Do you feel like your church experience is useless, worthless, and empty? If it does, then it probably is, and it is not your fault. The Apostle Peter said,
You know that in the past you were living in a worthless way, a way passed down from the people who lived before you. But you were freed from that useless life of religion. Your freedom was paid for, not with something that ruins like gold or silver, but with the precious blood of Christ, who was like a pure and perfect lamb.
The Greek word ματαιας (mataias) is rendered in various ways, some of which may describe how you feel about church life in your experience. Over the years the words and phrases used to translate I Peter 1:18 have included:
- empty life
- futile ways
- a worthless way
- a useless way of life
- your vain way of living
- the futility of your traditional ways
- the empty folly of your traditional ways
- the aimless way of living which was handed down to you
For many Christians, church life is fine the way it is. They don’t want you to mess with it. They like it the way it is, and don’t feel kindly toward anyone who doesn’t.
But for others, all these descriptions of the religious way of life we have inherited really strike a chord. Church feels aimless, futile, useless, worthless, and empty. And for you, it is. It may not be for everyone, but it is for you.
If you feel this First Peter Dissatisfaction with your life, you may have thought to yourself,
- I need to try harder.
- I’m not holy enough.
- I’m expecting too much.
- I need to witness more.
- I’m not spiritual enough.
- I need to be more patient.
- Maybe I’m not really saved.
- I need more of the Holy Spirit.
- I’m not dedicated to God enough.
- I’d feel different if I had regular devotions.
Notice that all of these thoughts put the blame for your dissatisfaction on you. They all assume that the fault lies with you, that you need to somehow fix yourself in order to fit in with the hierarchy and structures that define your religious life.
If the religious way of life you have inherited is empty and futile, then the problem is not you, but the religious way of life. If you sense that the religious structure that has been passed down to you is worthless and useless, then you need to learn to trust your discernment. If you know in your heart that, for you, the faith tradition you’ve been saddled with is vain and aimless, it’s up to you accept that fact and act accordingly. You need to trust your inner voice no matter what arguments, blandishments, and fears would drown out that still, small voice of the Spirit.
The church tradition to which you belong is over 2,000 years old. The things you do and say, the building in which you sit and the way you sit, all these began evolving 500 years ago, 2,000 years ago. Most of your religious environment is the result of historical conflicts that no longer exist.
There is nothing sacred about habits, structures, and social expectations. In your life and experience, the only things of ultimate value are the people whom you are called to love. Only human beings created in the Imago Dei have sacred worth.
You are not obliged to conform to the useless religion passed down to you through your faith community. You were a slave to sin, and Christ paid for your freedom from slavery to religion with his own blood.
Your life is a journey you must travel with a deep consciousness of God. It cost God plenty to get you out of that dead-end, empty-headed life you grew up in. He paid with Christ’s sacred blood, you know. He died like an unblemished, sacrificial lamb.
Oh man, did I go through my own personal hell leaving the RC church. And I worked so hard to fix things! Instead of a day of rest it was just another day at the grind in a political system made up of very mortal men who plotzed along fat and happy, content with their system running on autopilot.
What a painful experience it was… my parents, my grandparents, aunts and uncles. That’s a lot of guilt on disenfranchising one’s self from all that history. Never mind the guilt which is one of the church’s other rocks (sorry bout that Peter.)
Spiritual greatness is not found “out there” in the big space and time of church buildings and scheduled events. The refiner’s fire purifies that out of us. It redirects our focus inward to where Christ resides. There, there is the church! In the hidden recesses of our souls.
I was reading a little introduction to existentialism last week, and Sartre wrote, “Hell is other people.”
I don’t think I’d go as far as he does, however. Loneliness is really painful, and I experience enough isolation just because of who I am–other people are essential, if problematical.
Leaving a “totalitarian” faith is the toughest. I’m thinking of Roman Catholicism, Latter Day Saints, Jehovah’s Witness, the Independent Baptist movement à la Bob Jones University. They certainly know how to coerce and manipulate. Not that there isn’t manipulation in every human interaction, but it’s a matter of degree.
Sorry your escape from Christendom was so painful. That really sucks. Keep on following Christ who lives within you, and remember to give those cups of cool water to anyone who thirsts.
The pain was all mine. I brought it on myself. Sometimes, that refiner’s fire has to burn a little longer to purify “pig iron.” But eventually, we get there.
So you’re saying that you brought the pain on yourself by staying too long? By not acting sooner?
Responding to: “So you’re saying that you brought the pain on yourself by staying too long? By not acting sooner?”
There is that period where we languish before committing ourselves to change. But once I began tearing up my roots I realized what lay before me. My church exodus was just one spoke in our “systems” crazed culture that I struggled with. I walked out of 21 years of teaching music in public school just as my income was starting to scale up. The arts have slowly decayed to nothing in small, poor public schools and school authorities and colleagues had become intolerable. I decided neither homicide or suicide were viable options! Other systems, the notoriety of locals surviving visits to our local hospital, skyrocketing health costs, a Main street that looks more deserted everyday. It’s a common story here in NY.
I’m tuned in to Revelations 17-20 and see Babylon on the world stage in these days of man’s integrating world economies and politics as the ultimate end times moment to date. There has never been a world wide singular financial collapse. Corruption has replaced environment and human health as the greatest problem facing the world, in a international poll taken up by the BBC. In my transition out of this world’s systems, I focus on God’s Promise and busy myself with permaculture practices, eliminating as many systems of the old structure as I can and sharing everything I know with anyone of like mind. So, life is good! Thank God! Amen!!
BTW, I’m happy to share links and info with your readers. Just email me and I’ll gladly connect.
Thank you Ron, for initiating a crucial question: “Is your church experience useless, worthless and empty?” could as easily be expressed as: “Is your church experience meaningless?”
When a particular cultural and linguistic frame of reference (e.g. the “church experience”) no longer correlates with, adequately describes or provides a functional vocabulary for our cognitive engagement with the world around us, other people and our own intra-personal life, that cultural and linguistic frame of reference can be said to be meaningless. In other words, it does not “mean” anything, in the sense of signifying knowable links between itself (i.e. the cultural and linguistic frame of reference) and our lived experience of reality. When that happens we are faced with four options.
Option 1: Abandon the cultural and linguistic frame of reference altogether and look for a cultural/linguistic milieu that does have meaning. This option is commonly that of someone who decides to be an atheist, or at least agnostic.
Option 2: Bifurcate our understanding of reality into “spiritual” and “material” and live two lives in parallel but unrelated universes of meaning, where the “spiritual” universe is accepted as essentially unknowable and accessed only “by faith”, where”faith” is implicitly defined as credulity. This is good, old fashioned “dualism”. This option is probably the most common – evidenced in the common distinction beween one’s “spiritual life” and “everyday life.” It is a recipe for cognitive dissonance and most likely accounts for most disillusionment with the church experience, since the human psyche resists dissonance.
Option 3: Defensively impose an embargo on any language or discourse that doesn’t “fit” the categories of the original cultural and linguistic frame of reference and doggedly apply those categories to all lived experience come what may. This is the option of religious fundamentalism and extremism of any kind (Christian, Muslim, Jewish etc) It does not provide those who choose it with cognitive tools to engage with a scientific world view or cultural diversity, resulting in defensiveness, insistence on conformity and social disaffection.
Option 4: Recognise that cultural and linguistic expressions of reality change over time. Note that lived experience of reality doesn’t change, but the ways it is described and the terms in which it is engaged with do. Once this recognition happens, it becomes possible to link the terms in which experienced reality was engaged with culturally and linguistically in the past with terms that are in common use today. An example of this process is the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation. The disadvantage in this option is that it requires fairly sophisticated thinking skills and a degree of comfort with nuance, ambiguity and uncertainty in the search for truth that is often beyond the patience or personal insecurities of the average Joe. It’s great advantage is that it helps to unlock the richness of cultural, philosophical, religious and spiritual traditions of the past, making them accessible to the present. While the average Joe may struggle a bit here, many who have chosen Option 1 above may have benefited by this option before “throwing the baby out with the bath water.”
If the church is to converse meaningfully with the growing demographic who choose Option 1 (Atheism, agnosticism) out of “quiet desperation”, it needs to promote Option 4 energetically.
Option 1: I’d say that this applies to people who either have never had a meaningful or life-changing experience in church, or who have no investment in the church as an organization.
Option 2: I would describe this bifurcated reality as one of “bad faith,” where no attempt is made to either live the life described in the Greek scriptures or acknowledge the tertiary priority of Institutional Structures and jettison them when they interfere with the priorities of scripture (justice, mutual edification, freedom in the Spirit, flexibility to follow the Spirit, etc.).
Option 3: This is the response of clergy and others whose status and security is functionally rooted in the structure as it is, denials notwithstanding. Factors of personality, temperament, and tolerance for ambiguity also factor in. You have, I know, acknowledged this, using different words.
Option 4: This prescription applies to intellectuals, but also to people who simply don’t have enough knowledge (and there are different varieties of knowledge) to take their tradition, their pastor, and their particular congregation with a grain of salt.
In my college work I learned that Christianity has believed and looked wildly different, depending on the century and the continent you’re looking at. Not everyone who has walked away from church has become an atheist or an agnostic, although many have.
So Tim, how are you promoting Option 4?
Many thanks for the comments. Option 4, recognising that cultural and linguistic expressions of reality change over time and linking them with current forms of expression, has been central to my aproach to preaching, teaching, writing and pastoral ministry for over fourty years. There’s been good news and bad news. The good news is that I have usually found that parishioners and theological students (I taught in a Seminary for some years) were stimulated and excited by the approach. “Gee, I never thought of it like that,” or, “Oh! so THAT’s what it means, of course I should have seen it,” being very common responses. The bad news is the pressure to lapse into the bifurcation of option 2 or the obscurantism of option 3 that is brought to bear by promoters of either “easy sell” or “turn or burn” religion. Regrettably, these two types are dime a dozen and love to claim a monopoly on “truth.” They can wear a feller out.
Ron, its been a bit since I visited the blog. The new color scheme is nice.
Help me with the Greek here. I’m not educated in the language. I looked through four or five different English translations and could not find the word “religious” in any of them. Is that The Message paraphrase you are using?
I’d never read this passage as speaking purely of “religion,” but in light of verse 14 and other places as speaking of a pre-Christian life of those in the churches in Asia Minor, who I assume were largely Gentile converts. This is an assumption that may be false, that is how I read it. The “futile” or “worthless” life was more than “church.”
I don’t really have a critique about your concern over dead and formal church religion. I’m just intrigued by your reading of 1 Peter here.
The key word contextually is πατροπαραδοτος (patroparadotos), which is rendered as father’s traditions, ancestral traditions, and other phrases I mentioned in the post.
Most of my readers come from the Christian tradition, so, for them, the way of life that they have inherited from their forefathers is the Christian religion. For Peter’s readers it would have been Judaism, or the Roman pantheon, or even spending every night in a tavern. But when we use language like “the traditions of our forefathers,” it sounds to me like there’s a respectable religious context in view.
I don’t equate “the traditions inherited from our forefathers” with “dead and formal church religion.” A person’s inheritance can be Assemblies or the Vineyard, Calvary Chapel or mainline. It doesn’t have to be Roman Catholic or Episcopal or independent Baptist or UMC. The particular group is not important, it’s the individual who is experiencing the inherited religion, whatever that religion is.
“Tradition” or “way of life” includes everything in the experience. No matter what the “ancestral traditions” (Knox) are, no matter what “the empty way of life” (NIV) is, if individuals feel that what they’re involved in is useless, empty, or aimless, they have some decisions to make. To endure in silent resignation for a while is understandable, but Christ purchased their freedom from bondage.
Ron, finding a church (tradition/congregation/denominational) home surely is a mysterious thing, and people do need to explore different traditions as the Spirit moves them. Two caveats:
1. You have written what I think of as a quintessentially American point of view. The only thing that exists in your blog is the completely autonomous individual. While you reference other human beings as having ‘sacred worth’, you leave them completely out of the decision, as if hierarchy, structure and tradition are the only determining factors, positively and negatively. If you’re not consulting with, challenging and being challenged by your brothers and sisters in Christ, then the problem may well be with you. If, though, you get no support at all for your own growth in Christ from those around you, it may well be time to shake the dust off your feet. My point is that American Christianity is already way too focused on the individual. Give the church a chance to be the church.
2. The implication of point 1 is that a deeper question remains: am I called to be with these people? If so, my spiritual growth and nourishment may require me to worship in two different places or traditions, which I see more and more people doing. Or at least I find those traditions (spiritual disciplines, spiritual guides, or theologians) that feed me, and so doing allow me to minister where God has put me..
Andy, when individuals have to decide about where to fellowship and minister, they have to make those decisions as individuals, no matter the social and familial pressures. When Francis of Assisi decided to turn his back on conventional society and religiosity and live in poverty, he made the decision as an individual. When Moses the Black gave up his career of marauding robbery and joined the monastic community, he made the decision as an individual.
In his Anchor Bible commentary on Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, R.B.Y. Scott says that the writers of Wisdom Literature “speak to and about men primarily as individuals. The authority to which they chiefly appeal is the disciplined intelligence and moral experience of good men.”
“…because of their independent approach, some of the Wisdom writers were able to raise ultimate philosophic and theological problems and discuss them without the restraints of orthodoxy.”
There is nothing “quintessentially American” about discussing the autonomous individual. Whether we are resisting the herd mentality or appeasing it, every person–clergy and laity alike–is busy sorting through their inner conflicts as an individual.
I NEVER thought it was “my fault” that my church experience was unfulfilling. I performed an experiment, because I was curious. I simply told everyone I met and everyone I knew who brought up the issue that I was Wiccan. That was all I had to do to get condemnation, hatred, bullying, slander, and beatings aplenty. I did this for twenty years before telling the remaining people in my life that they’d been the subject of an experiment – that I was and always HAD been Christian, and had simply been finding out whether people would ACT like Christians toward me, once they ‘found out’ I wasn’t.
I did this because I’ve ALWAYS felt alienated in Church. I was born with Grand Mal Epilepsy in a day and age when everyone, even some doctors, equated that disease with mental retardation.
I could’ve chosen gay. One guy did for a year. I could’ve chosen to dye my skin dark (others have done that) used dipilatories and falsies and pretended to be a woman, or any of a thousand other choices, just to see how people in general would act. I chose another religion for the subject of my experiment because … it was easy. People rarely visit, and when they do, what they see, mostly, is a huge personal library on a wide variety of subjects, including the Occult.
What happened? Pastor, first of all, you fell outside the time period of my study, so I’m sorry… I’d have loved to meet you, anytime prior to 2008. I was denied companionship, family, job opportunities, booted out of venues and homes… even told not to come back to a given AA meeting house. In all the twenty years, I was never ‘invited’ to Church with any family – though I DID find myself being ordered to go as a condition of employment by a friend of my late ex-wife.
I was beaten, verbally abused, kicked out of small towns.
In twenty years, I found ONE Christian who, when he ‘found out’ I was “Wiccan”, treated me decently – no differently than before he found out. Don’t get me wrong. People treated me decently when they found out I was “Wiccan” – but they were Atheists, Wiccans, Agnostics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists.
It wasn’t MY fault I felt alienated all those years in Church. I later talked with other people who’d been born with epilepsy or other disabilities, and they said the same things I had felt all those years. The sect DIDN’T matter. Pastors and priests, ministers and laity, all acted EXACTLY the same way toward me when they ‘found out’ I was “Wiccan”.
I hope this explains my attitude toward Churches and Organized Christianity. What I found out was that WELL OVER 99% of the people who call themselves “Christians” DO NOT FOLLOW Jesus’ instructions about the stranger, the ill, or the poor. And while I could have told them I was Christian, and avoided all that, I didn’t. I wanted to see how they treated strangers. I wanted to see if they were ‘Christian’, if the treatment I perceived getting because of my childhood epilepsy was true, or a figment of my imagination.
Duncan, you remind me of the brave philosopher Diogenes the Cynic, and Jesus, who stopped at nothing to provoke the scribes and Pharisees, inspiring their ire and wrath, forcing them to show their true colors. This is what you did, for twenty long years.
Paul wrote, In this way he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly, made a public spectacle of them, by his victory over them on the cross.
And if anyone wants to quibble over my respect for Duncan, I recommend they look at the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and at Søren Kierkegaard and Mother Teresa.
Thank you, Pastor.
Within a large denomination each community may express their faith and celebrates their worship differently. In the Anglican Church of Canada there are many different types of services, political views and ways we express ourselves. The beauty of this diversity is that within the faith, one can find a way of worship that is fulfilling. There’s also no requirement to leave one’s brain at the door, and there is nothing wrong with questioning if it’s right, or even if one still believes. At the same time there are core beliefs that everyone shares.
I think one of the big challenges for those who take on leadership roles in faith communities is how to communicate the good news to people, as well as find ways of expressing religion that will be meaningful for people. This means there’s no single way to go about it. Also, if a particular church isn’t a good fit there’s nothing wrong with helping a seeker find one that does fit. In those cases there has to be respect and love for the person and not a feeling like they are being asked to leave a community, something that requires discretion and tact, and should also come from the person who is finding it not a good fit.
Ron, of course individuals make decisions. But there’s no way you can omit the community (the people of Israel in the OT, the Body of Christ in the NT) from Biblical decision-making. It’s also true that many (not most, I would argue) of the saints we revere acted ‘on their own,’ in some sense. Relationships between individual Christians and their communities (congregations, denominations, pastors and other authorities) vary all over the map. Yet even the most extreme examples (you mention Moses the Egyptian) found it necessary to give their Community at least partial authority in their obedience to Christ. I’m reading Athanasius’ ‘Life of Anthony.’ Here was a Christian who repeatedly separated himself from his fellow Christians in order to pursue holiness and obedience; yet he repeatedly was called back to the monastic community to teach.
I think we’re arguing opposite ends of a dialectic which each of us lives out in our spiritual journey. Peace, Andy