Down from the Ledge: Why the Church Needs to Drop the “Leap of Faith”

I miss reading Michael Spencer, the late, lamented Internet Monk. Since his passing, I don’t read his site as much, though Spencer’s successor, Chaplain Mike, does have a worthy post from time to time.

A post there that has drawn attention, Pastor Piper Scares the Kids, drew mine, and while many commenters have enjoyed ganging up on an ill-conceived children’s message from noted pastor John Piper, there’s another aspect to the Piper illustration I wish to address. So, go read that post, and I’ll wait for you.

{Thumb twiddling…}

Back? Good.

Now for my thoughts.

If there is a sin in the Piper illustration of the little boy jumping from a diving board to escape a vicious dog, it’s not really in the plethora of sub-images that riled the commenters at Internet Monk. For me, it’s the ubiquitous primary image of the “leap of faith” that Christians seem to always fall back upon when talking about how faith in God works.

This idea of a person confronted with a difficult decision hurling his person from a high place only to be caught by a faithful God could not be a more abyssmal illustration. Why the Church insists on using it is beyond me.

Here’s the major problem with the “leap of faith” analogy:

Then the devil took [Jesus] to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
—Matthew 4:5-7 ESV

See the problem? The Enemy comes to tempt Jesus and asks Him to make a leap of faith. Jesus replies that He (and by extension, we) knows better than to test God that way.

Hmm.

Smart people would say that pretty much should end the whole idea of the leap of faith motif. Jesus says don’t test God like that.

How is it, then, that we’ve made the leap of faith the cornerstone of how we explain faith in God to others? And why is it we persist in doing something we should not do, testing God again and again? And how is it possible that we use this image as a way to encourage people facing difficult choices?

We need to stop using the leap of faith as an illustration of putting our faith in God. It simply is not biblical.

You’d think that would be the end of this post, but I have a bit more to add that I think is important.

Some of you remember the 1980s. (And some of you are trying to forget them, but bear with me…)

I spent most of the 1980s working both in summer and in year-round Christian camping ministry. At one camp, I was put in charge of the challenge course, a nicely designed set of outdoor tasks used in team-building exercises. Being the sole extrovert of the group that handled outdoor education at the camp, I was pretty much assured of the job by default.

I led church groups, youth groups, school groups, homeschool groups, and business teams through the course. We had a high wall the team had to get over under certain conditions, water crossings they had to make without getting wet, and so on. Trust fallThe course had about a dozen stations, the last of which was a trust fall.

Ah, the trust fall. The leap of faith made concrete.

The trust fall station was a platform about six feet off the ground. People would climb the platform, turn their back to the rest of the group, and fall horizontally into the outstretched arms of their waiting team below.

I monitored this process like I was in charge of handling 10 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium. I never participated with a group, but I ran them through the safety procedures like a drill sergeant. On my watch, no one was ever dropped or ever came close. Not even the 450-pound woman who made the platform groan, though I definitely inserted myself into the group catching her.

Can you predict what’s coming?

One day, a youth group I’d grown attached to over the week convinced me to take the fall and let them catch me. I’d done the fall with members of the camp staff before, so it wasn’t like I was new to the experience myself, so despite my Spidey sense a-tingling, I climbed the platform. I told myself there were half dozen adults with the group, so it’s wasn’t like I was entrusting myself to a bunch of 13-year-old kids solely.

I ran through the safety steps, did the countdown, and took that leap of faith into the certainly waiting arms of the group.

Now, I didn’t hear anyone yell, “Squirrel,” but somehow the group’s attention wandered elsewhere, and I hit the ground flat from six feet up, having felt a grand total of one arm brush past me on the way down.

Imagine being hit from behind with 10-dozen sledgehammers. The ground shook like it was the end of the world. So did I. Ouch.

It was a darned good thing I had hit perfectly flat, because if I had rotated just a bit too much and landed on my neck, I might be writing from a wheelchair today.

I’ll come back to that scene of near-personal-destruction in a moment.

We in the Church use the leap of faith to encourage fellow Christians to put their faith in God when faced with a difficult decision that indeed requires faith to address. But for those of us not making that leap, where are we in that decision-making process, its follow-through, and aftermath?

Here’s the thing: Some people who make such leaps end up dashed on the rocks below.

While it was not quite rocks for me in that trust fall moment, it was packed, hard ground. The aftermath of my collision with cold, hard reality included screaming girls, people running around, and adults yelling, “Omigod, omigid, omigod…” over and over and over. In short, pandemonium.

But how do we react in the Church when someone we encourage to jump and put their faith in God is NOT caught by the faithful God we insist will be there but instead meets the packed, hard ground?

My experience? Most of the time we go on as if nothing happened.

You would think that after encouraging the leap and witnessing the horror of a collision with the earth, pandemonium would break out and we would scream and start calling for help. That’s what the group did that dropped me. Once the initial panic subsided, everyone eventually settled into triage mode. If people had simply wandered off, whistling as they went, we would think something was seriously wrong in the moral lives of those people. It was bad enough that this big 6′ 4″, 200-pound man was dropped by 20 people, but for them to walk away as if nothing had happened would border on criminal.

And yet that happens to people in the Church who make a leap of faith and end up smashed to pieces. Many are simply left to tend to their own predicament alone, while the Church wanders off as if nothing happened, ready to tell the next leaper to jump.

We can’t do that. It’s morally reprehensible.

A few warnings about how we Christians approach dealing with people facing difficult choices that require faith:

1. If we are faced with others ready to take a leap of faith, we better darned well understand from how high they are jumping and just what awaits them below before we give them the thumbs up.

2. If we are not prepared to face that faithful decision as a co-”jumper” with the person faced with a leap, we should never tell another person to hurl himself or herself off the cliff. Ever.

3. If we are not prepared to deal with the aftermath of a leap, then we must stop advising others to jump.

Personally, I am dead sick tired of watching Christians plunge to their doom because of the leap of faith mentality we have in the Church. In real life, there’s something sick about the person who tries to convince the person on the ledge of a high building to jump off. I don’t think that Christianizing a figurative jump is any better. And I think that casually walking away from the aftermath of a fall that didn’t end with the jumper nestled sweetly in the arms of God is the sickest response of all.

Can we grow up a little and start being a collective body of believers? Can we start doing a better job of dealing with fellow Christians who go out in faith and come back in little shards? Because it happens. If it didn’t happen, there would be no faith element to it. There would be no risk.

How we deal with the aftermath of people who do come back in pieces says everything about what we really believe. And what I’m seeing isn’t pretty.

But for all I just wrote, there’s that truth from Jesus again: Don’t test God by jumping from high places.

I wish we could just drop the leap of faith mentality. If Jesus said not to test God that way, then we shouldn’t. Period.

Time to come up with a more mature attitude toward faith and the aftermath of decisions made in faith.

by Dan Edelen

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7 Comments

  1. Eli
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    I think within a certain context your approach is spot on. I 100% agree though that even if a step or leap of faith is being considered we should not encourage it if we aren’t going to offer real tangible support in the event of failure.
    I guess many extremes are a reaction against other extremes. ie ordering so much of our life around self preservation, comfort and material increase can over time erode our faith such that we are susceptible to taking drastic action to try to reassert our identity and beliefs.
    Anyways the gist of your point that its dangerous to push others in that direction is solid.
    A word of advice I would give someone is to be careful who you listen to… ie the person that clearly avoids any kind of risk or the one that is reckless.

    • Posted June 17, 2013 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

      Eli,

      In addition, I would argue that most churches do not have the community mentality in place necessary to support people in the manner they should be supported when it comes to tough decisions that would equate to a “leap.”

      • Eli
        Posted June 18, 2013 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

        Yes, a leap implies there is nothing underneath and perhaps even spur of the moment. Sometimes we take risky actions but in hindsight we see the trajectory of our journey was leading us to that point. It’s always a good idea to meditate on worst case scenario to see if our decision is still worthwhile even if it doesn’t work out.

  2. linda
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    Hi Dan,
    I am also in agreement with the ‘no leap of faith’ guideline for believers. The exception to this, for me, would be confirmations given, (perferably 2 or more confirmations) from different sources, that would confirm something God had been impressing on a believer for some time.

    In my experience God very seldom (if ever) asks for a leap of faith. Faith builds up by ‘hearing and hearing by the Word’ (scripture). The disciples asked Jesus to ‘increase our faith’. Faith and trust builds also as we experience God in our day to day lives. One of my experiences was of God magnifying words off the Bible page saying that ‘and God heard’ when my daughter was diagnosed with diabetes at 4 years old. I had been praying in the basement prayer room just a short while before this experience. I decided to sit down and read my Bible for a few minutes before returning to the hospital where my daughter was. It was while I was reading that God raised these words right up before my eyes. I cried. I was so happy. God had heard me praying. And he answered me right away. At least, he assured me that he had heard my prayers in the basement. These kinds of experiences increase our faith. We know God is real. We know that he has spoken to us.

    We as believers do not need to ‘jump off cliffs’ in order to experience God. We just need to live our lives to his glory. Live godly lives. Turn from any sin in our lives. Seek deliverance, if needed, from God. Seek forgiveness, if needed, from God. We know when we are doing something that we shouldn’t. Our conscience should be clear.

    • Posted June 17, 2013 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

      Linda,

      My track record of receiving accurate words of wisdom or words of knowledge (which would correlate with your “impressions”) from others is poor at best and downright “less than random chance” at worst. I find this sad.

      A few explanations as to why: (1) Churches don’t test those who are supposedly gifted in those gifts, (2) we let immature Christians deliver “words” they should probably best run past an experienced believer first for confirmation, (3) and we simply don’t have enough experience with prophetic-type gifts to know them for what they are and use them correctly.

      I wish that weren’t the case, but when was the last time you heard a sermon or teaching on bolstering and testing prophetic gifts?

      Yeah, I didn’t think so!

  3. Posted June 22, 2013 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    Wow. Where to start. My first thought is that the “leap of faith” I’m thinking of is along the lines of “let go and let God”. In other words, rather than cling to my own plans, to leave the outcome to God. I learned this in 2009 when Rick was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and needed to take a 6 month unpaid medical leave to pursue treatment at the Mayo clinic. Our only other income was my psychology practice, and that was significantly reduced (50%) because I wasn’t about to hang around the house touching base with my life partner via phone while he went through this. So add to the equation travel expenses, hotel expenses, etc., not to mention figuring out what to do with the dog and finding someone to take care of the house, etc., etc. That’s when I took my leap of faith. I really had no choice, you see. There wasn’t a single thing I could do to address any of the problems we were facing, and even if I could have, I was determined to stay by Rick’s side throughout the process rather than focus on more temporal concerns. So, although I wasn’t being pursued by a vicious dog, it sure felt like a bit like Wyle E Coyote standing in mid-air a few feet beyond the edge of the cliff, holding up a little sign that said, “I surrender, God”. Strangely enough, I not only never hit bottom, I never really experienced the fear of falling. It was as if God held me in the palm of His hand through the whole ordeal. Somehow (and I have never been able to figure out how) we made it through that six months, not only financially (praise God), but cancer free (PRAISE GOD!!!) Friends came through with gifts of money, time, food, etc., though I still can’t make the math work out. That’s what I call a “God thing”.

    On the other hand, I quite agree with you about Jesus’ response to Satan’s temptation. But that, I think, is an issue of pride (or some variation of it) rather than “letting go and letting God”. I mean, who am I to put myself in harm’s way in an attempt to “test God”? That strikes me as stupid as well as disrespectful. I believe that God has plenty to do without adding my silliness to his “to do” list. That kind of “My God is more powerful than YOUR God” mentality turns my stomach, too. I think it is “beneath us” as Christians (so to speak) — even farther beneath us than the cold, hard ground that we presume to leap upon.

    Finally, a word on “trust falls”. I’ve got an interesting twist on the story. I once knew a youth leader who had the same experience you described, and I never forgot it. Some years after I’d heard her story, Rick and I found ourselves at a week-long Christian team-building retreat in the Colorado Rockies. It was our first day, and somehow we found ourselves with a half-hour to “kill” before lunch, and in our gung-ho-ness, insisted that the leaders improvise a quickie exercise for us. They bowed to the pressure and suggested we do a trust fall. We didn’t have time to head out to the course where they had the platform, so they pulled a picnic table over to a little rise in the ground (uneven and rocky, so the table was a bit unsteady), and had the eight of us line up(four on each side) to catch the ninth person. I tried to voice concern about the wisdom of doing this, but was drowned out by my eager colleagues. The first man fell and we caught him (awkwardly, as he landed butt first rather than flat). I have a pretty severe case of tendonitis in my right elbow and nearly dropped my precious cargo (the right hip), and tried to get the attention of the group to let them know, but to no avail. With each “fall” my arm grew weaker, and I continued to shout for attention. I did finally manage to move closer to the picnic table so I wouldn’t have as much weight to catch. Finally, our ministry leader told me it was my turn, and I declined. That wasn’t acceptable, and I was urged to get up on the table and take my turn. Again I said, “I’m just not comfortable with that.” The pressure increased. Finally, the ministry co-leader insisted that I explain why I wouldn’t do it, saying, “Don’t you trust us?” I explained that I wasn’t convinced that we were doing the exercise properly, pointing out that I’d nearly dropped folks myself and was very discouraged when no one would listen to me during the exercise. So, in fact, I guessed that I didn’t trust that the group was listening, paying attention, etc. Needless to say, I had folks very angry with me, most particularly the two ministry leaders. I guess my “lack of faith” put a real damper on the retreat. One of them told me, “Franky, I am furious with you.”

    For what it’s worth, I still believe that my refusal to participate made the experience more memorable (and, for me at least, a growth experience) than if I’d gone ahead and taken that “fall of faith”.

  4. Posted July 2, 2013 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    My wife asked to go see the latest Superman film. In one scene, Clark Kent walks into a church and asks the very young pastor for guidance. The pastor advises him to make a leap of faith.

    Needless to say, the consequences are a bit lessened when you’re Superman.

2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] In the realm of practical theology, Dan Edelen explains “Why the Church Needs to Drop the ‘Leap of Faith.‘” [...]

  2. By Saturday Shortcuts | Planned Peasanthood on June 22, 2013 at 12:03 am

    [...] Sanctum – Down from the Ledge: Why the Church Needs to Drop the “Leap of Faith” One of two great posts by Dan Edelen on the list, the next one [...]

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