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When the Formula Fails, Part One | Guest Post

by David Orrison
Imagine yourself in a tunnel facing a wall that appears to seal off the tunnel. Your goal is to get through the tunnel to the other side but the wall is in your way. Fortunately, you have learned that the wall moves as you push it. You begin to push the wall down the tunnel, making progress that provides hope for your goal. However, as you progress, the wall gathers dirt behind it and becomes more and more difficult to push.
     Soon you reach the place where the wall no longer moves. What do you do? You try pushing harder and the wall moves a little. In frustration, you look around and see a little room off the side of the tunnel. The room is a classroom and there are people in the classroom learning techniques for moving the wall. You sit in for a while and then try some of the techniques. Amazingly, they work… for a while. Then the wall stops again.
     About this time you see a television screen on the side of the tunnel. It shows people who are successfully moving their walls. They are making progress; why aren’t you? You watch carefully to learn their techniques and then you go back and try again. Again, the wall moves a little, but stops.
     Finally, there seems to be nothing more you can do. You have tried all the techniques, more than once, and you have certainly tried harder. You’ve run at the wall to hit it, but you just got hurt. You’ve attended classes and seminars, large and small. You’ve read books, watched videos, and heard testimonies of how others have been successful. You’ve done everything you were supposed to do and more but the wall no longer moves. Now what?

Formula Spirituality

     This seems to describe the Christian life for many people. They want to see progress. They believe that progress is possible. They want a happy life, good kids, little conflict; all the reasonable desires of life. They also want to know that God is pleased with them and will not be angry. They have been taught that there are ways to accomplish these things if they just work hard. The Christian life for them is work and progress is made through techniques and superior effort.
     I have come to call this “formula spirituality”. The right formula promises spiritual progress. A formula is simply a technique or method that offers certain results. Like taking copper and tin in the right combination and process to make the much stronger and more durable bronze. If you want bronze, you have to use this formula. You might mix flour, sugar, and other ingredients in specified proportions to get Grandma’s Sugar Cookies. You could use another recipe/formula, but you wouldn’t get Grandma’s Sugar Cookies. Certain results require certain formulas.
     A “spiritual formula” is much the same. There are those who teach that spiritual objectives are reached by certain formulas. If a wife wants a happy relationship with her husband, she must be submissive to him according to a certain formula. If you want good children, there are certain things you must do. If you want God to love you, all you have to do is these five basic steps. The Christian life, with all of its parts, is reduced to formulas.
     But why use a formula? Why not just live your life trusting God for the results? The advantage of a formula is that the results are supposed to be guaranteed. If the formula has been used successfully, the reasoning goes, the results can be reproduced successfully. Stick to the formula, do it right, and the desired results will – must – follow.
     Using a formula in our spiritual life is desirable to many people because of the “cause and effect” rule. Certain causes bring certain effects. Why leave anything to chance? Instead, work the formula and guarantee the results. The formula is certainly the dream of a parent, a person looking for a job, or a concerned marriage partner. If I just do these certain things (work the formula) then the results I hope for must come about.
     In a sense, the formula is designed to control even God. God is locked into the cause and effect process by the formula. Rather than risk His unwillingness to answer our prayers our way, we use the formulas to assure His compliance. A certain number of prayers, a certain posture in prayer, and certain words in prayers have all been part of formulas that Christians have used to try to manipulate God. Perhaps a certain amount or kind of service, certain activities or avoidance of certain activities, or even paying tithes or offerings could be part of formulas used in this way. The formula can be the way around the unpredictable will of God.

Do Spiritual Formulas Work?

All of this begs the question: Do the spiritual formulas work? The answer is yes… and no. Formulas work in the same way that the lottery works. Sometimes the person using the formula gets the results he or she wants. Not always, of course, but enough to keep the concept of using formulas alive. If no one ever won the lottery, if gambling never paid off, people wouldn’t play. If the formulas could never be connected with success, no one would be tempted to use them. But there are just enough “success stories” to keep people working at the formulas.

     It may be important to note a distinction. There are certainly activities and attitudes that lead to predictable results most of the time. Children of parents who drink alcohol or smoke may be more prone to drinking or smoking. Children whose parents teach against these behaviors may have a better chance of avoiding them throughout their lives. There are causes that generally lead to specific effects. Careful handling of finances should lead to a reasonable amount of financial freedom. Wise diet and health care should lead to positive physical condition. This kind of procedure works, in a general sense, for all people. Obviously there are mitigating factors, but these are general rules. They are not formulas because they don’t suggest any kind of guarantee.
     Spiritual formulas are another matter. The desire of parents is for their children to turn out “good”. The individual may want to have a “good” life or to be assured of the acceptance of God. The success of goals stated in this way may be difficult to measure but failure is unacceptable. There is great pressure to find some kind of assurance and the vagueness of the goals begs for systems and definition. While some kind of formula for success seems necessary, the ability to know whether certain formulas work is elusive. The fact that they seem to work opens the door for abuse by teachers and others who assert the importance of certain formulas for spiritual gain.
     There are several reasons these formulas seem to work. First, the cause and effect relationship is often reversed. A young mother hears of an older woman whose children all turned out to be happy contributing adults and asks how this was accomplished. She is looking for a formula. The older woman considers the question and says that the family ate all their suppers together. The father was able to come home from work early enough and the children adjusted their evening activities so that they could eat supper together almost every day. The young mother goes home with the “knowledge” that eating supper together every day will provide the stability her children will need to be well-adjusted Christians later in their lives.
     Notice that there is no particular evidence that the result was actually caused by eating suppers together. There is no consideration of the fact that family life may have changed since the older woman’s children were at home. There may be a large number of significant differences between the two families, but none are considered. The process has become reversed, from effect to cause. Reversing the cause and effect process makes the answer nonsense. The older woman may as well have said that the results came because she never fed her children turnips. No proof is required because the effect itself has already validated the answer. So the young mother has evidence now that the formula works. All she has to do is point to the older woman.
     Another way for the formula to work is to redefine the goal along the way. The child sets up three cans and begins to throw rocks. He aims at the can on the far left but hits the can on the far right. Without hesitation, he rejoices at his “success”. After all, wasn’t the goal to knock down the cans?
     We are almost taught to do this as Christians. Trying to look at the positive side, we excuse the negative. Sally has had four divorces, but she still loves her mother. Bob is dying of lung cancer from smoking, but has never had a car accident. It is thought to be “Christian” to focus on the positive. As long as we can find something positive, everything is okay.
     So the young mother is able to manipulate her husband and children into eating their suppers together. After some years have past, her children still attend church. She looks at that and ignores all the struggles they have been through. At least they all attend church. Never mind what the goal was originally; success is now defined as attending church.
     Formulas can also appear to work because the results are vague or difficult to measure. How do we determine whether a person is “well-adjusted”? Sally, who has been through four divorces, really does still love her mother. Is she well-adjusted? Who could say that she is not? Bill’s kids terrorize the neighborhood but memorize all their Bible verses for Sunday School. How would we measure the success of the formulas Bill uses in his family? As long as the results are measured subjectively, the formulas can be said to have worked.
     Perhaps the most challenging reason the formulas seem to work is because the desired results were going to come anyway. God is still in the equation, after all. He is active in times past setting into motion certain processes for certain results. He is also active in times present intervening for His own purposes. Some children appear to be well-adjusted from birth almost without regard to their families or circumstances. Others, often from the same families, appear to be more prone to struggles of various kinds. It is also often true that those who struggle at one stage of life are found to be quite capable at another and vice versa. Obviously there are factors related to these outcomes, but identifying those factors and systematizing them is elusive at best.
     The older woman’s children may have turned out positively in spite of eating suppers together. Not only was there no cause and effect that involved eating supper together, but there may have been no identifiable cause at all. The man who wins the lottery may not be more deserving, may not have a better system, and may not have any formulaic process to offer others. His numbers just came up! Just because he used the combination to his company’s safe as his numbers doesn’t mean that others should do the same (nor does it mean that he should tell anyone.)
     Perhaps it would be appropriate to say that formulas are marketed. There are teachers and others who gain from promoting certain formulas. As with almost any other product, success stories sell. On the covers of the Christian family magazines are pictures of families where some kind of formula must be working. The seeker must purchase the magazine to find out which one. Almost every interest group has its successful examples, as does every church. The message that is heard is, “Just follow our formulas and they can work for you.” Some teachers make a great deal of money and gain considerable prestige from their formulas. They need success stories to validate what they sell.
     Unfortunately, many people are not prepared for this type of marketing in spiritual matters. The Christian faith is presented and accepted as dogma and these formulas, almost no matter how bizarre, are often presented and accepted in the same way. Because a believer would never question the value of prayer, he may as readily accept the teaching that his prayers should be offered in a certain posture. Those who have been taught to honor and value spiritual teachers sometimes fail to discern error or marketing hype from those teachers. Thus, the formula is held as valid simply because of the respect for the teacher presenting it.
     On the other hand, a spiritual formula is received almost as a product by the users. They expect it to work. They invest money, time, energy, and hope in the formula. If it appears to work, the teacher/marketer may receive blessings. If it does not, the teacher could be held accountable. To protect themselves and the reputation of the formula, many teachers are able to build in a fail-safe which prevents the “buyer” from coming back to them for satisfaction. They simply claim that the person didn’t use the formula correctly or failed to perform all parts of the formula.
     The young mother who finds that her family is not pulling together in spite of their suppers together may be told that the family didn’t pray correctly or didn’t have appropriate dinner discussions. She will find, after working the formula for a while, that there were additional requirements she neglected. She will probably blame herself or her husband, but the formula remains secure. She is convinced that the formula works; she just has to find the “real” problem.
     Sadly, this fail-safe is often the cause of discouragement and depression in those who consider themselves to be failures because the formula didn’t work. They become convinced that they are too sinful or too stupid to use the formula correctly. Rather than helping these hurting people to see that the formulas don’t work, many pastors, teachers, and counselors either perpetuate the falsehood and blame the individuals or add new formulas for their followers to use. The new formulas are no better than the old ones but they are different and provide a new sense of hope. Thus, the cycle continues and the depression grows.

Next week, join us for Part Two: Why the Formula Fails
David Orrison has been a pastor for over 30 years with a sincere desire to help people know the love and grace of the Lord Jesus.  He holds a PhD in Theology from Trinity Seminary.  He has worked with pastors and other church leaders who have been discouraged by the expectations and failures of ministry.  He has also helped parents, spouses, and young people who have been hurt by the legalistic teaching of what he calls, “performance spirituality.”  His website, www.gracefortheheart.org, and blog, http://graceformyheart.wordpress.com, have been sources of encouragement and teaching for many.  He is available for speaking engagements as well.  He and his wife, Alice, have eight sons and live in Colorado. 


  1. Thank you! I used to be very formula orientated. Now I know that it is about Christ and Christ alone.

  2. This is so true and wise! I did the formula thing so much and when things went wrong~I felt like a failure on my family's eyes, the church and my kids. I still struggle with it but I'm learning to walk with Jesus daily and to expect His love and provision through it all, not being surprised at the fiery trials that we all go through. Thanks for this great post!

  3. Thanks for this. You've described comprehensively what I believe about gothardism and other formulaic approaches to Christianity. I still have a weakness for books that prescribe a step by step approach in answer to any difficult issue a person may encounter. (Perhaps I need a few more steps to cure myself of this :)!

  4. Thank you for this. The temptation to default to a formula is so ingrained in me that half the time I don't even see it.

    Reading this, I realized that most of my anger at God, most of the struggles I've had with wondering "why, God, didn't You come through like I thought You would?" are because I expected Him to work according to my perceived formula. I want a God that is predictable. But "He is not a tame lion...but He is good".

    Thank you, with tears and humility, thank you. My faith isn't gone...it is just trapped in a box of my own making. I think you just gave me the key to let it out again.

  5. I read about my mother in every line of this post, particularly the sense of failure and subsequent depression when she wasn't able to get the formulas to work (and they never really did). As an adult, considering Jesus's method of teaching helped me break away from that faith in five-step programs. He didn't line up foolproof methods in bullet points but rather encouraged people to respond to God's direction in their individual lives. I'll be looking forward to Part 2.

  6. Very well said. "The young mother who finds that her family is not pulling together in spite of their suppers together may be told that the family didn’t pray correctly or didn’t have appropriate dinner discussions."

    "Family Meal Table" as Nancy Campbell terms it can be wonderful or deadly. Arguments about manners, attitude etc can wreck it in no time--especially with teens. Add to that authoritarian instant-obedience, you-must-think-what-we-think parents and you've got a nightmare.

    Is there a version of WHO MOVED MY CHEESE for these people? I feel so for folks trapped in the search for the new formula. Freedom is within reach but they won't grab it.

  7. This hits home with me in many ways. I have been now for nearly a year speaking out loud about these spiritual formulas that are being marketed .. they are a trap and the truth is that God wants us to place our faith in Him and in Him alone, not in formulas or rituals.


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