this post isn’t about rob bell… or hell :: conviction and humility

March 5, 2011

I’m not linking to a hundred blog posts.  I’m not starting another op-ed column.  Because this post isn’t about Rob Bell.  Or Hell.

If you haven’t seen for yourself what has the Christian subculture all stirred up, watch this…

So Rob Bell’s upcoming book may or may not suggest that there’s no Hell. Or nobody is in Hell.  Or they won’t be.  Or not for long.  We don’t know. The book comes out March 20 something.  But his publisher (HarperOne) says that Rob is (among other things)… “arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering.”

Justin Taylor responded.  John Piper tweeted.  Boom.

But this post isn’t about Rob Bell… or Hell. To the point then.

Culture shifts.  It swings like a pendulum. I often find myself looking at the pendulum of cultural ideology with a mix of fascination for the psychology of it all (like watching people you don’t know in the airport) and concern for souls (like watching a family member get on a plane to fly somewhere far away… maybe for a long time).  I carry a mix of modern-age cultural realism and heart-ache-inducing care for souls.  Always there. Watching culture swing.

Watching Rob Bell, whom this post isn’t about, I was reminded again… and then again by the Twitter explosion last Saturday… and again and again by a dozen and a half bloggers in rapid response…

One thing this current parabolic shift in Christian evangelical sub-culture has embraced that we can be sure of is… we can’t be sure of anything.

I don’t mean to use hyperbole.  We might embrace mystery.  Wonder.  We might say we just seek Jesus.  Or we want to live like Him.  But we don’t really want anyone to tell us what that means.

Relevant Magazine (giving voice to the twenty-something generation at the intersection of Christian faith and real life) just published their list of “50 ideas that changed everything.”  Number 19?  Yep.  “Nothing says FAITH like DOUBT.” Then they sucker-punched me in my email inbox with this excellent article about “Why Doubt isn’t a Dirty Word.”

One of the many blogs that was sent to me on the whole “Hell” debate, which this post isn’t about, was from thirty-something faith-life observer and Christian sub-culture Pocket-Guide author Jason Boyett, whose latest book is titled “O Me of Little Faith: True Confessions of a Spiritual Weakling.” (Which, by the way, I think you should buy for the cover art alone.  Genius.)

In the Christian realm of conversation “relativism” is frowned upon, even by those of us who have grown up steeped in post-millennial stew.  We know enough to reject “relative truth.”  Right? I mean… right?  I think the postmillennial babies that are now emerging (some pun intended) in the life of the Church as young adults believe that there are some things that are just unshakably true… if they are pressed.  But we aren’t supposed to press, as far as I can tell.

The truth is, doubt is cool right now.

In fact, doubt is seen as a sign of true humility, honest faith, open-mindedness, reasonableness, approachability.  Questions are hip. The guy this post isn’t focusing on asked 25 of them in his two and a half minute video above.  But that’s OK.  Questions make people think.  It’s just that while questions foster exploration of the possibilities, clear statements made with conviction don’t leave that kind of creative space.  Conviction communicates faith in absolutes. And absolutes are exclusive because they rule out other options.  And if you’re reading this right now, and that leaves a bad taste in your mouth… exclusive, absolute, clear-cut conviction… I’m asking the question today:  why is that?

Somehow, conviction has become equated with haughty self-righteousness and narrow-minded mean-spiritedness, pride, vulgar stubborn offensive…  conviction is a lesser value.

My heart breaks.

Who will write the book, “My Faith is Strong, and I Know in Whom I Believe”?  What has happened to the William Wallaces, crying “FREEDOM!” against the odds?  Is it no longer admirable to take a stand for a belief, or is it only admirable to take a stand for somebody else? I know, that’s a false dichotomy.  But it has some teeth.

I think the next generation Church would readily embrace the poor and broken and marginalized in our communities – take a stand for LOVE – and that is commendable.  New passion to be Jesus-with-skin-on in a way our parents often weren’t.  In a way I haven’t been.  God bless those who LOVE in Jesus name.

But will this generation also take a stand for TRUTH?  Is it admirable anymore to hold to ideals even when those ideals may be unpopular, or uncomfortable?

If someone you love is on a self-destructive path, what is the most loving thing to do?  Comfort does not equal compassion. the Bible isn’t clear about everything.  But many, many things are ringing with clarity and urgency.  There is a life and death reality that follows every soul, every heartbeat.  Even among the hostile and the apathetic.

Church! For Christ’s sake – decide what you believe!  Stand for it. Live it out.  Doubt is acceptable as a process – a pathway to further understanding.  But I don’t believe it is a virtue as a perpetual excuse to substitute personal experience for higher ideals.

Doubt may be the new faith, but I have greater respect for those who can humbly, respectfully, but unflinchingly demonstrate that they believe something to their core, and they are willing to rise or fall on that conviction.

Now to the passionate, to the men and women of conviction, the the truth-tellers and safeguards of Biblical inerrancy… please love people. It is rare to see someone stand for the Word with an iron will and the patience to engage in respectful discussion.  We have a responsibility to be Christ-like, which is impossible.  So I ask the Holy Spirit to keep shaping me, that I can be a man of great conviction and great humility.

There is this huge part of me that wants to tell you what I think about Rob Bell.  I know his book isn’t even out yet.  Certainly the world will be in a better place to have that discussion freely after four hundred bazillion of us buy his book on March twenty something.  Congratulations HarperOne.  There’s this part of me that wants to talk about hell – about the hundreds of references to this place of darkness and pain and fire spoken of in plain language in the Bible from cover to cover – and laced through Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom like a stubborn thread… making people uncomfortable.

But this post isn’t about Rob Bell… or Hell.

It’s about the value of CONVICTION.  And the necessity of HUMILITY.

UPDATE: A reader reminded me of the connection to another post that touches on the topic of speaking with conviction. If you’re curious, and you want a good laugh, check out this VIDEO and a few thoughts that follow… >> i believe, like, you know? :: in defense of the declarative voice

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Psalm 24:7 & Luke 10:42 >> Like David, and Mary, I'm in pursuit of my one thing. I'm the Pastor at St. Olaf Lutheran Church in Montgomery, IL. Pastor, teacher, writer, communicator, designer, and drummer. I definitely got the better deal in my marriage to Amy. And I couldn't be any more proud of my five amazing boys. Deeply grateful.

30 responses to this post isn’t about rob bell… or hell :: conviction and humility

  1. Well said, I’m giving Rob Bell the benefit of the doubt, but well said.

    • Thanks Jeff. I’m perhaps a little less confident that Rob’s theological assertions in “Love Wins” will line up with my Biblical convictions, but I will certainly read it before passing any sweeping judgement. One thing we can be certain of… he’s going to sell a bajillion copies. Wowza.

      Thanks for checking in, man. God bless.

  2. If I had lived 21 generations ago, I would’ve been William Wallace’s cousin. And my father would’ve been the one who took him in when his family died. 🙂

    • Cool! I love that. My knowledge of the family history goes back about four generations. I’m impressed. 🙂

      • We have ridiculously detailed family history, especially on my mom’s side. Relatives that came over on the Mayflower, William Wallace, scottish kings… we even have a family crest. 🙂 Love genealogies!

        I’ve been rereading this blog and pondering it since it feels like it has a lot to do with the long fb conversation that ensued over the past week or so. Lots to think about.

        I would like to state right now that I was, until today, absolutely unaware that doubt was cool. I’ve never heard of Relevant, haven’t read much by anyone emergent. Never heard much about doubt one way or another. Other than that, and the William Wallace thing, I’m shutting up. 😛

  3. Excellent post, Josh. Excellent.

    Wishy-washy convictions, and embracing doubt as noble, stand on shifting sand in my opinion. We need to be a generation that is bold — I think of the hymns that I sang as a child (Onward Christian Soldiers, Stand Up, Stand Up For Jesus, My Hope is Built on Nothing Less, A Mighty Fortress) and ponder how those words are NOT doubtful, but rather convicted and sure.

    Society seems fickle. I certainly don’t want to translate that mushy-ness onto my belief. Thank you for reminding me once again to Stand Up For Jesus. And to be bold. And that boldness? Comes from (just as you stated) surrendering to my loving Savior in heaven.


    • Rachel… so funny that you bring up the hymns of our youth. In Sem now I’m resinging many of these, and they are feeding me. I love the clear proclamation of the truth. I do wince sometimes when the text of the third verse sings about the “heathen” or the “pagan horde.” I mean, on one hand, let’s call a spade a spade, I suppose. But you’ve gotta believe that the dudes that penned that text weren’t very “seeker-sensitive.” Ha!

      You’re right. Society is fickle. But the pendulum swings. I remember in the 1990’s (way way back then…) when I was a voice for “freedom of expression” and “embracing mystery and wonder and awe” in our worship. I don’t use that language nearly as much anymore – not because I don’t see it’s value in worship. But because this culture has no problem with freedom of expression and being in awe of God. What this culture has issues with is concrete truth about Him. The pendulum swings. Ironically, now I find myself standing in the center again, calling the free-thinkers back to the Word. Back to some structure. Interesting.

      So much of life is lived in tension between two ideals. Lead, serve. First shall be last. Die to live. Be a slave to Christ and free in Christ. Justice and Love. Weak and strong. Conviction and humility.

      • I love the analogy of the pendulum. I think most times when one sits on either side of the outer arc it can be an extreme point of view. Best to try to be centered. But centering requires tension, as the natural tendencies of a pendulum are to swing. Even better to be centered in truth. And that truth can only come from Jesus and His Word. I think it’s easy to slip into reading others opinions and commentaries. Books, authors, speakers, etc… are great — but as I tell my kids they must always be matched up with the Word.

        As far as the words in those hymns — I’m with ya. Probably not the most seeker sensitive words. Yet, balanced in those words are words of profound truth. I love verse three of “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus.” It states: Stand Up, stand up for Jesus, Stand onHis strength alone; The arm of flesh will fail you, Ye dare not trust your own. Put on the Gospel armor, Each piece put on with prayer; Where duty calls, or danger, Be never wanting there.

        Everything. Every speaker, every thought must be brought back to the truth. This post reminds me to look at where the pendulum is and compare it to Him.

        Always blessed by your writing.

        • Thanks much, friend. Likewise. Bless your family. See you in the morning!

        • One last thing….I think it is possible to be convicted and full of love and grace. That’s the challenge. As soon as the conviction becomes about self, and one’s agenda, then it can be easy to begin to lose love and compassion. And remaining in love means remaining in Him. The beauty of convictions is that often they are just portrayed through one’s life — there doesn’t need to be this onslaught of words trying to convince others of one’s point of view. I’ve found that the words, at least in my life, typically come later.

          Just thought I’d add one more little thought….:)

  4. Well said Josh. I agree with the part of standing for something, but doing it with compassion for the seeking. I had an awesome experience two weeks ago. A young lady phoned and wanted to ask some questions, we met for coffee at the local Tim Horton’s (Canadian version of Caribou Coffee). She had been involved in Yoga deeply and it had unsettled her to her core. She had a lot of great questions and we spent two hours just discussing her questions, one of the hi lights of my life was seeing her in church the next Sunday. I am working hard on standing firm, but bending with compassion for the questioning.

    Well said!

    • Jason – thanks so much for getting in on the conversation here. Very cool story. I’ll be praying for her. Why is it that so often the churches that have such conviction for the truth are lousy at loving people? And why is it that so often the churches that excel at loving people are lousy at teaching the truth of the Word with clarity and resolute authority?

      I’m in Seminary now. I hope when I am pastoring a parish some day, our congregation will be known as a clearly Biblically grounded church, AND that we LOVE DEEP. It’s awesome that you took time to just answer questions. That will move the Kingdom forward, brother.

      God bless, and thanks again.

  5. Good post. That is a struggle–to hold things with conviction, but have the humility to not shut people out. (It would be a lot easier if other people just saw life the way I saw it).

    Here’s some comic relief that’s germane to the post. I just saw it this week:

    • Hey Dave. Thanks a ton for this. 🙂 I agree man… if everyone thought the way I did, this whole gig would be so much smoother. Except that we wouldn’t have computers or smartphones or maybe electricity. I’m really not into math.

      I love this Taylor Mali piece. If you want to see a very cool video graphic based on this performance, I blogged it and posted this last year. You can see it here >

      Totally, like, awesome, you know?

      Dave, this was a great connection – I hadn’t thought of it. I think I’m updating my post above to include this link. Booyah.

      God bless.

  6. Hey bro, this is fantastic. Best commentary on the whole Bell situation I’ve seen so far (although I haven’t really looked too far ;-)), and done in a way that doesn’t foster the vicious gossip that’s been rampant with the whole thing.

    I pray that I can both never ever waver from my convictions and love those I disagree with “with great humility.” Excellent, excellent, excellent thoughts.

    • Thanks brother Ryan! But… this post isn’t about Rob Bell. *winky face. winky face.*

      God bless you and the fam and your ministry. 🙂 High-five Pastor Wade for me.

  7. Great post. Reminds me of Piper’s chapter in “Brothers We Are Not Professionals” entitled “don’t confuse uncertainty with humility.” People are famished to see someone have the guts to live by conviction. For example, despite some mocking of chastity, it seems that most were impressed this week when byu stuck to their honor code. Thanks for the post.

    • Thanks Wade. I want my kids to see their dad live by his convictions. That will be a true test of character. God help me be who I say I am.

      Please greet your bride. Oh, and you should be receiving a high-five from Ryan on my behalf shortly. Bless you guys and your church family, too. Let me know if you’d have any room for a lowly intern out there in a couple of years. 🙂

  8. Great post, Josh. Good stuff to consider. I’ve been wrestling through this since I began my studies at Bethel 3+ years ago. I hunger to be a man that holds AND speaks truth with humble confidence while walking in a spirit of love towards others, even others who believe differently than I do.

    To me, this is one of life’s hardest challenges. Holding conviction while pursuing relationship with those who hold different convictions.

    Jesus, FULL of grace AND truth. He is the one I seek to imitate, to follow.

    It is true. The pendulum has swung towards a stronger sense of ambiguity, uncertainty, and questing within the culture, within the Church over the last 10-15 years. I think it has swung for good reason in some respects. Away from some unhealthy postures within the Church. There is some good in that shift. There is also some danger in it too. The word you share is a good one, Josh.

    I continue to pray for balance. A way that doesn’t just live out humility and grace, but also courage and truth. A third way. I want to be filled with a spirit of understanding, a spirit of wisdom, a spirit of discernment, FULLY filled by the Spirit of God.

    I continue to be challenged by the words of God in Isaiah 66:2b – “This is the one I esteem. One who is humble, broken and trembles at my Word.”

    I continue to be thankful for the ways that you challenge and stir my thinking, Josh.

    Love you dude.

    • Ben. Your words are wise and life-giving. Thanks for getting in on the conversation here. I also see that there is some up-side to the “doubt is OK” discussion. The RELEVANT Magazine article I linked to in my post up yonder has some insight about the value of being honest, and how unhealthy it is to “fake it” in Christian culture, pretending you’ve got stuff all figured out. I think it is healthy for the church to allow people to be honest, and to process questions about faith and even wrestle with doubt at their own pace, and with steady doses of encouragement, grace, and the Word.

      I could easily see a day when I’ll be writing (and preaching) to a hyper-confident, maybe arrogant Christian sub-culture, and in that day I’ll be calling for humility and grace for those who doubt. But it doesn’t seem like that is lacking much in the next generation church. They seem long on grace (good!), long on questions (neither good nor bad), and short on answers (which I think is actually bad… because so many of those answers are available in the Word.)

      I can just hear your dad Ben… prayer, the Holy Spirit, and the life-giving Word of God. We can never have enough.

      Thank you for the Isaiah 66:2b reference. I want to be that one, as well.

      Thanks for thinking these things through with me. You are a brother in every sense of that word. God bless.

  9. The more I think about it, the more I think the pendulum is already swinging back toward Piper’s brand of Christianity. Young, Restless and Reformed anyone? Among my friends and the kids at bschool I interact with the push is for more rules and more certainty and more orthodoxy and “feelings” are out of fashion. Just thought I would throw that different generational perspective out there… 😛

    • EXcellent thoughts Rach. Thanks for chiming in again. I think you are largely right when it comes to the more conservative AFLC circles and the students at AFLBS. I think the draw of orthodoxy right now may actually be being fed to some degree by the emergents and liberal rationalistic theology that has left the Church to “feel and experience” JEsus and His Kingdom – even without understanding it in any concrete way. I still think that lack of willingness to stand for the truth of the Bible with clarity and conviction is a major league issue among the twenty and thirty somethings across the American evangelical landscape… but I do think you’re right about those in our own back yard.

      Bless you and the fam. Thanks again for your thoughts here, friend.

  10. How about something less lengthy? I agree with Rob Bell with all my heart… and I might be wrong.

    • I like it. Mine might read, “Pretty sure I’m parting ways with Rob Bell on this one… and I might be wrong.”

      Either way, thanks for checking in Craig. God bless.

  11. I read this post days ago, and I’ve been wanting to comment since, but I fear I’m going to come off sounding harsh. Rob Bell is one of these writers (the other who comes immediately to mind is Donald Miller) whose work only seems revolutionary if you haven’t actually thought critically about your faith and values before. I remember when Blue Like Jazz was first published when I was in college and it seemed like everybody on campus (I went to a Christian college) read it and acted like it was the most revolutionary thing ever. So I borrowed a copy and read it, and I was basically like, so what? Every issue he brings up, every struggle he had with himself, every problem he has with church or faith, was something I’d thought about 1000 times before and struggled with myself already. If you need someone like that to tell you that you should ask questions (and I know you’re kinda hard on questions in this post too, which I’m getting to) of yourself about why you believe or don’t believe what you do, then fine, and I guess I shouldn’t be so hard on these guys for people like that. But anyway, since this post wasn’t about Rob Bell, really, I’ll get off him 🙂 (And, yes, I’ll probably buy his book anyway, so he’ll get my money, which I’m sure is what he really cares about anyway.)

    Anyway, my real point is that, I think questioning, doubting, whatever, is the single most important driving force of humanity. Wanting to know something or asking if the way things are understood is correct is the way things are learned. It’s the basis of science and the reason we have any understanding of the physical world. It’s the reason we know the world isn’t flat and that the sun is the center of the universe. Someone questioned. Understanding is a dynamic process. I LOVED that it made mainstream news media outlets when astronomers declared a few years ago that Pluto wasn’t a planet anymore because it showed that science is dynamic. That when we understand more about something, we are better able to see where it fits into the big scheme of things.

    Now, of course I understand the principle of faith and that the whole point there is that you (the general you, not just Josh specifically) ARE sure that you know what you need to know about God and that you have your facts, beliefs, and values settled. But for people who aren’t sure, I fail to see how discouraging questioning could ever be a good evangelical tactic, and I was surprised you called it out the way you did. How is God going to reveal himself to people if they don’t ask questions, if they don’t doubt what they know now, if they don’t examine their beliefs and ideas. The way you posed this, it seems like you were only considering Christians who were questioning their own faith. What about seekers who are questioning their doubt? You have to have the questioning.

    Last thing because it came up, I too love the old hymns of the Christian church (partially because I was raised United Methodist and Charles Wesley was such a great hymn writer). When I was in college, we had required chapel, and the freshman had separate chapel from the upperclassmen. The upperclassmen chapel featured a lot of praise and worship music, bands, motivational type speakers, etc and was held in the big auditorium on campus. But, our campus president declared that freshman chapel would be in the actual chapel and we would use the old Baptist hymnal and have very traditional preaching for our chapel services because you needed to be well-steeped in the old traditions of the church before you embarked on making new ones. It was actually really cool.

    • Hey Ashley! So glad you found your way back here. I always appreciate your insight.

      This is an opportunity to clarify my point, because it is nuanced. My last post of any substance (because the Elmo video doesn’t really count) actually AFFIRMED believers who are struggling to understand their faith, and I encouraged people to ASK QUESTIONS… >>

      On its face these two posts could appear to be contradictory. “Ask questions! God’s big enough to handle it…” vs. “Doubt is cool right now… Questions are hip… but CONVICTION expresses faith in absolutes.” Well, there’s a reason for it all. I think about Jesus statement to the crowd as he talked to them in parables about the Kingdom of God and said “He who has ears, let him hear…” Some people have real deep honest questions about God. They need to hear the truth that God wants our honesty, not the facade that we have it all together and already know everything we need to know about Him. Those people need to hear sometimes that it is not a SIN to question God when we don’t understand.

      However, in this post I’m writing to another crowd. I do think it is “trendy” right now – especially in the 20-30 something crowd that has been steeped in postmodernism – to feel like everything needs constant reevaluation. The only absolute is that there are no absolutes. How can we really be sure of anything? And we need to understand the Bible in our modern context, because cultural norms continue to evolve, and therefore, we need to reexamine our thinking about what the Bible really says to us TODAY.

      I know that there is an undergirding presupposition that I am challenging in this post – and that presupposition on my part is that the Bible is perfect, unchanging, and God’s truth doesn’t shift with the culture. There are God-loving evangelicals who don’t buy that presupposition. That doesn’t mean they are bad or not Christians. It just means we don’t agree. So I start these conversations, to help people understand my point of view, and to challenge myself to think clearly about what matters most. Also, to build relationships and try to communicate God’s greatness and love in the process.

      So to those I encouraged to QUESTION, it is with the presupposiition that there are actual ANSWERS to to be found. To those I encouraged to stand firm on their convictions… it is because I believe that there are things worth standing firm on. And that to have conviction (not the unthinking, arrogant, conforntational, self-righteous kind, but the examined, humble, “but for the grace of God there go I” kind) is something to be respected.

      Thanks again Ashley. Hope you’ve been well. God bless.

  12. Josh–SOOOO glad you didn’t blog about Rob Bell…or hell…or his book, or John Piper’s tweet…or even mention those things. 🙂

    I really like that you point out the never-ending pendulum swings of culture–including the evangelical Christian sub-culture. Each one met with a new set of books, a new set of “heroes”, new mission statements, new church plants…all set on fixing the latest swing.

    I think Isaiah 40 paints a perfect picture of a message that is always relevant, and always pendulum swing-fixing. And, it doesn’t change–ever. Boldly proclaiming God’s truth. Isaiah is told to go on top of a mountain and herald the good news to the nations, telling them to behold their God. The message includes God’s sovereignty, his eternal glory, man’s weak and finite glory which is like grass, comfort from God, forgiveness of sin, and strength from God to soar like eagles.

    THAT’S good news. It’s relevant. It always applies, it’s always fitting, and always the right direction for any pendulum swing to swing to–and stay.

    I think if there were more books, mission statements, and people talking about and proclaiming God’s word, it would do us well, and maybe help rein in the swaying pendulums when they start moving. Jeremiah did this–God gave him everything to say. We learn in John 16 and 17 that Jesus only spoke the words the Father gave him, and Jesus said the same is true of the Holy Spirit.

    I don’t take many stands–mainly because I just don’t have many good ideas or helpful input on many things. But, I will stand on God’s word, and am becoming increasingly convinced of my need to join Jeremiah on top of a mountain, proclaim God’s word, and call people to behold their God!

    • Amen and Amen brother! Save some room on that moutain top for me!

      Thanks for adding your voice here, Tony. I’m with you. I want to find that unchanging, radically unbelievable but true God story that will never swing with the church culture. A true plumb line, and it’s full of joy and power.

      THAT is worth giving my life to.

      Take care, man. Thanks again.

  13. …btw, I’m NOT bashing books and church plants–we need them!