Writings by Cole Huffman

The Stress-O-Sphere Domain

Do you ever find yourself wondering whether you’re doing enough for God? Wish you had glitzier spiritual gifts like teaching and leading? Ever worry that you’re too complacent? Beat yourself up when you don’t wake up in time to start the day with prayer and Bible reading?
Evangelical Christians introspectively wonder, wish, and worry over these and other matters of personal piety frequently. Those three w’s form their own “www” domain. The domain is a kind of stress-o-sphere wherein one continually evaluates his performance, motives, obedience, desires and devotion, only to find them all lacking. This is distressing to many evangelicals because of the weight we place on personal piety. Surprisingly (or not), it is just those Christians that others consider the most committed to Jesus—the ones who in the current vogue of vernacular consider themselves “followers, not fans”—who tend to subject themselves to the most baneful inner scrutiny.
In 1991 I participated in my second summer-long Campus Outreach Beach Project in Florida. It was the summer between college and seminary for me. I was there to lead and live with a discipleship group. We leaders arrived a week early to get everything prepared. There were a couple dozen of us. Jerry Bridges, the author of The Pursuit of Holiness, happened to be beachside doing a retreat for a church. One of the campus ministers training us knew him and got him to come over and address us one night.
Bridges, who had just finished a book called Transforming Grace, presented a scenario: Let’s say you’ve had a great week of quiet times, you’ve kept your sin issues in check, and you’ve even gone the extra mile in serving your roommates without complaint. How confident are you asking God to bless your beach evangelism efforts this weekend? Every hand went up, including mine. Our unexamined assumption was that our performance merited God’s blessing. Bridges exposed this in us by flipping the scenario: After a terrible week of oversleeping, cursing your boss under your breath, lying and lusting—now how confident are you asking God to bless your beach evangelism efforts this weekend? No hand went up.
Bridges gave it to us straight: “I see none of you have any understanding of the grace of God.” God saved us by grace but we were keeping ourselves. God blessed us only as we obeyed and performed and purified our motives, not because Jesus obeyed on our behalf in pure perfection. In focusing so much on everything I needed to do for God, everything God did for me wasn’t in sharp enough focus.
There is a place for personal assessment and evaluation. I’m always in need of reform and repentance in some avenue of living. Admitting this is not complacency but reality. Complacency is when I live with negligent or damaging realities; when I resist self-discipline to maintain lethargy, unwilling to strive, grow, change, learn, reorder or repent. For example, giving up prayer would be complacency. But not giving up prayer every day at the crack of dawn. It took me years to accept that the time of my praying was really immaterial to praying. Foregoing sleep to do it didn’t make me godlier. It made me sleepier!
I remember hearing John Ortberg, California pastor and author, address this in a roundabout way in an interview. Ortberg wrote a book on spiritual disciplines so he’s no slacker. But with exasperation in his voice he asked, “What are we doing to our people?” as he described a young mother in the church, barely getting enough sleep as it is, dragging herself out of bed early in the morning because her pastor—middle-aged with kids grown—says that’s the best time to meet with God. What she hears is that’s the only time to meet with God. The exhortation and example of the pastor is certainly well-intentioned. But what are we doing to people in actual effect?
A man in my church—a servant-hearted guy who cheerfully takes assignments nobody else wants—went to a conference on discipleship. What he heard there simultaneously excited and dejected him. It excited him to picture himself going through the Bible training the ministry putting on the conference offered him. But he didn’t think he could ask for my pastoral recommendation to the program because, as he put it, “I’m not a teacher.”
He had a one-dimensional impression of discipleship; that when Jesus said, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20), He envisioned pedagogical intensives in living rooms—content download from one who can teach the Bible to those who will learn from him. The ministry didn’t intend to give the man in my church this impression. But he left their conference thinking he couldn’t disciple anyone if he couldn’t lead them in a Bible study. He undervalued his serving gifts. And we all know—(facetious alert!)—Jesus certainly didn’t teach anything to His disciples by their serving with Him, did He?
What are we doing to our people? 
If the balance of my ministry leads people into stress-o-spheres of wondering, wishing, and worrying about whether they’re good enough for God’s varsity, I may be well-intentioned, even celebrated. But I may not be leading them to more of Jesus in actual effect. He framed the invitation to learn from Him as an easy yoke and light burden (Matt. 11:28-30). That's an invitation out of the domain of the stress-o-sphere. You coming with me?

Posted by Cole Huffman at 10:50 PM
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