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Episode 051 – Faith when you don’t Feel Faithful (With Ben Stenke & Matt Tebbe)
The life of a follower of Jesus is not about assent to an idea, or rigorous attention to a life of religious activity. Matt Tebbe says, “There aren’t two things: faith and action. There’s just one thing: Faithful Action.” We discuss.
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Ben Sternke is an Anglican priest, author, and leadership trainer. He’s one of the co-founders of Gravity Leadership and pastors at The Table Indy, in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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Matt Tebbe is also an Anglican priest, author, and leadership trainer. He’s the other co-founder of Gravity Leadership and pastors at The Table Indy, in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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Marc Schelske 0:00
Hey friends, I’m Marc Alan Schelske, and this is The Apprenticeship Way, a podcast about spiritual growth following the way of Jesus. This is episode 51: “Faith when you don’t feel faithful.”
Today’s podcast is made possible by Journaling for Spiritual Growth. This is my new book. It launched in November of 2022. So it’s just a few months old, but it’s already finding its people. And that is really exciting to me, especially since I knew going into it that this book had a pretty small target audience.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to a woman who read the book and had grown up in the church, and her comment after reading Journaling for Spiritual Growth was how relieved she felt. For her, this little book helped her untangle her picture of God, and find a healthier way to pursue spiritual growth. I teared up, listening to her.
Here’s an Amazon review I want to share with you this really moved me: “I wish this book had been around when I was at the start of my deconstruction process, trying to form a new connection to my last shred of spiritual practice with the Bible. After reading this book, I can tell you it is something special. I found the book clear, focused, and transparent in all its intentions. It became my friend in a way as I explored the prompts. It makes room for one’s personal story and experience. Give it a try. I hope it gracefully surprises you as it did me.”
As the author who wrote this book, I could not ask for higher praise than that. This little book is a six-week process to gently guide you in building a lasting and sustainable journaling practice where you’ll experience spiritual and emotional growth. I intended to write something helpful and healing. And if that sounds intriguing to you, you can get it on all the online bookstores, or you can buy a signed copy directly from me at my website. Learn more about the book and what’s in it at www.JournalingForSpiritualGrowth.com.
WHERE HAVE I BEEN?
It’s been a while, hasn’t it? My last podcast episode was almost six months ago. Well, I’ve been up to my ears in research for my master’s thesis, reading a bunch of patristic theologians, and liberation theologians from the last few generations, thinking about how our picture of God allows us to accept abuse of hierarchy in the church in the world. That’s not right. It’s not okay. It doesn’t align with the way in the teaching of Jesus. And so I hope–if my research goes well–to be able to offer something that is a healthier, more life-giving view. But that’s all for later. I’m still in the research phase. And on top of that, I’m a pastor and a parent of teenagers, and I have a couple of other side gigs that I do to help pay the bills. And so, the podcast has had to take a backseat. I’ve got three new interviews recorded that I’m excited to share with you. My plan is to publish them once a month or so when that all depends because I’m the editor and I’m the producer. That all depends on how the thesis process goes. So with that catch-up about where I’ve been, let’s dive into today’s topic.
The great philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard said, “You can live opposite of what you profess, but you cannot live opposite of what you believe.” Let that sit for a moment. Willard was poking around in the heart of an issue many Christians struggle with. Is Christianity about belief? Is it about action? Which one’s more important? How are they related?
Many folks in Christianity grew up in very legalistic church communities. That’s my story. And regardless of what was taught, the practical experience was the only thing that matters was right action. When those people discover the gospel of grace, they’re so relieved. They’re so free, and they never want to get trapped on the treadmill of performance again. So they often think that belief, specifically belief in Jesus’ forgiveness and grace, is the most important thing.
Now increasingly, though, there are Christians who look at that model and are asking critical questions. What good is a belief in God’s grace and mercy, if the Christian who holds that belief is neither gracious and merciful? How can the church hold to the self-image it has of being a community of love and healing and care when we continue to hear stories of abusive leaders shutting down dissent or hurting people, or taking advantage of those who are weaker than they are? What about incidents of outright abuse? What about historical abuses like slavery or the Indian boarding schools? Folks like these, and I’m among them, wonder if believing in Jesus’ grace and mercy is worth much if the church fails to enact grace and mercy towards real people. So what do we do with this thorny tangle?
Last year, Ben Sternke and Matt Tebbe released a fantastic book called Having the Mind of Christ: Eight Axioms to Cultivate a Robust Faith. In this book, they share the fruit of years of pastoral ministry, and their work at gravity leadership, laying out principles for a Jesus-centered faith that is both transformational for the individual and makes a difference in our world where inequity and exploitation are all too common. But that’s not what we’re going to talk about today.
Today, Matt and Ben are with me to discuss an idea that surfaces in the last chapter of their book. They tackle the question of belief and action by saying that there aren’t two things, faith, and action. There is just one thing: faithful action. That caught my attention. And I asked them to chat with me about what this means. In their book, they wrote that the life of a follower of Jesus requires not merely cognitive assent to an idea, but something more. So I started our conversation by asking them to tell me what that means.
Ben Sternke 6:02
Being a follower of Jesus is not merely cognitive assent to an idea. I mean, this is something that we picked up from Willard, as well. He does talk about–and this was transformative for me–he talks about how what we think about beliefs is, is basically like, its assent to an idea. It’s, “I agree with this idea.” But when the scriptures talk about faith, they’re talking about so much more than that.
There are a couple of different ideas here here, I think, that are worth exploring. One is, Where is your trust? Like, what do you trust to be true? And so I think Willard uses this example, actually, where he talks about getting on an airplane. And there’s a lot of trust involved in getting on an airplane, right? It’s unnatural for us humans to be flying 30,000 feet above. So there’s a lot of trust in the pilot to do their job and a lot of trust in the mechanics and the whole process. There’s all this trust that goes into believing that it’s going to be safe for me. If I get on this plane here in Indianapolis, I’m going to end up where I want to go. I’m trusting those people.
Somehow in the areas of religion and spirituality, we’ve adopted more of that latter idea about what faith is to be like, “Do I have the right ideas about how Jesus’ atonement saves us?” Rather than more of the practical aspect of faith, which is “Do I believe that if I trust what Jesus says that my life will be okay?” And that’s more the realm that I think we need to get into when we think about belief. Because, yeah, believing in Jesus has to be more than just saying that, you know, I think Jesus existed. And I think Jesus was the Son of God. I mean, all those things are fine. But we have to say, like, do I trust Jesus to save me, actually?
Marc Schelske 7:49
Part of the trouble is that we have these statements in Scripture that say things that feel really frank and clear, like, “believe and be saved…”
Ben Sternke 7:56
Marc Schelske 7:57
But then we have to say, Well, wait a minute, what do we mean by belief? And were the people sitting in the room hearing that statement in the first century, were they hearing intellectual assent to what I just told you? Accept this idea? Or were they hearing something different?
Matt Tebbe 8:16
Yeah, Mark, I think one of the metaphors that Scripture uses to describe the relationship between Christ and the church is marriage, right? And if my wife looked at me, and said, “Do you believe in our marriage?” What she’s asking is, “What is my level of commitment and participation the marriage?”
Marc Schelske 8:37
Mmm, that’s great. Commitment and participation, right?
Matt Tebbe 8:39
Yeah. And so she’s not asking if assent to the marriage’s existence. We all know that’s not what she’s asking for…
Marc Schelske 8:47
Matt Tebbe 8:48
Okay. What it means then to confess with my mouth or believe, is to be committed to participating in the reality of Jesus’s lordship, and that’s all-encompassing.
Marc Schelske 9:01
Yeah, right. Right. Yeah. Back to the airplane analogy. I can imagine that there’s an engineering school somewhere where a bunch of engineers or pilot-in-training could sit in a room with a whiteboard, and talk about the physical principles that allow flight to exist. But then, if somebody in that room still fundamentally in their heart is like, “I just really don’t feel like it’s safe to be on an airplane.” And so then they don’t fly. They’ve got this theoretical knowledge. They may even say, “This is true. The physics of this process is true. I assent to it being true.” But for some reason, they’re not going to fly?
Ben Sternke 9:39
That actually reveals then our true and deepest beliefs. I think it’s a better way of talking about belief, rather than what ideas do I agree with. What are my actions show me about what I most deeply believe about who God is? I might trust Jesus to save me after I die, but like, do I trust Jesus to enough to pray for daily bread, for example., Do I trust Jesus to, you know, make the kind of decisions I would make throughout my day to, like, parenting my kids in a new way? Or do I trust Jesus enough to listen to what he says? But if all Jesus was good for is like getting us into heaven after we die, then the New Testament doesn’t need to be that long. He doesn’t need to do any teaching. All he was doing, you know… like the New Testament, would be three sentences. It just be like, “Hey, Jesus died, and if you agree with that, then you get to go to heaven. Congratulations.” But there’s tons of teaching, right? And you know, the apostle Paul, in the New Testament letters, they all bear this out. This is a life that we are invited into that we learn, we have to learn, have to learn how to participate in the life that God shares with us.
Marc Schelske 10:48
That brings to my mind, the echo of Jesus in the parable of the Ten Virgins and the whole narrative of facing God and facing judgment that kind of follows along there, and the language of Jesus saying to someone, “You said, Lord, Lord, but I don’t really know you.” All of those elements of Jesus’ teaching get at what you’re talking about, I think, which is that there’s something beneath, or behind your ability to say, “Yes, Jesus is my Lord.” And that means this certain set of doctrinal things. You know, there’s something behind that includes Matt’s phrase–which I thought was really helpful–was commitment, like, “Yes, I’m on board with this,” and participation, like that those are sort of… maybe there’s a better word that is both those things, right? Because I have things in my life I believe I’m committed to, but I’m really not participating in them that much. You know…
Ben Sternke 11:47
Marc Schelske 11:47
And I’ve had some things I’ve had to participate in that I don’t really believe in all that much. I’ve had that experience too. So this other thing that my behavior, my action towards others, now we’re talking about moral behavior, now we’re talking about justice behavior, now we’re talking about the way we show up in the world and make choices with money and all that stuff. That actually has to do with the reality of my belief.
Ben Sternke 12:10
You know, I use the phrase a lot, you know, that we participate in the life that God shares with us. And I think that’s a metaphor that really helps me understand what’s happening in salvation. It’s not like, God is saying, “Hey, you get a free ticket to heaven.” That’s salvation–it’s not quite it, it’s not enough. Nor is it saying, “You have to jump through these hoops, and then God will…
Matt Tebbe 12:30
Ben Sternke 12:30
And so there’s this relationship of… it’s just an exchange of goods and services. It’s just like, “If you jumped through the hoops, you know, God will save you.” And so yeah, it’s much better news to say, you don’t have to jump through the hoops, and God will save you. But what is that salvation? Well, it’s a life. It’s a life, and God actually shares it with us. This is the incarnation, right? So Jesus didn’t come necessarily just to sort of pay a price or to, like, you know, create a salvation mechanism. Jesus coming to us was God coming in the flesh. And there’s this new thing, the God-man, right, this person who is both fully God and fully human, that draws us then as humans into the life of God. That’s the work that I hope the word “participation” can do for us. So even as I do my… as I think ethically and morally about how my life is supposed to go, I want the people that I pastor, the people that I disciple, I want them to have a sense that they’re not doing that as a performance for God. They’re doing it as a participation in God.
Marc Schelske 13:43
Yes, yeah. And that really requires us to think a little bit differently, some of us, about the role, or motivational place of heaven, eternity, afterlife, right? Because if we grew up in a faith tradition, where the whole point… there’s two dates that matter. There’s the date you got saved, and there’s the date you go to be with Jesus in eternity, and everything else… the only value of the whole rest of the timeline is that you can screw those two dates up. Right? So you gotta live through this whole journey trying not to do the things that will blow, you know… or you have a theological system that says you can’t blow it, you know, you got saved, and you’re going to be fine. And so just sort of put up with the life story. Oh, maybe now you have the task of sharing this with other people. That’s what you should be doing. You should be witnessing. But really, all that matters is sort of the sweet by-and-by, right? And this language that you’re putting forward is that that vision isn’t where our attention is focused. Our attention is focused on right now. Like this moment matters. This is actually where I’m going to choose to be enacting the way of Heaven. Not doing something so that I will get to heaven, but enacting the way of Heaven right now or not?
Ben Sternke 15:05
Yeah. And that’s continuous, then that is a continuity between what we do and Heaven or, you know, the age to come.
Matt Tebbe 15:12
I think a lot of people would agree with what we’re saying. The issue, I think, for most of us is, we ironically, we agree with what we’re saying, but we don’t know how to do it. Right? So we vacillate between making faith just sort of this ideological philosophy, we have to check all the boxes, or this moral performance, where we are simply trying harder to behave better, or trying more to do more, right? And so there’s this reality we’re describing of this embodied participation, of this committed allegiance, that feels like an undiscovered country. We can’t even describe it. How do we do it? That’s where I hear most people getting frustrated or wanting more. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we wrote this book, is because this is our experience of how to get into that life, how to actually do it,
Marc Schelske 16:07
Right. And the principles, then, become essential, at least for folks whose spiritual geography is a lot like mine, sort of coming from a legalistic or fundamentalist place to a place that’s not that or perhaps even more progressive folks like that, like me. I have a deep allergy, a visceral allergy, to anything that smells like legalism.
Matt Tebbe 16:29
Marc Schelske 16:30
And so what’s been weird for me, as I’ve begun to enter into sort of more progressive Christian spaces, is hearing progressive Christian principles talked about in ways that smell exactly like the fundamentalism of my childhood.
Matt Tebbe 16:47
Marc Schelske 16:48
Right. It’s a completely different philosophical matrix. It’s a different set of biblical commitments. But there’s still, like, there’s a set of things you’ve got to do exactly the right way. There’s a set of vocabulary you have to use properly. If you don’t use those things, the way we’re going to manage you is we’re going to shun you, which was the religious tool of my childhood. Like all that stuff, and I’m like, whoa, whoa, wait, all of these new commitments I have, they come to me from my following of Jesus. I got here because of my deep desire to find a way to live a life and pastor a church that feels like it’s in alignment with the way of Jesus that I see in the New Testament…
Matt Tebbe 17:28
Marc Schelske 17:28
…but all of a sudden, I’m hearing and feeling this sort of very familiar ghost of “You got to do certain things in the right way to be accepted and to be acceptable.” And I’m like, Whoa, no, no, no, no, no, no. Right. And so then when I hear you say, “Yeah, it’s not just faith, it’s also action,” there’s a little bell in the back of my mind, that’s like, wait a minute, wait a minute. What does this mean? Really?
Matt Tebbe 17:52
It’s a trap, right? There’s the trap of moralism, or the trap of certitude, or the trap of being locked in the mind or being all externally focused. And so part of the work then we’ve been exploring is how do we not get locked in these traps? The life of the mind is crucial. We’re using words. I’m talking about concepts right now, appealing to the mind, right? Yes. So it’s not that this is anti-thought or anti-idea or concept. And obviously, what we’re doing, we’re treating each other with kindness and respect. So it matters how we behave, and it matters what we believe. But we’ve truncated those things because we’ve sequestered them into places like you’re describing that create some sort of legalism or some sort of certitude testing. And I think that we lack an integrative approach that deals with the whole human person, which is why this committed participation thing is important to us.
Ben Sternke 18:44
It is difficult to break out of that paradigm. It’s complicated, as you said, Marc, by our histories, our pasts, you know, the things that smell familiar–I think that’s a great metaphor, you know–for the ways that we get… I mean, that’s one of the other metaphors is triggered, right?
Marc Schelske 18:57
Ben Sternke 18:58
Something happens in our body that reminds us of something else. Then it’s hard not to associate this new thing with the old thing.
Marc Schelske 19:07
It makes me think of, like, you know, the old theologians talking about the via positiva and the via negativa when we talk about God, right? There’s some things we can only talk about by saying, “We’re really clear it’s not this. We’re really clear it’s not this. We’re really clear it’s not this. That leaves this sort of space in the middle that is hard to define, but we know it’s not, we know it’s not exploitative. We know it’s not manipulative. We know it’s not by force. We know it’s not… you know, we know all that. So then, how do we do it? And that, I think, is where the eight principles in your book are so helpful because they really are just explicitly saying, “Here are eight of the ways that we can say, ‘yes, it is this.'”
Ben Sternke 19:47
Yes. Yep. Yeah, I love that way of putting it, Marc. I think the axioms did come through that kind of work, right? That both Matt and I, as we encountered those kinds of confusions and those kinds of… “Hey, we’re missing each other here. What’s happening?” The axioms we’ve kind of settled on through that work of saying, “Oh, here’s an assumption that is worth stating explicitly,” even if it feels theologically naive, or, well, everybody agrees with that. But, actually, when you begin to explore it and say, “Well, how, do I live like this is just true? Or are there little eruptions, you know, of the real–to put it that way–in my life that demonstrate to me that “Oh, actually, there, there are certain kinds of situations that I approach as if God is not always present and at work,” (which is one of the axioms.) That’s interesting. And how do we just be curious about that, and playful and gentle, but curious and say, like, “I wonder what’s going on there for me?”
Marc Schelske 20:46
Yeah. And medicinal, maybe, right? Like, if I’m not living as if God is real in that domain of my life, what is that diagnostic of? In my legalistic background, the question would be, “Oh, that reveals that I’m not fully committed, or I’m not fully sanctified, or I haven’t really turned that over to God, or I’ve got persistent sin in my life.” There’d be all these answers to why that’s happening that have to do with my fundamental acceptance.
Ben Sternke 21:15
Marc Schelske 21:16
Right? Whereas, if we’re looking at it diagnostically, it’s, “No, no, no, no, we’re not even having the conversation whether you’re accepted, you’re accepted.”
Ben Sternke 21:25
Marc Schelske 21:25
But what does this say? Why does your knee hurt? That means something. There’s something going on. We should look at that.
Ben Sternke 21:31
Yeah, that’s one of the biggest paradigm shifts for me in my in my faith has been going from assuming that, like noticing something wrong in my life is… like condemnation being right on the heels of that, to noticing something wrong and thinking, like, “how am I sick? What healing do I need?”
Matt Tebbe 21:51
Ben Sternke 21:52
…and trusting that God’s right there? “I’m glad you noticed this, because I’ve been ready.” But God invites our participation in that. He doesn’t just sort of do it automatically, so to speak.
Matt Tebbe 22:02
Marc Schelske 22:03
So, you have this great framework that I want us to talk about toward the end of that chapter. But as you set up the framework, you use a phrase that was a little bit one of those hang-up phrases for me, right? You begin talking about people who’ve committed to the way of Jesus acting as if it’s true. And that phrase brings up some connotations for me that I don’t think are what you mean, right? So sometimes you hear that phrase, and kind of a manifesting tone, like in hustle culture, like “dress for the job you want not the job you have…”
Ben Sternke 22:41
Fake it till you make it.
Marc Schelske 22:42
That’s exactly it. Yeah. Or then also in kind of the tone of hypocrisy, right? That you’re doing something that isn’t authentic, right? And authenticity is the preeminent value of our culture. And so if you are doing something that’s not authentic to you, well, you’re just lying, you’re a hypocrite. You’re saying, well, there’s, there’s a marriage, there’s a connection between what we do and what we believe. And so press into the doing. Okay, so let’s talk about how we press into the doing without it being either of these other negative things.
Matt Tebbe 23:18
So, it’s the difference between someone pointing at you and threatening you to do something, or inviting you to do something you don’t think you can do, and reaching out their hand towards you. “What if you trusted me? Maybe you could take my hand. And together, we could do this?” To make it more “spiritual,” Marc: Maybe you don’t have to pray for the faith in order to do this. But maybe faith is taking one step and doing it. Maybe you already have a mustard seed. And even though your feelings aren’t all aligned, or there isn’t 100% clarity, you don’t know how it’s going to go. You can’t manage or secure the outcome ahead of time. Maybe it’s enough to take one step. Maybe there’s a reason scripture talks about salvation and the process of being saved as something we’re to work out with fear and trembling. Sometimes fear and trembling feels like fear and trembling.
Marc Schelske 24:17
Right! Why would it not?!
Matt Tebbe 24:21
So, I want to I want to affirm everything you’re saying about this fake-it-till-you-make-it, punch-myself-in-the-soul, pull-myself-up-by-the-bootstraps, white-knuckle-this-thing, you know what I mean? Put on a happy face out. There’s a faking that’s different than a faithing. And one is consent and surrender. Faithing is consent and surrender, and the other is straining and posing.
Marc Schelske 24:50
I think that it’s really helpful to remind us about the fear and trembling piece, right because part of that longing our culture has, both in the church and out, for certainty It leads us to want faith to feel like courage. That if I believe in something well, then I clearly like I know everything about how it works, like those engineers studying how airplanes can fly. I know all that. And I am I feel my feelings are aligned. Right, I moved into this thing because it was authentic. My emotional experience was moving me there and I feel strongly about this as a kind of certainty. Yeah, right. And so to say that I could move forward that faith could actually feel like fear and trembling. Yeah. deconstructs that certainty, right? Faith actually will not feel like courage. Probably faith will feel like I don’t know if I know what I’m talking about here.
Matt Tebbe 25:45
Yeah. So even the way we use language, we talk about faith as something that’s static. So do you notice I said faithing? Because faithing is a dynamic, participatory action. You can’t have courage without fear. There is no courage unless you have fear.
Marc Schelske 26:02
Ben Sternke 26:04
In the original language, in Greek, obviously, the word that we’ve been using for “faith” is the noun form of the word that we’ve said is “belief,” right? So that. those are, pisteuo and pistis. And so. So that is… I like the using the word faithing because it sort of gets us out of our normal categories of what we think of faith as. Because I think that’s one of the main traps that we’re trying to help people get out of when we talk about “believing is acting as if it’s true,” is the trap of thinking that faith is certainty. And so we encounter this all the time with people we disciple, people who go through our cohorts. This knee-jerk assumption for most of us, if we’ve grown up in any kind of Christian tradition, is, “oh, yeah, I gotta, I gotta, like, believe harder that that’s true.”
Marc Schelske 26:46
Right! What does that even mean?
Ben Sternke 26:48
I know, you can’t even do it. And so, like, “I know that God loves me, but man, I just, I just, I guess I just gotta believe that more.” It’s like, well, like, that’s actually impossible, right? You can’t do it. You can’t actually do it. But what you can do is, again, take a small step. This is why for our cohorts especially, we always come back to concrete moments in people’s lives. Because, again, we can’t learn how to trust that God loves me. We can’t learn how to trust that abstractly or generically.
We can only do that in the moments where we discover that that is actually okay, “What I’m really believing in this situation, the reason I act this way with my kids, the reason I treat my employees this way, is it has has to do with this.” Okay, there’s a false belief here. And just making a small adjustment is what we’re talking about. It’s gentle. It’s consent. It’s, it’s almost like there’s a, there’s a playful curiosity about it. “Well, what if you tried something like this instead of that and let’s see what happens.” There’s also that sort of experimental… “You know, let’s talk about it later. What happened?” Just change one little thing.
Marc Schelske 27:59
Yeah, the “try” word there really pushes us over into the realm of practical action.
Matt Tebbe 28:07
Marc Schelske 28:07
Like, “try” means, “Oh, you’re gonna do a thing.” You’re gonna have a conversation, you’re gonna take an act, you’re going to do some things, right? And that’s… So many of us have this mindset that faith is an abstract thing, either an abstract intellectual thing or, in some traditions, an abstract emotional thing, which is where you can have language of belief harder, right? Most of my early most of my early ministry experience was in youth ministry. And we talked about that kind of stuff all the time, we were so focused on the intensity. I look back, and I’m like,” What does that even… What does it mean? Like, “Pressing in?” Like I’m praying? uuurgh Like, there’s, you know… That is… it’s incoherent. Looking back at it. It’s incoherent to me, you know? What was I asking a kid to do?
Matt Tebbe 28:56
Yeah, we use the word experiment. Experiment takes the pressure off of nailing it and getting it right. Because you do an experiment because you don’t know what you’re going to find. Or you think you know, but you don’t. There’s some open-endedness and room for discovery in an experiment. And I think part of why that legalism you talked about earlier, Marc, or just an easy-believe-ism, which is sort of like this idea of getting my ideas in order. They are so appealing because they give us the illusion of control.
Marc Schelske 29:27
Matt Tebbe 29:29
It’s something we can control, and faithing, consenting to the God of love, who holds everything together, is… love is anti-control. It’s uncontrolled. You can’t love someone or something and control it.
Marc Schelske 29:47
Matt Tebbe 29:48
Right. And so, for me, then I think of an experiment as how I do two things that seem like a paradox. Use my agency here unto a goal and end and lay down control.
Marc Schelske 30:05
Right, right. Yeah, exactly.
Matt Tebbe 30:06
Those seem like a paradox to do both those things at the same time.
Ben Sternke 30:10
I think we oftentimes those are some of the moments where we reveal that we were seeking control through our agency. when something that we were hoping… we didn’t realize it maybe at the time, but something we hoped would happen didn’t happen. Well, then we’ve got, oh, well, did it work? It’s like, well, that, you know, that’s, again, that’s treating this whole relationship, this whole faith, this whole life with God, as a mechanism that works or doesn’t. That’s not what it is. It’s a life.
In one of my cohorts that I’m leading right now, through Gravity, there’s a woman there who has reported that one of the things that has been on her mind lately is that she… she’s noticed that she and her husband are spending a lot more time on screens during their free time. And it sort of agitates her, bothers her. And she sort of has this feeling of like,” I don’t want us to be spending so much time on screens.” And so her initial response is just to sort of set boundaries around that. So let’s just put our phones away after dinner, and then we’ll just, you know, we’ll have a conversation or lets you know that. So she’s trying to fix a problem, right?
But as we dug into that a little bit with some compassion and with some curiosity and say, like, well, what gives you the idea that you’re spending too much time on screens? What’s going on for you? It came up that, like, she’s been through a lot of loss lately. She was like, “I think what’s happening is that I’m sensing that we need to be tending to this. But being on screens feels easier.” And uncovering essentially that what she was truly believing in her bones, is that “I can’t face the grief of these losses, because it will overwhelm me.”
Marc Schelske 31:45
Ben Sternke 31:46
And so the good news for her that the truth that, you know, we sensed as a group that God was speaking to her, that we checked with her, was just that “What if God’s waiting for you in that grief? What if God is there, and God will make sure that you are not overwhelmed, that God will sustain you in that? What is the path to your healing? And she, she affirmed that. She said, Yeah, that’s true.
So then the next step is like, what do you do, then? How do you trust that good news that God is waiting for you in your grief? And so, for her, it was a really simple step. It was one little thing. It was, “I’m going to have one conversation with my husband where I just tell him what I’ve discovered about myself. And the reason that I am sort of agitated about screens. And I’m going to say that this is something that I’m sensing that I need to do. And I wonder if you might need to do it, too. And I wonder if you’d be open to us having these kinds of conversations together, where we talk about the past, where we maybe cry together about what we’ve lost? Would you be open to that.” And that was it. Her husband might not be open to it. He might think that’s a stupid idea. But her opening up, having the conversation, sharing where God was speaking to her, that was her faith.
Marc Schelske 33:06
Ben Sternke 33:06
And the following week, we got on the call, and we rejoiced with her that she acted in faith. She acted as if it was true that God was waiting for her in her grief by taking this small step of opening up. “Maybe I could talk with my husband about this grief.”
Marc Schelske 33:20
At the close of this last chapter, you talk… you have this process, this cycle, that you encourage people and you talk about. There’s this sort of sequence of compassionate awareness, creating alignment, and cooperative action. And you portray this as a circle that kind of feeds in on itself. And you wrote, “Cooperative action is the embodiment of your faith, no matter how you feel.” So in the story, you just told, if I’m understanding that correctly, that woman is doing cooperative action…
Ben Sternke 33:57
Marc Schelske 33:57
…by following through on that conversation, right? And that discerning with you in community that maybe this is where God’s showing up, or maybe this is what God is asking. And so she’s going to consent and participate with that idea, in actually enacting that conversation. So let’s talk about that cycle and what cooperative action is, because that feels so much more compelling to me, then, then kind of that fake-it-till-you-make-it sort of tone that we were talking about earlier.
Ben Sternke 34:28
Her faith in that moment, that was her cooperative action. And that’s something that she can do, whether she feels amazing and joyful about it, or she’s terrified. She can have the conversation, no matter how. And we discerned that together. It didn’t feel overwhelming. It didn’t feel like too much. It felt like something that she could she could say, “Yes, I can do this.” And that would be, you know, faithful action that opens up probably more faithful action. It’s not like that fixes her problem. Right? It’s not like she doesn’t need to grieve now. I mean, there’s still grief that needs… lament, right? But this opens the door into some of those things that she she needs to continue to walk in, you know, she’s gonna be faithful to this.
Matt Tebbe 35:08
The circle in this book, and the way that Ben just described this, it’s not a prescription. So then she’s not coming to like the spiritual doctor, who says, “Here, here’s your script, have one conversation with your husband, and that’ll take care of this problem.” But it’s much more of like, if God’s present and at work here, and if he cares about it more than you do, and if it’s all about love, what could any of this have to do with that? These are things that God has said. This is the way Jesus operated. They seem to be like grounding assumptions Jesus makes about reality, and people, his Father. So let’s just say, let’s just dare to bring that lens to the situation. What does it reveal? What wasn’t seen before? And then let’s discern together what it looks like if you have the faith to do it, to move towards God and other people in love, trusting that, you know, God is present and at work.
Marc Schelske 36:07
Matt Tebbe 36:08
So then it’s an empowering conversation, where this person, or whomever, myself, or you, Marc, we, we have a choice. Either I’m alone on this rock, spinning at 1000 miles an hour, hurtling through space at 11,000 miles an hour, and the best I can do with my pain is to distract myself from it. Or the God that Jesus reveals moves towards people in pain, weeps at tombs, holds people who are suffering, touches them, and he wants to hold me and touch me, too. That’s not something I have to necessarily just think about more, but I can open my life up, embodied, open my life up to some experiment, and then see what happens.
Marc Schelske 36:54
Right? That’s the “as if” part.
Matt Tebbe 36:55
Marc Schelske 36:55
I don’t know how this is gonna go. We don’t know if the husband is going to respond. And even if the husband doesn’t respond, even if the husband says that’s a terrible idea, that’s not the end for her. She’s still… then the next thing for her is going to be, “Okay. Well, how are you going to process your grief in a way that you can do without your husband participating?” Right?
Ben Sternke 37:16
Yeah. How do I how do I find a space to continue to walk in faith? And this is different for every single conversation. Like even leading these kinds of conversations, I like have no idea where we’re going. I have no clue at the outset what’s happening here.
Matt Tebbe 37:31
Ben Sternke 37:31
And, you know, and I’ve been doing this a long time. There’s no control there, either. And so we just opened ourselves up to even having the kind of conversation where we could discern cooperative action, what that would look like. Is this opening up to, well, “How is God at work here?” I don’t know. And what is your… because… that was her faithing. But there was also enough faith for her to faith. Right? There was enough faith that that made sense, that’s kind of the edge of her faith right there.
Marc Schelske 38:01
Right, right. Yeah.
Ben Sternke 38:02
And so wherever we’re hitting the edge of our faith, it’s always fear and trembling. It’s always like… those are the liminal moments. Those are the parts where like, “Oh, God, I’m so scared. I don’t know what, you know… I’m not sure what’s gonna happen here.” There’s other parts of our faith that feel a little bit more secure. Right. But whenever we’re talking about those edges of our faith, that always feels that way. It’s always it’s always tender. And it can’t be predicted at the outset. What would be a good step of faith? And so a lot of times those questions are helpful just to say, like, do you have enough faith to just have this conversation? Is that out of the question? That’s fine. And that oftentimes happens. People are, “I could never do that.” Alright. That’s fine. Well, what can we do?
Marc Schelske 38:42
The thing that feels hopeful to me in this is that it sounds like you’re saying there’s a way for me to have faith when I don’t feel very faithful.
Matt Tebbe 38:51
Ben Sternke 38:53
Yes, that’s a good way to put it.
Matt Tebbe 38:55
Yes. This is another part of this process. Marc. You know, if you’re around a sinner long enough… Ask Ben about this. He’s been around me a long time. You got a list of things that you want to change about that person.
Marc Schelske 39:08
Matt Tebbe 39:08
Right. And as pastors, it’s hard for us not to notice things that are wrong with ourselves, with the people, with our church. And I think that this process disciplines me when I’m with somebody not to say, “Okay, I’m glad you finally want to listen to God. Here’s a list.” But rather, it’s like, “Okay, where do you have an awareness and faith that God’s present and at work? We start with where you are, versus where I wish you were, or where maybe guilty or toxic conscience tells you you should be.
Marc Schelske 39:39
Matt Tebbe 39:39
So, for instance, this woman is so frustrated that we’re on our screens. That’s the pain point. But being curious there, bringing some compassion to that reveals that that’s not really the problem. That’s just sort of getting my attention. And so we find that, like, you know, if somebody’s being on their screen bothers me, and I tell them, Hey, would you stop me on your screen when you’re around me? And what’s really going on is that they’re doing the best they can, with this huge cancer of pain in their life, that I’ve, I’ve managed my own irritation and their behavior and missed a golden opportunity to actually love somebody.
Marc Schelske 40:16
Boy, that feels so good, right? Because I think that there’s so many of us that have kind of the background where instruction or mentoring that we receive kind of amounts to “just have more faith.” In a way, you’re saying, have more faith, but what you’re saying is, “We’ll just sort of step into the things that seem like the kinds of places God shows up.
Ben Sternke 40:41
Marc Schelske 40:42
Like you don’t know for sure, right? We don’t know for sure if God put that issue on her heart about grief. But does that sound like the kind of thing God might do? I mean, if you were just… just based on what you know about Jesus, do you imagine you might find him in the tomb of your grief? Can you just imagine how that’s possible? Okay, well, try it out.
Matt Tebbe 41:01
Marc Schelske 41:01
That’s so good. I feel like this really opens the conversation of faith up to be accessible to a lot more people, because I think there’s a lot more people who don’t feel very faithful. And to say to them, you know, there’s, there’s a way for you to have faith, even if you don’t align with these particular stories about what faith looks like. Just walk into it.
Ben Sternke 41:23
That too, I’d want to add an encouraging word. I think the feeling of not feeling faithful is rooted in faith. Your desire to be faithful s your faith. And it’s precious to Jesus.
Marc Schelske 41:38
I want us to take a moment here at the end to have you give us a couple sentences about the Gravity cohorts. You’ve told the story about this woman. You’ve mentioned the cohorts in passing, I don’t know that everyone who follows my podcast would even know what that is. So what are these cohorts? Who are they for? How do they work? How does that help people have this kind of faith we’re talking about?
Matt Tebbe 42:02
It’s a group of seven people or so that we take through our curriculum, including this book that helps people gain this operating system, to use a metaphor, this way of being with God and other people, where we are increasingly coming to trust the God of love, and that God’s making a coherent sense out of our life as a participation with him. And so the cohort is very much a place of formation and discipleship, but it’s also a place where you learn a process and a language to use with other people in your life, to help people discern the kingdom of God, to learn how to proclaim good news to yourself and other people. And then craft these experiments of trust. So I can, I can embody and participate in faith, you don’t need to run across the Sea of Galilee, just take a step. And then our life becomes a series of experimenting with steps. Right? It’s a game, it’s a holy game of increasingly turning our life over to Jesus with our very life. Instead of like “Every head bowed, every eye closed, playing the Chris Tomlin song on repeat.” My actual life is my spiritual life.
Marc Schelske 43:14
Matt Tebbe 43:14
Yes, let’s treat dinner tonight as an altar call. So that’s what the cohorts do.
Ben Sternke 43:22
Yeah. And just on a practical note, too, just to give people a better picture of, like, how they work: They’re online groups. So we meet on Zoom. They meet every week or so, it’s a weekly group, that meets for about 75 minutes for a year, so for 12 months, and so there’s weeks take off, obviously, for travel and vacations and things like that. But it’s a year-long commitment to be part of an online group of seven or so people that agree to learn together, you know, how to discern what God’s doing, and how to say yes to it, and how to grow our faith and learn to live in love.
Marc Schelske 43:59
If somebody thought that was intriguing and might be helpful for them, where would they go to find out more about that?
Ben Sternke 44:05
You can go to www.GravityLeadership.com/academy. If you’re intrigued about it, go ahead and visit the website. But also, if you just email. Email Matt@GravityLeadership.com or me, Ben@GravityLeadership.com. And we’d be happy to chat with you about how it works and all that kind of thing.
Marc Schelske 44:22
Fantastic. Thank you so much. Gentlemen, I really appreciate you taking the time to get me over my hurdles with your book. Not every author is willing to do that. Like, “Hey, I loved your book, except this part. Let’s talk about that!”
Ben Sternke 44:35
Yeah. Yeah. I love that, Marc. I see it as more opportunities for me to learn how to better communicate what I’m trying to say. I found this conversation very generative. Thank you.
Marc Schelske 44:45
Me too. Great. Thank you guys.
At one point in this conversation, Matt said, “My actual life is my spiritual life.” Yeah, yes. That’s the thing. So many of us were taught that the spiritual life is some elevated condition that we have to attain by effort, by feeling a certain way, or by spending a certain number of hours in deep spiritual disciplines– whichever variety your church liked best. We were given this picture that only certain special people could really attain such a life. That can’t be what Jesus meant, right?
If Jesus is good news for everyone, then Jesus has to be good news for the tired and the hopeless, and those without any extra time because they’re busy making ends meet. If Jesus is good news for everyone, then Jesus has to be good news for folks who don’t look very Christian, and for folks who have been run out of the church. Jesus has to be good news for those who don’t have a good memory that enables them to memorize Bible verses, for those with PTSD, and for those who are so hurt they never want to step foot in a church again. If Jesus is good news for everyone, then the spiritual life must be our actual lives, and a life of faith has to be something other than some outstanding shiny spiritual accomplishment. Faith isn’t some weird attempt to believe harder. It’s certainly not a metric of how many Bible verses you have memorized, or how many hours you volunteer.
As followers of Jesus, we’re not committing to a life of obligatory religious behavior, nor are we committing to a life of plastic certainty. And we’re certainly not committing to a life where we have all the answers, and we need to take control so that we can force other people to live in the way that we think they should. No! Instead, committing to the way of Jesus means trusting that in this life, the very life we live today, we are fully in God’s presence, we are not alone. And in that space, we can explore and experiment with spiritual growth, and trust that God’s Spirit will meet us there.
May you release the chains of certainty and obligation, so that you can relax into the present moment where Jesus is waiting for you, knowing that your very desire to be faithful is faith.
Thanks for listening.
Notes for today’s episode and any links mentioned can be found at www.MarcAlanSchelske.com/TAW051.
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