Pastor Larry Osborne of North Coast Church in Vista, Calif., was saved a lot of heartache when he was taught not to base his Christian belief system on what everybody else said.
Biblical scrutiny was key to helping him gain greater trust in God's Word and pinpoint the "partial truths" that many Christians hold as complete truths.
And these beliefs that "smart, sincere, good, and godly Christians" hold aren't just false, they're dangerous, he says.
He lays these out in his newly released book, 10 Dumb Things Smart Christians Believe.
CP: Many Christians don't seem to know or are confused about what exactly they should believe and on top of that they are not really studying Scripture. Is that part of the reason you wrote this book?
Osborne: We live in a day and age of sound bites and so often so much of what we think is in the Bible is just a partial part of a verse or a statement without any knowledge of all the verses that are around it or the other parts of Scripture that might qualify what a particular verse says.
CP: You talk about spiritual urban legends. You mention that these actually get passed around in Sunday school, bible study, a devotional or even sermons. How does that happen? Shouldn't Christians expect to receive proper teaching from these areas?
Osborne: Definitely, we should be expecting proper teaching. But what happens especially in Sunday school classes and Bible studies and I would say only occasionally in sermons, somebody passes out a truism that sounds good and we've just heard it so many times we don't bother to check it out and that's the source of most of these urban legends. They're true partially but they're not true completely. And it's the qualification and the rest of the story that's important. It kind of reminds me of when Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount "you have heard that you shouldn't murder but I tell you you shouldn't hate or be angry." Well they were correct when they said you shouldn't murder but they were wrong to think it stopped there. Many of the spiritual urban legends are the same way. They're just the partial truth that we shouldn't be building the whole house on.
CP: What proportion of Christians do you estimate believe in these spiritual urban legends?
I would say very few Christians probably buy all of them and most of us have one or two of them that will cause us to go "hm." But the mixture of these is just rampant throughout the Christian community.
CP: It seems like if Christians were clear on all these points you mentioned in the book, they'd do better in debates with atheists or even just be able to clear up a lot of the questions and even criticisms that non-Christians have.
I think some of these would clear them up. Not all of them. Probably the most common thread through all of them is that it would remove the disillusionment that comes when we bank on promises that God actually never made. And if you look at some of them, absolutely they can help in defending our faith and others maybe wouldn't help so much there but they'd help in the disillusionment area. For instance, I'm not sure agnostics or atheists want to get into a debate about whether or not forgiving means totally forgetting everything that happened. The negative impact is more upon my spiritual life than my witness.
CP: Let's get into the actual spiritual urban legends. First one - faith can fix anything. Believing in this could actually be dangerous you say. Can you explain that?
Osborne: Definitely. It's far better to be positive than negative. So if a kid walks up in his little league game expecting to strike out he probably will. If he expects to hit a home run, he might. But the idea that he expects completely and totally and positively … the facts don't bear that out. I can have all the faith in the pilot of the airplane I'm on but if the plane has a problem and goes down, my faith won't save my life. I can be scared to death and taking Dramamine to help me get through a flight I'm sure is going to go down and if the plane is good and the pilot is good I still get there. The power of faith is in who it's in not in faith itself.
CP: You say that in some cases, like with Apostle Paul, having faith may make your situation even worse.
Osborne: Absolutely. The last part of Hebrews 11 gives a whole list of people who essentially from an earthly perspective failed and then it says they were all commended for their faith. The bottom line definition of faith is trusting God enough to do what He says. Often today we think faith means going out on a risky limb and trusting God will rescue us. But faith isn't about doing a foolish risky thing, it's about obeying God. So if God clearly told you to go out on that limb then go. But if I'm going out on that limb saying you know what I'm just going to have faith God will be with me, the Bible actually says in Proverbs that a prudent man sees danger in heights and it's the fool who keeps on going.
CP: So this kind of faith that doesn't necessarily lead to earthly success, as you said, wouldn't be popular with Americans who may want more of a feel-good faith or something that leads to more happiness.
Osborne: Mankind in our own natural state away from the Lord, we're always seeking our own temporal happiness. But I think ultimate happiness is found in God. On top of that, I think some of it is just a language issue. For instance, if you went back to the old King James in the early 1600s the word charity meant love. But in the English language now if we were to read the old King James chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13, and it said charity, we would think of giving money away. I think part of the problem is simply in especially American English the word faith has come to mean positive thinking because our culture uses it that way. When we see it in the Bible we give it that definition rather than stepping back and say "how does the Bible define faith." It doesn't define it as positive thinking, it defines it as trusting enough to obey.
CP: Another spiritual urban legend – a godly home guarantees godly kids. There are a lot of studies that ultimately point to the parents and recommend they take certain steps in order to raise their children to be godly. But you say even if you do raise kids in a godly home, ultimately it's out of their hands.
Osborne: What I simply say is we can have influence. We can't dictate the outcome. And there is a lot of belief in the old model of B.F. Skinner's behaviorism as if children are born as blank slates and our environment and our perfect parenting will somehow create a child that walks with God. The best environment and the best parenting still has to come up against a person's choice. I always go back to the Garden of Eden where you have perfect parenting, if you want to call God's rules parenting, you have a perfect environment, and you have two people without any sin nature within them. Yet they rebelled. So, my goodness. I cannot guarantee godly kids. What I am responsible for is doing the best I can.
CP: Next, God has a blueprint for my life. You say God's plan is not hidden and it's not some big Easter egg hunt. So what would you say to those who are still searching for His will and what to do next in their life?
Osborne: God gives us a lot more freedom than sometimes we give Him credit for giving us. For instance, His will in my life is that I marry a Christian. His will in my life is that when I'm dating I'm sexually pure. His will in my life is that in my business dealings I'm honest. But that doesn't necessarily mean you have to marry this person or that He says I have to be in this business or live in this town. The whole thing about a blueprint is that every single detail of a blueprint is spelled out. And any wavering from it creates a real mess. And if indeed there is any sense of human freedom not questioning whether God knows it but just any sense of human freedom, if indeed there is evil that is done by evil people, then when that's done that changes the situation.
There's a passage in Jeremiah I believe chapter 18, where he tells Jeremiah to go to the potter's wheel and he's going to teach him a lesson. And there he watches the artisan making something on the wheel and it goes wrong. And I love the phrase so he remade it into another vessel as it pleased the potter to make, and then he says so can I do with you o house of Israel. So God's game plan has certain game rules that fit all of us. But God's plan for David, his game plan was not for David to kill Uriah and marry Bathsheba, clearly. That was not God's plan A. When that happened, within the game plan there was still a way of restoration. We worry about things when the Lord says I don't really care, play whatever game you want to play in the backyard just stay in the backyard.
You can work in any one of these business fields, just do it ethically.
CP: So it seems we try to make everything too confined. We make Christian life seem like there are too many rules.
Osborne: One of the ironies is people will come to me in the midst of …let's say a couple is living together and they say we want to know whether God wants us to get married. Well I don't think He's going to tell you that answer until you decide to respond to the first one. Or you got a business man or woman who's cheating on their taxes and they're coming in and saying should I take this new job, what does God want? He's not going to tell him what job to take. He's already told them to be honest. That's the important thing. We obsess on the little things – which apartment to get, which car to buy, what career to take. No, no. The character, these are the things I spelled out; let's deal with those.
CP: Another legend – Christians shouldn't judge. Is this a view that Christians hold more or that more non-Christians have?
Osborne: I think it really goes into two extremes. There's a whole branch of Christianity that's very judgmental. But if you were to take the man on the street who's not a Christian and the man or woman who is a Christian but not part of a more extreme political viewpoint, they tend to say live and let live and that somehow it's wrong to judge anybody. Clearly, we're not allowed to condemn, that's God's prerogative. But in the very passage that people use 'didn't Jesus say judge not?' they forget that he goes on and he didn't say don't judge, he said here's how to judge. Make sure you don't judge where you have a problem. In fact he follows it immediately with don't give your pearls to swine. How can I decide whether someone's swine or not, spiritually, if I'm not judging. In the very next verse he says here's how to determine a true and a false prophet by their fruit. Well I got to judge to do that. And obviously, Jesus did quite a bit of judging.
The idea that we are not to judge period is a partial truth. The classic example of well let's read the rest of it. Do not judge when you have the same problem, do not put our Christian judgment on non-believers. But we can't go through life without making judgment.
< strong>CP: You also say in your book don't judge if God hasn't spoken clearly. In the area of homosexuality, for example, some believe the Bible doesn't address homosexuality specifically. How should Christians approach this issue then?
Osborne: To me I always want to use the scriptures as my measuring guide. I don't like to put myself in a position where I'm saying God said that but that's not really what He meant. Or somehow the writers of the New Testament or Jesus himself said things that don't fit anymore because they were acquiescing to the culture – we've all heard that one. They were just fitting in with the culture. That's ridiculous because if anybody knew how to offend people it was Jesus and the apostles. They were equal opportunity offenders. Any time I look at something and I say in my mind well that was giving in to the culture then because they wouldn't understand, I go "excuse me, he was killed for not giving into the culture and their legalism and their concepts of the Sabbath." Same with the apostles.
CP: So would you say Christians do too little judging or too much?
Osborne: I'd say it's two extremes. We haven't found a happy middle. There's an arrogant judgment that's caused the world to not equate Christians with loving people. And there's a whole other group of us who've misunderstood tolerance because biblical tolerance you have the freedom to be wrong, but we've interpreted it to mean everybody's right. So I see an absence in the happy middle and two extremes, very judgmental and people who were afraid to even agree with Jesus when he calls something sin.
< strong>CP: Next legend – God causes everything that happens. Usually this is a problem with nonbelievers because they blame God for all the suffering in the world. But this is also a widely held belief by Christians?
Osborne: I think so, especially Christians who haven't had a deep hurt, when try to figure out a deep hurt in someone else's life. Everything does happen for a reason if you mean because we live in a fallen world. But what they really mean is this is the best of all things that could have happened to you. So when a tragedy happens, we go well it really is a good thing and that's ridiculous. Bad things aren't good. I think it's Isaiah who says woe to those who call evil good. I tell the story of my wife's cancer in there if my wife's cancer was the best of all things that could have happened to us and necessary, well then cancer should have been around before the fall and will probably be needed in heaven. So it's a result of our fallen world. And God's not surprised by it. And everything moves toward His plan. But along the way evil is evil.
CP: So the conclusion from all these spiritual urban legends is that everyone should study the Bible.
Osborne: To me, the simple sound bite, if you will, I'd use is make sure you read the verses before and after and read the other passages of scripture that talk about the same subject because sometimes we treat the Bible as if it's a series of sound bites and little sayings that we can put on t-shirts, coffee cups and posters. But it's a big book. It's a library of 66 books. Just as no lawyer would take one case he would look at all the cases. We need to look at what the bible says about any subject in all of its passages. And when we do that we'll avoid these urban legends.
My main hope in writing this book was really two-fold, that it would cause people to look more to Scripture than our favorite little sayings, anything that drives people to Scripture is good. And that it would also spare people who become angry at God when He didn't come through on promises He never made. That to me as a pastor over all my years is always one of the saddest things. Somebody's become angry at God because He didn't do something they thought He said He would do. Well, He never said that. That's why I call them "dumb things smart Christians believe" because none of us buy them all but if we're not careful they sound good enough, we buy into a few of them.
CP: So which of these urban legends have you encountered the most as a pastor?
Osborne: Frankly, all of them are out there. Probably one of the most common is the simple faith. Let your conscience be your guide. I don't know how many times, you point out a Bible verse, you say no, God says this. They say, well I have peace about it. Well so do all the guys in prison they have peace about what they did.
CP: So you compiled all of these as a pastor and what members of your church have come to you with?
Osborne: Absolutely. Over the years I've done some teaching in summers that include more than these ten. Little four-week series we call urban legends. I do four over one summer, four over next summer. And this book actually came out out of those. The response was just amazing. Things that everybody believes but aren't true.