November 19, 2012

Barriers to Faith: Our Own Worst Barrier

For the past few weeks, we have been talking about the Barriers that hold us back in our faith journey. Barriers keep us from getting where we want and need to go. We have focused mainly on barriers for people outside the faith. We have looked at doubting God’s existence, doubting God’s goodness in the midst of so much evil, doubting God’s word, and dealing with God’s people the Church.

For some of us, we have stayed in the church, but these are barriers for us as well. Despite it all we hold on. Knowing the reality of the doubts and barriers, but knowing there is something real that while we can’t prove still real nonetheless.

Frank Viola, an author and speaker, recently wrote an article that declared, “I can say without blinking that there is no proof for the existence of God. None. There are several evidences. But even those evidences can be debated, and not everyone finds them compelling.”

People were shocked. Many were angry. How could he make such a statement. This was just admitting defeat and opening the door to all the critics. If what Viola said was true, then how could anyone still hold on to faith in Jesus Christ. At least lie like all the other good Christians and front like we can prove it.

Viola’s second article, Why I Am a Christian, was the response. He listed 12 things lead him to believe he has chosen the Truth. He says, “I am a Christian...

  1. Because life makes no sense to me apart from Christ. Nor does it have any purpose.
  2. Because I’ve tried to not believe in Jesus, and I find that I cannot.
  3. Because I’ve never seen the Gospel narratives refuted successfully.
  4. Because I’ve never seen the resurrection of Jesus refuted successfully. I’ve investigated all the alternative explanations and find them uncompelling.
  5. Because it makes no sense to me that Jesus of Nazareth isn’t who He said He was – the Messiah, the Son of the living God. 
  6. Because I can’t help but see the biblical narrative of Creation, Fall, and Redemption echoed in every play, every work of art, every human story, every drama, every movie, and the news I read each day. 
  7. Because every time I meet a true follower of Jesus for the first time, I feel like I’ve known him or her all my life.
  8. Because Jesus is the most compelling, intriguing, awe-inspiring, and amazing person I know of who is worthy of the greatest admiration, obedience, love, and (uniquely) worship.
  9. Because I’ve never seen any religion or philosophy deliver people from a life of carnality and bondage to addictions like Jesus has.
  10. Because I have a deep and unshakeable belief that the Lord Jesus Christ is with me and taking care of me . . . and has all of my life. 
  11. Because there is no rational explanation for some of the prayers that I (and others I know) have seen answered “in Jesus’ name.”
  12. Because I don’t weep easily, but I readily cry whenever I detect the fingerprints of my Lord or behold His handiwork.

You see, even without definitive, scientifically verifiable “proofs” for God’s existence it is reasonable to believe in God and place our faith in Jesus. Every day of our lives we make decisions and accept things without all intellectual details covered or having definitive proof.

We get on airplanes, without being 100% sure the plane is airworthy. We trust the pilots and ground crews to do their jobs properly. We believe these heavier-than-air contraptions can stay aloft. So we take things on faith.

The issue is not really whether we can answer every question, assuage every doubt, or apologize for every wound. There is no way to do that for everyone. I also don’t believe intellectual questions and doubts are the main barriers that keep us from believing God exists or keep us from growing in our faith.

The real barrier is us.

Mark 9:14-24 tells the story of a man who wrestles with doubt and acknowledges the real issue lies deep inside of him...with brutal honesty. Let’s look at that passage together...
14 When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. 15 As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him. 
16 “What are you arguing with them about?” he asked. 
17 A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. 18 Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.” 
19 “You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.” 
20 So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth. 
21 Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?” 
“From childhood,” he answered. 22 “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” 
23 “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” 
24 Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
Here is a man who has trouble with belief, and is at least honest enough by the end to acknowledge his desire to believe in the midst of every barrier standing in the way. Out of this passage there are several things I want us to see that act as personal barriers to our belief.

These aren’t necessarily intellectual issues. These aren’t things a Christian apologist can provide proofs and answers for. These are things each of us must face within ourselves before we can move forward in our faith. These are interior barriers.

We must overcome Bad Expectations
Jesus returns from the mountain following His transfiguration, and is faced with a hostile crowd. His disciples are locked in a heated exchange with the crowd. When Jesus asked what all the fuss is about a man reply, “I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”

This man had expectations that were not met. He expected to bring his son to Jesus and the disciples, that his child would be prayed for, and they would return to a happy, healthy family life. When those expectations were not met the man responded as so many of us respond. He got angry.

So often our anger with God or the Church is a result of our unmet expectations. God does not heal who we think He should heal, he does not give us what we think He should give us, he does not respond the way we think He should respond so we become angry. God’s people, the Church, doesn’t always act Christian. They sin. They say the wrong things and do the wrong things. Our expectations are blown, and we become angry.

Thousands of people who would willing die for the cause of Jesus in their 20’s turn their backs on Him later in life. They expected certain things of God; for Him to act a certain way. When He didn’t, they concluded He wasn’t real, didn’t care, or didn’t matter.

God will let us down. Things will happen that will lead us to believe he doesn’t care, is unfaithful, and doesn’t keep His promises. God will not always be faithful...according to our expectations of faithfulness. That is when we discover whether we are attempting to follow God or attempting to have God follow us.

The problem is not God...the problem is our expectations of who and what God should be. He will not become a dancing monkey for our enjoyment. He is not a puppet on a string. God is God, and will remain so...despite our expectations.

Thousands of people a year leave the church. They are hurt and wounded by something said or done in the name of Christ. Every day the Church faces accusations of hypocrisy and sin. A good bit of what is completely true. The problem, though, is not just that people in the Church act sinfully, but that people often have wrong expectations about people in the church.

Maybe you are facing some expectation issues. You expected God to act a certain way, and He didn’t. He didn’t heal your family member. He didn’t send that proverbial check in the mail. You have been unemployed for a long time, and you expected God to do something by now, and He hasn’t.

Maybe you expected someone who claimed to follow Christ to act a certain way, and they didn’t. They said something hurtful, and should have known better. You caught someone in a lie, and they refused to do something about it. You felt neglected by someone. You are angry and hurt.

Because we rarely evaluate our expectations, God will often have to violate them in order to remind us they are not right. Maybe our anger, is really God’s conviction that our expectations are misplaced and wrong.

We must overcome the influence of our culture.
“You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”

Everyone of us is a product of our culture. We are born into a family, a country, and a culture, and we are shaped by the thousands of experiences we have in our lifetime. This isn’t necessarily good or bad. In fact, it is a bit of both. Because we are so integrated into our culture, though, it can become almost impossible to see where the good and where the bad begins and ends. If we are not careful our culture can become what one writer describes as the prison of our experiences.

When Jesus confronts the crowd, He knows the role culture plays. He calls them an “unbelieving generation.” The culture of which they belong, as all cultures are, is rooted in sinful human nature, and therefore given to unbelief and doubt and sin.

Our own American culture has elements that run directly contrary to culture of the Kingdom of God. These cultural elements can, if we don’t recognize their influence, become barriers to our growth.

Science, while good and useful, is not the final standard for what is and is not true in our world, and our culture believes that it is. Everything must pass the Scientific Method in order to be declared true.

Individualism gave our forefathers the determination and drivenness to become a nation, and gives us the ability to step out and take risks as entrepreneurs and business leaders. It also destroys our ability to live in community, to understand the perspectives of others, and to get along.

Patriotism is a good thing. But where does patriotism end and an idolatrous worship of America begin?

What about our militarized culture? Do we need a military to protect us? Certainly. Should we respect and care for those who sacrifice their lives on our behalf? Absolutely. But how does the Church find a voice for Peace and reconciliation when statistically they are the first to promote and support war?

Consumerism is a big issue for the America culture. American’s  We consume account for 5% of the world’s population and 33% of global consumption. If everyone on earth consumed the way American’s do...we would need two more planet Earth’s to sustain it.

We could go on and on. And I’m not trying to pick on American culture. I just can’t speak for or against other cultures because I am not part of them, but I am part of this culture. While there is so much to be celebrated and applauded about our culture, it doesn’t take long to see there are elements of our that are in direct opposition to God.

Some of the largest and most dangerous barriers to our faith and spiritual growth are the cultural things. They run counter to the values of the Kingdom, and yet we overlook them because they seem so normal. Everyone around us is doing it, so we don’t even question whether it is right or wrong.

Jesus wants to regularly break into our lives and challenge the culturally accepted practices we take for granted. In fact, I believe He is the only one who can do that. We buy and keep on buying...we watch and keep on watching...we go to places and keep on going...until God breaks through and convinces us there must be a change.

We must overcome our inclination for self-protection.
Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”
“From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

“If you can do anything...” So often we want to hedge our bets and protect ourselves. We build the barriers that keep us from growing because they are keep us safe. They keep us from being hurt. They protect us from disappointment. We don’t want to get our hopes up because that usually doesn’t end well.

It happens every time we are hurt in a relationship. “I will never let anyone hurt me like that again!” And so we put up a barrier that keeps out the bad people who would hurt us. But it also becomes a barrier that keeps out the people who would love us.

It happens when the loved one, sick from cancer, gets some good news. We don’t want to be too happy or hopeful because the doctors get it wrong. So we build the barriers that keep us from hoping and being joyful...but also make us pessimistic and doubtful.

The good Christian way of doing this is by adding, “If it be your will” to our prayers. We hedge our bets because God might not answer our prayer. What many believe to be a statement of trust in God is really just a way to let themselves off the hook when things don’t go well.  We are unsure He will answer our we don’t pray boldly, we don’t expect God to do anything, and this is our way of putting the blame back on God if things don’t go as we pray...because we said, “If it be your will.”

The example we see in Jesus is one of openness that tore down the barriers. He willing allowed people in who would hurt him, and yet continued to trust and care for people. He believed God would answer prayers and prayed boldly, and yet willing submitted to God’s decision. And when it came time, Jesus refused to protect himself even when it cost Him his life.

The desire for self-protection will interfere with our spiritual growth because it builds the very barriers we are trying to get around. It will keep us from living generously toward those who are hurting for fear of being taken advantage of. It will keep us from following God to certain areas of ministry because we want to protect ourselves from hurt or actual physical harm. It will keep us growing because to grow requires change and adjustments and pain.

I love the man’s response to Jesus because it rings so true, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

In his second admittance to Hazelden for substance abuse treatment, Eric Clapton said this,
"One day, as my visit was drawing to an end, a panic hit me, and I realized that in fact nothing had changed in me, and that I was going back out into the world again completely unprotected. The noise in my head was deafening, and drinking was in my thoughts all the time. It shocked me to realize that here I was in a treatment center, a supposedly safe environment, and I was in serious danger. I was absolutely terrified, in complete despair. At that moment, almost of their own accord, my legs gave way and I fell to my knees. In the privacy of my room I begged for help. I had no notion who I thought I was talking to, I just knew that I had come to the end of my tether, I had nothing to fight with. Then I remembered what I had heard about surrender, something I thought I could never do, my pride just wouldn't allow it, but I knew that on my own I wasn't going to make it, so I asked for help, and, getting down on my knees, I surrendered."
So often we go through life much like Eric Clapton...unchanged and unfazed by our encounter with God because we refuse to surrender and trust that Jesus’ way is the only way to God.

We remain blind to the expectations and cultural things that create barriers to our relationship with God. We seek to protect ourselves and build a wall between us and God. We become our own biggest barrier to God.

My goal in this series has been for us to see some of those barriers that keep us from having all that God wants us to have. His desire is to lavish grace and love and forgiveness on us, and yet so often we are hindered by doubts and fears and barriers we have built with our own hands. It is time to let those barriers go.

The power of the Gospel is not that it can save us from our sins, but that it continues to save us from our sins. It isn’t just a one and done sort of thing. The Gospel, as one pastor put it, is not the is the entire house.

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