• Josh McDowell taught me to rely on evidence and demand a verdict from my not-yet-believing friends.

  • James Dobson dared me to discipline my children.

  • Larry Burkett promoted a sure-fire financial formula that would free me from the shackles of debt.

  • Tim and Beverly LaHaye promised good sex in marriage.

  • Edith Schaffer demonstrated how to be a godly homemaker.

  • Hal Lindsey prepped me for the end of the world.

While these nationally-known authors and speakers laid out their formulas for “successful” Christian living, there were dozens of lesser luminaries filling in the gaps in my life through radio programming, appearances on nascent Christian TV stations, and via Bible studies and small group discussions in my local church.

Like many other young and eager believers, I embraced these formulas as part and parcel of the gospel. They promised a sure-fire roadmap toward a life of blessing that would exorcise suffering. And they implied I would know Jesus better if I just did what they said.

When we’re young in our faith, formula provides not only structure, but a sense of belonging. I noted here:

Young faith seeks structure, and as we continue to grow, young believers find this structure by becoming a part of a church or fellowship group…(it) is all about learning the written (and unwritten) rules of how we live our faith within community. There’s a sense of security and excitement as we discover our spiritual identity in the context of a group and form friendships with other believers just like us. In order to belong, we may try to play down experiences and ideas that don’t align with the group’s style or congregation’s doctrine.

This desire for rules and a sense of belonging in young believers should be treated as though it is stamped with a “Caution!” label. The desire for structure makes young believers coachable; it also leaves them vulnerable in some cases to abuse by unscrupulous shepherds. Even more common, maturing believers have to do some right-sizing of those black-and-white formulas when life experience and growth in wisdom invite a whole palette of grays to the proverbial table. Our faith will shift as we mature.

Of course, there is an essential role in formation for teaching principles, modeling spiritual disciplines, and nurturing everyday obedience to our Savior. But older believers must combat at every turn in their relationships with younger Jesus-followers the implication that following a formula = following Jesus. We do so by being willing in the company of other believers both younger and older than we are to ask questions of those formulas, listen with humility to the experiences of others – and by saying three words that are the mark of a humble, lifelong learner.

Those words are, “I don’t know.”

It can be scary to say those words, especially when we in the church are always telling the world that we have all the answers. But when our formulas represent our answers, those formulas will overpromise, underdeliver, and disappoint.

So much of our early learning is by catechesis, whether formal or informal in form, and we’re encouraged to demonstrate our faith with our certainty. Every question has an answer. I am certain of the truths in the creeds.

But I am not certain that there is only one way to raise a child or have a perfect sex life or achieve financial “success”. Wise people of faith often say that the older they get, the less they know. The hubris of formula-dependent faith gives way through the complexities of life to childlike trust in the goodness of their heavenly Father. Our formulas are not the answer. He is.

I’ll be honest: I liked the sense of security those formulas promised to give me. I liked applying my ambitions to attempting to “win” at the Christian life. Midlife came along and showed me I was aiming at the wrong target.

I have been learning in my second half that I’m the target – I’m the receiver of God’s purifying, transforming love. And a fruit of his work in my life is the security and freedom of being able to walk with another believer and say, “I don’t know either, but maybe we can prayerfully learn together.”

If you’re in the second half of your life, what is your relationship with the formulas that may have been presented to you as a younger believer?

Cover photo by Roman Mager on Unsplash