Jim Palmer is a former pastor who has left not only the church but also the Christian faith, founding a humanist group in Nashville, Tennessee.
Palmer has become a widely popular humanist who speaks freely about his time leading the largest Christian church in America and about two experiences that shattered his faith.
I certainly have no criticism of Palmer, and I do not feel any great need to zealously defend the Christian faith in the face of his unbelief.
Yet, I want to reflect on the number of folks who are walking away from church and/or faith, as well as those never walking into faith or church. I believe there may be a connection for some.
Many years ago, as I remember (always my important disclaimer), John Claypool made a simple statement that has stayed with me since the early years of my ministry. He said, “Disillusion is the child of illusion.”
As I have lived out my faith, I have returned again and again to Claypool’s simple truth. So, what are a few of the illusions leading some to a place of disillusionment?
First, although most Christians read from the same Bible (different versions aside) we don’t take away the same understanding.
It may be because of the failure to see the Scripture in context. Or it could be that we are a part of a church and a religious system that over promises, putting the cherry-picked promises of God on steroids much of the time, while focusing unhealthily on the material and the physical benefits.
Second, some Christians minimize how bad or evil we can be.
For Palmer, learning a fellow staff member beat his wife was a huge blow to his faith.
One would like to believe that “ministers” should be incapable of such behavior. In reality, clergy are like the rest of us – capable of heroic acts of selflessness even at the cost of their own lives and of deeply evil acts that seem unfathomable.
Being a student of history, living in this world and spending 33 of my 53 adult years in pastoral ministry, I have a grounded understanding of the capacity of people to do great evil.
My six years walking the halls of a maximum-security Texas prison that housed death row did nothing to change my perception.
I remember having a short conversation with a day-shift security officer about some of my actions on behalf of offenders. I simply said, “Sir, you do not know me, but I am not a bleeding-heart liberal. My family has been broken in the early years of our marriage by the tragic murder of my wife’s only two brothers. I will always live with memory and that reality.”
Offering simple answers regarding God’s existence and involvement in the world in light of evil and suffering will inevitably leave people disillusioned.
Third, the mistaken notion that if one shows up for church and gives money to the church, then they are owed good things from God.
I remember fumbling in my prayer for a missionary who had spent her life in Nigeria, never married and was battling cancer. The reason I was fumbling was I wanted to say, “God, this woman above everyone in this room deserves to be healed.” I did not pray that out loud, but, in my heart, I could not suppress the thought.
So, “faith” is conceived as a transaction where one gives God attention, time and money in exchange for what the person wants. When that does not happen, disillusion sets in and, like a cancer, spreads throughout the church member’s “faith.”
One of my great “Come to Jesus” moments was when I was alone at my brother’s house as we were taking turns sitting with my dad who was dying painfully of cancer. That same week in 1982, a death row offender was killed quickly by lethal injection. I held the two men and their deaths in my head and heart.
The offender had killed a convenience store clerk for a six-pack of beer. My father, on the other hand, had been a good and quiet man of faith who was laying in the Midland Memorial Hospital while cancer raged through his body unstopped. I couldn’t get the question, “Why is this so unfair?” out of my mind.
This experience taught me that God is not angry when we give voice to our pain, our unbelief and the limits of our faith. I was also reminded that even Jesus was not exempt from the suffering and pain that this world brings.
Fourth, unanswered prayer.
This was a factor for Palmer. He shares about a time that a pregnant mother came to believe her child with a fatal disorder would live after she listened to Palmer’s sermons proclaiming that all things are possible for those who have enough faith.
The child died and “that triggered, ‘How can I preach this stuff?'” Palmer told The Tennessean. “Beneath the appearance and the surfaces of people’s lives, there was a level of suffering and brokenness for which my theology did not touch.”
When it comes down to it, crassly put, prayer is not something like an order you place at Whataburger. The minister who distorts the promises of God will, at some point, decide to either ignore what they are teaching or be shattered by the fact that their faith does not work.
Disillusion is indeed the child of Illusion.
For that reason, those who teach and preach must be certain their messages are not inconsistent with Scripture or the character of God.