“The mortgage industry is filled with half-truths, unfulfilled promises, and worthless guarantees.”

When I heard those words on the radio I thought of Susan. She had said something like that – but not about mortgage companies. It was about the church. Susan said that she was done with the church and with religion, and she didn’t want to hear anything more about the Lord. She didn’t know what she believed anymore, but she knew that she didn’t believe what her church taught.

Susan had been very active in her church. She read her Bible diligently and tried hard to follow what she had been taught. If you were to pick someone who would reject her faith, you would never have picked her. She had changed.

Susan, like so many, had fallen prey to the “bait and switch” tactics of what I call “Formula Christianity”. She was told that, if she used the proper formulas, her life would be good and successful. If she tithed, for example, her finances would prosper and she would have more money than she could imagine. If she read her Bible regularly, her marriage would get stronger and she would be more fulfilled. If she had regular devotions with her children, they would never rebel. Of course, she wanted all of these things and, since her teachers said that the promises came from the Bible, she did them all to the best of her ability.

Then her husband told her that he was leaving her for another woman. He took his paycheck with him. Susan tried to explain everything to their four children. Jack often neglected his child support, and Susan’s income was small. The older children struggled with the changes and connected with friends and ideas that made Susan afraid. Everything had fallen apart for her.

When she went back to her church, her friends and teachers told her to try harder. God would bring Jack back if she was faithful. God would take care of her finances if she continued to tithe. The old promises were repeated, and Susan worked hard to stay on track. New promises were given; new formulas to use in special situations. Susan tried them all – until she quit.

Susan felt betrayed by those she trusted. She said things like, “I did my part, but God didn’t do His part.” She had few kind words for her pastors, because she felt like they lied to her. She would say that the “whole church system” is a fraud, and those who work for it just perpetuate the fraud.

Will Susan ever find her way back to the church? Why would she?

Formula Christianity draws its life from our desire to determine and control our circumstances. We discover the systems of cause and effect from the earliest ages. We learn that certain actions will produce certain results. Cause and effect regulate money, love, health, and everything important. Controlling life is simply a matter of controlling causes.

As we grow, our understanding of causes becomes shifted. “If you put your hand on the hot stove you will be burned,” Mom used to say. Then, when we touched the stove it became, “That’s what happens when you don’t do what you are told.” The real cause of our pain, the hot stove, is pushed into the background and we learn a new cause: our disobedience. Disobedience, rebellion, wickedness, and sin become the “true” causes of those negative things in life.

We come to understand the reverse as well. The child who cleans her room finds a new doll on the bed. Her parents reward her obedience. The child learns, not that the clean room is good, but that there is reward in keeping the family values. As she grows, she sees the same thing in school, in church, and at work. The system rewards those who uphold its values.

Of course, this doesn’t work in all of life. The man who works hard at his job may be laid off along with the rest. The woman who has tried hard to make her marriage work finds her husband wandering. The careful investor who plans for retirement watches as his investments disappear through poor corporate management or corruption. The formulas work with varying effectiveness and some don’t work at all.

Yet, the desire for formulas remains. As with gambling, we win enough to make us believe we will win again . . . if we keep playing. We want to believe that the formula will work and we excuse the failure by finding ways in which the formula wasn’t followed perfectly. The investor should have diversified, we say. The unemployed worker should have made himself less dispensable. The wife should have seen the needs of her husband and should have found a way to fulfill them at home. The formula works, we are told, but it has to be followed correctly.

Susan learned that the formulas she was taught in church were faulty and that lesson destroyed her faith. The system of her church could not admit that the formulas didn’t work so it had to push Susan and her evidence away.

Formula Christianity is not the truth of the gospel. God did not reveal to us a system of formulas. He revealed Himself in the Person of Jesus. He didn’t call His people to follow formulas; He called us to follow Him. God offered Himself to us in a relationship that will fill our hearts and satisfy our needs.

Perhaps it was good for Susan’s faith to die because her faith was in the system of Formula Christianity. She never knew the truth about the Lord who loves her. She is just learning that now – and it doesn’t look at all like what she used to know and grew to hate. It’s a new thing for Susan to hear that she is loved in spite of her weaknesses, but she likes the sound of it.

For the first time in four years, Susan attended church last week. She sat in the back of a large congregation and heard a preacher say that Jesus loves her. When she left, people smiled at her as they came for the second service. She told me that she knows God still cares and He has never left her.

I think Susan will be back.

Copyright David Orrison 2018