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ABANDON FEAR and BUILD SOMETHING AWESOME
By OWEN STRACHAN
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 Owen Strachan
All rights reserved.
WEAK CHRISTIANS: YOUR STRESSED LIFE NOW
The average man doesn't want to be free. He wants to be safe.
—H. L. Mencken, The American Mercury
MANY YEARS AGO, IN A STATE FAR, FAR AWAY, A SIXTEEN-year-old boy crouched, trying to seize the courage necessary to jump off a rock into the waiting water below. In front of several friends and (even worse) a number of total strangers, he waited in place, searching furiously for the courage to (a) move forward and (b) jump into the water so as not to forever embarrass himself and future generations of his lineage.
Quivering, legs trembling, face strained, he waited, summoning boldness to come forth like a wizard daring a dragon to strike. It was a rite of passage in coastal Maine. A bunch of young guys find a rock, goad one another on, and jump into the water, thereby proving at some deep psychological level their manhood. like so many challenges of this kind, it was almost profound in its simplicity: We go find big rock. We jump off. We pound chests afterward.
It did not happen. The royal we—specifically I—could not do it.
What happened in this moment? My mother, no doubt learning of this event for the first time in these very pages, would commend me for my decision. She might say that I exercised wisdom. She would likely be right.
What happened was a failure of boldness. There was, I suppose, a minimal amount of what insurance agents might call "mitigating circumstances" present. It was possible that something could go wrong. In reality, though, the odds of success were quite high. I could see where I wanted to go; I had the power to get there; but I simply could not make it happen. It wasn't a failure of physicality that stopped me. It was a failure of will. There was an element of risk involved, and that element stopped me in my tracks.
I've thought about this moment often since it occurred. I don't regret it, exactly, and I have little interest in spurring on a culture of cliff-diving. In fact, I'm not sure that true manhood necessarily overlaps with such feats, however impressive they may be. But there was a parable in that moment that has repeatedly come to mind since that day. The takeaway was this: There are going to be moments in life, perhaps many, when it is not your circumstances that paralyze you. It is not physical or mental inability. It is not lack of capacity. No, what will stop you dead in your tracks is more simple.
It will be a lack of boldness. It will be a failure to see the power of God, and to risk everything in this world to gain him.
Jumping off a rock is not a big deal. But there really will be important moments, far more consequential times in life, when all of us will find ourselves seemingly unable to move. We will see where we need to go; we will be aware that nothing really has to stop us from getting there; and yet we will still stand, legs or heart aquiver, and not go forward. We want to grow in our faith and get into the Bible on a daily basis, but we can't quite muster up the spiritual energy. We realize that we need a bigger plan for our families and careers, and we want to develop it, but we're afraid to actually define our situation.
Better to stay in a neutral zone, keep expectations low, and not have to do anything drastic. That's what we're really afraid of: drastic, life-upsetting action.
So we play it safe, keep things calm ... and stay stuck.
I wonder if this isn't an increasingly common situation today for many Christians. It's not that we want to be where we are. It's not that we are trying to stand still. We see a good goal and want to move toward it. But something, some kind of invisible force field, holds us back.
If you have felt this—if you feel this—then you are in good company. Maybe you didn't expect to be here, thinking these thoughts. Maybe you thought the Christian life, and life in a country seemingly friendly to biblical faith, was going to be a smoother ride than this. Let's walk through how you may have found yourself thinking this, and what might be influencing you and me to struggle to be bold.
YOUR STRESSED LIFE NOW
The Christian life, according to some of our most prominent teachers and leaders, is like a journey into space that never ends. You make your way through it with the same slightly stunned smile that you have after a long and pleasant nap. You're looking at the world, and everything is dreamy and vaguely sleepy and relaxing. You find that life magically trends upward.
Life is one long exercise in uninterrupted fulfillment.
What does this mean practically? It means that finances climb, marriages naturally mature, kids pop out of bed in the mornings like cheerful groundhogs, the coffee is always at just the right temperature, work yields promotions you didn't expect, the rain avoids you when you're running outdoors, and through it all you smile a dreamy smile, living in a state of cheerful surprise.
It's like a cereal commercial, all health and good cheer, except it never stops. God is the one who activates all this. If you're not experiencing such a life, goes the thinking, you can know that you're destined to. It's just around the corner. There's something wrong with your faith, maybe; you're not trusting enough, or you haven't had a crisis experience, and if you'll just surrender it all (and, by the way, buy the book and DVDs of a major guru), you'll get there, and all your difficulties will just evaporate.
But you know what intrudes? Reality. Life can actually be pretty tough, even if you are blessed to know the lord. Not everyone is nice. Sometimes things are really difficult, and the clouds don't easily lift. There's a freedom in saying that out loud, isn't there? Ironic, I think, but true. As the old Scot said, confession is good for the soul. Why? Because, much as it can be hard to admit it, life in any age is challenging. This is true of our day and age. We are living in uncertain times. Smash-you-up times. Grind-you-down times.
And we don't always know where we're going, or even how to begin.
How about this? Let's look for a few pages at what daily existence really can be like. Then we'll get to some encouraging material that will provide truly inspiring uplift.
THESE ARE THE TIMES THAT TRY OUR SOULS
We are living in troubled times. The economy crashed in 2008, the worst such crisis in eighty years. Things have gotten better in some ways, but we're still not through it. We've seen a good many ups and not a few downs in the broader world. Meanwhile, many of us know people who are still out of work—or who are patching work together just to make ends meet. Newspapers pump out articles that tell the story of swaths of the population that have yet to get back on their feet—consultants who no longer have a field, municipal employees whose jobs disappeared overnight from small towns, graphic designers who can't string enough freelance jobs together, near retirees whose savings have been halved.
Perhaps this crisis is not merely "out there," felt in houses of commerce and businesses of scale. Perhaps it's directly affected you. These are uncertain times for many of us—and uncertainty easily breeds fear and worry.
Or maybe you're feeling the toughness of life in other respects. You want to be a Christian, but it seems as if the pressure is ratcheting up on you. You've always believed that marriage means the union of a man and a woman who become a husband and a wife. This kind of conviction wasn't formerly a position of bigotry—it was common sense. But recently, your coworkers—generally likable and helpful—got heated when the subject of gay marriage came up. They called those who champion biblical marriage "backward" and "hateful." Your face red, you haltingly mentioned you know some Christians, and they're pretty nice people.
Nobody shouted at you, but their chilled silence showed you what they thought of your opinions.
Later, you logged on to Facebook to seek out some support, but you found your old college classmates—the ones you roomed with for two years and shared every facet of life with—attacking a blog post that said homosexuality was wrong. You've seen anger before, but nothing like this. It was rage heated to a flame. It scared you.
You expected this persecution for some major leader, Billy Graham and similar types, but that's not you. You're just a nice person who's never had an enemy in her life.
Why has the world gotten so hostile so fast toward Christians?
DUDE, WHERE'S MY ROADMAP?
Or it could be that you feel as though there's no road map anymore. Sure, there's always Google Maps or your iPhone for a road trip. But when it comes to a life plan, such guidance doesn't really exist. A lot of twentysomethings sense that something is missing, that they don't have a key life ingredient that their grandparents did. Everything seemed so clear and obvious for them, at least when they told you about their early lives. They went to college (or didn't), got a job, got married, dedicated themselves to their calling for about six decades, then retired. Along the way, kids came along, white picket fences were constructed, and life's challenges were hurdled.
It may feel as if everyone else, in fact, has embarked on that kind of life, but you're stuck. College debt is coming out your ears. You're making $22,000 a year before taxes. The opposite sex at your church doesn't seem to know you exist, despite the impressive efforts of the college-and-career pastor. (Art night! Baseball outing! Theater-and-dinner!) You moved to a thriving city to jump-start your career and make good on that absolutely necessary, can't-miss, $150,000 education, and yet you realize that the urban loft may have evaporated into thin air, to be replaced by the luxury suite known as your parents' basement bedroom, half-finished and sawdusty.
The news media are flush with these kinds of stories. Here's a section from one about "Generation Limbo":
When Stephanie Kelly, a 2009 graduate of the university of Florida, looked for a job in her chosen field, advertising, she found few prospects and even fewer takers. So now she has two jobs: as a part-time "senior secretary" at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville and a freelance gig writing for Elfster.com, a "secret Santa" Web site.
If this kind of coverage applies to you, you may be aware that, on the whole, you're not old. Middle age is a long way away. But it feels as though you're already behind in life, and getting farther behind with every day that passes.
Or perhaps you have started a family. You had a picturesque wedding, replete with sparkling grape juice in glasses called "flutes," which were formerly known to you only as instruments played mostly by girls and the really weird guy in junior high band. You have been blessed with 2.2 children. You love your spouse, and your spouse loves you, but the two of you are so busy that you barely see each other, and when you do, you're so exhausted that you barely talk. It feels as if life has become a series of overloaded five-day stretches, bookended by tornado-like weekends crammed with little league, Powderpuffs, youth group, church, and lawn mowing—and before you blink, it's all over. It's 5:45 a.m. on Monday, and time to start the whole thing again.
Week after week after week.
You didn't start out this way, but now you find yourself daydreaming of Caribbean beaches and WaveRunners and getting away. Meanwhile, your kids are upstairs watching SportsCenter and Keeping Up with the Kardashians or worse in their rooms, and you just can't really dredge up the desire to interact with them. Your family is getting away—from you—and you know it, but you feel powerless to change it. Middle age has struck—or perhaps it is now a thing of the past—but it still doesn't seem that you have ever really gotten over the hump.
It feels like you're up on the rock, and you're stuck.
IN SEARCH OF ENCOURAGEMENT
Many Christians today, I think, go to church because of situations like these, hoping for help from the church. The pastoral staff work hard, they're likable, and they want the people to know God. There are abundant activities and numerous programs to plug into. The sermons are practical and understandable. These messages offer guidance from the Bible and help for those in need. It's all very safe and well-intentioned, because in general, the church goes out of its way to not offend. It doesn't ask you to become some sort of spiritual superstar. It meets you where you are, which you like, but when you actually think about it, you sometimes wonder whether you're growing in your faith.
So you don't want to be stuck, and your church doesn't want you to either. But somehow, despite the practical sermons and how-to guidance, things don't really get fixed.
The needle doesn't move.
Something has happened to many of us today. We're not sure what transpired to make it so. We just know that we're a little off. We love the lord, and we want to love him more, but we don't really know how to ramp everything up. We feel a variety of things, but they boil down to a mixture of fear, uncertainty, and boredom. And what does all this mean for our actual, day-today lives? It means, I think, that at the base, we fear making the wrong decision, taking the wrong step. We know God is good and real, but we struggle to act on that belief in everyday life, because our problems feel bigger than God's promises.
This directly affects our faith. It leads us, whether we're aware of it or not, to a play-it-safe mentality. We want to sit back, steer clear of scary circumstances, and generally get through the challenges before us. We don't want to call attention to ourselves, to feel cultural sting because of our Christianity, or to risk shaking our lives up.
It would be great, we think, for life to be as calm and quiet and manageable and low-stress as possible. Just put your head down and get through the day. Don't ruffle feathers; don't alienate friends because of your faith; don't risk being branded as a hateful evangelical. We find ourselves like kids in elementary school whose teacher woke up grumpy (and we've all been there): as believers, we're just trying to fly beneath the radar, not expose ourselves, and stay intact until the bell rings.
If this sounds like you at all, I know how you feel. I've felt many of these things myself. I have college loans. I have two young kids to care for. Some days my future seems altogether unclear, and this can leave me feeling a lack of boldness, on my heels, unsure of what to do next in a big, bad world that wants to swallow me (or so it appears).
Life is not easy. All of us know this personally. Don't get me wrong; I'm not suffering at this point in time in terrible ways. But I would be lying if I said that providing for a young family, giving my family my all when I get home, being involved at church, and trying to mentor students isn't taxing. It is. And if I let the busyness of my life get to me, I catch myself wishing for things to just calm down and get easy.
But that's not really the way it's supposed to be for godly adults. I know that; it's just that I'm tempted by my flesh to think I'm owed some kind of fantasy life with no stress and no responsibility.
We come from different backgrounds, and our struggles take different forms, but many of us today encounter these pressures. In such cases, we find ourselves wanting more than to merely avoid cultural shame. In the face of our personal challenges, we feel like opting out, just getting away from the whole thing.
Forget trying to avoid the grumpy teacher. We're looking to bolt the class.
And you know what? This is what many people in our culture, in our world, are doing. Think about marriage. When your spouse grates on you, and he or she doesn't seem to make an effort to care for you in meaningful ways, and you find yourself wondering whether you've fallen out of love, what does our culture encourage us to do? Opt out. The love has died. The light has gone out. Time to move on and start over.
A writer named Judy Wachs voiced this mind-set in a poignant essay. After Wachs's husband had an affair, the couple stayed together for a chunk of time before Wachs moved apart. As she put it in the New York Times:
With four children to care for, we shared the homework, car pools, tantrums and fun. So often, we congratulated each other for staying together, for finding the sweet spot that was always there.
And when I finally left our marriage after 22 years, not for another man but to strike out on my own, he showed me the same empathy and understanding that I had shown him more than a decade before. Instead of parting with acrimony, we were able to move on with love, tenderness and great memories. He eventually found a new woman to love and marry, and I now consider her among my closest friends.
Many Christians believe that Jesus allows divorce in cases of adultery (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). That technical biblical issue, though, is not what I'm concerned with here.
Excerpted from RISKY GOSPEL by OWEN STRACHAN. Copyright © 2013 Owen Strachan. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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