Was John Wesley Wrong?
Maybe it was Peter Boehler.
The sails ripped in half and ocean water roared on to the main deck. A terrifying storm grew as John Wesley voyaged from London to bring the Gospel to colonists and natives in America. While Wesley panicked that he wasn’t ready to die in the midst of chaos, he noticed a group of German pietists who were calmly singing Psalms. And in that moment he realized that he lacked faith—sure and abiding trust in God: “I was strongly convinced that the cause of that uneasiness was unbelief, and that the gaining a true, living faith was the one thing needful for me.” Thus began Wesley’s quasi-Puritan spirituality, as he lived in a constant state of anxiety, compulsively searching for assurance of salvation and his name in the book of life.
A couple years later, Wesley arrived back in London where he befriended a group of German Moravians who would counsel him through his existential crisis. The Lutheran pietists taught him faith was black or white—you have it or you don’t. And true Christian faith is always accompanied by a sense of peace and well-being. Peter Boehler was one of the Moravians, who counseled Wesley, and he spoke little English, but Wesley and Boehler discovered that they could talk freely in Latin.
Wesley asked him, “How can you preach to others, who have not faith yourself?"
Boehler, who equated faith with certainty, responded,
“Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”
It’s pithy—fake it till you make it—keep drinking it until you develop the taste. It worked for Wesley; he preached faith until he had a ‘heartwarming experience.’ And now, it’s a very Methodist thing to say, like ‘do all the good you can’ or ‘spread Scriptural holiness.’ If there’s a caricature of Methodism, it’s that we love to try harder; we flirt with Pelagius, who we’ve been forbidden to see, but still secretly love to sneak into our upstairs window.
Until the certainty doesn’t arrive immediately and you wonder whether you put in enough effort, left no better off than the poor soul whose child wasn’t saved because she didn’t give ten percent of her monthly income. Even Wesley succumbed to self-deprecating thoughts and great anxiety as he wondered why God’s Spirit hadn’t given him a ‘certainty of being in a state of salvation.’ Was there something more he needed to do? I wonder if this kind of damaging ‘all or nothing’ shame should be categorized as a disorder and treated by a psychologist.
It strikes me as spiritually and psychologically dangerous to step into a pulpit to preach the the contents of what you can't trust yourself. Sure, there are mornings that a pastor doesn’t want to step behind a pulpit because the incarnation seems about as rational as a god who throws thunderbolts from the sky. I’m just not sure it’s sustainable over the long haul, week after week. Imagine a scenario where a counselor tells a spouse with trust issues to keep trying. One day it will click.
“Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith” is a recipe for isolation, as if there’s not enough isolation and loneliness embedded in the work of ministry, or possibly detachment and cynicism. It could also give way to a culture of fundamentalism: let’s not risk being honest with one another. It’s easier to play the game of show and not tell— smile on the outside and cry on the inside. Everyone believes. No one questions. Because if you do voice your feelings, then the whole house of cards might come crashing down. It works until the water gets too hot and everything boils over. And thousands of clergy put on their robes and open up Scriptures and believe in no God whosoever.
In my case, faith was strengthened because I took a year off from preaching. Though I never left a faith community or the disciplines of discipleship, I took time apart to receive the gift of time spent in deeper probing and intentional thinking. Still, it wasn’t a period of quietism, or ceasing all good works and waiting on the Lord to deliver assurance of salvation or Christian sanctification. That’s not quite right, either. We'll never have it all together. Part of the Christian vocation is to act in ways that are beyond your own inclinations and belief structures. "Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not," says Flannery O'Connor. Don't give up on faith; it's a noun and a verb, a gift and a practice.
But there’s a difference between practicing the Christian disciplines and standing behind a pulpit trying to summon water from a dried up well each week.
Doubt and distrust aren’t healed with repression, locked away in the basement of a heart, but by opening up windows and airing out thoughts with a community you can trust—the saints of the present and past. It’s the kind of example pastors should set for the laity. In a recent Bible study, we sat down to talk about the Apostle’s Creed and one parishioner asked, “Am I supposed to believe that?” Even better, someone might say—'am I supposed to trust that God?' Maybe. Maybe not. Let’s open up the Scriptures and brew up something more faithful . There are degrees of faith, Wesley later believed, and maybe there are different shades, too.
“When I was young I was sure of everything; in a few years, having been mistaken a thousand times, I was not half so sure of most things as I was before; at present, I am hardly sure of anything but what God has revealed to me."
God longs for us to feel the spirit bear witness to our souls that we are children of God (Rom. 8:16). So what if instead of telling folks to try harder, pastors admit the brokenness and create a space for doubts to float to the surface? We stop telling ourselves, “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith” and give thanks for the degree of faith that we have, whatever it is, as we press on to greater sanctification by taking time apart when we need it: advocating for more sabbaticals, honoring sabbath rest, creating honest friendships, embarking on a personal leave. The difficulty is that clergy can be punished by their denominations for this kind of transparency, though maybe not explicitly. It’s worth it, even if you don’t climb a rung on the ecclesial ladder, you’ll save your soul.
Or better yet, we can throw away every Christian cliche.
Sharon B. Conner
7/19/2018 08:25:48 am
Well-written truths. .. . . . !
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