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Religious Dissillusionment

Why is it that so many people leave the Church, offended by the bad behavior of others? Is there a way to avoid it? Actually, the Bible tells us exactly how to avoid it, and how to help our children avoid being offended also.

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When I started my Master’s program thirteen years ago, I expected to meet a number of people who were either atheists or agnostics, since I was entering the field of psychology. And to my surprise, nearly everybody I talked to, in that program, about spirituality professed to be a Christian. And yet, I never met anybody, during that whole time I was doing that study, who attended church anywhere. And when I would ask them why, I got answers like “too discouraging,” “too much control,” “too political,” “too shallow,” “just an excuse to show off new clothes,” “all about form, but no substance,” “too much hypocrisy,” “too judgmental,” “a group of people who get together on Sunday to judge each other,” “too boring.” Those are, pretty much, direct quotes that I heard from people when I talked to them about religion. All of them believed in God, but they were all disillusioned about “big religion.”

So that is one form of disillusionment that we will be exploring today. Here’s the second form. The second form has to do with being disillusioned about God. “Why did God allow this to happen to me?” – usually said with an edge to it.

Let’s look at the meaning of this word disillusionment. According to Webster, it says, to free from illusion, or to cause to lose naive faith and trust; the act of freeing from an illusion, or the state of being freed there from. So both definitions tell us that when we’re disillusioned, we are caught in untruth. And when we are freed from it, we are free to see accurately what is going on. That would be a good thing, wouldn’t it? I would think so. Yes.

Now, I’m sure all of us can tell our stories about various times we’ve been disillusioned, but I don’t know your story, so I’m going to tell mine. I went to a small church-supported college – left home at eighteen to go there – and, after graduation, I was hired as a trainee into the church’s ministry program. I worked in that church, I think, twenty-eight years. Then the church split and I went with the smaller split. And I felt, as I left, that I had gone with this new group and we were sort of a band of brothers, united and holding on to the truth that we believed from the time we were just high school kids. So, a lot of these people I had known since I was a teenager. And I felt like I was allied with them in a spiritual endeavor and philosophically united with them – that we were all on the same page.

Well, after the new church had been around for three years or so, it became obvious to me that there was a deep rift in that group – a fundamental difference in doctrinal belief that was centered around the way the group should be governed. Some of the people on the other side of the rift from me began doing something, at that point about three years in, that we had all agreed we would not do when it started. So I, with a few other people, who thought about it the way I did, and yet, without confronting these people directly, asked publicly, within the guidelines of the governing documents that we had, that the language in our founding documents be firmed up so as to leave no doubt about the wrongness of what they were doing. In doing that – I didn’t realize it at the time, but – I had unwittingly broken one of the norms of that group.

Now, what is a norm? Well, a norm is a rule that is not written down anywhere and it’s not spoken. It’s just understood by everybody. All groups of humans – every family, every group of kids playing on a playground – if they can’t get together every day – every sports team, every church – they all have them. You can’t be human without having norms. Everybody follows those rules or they’re not a part of the group any more. That’s, pretty much, how it works.

In this case, the norm, put into words, was, “You will let the leadership do whatever they want, and the leadership, in turn, will take care of you.” That was the rule. And that rule, if you put it into words, sounds pretty bad, right – if you give people carte blanche to just do whatever they want? Usually the people that wind up in those positions do whatever they want. And, usually, it’s not good for the group. It’s good for them. The problem with thinking that way is, that this is one of the most common norms in human groups down throughout time. Only since democracy became popular, has that norm become less a part of government in people’s thinking. But it’s not unusual in any way. And I broke that rule. And it’s amazing to me what happened after that – or it was, at that time.

Suddenly, most of the people, that I had known since I was eighteen, no longer knew my name, or my phone number, or recognized me on sight. So what was my illusion? Well, my illusion was that I could break the norm and still keep my friends. I didn’t realize that was going to happen. At first I was hurt by the distancing that went on. I saw it as a betrayal by some people. But as time passed, I realized we were all operating on these unspoken rules and had for a long time. I realized I was just as much a part of that as anybody else and that I had distanced people in the past – not even realizing I was operating according to a rule, anymore than some of the fellows that distanced themselves from me realized that. And I realized, also, that, had I followed the rules, things would have gone on just like they had before.

So once I was freed of my illusion, I was free to see that it was my choice as to what I did. And I was also the one that had to be willing to pay the price for my action. The rule was I couldn’t be part of the group if I was going to break the rules, so I had to go. 
It’s really interesting. I didn’t know any of that when I left. But as I learned more about what was going on in my life, and saw more clearly what was happening, that freedom and that insight caused me to be able to move past the disappointment. And now that I’m fifteen years past that disillusionment, I see that was the beginning of a chain of events that lead to the best thing that has ever happened to me in my life – well, one of the best. All I can say is, “It was tough, but God is good. God is good.”

Now, sometimes, disillusionment feels like a loss. What did I lose? Well, it felt like I lost relationships. And I was bummed out by that for awhile. But then there are also sometimes – and I think this is really how we should feel about it – there is a sense of gain that comes with it, because we’re really being freed from a lie – something that’s not true.

So, when I realized that I was the one who caused my loss, and that I did it because I could no longer follow the norms of the group – that I wasn’t a part of that philosophy any longer – it was liberating to me.

Now, Elaine, my wife, did not have that experience. When we finally left the organization, she was sad and she commented that we would lose so many of our friends. And I remember thinking, “Well, they haven’t been our friends for quite some time, because of what I did.” We were about to do a seminar on evangelism when she made that statement to me. And it was based on our new philosophy. To my great surprise, people from all over North America – about 160 people, which was way more than we expected – showed up to watch that presentation. I told my wife, while we were there looking at this crowd of people, “These are our new friends.” I knew that they would be our true friends, as long as we all believed the same thing. And I wasn’t going to be falsely illusioned anymore. Now, is that saying that they aren’t good friends? No, it’s just the way friendship works. It’s philosophy that usually binds people together. Can two walk together, except they be agreed? Right? And, of course, the answer to that is, generally, no. So that’s why people of like-belief tend to group together. We might like other people immensely, but it’s hard to relate closely when we always have to be careful about what we say to each other, lest we step on somebody’s philosophy or belief. So it’s just easier to be friends with people that believe the way we do. That’s just how it works. And I have disabused myself of the illusion that it works any other way than that. There are, I guess, a few exceptions to that. I have people, that are friends of mine, that are unitarian, whereas I’m not. But we’ve just agreed to disagree. So there’s not a problem, because we don’t really worry about stepping on each other’s toes. We just know that if somebody says something, that’s not what the other person believes, it was a mistake, or they’re just expressing themselves. But, for the most part, it’s better when people believe the same way. It’s easier to be friends.

Let’s look at a scripture that tells us something about God. We’re talking about believing lies here – things that are not true – and then suddenly realizing, “Oh, I didn’t understand this and now I do.” So we’re seeing truth more clearly and not believing things that are untrue. In James 1, verse 16, it says:

Jm. 1:16 – Do not be deceived – a very good comment to preface a discussion about illusion, right? Do not be deceived – do not be illusioned – my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shadow, due to change.

What is that all about? No shadow? No variation? What he is saying is that God is always 100% true. He does not lie. His word – the things that He has said to us – is truth, we’re told. Thy word is truth. Right? One of those things He has said is, “I change not.” So God is not fickle. He’s not whimsical. He’s not ambivalent. He’s always had the same opinions about things from the beginning. Sometimes He changes His mind about people when they change the way they behave, but, for the most part, He’s constant, steady, and He can always be relied on. So, when it says, “There’s no shadow of turning,” it means that the kind of life – which stands for truth, right, in Bible talk – that God gives out produces no shadow. What He means is always clearly illuminated. There are no norms with God. Everything is stated right out there. All His expectations are completely transparent. All the rules are on the table. They’re all explained. They’re all clear. If we don’t understand them, it’s because we just haven’t studied the book enough. It also says in James 1, verse 18:

V-18 – Of His own will He brought us forth by – by what? – by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures. So our creation is attributed to the word of truth. We’re created to be truthful – like God. And yet, because of our human nature, we love to believe things that aren’t true, as long as they feel good to us.

It was very comforting to believe that the people I went to college with were still my friends after twenty-eight years. But that was only true as long as we were all operating on the same set of values. That changed.

John 4, verse 24. It says here:

Jn. 4:24 – God is Spirit and those who worship Him must worship Him in Spirit and truth. So the more of our illusions that we can become disillusioned of, the better off we’re going to be and the more Godlike we’re going to be. Our goal is to live that same way before – without illusions.

We’re told that we should come out of darkness into His marvelous light – to see things the way they really are. That’s 1 Peter 2:9, by the way. Part of the coming out of darkness is to separate ourselves from the illusions that we hold about God and life so that we can see clearly what is going on.

Years ago I was having lunch with a colleague. And he asked me about a mutual friend. I explained to him that our friend had left the church because he became disillusioned with one of the ministers at the top of the administration of the organization we were in. He made a very interesting comment. He said, “You know, that’s really too bad, but he never should have become illusioned to begin with.”

That leads us to the next area that I want to discuss with you. And that is the disillusionment with big religion. When we say that someone has become disillusioned with religion, that usually includes the idea that they are disappointed, wounded or embittered in some way – as the example I gave about my friend. And I would like to submit to you that people, who are bitter or disillusioned about big religion, are not really disillusioned, but are still illusioned – still in the grip of a false belief about it.

I’m going to give you an example of Jesus that supports what I’m saying. It’s in John 2:23. It says:

Jn. 2:23 – Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover feast – so this is the book of John, chapter 2, right? – so it’s right at the beginning of His ministry. So He’s just starting to make His move, so to speak. And He goes to the Passover feast in Jerusalem. So that would be to the temple, right, where all the Pharisees and Sadducees are – and the public. And it says, many believed in His name, when they saw the signs that He was doing. So you can imagine that He was doing these miracles, and people were all excited about it, and probably giving Him quite a bit of acceptance. That probably felt like the same philosophy and outlook. We were the ones doing the signs, and the people were complimenting us and telling us how great we were, and all that. And that kind of feeling, that we get when we say things that other people like, that’s a bonding thing for people. People like to be able to tell others that they approve of them, and we like to have people tell us that. So that holds us together. When we found out that 160 people wanted to hear what Guy and I were going to say about evangelism, we felt like they were our new friends. But I want you to notice Jesus’ reaction in verse 24.

V-24 – But Jesus, on His part, did not entrust Himself to them, because He knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for He Himself knew what was in man. He was not illusioned about all the approval that He was receiving. He created man and He knew some tings about us that all of us would like to forget sometimes. He understood how human beings worked. So how is that? Well, while we’re all made in God’s image, with all the good that that means, we’re also told that, in the flesh – that’s that sarx – dwells no good thing. Paul said, “Let God be true, though every man a liar.” (Aren’t you ladies glad that King James wrote in sexist language back then?) He tells us in Jeremiah that the human heart is deceitful above all things and wicked. That’s what He knew. Besides all the good stuff that He created, He knew that people, because of what the devil has done, have an incredible propensity to deceive others and themselves and to do some really bad things – which they were going to do to Him. Did He ever get bitter toward people? Did He ever stop loving them? No, He didn’t. Why? Because He was never illusioned about them to begin with. He always understood what was going on and He still loved people.

I had an atheist friend ask me why so many Christian men boast about their infidelities. Where I come from, I’ve never had any man do that, but he, apparently, had. So I explained to him that the problem with Christianity is not God. It’s Christians. That’s what Ghandi said. He said, “Your Jesus I like. It’s your Christians that are the problem.” And that is the problem. So why do we act like it’s a big, amazing, unpredicted thing when people act badly at church – even the leadership? The truth is that nobody does Christianity well. We work at it. Nobody is that good at it. And that includes the most venerated church leaders, our parents, teachers, whoever. If you believe church leaders are more righteous than you are, I have some oceanfront property for you and it’s in Arizona. Read the book. What does it say? There is not one righteous – no, not one! So what does that mean? Well, what it means is, there is not one righteous – no, not one – not the guy at the top of the pyramid, nobody in between and nobody at the bottom. So, when people in the church act in an ungodly way, to believe that they should behave better is an illusion. And to think that, just because they’re dealing with you, that they should treat you fairly all the time is an illusion.

One of the biggest reasons why young people have left our church is the hypocritical example of their elders – at least, that’s what they tell me. Many of them have grown bitter, because they saw people behaving badly. But really, the reason they left is because they were illusioned about that.

When I left my first church to go with the smaller newer one, someone went to the public regulation commission, and they got a form and filled it out, and started a corporation. They probably had to provide a check to buy the form and process the paper. It probably cost fifty bucks. Whose address was listed as the home of that new church? Mine, because everybody else lived on the campus of the headquarters of that church, and they had to have an address in California that was outside of that – that wasn’t owned by the corporation. After we started that corporation – and I don’t really know who filed it or any of that – I just know it happened and somebody called me and said, “Can we use your address?” and I said, “Yes.” So then a group of us got together and tried to decide what was important to us. The mistake I made was to entrust the expression of those values to someone who didn’t value what I valued. So when the formative documents rolled out, they were very subtly slanted toward this guy’s values and the values of a lot of the other people. They used those documents to create rules of operation. I remember that, after all that was set in stone, so to speak, I had to spend a lot of my time and energy resisting the organization, because the values expressed in the rules, the contracts – all of that – were not mine. And I could have used that time better to worship God, to take care of people, to do a lot of things. I could have had more vacation time, even. But I had to spend my time explaining to people why I did what I did.

What I learned through this hardest experience of my life was that idols come in many forms. I could have been worshipping God, but I was dealing with this other entity. Was I angry with those guys? At that time I was. Am I now? No! I realize now that everything that happened to me was my own fault. And I allowed myself to be illusioned when I should have known better.

Now, think about John, the 2nd chapter, for a minute. We just read it. Jesus did not turn Himself over to the people emotionally, because He knew the capability that human nature has to be deceitful. He didn’t grow bitter. No, He loves all of us still – untrustworthy lot that we are. And He can love us…one reason is because He didn’t let us hurt Him – at least, not until it was time to make His sacrifice. He clearly sees our weaknesses. If we have to admit that other people are dishonest, or deceitful, or manipulative…we don’t like to do that. We like to think everything is just pie in the sky, because we’d also have to admit that we’re that way, too. So we don’t like that.

Now Jesus did trust, but He just didn’t trust humans. He trusted that His sacrifice would, one day, draw all of us to Him, when He’s going to help all of us become like Him. And He has faith that we’re all going to be disabused of our illusions and that we’re going to become trustworthy. It’s all about believing in the grace of God. And that’s how we can be salvaged out of this, too. Most of those fellows that believe differently from me believe the way they believe because of what they have thought, learned. I mean, it is not an evil maliciousness that’s there. It’s just a different way of thinking about things, I think.

I used to tell my kids that God allows two kinds of examples, in the church, for us to learn from – good ones and bad ones – not that it’s all perfect. And I also told them that the problem is that some of the time, all of us set good examples, and some of the time we all set bad ones. It’s not that there are the good people and the bad people. It’s that people behave good sometimes and bad sometimes. So the trick is to discern the good from the evil – to tell when the bad example is being set and when the good one is being set. So, like Jesus, when He was here, it helps us to realize that all people have the capacity to be unfaithful and not to be trustworthy. Where we are to put our trust is in God, not in people.

There are so many aching lacks in all of the people of the world. There is no one of us that can meet all of those. Only God can. Eventually, God is going to take care of all those problems. But if we stubbornly cling to our illusion that people can be good Christians at all times, then two things are going to happen to us. We will become embittered toward people who don’t live perfect lives, which is everybody. You just have to get to know people well enough to see the problems before you can become disillusioned about them. And when we do that, then we’re going to spiral down to the next level of bitterness, which is bitterness towards God. And what we will ask is – when hard things happen to us – “Why would God allow this to happen to me? Why does God let children suffer? Why would all my friends abandon me? Why would He let me get cancer or have a stroke?”

Have you ever heard of that expression, “riding Job’s horse?” The horse’s name was Isme, and he would say, “Whoa, Isme!” Very corny, right? Why did I use that example? But, I wanted to talk about Job, so I mentioned that.

What was it that Job learned through all his sufferings, if you’ve read the book? Can you find any place in all 42 chapters – it was 42 chapters, wasn’t it? – that God ever explained to him why he had to suffer? He thought, because he obeyed God, he would always be protected, but he wasn’t always protected. So can you think of any place that God explained to Job why he had to suffer? There is no explanation given to him for that question. There is never any such promise in the Bible – that we will always be blessed, even if we obey God perfectly, which none of us can. So, if we believe that, then we believe an illusion, don’t we?

So, his big question was, “Why me?” It was a thing to see whether Job was going to become bitter with God or not. And he never learned what caused his suffering, but he did learn something. And he learned what God wanted him to learn. What did he say? He said, “Now my eye sees You! Now I know that I’m nothing and You are awesome, and I cannot even approach You.” So what he learned – to put it in our language – is that God is so great that all humanity – all the geniuses that live now and have ever lived – all of us together, working on figuring out what God is like – can never match Him. We can never figure Him out. It doesn’t matter what He allows us to endure. He’s still so great that the only thing humans can do is worship Him, because He is God. We can never figure out some of the things that He does, unless He tells us why. And thinking that we can figure God out is itself an illusion that leads only to bitterness. We can never figure out why God allows things that are bad to happen to us or others. But we can know something. We can know that, in the end, God is going to turn every bad thing into something good. How do we know that? Well, it’s in Romans 8:28. But we can’t know anything, except God reveals it to us, so here’s what He says:

Rom. 8:28 – We know that, for those who love God, all things work together for good. And that includes sitting in a pile of very soft ashes, because you’ve got boils all over your body, like Job had, or having a stroke, or getting cancer, or being beat up, or being poor, or whatever. All things work together for good for those who are called according to His purpose.

But we don’t know that we’ll always be blessed for obedience. We know that time and chance happen to all people. We don’t like to think about that, because that means it’s out of control. We know that, often, we don’t get what we deserve when we do wrongly. And that’s a good thing, but it still leaves us wondering why it happens the way it happens, doesn’t it? But we do know, for sure, that God will do what will help us to know Him and be close to Him in the end, whether it’s fun or whether it’s hard.

So, to sum it up, our illusions about God, people and life are what cause us most of our suffering, most of our disappointment, most of our bitterness. And our illusions will ultimately destroy our faith, unless we let go of them and start seeing things the way they really are – unless we’re brave enough to let go of our self-deceptions.

When God tells us to worship Him in spirit and in truth, He’s giving us some good instruction, because we would all be a lot happier if we would let go of our illusions, and see clearly what’s going on around us, and see, at last, how great God really is.