In many ways the American church has lost its way in fulfilling the message of Christ. We may mean well, but we get caught up in toxic behavior that has the opposite effect of what we are supposed to be in Christ. Morgan Guyton does a terrific job in helping us to see where we need help in his awesomely titled book “How Jesus Saves The World From Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity”. In the opening sentence Guyton asks “Have Christians become what Jesus came to stop us from being?” (p. 1). This is actually a scary thought to consider because a lot of the research that is out there does suggest that we have strayed from the ideal. In the book of Acts we see thousands attracted to the message of Christ as a result of how the early church represented itself. Today we seem to be doing more to push people away from Christ. The fastest growing group are the “nones” who do not claim a faith. SO with all that in mind, how have we gotten so toxic?
Guyton begins his book by arguing that we are called to worship, not perform. He states that “Faith isn’t the performance that passes God’s test to earn us a ticket to heaven; it’s the abolition of performance that liberates us from the hell of self-justification and restores us to a life of authentic worship.” (p. 17). When we come to worship, our focus needs to be on the object of our worship: Jesus. God’s grace rescues us from the feeling that we need to justify ourselves before God.
Guyton goes on to state that we are to be people of mercy, more than sacrifice. In relating to the story of the Good Samaritan, Guyton points out that “Mercy means abandoning the safety of a morally superior vantage point of judgement in order to assume the dangerously vulnerable wide-open space with the other person, so that in our mutual lack of safety, we become safe to each other.” (p. 25). The Bible itself says to obey is better than sacrifice and I believe that this is what Guyton is getting at. We can come up with a whole list of ways in which we are “sacrificing” ourselves thinking we are morally superior as a result but if we are not practicing our love for God and our love for others we have missed the mark!
In another chapter, Guyton explains that we need to be more focused on emptying ourselves instead of being clean. He says that “I don’t believe that God has any investment in our staying clean for the sake of being clean. I believe that God wants our hearts to be emptied of clutter so that they can be filled up with his love, just like the heart of the Samaritan who was capable of being moved with compassion. When Christians try to stay clean instead of getting empty, it’s a recipe for a toxic, judgmental faith that lacks self-awareness.” (p. 33). I have lived through and been a part of the “purity culture” in which we are encouraged to be hyper-vigilant about our purity usually with a very big emphasis on our sexual purity. The problem with that thinking is that we become obsessed with it and if we make any mistakes we fall into a tremendous amount of shame, which once again brings the focus on me and not Christ’s mercy and grace. The author even observed in his own life that “The tragic irony is that the friends I’ve known who grew up in this superprotective culture that so desperately tried to keep them safe and clean seem to have come out of it with greater spiritual damage than I experienced as a youth who wasn’t nearly as protected from worldly temptations and learned some things the hard way.”(p. 37). He concludes this section in stating that “The goal is not to keep ourselves perfectly clean and absent of any scars or smudges; the goal is to be emptied enough of our self-preoccupation that we can lose ourselves in God. If you are preoccupied with staying clean, you’re still preoccupied with yourself. What truly makes your heart impure is whatever keeps your focus on yourself instead of God.” (p. 39). I know that as a parent and a youth pastor you want teens to make good choices so they can thrive in their life. But we need to also teach them how to empty themselves before God and enjoy His presence in their lives. This takes the focus off of them and puts it on the object of our worship.
Further into the book Guyton tackles the way in which the consumer culture has caused us to see others as commodities to our own life instead of beautiful expressions of God’s love. He states that “we need to learn to enjoy other people as gifts from God, as sacraments of God’s beauty, whose infinite mystery we can adore without the need to make them useful to our consumption. It is within a community that treats its people like temples of God’s breath to be revered that we experience the infinite comfort of being desired as occasions of joy for one another.” (p. 54). This is a beautiful way of approaching other people in your life.
In another section Guyton argues that we are to honor the Lord rather than have a sense of terror when it comes to God. He says that “When we talk about fearing God, we have to remember that God chose to represent himself most perfectly in Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross. If that’s who God is, then fearing God is not being afraid of what God will do to me, but afraid of what I might do to Jesus. . . . those who can’t sleep at night because they worry that they might drop the cross that their crucified Messiah gave them to carry as their contribution to ridding the world of evil – those are the people who do fear the Lord.” (p. 66). When we have this perspective we come to understand the importance of our role as a Christ-follower in this world. We should be compelled to be the hands and feet of Christ to this broken world.
In another chapter I really liked, Guyton argued that the Bible is not a math book more than it is poetry. He comments that “some people read the Bible like a math problem, and others read it like poetry. The Bible is an essential tool for instilling beauty into our hearts, but so many Christians turn it into a weapon for winning arguments with other people. I believe that treating the Bible like poetry to be savored, instead of math to be solved, can help to save us from its toxic misuse.” (p. 70). I had two separate experiences when I decided to pursue Biblical studies. When at Liberty University the Bible was definitely treated as math to be solved. We were taught with absolute certainty why we believed what we believed and why everybody else was wrong. But when I went to seminary at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary many of my professors taught scripture more as poetry to be savored. It was then that I realized how little I actually knew about the Bible and how much there is to enjoy. In fact, Guyton agrees that “the irony that people who know the least about a topic are often the most confident in their knowledge. The more you learn, the more you’re exposed to how little you really know. So if you think faith means self-certainty, then you’re going to remain an infant in your spiritual journey.” (p. 73). This is why I cringe whenever someone tries to make a point by saying “the Bible CLEARLY says . . .”. Often they are certain about their limited interpretation without doing the diligent work of real study and interpretation. Guyton concludes this section in stating that “A better way to measure someone’s faith is according to the magnitude of good deeds that are inspired by that faith.” (p. 74).
Further along in the book Guyton writes about hos we are supposed to respond to sin. He comments that “Christians whose posture is solidarity love their fellow sinners by hating their own sin. To the degree that they think about sin, they are focused primarily on their own failure to love. . . . When we look at ourselves, we should be looking for ways that our love can be improved upon. When we look at other people, we should be looking for ways that they are lovely. . . . It is not merely being kind to other people; it is seeing and loving the good within them.” (p. 109). In my experiences it has always been those who have shown this type of love to me that made an impact on me, that challenged me to grow spiritually. To be judged never once worked.
Guyton goes on to talk about how we should take sides in conflict by being outsiders, not insiders. In wrestling with what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus as a white, middle-class American who has not really had to suffer he says that “It means renouncing my insider status to befriend and support people who will taint my reputation with other insiders. It means being crucified of the ways I justify myself moralistically against the world’s outsiders. It means being purified of all the spiritual botulism of white supremacy. It means leaving behind the comfortable privilege that Jesus and the apostles referred to as ‘the world'”. (p. 126). I always find it fascinating what the evangelical culture feels that persecution is to them: having to bake a cake for a gay couple or being forced to provide birth control for their employees. The reality is that it is typically those very same people who will persecute other Christians for identifying with the “outsiders”. Jesus was accused of being with drunkards and tax collectors. It is time we come alongside those who are considered outsiders and stand with them.
In a following section Guyton argues for how we are supposed to follow our Shepherd. He states that “What if instead of fetishizing leadership like the rest of our culture, the church focused on cultivating servanthood?” (p. 133). He continues by saying “To be a leader is simply to be a selfless-enough servant that I am focused on empowering others and helping them discover their gifts.” (p. 135). The concept of Christian leadership needs to be noticeably different from how it is perceived from the culture. Servanthood needs to be the driving factor as we empower people to discover their gifts and use them. Guyton goes on to say “We need to become a community of sheep who listen together. Christian leaders should be the ones who listen the most deeply, not only through prayer and the study of Scripture, but also by intentionally submitting ourselves to the meekest, most marginalized members of our community.” (p. 142). In doing this we act and behave more like Jesus.
In his final chapter, Guyton makes a case for how we are to grow as the body of Christ. He says that “Just as when Peter went to Cornelius, I should expect to find the Holy Spirit already spreading the kingdom of God in the lives of the people with whom I interact, regardless of whether they’re officially Christian or not. I should enter into these conversations expecting to be humbled and surprised by the insights God has given the other person to share with me.” (p. 154). I know that I take a much more different approach when it comes to doing mission trips than I did in my earlier years as a youth pastor. I encourage the teens to look for ways that they see Jesus in the people and places they interact with. This helps us not to see an “us vs. them” mentality but opens us up to seeing that God is already present in what is going on and we are invited to be a part of that.
In all, this was a GREAT book. I really enjoyed it and found how Guyton went about deconstructing and reconstructing the faith was beautiful. On just about every point I agreed. What Christianity is supposed to be and what it has become are two different things and if we don’t change Jesus really does need to save the world from us! But here’s to hoping that the Spirit enables us to see the privilege, the arrogance and the pride that has seeped into the American church and made it toxic, and hoping for a kingdom people who will return back to Jesus with a humble and contrite heart willing to serve, willing to identify with the marginalized, willing to love in extraordinary ways!