One of the people I’ve not read nearly enough of is Francis Schaeffer. Maybe you’re with me on that. But this is something I realized, after reading How Should We Then Live?, I realized I needed to correct. But where to start?
While some might suggest starting with a seminal work like one of those found in Schaeffer’s Trilogy—The God Who Is There, Escape From Reason, and He Is There and He Is Not Silent—I’d recommend taking a step back and getting a better sense of the man himself. And probably the best place to start is with Schaeffer on the Christian Life by William Edgar. Divided into three parts, Edgar examines Schaeffer by:
- Helping us understand Schaeffer the man and the era in which he lived;
- Summarizing the fundamental beliefs undergirding Schaeffer’s views—his “countercultural spirituality”—as well as their application; and
- Examining how Schaeffer lived out his faith, trusting God for all things.
Praying like God would really answer
While I found much of the biographical sketch fascinating (more on it in a minute), it was the final part—Schaeffer’s dependence upon the Lord for all things—that I found captivating. Francis Schaeffer was not a man who gave lip service to trusting God. He really believed it. And this really hit home when Edgar recounts a question Francis asked his wife, Edith, “What if we woke up one morning and our Bibles were changed? What if all of the promises about prayer and the Holy Spirit were … eliminated from the text? What real difference would it make in our lives?” (129)
This question wrecked me.
I’ve reflected on this in greater detail elsewhere, but cultivating a healthy prayer life has been one of the most challenging parts of my life as a Christian, and is probably my most significant area of weakness (aside from all the other ones). It’s not that I don’t believe in the importance of prayer, nor do I disbelieve in God’s working through it. Just the opposite—I take God at his word in regard to his promises, and I’ve seen him work quite powerfully and obviously through prayer. Yet, when it comes down to brass tacks, I still struggle with this disconnect, and prayerlessness can easily reign in my life if I’m not watchful. Schaeffer’s rebuke, that far too many Christians sit in the “chair of unfaith,” stings (131).
This, of course, has major implications in my personal life (to say nothing of my current and future ministry). But it is also where I took a great deal of encouragement from the Schaeffers’ example. Edgar describes the Schaeffers (and indeed, all involved in the L’Abri work) as people who prayed like they meant it. Whether it was for the finances to ensure the lights would still be on or for the salvation of a visitor, they truly believed prayer made a difference. They trusted that God would indeed answer (132).
How I’m seeking to apply this is through repentance and simple obedience in the area of prayer. Though not terribly profound, this means when I am asked to pray, or I feel any sort of compulsion to pray, I stop what I’m doing and pray at that moment. While this has lead to a few funny looks from my wife who might suggest praying about something and has been met with “okay, let’s do that,” it’s been a really, really positive experience for me.
First, it’s helping me to remember that—blasphemy aside—there is no wrong way to pray. Prayer is not magic; it is communication. And though reverence and respect should be obvious, it should reflect a true relationship.
Second, it’s helping me relearn the proper posture for ministry. I’m not some sort of super-person that can do all things through sheer force of will.
Finally, it’s a reminder that, if I want to see people move toward Christ, I must be praying that God would move them. I cannot make someone a Christian. I can no more make someone a genuine Christian than I can make a rock become a tree. But God can, and so I need to pray he will do it.
Doubt’s role in developing stronger Christians
But this isn’t all I’ve seen and appreciated in Edgar’s reflections on Schaeffer. One of the things Edgar does well is he doesn’t create a picture of Schaeffer that pretties up his weaknesses. In fact, it’s his recounting of Schaeffer’s greatest spiritual crisis that made me respect him more. During the 1950s, Schaeffer became increasingly concerned with how he had been less than loving to those with whom he disagreed. Eventually, having been “plunged into the depts of doubt,” he came to the point where he had to “rethink ‘the whole matter of Christianity.'” (53, 55)
He decided in the midst of this dark night of the soul that the only honest way forward was to rethink his entire theology and Christian commitment, even at the risk of finding it not true in the end. (53)
Some readers might be concerned with such a decision, but it’s important to remember that doubt is not the enemy of faith in some respects—it can be the catalyst for a stronger commitment. It all depends on how we are approaching resolving our doubts though. Let’s say I start having doubts about whether or not my faith is even real, if it’s not just some happy clappy placebo effect that ultimately doesn’t actually mean anything. If I just let my doubt linger, and never really deal with it, guess what? It’s not really doubt: it’s unbelief. But if I recognize it and decide to do what I can to resolve it, my doubt can actually be a catalyst for a stronger, more certain commitment at the end.
Schaeffer reemerged a free man—one who recognized the need to balance truth and love, for they are inseparable. The journey through doubt resulted in a changed man, one who better reflected his savior. That’s the role doubt can play in our lives: it drives us to cry along with the desperate father in Mark 9:24, “Lord I believe; help my unbelief!” Schaeffer knew, as that father did, that if we call to the Lord in this way, he will answer.
Reading Schaeffer on the Christian Life has been good for my soul, and its compelling and challenging portrait of “countercultural spirituality” really looks like leaves me wanting more in all the right ways. I trust it will be the same for you as well.
Title: Schaeffer on the Christian Life: Countercultural Spirituality
Author: William Edgar
Publisher: Crossway (2013)