Part 2 of the series:
When Faith Doesn’t Work
by Don Enevoldsen
From chickens and yellowjackets, it is perhaps appropriate that I turn to birds and bees. (Yellowjackets are technically wasps, which are technically not bees, but metaphors technically are not required to adhere too closely to technicalities.) (Chickens are generally considered to be birds, though eagles might argue the point.)
But back to birds and bees. The core beliefs that drive our actions show up in a multitude of dysfunctional behaviors, but sexual problems seem to be especially prominent.
For example, not long ago, a pastor friend conducted a series of Bible studies designed to help people overcome sexual sins. At one point, he referred to the numerous Christians who vow to change their lives, live in biblical, sexual purity, and from that moment on, commit themselves to celibacy. Only to encounter an irresistible temptation immediately after the vow.
A girl on one side of the room, in a moment of resonance and clarity, confessed that she had struggled with precisely that problem just a few hours earlier. Across the room, a young man openly admitted the same struggle, to the nods and whispered agreement of a room full of brothers and sisters who admired such selfless transparency.
Both desired prayer for the strength to overcome the desires of the flesh. Prayer was gladly given as the conclusion of the meeting. The pastor said, “Amen,” and the room dissolved into small groups of fellowshipping believers, affirming to each other what a great meeting it had been and how powerfully God had moved to bring conviction and deliverance.
The young man and woman met within seconds in the center of the room to commiserate on their shared struggle, and an hour later were in bed together, commiserating further.
Moments like that prompt many people to distrust God’s ability to actually change anyone, encourage them to question the power of prayer and to suspect the sincerity of Christians in general. It is not unusual for people to leave the church entirely, quietly disappearing into real life, along with their unresolved problems, or to put up a religious facade of righteous living so that others will not know what failures they really are. Church becomes a place of dishonesty, misrepresentation and hidden shame.
I’ve been in church nearly five decades, and I have rarely seen people genuinely change. At this late stage of my life, I’ve finally begun to understand why. At the foundation of all this misery lie unrecognized, unconscious belief systems that drive behavior in contradiction to conscious, spoken beliefs.
There really is a solution, but before we get to that, I want to make sure we understand the problem. It is far too easy to skip over the painful part by hiding behind religious dogma and language. (This will probably take a couple of weeks, so hang in there. Just repeat after me, “I am a blessed and highly favored child of God.”) (Or whatever Christian catch phrase makes you feel temporarily comfortable.)
Perhaps it will help to give a biblical example of a flawed belief foundation in an otherwise powerful man of God.
Elijah was a prophet highly respected and feared. He is known as the miracle-working prophet who, on Mount Carmel, single-handedly confronted King Ahab of Israel, 450 hostile prophets of Baal, and a large crowd of people who came along to watch. The confrontation is described in 1 Kings 18.
Elijah had such confidence that, in spite of being outnumbered by hundreds to one, he mocked his opponents. Then he called fire down from the sky, awed the crowd into silence and personally killed all 450 of the pagan prophets.
Yet this bold and aggressive man of God ran for his life as soon as the queen, a woman named Jezebel, sent him a note threatening his life (1 Kings 19:2-3). The earlier chapters describing Jezebel made it clear that she was the driving force of rulership in the kingdom, not her husband Ahab. It appears that Elijah could call the entire nation to repentance, but his boldness, faith and confidence fell short of the last step, the one person at the very top of the power structure.
The story is recounted in 1 Kings 19. Elijah ran to a cave on Mount Horeb, out in the middle of an extensive wilderness, where he hid in misery and failure, despondent over his own lack of courage. Then God dropped by for a talk.
God, from outside the cave: “Elijah, what are you doing here?”
Elijah, from deep inside the cave: “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
It is not clear which Israelites were trying to kill him. The crowd on Mount Carmel acclaimed him as the victor of the contest, avowed that Yahweh was the God of Israel, and helped hold the prophets of Baal while Elijah killed all of them. Ahab returned to his palace in awe, stumbling over himself to tell Jezebel everything that had happened. Other than Jezebel, everyone seemed to have rallied to Elijah’s side.
God, from outside the cave: “Elijah, come out here in the open and stop sniveling in that dark hole. That wasn’t a very good answer, so I’ll ask you again. What are you doing here?”
Elijah, from almost outside the cave: “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
People avoiding the pain of dealing with the real problem often become very adept at coping by deflecting responsibility and thereby avoiding the difficult process of actually changing.
God: “Okay, if you won’t be real with me, I guess I’ll have to replace you. Go anoint Elisha.” (I paraphrased a little, but that’s basically what he said.)
Why this lapse? Elijah himself identified the problem in an earlier moment of despondency.
Elijah, somewhere between Israel and Mount Horeb: “I’ve had enough. I can’t take it anymore. Just kill me and get it over with.” And then the significant revelation: “I’m no better than my ancestors.”
There was the problem—a core belief system inherited from his ancestors, who apparently weren’t quite good enough.
Who were these ancestors? Elijah is identified as a “Tishbite” from “Tishbe” (1 Kings 17:1). Tishbe was a town in Gilead, one of the areas on the east side of the Jordan River where two and a half of the tribes of Israel decided to settle instead of crossing the river and going into the Promised Land. Elijah had an ancestral heritage of not quite going all the way to the goal.
In fact, the name “Tishbe” means “foreign resident.” Its root, toshab, occurs in Genesis 23:4: “I am an alien and a stranger among you.” That means a sojourner or foreign resident.
Elijah grew up with a core belief that told him he didn’t belong, that he wasn’t good enough, that even though he confronted and defeated every obstacle along the way, he would never be able to overcome the last challenge. His built in belief was that he could only go part of the way to the Promised Land and then he had to stop. This subconscious core belief dictated his behavior, and in spite of his knowledge of God’s power and provision, in spite of uninterrupted victory, at the last moment, on the basis of a threatening note, he broke and ran.
Next week we will examine some of the more common methods of dealing with troublesome behavior. And why they don’t work. Then we can get to the solution—identifying what we really believe and changing it.