When Someone You Love Turns Away from God


As I write this, we’re entering another holiday season. No time of the year is more intimidating for people who must deal with difficult family members. And no family member is more difficult than the one who once had a vibrant faith but has since turned away from God. For some, it’s even harder because it’s not the uncle they see once a year but a child, a spouse, or a parent. The holidays only deepen the sadness over that person’s ever-present lack of faith.

The Bible gives us a well-known story of a loved one who turned away from God:

And [Jesus] said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”
—Luke 15:11-32 ESV

What can you as a believer in Jesus do? I don’t claim to be an expert on this issue, but I will offer the following.

1. Understand that turning away from God is turning to self

The “oldest lie in the book”:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
—Genesis 3:1-5 ESV

Back in my youth, people who turned away from a Christian view of God often turned to other faiths. Today, in contrast, my experience is that most people who reject Jesus don’t go elsewhere. They instead reject all belief.

Or this is what they claim. Fact is, though, the “reject all belief” option doesn’t reject all belief. It instead accepts a belief that I can be my own god. Sound familiar? If anything, it’s the ultimate in self-centered thinking. When someone we love turns away from God, it is an act of extreme selfishness, and we must understand it as such.

2. Understand that turning away from God is a sin

Black sheep with white sheepRomans 14:23 makes it clear: “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Don’t candy-coat another’s walking away or call  it by some romanticized nomenclature such as “going on a quest” or “finding herself.” This is a genuine battle, and it should never be excused or downplayed. Faithlessness is a sin.

3. Understand that you are likely NOT the one who will restore that lost person

As Americans, we want to fix problems. Something in our national psyche makes it impossible to sit still while a problem exists. We demand change. And if someone else won’t make change happen, then you and I will.

Don’t go there. In the story of the prodigal son, the father understood that whatever change would come over his lost child, he would not be the one responsible for it. Let God work in His timing in the life of a prodigal. Most likely, God will bring awareness, as was the case in the prodigal son.

4. Pray for that lost person

My advice for prayer is to pray that God would…

…break the power of sin in the prodigal’s life.

…run that prodigal to the end of his or her means.

…show the prodigal that he or she is incapable of assuming the role of God.

…show that prodigal that God alone fulfills.

…bring that prodigal back “home.”

5. Never stop praying for that lost person

Pray always. Never give up. Never, ever give up. The Bible does not say explicitly, but I believe that the father of the prodigal son never stopped praying for him. The father’s response to the son is exactly the kind one would expect from someone who never gave up on prayer.

6. Never stop showing lovingkindness to that lost person

Obviously, we love this person if we care enough to worry about his condition. But too often we resort to “tough love” when we should instead display lovingkindness. Always respond to the lost person with lovingkindness. You will be tested in this perpetually. Be kind, and never think that harshness will triumph. Sometimes, you may have to speak a difficult truth. Do so only when guided by God and not by your own desire to change the person. Again, you are likely NOT the change agent in that prodigal’s life. Instead of trying to be the hammer, be the place of safety.

7. Never stop trusting God

I cannot add to this:

This God—his way is perfect; the word of the LORD proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.
—Psalms 18:30 ESV

I don’t believe there is a believer in Jesus in this big country who lacks for a family prodigal. We are all in this together. If you know someone who is distraught from watching a loved one go astray, be there for that fellow believer. Perhaps you can pray for each other’s prodigals.

Never stop praying. And never, ever give up hope.

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.


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.

Radical for Jesus: What Does That Look Like in America?


When my wife and I lived in Silicon Valley (that’s the South San Francisco Bay area for the geographically business challenged), we’d routinely encounter folks who would brag about chucking their tech jobs to run a bed & breakfast or start an organic farm. The appeal of that break from the typical grind for something more idyllic became even more engrossing when the Dot Com bubble showed initial signs of bursting.

Couple after couple were successfully negotiating the move from being beholden to The System to charting their own destiny—well, who wouldn’t love to break out of that stranglehold and find a new way to live?

What they don’t tell you of the New American Dream story is that folks who make this sort of change are rich. Or were rich. Because the way to a small fortune as a bed & breakfast owner or an organic farmer is to start with a large fortune.

But who talks about that? Don’t be a downer, right?

Over the last couple weeks I’ve written about voices preaching that the only genuine Christian life is the one that is radical for Jesus (“Radicalism and Reality (A Response to ‘Here Come the Radicals!’),” “God’s Promises and Their Fulfillment: How Much Is the Church’s Responsibility?,” and “Kids, Systems, and Success (A Response to Brant Hansen’s ‘Your Kids Don’t Need Your Stupid Success Track’)“). This is the hot, new clarion call coming from some well-known pastors/leaders of churches and parachurch organizations that cater to the rich or upper middle class.

Only the utterly sold out are truly Jesus’ followers, they claim. Everyone else is duped—and possibly on their way to hell.

Because I think the Church in America is increasingly out of touch, that should be a message that resonates with me. But it doesn’t.

I have a problem with pulpit-preached messages that sound great on the surface but come with no practical way to make them happen. It is one thing to tell me about a radical life sold out for Jesus but quite another to model it for the rest of one’s life and in such a way that others can emulate it.

Isn’t there something off about a pastor of a church of rich people talking about being radical for Jesus? When that pastor claims to live radically, is he really doing so?Radical for Jesus? If he and his family got in financial straits for their “radicalness,” wouldn’t one phone call to the elder with connections result in a “rescue” check showing up within half a day? How radical are you truly when you live off the donations of people who are not as sold out for Jesus as you claim to be? So they fund your radicalness yet go to hell because they weren’t as radical as you?


And how radical are you really when you have no chance of failure? When you can simply press rewind and go back to doing what you did before you got radical? How painful is it when you started with a large fortune and ended up with a small one, but a small one nonetheless?

Then there’s the poorer working class schlemiel who hears that radical message, takes it to heart, and gets in trouble because he didn’t calculate the cost of entry to being radical and didn’t have a cushion when he fell.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

—Matthew 10:34-39 ESV

We know the words of Jesus, don’t we? What I don’t think we know is how to apply them to our lives today.

For all the talk of being radical for Jesus, how do we actually live it?

America 2013 is not an agrarian culture. We don’t teach our children animal husbandry. We don’t weave fabrics from plants we grew to make our own clothes. We aren’t fishermen by trade. We’ve farmed out large chunks of the kinds of things people did in Bible times to others to do for us. That’s how our economy works. We’re all niche players in a way that people didn’t use to be.

Today, the cost of entry into our society is a college degree. A private college costs $50,000 a year for many kids. And many employers now demand a master’s degree. Some kids end their schooling six figures in debt.

How radical for Jesus can you be when a bank owns you?

Unless you live in a city in America, you need a car. And a car costs money. A lot of it. The United States developed differently; it’s not Europe, where you can walk to work or to the grocers. Our spread-out-ness changes things. There’s a different, higher cost.

In fact, everything about America costs—and much more than some are willing to admit.

Many years ago, I worked for a ministry that didn’t pay very well. I think I made $60 a week. I didn’t have a lot of debts, but I still had some, so I needed to supplement that income by asking people for financial support. I raised four times what I really needed and secured a lot of promises from people. In the end, that support dried up within months, and I was quickly under what I needed to meet my meager obligations. I had to quit that ministry.

I have been a Christian since I was a teenager. As much as it pains me to admit this, I don’t know how to live the kind of sold-out-for-Jesus life that I hear talked about by these preachers of radicalness. I don’t know how to make it work.

I don’t think I’m alone, either.

Is it as easy as selling all you have and giving it to the poor? What it your spouse doesn’t share your radicalness? What if you have a mentally challenged child? What if all the donations that support your radicalness dry up and you end up failing? Is failure even possible for the genuine, sold-out Christian? Where does radicalness end and “thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the test” begin? When can one “put down the plow” and not look back, and when does one need to fulfill existing obligations? When can you rely on the Church to bury your dead for you and take care of any widowed parents you leave behind?

Here’s where I struggle: If preachers of radicalness are right, then almost all of us are in trouble. The question then is, what do we do to get out of that trouble in a practical way?

No one really talks about that, though.

What does a genuinely radical life lived for Jesus look like in America 2013? And how do people make that work in a way that isn’t fluffy bunnies and unicorns?

Or is radicalness by nature always impractical? And if it is, what do we do when we go for the impractical and fail? Are American churches ready to support and dust off those folks who embrace the radical life and yet blow up once, twice, thrice? Or is the message of radicalness one that sounds good on the surface but is simply impossible to enact unless we Christians change everything about the system in which we live?

I should have an answer, but I don’t. That I don’t seems like a failure both of the American Church and of my own discipleship. Maybe we’ve abandoned too much of the infrastructure needed to make such a radical life possible. Maybe our role models let us down. Maybe the Spirit has been trying to get a word in edge-wise, but the clamor of the American Way of Life has drowned Him out to the point that we don’t even know what He sounds like anymore. Maybe it’s simply too late for all of us to change.

It is one thing to tell us the engine of our car is broken. It is another to fix it. It is quite another to teach us how to diagnose and fix it ourselves with guidance from wise mechanics who already know what must be done to fix it and can pass that practical, step-by-step wisdom onto us, and who will bear with us when we don’t fix it right the first time.

If we don’t find those people soon, we’ll never get this thing running right and never get to our destination. At least that’s what we keep hearing.