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How to Avoid a “How To” Faith

Written by Stephen Buckley On any given day, we (as in, users of the Internet globally) conduct some 8.5 billion Google searches. That’s more than 3 trillion a year. If you are like me, many of your queries involve how to do something—how to lower your blood pressure, how to boil the perfect egg, how to use “Find my” on your smartphone. And so on. We live in a “how to” world.

It is tempting for us to Google our way through our spiritual lives too. We long for what singer/songwriter Sara Groves once called “the simple home of systems.” We want to trade the gospel of relationship, with the built-in uncertainties that implies, for a gospel of formulas and techniques, a gospel without heart. A “how to” gospel.

Examples of this abound. The “name it and claim it” gospel was essentially a “how to” movement. Many churches hitch their growth to formulas driven by surveys and consultants. And we are awash in “how to” books on a host of subjects, from evangelism to parenting. My favorite title: Have A New Kid by Friday.

It isn’t that books (and podcasts and music) like these don’t hold some helpful, even necessary, instruction or inspiration. They do. The trap is to embrace them as a workaround for real faith, a pale replacement for the Great Commandment (Mark 12:30): “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

We are creatures of control, and a “how to” gospel tempts us with hollow habits and rituals that trick us into thinking that we are at the center of the universe, that we are in control. It seduces us into believing that an answer exists for every question, a ready solution for every crisis. In our chaotic world, “how to” faith feels certain, safe.

Real faith calls us into relationship, not with a cliched abstraction but with a holy and gracious God. A God who protects us but isn’t “safe.” A God who sometimes leads us into the wilderness. A God who calls us to love and serve messy, unpredictable people. People defy formulas, and so does our God.

Which brings us back to the Great Commandment.

Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we keep our faith robust by cleaving to Christ with our whole selves. It is how we learn to be consumed by his love, which in turn compels us to love others. And over time, our faith then becomes muscular enough to sustain us even when, as the prophet Habakkuk says, “there are no grapes on the vine….no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls.” We learn to accept life on Christ’s terms, not ours.

The Great Commandment pulls us into the thrilling life that God offers us, one redolent of his goodness and grace. It reminds us to live in the careful, tender grip of Christ’s heart. And it demands that we daily give him ours.

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