How Christians Spellbook the Bible and Miss the Gospel Entirely


eye of newt potionAbout the only time you’ll hear Christians talking about witchcraft is around Halloween. Then, you’ll be warned why trick or treating is associated with village crones who practiced earth religions and had a thing for mandrake. Loose associations with the Devil will be discussed. Handwringing will be commenced. Dire warnings of hell will be proclaimed. Passive voice will be used. Horrors.

Specks, actually.

And by that, I mean this speck:

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
—Matthew 7:3-5 ESV

If you’ve been a Christian even a couple months, you’ve probably read or heard that passage. It’s common. But how often do we see the relevance?

I find it interesting that Halloween and Reformation Day coincide. Protestant Christians celebrate the day that Martin Luther pounded his complaints against the unbibilical practices of the Roman Catholic Church to the door of his local Catholic cathedral, thus kicking off the Protestant Reformation.

The key to the Reformation was the Gospel. Somehow, buried beneath all the crap of religious performance and “do this and don’t do that” pseudo-Christianity, the truth that Christ brought with Him in Himself mouldered, dormant. What came of the Reformation is that many a Christian died to resurrect that neglected truth.

The Presbyterian Church arose due to the Reformation. The Presbyterians have long been a church that gets the authority of the Bible correct, one of the hallmarks of Reformation thinking and the rediscovery of the Gospel of Grace.

So yesterday, I’m listening to a podcast from a noted Presbyterian church, and the speaker is telling me that effective prayers follow the format that King David prayed in the Psalms. That God answers the kinds of prayers that are humble, that start by invoking God’s name, that mention God’s glory before anything else is prayed. To be an effective prayer, one must pray that prayer with a specific attitude, that the prayer cannot be too needy or too self-centered, so it must contain little of oneself and a whole lot of what is not oneself.

I listened to that podcast for a half hour as the preacher went on and on about how to pray perfectly before I finally had enough and switched it off.

Since we started with a reference to witchcraft, let’s do a little comparison:

Witch thinking: For me to get what I want from the elemental spirits of the earth, my potion needs to brewed under a full moon and have mummified bat wings, a drop of hippopotamus sweat, some tincture of hemlock, and a hint of eye of newt. Stir for an hour counterclockwise while envisioning the outcome. I should probably be naked while I concoct it, too.

“Christian” thinking: For me to get what I want from God, my prayers need to be done in the morning, and I should praise God first, then follow the pattern of King David in the Psalms, sprinkle in the prayer of Jabez for certainty, and pray with faith, while also being humble, with totally pure motives, thus being naked in spirit before the Lord.

Between you and me, I’m not sure I see the difference. Both are formulas designed to get something from a power, which will only happen if performed and brewed correctly by the supplicant. And we know what the formula and ingredients are, because the pastor told us on Sunday.

Earlier, we saw the speck. There’s the log.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t even do a grocery list right. I write down a dozen items, shop for an hour, and still come home missing the corned beef and mayonnaise. How in the heck am I going to get the “10 Steps for a Perfect Christian Marriage” right? How will I recall the “12 Keys to Raising Godly Children”? I mean, even if I get it right Monday, Tuesday is another day.

What if I forget the eye of newt?

I can understand why a lot of people don’t want to go to church anymore. Too much of what we give people resembles a spellbook. If we just combine the right ingredients the right way, the way the pastor and elders say, a perfect life will pop out of the cauldron.

But what we don’t ever allow for is the frailty and fallenness of human beings. We don’t give people a way to be real and flawed.

The truth is, I’m never going to go into prayer with pure motives because nothing about me is pure, ever.

I’m not going to remember how David or Hezekiah or Jesus prayed. And I’m not going to perfectly replicate their life situation at the time of that prayer either.

I’m not going to recall the steps for doing such and such the godly Christian way. Heck, I’m not sure where I parked the car in the church parking lot.

I’m not always going to be on. Sometimes, I’m going to be off. Most of the time, honestly.

We no longer appear to understand those truths about ourselves. The Reformation? The Gospel of Grace? What are those? Somehow, we Christians today are reburying the Gospel under a pile of performance-based crap to moulder for some other generation to find.

A reminder of what that Gospel is: Jesus did it all perfectly so we don’t have to.

We don’t have to gin up perfect motives when we come to God in prayer because Jesus’ motives were always perfect.

We don’t have to say the formula perfectly because Jesus said it all, and just in the right way.

We don’t have to get the order and ingredients right because Jesus took care of everything for us.

If we’re in Jesus, we’re set. It is finished. Jesus did it all. Period.

People are lost because they’re still trying to make the recipe themselves, the way they think it should be, if they can find that recipe at all. For the Christian, none of that matters. Finished, all of it.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t need to go to church to hear how I’m doing it wrong and need to fix my recipe. I need to hear how Jesus perfectly did it all for me, so I no longer need to worry about getting it right, ever.

Because that’s the Gospel. That’s the Good News. That’s the Bible being used the right way, to tell the story of Jesus and what He did for you and for me so we can stop all our striving and rest in Jesus’ finished work—not the wrong way, as the ingredient list and formulas we need to spell up the solutions to our problems.

Because the real witchcraft is relying on ourselves to get it done and done right. And that’s not just relegated to Halloween but to nearly every day of most people’s lives, even far too many “Christian” lives.

_My Utmost for His Highest_ —A Critical Look at the Classic Devotional


Oswald ChambersMy Utmost for His Highest is one of the best-selling Christian books, if not the outright champ of devotionals. The book was first published in 1935, 18 years after its author’s death, and has never been out of print.

That author, Oswald Chambers, was coverted in part through the ministry of Charles Spurgeon and later went on to be a chaplain in the military. Chambers passed away in his early 40s from a ruptured appendix, and his wife was the one who compiled some of his writings into the devotional book we know today. The book was first published in 1935, 18 years after Chambers’s death, and has never been out of print.

I wanted to write about My Utmost for His Highest because I decided this summer to look through an old copy that has been sitting in our library for years. Aware of the reputation of the devotional, I thought it might be a good adjunct for me over the course of the next year. I have used A.W. Tozer’s Renewed Day by Day as devotional reading in the past and thought it helpful.

I am no expert on the history of Christian devotional works, so I don’t know if My Utmost for His Highest pioneered the layout of contemporary devotionals, but it adheres to the now typical form of a short Scripture passage followed by thoughts by the author, all arranged into 366 entries that fit on a page each.

To begin, I want to say that whatever Christian Oswald Chambers was, he was certainly a more noteworthy one than I am. For that reason, readers are invited to disagree with what follows, if for no other reason than as a testament to Chambers and the sheer number of this tome that have been sold, and in 39 languages.

But in reading My Utmost for His Highest (hereafter MUfHH), I wonder if the legacy of this devotional hasn’t set the stage for some of the problems we see in contemporary Christianity in the West.

1. While Bible text opens the daily entry, there’s often just a few words of it—followed by a lengthy exposition.

The one thing a casual glance at MUfHH reveals are a lot of ellipses. Scriptures are often cut down to their barest essentials. The June 30 entry is nothing more than “Agree with your adversary quickly… (Matthew 5:25).” Believe it or not, some Bible text for a day is even shorter than that.

My concern: Unpacking such a short passage out of context can lead to reading one’s agendas and presuppositions into the text (AKA eisegesis). Chambers does not equivocate on anything in MUfHH, so he has a forceful voice. This acts against people questioning his interpretation of the limited text and what should be done with it. This also sets up a tendency in readers to accept “little text with big explanation” as a norm for Bible exposition. But should it be?

One could argue that many devotionals follow this format, but I wonder if it doesn’t contribute to a wider problem of saying more about a text than the text supports. Of course, this can lead us into error, especially when the context has no similar exposition.

2. Keswick.

An unfamiliar term for many, Keswick is/was the location in England of a notable Christian Holiness conference and movement dedicated to the “higher life.” This movement is marked by the following beliefs:

  • The baptism of the Holy Spirit (or “second work of grace”)
  • Mystical union with God
  • Holiness through Christian perfection

Some will recognize Wesleyan theology in these distinctives, but Keswick has been ecumenical in its reach. Nor was it an isolated theology, as many notable late 19th century Christians (including Andrew Murray, D.L. Moody, Hannah Whitall Smith, Hudson Taylor, and R.A. Torrey) were proponents.

Readers know I have written in support of the baptism of the Spirit and the positives (to a point) of Christian mysticism. However, it’s that third element of Keswickian theology…

My concern: MUfHH definitely shows the influence of Keswick on Oswald Chambers in that it is rife with Christian perfectionism. In fact, most of the entries contain some reference to the Christian working to perfect himself or herself to better experience God.

Some examples of how this manifests:

July 13: “My vision of God is dependent upon my character. My character determines whether or not truth can even be revealed to me.”

July 31: “Not only must our relationship to God be right, but our outward expression of that relationship must also be right. Ultimately, God will allow nothing to escape; every detail of our lives is under His scrutiny.”

August 2: “God does not give us an overcoming life—He gives us life as we overcome.”

August 9: “Are we living at such a level of human dependence upon Jesus Christ that His life is being exhibited moment by moment in us?”

August 24: “Don’t faint and give up, but find out the reason you have not received; increase the intensity of your search and examine the evidence. Is your relationship right with your spouse, your children, and your fellow students?…I am a child of God only by being born again, and as His child I am good only as I ‘walk in the light.'”

August 27: “The moment you forsake the matter of sanctification or neglect anything else on which God has given you His light, your spiritual life begins to disintegrate within you. Continually bring the truth out into your real life, working it out into every area, or else even the light that you possess will itself prove to be a curse.”

Does anyone else recognize how exhausting that perpetual self-examination is?

This kind of “I must strive to be perfect in order to receive anything from God” thinking extends from the idea that such perfection is possible this side of heaven. Sadly, it also counters the more biblical reality that Christ alone is the perfection of the born-again believer, and that Christ’s perfection is finished.

Even the title of the devotional itself offers a hidden conditional, that to get God’s highest requires one be perfect enough to deliver one’s utmost. MUfHH contains a LOT of this kind of idea, which leads to the next issue.

3. Talk of Grace, but followed by Law.

MUfHH talks much about God’s grace and how the believer can grow in it. In this, it reads like an instruction book on how to be a better Christian.

My concern: To talk of grace and immediately suggest something the believer must do to better his or her spiritual state isn’t the Gospel. Our sanctification is driven by God, not by relentless examination and working harder to be better Christians. Jesus alone is both the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). It is He alone we trust to finish the work He began in us (Philippians 1:6). If anything, our striving only gets in the way of genuine sanctification through God working His work in us.

MUfHH is loaded with striving. Almost every entry tells us what we’re not doing right and what we should do to fix it.

I offer the following little check of my own accord. You can take it for what it is worth. I believe it is in keeping with the Bible’s understanding of both Law and Gospel.

When I feel discouragement or despair in reading spiritual works, it is likely I am encountering the Law. The Bible makes it known repeatedly (and I will leave you to examine the many verses in support) that the Law illuminates every way in which I am deficient before God. How can one not feel despair in such a case?

But grace provides the opposite feelings: hope and joy. Christ overcame the curse of the Law. This is the heart of the Gospel.

Rather than being encouraged by much of MUfHH, my personal reaction has been discouragement in the form of “well, there’s just another spiritual discipline I’m not doing or not doing correctly.” Considering that nearly every entry in MUfHH consists of some way in which you and I are not being the best Christian we should be, it feels very Law-based, no matter how much grace is supposedly espoused. To begin an entry with talk of the grace of Christ but then to talk about how poorly I’m doing in apprehending it and what I should do to fix things, is not the best way to encourage Christian growth or the kind of freedom the Gospel delivers.

This is my greatest apprehension regarding this Christian classic. It’s not that it doesn’t encourage readers to go deeper in their faith in Christ, but it has a tendency to make a millstone out of this path to a deeper life in God.

To be entirely transparent, I’m unclear how most people can read My Utmost for His Highest and not despair at their inability to pull off the many solutions Chambers requires to counter the average Christian’s myriad failings. One day tells of what you are doing wrong, only to be followed by the next day telling something else you are doing wrong, and on and on. How this proves helpful to Christian growth is lost on me. What I come away with instead is a large burden that is my terribly practiced Christian life, which I appear to be performing atrociously despite God’s grace.

If anything, I see the striving that results at the heart of American Christianity. Do better. Work harder. Fix, fix, fix.

But where is the freedom of the Gospel in this? Where is the rest, in that a Christian can lay down all the striving, all the self-made righteousness and perpetual examination, and know that Jesus said on our behalfs, “It is finished”?


I’m always willing to consider that perhaps I’m not reading My Utmost for His Highest correctly. Still, I cannot escape that it feels like just another set of Christian rules and suggestions that I will inevitably fail to do perfectly. Beginning each day that way—well, I’m not sure how encouraging that is.

If you have differing thoughts, please comment below.

Why the Christian Must Model Slow


I used to live in a little cabin in the woods. Just me. I would walk there after quitting time, cook my meal for one, hand clean and dry my dishes, and settle in for the evening.

That simple housework amid solitude proved to be some of the holiest times I’ve experienced in my life. To this day, I can think of few mountaintop experiences with God that matched the simple joy of making food and cleaning up afterward in His presence. It was slow work, never hurried. While it asked for concentration on the task, I never felt overwhlemed. I did, however, feel holiness in the moment.

Something in those basic, careful actions in a quiet cabin in the woods centered me on God. He was there. Always. I could feel Him connecting with me in my doing.

I don’t believe most people today ever experience that kind of focused yet unhurried connection with God in their work. It’s one reason why so many people see their jobs as soul-inhibiting. Paycheck, yes. Personal meaning, no.

Much has been written concerning the recent New York Times piece on the frenetic atmosphere at Amazon. Frankly, I think many people will wonder at the singling out of Amazon, given how blender-like corporate life has become for everyone.

People in a blenderWhat’s the most commonly used phrase in job postings today? I’ll cast my lot for fast-paced environment. It’s ubiquitous, a badge of corporate honor. Businesses stopped pushing the blender’s Stir button and progressed with boasting to Liquify.

What’s being “liquified” is people.

Let’s get real here: Fast-paced environment most likely expresses itself as a needlessly disorganized workplace that is understaffed and poorly managed at all levels due to horrendous forecasting and unrealistic expectations. Companies use that phrase with pride when they should instead be soberly calling it failure and correcting it.

Yes, I went there.

I’m not alone, though, as the NYT Amazon article and this one, “Work Hard, Live Well,” show us. Our harried work lives are getting noticed as a negative. Finally.

Beyond our jobs, the general pace of life is killing us as well. Too much incoming data to process. Too many commitments. Too much striving to stay on top. Too much structure to maintain. Too much need to control. Too much.

We can’t live in a perpetual state of being overwhelmed and still maintain our mental and physical health. It’s time to stop lying to ourselves about what we can and cannot do.

We were not created by God to be little flesh-bundles of process optimization. Being counts as much, or more, than doing.

The blur that is our daily existence leaves no room for God. This lie that we can cram an entire day’s spirituality into a 15-minute quiet time is just that: a lie. And it always has been, despite whatever some nationally recognized pastor, spiritual leader, Christian author, or life coach says.

Why? Because God is to be found in EVERY moment. In something as basic as cooking dinner for one. Or in handwashing the dishes.

Julie, a friend and essayist in the vein of Annie Dillard, rebooted her Lone Prairie site and elected to hand code the HTML and CSS. Most would say that’s the hard way.

But some would contend it’s the way God connects with us in our work. It’s slow. It may even be tedious. Yet I think that pulling back from the most optimized, GTD-approved way is how we can reconnect with the holiness of our professions. It’s how we can slow down enough to find not only ourselves but God.

If we Christians are not the people who stay off the dance floor when the world says mambo or who cannot laugh in the face of demanded mourning, who will?

Christians are supposed to be the most countercultural of all people, yet more often than not, we American Christians, through a grace-less misunderstanding of responsibility, instead lead the parade toward dis-ease.

Slowing down enough to find God in more than just the “holy moments” but in ALL of the day will cost us. It must.

If lost people are going to find God, we Christians must be the examples of how to connect with Him. If we’re racing around like headless chickens, we will have no time for perception and observation, either of the natural world which God created or of the spiritual one, where He is found. Neither will we have time to process the crucial connections between the two, where wisdom dwells. We will instead become blind guides. There won’t be any counterculture left, only concession to the deaf and dumb spirits of the age.

“I’ll rest when I’m dead” is no statement of integrity but of stupidity. Christian, find ways to slow down or risk losing everything that truly matters.

Once off the highway and on the backroads, we’ll find God on the curves, near that spot with the stunning vista. Take time to stand there and breathe. That’s where redemption abides.