Blue Ocean Faith’s Third Distinctive Might Be Its Most Important

by Dave Schmelzer

“Where’s the Adult Education Department?”

She was nice, but no doubt had an edge.

“So,” she said, “there’s lots of really great stuff in your church. Lots of enthusiastic young people, lots of people experiencing faith in Jesus for the first time, lots of diversity, lots of care for poor people in the city, lots of prayer and faith, lots of risk-taking for God. Three cheers for you all! But—” (And hadn’t I seen the “but” coming? I’d seen it coming.) “—where’s the adult education department?”

I asked her what she meant.

“The adult education department. The way that experienced Christians grow in Christian faith.” I was still at a loss, so I asked her to fill that out. “Like,” she said, “like you, for instance, went to a theological seminary, right?” I said that I had but, with a few exceptions, it hadn’t done a lot for my growth in faith. It was great for a lot of things! But not that. “Hmmm,” she said, squinting a bit more and this wasn’t looking good. “So you don’t think you could offer some of that seminary stuff here? Stuff like a systematic theology class?” It was likely just my quirk, but I’d disliked systematic theology, had found it actively damaging to someone trying to follow Jesus. I thought for a moment and said that those hadn’t been my favorite classes. “Hmmm,” she said again. “Church history?” Certainly helpful in the big picture and I’d love to chat with her about whatever interested her along these lines. But we still seemed to be missing each other. “Ah-huh. Even Reformation history? It’s always good to talk about the Reformers.” I thought I might now be able to cut to the chase.

“So,” I hazarded, “it seems like your feeling is that adults grow in faith the best when they learn graduate-level academic stuff about theology or church history. Is that what you’re driving at?” It was, she said. Absolutely.

I have not found that to be true. And I find it hard to imagine that was the plan Jesus had in mind. Now, on the one hand, most of my friends tend to be more, rather than less invested in theology and intellectual pursuits. As am I![1] But I’m not sure that equates to what she was calling “growth.” And I have seen many hundreds of people experience what, to the eye of an outside observer, looked like tremendous growth in faith in Jesus. From the inside, it feels like I’ve grown in faith in Jesus. My best pass at what this growth has looked like for these hundreds of people—and for me—is what we’ll be talking about here.

The six distinctives of Blue Ocean

This is the third in a series of essays about the six distinctives of Blue Ocean faith. Here’s a reminder.

  1. Our primary framework is SOLUS JESUS.
  2. Our primary metaphor is CENTERED-SET.
  3. Our approach to spiritual development is CHILDLIKE FAITH.
  4. Our approach to controversial issues is THIRD WAY.
  5. Our approach to other churches is ECUMENICAL.
  6. Our approach to culture is JOYFUL ENGAGEMENT.

How do Christians grow in faith?

Do we best grow in faith by learning new and interesting things? Or do we grown by some sort of journey of faith?

Or maybe it doesn’t matter if we grow at all.

Let’s stick with this last point for a minute. (And let me warn you that I’ll be talking about bounded and centered-set approaches to faith as if you’re conversant with these ideas. So, if you’re not, why don’t you take a moment to check them out here?)

Let’s take faith from a bounded-set perspective for a moment. In bounded-set, the key issue is that you’re inside the boundary. You’ve done everything you need to know that you’re going to heaven! So…what’s next? Well, of first importance is making sure that you stay inside, that you don’t drift back into the realm of the damned. In that spirit, keeping a close eye on what is and isn’t sin and making sure that you’re not sinning (or that, if you are, you’re quickly confessing) is a big deal. It’s also helpful to have the right opinions about who else is sinning! We get encouraged to “take stands” on the right moral issues and be on God’s side in the controversy of the day on our Facebook page.

Now there’s some disagreement even about these things. A popular theology of a few decades back was shorthanded into the phrase “once saved, always saved.” It—an extremely bounded-set perspective—argued that, if you’ve done all the needed things to be saved (told Jesus that you believed in him and asked for your sins to be forgiven, in the most rudimentary understanding), you unshakably could know that, whatever you might do or not do from this day forward, you were going to heaven.

On those terms, what was left to be done between now and the next life? Well, there were lots and lots and lots of things you might be encouraged to do! Those things might involve evangelism or care for poor people. Or maybe your church strongly felt that you needed to advocate for a particular political perspective.

But, in the end, if you’re in, you’re in.

So—in this view—maybe “personal spiritual growth” is not the bottom line. It’s a nice add-on, to be sure. How many of us, after all, like to stagnate? But the biggest thing—your salvation—is taken care of whether you grow or not. That might explain why a common complaint in bounded set faith settings is that people are bored. They’ve heard it all! Surely there’s more to life than hearing another endless stream of sermons! My “adult education” conversation was along these lines—that maybe a key way to alleviate the boredom of “mature Christians” who’ve heard it all is to tell them at least a few things that they haven’t heard before! Even if those things are pretty abstract.

But, as someone who’s learned many of those “advanced” things, for all their delights they quickly run dry, leaving us in the same, aimless place that we were before.

Jesus proposes an answer

Jesus directs us another direction entirely in Matthew 18 and 19 (and also in Mark 10 and Luke 9 and 18) when he encourages us to pursue faith as if we were small children. He says this a whole lot and in multiple ways—like this, for instance: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[2] And he does seem to have a bee in his bonnet about mistakenly thinking that growth in faith boils down to getting more knowledge.[3]

On the one hand, this seems scandalous! Aren’t we talking about how to grow in faith—where the point, presumably, is to become mature in our experience of God? And, I mean, in 1 Corinthians 13:11, doesn’t Paul encourage us to “put the ways of childhood behind (us)?” Doesn’t Hebrews 5 chew out its readers for being milk-drinking babies rather than meat-eating grownups?

But Jesus is calling us back to something more fundamental—to the very beginning of the Bible, to the story of the fall of humankind in which Adam and Eve are commanded by God not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In bounded-set, this is pretty straightforward: do the things God tells you to do! Don’t sin! Stay within the boundaries! But it’s fascinating to look at the story itself a little more closely, as Jesus encourages us to do. This forbidden tree, for instance, didn’t give them their first introduction to right and wrong—we can presume that God would want them to have that and not keep them from it. Instead, this was a temptation towards discovering how to run their lives towards a happy future without God, to “be like God” to themselves, to take control of “good” and “evil” outcomes to their life choices. Where, before they ate this fruit, they perfectly trusted this all-good God to give them a great life, by doing this they were declaring that they were eager to go it alone.

In that spirit, here’s something useful I learned from my seminary education! It’s a quote from Martin Luther.

Could we ascribe to a man anything greater than truthfulness and righteousness and perfect goodness? On the other hand, there is no way in which we can show greater contempt for a man than to regard him as false and wicked and to be suspicious of him, as we do when we do not trust him.[4]

At the moment they ate the fruit, Adam and Eve were offering Luther’s greatest of all insults to God—formally declaring that, despite all evidence to the contrary, they didn’t trust that God’s whole passion in life was to do them good with all his heart and soul.[5]

When they eat the fruit, when they fly their flag that they don’t trust God to look out for them and take their lives to a good place, their immediate response is shame. They recognize immediately that they’ve, as it were, bitten off a whole lot more than they can chew. They can’t possibly figure out how to navigate themselves into a great, happy life—it’s too big a task for any human being. So here’s a related thought experiment. Imagine that you’re a three-year-old child in downtown Manhattan who says to your parent, “Hey, thanks so much for all your help to this point. I totally appreciate it! But, you know, I’m good at this point and I don’t think I’ll need you anymore. I can take things from here. I’ll get a job, get a lease on a nice apartment, and set myself up just great. But thanks again for everything!”

Back to Jesus. In Matthew 18:13, he gives us the antidote to the fall of humankind—“Change and become like little children.” When we “become like little children,” we recognize that we are, in fact, that child of three in the middle of Manhattan. But this time we also recognize that our loving parent is right beside us, that they haven’t gone anywhere despite what we said, that we had a moment of thankfully-temporary insanity. “Becoming like little children” means that we take all our cares to God as if he actually cares and will help. Jesus directly tells us this a few chapters earlier in Matthew: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”[6] “Cast all your anxiety on him,” Peter tells us later on in the New Testament, “because he cares for you.”[7] It requires a supernaturally powerful God and encourages ever-growing faith and prayer along those lines.

So how do we grow in faith? We take Jesus’s antidote to the fall. Growth entirely boils down to childlike faith. It’s the only plan there is or has ever been. It’s the whole ballgame.

Let’s think about a few implications of childlike faith being our only hope of growth.

  • God is only good and does only good things for us.

My life—maybe like your life—often feels overwhelming. Years ago I remember a one-panel comic taped to the front of an often-frazzled friend’s refrigerator: it showed a woman having coffee and regretfully saying, “My life would be so much better if it were being lived by someone else.”

I know some people who pick a Bible verse as their “life verse.” I think that comic is my life comic.

Just yesterday I took a pass at solving an organizational problem and almost immediately wondered if I’d messed up. What did God think about my choice? And even if God seemed to be on my side, still, was I going to be happy with what came out of the choice? In retrospect, what if I’d tried to achieve the same goal in a different way? Now that I thought about it, obviously I should have taken a different tack! Oh no! What were the consequences of choosing Tack A rather than Tack B?!

And then God seemed to break in with completely different advice.

“Or,” he seemed to say, “you could take the advice of King David in the Psalms and praise me for exactly how things are, whether you made the perfect choice or a poor choice. You could praise me for what actually is, in trust that I’m great at working with what actually is! You could give me all those consequences you’re afraid of and you could trust me to do right by you and by all the other people involved.” And so that’s what I did and—after an hour of having berated myself—I immediately felt great.

So here’s a question: What if, okay, we are that child of three in the big city. And what if, as argued here, our parent hasn’t gone anywhere despite our telling him or her that we want to take things alone from here on out. But then a cloud crosses our once-sunny perspective on the situation—what if this parent on occasion has their own agenda that might not match up all that well with our agenda for our own life? I mean, that wouldn’t feel so great.

As a place to start on that question, check out Psalm 147:10-11.

“His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse,  nor his delight in the power of human legs; the LORD delights in those who fear him,  who put their hope in his unfailing love.”

Evidently God doesn’t cheer up when he sees how strong and awesome we are at solving our own problems. He cheers up when we “put our hope in his unfailing love!” He’s happy when we believe that he’s actually good, that he actually loves us, and that we can actually trust him in actual things! Jonathan Edwards put it this way: God’s holiness consists in his delight in himself[8]. God knows that he’s completely good and trustworthy towards us—for him to be holy means that he can’t back down on that point. If he indicated in any way that we might be better off looking elsewhere for a happy life, he’d be lying to us and thereby unholy. He tells us in Exodus 33:18-19[9] that his “glory” is exactly the same as his being good towards us—he gets glory when we’re satisfied customers who go to him with all of our problems.[10]

In an earlier footnote, I called Jeremiah 32:40-41 “the plaque on God’s wall:”

I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them… I will rejoice in doing them good…with all my heart and soul.”

What’s on God’s agenda today? Doing good things for you! And then, after lunch, doing a few more good things for you! That’s what makes him happy—he “rejoices” to do you good![11]

Jeremiah 29:11 famously tells us that God’s been putting some real thought into what his plan for the rest of your life is:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

The childlike faith that Jesus tells us is the antidote to the fall of humankind is based on a good God who is determined to do good and needed things for you and me, a God who’s trustworthy with the actual life we actually live.

This was my challenge yesterday, right? I had to make a decision about an organizational problem, but it was overwhelming to predict the consequences of my decision. The problem was a hard one—if it had been simple, I wouldn’t have stressed over it. The Psalmist’s repeated command to his “self” to praise God in good times and bad times helps us with this. Our own inner selves need to be commanded to do this, because it doesn’t come naturally to us. But as we do it, we’re trusting in the God who works for our good in all things, who invites us to be “more than conquerors” in which bad things not only don’t stymie God’s good plan for our lives, they get incorporated into those good plans.[12]

But the challenge is believing this, right? Our invitation each day is to “fight the fight of faith,”[13] to take note of whether our hearts are happy in God’s promises or are a little, say, cranky. If we’re unhappy or overwhelmed, as I was yesterday, our task is again to trust God’s work in our actual life by

  • Believing his promises for us, or
  • Praising him right in the middle of the thing that stresses us out, or
  • Asking him for help and seeing what he does.

As we live in childlike faith, we come to realize with Philippians 1:25[14] and Romans 15:13[15] that, to our surprise, the barometer of our faith is our level of joy. As if God cares about such things!

Now, being human, we’ll discover that all of our prayers don’t work out the way we hope. Later on, we’ll look at what to do with that—which is tied into the “maturity in the midst of childlikeness” that Paul and the author of Hebrews were talking about in the quotes earlier.

But the faith Jesus describes falls to the ground if God isn’t only good and unyieldingly committed to doing us good all the time, in things that go well and in things that don’t.

  • Our life becomes a childlike journey with Jesus.

In John 10:27-28, Jesus tells us how we know if we’re his “sheep.” “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.”

This describes a fascinating and surprising dynamic, to me at least. We’re given one standard by which we can know we’re his sheep—we listen to his voice! We learn to recognize it, we seek it out, we rely on it. That’s pretty interesting and relational! As we do this, as we look his way throughout our day and listen to him, he knows us. This “knowing” is an actual, two-way relationship. And then, as this awesome relationship happens, we realize that he’s moving—as shepherds do—and so we follow him wherever it is that he’s going. We want the good pasture and trust the shepherd to get us there. As we do all of this, we discover that we have eternal life—this dynamic turns out actually to be eternal life! And as we’re listening to and being known by and following alongside this awesome shepherd, we’re safe from wolves—we’ll never perish and no one will snatch us out of his hand.

Or, to return to our earlier “child of three in the big city” analogy, we discover that our loving parent is walking somewhere with us as we hold their hand and follow along.

Now my wife, Grace, and I have taken this to heart.

While we both went to a prestigious university, upon graduation, we focused mostly on listening to Jesus’s voice and following where he led us, even as most of our friends were going onto graduate school and professions. When I met Grace, she was living among desperately poor Southeast Asian immigrants in a tenement in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. I—having also felt directed by Jesus to live in a high crime neighborhood for a bit—was writing plays and working entry level jobs. At some point, we got invited to move across the country to try to help start a new church in Massachusetts and, after asking God, we did that. While we were there, we had five kids as this church—which I ended up pastoring, though that had not been the plan when we moved out there—became a thing. And then, in the middle of its thing-ness, we strongly began to wonder if God was calling us into a new adventure another three thousand miles away, one that would require us to rely on God providing for us (my church job had become pretty secure) and that he would show us after we made the move. And that’s what we’ve been up to the last few years.

There are interesting models for this sort of behavior which seem to tie into Jesus’s appeal to pursue faith like a child.

Here’s one example. In Romans 4, Paul tells us that the best human model of the sort of faith he’s talking about is Abraham. This is the guy who got called “the father of all faithful people.” Abraham’s faith had nothing to do with believing the right stuff or continuing to learn new, esoteric things about theology until he died. It all boiled down to “believing God” as he heard God telling him to move to this mysterious place that he’d be told about later—and as God told him he’d get the biggest dream for his life and have a son and heir even though he and his wife were very old. Abraham’s life would be good, even if it endured hardships! Abraham’s dreams mattered! And then Abraham directly lived out the formula that Jesus describes in John 10, this formula that required a journey with the living, on-the-move, communicating God.

Abraham’s model brings to mind another picture of faith that I’ve written about in other places.[16] It’s a mythic idea that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien thought and wrote about[17] (and which drove the creation of Lewis’s space trilogy and The Lord of the Rings). Joseph Campbell picked up on their thoughts in his own way which, several decades later, created the template for Star Wars.[18]

Their big idea was that every culture in history seemed to tell two mythic stories—the same stories! (Campbell, as we’ll see, emphasized one of these.) One was about a dying and rising Harvest God. This kept Lewis from following Jesus—after all, wasn’t Jesus just one more picture of this Harvest God? But Tolkien compellingly argued that Jesus, while very much fitting into this template, was clearly different and more rich and quirky than these other mythic stories. Maybe, he suggested, God implanted the Harvest Myth into all cultures to prepare all cultures for the coming of Jesus, for what he called “myth become fact.” Lewis converted that night.

The second universal myth is the interesting one for our purposes. It got different names. Campbell started out by calling it the “monomyth”—the one universal myth, the myth of myths[19]—but it’s come to be called the Hero’s Journey.

Let’s look at its most-basic implications here. It suggests that each culture has a myth of a small, weak, reluctant hero who gets told they have to leave their safe “ordinary world” (the only world they’ve known) and will have to enter a scary “special world” which is in fact much bigger and more wonderful and dangerous and mysterious. If they don’t take this journey, the world will be destroyed in a great battle that the weak hero didn’t even know was already happening. They’re often so reluctant to take this journey into this unknown world that they need to be driven out by scary “threshold guardians” or, despite the stakes, they’d never go. In the myth, the reluctant hero often dies mid-journey and needs resurrecting. They need a supernatural guide, as—in the end—there are no human guides for the particular journey they need to take, no ultimate human mentors. (Campbell is a fan of the Galahad story, in which Galahad has to “enter the forest at the darkest point, where no knight has yet gone.”) They do save the world in the end, though they then often need to take an arduous return journey back to their ordinary world in which their friends often have no idea what they’ve just done for the good of everyone and how they’ve been fundamentally changed as a result.

Perhaps you can imagine how The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars fit this mold (as do most Hollywood summer blockbusters these days, thanks to the success of Campbell’s ideas). But let’s think along the “why would God put this myth into every culture?” line of thought. If Lewis and Tolkien are onto something that God put the Harvest Myth into every culture in order to prepare the way for humankind to recognize who Jesus was when he showed up, I wonder if God put the Hero Myth into every culture to tell the story of each of us. What if we are each the weak, reluctant hero who, nonetheless, is encouraged to leave our ordinary world and embark upon a strange and scary journey into the unexplored special world in order to save the world? Even if we might never be recognized for the amazing thing we’ve done?

I find this really helpful and explanatory. Abraham’s faith fits this template beautifully, for instance. So does the story of Gideon—the weakest member of the weakest tribe of Israel who was cowering in a basement when the angel told him he had to save the world. Or Esther, this nobody who suddenly faced a life or death decision that would either save or destroy everyone she loved. Or Moses with his speech difficulties who begged God to send someone else. Or the poor fishermen who followed Jesus. Or Rahab the prostitute who saved all of God’s people. And on and on. It’s as if God put this myth into every culture so we’d have eyes to recognize faith, to recognize spiritual growth when we saw it.

Lots of implications come to mind. It seems to me, for instance, that most advice that anyone ever gives anyone else is about how to become king or queen of the ordinary, small world. As if the big story of Frodo Baggins might be how, through cleverness and hard work, he might become mayor of the Shire someday! But the big story for all of us is actually in the vast, unexplored special world, in which we leave behind the latest religious and cultural squabbles in order to take a childlike journey with the Good Shepherd—who, as he did for Abraham, will direct us into a strange land where we’ll find the journey we were created to take and where we can save the world—even if nothing there will make us king or queen in the ordinary world. Abraham, after all, never did become a prosperous landowner in Haran.

It strikes me that anyone whose faith I admire, those I’ve known or those I’ve read about, lived this sort of journey. I don’t admire them for their “strongly held convictions” or their extensive reading about graduate level religion. I admire them for their childlike faith in a good God who led them to follow his voice into the unknown adventure he’d tailored just for them.

Maybe a month ago, my very guileless son asked me a guileless question. Yes, he was studying hard to be able to get into a decent college engineering program. And he liked engineering and it would likely lead to a good job after he graduated—a great thing that’s not guaranteed for many a college student. But…what if there was more to life? Was his whole life about getting good grades and getting a secure job and hoping to raise a family and go to church and tithe and ultimately die and leave a nice nest egg for his kids? It all felt pressurized and conventional and like he was some kind of sellout.

Well, he was coming to the right place for this conversation. As he knew.

I told him I had two different answers, one as a spiritual director and one as a parent. And then maybe I had a way for the stories to converge.

As a spiritual director, of course I was a big fan of the Hero’s Journey, of John 10, of childlike faith, of listening for Jesus’s voice and doing whatever he said and trusting that this very living, very interactive voice would steer our lives to a good place. Ever since I faced a very similar crossroads when I was 20 or so, I’d followed that approach to life, right up to the present day. That choice has the advantages of (a) childlikeness, (b) connection to Jesus, (c) unexpected opportunities and (d) a sense that one’s life is about big, big, big things—the fate of the whole world, in fact. This is all pretty great stuff and it’s the opposite of getting bored looking for meaning from hundreds of sermons[20] and trying to find ways to keep one’s faith interesting year in and year out.

However.

This way of life also embraces some real disadvantages which are worth embracing up front. I know no one who has made similar choices who has not found themselves facing some tremendous stress—as Frodo and Luke Skywalker certainly did! My friends have found themselves in financial distress and physical danger and nontrivial existential frustration. Those things have been part of that choice.

As a parent, I wanted to tell my son that, you know, there are worse things than becoming an engineer! Particularly if one enjoys engineering and is good at it! And those “conventional” things that were worrying him had actually been among my greatest joys. I’m really glad God helped me find a wife I like a whole lot. And I really like my kids—him included!—and am so grateful for the resources to provide for them.

Which of course raises the question about whether these are either/or options. Which, clearly, they’re not! Between you and me, I really hope my son gives the engineering thing a try. And I hope he lives out John 10 and is exactly that sheep that Jesus describes. The difference between bounded-set spiritual growth and centered-set spiritual growth is that the first requires constant new information to keep us (marginally) interested and the other requires all the promise and insecurity of a living relationship that’s on the move and might take us to surprising places.

Let’s be like Abraham and Esther and Gideon and Rahab and Ruth and Moses and David and pretty much every other hero of the Bible and follow Jesus into the Hero’s Journey he has for us, with all the uncertainty and promise and loneliness and unexpected friendship and the possible need for resurrection mid-journey that this childlike, trusting path brings.

  • Childlike faith works right up until it doesn’t.

On the other hand, maybe let’s not.

Here’s some bad news—particularly disappointing given how far you’ve had to read before getting it. Most people find childlike trust in a loving and powerful God to be impossible to hold onto.

This is obvious, right? Maybe, like me, you had a wonderful, encouraging first connection with Jesus in which he was so present and so eager to answer your prayers and encourage you and speak with you. You realized that this changed everything, that nothing would ever be the same again, that you’d follow this amazing and good and loving and personal and communicative God until the day you died! What you’d stumbled into, like the man in the field in Jesus’s parable, was un-fricking-believable.[21]

And then.

And then a prayer you prayed with great faith that had great stakes wasn’t answered and…the child died or the job or the marriage didn’t work out or whatever. Or church people who’d been so great and so encouraging to you suddenly weren’t so great and encouraging anymore and in fact now seemed, I mean, mean or closed-minded or hypocritical or just…awful.

On this theme, here’s a dirty secret we pastors customarily have: we know a whole lot of former pastors who swear with a great deal of passion that they’ll never pastor again, that they’re not crazy enough to take the kind of abuse they’ve put up with for years. They’re done with that garbage.

I mean, do you want to live the life of a Bible hero? Moses’s first pass at the ordinary world actually didn’t look so bad—he got to live in the palace, have servants and live the high life! He, in fact, was King of the Ordinary World! Was his life so much better after he ran in terror to Midian? Or even after he was driven into the ultimate special world—the unexplored desert—by the ultimate threshold guardians—Pharoah’s armies—across the ultimate, can’t-go-back threshold into the special world—the only-parted-one-time Red Sea? It seems like the next phase of his “journey into the special world” was marked mostly by grousing followers who considered killing him a few times and managed to get God—their “supernatural guide”—so mad at them so repeatedly that the story is one long succession of poisonous snakes and the ground swallowing people up until it’s climaxed by God’s vow that, okay fine, now they’ll pretty much all die in the desert. Good times!

At least it ends well for Moses, and that’s the important thing. Oh, that’s right, it doesn’t! Because of what seems like a trivial mistake of his, he also gets to die in the desert! Sign me up for this Hero’s Journey, will you? Three cheers for this kind of childlike faith!

Now, in a calmer moment, some of us might concede that he did, in fact, save the world. His people are freed from slavery and do end up in this long-promised new country. But maybe stories like this help us get a feel for the stakes of this kind of “childlike faith.” If the God who would lead us into this kind of journey is in fact as transparently good to us as we talked about a couple of points back, maybe we’d be served by a little more thought on how that’s so, at least for the long run.

Let’s return to the Hero’s Journey for a moment. Remember that part about how the weak, reluctant hero actually often dies mid-journey and so needs to be resurrected? That seems like a blow. So Frodo is impaled by Shelob and almost dies. Or maybe the better example from that story is Gandalf the Gray, who does actually die (dragged to his death by the Balrog) and needs actually to be resurrected into the more-powerful Gandalf the White.

This part of the story seems to tell us that our journey will require death and resurrection. That the first blush of how awesome Jesus is and how our lives will never be the same can’t and won’t last. That this initial, innocent enthusiasm has an important role to play, but if we insist on holding onto it, our story will not end well, for us or for those around us.

Here’s a completely fascinating perspective on this from a French philosopher named Paul Ricoeur. He suggests another way of looking at this death and resurrection that we learn about in the Hero’s Journey. He calls it “the second naiveté.”

Now how Ricoeur uses this and how I’m using it are not one-to-one. But here’s the central idea. When we first experience Jesus, we’re plunged into the first naiveté. Whatever anyone says about the Bible is awesome. Whatever insights we get in our own scripture readings or prayers are fantastic. Jesus begins to talk to us, and it’s astounding. We’re confident there are only good things in store for us in this amazing journey of faith we’ve just been invited onto!

But then, Ricoeur says, we enter “critical distance.” We realize that things we’d innocently assumed to be true just don’t hold up, either because we get a little learning about the Bible and churches, or because we get pushback from smart people, or because life itself doesn’t work out the way we thought it would. Our expectations have been messed with.

At this point we have options. One powerful urge would tell us to stuff critical distance at all costs! Go back to the first naiveté! Ignore all that stuff you’ve been hearing or the experiences you’ve been having! All those insights about life aren’t really worth having if they cost you the first naiveté! Do what you can to crawl back into the womb! In hopes of regaining the safety and security that we’ve lost, the price we pay when we make this choice is a sort of permanent opposition to everything that called us into critical distance. We become combative, religious people, “standing firm” against challenges from… well, from those lousy people who are experiencing critical distance.

Or we could camp out in critical distance and become profoundly reactive to combative, religious people. That’s another option.

But our goal is the second naiveté, which is this resurrection that the Hero’s Journey talks about. The second naiveté is the “childlike maturity” that Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 13 or the author of Hebrews is talking about in chapter 5. Our goal is to become Gandalf the White. Yoda is both mature and childlike. Almost none of us gets this. The road is narrow that leads to life.

Let’s circle this again, from another perspective that might help us out. Think back to our earlier discussion of the Garden of Eden. What if, in the Garden before the fall, we’re in the first naiveté? God is awesome and the world is awesome and we’re wide-eyed with wonderment. But, after the fall, we get expelled from the Garden into critical distance. We’d love to go back to the first naiveté, to the womb, to the happy Garden, to wide-eyed innocence! We feel a horrible sense of loss! But it’s impossible. The entryway to the Garden is guarded by an angel with a flaming sword. We can’t go back. Again, if we insist upon, against all hope, demanding to return to that first innocence, I suppose we can camp out right at the gate. But this, again, will come at the cost of becoming a combative, religious person who has the form of the religion that once meant so much to us, but not the joyful substance. We can’t go back in.

Or we can camp out east of Eden, in critical distance. We can recognize that we’ve come to a place that’s lousy, that’s left us jaded, but can comfort ourselves that at least our eyes have been opened. All that phony-baloney first naiveté stuff is bunk!

But maybe the road rarely taken is to walk around the whole, fallen world—with Jesus as our good shepherd! There will be so much hardship that we experience on this journey! But then, just maybe, we’ll see an intriguing, vaguely-familiar sight in front of us. As we get closer, we’ll realize it’s, hang on, the Garden of Eden! But, having traversed the whole world on this journey with Jesus, we’re now entering it from the rear. And there’s no angel with a flaming sword at this gate. As we reenter from the other side, suddenly we’ve entered into the second naiveté,[22] into transformed resurrection.

This is so helpful.

On so many, ever-deepening levels.

So a story or two. When I first started following Jesus, as I said, the whole experience was amazing. God spoke to me, I saw a whole lot of powerful prayers answered, I found friends who joyfully studied the Bible with me. I loved it! At the time, my passion was to write plays or novels. And I did—only to enter a cycle of rising expectations followed by devastating reversals. My first play was fought over by two different theater groups at my prestigious university—including the school’s drama department. This was unprecedented. I got press attention. Major theatre companies from around the country were keeping an eye on this acclaimed, promising young playwright. It appeared I was—thanks to Jesus! Jesus was amazing!—about to be launched quite prominently into my biggest dream.

And then, for a variety of reasons, the production never happened and I entered into fifteen years—fifteen years!—of working entry-level jobs as I tried to get back to that opportunity which, to date, hasn’t happened.

Some years later, after my life took a very different turn and I pastored a church, I sublimated my playwriting hopes into novel-writing. After one unsuccessful attempt, I secured a prestigious literary agent with my second attempt. This is a big deal. I read a statistic that, for every four hundred novels written, only one gets agented. And this wasn’t just any agent—she’d just represented a number one New York Times bestseller. And she was very into my book. When we met in Manhattan, she said the main questions for me to consider were how I wanted to handle foreign rights and movie rights. And then she couldn’t sell the book and—with you’ll-get-‘em-next-time regret—she dropped me. Even after finding another agent and writing another novel, with that agent’s strong guidance, I remain an unpublished novelist to this day.[23]

On the upside, I saw some remarkable success in helping start a church and seeing it become prominent and newsworthy. However, like all of my closest pastor friends, I’ve experienced my share of mean—sometimes persistent—attacks, often from people who’d been friends.

My baby daughter was desperately sick to the point of being given only a tiny chance of survival—and then, as thousands of great people fasted and prayed for her recovery, she completely recovered and is a vibrant young woman as I write this. And then, only a couple of years later, one of my closest friends—a young man, quite a beloved husband and father and pastor—discovered he had stage 4 colon cancer and also was prayed for by thousands of great people and nonetheless died a horrible, wasting death at exactly the time his doctors predicted he’d die.

I could go on. Of course I could. Because I’ve lived many decades of life since that first, amazing encounter with Jesus. And you might have stories that would put to shame my stories here.

So what does childlike faith look like at this stage of life? What does it look like to enter the second naiveté, to travel through the whole, fallen world as we follow our very good shepherd, Jesus?

In that spirit, let me sum up.

The childlike faith that Jesus invites us into turns out to involve two and only two things:

  • It involves keeping our hearts happy and open-hearted in God, even as life happens.
  • It involves an ongoing journey of faith.

But how, specifically, do you pull that off on your journey to the second naiveté? I think the key is that, however you do those two things, you do them. There are many great models. But, if only as one example, here are a few things I do.

  • I fight the fight of faith daily.

Early each day, I note whether my heart seems happy in God’s promises. If not, my day’s task becomes getting to that place. That might happen as I praise God right in the midst of the problems that are making me anxious or as I pray or as I claim promises from the Bible or as Grace or another friend prays for me. But I do this.

  • I give time to listening to Jesus’s voice as best as I can.

This is in the spirit of John 10. The seminal book that talks about this is Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God. I often talk with God as I walk. Grace gets distracted on walks, so she starts many of her days with a journal as she writes out her dialogue with God. And then I’m eager to follow whatever counsel or direction Jesus gives me. It’s super-helpful.

  • I’m diligent to forgive and break off curses.

On the days when my distress comes from what, to me, feels like judgment from other people, I’m quick to take time to forgive them and then, also, to break off the curse of their judgment[24]. They may, of course, accurately see some bad quality in me. But nonetheless, Jesus commands us never to judge[25] and I find I’m not strong enough to carry the feeling of being judged by even one person, so I spiritually break the curse of each judgment I feel. If I find myself stewing over how badly I’ve been treated by a person I’ve just forgiven (and whose judgments I just broke off), I repeat the process until I’m no longer stewing over them and have released them.

I do stuff like that. And lots of other stuff like reading the Bible or getting together with friends and praying for each other and going to worship services and many more.

I’m sure you have your own ways of returning to a heart that’s happy in God’s good promises over your life even as you follow Jesus into your own, Abraham-like journey into the special world.

Now it can be a lot of fun to learn interesting new theological truths! If you want to get a graduate theological degree, please don’t let me stop you! But the stuff of growth is the stuff of the living, interactive journey with the God who loves you and is committed to doing good things for you that you very much want. That childlike journey of faith, around the entire sinful world, is the antidote to the fall. Its rewards are profound and transforming. Those rewards are what you’ve been created to experience and pass on.

I’m praying for you.

[1] As perhaps you’ll find to be true in this very essay.

[2] Matthew 18:13

[3] In Matthew 11:25-26, for instance. “At that time Jesus said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.’ ”

[4] “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, John Dillenberger [New York, Doubleday, 1961], p. 59.

[5] I’m quoting Jeremiah 32:40-41 here. It’s a really cool passage for our purposes and one I’ll come back to. One professor of mine called it “the plaque on God’s wall.” “I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them… I will rejoice in doing them good…with all my heart and soul.” (The professor, by the way, was Daniel P. Fuller, who shaped many of the points in this section. His big book on the subject—not the easiest read, but a seminal book for me—was The Unity of the Bible: Unfolding God’s Plan for Humanity.)

[6] Matthew 11:28

[7] 1 Peter 5:7

[8] See? That seminary education is working for me yet again! I went so you don’t have to!

[9] Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” And the LORD said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you.”

[10] Psalm 116 is amazing on this point. “What shall I return to the Lord/ for all his goodness to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation/ and call on the name of the Lord.” How can I pay God back for bailing me out when I really needed it? The next time I’m in trouble, I promise to go to him to bail me out again!

[11] James 1:17 works this point. “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” God won’t be good in a way you’ll like today, but then tomorrow be a little sketchy.

[12] As you know, I’m quoting Romans 8:28 to 38. But have you looked at that passage recently? I mean, just the last part is—to use a theological term—fricking amazing! “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? …No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Aren’t you glad you read this footnote?

[13] 1 Timothy 6:12

[14] “Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith.”

[15] “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

[16] Not the Religious Type: Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist, Tyndale 2008.

[17] In essays like Lewis’s “Myth Become Fact” in God in the Dock or J.R.R. Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories” in Tree and Leaf, along with passages from Lewis’s memoir Surprised by Joy.

[18] He first discusses this in 1949’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (super-important and yet, sadly, unreadable).

[19] He stole the term from Finnegan’s Wake. He was very into Joyce, whom, along with Picasso, he regarded as one of the great artistic examples of the hero he was talking about.

[20] Look, I completely believe in following Jesus with other people and I have, in fact, preached hundreds of sermons which—it seems to me—could not and would not bore any sentient human being! But if we’re looking to them for the kind of new information each week which will, in itself, keep our faith interesting, I think we’re barking up the wrong tree.

[21] “Fricking” being the euphemism of choice in this essay.

[22] This leaving-Eden-and-traveling-around-the-whole-world-until-you-reenter-it-from-the-rear perspective was suggested by M. Scott Peck in Further Along the Road Less Traveled: The Unending Journey Towards Spiritual Growth.

[23] One of my novels—not one of these two!—did get a boutique publication, but that’s another story.

[24] Proverbs 26:2

[25] Matthew 7:1