“Later on in my ministry I faced another crisis that equally influenced the writing of my books. It came after I had already been a pastor for ten years in the U.S. and a missionary to Europe for five years. Throughout this period one thing was dinned into my thinking: ‘Why,’ I asked, ‘is there so little reality among orthodox evangelical Christians? Why is there so little beauty in the way Christians deal with one another?’
This led to doubt about the reality of spiritual things in my own life. I realized that although I had been studying for years and although I had been active in Christian ministry and although I was becoming more and more known in certain Christian circles, the reality of my own spiritual life was diminished. Somehow I had lost what I had when I first became a Christian.
For about two months I walked out in the Swiss mountains. When it rained, I walked in the old hayloft above our chalet. And as I prayed, I went all the way back to my agnosticism. With as much honesty as I could, I asked myself, ‘Was I right in becoming a Christian as a young man?’ The unreality I had found in the Christian world, the ugliness I saw in Christian relationships, the fact that Christians were not able to talk to twentieth-century people — all these made me ask, ‘Was I right?'”
Francis A. Schaeffer, “Why and how I write my books,” Eternity Magazine, March 1973.
I am grateful for Christian history. It shows me I am not alone, as I see how God has helped others. They make my own path a little less dark.
Some years ago I faced a crisis similar to Schaeffer’s. For the first time in my life I had to wonder, “Maybe I’ve been wrong all along. I thought God loved me. But maybe the truth is, God hates my guts. After all, look at the facts.” Certain experiences in Christian circles confronted me with realities so opposite to everything I had always believed that I had to rethink at a foundational level. I had to account, especially, for two things. One, Why isn’t God more real among us, more satisfying to us? Two, Why is there so little beauty, so much ugliness, in how we treat one another?
I came to see that these two problems are interrelated. There is a reason why people who believe God is love (1 John 4:7-8) treat one another with unlove. The reason is not a lack of biblical orthodoxy about God. The reason is a lack of personal reality with God. A theoretical God of love can be defended as a doctrinal concept, even while being denied as a practical reality. But unreality with God inevitably shows: “And when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will speak contemptuously against their king and their God” (Isaiah 8:21).
If our hearts are not filled with the love of God, mere orthodoxy about God cannot suffice. Indeed, our orthodoxy about God only intensifies our frustration and rage, because we are experiencing less than we know is real. But if our spiritual starvation diet goes undiagnosed and unremedied, we inevitably reveal our soul-deprivation toward God by the horrible ways we mistreat one another. That is when we orthodox Christians can become as harsh and brutal as a radical leftist. But our orthodoxy justifies it.
Reality with God and beauty with one another — these two dynamics always go together. When our churches and ministries lapse into a boring routine, empty deep within, but interrupted by occasional spasms of injury toward one another, we are revealing that our personal communion with God has eroded. And that isn’t enough to fill our souls. We will lash out.
The only remedy is to go back. In humility and honesty, we must retrace our steps and figure out how we departed from the Lord and how we have wronged others. We cannot hope for blessing in the future until we seek God’s forgiveness for the past, reengaging with him and reconciling with others, setting our feet back on the path of an honest walk with God, according to the gospel, moment-by-moment. Then we are free to face the future with expectancy.
The vertical and the horizontal are always inseparable. God himself has made it so.