What to do if You’re Unhappy at Your Church

The fact is there are lots of awesome church people out there that have decided it’s not okay for them to leave their churches because they don’t really have biblical reasons to do so.

So they are staying. Right where they are. And, truth be told, they are miserable. They find it difficult to be at their churches. They aren’t happy, and unhappy people have difficulty connecting with others and with God.

What then?

Are they obligated to stay at their churches and be miserable?

No.

God doesn’t want you  miserable at your church. Barring any unbiblical things going on, God wants you happy at your church. 

Read that again.

God wants you happy at your church, not at a new church. 

How do I know that?

a) God loves us and wants us to be happy (Psalm 68:3). God is a compassionate God who weeps with us and rejoices with us and is able to relate to every emotion we have (Matthew 14:14, John 11:35, Hebrews 4:15). He desires for us to feel happy, but that is not the end all be all of our existence, and if our happiness and our growth in Christ are at odds with one another, God will choose to attempt to grow us every time (2 Corinthians 3:18).

b) If there is one thing the New Testament stresses to the church, it’s unity (2 Corinthians 13:11). When people leave their church bodies in search of personal happiness in a new church body, whether they intend to or not, they effectively stress fracture their former body. Whether they leave quietly or recruit loudly as they go, they weaken other believers in that body by taking away their services (assuming they were serving in the first place) and by causing other believers to wonder if they should leave too.

When the body gets multiple stress fractures from multiple people leaving, it becomes so weak it breaks. And when the body breaks in multiple places, it hurts. A lot. For a long time. Ministry is crippled, to some degree, among the remaining church members as they are left to try to salvage the body. Energy and resources have to be focused on healing the body rather than on what the church should be focusing on: spreading the Gospel and discipling believers.

c) Every time we feel like our happiness is at odds with an opportunity for us to grow, we aren’t viewing the situation how we should (James 1:2-3). We need a heart change quick. We should value above all else our conformation to the image of Christ. That should be our chief source of happiness, and being miserable at your church affords you the perfect opportunity to grow. Rejoice.

So, if you’re unhappy at your church, can I gently challenge you to stop waiting for the things around you to change to suit your preferences and to start changing yourself?

If you want to feel happy about going to your church, stop the self-focus – “What am I not getting?” – and train your mind to focus on others (Philippians 2:3-4) – “How can I serve others here today?” If you’re not serving, start (1 Peter 4:10).

Now, the tricky part is we can serve until we’re blue in the face and still feel unhappy about our churches because our hearts are still focusing on ourselves while we go through the motions of serving others. Psalms says God doesn’t value that kind of external sacrifice, he wants our hearts (Psalm 51:16-17). When we serve with the motivation to honor the Lord, others will experience the love and truth of Jesus, and we will gain joy knowing the Lord is happy with us (Ephesians 6:7). 

If you are among the minority of church members who do serve and are others focused, but you still feel unhappy with your church, there is one other area that needs to change.
Consider that everything your church does is not for your benefit. If you’re a seasoned believer, the outreach arm of your church is not trying to make you happy, it is trying to reach unbelievers and new believers and welcome them into the church so they can come to know Christ. What’s more important than that? (Matthew 28:18-19)
Knowing this, seasoned believers should approach outreach times not with an “I’m not getting anything out of this” attitude but with a rejoicing heart that the Gospel is being preached and non and young believers are getting exactly what they need – small doses of scripture and basic truths (1 Corinthians 3:2). Your jobs during outreach, seasoned believers, is to bring non and new believers so they can grow and to pray for the Spirit to move. Rejoice that seekers are being introduced to Christ at your church!
Likewise, if you’re a young believer, the intensive Bible studies that are way over your head are not trying to make you happy, they are trying to help seasoned believers go deeper in their relationships with the Lord (Hebrews 5:14). If you’re in one of these classes, and your eyes are glazing over because you don’t care about the original Greek, your job is to pray that the Spirit would move and grow these other members in their walks with Him. Rejoice that seasoned believers can grow at your church!
This is the kind of perspective change – to value others more than ourselves – that is called maturing in Christ. If you church-hop in this moment, you lose. You lose the opportunity to mature in your faith (Ephesians 4:15). You lose the opportunity to be apart of others coming to know the Lord.
If none of this is helpful, you need to call your pastor, schedule a meeting, and have an open, honest discussion with him about how you’re feeling. Tell him that you are unhappy and that you don’t want to leave, but you don’t know how to get happy, and allow him to speak to the sources of your unhappiness. Some of the very things that cause you the most trouble could be simple misunderstandings. Or they could be legitimate problems that your pastor needs to be aware of so he can redirect the church.

Can Separation Ever Be Good?

The Lord has been trying to get me to agree with Him on something for months… or has it been years? I can’t remember.

Anyway, He finally found a way that even I – the woman who could have been a lawyer – can’t argue with.

If you like your life the way it is, I suggest you close your browser.

I’ll wait.

Still here?

Okay…

So the background I can share with you is I am fiercely loyal. If we ever become friends, we will be friends until I die. When I care (caveat), I care deeply… and forever.

Which can be a problem when life separates us.

I moved a lot as a kid, and I still deeply miss and regularly think about my childhood friends. We don’t interact beyond Facebook, and I have no delusions that we would still be the best of friends today if only we lived near one another… But I’m not surprised when the casualties of moving show up in my dreams… weekly. And I still get sad I’m not 9 anymore.

And then there was high school. I had amazing friends back then – the kinds of friendships that only happen in movies. We were inseparable and forever changed for the better for having known one another. I think fondly about one or more of those people every. single. day.

With a background like this, it’s easy for me to feel like separation is never a good idea. It’s easy for me to view it as an evil to be avoided at all costs.

And I’ve been trying to convince God I’m right for quite awhile… He isn’t buying it.

Because He knows that sometimes separation is good.

Did I really just say that? Me? The girl who goes through the 7 stages of grief when her favorite FICTIONAL TV shows are cancelled?

Yes, I can’t keep saying separation is always wrong and bad… because God says otherwise. And no matter how much I Hate with a capital H that this is true, that doesn’t make it any less true…

Why can’t I just be a post-modern who doesn’t believe in truth?

Sigh.

That’s a different post.

For now, would you like to know what finally convinced me I must call some separation good?

No? Close your browser.

I’ll wait.

Still here?

Okay…

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, God the Father and God the Son, Jesus, were separated… it happened only once, but it happened nonetheless. There was a boundary, if you will, when Jesus lamented from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). It’s hard to say what exactly happened at that moment, but it’s clear the Father turned away from the Son in some way.

Lean in close…

Since God never does anything that isn’t good, we have to conclude this separation was good.

And if separation can be good for the Father and the Son, even just once, we have to conclude there might come a time when it would be good in our human relationships too.

I know.

I don’t like it either.

Truth be told, it terrifies me.

But it helps me to take notice of a couple things about the Father and the Son’s separation…

  1. It was temporary. Don’t get me wrong, it was extremely painful. But it didn’t last forever. In fact, it only lasted three days.
  2. It didn’t change how they felt about each other. Neither the Father nor the Son lost one ounce of affection for each other while they were apart. If they hadn’t already shared the maximum amount of love for one another possible, I’d even say such a separation would have increased their love for one another. Father pride swells when children do right…
  3. It was for the greater good. The Lord redeemed humanity via that separation. Turns out that break was the only way to restore what always should have been.
  4. The reunion was sweet. In the story of the prodigal son, the father’s joy is unbounded when he is reunited with his son. And, so, too, I am confident, was the Father’s joy when He got His Boy back.

I imagine these four characteristics can be applied to any separations we experience in our human relationships… I know they all aren’t always going to be true… and even if they were, the hurt will still steal our breath and wet our eyes as we walk in obedience…

But maybe we can ask the Lord for the faith to believe that maybe just one or two of these ideas will be true in our lives? And maybe they can help us be brave when He calls us to separate from people we love?

How to Have Hope in the Hopeless Times

There are times we feel stuck in suffering. We look around and see no way out. The hurt is so deep, so constant, and everything we’ve tried to counteract the pain so ineffective, we feel helpless and hopeless. Or, as Paul put it, “in our hearts we felt the sentence of death,” (2 Corinthians 1:9).

Image via sakhorn38/freedigitalphotos.net
Image via sakhorn38/freedigitalphotos.net

That’s pretty severe.

On the heels of our discussion about whether or not God gives us more than we can handle, I find it interesting that Paul said this to the believers in Corinth, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life,” (2 Corinthians 1:8).

Paul. Super apostle. He had experienced Jesus in an incomprehensibly amazing way during his salvation experience. Yet, when the crap hit the fan, even Paul “despaired of life.” Sometimes life is just too hard. For all of us.

So what do we do when the pressure of circumstances are “far beyond our ability to endure”? We still have to live the day to day. Make choices. Accomplish tasks. Take care of families. Go to jobs. Participate in life. How do we do these things when life feels like a death sentence?

Paul says hardships and unbearable pressure happen, “that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead,” (2 Corinthians 1:9).

When we feel like life is a death sentence, we are to rely on Him who literally raises the dead. 

God is in the business of redeeming that which seems unredeemable. That includes people, yes, but it also includes hardships and pressures, circumstances that seem too far gone or too overwhelming to overcome.

It’s true that you and I cannot raise anything from the dead. We cannot go to a funeral, stand over the casket, call out the person’s name, and tell him to arise. But Jesus literally did that (Lazarus, John 11:38-44). God the Father literally did that too (Jesus, Matthew 28:5-6).

Just as God is capable of resurrecting dead people, He is capable of resurrecting the “dead” parts of our lives. Dead relationships. Dead careers. Dead ministries. Dead communities. Dead parts of ourselves – from physical infirmities to emotional sinkholes. Anything that is dead, He came to give it life.

We’ve seen that in our pasts. We can all come up with a time or two when we “felt the sentence of death”, and God, somehow or another, delivered us. (If you’re having trouble seeing past your despair to remember such a time, think about your salvation story. He delivered you from a literal death sentence – Hell – and gave you eternal life when you “got saved”.)

Paul encourages us to reflect on redemptive moments in our pasts so, in our current hardships and pressures, hope will well up in our hearts. “He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us,” (2 Corinthians 1:10).

If life is unbearable right now, take heart. Remember how He has taken great care of you in the past, and set your hope on His goodness and power to deliver you from your current plight.

As long as God is still God, nothing is hopeless. Nothing.

Does God Ever Give Us More Than We Can Handle?

SufferingI shared an article on my Facebook wall the other day in which a pastor makes the case that God does give us more than we can handle. I happened to agree with this suffering Christian. However, a friend of mine who loves Jesus and the Catholic Church and knows Scripture took issue with the article.

(Note: you need to have Christians – and by that I mean Jesus-following and Bible-loving folks – who don’t think like you in your life. I joked with my friend, “As iron sharpens iron, so a devout Catholic sharpens an evangelical Protestant.” It’s a joke, but it’s also true.)

The dialogue with my friend helped me get to the bottom of why I agreed with the pastor’s sentiment and what he could have done to be more clear about his statement that God gives us more than we can handle (assuming his intent was to be biblical).

Go read the article for some background if you want. I’ll wait.

While my Catholic friend brought numerous disagreements to the table, his main beef was that, through Christ, we can handle anything (Philippians 4:13), and, if we believe in God’s sovereignty, we are to believe that whatever is happening to us is God’s will (Ephesians 1:11). That fact alone should give us reason to rejoice (Philippians 4:4) and embrace the burden (James 1:2), motivating us to stand up and endure. Not to mention, my friend pointed out, that God loves His people and would not “burden us past our capability”.

(I told you this guy is sharp.)

Clearly, I couldn’t refute my friends thoughts. I agree with his Bible-supported statements, although I could take issue with his assumption about how a loving God would and wouldn’t act, per his last thought. On the whole, my friend’s arguments are right.

And, yet, I still agreed with the bulk of the article stating the (seemingly) exact opposite: God does give us more than we can handle at times.

After some thinking, I realized the discord between my friend’s correct assertions and the author’s correct assertions was due to a lack of clarity on the author’s part.

The author wrote with an unspoken presupposition in mind that made a subtle appearance toward the end of the article but should have been more prominent. Because it wasn’t, my friend jumped on the lack of clarity and assumed the author to be off his biblical rocker.

The major distinction that wasn’t made clear is this: when we operate out of our own strength, what God gives us is often more than we can handle. But when we operate in total dependence on Christ, He will supernaturally enable us to handle anything. 

So, you see, both my friend and the author are right.

We have to get to the end of ourselves – we have to be broken, unable to bear anymore in our own strength – before we learn what it is to fully rely on Christ. God knows this, which is why, I believe, He does allow us to experience more than we can bear IN OUR OWN STRENGTH. We won’t turn to Him if we can bear it all alone.

Because He loves us and out of His desire for us to be drawn into closer, more dependent, and, simultaneously, more powerful relationship with Him, He allows/causes our burdens to accumulate when we aren’t depending on Him enough so we will depend on Him enough. He lets situations become too much so we realize how much He is – enough.

So, per the article’s point, don’t tell someone who is suffering that God won’t give them more than they can bear. Instead, tell them God gives us more than we can bear so we learn how to bear all with Him, and encourage them to use their suffering to, “Seek the LORD and His strength; seek His presence continually,” (Psalm 105:4).

What, Exactly, is His Grace Sufficient For?

One of the go-to verses for Christians in pain is 2 Corinthians 12:9. In it God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Of course, the context is important. So bare with me while I rehash that for us.

Corinth was a city of wealth, commerce, and depravity. Sexual immorality was rampant, with prostitution being part of idol worship. Apparently, the Corinthians had a hard time separating themselves from these cultural practices. Paul tried, somewhat in vain it seems, to encourage Corinthian believers to higher standards – godly standards. Second Corinthians was actually his third letter (at least) to the group, after several lengthy personal visits to try to steer the church in the ways of the Lord. To put it mildly, Paul was frustrated and desperately wanted these believers to desire to be the Church – those called out of the world and into the Kingdom.

In chapters 10 and 11, Paul felt the need to answer a question the Corinthians seemed to be asking themselves – why should we listen to Paul?  Paul acknowledged their grumbling, reporting his awareness that “…some say, ‘His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing,'” (2 Corinthians 10:10). The Corinthians were feeling a bit rebellious, and they weren’t afraid to say it… when Paul wasn’t around.

Paul did his best to respond calmly the rest of chapter 10 and the first half of chapter 11, but he eventually decided sarcasm and mockery were the way to go. (Have I mentioned I love him?) He was infuriated the Corinthians were choosing to elevate false apostles’ teaching above the true Gospel he had introduced to them (2 Corinthians 11:5-6).

While defending himself, though, he didn’t want to give the impression the Corinthians should listen to him because there was something special about him. It was important they realized it was not Paul he wanted them to submit to but Christ in Paul. Paul told the story about his infamous thorn to illustrate his humanity and frailty and to emphasize only the existence of an all-powerful God could explain how a man with such a restrictive condition could be so successful.

Within this context, Paul recounted how he asked God to take away his thorn three times (2 Corinthians 12:8). And God had responded this way, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

The first part of the sentence intrigues me. “My grace is sufficient for you.” What does that even mean? We Christians are quick to quote it to someone in need, but have we really nailed down what’s going on here? I haven’t.

What, exactly, is God’s grace sufficient for?

I took the verse apart in the Greek last night to try to answer that question, and you’re never going to believe what I found out. What God really means is, “My grace is enough for you.”

If you’re paying attention, you’re realizing I discovered absolutely nothing new. So I took it apart in the English and came up with this.

Grace can mean favor, approval, or blessing, typically unmerited. Enough means occurring in such a quantity as to fully meet a need. So God’s favor and blessing will fully meet our need. The question is begged, our need for what? Some needs? All needs? Specific needs?

Before we can transfer the idea to ourselves, we need to get back in Paul’s shoes to understand the original intent of the Lord.

Paul had some needs.

In the most immediate context, he had a thorn of some sort causing him some agony. God likely would have been intending to communicate His favor was enough to get Paul through that agony. God’s blessing was enough for Paul to live  for a lengthy amount of time in spite of whatever physical, spiritual, or emotional pain he was experiencing.

Zoom out a smidge, and the wider context is that Paul was defending his credibility as an apostle to the Corinthians. In the midst of their doubting his authority to speak on God’s behalf, God tells Paul, “My approval is enough.” The power behind Paul’s ministry resided in God’s approval and favor, not the Corinthians. Nothing else was needed. Even without the Corinthians’ okay, God’s approval was enough for Him to accomplish whatever He willed through Paul.

I’d also like to think the Father-heart of God wanted to remind Paul that He loved Paul. He wanted Paul to feel confident of that love and to find his identity in that love, no matter what others were saying about him. God approved of Paul, even if others didn’t, and knowing that should have fully met Paul’s need to feel secure and valued. 

Step back even farther, and we realize Paul had a nearly impossible task – to take the Gospel to the Jews first, and then to the Gentiles also (Acts 13:46). The Jews thought of Paul as a traitor preaching sacrilege and would’ve rather killed him than listen to him try to convince them Jesus was the Messiah they’d been waiting on (Acts 9, 13). The Gentiles didn’t know what to do with Paul. Some were scared of him (Acts 9), some tried to worship him (Acts 14:11), some stoned him (Acts 14:19), some believed his message (Acts 14:20), and some, like the Corinthians, believed Paul initially but got angry when he held them accountable. So when God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you,” the widest application implies God’s favor was all Paul needed to successfully fulfill his life’s calling to take the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15, Eph 3:8).

Back to the original question. For today’s believer, what is God’s grace sufficient for?

God’s grace is sufficient…

1) To survive pain. God’s blessing is enough for us to make it through any kind of physical, spiritual, or emotional pain, no matter how long that pain exists. God’s grace – His favor – is enough, all by itself, to sustain us until He determines that pain should end.

2) To empower us for ministry. God’s Kingdom purposes are accomplished by His endorsement alone, not human approval, ability, or ambition. We all have a ministry, and His grace – His blessing and approval – is enough, all by itself, to make our ministries flourish.

3) To establish our security. We all wonder, to varying degrees, if we are loved, valued, appreciated, accepted, approved of, desired, etc. Too often we look to others to affirm our worth. God’s grace – His approval – is enough, all by itself, to solidify our true worth.

4) To fulfill our life callings. We’re all here for 2 reasons: to know God and to make Him known (Exodus 9:15-16). How we make Him known, and to whom, may vary, but, ultimately, we’re all called to the same thing. And the calling is not for the feint of heart. But, God’s grace – His favor and blessing and approval – is enough, all by itself, to empower us to do what we’re supposed to be doing.

So I guess to put it succinctly (1100+ words later), God’s grace is sufficient for everything.

Why I (Don’t) Believe in God

I don’t really want to write anything about Newtown, Connecticut, given I have no new insight to offer. I don’t need to summarize what you already know about the situation, and I don’t want to offer my opinion on theological debates because it’s all been said ad nauseum. You have your opinion on where God was and what He was doing last Friday, if He even exists. And I have mine.

What I want to talk about, rather, is why I don’t believe in God. And then why I do.

Confused yet? All part of the hook 😉

I don’t believe in God because I can tell you exactly how a benevolent, all-knowing, all-powerful, completely in control God can exist alongside a broken world where terrible things like mass murders of children take place. The truth is, I don’t know how that’s possible.

I don’t believe in God because I can logically explain how it seems I have freedom to make my own choices without limiting God’s power to stop my choices if He doesn’t like them. I can’t understand how that works.

Nor do I believe in God because I can mentally assent to the idea that I don’t have free will but am still somehow responsible for my bad choices. I can’t.

I don’t believe in God because I can intellectually explain why God didn’t stop the Sandy Hook tragedy even though he was in control of the situation. I believe He could have. I see He didn’t.

These theological debates go round and round with no end. And they often keep unbelievers at bay. I once was an atheist who believed if I couldn’t explain God completely with my intellect, He couldn’t exist.

Today I am a whole-hearted Jesus sell-out, but I still can’t answer these questions about free will and pre-destination and sovereignty with much confidence.

I don’t believe in God because I can prove Him in a textbook kind of way.

I believe in God despite that which I can’t know for sure about Him.

I believe in God for one simple reason that trumps intellectual provability.

I believe in God because I have experienced Him. And that experience is proof enough for me that He is exactly who He says He is in the Bible, even if I can’t understand how He can be all those things at once.

A much too simple analogy: I read a book once about fire. The book described it as hot. I went to a science class, and the teacher there told me, yes, fire is hot. We went outside on a frigid day and peered into a bonfire 100 feet away. I felt cold. And the fire didn’t look hot. No matter how many times people told me that fire on that freezing day was actually upwards of 1000 degrees, I just couldn’t fathom it. My senses, my intellect, they all told me otherwise. I couldn’t process how rubbing two cold pieces of wood together could produce a spark of incredible heat. As I drew near the fire, though, I began to feel the heat on my face. I experienced the warmth. My mind still didn’t understand how it was so, but my encounter with the fire trumped my reason at that point. That fire, I knew, was hot. I couldn’t explain how or why, but I didn’t have to in order to believe because my experience was so real.

So it is with God. We will never have all our theological T’s crossed and philosophical I’s dotted. And once we’re ok with that, our hearts open up to experiencing Him.

Honorable Mention

I remember my first marathon. Maybe because it was my only marathon.

I ran the whole thing – from the starting line, around the playground, around the open field behind the school, and to the finish line.

Fifth grade Field Day. I was hand-picked by my P.E. teacher, along with 8 others, to compete in the “marathon”. I was nervous. I couldn’t believe she thought so highly of me. It was a long way to go (maybe a mile and a half?), and I wasn’t so sure I could make it. But Mrs. Bateman picked me, so I rose to the occasion.

We all lined up at the starting line – four girls, five boys. Our parents, our teachers, and the entire student body lined the designated path. The bullhorn sounded. I sprinted off the line, unaware that conserving energy is generally a better strategy in a long race.

On the back side of the school property, we were too far away from the crowd to hear them. All I heard was the rocks beneath my feet that created the path outlining the school’s property. I was toward the back of the pack. I wondered if I could really finish this race.

Girls were competing against girls, and boys were competing against boys, so I really only had 3 people to beat.

But there was a problem.

God didn’t make me fast.

Athletic, yes. Competitive, yes. Coordinated, yes. But not fast.

Winding back toward the finish line, I already knew the only person I was going to beat was the slowest boy of all, Evan. I wasn’t even going to place. The unfamiliar disappointment of not being the best at a sport sunk in to my 11 year old heart.

I crossed the finish line. People cheered. But I didn’t.

image via kleertech.com

They handed me a ribbon that said “Honorable Mention”.

Seriously? What is that? It may as well have read “Lost”. Everyone knew I hadn’t accomplished anything spectacular. The ribbon just seemed to mock me.

This memory came back to me this week when God told me I treat Him as if He were an Honorable Mention ribbon.

God has been on a mission to get me to realize He is first prize, always. I rarely recognize this fact, so He is kindly helping me grow in that area. By taking away all the prized people I value more than Him.

As He says to me, “I delight in you, and I want you to delight in Me. I want to be your primary source of love, assurance, security, joy, peace, and esteem. Primary. First. Most-oft pursued and looked to.”

I’ve been gritting my teeth during this process, begrudgingly obeying Him. I’ve been saying to myself, “I don’t have my most important friends anymore… I guess I have no choice but to settle for friendship with God.”

And God says, “Hey, I’m not chopped liver. I’m no Honorable Mention. In fact, Dear One, I am first place. I’m what you’ve really wanted all along. I will fulfill you like no other.”

I haven’t experienced this yet because I am stuck dwelling on the losses. But I believe it can be true if I cooperate with God.

Trust in the Lord. Lean not on my own understanding. And He will make my paths straight. They may be straight up, but they will lead straight to Him, First Prize.