12 missteps: the making of an “atheist”… in church


“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.
Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
James 4.6-10

SOME CHURCHES HAVE BEEN SO UTTERLY DECEIVED BY THE DEVIL’S CUNNING THAT THEY HAVE INADVERTENTLY INCUBATED GENERATIONS SUFFERING FROM SPIRITUAL MALADIES. The very place where we should encounter the healing of Jesus has become, for some, the root of our deepest wounds. We have struggled to cope with the emptiness, the toxicity, the fractured reality, and the pain—through whatever means we could avail ourselves. We taught ourselves to cope as only children could, having been shown no better way.  We gave ourselves to addictive behaviors that provided some temporary relief—at tremendous cost. We sank into depression, anxiety, and unhealthy relationships. “We were really lost.” We tried harder to save ourselves, but the harder we tried the deeper we sank into the pit of destruction.

Those who have struggled down this dark road and survived have left behind a proven path to healing called “the twelve steps.” These fundamental steps find their basis within scripture. To the religious elite, they appear rather elementary. They perceive they are beyond these simple tasks. But for those of us who have been forced to undertake the road to recovery or die, we have found them to be the challenge of our lives. These twelve steps represent simple concepts that challenge us to our core as we strive to implement them in our lives. They are not a checklist, but a lifestyle. The steps map out a discipleship journey into spiritual healing and maturity that any willing soul may successfully navigate. The power of God found within their working can only be accessed by implementing all of them within a community of other believers. There can be no real and lasting results when attempted partially or alone. The steps are by their very nature relational. They represent an honest journey of spiritual transformation from pride to surrender, from fear to faith, and from shame to grace.

The twelve steps are founded upon basic, biblical principles, but they are neither obvious nor intuitive to the average pew warmer. Sadly, many churches have glossed over, completely ignored, or even opposed these life-saving truths. How can that be? How can the church so profoundly fail to be what she was intended to be? How is it that believers find themselves sharing so much in common with the atheist and the agnostic such as fear, doubt, and lack of self-control? The answer should not surprise us—our faith is weak. And our pride is strong. We have avoided those passages of scripture that would truly stretch us and cause us to grow spiritually. Growth comes with pain, sometimes intensely so. In vain we have sought out an easier path. We have tried to convince ourselves that our shell of religious tradition equates to spirituality—but our secret lives betray us.

Some of us have wondered, “How did we get here?” Toward that end, it may be helpful to compare the beliefs and practices we were raised with to the twelve steps. If the twelve steps represent a proven path out of sin into a healthy spiritual life, where might a deviation or two lead us? Where indeed?

It is with sadness that I share with you the 12 missteps according to what I call “DIY Texan/American toxic hyper-conservative religiosity” (if only that weren’t a niche). But it is neither new nor unique to our culture; Jesus encountered much of the same in the first century (Matthew 23). These missteps were taught from the pulpit, in the home, and in between the lines. They were not so much explicitly stated as they were modeled and implied. Some who raised their children in church to follow these missteps wondered as they fell away into sin wanting nothing to do with their parent’s form of religion, finding themselves entirely unable to cope with it. Rarely did anyone convert to our warped religion, and seldom did any convert stay. Do any of these principles sound familiar to you?

  1. We are self-made and self-managed by sheer will-power—and we are managing “just fine.”
  2. We believed in an all-powerful God who is sitting on his throne watching the world in dismay waiting for a day when he will burn everything and everyone who fails to measure up.
  3. Trusting no one, we believed we had to take care of ourselves or utterly perish.
  4. We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of others including other religions, politicians, celebrities, and those who we judged to be bad people.
  5. We vaguely admitted our sins in generic terms on rare occasion with phrases like “We all struggle from time to time,” and “Nobody’s perfect”—as though some of us were close.
  6. We believed we were on our own to improve ourselves, principally by angrily driving ourselves and everyone around us to an impossibly high standard.
  7. We proudly prayed to God recounting our righteous deeds and thanking him that we were not like other men, adulterers, sinners, and corrupt government officials.
  8. We made a list of people we deemed untouchable, condemned them with fire and brimstone preaching, and coldly shunned them. We were certain their failure to repent at our preaching was the result of their evil hearts rather than our lack of love.
  9. We rarely apologized considering it a sign of weakness, as exemplified by the ultimate man and Lone Ranger—John Wayne.
  10. We continued to keep tabs on everyone else’s flaws and frequently pointed them out condescendingly while ourselves claiming to have never done anything too awfully bad.
  11. We sought through outward religiosity (formal clothing, church attendance, pure associations, long prayers, theological vocabulary, fancy buildings, and college degrees) to impress God and others with our self-righteousness and exclusive insight into the truth and will of God.
  12. Considering ourselves to be the religious elite and having turned spirituality into little more than moral code and outward rituals, we rehearsed our vain religiosity safely inside the walls of our church buildings, rarely interacting with the poor, sick, sinful, and needy—while ourselves hypocritically failing to live up to our own standards.

Some have said they wish these did not sound so familiar; others related to only a few. But some less fortunate may relate to all twelve. Maybe for you the messages were different, but with a similar reliance on self and lack of accountability. Is it any wonder then why we struggle just to be happy and healthy people? It is ironic, not coincidental, that the church has itself perpetuated belief systems that lead to spiritual isolation and death. I am convinced Satan has covertly operated within the Trojan Horse as he has done from the beginning. He sneaks in, twists, deceives, and destroys. The results are always catastrophic if we fall for his fallacies. We don’t have to.

It is time for the church to become what she was always meant to be. More than a place of outward display of religiosity, she is a healing community of open and honest, struggling believers. This side of heaven, she can be no more. Apart from Christ, she may never be more. It is through the bowing of our hearts and bodies into a humble posture of complete surrender that we are finally able to receive the strength and power God so pleadingly offers. Except for our pride, we could be made well. If only we can humble ourselves to be rigorously honest with ourselves, God, and others, we may receive true strength and begin to recover our lives. The journey to hope begins with a single step.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

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