Should faith have ‘crumple zones’ and ‘safety cells’?

There was a time when cars were build with rigid chassis which ran from one end to the other, with the bumper fitted on either end. The logic of this was that, if the car crashed into anything, surely it would make sense to build the car as strong as possible, so that it would protect the passengers from the impact. It turned out that this logic was exactly the wrong way to go about it. With a rigid chassis, all the shock from the impact is transmitted to the whole car, causing serious injuries to the occupants.

It was realised quite early on that this was not the best way to build cars—but it took decades before change came. The idea of the crumple zone was first conceived and patented by an Austro-Hungarian engineer Béla Barényi (the ‘father of modern car safety’) in 1937, but it didn’t find its way into car design until 1959, and only became widespread in the 1970s and 80s. The idea is the opposite of the chassis; instead of having a rigid frame from one end to another, you actually create soft and flexible zones of the car at the front and rear (and possibly even on the sides), and in a crash these collapse, absorbing the energy of the impact. Meanwhile the passengers are kept safe in a rigid cell in the middle of the car; not only is this strong enough to protect them, it is at some distance from the point of impact, so that the energy has been dissipated and the passengers are saved from the shock of the impact.

What has all this got to do with the Christian life and discipleship?

I thought about crumple zones a couple of years ago after reading this honest and moving article written by Laura Turner, John Ortberg’s daughter, as she reflected on why she and her contemporaries who has been raised and nurtured in the Chicago mega-church Willow Creek ended up in such different places.

In high school, my friends and I were inseparable. We grew up in the same church with the same faith. How did we all drift so far apart?

But it is not just here that Turner’s experience was slightly detached from aspects of real life. She describes Willow Creek in these terms:

At Willow Creek, a mile-long driveway wound around a manmade lake where believers got baptized in the summer months, and in the spring it was littered with Canadian geese and their goslings. The parking lots were so big that I learned to drive there, on uninterrupted swaths of flat Midwestern bog.

This is not the experience of your average church in the UK, or even in the States! When we attended one of the first Willow Creek conferences where Bill Hybels was speaking in 1994, he mentioned in passing that he had a 60-foot yacht on Lake Michigan which he sailed with friends on a Saturday. It was true that this was comparatively modest for a megachurch pastor—but it felt a little removed for most of us in Anglican ministry!

Our teaching, in every area of life, needs to be tested from the beginning with the realities of life—and that is why experience in a different cultural context is often key to the growing of mature faith. Will what I have learnt in one context stand up to scrutiny in quite a different context?

2. Focus on the ‘why’ not just on the ‘what’

In the ministry of both Jesus and Paul, there is a consistent emphasis on understanding things, and not just doing what they are told. When Jesus saw the crowds, he ‘had compassion on them—so he taught them’ (Mark 6.34). Jesus did, of course, respond to the crowds in compassion by healing them and feeding them—but his compassion stirred by their lostness also meant that he healed and fed their understanding by teaching them about the kingdom of God.

This emphasis on understanding is also found all through Paul’s writings. Although he begins his first letter to the Corinthians by rejecting certain Greek idea of clever rhetoric and philosophy, he in fact deploys some sophisticated arguments on a range of issues, and wants the Corinthians to fully understand:

Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your understanding be perfect (1 Cor 14.20)

Paul is here using the language of perfection, teleios, that we find in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect’. In the opening of his letter to the Philippians, Paul has a similar emphasis on understanding:

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight,  so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,  filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. (Phil 1.9–11)

Paul doesn’t just rebuke the Corinthians for their divisions; he explains that it is God who gives the growth, so individual leaders are not that important. He doesn’t just urge sexual purity; he explains why the bodily resurrection might shape our thinking. He doesn’t just tell them to allow all to participate; he roots it in the practice and purpose of the Holy Spirit in giving gifts to the church—and so on. It makes us feel that Paul’s letters are complex and demanding (and I suspect his first readers/hearers felt the same!) but it models a pastoral approach to the development of mature discipleship.

3. Encourage the asking of questions, not the acceptance of formulas

When we were at the conference in 1994, Hybels was teaching about fruitful evangelism, and he shared with us his formula:

Bill Hybels says it boils down to a simple equation so for all you algebra nuts here it is:

HP + CP + CC = MI

It is that simple, so we can all go home now and the church should grow from here. Well maybe we should put this formula to work.

You know what? It isn’t actually that simple! There is plenty of wisdom in this formula, and it has an explanation that is rooted in the teaching of Jesus:

HP simply stand for HIGH POTENCY, it means being a good example. It means letting your light shine brightly throughout your everyday life. It means understanding that those who live in darkness are attracted to light, so you need to be that light, not a flickering candle. Lose your temper and curse in public, you just lost some wattage. Pass judgment on people in town with others, your light is getting dimmer. Get involved in gossip about your neighbors, you become a candle flickering in the wind. We need to be a HIGH POTENCY light for the world.

CP – stands for close proximity. This simply means, being a shining light only at your house is doing nothing for the expansion of the kingdom.

CC – stands for clear communication…

These things are good—but I remember thinking, as I came away from these teaching sessions, ‘This is a formula’. Sometimes formulas, summary sayings, and helpful alliteration are good to enable people to remember things. But formulas are not real life, and they often close down the possibility of asking questions, like ‘Does this really work?’ and ‘What if it goes wrong?’ For many people, it is asking questions of exploration that really enable them to learn.

In a plenary session, I asked Bill Hybels what he did when there was a theological difference that opened up in the church. His reply was ‘We take the question to our theologian, Gilbert Bilezikian, and he tells us the answer’. That sounded like a great way to hold together a theologically homogenous church—but it did not strike me as the most robust way to deal with questions in the long term.

4. Offer a secure ‘cell’ of central belief

Crumple zones in cars only work to protect the passengers if they also contain a strong safety cell as a complement. For some unknown reason, my parents once bought an Austin Allegro, complete with its bizarre square steering wheel. The Allegro was great in terms of its crumple zones—it would collapse quite happily at the slightest impact. Unfortunately it didn’t have an effective safety cell, and was notorious for dropping the engine into the lap of the front passengers in an accident. (I am glad to say we never learnt that from our own experience!)

This, for me, is a model of what ‘progressive’ Christianity is like. There are plenty of crumple zones around—you can ask questions about anything and everything. But where is the safety cell of core Christian belief? Very often it is not there, and that is why you often find people making the journey from traditional faith, to progressive faith, to lack of faith. Something similar happens for those shaped by Fowler’s model of ‘stages of faith’, where greater maturity seems to be associated with a greater ability to ask questions and a reduction of any kind of certainty. Apart from the practical problems with this model, it leads you to expect that the person who modelled the greatest maturity of faith, Jesus, would be someone who was certain of nothing—which hardly accords with his depiction in the gospels.

We build a ‘safety cell’ by inducting ourselves and others into the historic core of the Christian faith, for example by saying (and teaching on) the Creeds. Someone commented on Facebook last week: ‘We recited the creed this week, something we don’t normally do. It had an interesting effect; perhaps we ought to do it more often.’ Perhaps indeed. It seems to me that one of the major structural and strategic weaknesses in all forms of ’emerging church’ is the failure to attach the flexibility of form and context of ‘church’ to the solid safety cell of creedal confession.

5. Model patient enquiry in community. 

If we are going to develop a strong safety cell, but develop these ‘crumple zones’ where we can question and challenge, then we are going to need to find a way of sustaining faith in community whilst questions are being resolved—and the bigger the questions, the more patience we are going to need. I have been struck by Paul’s explication of the nature of love, which begins ‘Love it patient’. What does that then mean for our love of God? In an instant world, are we prepared to be patient with God as we seek answers to difficult questions?

A large part of that patience is delivered by a faith community that creates space for questions, and maintains relational fidelity, whilst also offering the safety cell of creedal belief.

However we do it, we need to nurture ourselves and others so that we all grow a faith that can cope with the challenges that life throws at us.

(First published in 2019.)

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

102 thoughts on “Should faith have ‘crumple zones’ and ‘safety cells’?”

  1. Thank you for this helpful piece. (Although I’m sure Willow Creek isn’t the worst mega-church. I’m prejudiced against the very concept of a mega-church.)
    The tragic suicide of people like Laurie does indeed give rise to many questions, among which is one I am grappling with: what on earth do we mean by describing God as Faithful? Was not Laurie tested beyond her strength, contrary to the promise in 1 Cor 10:13? What about God’s promises to the Israelites to give them a secure future forever, and establish the Levitical priesthood forever?
    The standard answer is that these promises are fulfilled in Christ, but even though I’m not Jewish, that doesn’t make sense to me.
    For this and other reasons, I try to stand within the “rigid cell” of the creeds, (Apostolic and Nicene) as you suggest, which thankfully say nothing about Biblical inerrancy and very little about the church.

    • Thanks Penny. You needn’t be prejudiced against mega-churches. I attended The Rock in San Diego, and they were doing a great job of teaching, discipling, and serving the community.

      The question of 1 Cor 10.13 is an interesting one—and probably needs an article on its own. But I think my immediate response would be: God calls us to the kind of dynamic of faith that I set out, and neither an ‘all or nothing’ rigidity, or a ‘question everything’ sweep-all-before-you approach. In particular, Paul had a fundamentally communal understanding of faith that is often absent in the contemporary church.

      An online friend of mine is currently facing the death in a climbing accident of his 20-year-old son. His testimony about being broken hearted, and yet still having trust in God, is remarkable.

      As I have pointed out elsewhere, God is faithful to his promises, but they are all transformed in Jesus. We are incorporated into Israel, and our secure dwelling place is in Jesus. And we too are now that kingdom of priests.

      The creeds are a summary of biblical teaching, so they assume the trustworthiness of Scripture—they are not detached from it, nor do they stand separate from it. We only know what we know in the creeds because that is what scripture teaches.

      • Francis Chan founded a megachurch in California but gave it up to start a housechurch movement. In his own words,

        Cornerstone was by most standards a pretty loving church. But next to the example of the early church in the New Testament, it just fell flat. Jesus said the world would know us by our love (John 13:35)… we gathered some of our friends into our home and started a church… It has been five years now… peace has come from knowing God more deeply than ever. While I believe I have loved Jesus for years, it feels totally different now. Lately I have become obsessed with knowing and experiencing Him. The strangest part about this season of my life is that my intimacy with God has been directly tied to my connection with the Church. This is really weird for me because for years, I felt closest to God when I was away from people and alone in my prayer room. For the first time in my life, I actually feel closer to God while praying alongside my church family! It’s as if I can sense His actual presence in the room with us. It makes me want to stay in a room with them all because I want to get as close to Jesus as possible – Letters to the Church, ch. 1.

        • ‘ But next to the example of the early church in the New Testament, it just fell flat.’

          But that applies to quite a few smaller churches too. It comes down to the people – are they loving or not. My experience is often not particularly.

          • It is worth reading Chan on how he came to realise that he, not Jesus Christ, was the central personality at Cornerstone, and that this was unavoidable given its megachurch structure.

      • Willow Creek suffered from the problems many mega-churches suffer from – leaders who are unaccountable. Bill Hybels resigned because of issues. How often is this the story of big churches or even small churches ruled by one man. It is a recipe for spiritual disaster,

    • The man who married my wife and me committed suicide. He was a church elder, a godly man with teenage children. I knew him well and was deeply shocked. There is a chill that I think most feel who knew the person and a deep sense of sorrow.

      Suicide, I guess has a number of reasons, but despair seems a common one. It is not depression or fear etc that lead to suicide as much as despair that these will not pass. There seems to be no way out. Views of the world become distorted.

      Why did God not stop my friend from killing himself? I’ve asked myself that often. I don’t really know. He seemed to be tried beyond what he could bear. But what if he had stopped for a moment and said – why am I so distressed I want to kill myself… God has promised he will not try me beyond what I can bear therefore I must be able to bear this.

      The person who kills the self has ceased to say ‘God is my Helper’. He is not believing any of the encouragements from God’s word that would enable him to get up and face another day. While we believe there is hope. Hope dies as faith dies.

      I am not considering here an extreme state of mind caused by mental illness that may be so disturbed it is no longer responsible. I do not think all suicides fit this category.

      • Im not so sure. It’s a sensitive topic but I wonder if anyone is genuinely considering suicide then they have already entered a mental illness state. Sadly such action not only leads to death but guilt for those left behind.


  2. A few decades ago I was needing to buy a car. I found this Vauxhall Nova with a boot. It seemed quite nice, although coloured an olive green. However, when checking out the engine I noticed that the engine bay was blue, although inside the boot you could see the original colour which matched the outside. It was a cut-and-shut. Two cars had zones which had crumpled and the good halves welded together. However, it is well known that these are dangerous.

    That’s the problem with crumple zones – you cannot uncrumple them.

    (Can you think of something for which this is a metaphor?)

  3. There may be many root reasons for suicide but I suspect a major practical cause is a failure to talk to someone about your thoughts and feelings. Talking (in a controlled way) helps to relieve some of the thoughts dominating the mind. Clearly speaking to a doctor is an important early step. (On the other hand too much talking and too much talking to others focuses on the problem, can enlarge it and leads to a. High dependence on others).

    My advice (remembering one size does not fit all) includes the following

    1. Aim to cultivate a deeper faith in God. Deep trauma means you have to dig deep.
    2. Find a Christian you can trust and tell him/her what is going on. Make sure it is someone competent/qualified to help.
    3 See a doctor. Spiritual and moral problems may in fact be emotional problems. Depression can seriously warp your thinking.
    4. Pray about your issues but not obsessively so that prayer becomes a form of worrying.
    5. Practice distraction techniques. It is important to get your thoughts off the issue that is gnawing and on to more uplifting things.
    6. Take exercise don’t sit and mould.
    7. Keep up friendships and (probably) be open about where you are at.
    8. Displace unbelieving thoughts with believing thoughts. This may mean reexamining some belief issues but it may mean simply the determination to change thoughts. Ie. I believe in the God I’ve met in Jesus (repeat),,, God is good… I can do all things through Christ… The son of God loved me… the blood of Jesus Christ God’s son cleanses me from all sin,,, etc.

    I guess lots of other things could be said. Here’s a final one to consider, I do not believe when someone commits suicide we should immediately be reassuring that they are in heaven because of having run well at one point. It is a mistake to give this assurance. There are a couple of reasons for this.
    1. Suicide is a catastrophic collapse of faith. We have no reason to assume the person is in heaven. They have not endured to the end. Only God knows how diminished their responsibility was.
    2. It is no kindness to the onlooker with depression perhaps contemplating suicide to hear that Christians who commit suicide go to heaven. This is the last message they need to hear.

    • John

      What does someone do when their experience of church is the main reason they are contemplating suicide? When abusers at church are in a senior position or are simply well liked, churches tend to close rank and isolate the victim. Adding “and you will go to hell” doesn’t really help when you are struggling to find a Christian you can trust.

      • Yes. A very difficult situation. I would hope they may feel able to discuss the situation with their GP.

        Giving the would-be suicide the inkling they may go from their trauma to heaven is a powerful incentive to suicide. The distressed person wants a way out of their trauma and a promise of heaven will be very attractive.

        Up until fairly recently churches would not have said someone who committed suicide was in heaven. At one time they would not have been buried in a church graveyard.

        • Yes, that’s a necessary step but it doesn’t resolve the tension of John’s “try harder” approach to spiritual despair. The next church could easily be operating along the same lines of maintaining a mere facade of loving, friendly Christians.

          • Hi Joe S

            Given the person struggling with depression and despair has tried some of the things I listed in a longer comment and given there is no immediate way to escape the situation ‘trying harder’ or better ‘trusting at a deeper level’ may be all that is available.

            Secular psychology is largely about trying to change your perception of reality. For a Christian when all avenues of situational hope seem closed the one area of hope that is available is looking to God. In the NT (and OT) in situations of hopelessness God’s people are called to trust. They are to fix their eyes upon Jesus. A old hymn said ‘looking ever to Jesus he will carry you through’.

            Most of us have never lived with really difficult situations. Te early Christians did. Many Christians in the world live with the daily threat of physical abuse and persecution. How do they survive? They must have learned to trust, deeply trust. I’m sure many struggle with depression but they hang on trusting.

            The only two people I can think of in the bible who took their own lives were Saul and Judas. It’s not encouraging company.

          • All I said was that (1) if somebody is in a church which is abusive to the point of inducing suicidal feelings then get out of it: (2) don’t give up on Jesus Christ; (3) His word tells us not to give up gathering together, so find another church. Can you deny any of those?

          • “Close family cultures do not engender despair.”

            Christopher I’m afraid that is just wrong and not supported by evidence. Mental illness – of which despair can be an awful and tragic symptom – is evident in close family cultures just as it is in other situations.

          • Christopher: your ludicrous generalisation does not make any sense.
            You said “Close family cultures do not engender despair.”
            Sadly, they can do. What you say is simply incorrect.

          • Understand ‘The tendency is strongly that…’. In a world that is not all or nothing, statistical differentials are precisely everything.

          • Statistics are indeed important. The statement ‘Close family cultures do not engender despair’ states a zero for the relevant statistic. And that is simply, and sadly, incorrect.

          • Why on earth would that matter when the differential was so very healthy in favour of close families? That is a real life dealbreaker; the other is hairsplitting. When we are speaking of averages we all use shorthand all the time.

            We have an elixir (or as close as) and you pay no attention to it because there is an apostrophe missing.

          • When we are speaking of averages we try not to ignore facts with vast generalisations.
            Abuse, domestic violence and so on mean that not every family are as close as we might like. That’s what the word sadly in my post means…

          • Which is only because there are so many people in the world that there will be instances of almost everything. To emphasise the atypical while simultaneously saying nothing of the typical is the very essence of bias. And where there is bias, there is a prior motivation that explains the bias. Bias and scholarship are inversely proportionate.

          • “Bias and scholarship are inversely proportionate.”
            Which is what I have been trying to say.

            Spend some on the outer city estates in the most deprived areas of the North East and the issues I have been idenityfying are, very sadly, not atypical at all.
            As my theological college Prinicpal used to say weekly to us, our image of God and view of life are different depending upon our status and geography. This was just after the publication of Faith in the City. It’s still true in an even more polarised country.

    • John, I really dont want this to develop into a discussion about Christians and suicide, but I do think your last two numbered points are separate and distinct. I dont think that this blog is an appropriate forum.
      Is (all) suicide a complete collapse of faith? I’m not sure that you can know that with any certainty.

    • God knows the future. Why would He save someone only to unsave them later? Bizarre. Thankfully God is merciful, including to those who can no longer cope with this life.


      • Peter

        The only faith that is authentic is the faith that perseveres. That’s the book of Hebrews, written to Christians who were beginning to experience persecution. There are no soft verses comforting those ready to give up. It is he that endures to the end that is saved.

        Again, there may well be depths of depression that remove responsibility for one’s actions, but only God knows this.

        I think we fail to grasp just how arduous and demanding the Bible reveals the faith is. There are lots of people who are like the seed that springs up with a flourish for a little time then something comes in and they lose their way… these have no true faith. The road to life is narrow… few find it. All the heroes of faith in Hebs 11 suffered for their faith. They kept believing in the face of the impossible. We are rather cosseted and have learned how to domesticate the cross.

  4. Geoff, I think we can say it is a collapse of faith but we cannot comment on how culpable it is. Only God knows the state of mind that leads to suicide. Only God knows how warped the mind is and how far culpability is diminished.

    A difficult subject without doubt.

  5. I think sometimes, so sadly, people take their lives because – in distressed states of mind, and feeling they are a burden to others – they come to a probably distorted position that it would be better for loved ones if they just died.

    In my nursing, I have known various cases where elderly people felt they were a burden to others, though in most cases by that stage they lacked the efficacy to do much about it.

    In other cases – for example family distress – a confused person may feel it was better for loved ones if they just no longer existed to cause them hurt.

    Of course, in practice, suicide often does grievous long-term psychological harm, and causes guilt, to those loved ones who remain.

    It’s all so sad. I don’t think there are ‘snap your finger’ solutions. Depression, for example, can at times seem like an endless tunnel of suffering. In most cases it isn’t, but it can seem that way at the time. Then you add the sad reality that in depression, there can be a sort of cascade, that overtakes the individual.

    In all this, and even when a person takes their lives, I believe God views it all with compassion and pity.

  6. Depression rises massively when family structures and community structures are unnecessarily disrupted. Ergo (because it is unnecessary, and plenty of cultures don’t disrupt them) do not disrupt them.

  7. I think faith can be vulnerable, if we place too much dependence on theory, and not enough emphasis on the core priority of love.

    I know that when I was in a position of most desperation, my hiding place became the knowledge that God loved me tenderly, even in situations of confusion and distress.

    And the other thing that helped was other people’s kindness.

    I guess it’s helpful to have personal relationship with God over time. That builds trust in relationship, and recognition of who God is. And that means a deep trust that God does love.

    We can’t know all the reasons why bad things happen to us or others. In the end, I believe it’s love that sees us through. Love dawns each day – as the song goes, ‘mercies new from day to day’. When we can’t ‘feel’ that… do we trust that? Can we find continuing love in other people, in kind acts of others, in encounters of our own, to ground us again in the kindness other people need? Faith is not always provable, and we can’t always see everything as it is in the bigger picture, but faith, surely, calls on that relationship of love.

  8. “I am always surprised when I read a book which begins ‘I used to hold the traditional understanding of sex and marriage until my son/friend/a couple in my church came out as gay’ ”

    I don’t find it surprising myself.

    Generalising, to avoid endless faff on the usual topic, don’t you think people’s faith evolves and grows *through* life experience?

    For example, in different ways, my faith and views and compassion have maybe deepened through life, as I’ve experienced bereavement, loss, personal failure, depression, and many other things.

    Once, my faith was rigid, brittle, and all boxed up for certain. I’d suggest that life experience can introduce crumple zones in the form of less rigidity, more openness, and uncertainties. Sometimes, life experience means learning through encounters that change our assumptions and rigidities.

    Faith is something that grows, opens up, through experience. We will have different views of how that works.

  9. I think there is a risk here of both moving away from Ian’s article and to a simple diagnosis of mental health illness and disorders. The range and causes and are far wider and more complex than are being put forward in the comments for self harm and suicide. They can include chemical imbalances, existential, spiritual, cultural, family, dual diagnosis, addiction, schizophrenia.
    Not all of it can be equated to lack of faith.
    But for mental health issues in church, I’m not sure that the reality of God in and through times of death, suffering, evil in a Fallen world is much on the preaching/teaching fellowship of contemporary church, human flourishing, agenda. Times when the Goodness of God is in the dock.

  10. People ‘committing suicide’ has been mentioned several times here. Can I please note that there has been a move away from this phrase. We commit murder, adultery, a burglary …. it is not helpful. Suicide is no longer crime and never should have been. Preferred ways of speaking of this tragedy would include those who have ‘ended’ or ‘taken their own lives’. Thanks.

    • David
      You are getting a little mixed up, it is suggested. Adultery isn’t a crime. Merely to use the word commit, doesn’t commit meaning to a crime. It can be a commitment to a plan of action.

    • The reasoning here is beyond me. D says ‘there has been a move away from this phrase’. So logically he thinks that if there is ‘a move away from good manners’ then that is a good thing. How is a move away a good thing rather than a neutral thing? It is this level of illogicality that should worry us.

      • Geoff and Chris. I do not know if you have immediate experience of this. I pray not. I have run pastoral training events on this subject. Those bereaved and supporting are asking for more sensitive language at this point. The word ‘commit’ in this particular, harrowed context is experienced as unhelpful and judging. I think their request needs listening too and respecting. That is good manners.

        • Nothing to do with my point. My point (to repeat) was that you implied that every time ‘there has been a move’ in a certain direction, that has to be a good thing. How obviously untrue can you get?

          • Christopher you are, as so often, making a vastly generalised point in reply to a very specific one. David is not at all saying what you suggest. He is pointing out something of a very important pastoral nature and the way we should modify our language to respect that. I wish to add my support to that request.

          • Exactly, I am. Because sometimes the context is too big to be seen, but provides the flaw in the argument. It is clear that the pastoral point was not the one I was addressing, and secondly that cannot be used as an excuse for not making sense.

          • But David makes very clear sense. He is asking that we listen to the experience of those who have lived through the horror of someone making attempts on their own life. He isn’t making a wider point.

          • Exactly. And the point which I was addressing was not this main point but a broader point which impinged on it.

          • Exactly? So you are agreeing with me?
            Christopher I’m afraid you are not making any sense at all. You were saying that David had a ‘level of illogicallity that should worry us’. Now you are saying that you had a broader point which impinged upon it. It doesn’t! You are making a point which is not connected to the point David was making at all.

          • It is connected to it as a broader context is connected. A context is called a context precisely because it is related. Otherwise it would not be a context.
            And secondly the broader context can reveal a flaw in the narrower picture.
            You cited a broader context in saying that every word of the biblical books was about salvation.

          • Ah so you are now at least stopping your suggestion that David was making a broader point with “this level of illogicality that should worry us.”
            As you can see, David was making a very specific point about those who end their own lives and those who support them.

            And nowhere did I say ‘every word’. What I said was that “The narrative is about salvation, as is the whole narrative of scripture.”
            I realise you take everything literally but surely you must understand that an individual word like ‘trees’ or ‘boat’ will be connected to other things depending upon the narrative. In the narrative you quoted previously, they were both connected to stories about salvation.

          • ‘I realise you take everything literally, but…’
            Yes, I won all my awards by taking everything literally. There is a careful unpacking of the literal/metaphorical question in ‘WATTTC?’. Why would you want to talk like a pantomime villain so consistently?

            The level of illogicality that should worry us was on a matter that you can identify by scrolling back. Namely: how the fact that something is a modern trend can possibly justify that thing. That logical misstep is never going to become any more or less worrying (or wrong).

          • “The level of illogicality that should worry us was on a matter that you can identify by scrolling back. Namely: how the fact that something is a modern trend can possibly justify that thing.”

            Which was not something that David said.

          • Yes he did – 23 July 9.29 a.m. ‘There has been a move away from that phrase’. That is irrelevant unless the move was warranted. But no arguments were presented that it was warranted. Which boils down to the logical error ‘All trends good.’.

          • Absolute nonsense Christopher. You can in no way extrapolate what you are suggesting from David’s initial post. He was making a particular comment about one specific area. There is no suggestion at all that all recent trends are positive.

          • But he did not say all trends were positive. He treated one trend as positive without presenting any evidence as to whether that trend was positive or negative. The principle or maxim on which that strategy was based was ‘This is the way the wind is blowing, so we can say QED.’. Which is obviously logically false.

          • Yes – a pastoral argument (or rather strategy) was advanced. My focus was on another point, though that impacted on the foundations of that strategy.

          • Christopher I am afraid you are talking complete rubbish.
            David clearly articulates what the trend has been and why it has been that way. He nowhere just assumes it must be good because it is a recent trend. You are just making that up.
            What he states is that the language in a particular area has changed for good pastoral reason. The evidence is the pastoral effects of changing our language to recognise what has happened in a more sensitive way.

            You seem to be suggesting that we shouldn’t change our language about, say, people of other ethnicity and colour just because it is ‘recent’. We changed our language in order to recognise an equality of humanity. And the same in the case David is supporting.

            Your focus is on an entirely unrelated point.

          • Then you do not understand my point. You are taking my point to be ‘recentness = bad’. My point is ”recentness (or otherwise) = irrelevant consideration”.

            If one has to make this chronological-snobbery point thousands of times to liberals and still be met with a blank look, it ranks liberals as people who cannot understand a point even when it is made a thousand times (ranking therefore lower than people who finally understand it after 10, 100 times. Given that I have often seen the equation between liberalism and cultural conformity, then this is not surprising.

          • Christopher you seem incapable of grasping the point here. Obviously you have simply read what you want to read here – which is something I notice you doing quite a lot.

            Recentness is an absolutely irrelevant consideration. I agree. David nowhere considers that the trend is recent as part of his argument. His argument is based solely on the pastoral effectiveness of the use of language. He notes that it is a recent change. But nowhere does his noting this translate to any relevance with the specific matter he is commenting upon.

            I am afraid that having to make this point to you a thousand times – as one has to with conservatives – will never change the fact that you only see arguments as you wish to see them, and not dispassionately.

          • Ian Paul – there may be a creative process going on here, where Andrew Godsall and Christopher Shell are writing a book entitled ‘New Perspectives on David Runcorn: What David Runcorn Really Said.’

            No disrespect to David – but the way Christopher and Andrew are pulling apart what he said (arguing about its meaning, nitpicking over grammar and context) is reminiscent of much New Testament scholarship.

  11. And in what are the preferred ways of speaking about committing (an act) of self harm – such as cutting arms and wrists (not illegal). Or attempted suicide?
    What are the preferred ways of dealing with it? Does it include sectioning under the Mental Health Act?
    Is committing (the act of) suicide, the ultimate self harm?

    • Geoff and Christopher. In the place of acute human pain and wounding the language we use to speak of it matters a very great deal – most especially to those most directly involved. That is why I contributed here concerning how we speak of suicide. I am grateful to others for exposing my unwitting pastoral insensitivity talking about this subject. That is why I shared here. I don’t really have anything more to add.

      • But the language we use communicates our worldview or what we think is accurate.
        You think it is a tool to communicate whatever is comforting.

      • David,
        I have had the “pastoral experience” of working into the secondary care mental health services, hospital and community, for a mental health charity.
        Within the last 3 years, a friend’s adult daughter commited an act of suicide, took her own life, killed herself. Grief from that one act was not diminished by the language used to describe it.
        Does it lessen any sense of shame, blame or guilt that may be felt by those who grieve? Or by those into whose care they were committed. As they seek to absorb, come to terms with reality of the manner of death.

        • Thanks Geoff. This issue of helpful and unhelpful terms/words has been debated widely for some years in the world of mental health care as well as agencies that support those who have lost loved ones and friends through suicide. Google a phrase like ‘avoiding the word committing suicide’ to find plenty of discussion that also addresses your questions about shame, blame, guilt. It is not universal but makes pastoral sense from my own experience. That’s all.

    • David and Andrew

      I would suggest that although the language is quite appropriate most would be unlikely to use it when speaking to someone who has known the suicide of a loved one. In such a situation most would be super-sensitive with language. We may avoid using the word suicide too. However, such extreme sensitivity need not be part of normal discourse. We must distinguish between the contexts of discourse. This is something we do all the time. I’d suggest it is a bad policy for the extremely sensitive context to dictate to every other context. This is increasing happening in society and it is not a good thing. It is banishing levels of emotional engagement and insisting the highly sensitive is the only appropriate. This does not increase emotional range, it limits it.

      • Indeed, John.
        In a pastoral setting a word would probably not even be used. The manner of death would be an unspoken given, as time would be dominated mostly by listening and supporting those grieving, not speaking. And people grieve in different ways.

  12. And should or shouldn’t the word suicide, be jarring, gut wrenchingly so, whereas preferred way speaking of taking one’s life can be seen little more than the ultimate expression of self determination, autonomy of human agency, so less grievious. Try telling that to those left behind.

  13. Rather than discussing Laurie’s tragic end, I think we need to consider how the Church might need to change so that whatever happened is less likely to.

    When I read the article by Laura Turner two things struck me. The first was that among the conversations following the taking of her life her best friend said, “if I’m her best friend, how come I didn’t notice?”

    So, I ask myself, was there something about the Church culture which made it hard for Laurie to admit and talk about what she was going through? Was there a culture which reinforced mask wearing? Were doubt and failure regarded as anathema? Perhaps Laurie realised that she was the one whom others regarded as the most ‘Christian’, and to admit doubt might adversely affect them. Has ‘success’ become an idol?

    What might be done to address this in our church life?

    One thing I think is good about Anglican liturgy is that the principal service on a Sunday is required to have penitential prayers. (This is honoured more in the breach than the observance in some places…) This puts in our weekly, even if not daily, practice acknowledgement of our falling short of the glory of God, and that this is true of all of us.

    Another wonderful resource is found in the Psalms. If one has the cycle of psalms, one encouters regularly the many which express deep lament, and then there are the deprecatory psalms. How often do we preach from the psalms which Brueggemann describes as ‘psalms of disorientation’ – but of course also exploring those of ‘reorientation’. How many of our worship songs draw on these psalms?

    Those we regard as ‘heroes’ of the faith, when we study them we see how deeply flawed they were. King David had more than one major failure in his life. So, how can we see him as “a man after God’s own heart?” But he was.

    (Perhaps with a church culture which pays attention to this kind of thing would be a place in which its leaders would also be able to acknowledge and seek help for their behaviours, before it becomes a scandal.)

    • My experience of church culture this morning is that evangelicals are too busy being shiny, happy people to notice anyone who might be slipping away. Prayer for anything that isn’t amazing and awesome is offered but it is performative – a formulaic display of Christian concern. Real support needs to found somewhere else.

      • I am sorry to hear that. I hope you can find somewhere which is a true spiritual home. But it is not true of evangelical churches as a whole. I don’t know where you live, but in my area it is evangelicals who have set up a very effective local counselling service, evangelicals who are most involved in practical help in the neighbourhood, and evangelicals who are doing more than any agency in working with the homeless.

  14. The other thing I noticed in Laura’s article were these:

    We become what we dwell on. And what we dwelt on in high school, what we breathed, was God’s goodness.

    [Laurie] had, at some point unknown to most of us, been introduced to a consuming doubt about the goodness of God.

    It seems to me that for them the goodness of God was their core. If this was their ‘safety cell’, it failed for Laurie. Is God not good? Sulely, He is good. Perhaps the problem is how that goodness is understood.

    In a talk a few years back, the CEO of Bible Society asked those present which verse was the one most frequently ‘given’ to someone. “John 3:16” said one. “No”. I put up my hand, “Jeremiah 29:11”. “Correct”.

    “I know the plans I have for you, plans for good and not for evil”. Then there is the first of the “Four Spiritual Laws”: do you know that God has a wonderful plan for your life?

    The problem that can come with the isolated use of phrases like this is that we have a distinct tendency to interpret them in our own terms. What do I think the good life is like? What do I think it means to prosper? That is what I should expect from God. God’s wonderful plan for Paul’s life included imprisonment, beatings and shipwreck – and the burden of his concern for all the churches.

    Something similar comes with the sentence “God loves you.” Since we see love in terms that what is loved is attractive, that means that I am attractive to God. God’s love for us is the surprising love for sinners.

    Perhaps a good church culture is one in which its leaders are not successful or attractive in worldly terms, but those who can speak of their own struggles but speak of God’s forgiveness and provision.

    • Im not sure God ‘having a plan’ for anyone’s life automatically means that plan will be fulfilled. Some here believe that an individual can be saved by God one day and unsaved the next. So much for a plan.

      • Who might they be, Peter?
        A book I loaned out years ago, was by RT Kendall, with the title Once Saved, Always Saved. Some find that offensive.
        There are different categories of sanctification and reward.

        • “There are different categories of sanctification and reward.”
          What? What on earth does this mean? There are different ‘levels’ in heaven? Seriously? Where do we read about the different categories and how do they work?

          • 1 Cor 3.12-15 – two options:
            (1) saved/rescued plus rewards in proportion to what has been built (legacy), as opposed to…
            (2) saved/rescued having built no legacy capable of lasting nor worthy of any reward. From 3.12 we get the concept of the Pyrrhic victory.
            This is not, as you will see, a detailed table of categories and levels of rewards. A whole theology has been built up of different rewards and crowns (the crown of life is different from the crown of righteousness, and various other crowns). Methinks this speaks of a focus on rewards, rubbing hands in glee.

          • Don’t have time to answer more fully but how about categories of salvation, justification, righteousness , sanctification, reward. And see Christopher’s comment.

          • “Methinks this speaks of a focus on rewards, rubbing hands in glee.”

            Methinks it’s an attempt to create a class system. You know, something like, those who went through the Iwerne process are worth a bit more than those who went to a secondary modern in Birmingham.

          • In that case, why would I be speaking against it, as a great fan of Iwerne?
            Of course, your scenario is entirely invented anyway.

          • Paul says we ALL will stand before the judgement seat of Christ. That means Christians. And he says the criteria for judgement will be what we have done. If that it is true and for the judgement to be meaningful, the results must be meaningful. That may imply the saved will be treated differently, eg given certain responsibilities others wont be given. If our idea of the next life is floating around on a cloud in heaven, then that doesnt make much sense. But if the next life will be on a renewed earth, with so much similar to now, that does make sense. It certainly seems the Apostles will hold certain positions based on their earthly life, so why would that not be extended to all the saved?

      • Peter

        My view is that someone who claims to be a believer and for a time lives as a believer but eventually falls away from faith and never recovers demonstrates that there was most probably no real life in the first place; certain faith continues.

        • John, I tend to agree but that is different from saying a genuine believer can lose their salvation as some say. I cant reconcile that with, for example, Paul saying when you receive the Holy Spirit, He acts as a down payment of what is to come. And I dont understand the argument that one is initially saved by God’s grace (unmerited love or however you wish to define it) but to keep saved it’s all up to you, which is what some effectively teach.


    • When the Towers Fall: A Prophecy of What Must Happen Soon pp 27-28.

      ‘Despite Scripture’s testimony to the contrary, we have a habit of non-contextual reading that writes Jewry out of history. When we pick out a verse such as, “I know the plans I have in mind for you, plans for well-being [shalom] and not evil, to give you a future and a hope,” and read this as God speaking to us, we are interpreting history as if the Jews, to whom God was actually speaking, ceased to exist after most of them rejected Christ. But in the same passage (Jer 29:11-15), God declares that he will not forsake his people. After their punishment he will bring them back to the land promised to them and, much later, gather all the Jews from every nation, not just Babylonia, and restore them permanently to the land. Those are his ‘plans’. ‘

      Thus the issue in respect of this verse in Jeremiah is primarily the misuse of Scripture: the doctrine of supersessionism. A reprehensible misinterpretation of OT prophecy in the interests of pseudo-spiritual egoism. In context God’s plans really are good, but they relate to Israel, and the good is long delayed.

      This is not to take away from your point that God’s wonderful plan for Paul’s life included imprisonment, beatings and shipwreck.

      • Steven,
        When I became a Christian, someone gave me the Jeremiah scripture. They were Charismatics not supersessionist. Neither are Messianic Jews.
        But I agree that was a misreading and out of context application- a one of all Christian life will be a one of complete healing and hunky-dory glory, along the lines of the *prosperity gospel*.
        Ultimately, Christians will prosper, sharing Christ’s glory with him, his presence and inheritance with him in life to come, eternal.

      • You can read this in a supersessionist way, which I agree is wrong.

        But the alternative way to read is to note that, being incorporated into Christ means that we are now part of the Israel of God, so the promise applies to as because we are now ‘Jews inwardly’ (Rom 2.29).

        • The alternative reading is precisely the supersessionist approach. The first rule of exegesis is to respect the context. It does not follow from the Gentile Church’s being grafted onto the vine of Israel that everything that God prophetically said to Israel now applies to the Gentile Church. Most of what God said to Jeremiah was negative: he was pronouncing disaster as a consequence of unfaithfulness (a logic we would do well to note). Those who favour the alternative reading cannot in good conscience cherry-pick.

          • God saves us from God. That is not supercessionist, is is the flow, the context of the whole canon of scripture. Jesus is Saviour, saving us from God and for God.
            Messianic Jews are not supercessionists.l nor subscribers to replacement theology.
            Look to Jesus, Steven. Take it up with him.

          • Which is perhaps why the tribulation at the climax of history involves distress for the church as the inheritor of prophesied judgements for Israel. At the moment at least I tend to see end-time trauma as belonging to Israel the nation and the church. But I admit I may well have this wrong.

          • Ian

            I know you’ll not agree (preferring a Preterist view) but I think the following does – Matt 24:15-28. I think Reve 7-18 describes a period at the end of history which is one of great trauma for the church. VH 7, 12, 13 specifically focus on the endtime persecution of God’s people; I remain I persuaded that the 422 months are other than literal. They align to closely with a similar time period referred to frequently in Daniel to be other than the same time.

          • John, if Matt 24.15–28 refers to some final time in history, then Jesus was deluded when he said ‘Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.’

            I have no idea why you would treat any number in Revelation as literal. What are your grounds for that? And John is clear in Rev 1.9 that he is *already* experiencing ‘tribulation’, as Paul was consistently in his preaching (see Acts 14.22).

          • Number in Revelation as literal:

            Each on its own merits?

            1 – 666 is literal, hence ‘psephizo’. Other things are calculated / counted, e.g. that ‘the time is near’.

            2 – ‘5 months’ seems obscure unless literal (and also can fit a known time frame).

            3 – ‘2 witnesses’ is not intended to refer to a group of 1, 3, 10 or any other number.

            4 – 12 apostles of the Lamb. If the 24 elders are the patriarchs and apostles, they too are precisely numbered.

            5 – 8 emperors is literal. Also: ‘An eighth’.
            In this connection – king references in Daniel, Sibyllines, 4 Ezra. AscIsa on Nero.

            6 – Conventionally and accurately enumerated: 4 winds, 2 wings of eagle, 2 horns of lamb.

            Of course, not everything that is not ‘literal’ (itself a tricky word sometimes) is ‘metaphorical’.

  15. David

    I agree with most probably all that you say. If you are young and life has been going well for you it is relatively easy to say ‘God is good’. It is when personal tragedy arises that it is much more difficult to say ‘God is good’. We have a very disneyesque view of the Christian life.

    • I dont think it’s disneyesque given that all Disney films, well at least the older ones, had tragedy and evil as core plot points!

    • John,
      Having attended the Keswick Convention and eatched it online, sometimes with catch-up, I have been greatly encouraged by Begg’s preach/teaching and Glynn Harrison’s seminars and lecture and came away with a number of books, re-enthused to start reading books again.

      One I didn’t get but will look out for was recommended by Presbyterian Minister David Gibson, in his sermon on Wednesday evening on Jesus in the storm with his disciples from Matthew. It was a sermon on that passage, the likes of which I’ve not read or heard before!

      One book I did buy is *Deeper* by Dane Ortlund in the Union series. It is written from a reformed position, not from the *deeper* sense on which Keswick has formerly been criticised.

      I’m not far into it, but one chapter is entitled, Despair. It is necessary not only in conversion! but also for Christian growth and maturity, perpetual repentance and faith. ” Both repentance and faith, hoowever, must never be viewd in isolation from Jesus himself. They are connectors to Christ. They are not “our contribution”
      Ortlund, here, quotes Jack Miller:
      “When you turn to Christ, you don’t have repentence alart from Christ, you just have Christ. Therefore don’t seek repentance or faith as such but seek Christ. When you have Christ you have repentance and faith. Beware of seeking an experience of repentance just seek an experience of Christ.”

      Orlund ends the chapter:” As you despair if yourself – agonising over the desolation wrought by your failures, your weaknesses, your inadequacies – let that despair take you way down deep into honesty with yourself. For there you will find a friend, the living Lord Jesus himself, who will startle you with his gentle goodness as you keave Self behind, in repentance, and bank on him afresh in faith.”

      Of course there is far more in the chapter, leading to this last paragraph.

      It starts with this: “There is a strange though consistent message throughout the Bible. We are told time and again that the way forward will feel like we are going backward.
      ” The Psalms tell us that those whose hearts are crushed by life are the people God is cloest to.
      ” Proverbs tells us it is to the liw and destitute that God shows favour.
      ” In Isiah we are surprised to learn that God dwells in two places: way up high in the glory of heaven, and way down low, with those void of self confidence and empty of themselves.
      (References are given)
      Why is this?…
      ” Fallen human beings enter into joy inly through the door of despair. Fullness can only be had through emptiness….
      It happens at conversion…” and then remains an ongoing rythm throughout the Christian life.”

      And between the beginning and last paragraph there is greater expansion of the theme.

      • Many thanks Geoff

        Yes, I was aware of Deeper which is a kind of follow up to his ‘Gentle and Lowly’ which was a bestseller. Thanks for these reflections. They are the kind I need to take to heart. And the kind many who struggle with despair need to take to heart.

        • John,
          I don’t see it as. follow-up, more as a theological emphasis in the *Union Series*, edited by Michael Reeves, the author of the first in the series (of two so far) * Fear and Trembling*.
          The chapter following Despair is entitled *Union*, sets a out in a little detail as the *Umbrella* doctrine of the New Testament which covers all others, *in Christ.*

  16. One of the most cheerful chaps in the Bible Qohelet (aka Ecclessiastes) doesn’t seem to me to be one of your ‘God has a wonderful plan for life’ types. In fact the impression you get from him is that he thinks that life is just s**t. Right at the end he doesn’t seem to really like God that much, thinks that life is pointless but concludes we must press on and make the best of it.

    Not the kind of guy you would want on your pastoral counselling team methinks.

    Yet, it is curious that this book is in our Bible and I think it is there because the Bible throughout reflects the gamut of human experience both good and bad and personally -I think it is there because God wishes us to know that he understands the depth of human despair and the kinds of deep questions that we ask about life.

    I have never been a fan of the ‘God has a wonderful plan for your life school ‘ and as Steven Robinson has pointed out Jer 29:11-15 is a misappropriation of scripture. Instead I think we would do better to heed Jesus’ words on the Sermon on the Mount in Matt 6 :28-34.

    I have no idea if tomorrow will bring good or evil for me, but the necessity of focusing on one day at a time and the trouble (or lack of it) contained within that day is enough for me to be concerned with, is what Jesus seems to be saying – not with everything that is going on either in the past which cannot be changed, or speculating about the future -which isn’t here yet.

    The older I get and as I sense my life is entering its twilight, the more important I see it is to do this.

    • Chris,
      You may be aware that David Gibson has written well, with a couple of books on Ecclesiastes. I have one – Destiny- learning to live by preparing to die. IVP (Highly recommend by Carson).
      He also took seminars on the book during the first week of the Keswick Convention, this year. I’ve yet to watch them on the Convention’s Youtube channel, catch up.

    • Chris,
      Having now watched David Gibson’s first seminar on Ecclesiastes, could it be commended. While you’ll have far greater familiarity with the book than I, in his extended overview of the book, (with a slow start introductory illustration) he brings out a fresh and, to me, distinct emphasis that has not been teased out in other preaching/teaching that I’ve heard, and I look forward to revisiting it to take notes, to compare with his book, and to watching the rest of the seminars.


Leave a comment