We hear a lot of talk about sustainability these days, but we don’t talk much about it in our churches. Sustainability is as important for our faith as it is in any other area of life. So what is sustainability, and how does it apply to our faith? And how can your small group help people build a faith that is sustainable?
In the context of agriculture, sustainability means what you are growing doesn’t come at a cost too great to make it worthwhile. That cost can be economic, but it can also be a human, animal, or environmental cost. A sustainable crop is capable of growing in the existing conditions, without too much effort or expense poured into making it successful—it doesn’t cause the destruction or depletion of natural resources to make it work. Unsustainability was one of the factors that produced the disastrous Dust Bowl in the Central and Southern Plains of the United States in the 1930s. Today, sustainable farming practices are one element of many successful programs alleviating poverty in the developing world.
In the context of faith, sustainability means our faith does not require us to destroy something else God has given us—like our ability to acknowledge reality, our intellect, or our humility before God—for its survival. Sustainable faith does not require us to change the habitat to keep it alive. It can survive and thrive through hardship. It can sustain itself without props. It is not dependent upon our circumstances or our feelings. It can peacefully coexist with the reality of what our world is, and with the reality of who we are. Unsustainability is sometimes responsible for people’s walk away from faith when life’s disappointments or losses are overwhelming. Sustainable faith is one component that keeps people hoping and turning their focus heavenward through unexpected detours and in the wake of tragedy.
When we assist people in building sustainable faith, we help increase the likelihood their faith will become the most important resource in their lives—rather than something they easily drop when belief is not convenient. As life challenges them, they will grow to orient their lives around their relationship with Christ, and their expression of that relationship will influence future generations. This is the kind of faith all Christian leaders want to see growing among the people they influence. So as a leader in small-group ministry, how do you help build sustainable faith in the people you are entrusted to minister? Faith that can survive—and even thrive—when life gets really hard?
Here’s one way—you get honest about what life in Christ can and will be. You encourage them to embrace the unsatisfied life.
Let’s Be Honest
When we’re focused on attracting people into relationship with Christ, it can be terribly tempting to make promises God has not consented to fulfill. “This world won’t satisfy you,” we tell people. “But Jesus will. Just come to him, and all your needs and longings will be met.” We want to paint a rosy picture of an easy path, a portrait of a life in which all the internal hardships inherent to being human have been erased. We’re pretty good at acknowledging people will still face difficult circumstances, but we’re far more “fuzzy” on the difficult emotions. We sometimes neglect to admit God does not remove all the desires, cravings, and needs we had before.
There is truth behind our claim: The world won’t satisfy us. Jesus really is the only one who will, but he has not promised to do this for us here and now. He wants us to look forward to the day he will satisfy our hunger and thirst when we finally arrive in the world we were first made for. When we allow people to build their faith around an expectation of complete and immediate satisfaction, we encourage unsustainable faith.
Many people, seeking complete satisfaction through their faith, face a crisis of faith when they run into some immovable brick wall of calamity. When their faith is built on a foundation of belief that simply knowing Christ completely satisfies and fulfills all longings, they may try to make the world’s circumstances fit that theology—and they will fail every time. They may grow bitter over perceived injustices from the hand of God (who doesn’t seem to be holding up his end of the bargain), become obsessed with controlling other people’s behavior to make their illusions achievable, feel overwhelmed by cognitive dissonance, or retreat into a comfortable spiritual coma called denial. The belief that life in this world, in right relationship with God, is as good as we need it to be is incompatible with actual life in this world—it is also inconsistent with what Scripture leads us to expect. In the face of reality and in light of what lives in your heart and mine, this type of faith is simply unsustainable.
Even if we achieve the very best life we could possibly enjoy on this earth, we would still have so much less than what God offers us. Our longings are not meant to drive us toward satisfaction in this life; they are meant to drive us to Christ and to long for him and what he offers—and keep longing. We are meant to feel this hunger and thirst until they are satisfied in the presence of God.
So, is your small group thirsty—or satisfied? How can you challenge them to stay hungry and thirsty? Chances are, at least some of the members of your small group are expecting a relationship with Christ to satisfy them so completely, they feel at home in this world. They won’t need anyone else. They won’t long for anything they just can’t seem to find. It’s also possible some have convinced themselves this is already true for them—they really are utterly satisfied. To believe this requires ignoring their very real human needs and the deep ways in which their souls are longing for more. This kind of belief can help create an inauthentic and pressure-filled culture within your group because people who are convinced everything must be fine are very uncomfortable with anything contradicting this belief. Regrettably, others often feel they must play along.
Here are a few This article will present practical ways to challenge this culture within your group and to help members support each other in building sustainable faith.
Be honest with the gospel.
Tell your group members the truth about what Christians can expect in this life. Knowing and following Christ means we are in right, restored relationship with God. It means we have a whole new purpose, our transformation is underway, and our future is brighter than we can possibly imagine. It doesn’t mean an instant change in our circumstances, external or internal. It doesn’t allow us to skip over all the hard parts, take a shortcut through personal healing and growth, or stop needing the things all humans need. It is important for Christian leaders to be accurate about this and to give people realistic expectations of the Christian life.
Be honest about your own life.
Model what it means to acknowledge difficult emotions, unfulfilled desires, and frustration in the Christian life. You sometimes feel discouraged. You have questions for God. Your relationships are not all you imagine they could be. You are not all you could be. Along with your hope in Christ and empowerment in the Holy Spirit, you still live the human experience. As appropriate, let your group in on this. You’ll give them permission to be honest about their own lives, too.
Challenge the easy answers.
Try not to let your group get away with pat answers, clichés, or the sayings of popular religion. Ask them to explain the things they say. Encourage them to point the group to Scripture passages illustrating their ideas about God and about the Christian life. Request examples from their own lives, especially if you are already modeling honesty and authenticity. You can really encourage them to think more deeply and to notice the way their own lives don’t always illustrate the ideas that might easily roll off their tongues.
It’s no wonder we’re all seeking satisfaction. We were made for a better world! We were made for a life in which our good, God-given desires would always lead us to God’s good gifts. Our unmet longings remind us of what we lost when humanity turned away from God. Although our desires sometimes lead us to seek fulfillment in destructive ways, it’s not wrong to desire a more satisfying life in every way. Seeking to rid ourselves of longing is a way of giving up on what God offers us, both now and beyond this life. So encourage your group to acknowledge their longings and to consider how their desires can pull them toward God, his good gifts, and his promises for the future.
Study the people in the Bible.
The entire Bible is full of stories that contradict the idea life in relationship with God is easy, usually happy, and truly satisfying. Consider the Old Testament patriarchs and matriarchs, whose lives were full of hardship, recurring sin, and the discomfort of being at odds with everyone around them. Read about God’s prophets, who grieved over God’s messages and endured insults, rejection, and abuse from their listeners. Consider the church fathers—Peter, who pushed his readers to crave more rather than be satisfied with spiritual baby food, and Paul, who sometimes longed for death. Consider Jesus himself, who definitely did not set an example of living a fully satisfied life on earth.
Boldly tackle the tough stuff.
When church leaders avoid addressing difficult subjects, they might think they are creating a safe space for others. Instead, they are sometimes bypassing the very things people most need to talk about within the context of the gospel. For people who live with trials—mental illness, addiction, questions of gender and sexual attraction, abuse, and other serious challenges—those experiences can be the source of their deepest dissatisfaction and their most profound spiritual questions. When we are courageous enough to acknowledge these questions and tackle them in light of God’s Word, we shine light into dark places and encourage people to come out of hiding.
Remember the curse.
Life in this world gives us plenty of opportunities to remember why our lives are not satisfying. Yet so often when tragedies happen, Christians throw up our hands like everyone else, and ask, “Why?” Or, we gloss over disasters and try to put a positive spin on them, murmuring platitudes like, “Everything happens for a reason.” We may not be able to explain why people do the things they do, or why God sometimes intervenes to protect some people while others fall victim to evil. But we do know why bad things happen: We are made in God’s image, we have rebelled against him, and we live under a curse. Because of human sin, the whole world is groaning under this curse—followers of Christ included. When your group members expect life to be deeply satisfying, they don’t know how to make sense of their most painful experiences. When you help them understand how sin affects our world, seeing evidence of the curse can strengthen their faith rather than undermine it.
Remember where our hope lies.
Some may believe that acknowledging life is not satisfying means giving up, lowering expectations, and settling into a permanent sense of disappointment with God. That’s exactly what God does not want us to do—he wants us to look forward to life in his tangible presence, rather than settle for what we can experience now. It’s possible for us to live contented, unsatisfied lives precisely because God will not disappoint us. Satisfaction is coming in grand fashion. After about five millennia of recorded history, it ought to be pretty clear by now that we don’t have the solutions to our most fundamental problems. Jesus really is our answer, and he will once again disrupt history—not cloaked in the humble garments of a suffering servant, but in his full glory as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. No Christian will be disappointed. Embrace the implications of this for yourself, and point your group toward this hope.
The unsatisfied life is a life of hope. It’s an exercise in long anticipation—and it is soil in which sustainable faith can grow. When your group gets honest and stops waiting for—or faking—complete satisfaction, they’ll be better prepared for life’s storms. Even in hard times, their faith will produce a harvest of hope.
—Amy Simpson is a life and leadership coach, speaker, and author of the new book Blessed Are the Unsatisfied: Finding Spiritual Freedom in an Imperfect World. You can find her at AmySimpson.com and on Twitter @aresimpson.