During my freshman year at Moody Bible Institute, I was trying to figure out which church I would attend now that I had the freedom to go wherever. One of my friends invited me to a church plant, about 30 minutes outside Chicago. This little church plant didn’t even have it’s own building yet. It met in a school, and the sanctuary/cafeteria was filled with about 80 people. There was a guest pastor traveling through that Sunday morning: Joshua Harris, the guy who kissed dating goodbye.
I probably should have been star struck, but he came across as just a regular guy. When he stepped up to the pulpit, he didn’t talk about dating or purity. He simply took the text, and pointed to Christ. It was honestly one of the best sermons I had heard at that point. After the service, I found out that the friend who brought me was a friend of Josh’s and we hung out for awhile, about 5 of us in a little circle of folding chairs, just talking about life. We were in no hurry, and talked the afternoon away. He talked about how people expected him to preach on purity all the time, and he just wanted to talk about Christ. He didn’t like the message of the gospel being less interesting to people when he talked than the message he penned about courtship that put him on best-seller lists. Even back then, I saw the grief in his eyes.
When I heard about the ups and downs of Josh Harris’ very public ministry, I would often pray for him and his family. It was like I was watching a friend walking around with a spiritual bullseye on his back. I imagined the stress his family must be going through. My mom was a missionary kid, and pastor’s kid, and that’s hard enough. My heart is burdened for ministry families, and the pressure chamber in which they live. What if you’re a celebrity pastor’s kid? What if your celebrity pastor-dad is both sinner and saint?
A couple of years back, he renounced his books, citing the fact that they talked about purity in regards to our actions, instead of purity given by Christ. Girls especially, were hurt by the purity movement that he was a poster-boy for. Data shows that 25% of women in the pews are victims of sexual assault, and in my mentoring ministry, I have found that number to be very true. 25% of girls learned through the purity movement that they were unworthy of love because they had been “dirtied.” It wasn’t the gospel of being made clean in Christ, and he grieved how his words, though well intentioned, were ambivalent to some enormous pain in his audience.
What went wrong?
I think about his parents, who are well known speakers on the homeschool circuit. They had a vision for their kids to be passionate about God and think big. As parents, they wanted to think big. Their talks on CDs are so full of grace and kindness that they get passed around homeschool circles to moms who need encouragement, and they were honestly some of my favorites. It makes this situation that much more disorienting.
Was their vision wrong? Was it just that they taught him wrong? Were they too strict? Too lenient? What part of their formula needs adjusting? It’s easy to want to go through and pick apart their message, and wonder what went wrong. Did they stress the law too much, and the gospel too little?
Their intentions were so good. Their kindness was so plain.
Recently, Josh Harris announced an amicable separation from his wife, and then later, the deconstruction of his faith, that he no longer considered himself a Christian. I thought back to all the times I had been prompted to pray for him in the last year. I feared he was reaching serious ministry burnout.
When vultures (probably like me) who are writing pieces about families in their point of sorrow, we become like Job’s friends, analyzing what when wrong. The theologians will debate whether or not he was saved in the first place, or whether or not one can lose his salvation, and denominational divisions will enflame. His baptism, earlier profession of faith, and lastly his “fruit” will all be examined, and judgments will be made.
The psychologists in us will analyze what when wrong with the parenting. Was homeschooling the cause? Would this have happened if he were prepared better for the world through public school? What about the church he went to? What about how his youth group discussed sex and dating? Should we next blame his old pastors?
Very few, but some will go after the chronic epidemic in our churches of ministry burnout, as expectations are put on pastors that no human can perform, as people analyze how holy they are as they trudge along like the rest of us.
Getting down to the root question on everyone’s mind is: let’s figure out what went wrong so we can go do the opposite of that. The old formula “didn’t work” so we need a new formula. It’s time to swing the pendulum. When we lose one legalistic formula for raising children in the faith, we are desperate to find a new formula, or at the very least, assign blame.
So what do we do now?
I have lost track of how many times I have said that parenting will require us to face the theological truths we truly believe. The use of the law can be argued theoretically, but children will show you the practical side of the law—and it’s limitations. Teaching kids that God’s law is good but impossible, and the good news is that Jesus completed the law is just a door wide open for their unending questions.
As we desperately search for a new formula, (or search for a person to blame for the failure to follow the old formula) it’s important to recognize the idolatry and sin in our own hearts.
We think we can solve this sin issue. We think we can parent it away. I’m not talking about hearing out and mourning with those who have been hurt by ministries, which is necessary and good. I’m not talking about making sure our churches have good policies in place. I’m saying, we think sin is a puzzle we can solve. When we need to mourn with those who mourn, we find ourselves trying to eradicate the need for mourning completely.
We still think we are wise enough to be god.
Every fiber in my being wants my children walking with the Lord for their entire lives. I can homeschool. I can teach them. I can search the Scriptures for every reference to child rearing and follow the letter. It’s just I can’t find any section where I get to come in and save them. I have found no insurance policy between the pages where I get to play god with their souls. This terrifies me.
If I’m not homeschooling my kids for the purpose of discipling them in the ways of God, than why am I doing it? If I’m not putting my kids in public school so they learn to be a light in the darkness than why am I doing it? If I read the Jesus Storybook Bible every single day to my kids, and they still walk away than why should I even bother?
The root of this fear shows a pride of control. The root of this fear is a misunderstanding of our role. We think a new legalistic system will save us. We try and fail at our equations.
I’m praying the discipline God will give us during this time is the ability to mourn with those who mourn.
I’m praying God will teach us to mourn with his family, and mourn with those whose view of God was shaken by legalistic doctrines. We need to ask for the ability to mourn, because I’m afraid we’ve forgotten.
We forget that God is the perfect father, and yet Adam and Eve still ignored his words and went ahead and sinned.
Events like this strike a nerve with Christians, not just because we are hungry for blood (and we probably are) but because it shakes the foundation that we thought was strong enough to hold us. It makes us question every rule we teach our children, and how we present that rule. As we pick apart our formulas that are laid bare, let us not dismiss the idea that God may have had a conversation that is way above our pay grade, as he did with Job.
Life by faith
Whenever I find myself questioning God and other’s downfalls, I find myself back in Job. After Job rages against God’s wisdom, God questions Job, for pretty much all of chapters 38-39. Read them. They’re humbling. In chapter 40, God makes plain that we can go ahead and question God, but we are too small and finite to even understand his answer.
This shakes us because it requires us to once again admit that we are not God, we do not know, but we do know God, and we know that he knows…
and sometimes that has to be enough. That is the very definition of faith, and as Christian as we might be, I don’t know if we ever get comfortable with faith, or if we are chronically trying to replace it with formulas. This mistake happens when we view our freedom in Christ as simply holes in Scripture that need to be filled in for those who may not understand God as we do. We assume that God should have been more specific on how to do this life, so we will fill in the gaps for him.
God stubbornly doesn’t give us instructions that would send us in any direction except total and complete dependence on him.
We are meant to live a Spirit-led life, not a formula-driven life. So many time, the attitude of my heart is: “God, just tell us what to do so we can do it…without you.” Independently. So we can show off for you how great we are. We just need you to give the word, God, not BE the Word.
Jesus is the Word. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God.” (John 1:1)
“Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if the law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” (Galatians 3:21-22 ESV) Honestly, just keep reading the rest of Galatians 3. We live by faith, not formulas, and honestly, that frustrates us.
This idea doesn’t sell, but it’s the truth: we live by faith, not formulas. We raise our children by faith, not formulas.
2 simple truths have been comforting me as I’m trying to make sense of the faith of a family member of mine:
-God is good
-God will do what is right, (both merciful and just) when it comes to this person.
Sometimes we have to be okay with not knowing the details, and not knowing the state of someone else’s heart. We need to be okay letting God direct our children’s faith, and letting God be the Savior. We cannot navigate a path to heaven, even with a list of do’s and don’ts. But we know WHO is the path, and that truly is sufficient.