to rekindle the spark; to fan into flame.

What a wonderful image for faith! A living fire that dwelt in Grandma, and Mom, and Paul, and now Timothy—and Timothy is invited to fan that living fire into a flame!

I don’t think this is “passing down the faith” the way we usually imagine it. Typically, “passing the torch” means the people who have more knowledge or experience or faith transfer that knowledge/experience/faith to someone younger and less experienced. That kind “passing down” or “passing on” is always only in one direction, from the one who has more for the benefit of one who has less. And, whether it’s a baton or torch, you pass it on as quickly as possible and then it’s the next person’s turn to run with it…

But that’s not how Paul seems to be imagining this living faith. Paul already said, one verse earlier, how much he longs to see Timothy again, not so he can transfer some more knowledge or experience onto Timothy, but so Paul’s joy might increase. It kind of reminds me of what Paul says elsewhere to some other friends:

I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.
(Romans 1:11-12, NIV)

Faith is a fire that spreads from person to person, but it’s not exactly a torch that gets passed down. I think faith works more like charcoal.

You know how a grill works: if you want to light the charcoal, you pile it all together because one coal that’s lit will light other coals. Put coals together and they will feed each other; take two live coals and separate them and they will go out. Just being in contact with other coals that are hot will increase the heat for all the coals involved.

ash-barbecue-black-1309072Faith is like that. Faith is a living thing. When Lois passed it on to Eunice, that wasn’t the end of their faith relationship; Timothy now has the gift of living faith in him through Paul’s ministry, but Paul can’t wait to be together again, so their mutual faith can stoke their individual faith.

When Paul encourages Timothy to fan his faith into flame, to rekindle the spark, that increase in faith isn’t supposed to happen in a vacuum. (Actually, flame can’t exist at all in a vacuum…) Part of Timothy’s work of fanning his faith into flame is to hang out with people like Paul; Timothy’s faith will rekindle as a result, but so will Paul’s. The last thing you want to do as a coal is to go it alone.

And yet “going it alone” is a real temptation we face as followers of Jesus, especially in a culture that teaches “rugged individualism” and self-sufficiency as lofty values we all should aspire to. Multiple times over the years, I have had people tell me something like, “I’m sorry we haven’t been to church in a while, pastor; we’re really going through a really difficult time. But when things get better, we’ll be back …”

I mean, I can see where they are coming from… When your world is upside down, sometimes you just don’t want to show up and face questions about how you’re doing. And if you go through a rough patch where even your faith seems cold and hard, showing up to worship can make you feel like a hypocrite.

But the thing is, a coal off on its own will naturally go out. What I need when I am hurting or anxious or troubled or full of doubt is not time away from other coals; what I need is someone’s living faith burning in close proximity to my cold and hard faith. Not only will I find a new sense of rekindling in my own faith, but their faith will end up burning even brighter.

We follow Jesus better when we follow him together. He designed us that way. We are mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.

Please don’t hear that as a burden; Jesus intends it as a joy. I know there are times when going back to the same place you have been worshiping, the same place that has perhaps even done damage to your faith or thrown water on your fire, may not actually be a Gospel invitation.

I trust that God works through fallen, sinful humans at fallen, sinful congregations (there aren’t any other kind, of people or congregations…). And I know that sometimes, for a time, in some circumstances, going back to your congregation would mean putting on a mask that you hate wearing and smiling at people who have deeply wounded you. Rekindling your faith may be impossible in that kind of a setting.

But you also can’t rekindle your faith on your own. You need people who follow Jesus to help you regain the joy of following Jesus. They don’t have to be the most experienced Jesus-followers. They don’t have to be semi-professional disciples. Any coal that’s a little white around the edges will help rekindle any other coal, given proximity and time.

The more it feels like things are too difficult to show up at church right now, the more you need somebody who loves Jesus to love you, too.

I wish I had a simple answer for how you find those people in your life. Because when you need those people the most, you have the least amount of energy to go out and look for them.

So maybe we have to start thinking about fanning faith into flame before we get too hard and cold and have no energy left for relationships. Maybe now is the time to start wondering, who is kindling my faith? And who’s faith am I rubbing off on? Which of the people in my address book could I send an email that read, “I long to see you, so that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith?”

I have gone through regular cycles of having people who kindle my faith in close and regular proximity, and ending up all alone at the edge of the grill wondering where all the heat went. I have succeeded, and failed, and succeeded, and failed again at having relationships that help me follow Jesus.

But I know this: I have to keep fighting to find those burning coals in my life. As difficult as it can be to find them, as heart-breaking as it can be to lose them, there is no better way to follow Jesus than to follow him with another person who serves as a live coal touching your faith. We need people, even if they are fallen, sinful people—we don’t have access to any other kind.

If that feels a little daunting to you right now, you aren’t alone. Take heart in this: when it comes to increasing the flame, any coal can help any other coal. You don’t have to do something super-religious; you don’t even have to “get it right.” Mutual rekindling just takes proximity and time.

ancient Greek oven

An Ancient Greek Oven

Almost five hundred years before Paul, a Greek poet and playwright captured an image that I think gets 2 Timothy 1:6 exactly right. “The heavens are an oven,” he wrote—an ancient Greek bread oven looked kind of like a cake tray with a cover except made out of clay: you put the coals on the tray, put the domed cover over the try, and let the coal heat up the oven. So the earth is like the tray and the dome of the sky is like the covering of the oven…

“The heavens are an oven,” he wrote, “and this oven is around us; but we are the coals.”

“For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.” 2 Timothy 1:6 (NIV)

Who can you burn a little closer to this week? You might both need the natural rekindling that takes place when the Spirit blows in the conversations of believers and fans their mutual faith into flame. Start asking that question now, and keep fighting to find those coals in your life. Mutual encouragement in the faith isn’t rocket science, but it does take proximity, and time.

Jesus wants to give you the gift of a rekindled faith. And the means he uses to stoke your fire are the people he places in your life. His is the Spirit, and that Spirit is around us; be we are the coals.



Photo Credit: Featured Image by Lukas from Pexels


V6 Discipleship: Personal Influence (Part 1 of 3)

V6 Discipleship: Personal Influence (Part 1 of 3)

A V6—that is, an engine with six cylinders—will unfailingly provide more power and more drive if all six cylinders are working together. Discipleship is kind of like that. Research has identified six distinct sources of influence that create the drive needed for change or growth. Knowing what those areas are, and getting all six cylinders up and running, will help propel you forward on your journey of faith.

I have a friend who recently dropped some significant weight. He’s even been able to keep the weight off with the kind of consistency that only comes from life change. As I listened to his story and asked some follow up questions, I was reminded of the research done by VitalSmarts and presented in their Influencer training. Their research suggests six distinct areas that enable (or hinder) change.

In order to make any significant or lasting change, like my friend did, you must have A) the desire to do it and B) the ability to do it. That much seems obvious. But VitalSmarts lays out six types of influence that affect either motivation or ability, three for each. I like to think of all these influences together as the cylinders in a V6 engine, an engine that propelled my friend into a healthier lifestyle and has the potential to drive both individual and congregational discipleship growth. Let’s look at all six cylinders, two at a time.V1 and V2The first set of driving factors has to do with your own personal motivation and personal ability. I like to talk about your Personal Motivation cylinder as your secret identity, the values you hold that define who you are and shape the choices you make on a daily basis. If you want to make a change, you will have to find a personal value that aligns with the change you seek.

Ironically, my friend felt almost no personal motivation to lose weight. He was happy and (kind of) healthy and had no personal desire for change in this area of his life. You might think that your own individual motivation is the key to any change, but actually, personal motivation is only one of the six cylinders. Maximizing the number of the cylinders firing together is far more important than any single source of influence by itself. As we shall see, once some of the other pistons started firing, my friend found some personal motivation. But he didn’t start there. And that’s a comfort for people like me, who don’t always feel an overwhelming personal desire for ongoing spiritual growth…

The counterpart to Personal Motivation is the Personal Ability cylinder.  (Remember, change takes both motivation and ability.) If personal motivation asks, “Do I want to?” personal ability asks, “Do I have that tool in my bag?” That’s why I think of this source of influence as my utility belt: Batman might want to climb out of the trap he’s in, but without the Batarang, he’d still be stuck in the Joker’s secret lair.

When my friend finally got to the point where he wanted to lose weight, he had to figure out how to do it. There are lots of tools available for counting calories or tracking exercise, and lots of eating plans to affect change: should he go with Atkins, Keto, South Beach, Paleo, Dukan, HCG??? He wasn’t born with that tool in his bag, and he didn’t come by it magically. He knew he needed to lose weight, but he didn’t really want to; and he didn’t really know how to.

Does that sound familiar? Have you ever thought it would be nice if you wanted to read the Bible more, or at least knew how to read more productively? Have you ever wished you felt like going to church more, or knew what to do once you were there?

V6 PortraitTake heart! Personal Motivation and Personal Ability are important, but they are only one third of the equation! The other four cylinders help get these two up and running. And once you get all six firing, positive, lasting change is all but inevitable!

We’ll get into how social influence can affect both Motivation and Ability in Part 2 of this V6 Discipleship blog. For now, keep reflecting on what small step Jesus might be inviting you to take next. Can you discern any change in your discipleship motivation or ability? Ask the Holy Spirit what he is up to in your life. (And don’t forget to look and listen for the answer!)

Featured Image credit: V6 photo by Rafal P. from FreeImages


The Whole Pie (X)

I got to officiate at the wedding of a college friend this last weekend; what an honor! One of my favorite parts of the service was an image I stole from the groom.

He told me the story as we met together to prepare not only for the wedding but for the marriage to follow. His bride-to-be was stressing over some quirk in her personality or some ingrained pattern of behavior that wasn’t completely compatible with sharing a house, let alone a life, with someone else.

Of course, the groom also had his own back story and baggage—the later you marry, the more baggage you tend to carry, but only by virtue of having more time to pick some up. So the groom is a complicated individual with personal baggage and wanted to let his bride know that it was both normal and expected for her also to be a complicated individual with personal baggage. So he told her, “I love your whole pie.”

Pie-CrustI love your whole pie.

It must have worked, because they both told me how that concept became kind of a saying in their relationship. They even came up with an emoji, so they could text the idea, shorthand: (X).

Get it? It’s a pie: (X).

To say, “I love your whole pie,” is to say, “I accept you just the way you are. I love you, all of you; even the parts of you that aren’t easy to like; even the baggage you carry with you; even the patterns of behavior you have learned over time that protect you while shutting everyone else out.

“I love you at your best and at your worst. I love you when you make me happy and when you make me sad. I love you when you forgive me, and I love you when I have to forgive you. I love your whole pie.”

I think that’s a wonderful thing to be able to say to one another as you prepared to get married. I think it’s even more wonderful to say to each other after you’ve been married for a year or two (or 10 or 20)…

I think they capture the right verse to go with their pie when they selected Colossians 3:13-14 (NIV) as part of their wedding text:

Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Bear with each other. I think that actually means, accept the whole pie.
Forgive + Love = (X).

And the result of that love and acceptance, that free forgiveness and even pre-forgiveness, is not somehow getting walked all over by someone with more baggage than you. The result of loving the whole pie, as Paul describes it, is songs of thankfulness, ongoing growth, and gratitude in your heart.

Jesus puts it in an even more obvious way. After commanding his followers to show the same kind of humble and servant love to each other as he shows to them, Jesus describes the outcome of loving people who don’t deserve it, forgiving people who constantly disappoint you, and giving yourself away for the sake of sinful people who carry all kinds of personal baggage. The result of loving people like that? According to Jesus, the result is joy. And not just any joy; the kind of joy that belongs first to Jesus, and then to us.

I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
(John 15:11, NIV)

[I really wish Jesus would have said that same thing earlier in John… The first reading for the wedding service included Zephaniah 3.14; the second, Colossians 3.14. If I could have just worked John 3.14 into the service, we would have had a buffet of pies! (Get it? 3.14. That’s pie…)]

When you love someone’s whole pie, you are only being like Jesus, who loved your whole pie first. Jesus loves you completely (X) and the result of that love is joy. By the power of that love, Jesus invites you to love others with reckless abandon (X) in part because he knows your joy will be so much more if you do.

We all carry around all kinds of baggage. We have all developed habits and defense mechanisms over time that might be there to protect us, but end up shutting everyone else out. We all have good days and bad days, moments of grace and miles of self-centeredness. The only hope for any marriage, for any friendship, for any human relationship boils down to this: learning from Jesus to say, “I love your whole pie.”

And, according to Jesus, the result of that kind of love is joy!




Featured image: photo by Prateek Katyal from Pexels


Orientation vs Performance: GPS or GPA?

I got a chance to walk a dozen people through a “Moving the Needle” self-evaluation tool last Sunday night, and I was reminded of a couple of things I thought I would pass on to you (because I think anyone who is trying to take a next step or help others take a next step following Jesus will run into some of the same things).

1. People automatically feel pressure to perform.

I began to develop this self-evaluation tool as the Pastor for Adult Discipleship down in Texas, and refined it some more in my ministry in Ann Arbor. It’s not yet ready for public consumption but I am continuing to run experiments to make it better.

Whatever else might change in the tool, I will be sure to keep the key distinction between finding your GPA and using a GPS. Whenever you measure attitude or behavior, you will intuitively get some kind of sliding scale from “Absolute Heathen” to “Fully Devoted Follower.”

testEven if you admit that Jesus loves the people on the bottom of the scale, and go so far as to say no one reaches the top of the scale until the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, you still get a bell curve of disciples. Everyone wants to be at least a C- follower (or a little better than the person taking the test next to them) and as long as I can compare myself favorably to anyone else, I must be doing OK. That’s Discipleship GPA.

To try and get out of that sliding scale mentality, I have my tool set up as a series of gauges, like you might have on the dashboard of your car. I’m not grading your engine temperature or even your fuel level. In fact, the intention of the tool is to give you some idea of where you are in six different areas of discipleship and then give you some idea of the direction you are heading.

The express purpose is to find your location and orientation, not to score your competency. Yet even though I tell people this is a GPS, not a GPA, as soon as they start putting pen to paper they feel like they want to do well on the test.

Many of the questions they ask about the tool actually mean: “How can I score better on this??” They want to get it right, even when there is no single right way to answer. In fact, the whole thing is geared toward helping an individual take a next step. So if they think they would have used a different word here or there, I tell them to go ahead and change it on their sheet. If they want to add a new category, fine. I want them to find some way of taking their temperature somehow. Just talking about how you could possibly measure your direction and faith walk gets you thinking about the right kinds of things.

But as soon as you start to measure anything, we always end up in a competitionEven when trying to use a GPS, people automatically feel a pressure to perform. Meet them where they are. Assure them they are doing a good job. And get into the discussion about what Jesus is doing in their lives as quickly as you can. The only way to move the focus off of individual performance is to turn their attention to where Jesus is and where he is headed.

That’s actually the point of the GPS: asking where are you, where are you pointed, where is Jesus, and where is he headed? Even when you frame it as a GPS, American GPA mentality makes people feel pressure to perform. So if you are trying to take a next step, watch it! You are going to naturally think this is all about you, when the point is to find where you are so you can see Jesus more clearly.

2. People are complex.

You can measure some surface behaviors like worship attendance and giving pretty directly. But as soon as you try and get at the attitudes behind those behaviors or the general direction of those habits over time, things get pretty complex pretty quick.

I think we have to measure more than just how often people are in worship or how often they read their Bible at home because the answers to those kinds of questions are inherently framed as GPA rather than GPS. Someone who is anxious to come to worship and is coming more and more and is there at least once a month is at a different place than some who is begrudgingly there every week, never gets anything out of it (and never tries to) and has been stuck in that pattern for 30 years. The second disciple would have a higher GPA, but I’m pretty sure he is not seeing what Jesus wants to give or where Jesus wants to lead.direction

Of course, behaviors matter, and you would rather have people in worship twice a month than once a month, or three times a month instead of twice. But their attitude and the trajectory of their worship life over time is probably more important than their present behavior.

Not that behavior isn’t important! We want to measure that, too. In fact, I would rather you come to worship even when you don’t want to, than not come to worship because you don’t feel like it. But most of all, I want you to come more and more regularly over time; and I want you to be on the lookout for what Jesus is giving you and doing for you in worship, more and more joyfully and intentionally as you grow. Behavior matters, but because people are complex, attitude and trajectory over time matter even more.

Because people are complex, they also sometimes have trouble putting down on paper where they actually are, at least when it comes to attitude and direction. (Behavior is a little more straight-forward: you just take your real behavior and increase it by the guilt tax and record about 15% more activity than you actually do…)

When it comes to attitude and orientation, complex people can be in more than one place at the same time. One woman at our Sunday night Bible class thought talking about Jesus was both “scary” and “exciting” at the same time and felt conflicted about those two answers being on the opposite ends of a spectrum. I told her to answer both ways. Sometimes we have more than one attitude at the same time. Don’t let nuances of any discipleship tool get in the way of the real goal: to help people see more clearly where they are and where they are headed, so they can reorient toward Jesus and take a small step forward.

Any measurement tool will necessarily simplify. Be willing to let complex people be complex, and then let the tool do its work. The point isn’t to get the tool right (more performance pressure!). The point is to follow Jesus.

3. Burden is our natural heart language as sinners.

I think every time I have used any version of a discipleship self-evaluation tool, at least some people feel pretty guilty about their results. No matter how many times I say this is about orientation, not performance, writing down my attitude and behavior when it comes to following Jesus still brings some sense of personal failure.

Last Sunday, when the group was finished, I asked them in general about their experience taking the evaluation. The first person who responded was a woman who slapped her own face–she didn’t say it was a slap in the face, she actually slapped her own face!

Now a wake-up call is not necessarily a bad thing, and whenever you do any kind of evaluation, the Law is at work. Of course there will be some sense of guilt or shame, because we are always sinners. But we are not only sinners. Whenever you work with anyone (even yourself!) on taking a small next step following Jesus, you are going to have to get past the poor, miserable sinner mindset. Of course, theologically, they are (and you are); and of course as blind, dead, and an enemy of God, you can’t take even a small step forward following Jesus.

But that’s kind of not the point. Even that way of talking is getting back to the realm of performance and GPA: of course none of us could ever have a high enough grade point average to earn God’s favor. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s take out this GPS and talk about where you are in your faith journey, where you are headed, and where Jesus is inviting you to take a next step.

Jesus didn’t just die for the sins of the disciples, he also invited them to follow him. Even after the resurrection, when Jesus dealt with Peter’s three-fold failure, the punchline was still, “YOU must follow ME.”

I’m convinced that this invitation to follow Jesus is at the heart of the promise in the Great Commission: “I will be with you always... not to stand over your shoulder and grade your performance, but so that you can look around and find me and follow me, again and again, as often as you get turned around or lost or confused. I will be with you always… follow me.

No discipleship tool is ever supposed to merely pile on more guilt and shame. Burden is the natural heart language of sinners, and we make everything about performance, even Gospel invitations. (I can follow Jesus better than you can! In my whole class, I’m the best at not rejecting the promise!) So we will naturally experience any evaluation as burden. But guilt and shame can’t help us move in the right direction.

dashboardIf you want get unstuck, honestly take a look at where you are, and then start looking for ways Jesus is inviting you to take a step forward. Of course forgiveness is a natural part of moving forward, but the point is not to hammer people over how they have failed (that’s GPA thinking again); a GPS is value-neutral, it tells you where you are and maybe which direction you are heading. Feeling bad about where you is a real experience, and guilt and shame need real forgiveness. But you can’t always only focus on your sinfulness.

In fact, carrying that burden makes it harder to move forward. So give people–even yourself–lots of grace. Forgive sins and ease burdened consciences whenever necessary. And then try to help people see some small way Jesus is gently and persistently and lovingly trying to get their attention.

And while Jesus getting your attention is sometimes uncomfortable, it is also fundamentally good news: Jesus loves you and is leading you and has something he wants to give you. That’s awesome.

Featured image credit: dashboard photo by Oleg Magni from Pexels


%d bloggers like this: