Top Ten Christ-Follower Traps

by Carey Nieuwhof

#1 Thinking of Prayer as a Way to Manipulate God

We’ve all done it.  Prayed a certain prayer and then when things don’t turn out the way we want them to, we let God have the full fury of our anger.

I’ve seen some deeply spiritual people fall into this trap (just claim it in Jesus’ name and it will happen!!), some well-meaning people, and just about every other type of person you can think of fall victim to this one.  At some point, most of us spend time praying for a dying relative or a sick child or friend.  While illness and death are not simple to deal with, I’m honestly shocked at how many times people make the assumption that God somehow let us down because our prayers weren’t answered our way.

I won’t pretend for a second to trace out cause and effect — why some people recover and others don’t.  Do I believe that God can and does intervene and heal people?  Absolutely.  Would I suggest that it’s always a direct intervention?  Not sure.  Would I say that God directly willed the death of someone who didn’t recover even though they were prayed for?  Stated that way, and you can begin to see the problem with our thinking.

So what fixes this? Respect.  So many biblical writers and figures had a very healthy respect for God.  They did not pretend to be able to figure God’s every move out.  When they prayed, there was a deference to the wisdom of God.  When they prayed, their prayers were honest, gut-wrenching, real dialogues that laid out the whole array of human emotions before God.  (Read the Psalms for example.)  And at the end of it all, many were simply able to worship God in the face of their loss and worship God in the face of a healing.  They just worshipped God because they knew Him to be good.

But in our culture, God is good when He does what we say.  God is bad when He doesn’t listen to us.  Ouch.  I think we all long for a God who is far deeper than that. Thank God He is.

2 Expecting Your Pastor to Be Your Personal Chaplain

Somewhere along the line, a lot of us fell into the belief that somehow the pastor was supposed to be there for us at every key moment of our lives.  He was supposed to visit us in the hospital, be there for weddings, funerals, crises and through most of the every day moments of life.

There are four problems with this view.

  1. It kills pastors once their church grows beyond 200 people (one guy just can’t do all that, and if you hire more, it just gets irrationally expensive in staffing).
  2. It keeps pastors from their real calling: leading, prayer, and teaching the Word.
  3. It perpetuates spiritual infancy among people in the congregation, never maturing them to a place of direct reliance on God or looking to other Christians to walk with them.
  4. Oh yeah.  It’s completely unbiblical.

The Apostle Paul didn’t sail from Corinth to Thessolonica to do hospital visits.  Nor did he sit around drinking tea and eating crumpets with congregational members.  Nor did he forbid average Christians from praying for each other, visiting each other, being there for each other and loving each other in Christ so he could swoop in and do it for them.

God’s dream of a church is to see leaders equip people to be the church (Ephesians 4). A true biblical community is equipped by its leaders to care for each other, pray for each other, get into the bible together, do life together and be there for each other and the wider community.

I love it when I see Christians caring for each other.  And it’s cool that I get to be a part of that in my own community group and little world, and get to equip others to care for each other and more fully rely on God.

#3 Confusing Emotion with God’s Leading

I hear this all the time:  I feel God is leading me to….I feel God wants me to….It just doesn’t feel right to me so the Holy Spirit must be telling me to…..I felt like God was so totally in it so it must be right. And often those sentences are completed with things that really don’t stack up with scripture, or seem to be reflections of a person’s personal struggle for recognition or appear to be linked to some insecurity or struggle they are facing, rather than a reflection of God’s priorities.

I’ll say it out loud: I’m just not sure our feelings are a reliable indicator of anything except how we feel.

Christians today confuse emotionalism with faith, moods with promptings, inclinations with divine leadings.  I’ve heard Christians say “I’m not going to serve in ministry until God tells me exactly what to do.” Let me use my outside voice again: isn’t that just…arrogant?  Who are we to expect God to directly reveal specifically to us what we are supposed to do?  Who are we to think we get exempted from the biblical directive to serve God and others because we “feel” we need a special revelation? 

Feelings are mostly just that…feelings.  If I acted on my mood all the time, I’d probably be nominated for sainthood one hour and then commit a crime the next.  My feelings seem to wander all over the map.

God does speak to us, but mostly He speaks to us in His Word.  And in His Word He gives us direction about what matters to God and how followers should live.  That pretty much applies to all of us. 

The discernment comes in when we try to apply God’s clear teachings to our specific situation.  Through prayer over God’s word, community and listening to those God has given particular wisdom to, we can figure out how to live in the moment for Christ.  And true humility would move us to serve selflessly. Scripture directs all of us to serve, to give, to devote ourselves, to read the Bible, to worship, to show compassion.  Honestly, what the Bible tells each of us to do is not rocket science.  We know the drill. Often we just don’t want to do it.

How do you feel about feelings?  Or better yet, what do you think God feels about your feelings?

#4: Expecting Someone or Something Else to Share Your Faith
If you don’t invite your friends enter a growing relationship with Jesus, who will?  Almost every follower of Jesus I’ve met wants their church to grow and people to go to heaven, but most of them don’t live that way.  There is an expectation that the church had better grow, but a minority take personal responsibility for being a part of the solution by inviting their friends and family.

Increasingly, we seem to count on a church’s marketing to “sell” Jesus for us. Billboards, radio ads, flyers, web marketing are all supposed to “drive” people to the church.   In my former ministry, we grew rapidly and at the same time became “famous” (in such a tiny way) for our direct mail flyers.  But it bothered me that most of the people came because they saw our flyers or someone who didn’t go to our church told them to come to our church.

When a church loses a bit of a growth curve or stagnates, members blame everyone but themselves.  Hear me — as a leader, I take full responsibility when we hit a tough spot, but imagine what would happen if we all shared that responsibility and took action by telling the world about Jesus.  Imagine in eternity when our friends find out that we sat on forgiveness, hope, healing, mercy and grace and kept our mouths shut.  (Friends don’t let friends go to hell.)

In the Bible, when people met Jesus, they left him only to run and tell their friends what this incredible man had done for them.  We call that dynamic investing and inviting.  Invest in real relationships with people who don’t go to church.  Hang out with them.  Pray for them. Develop great friendships.  And then invite them with you into a relevant environment (like Sundays or community groups) where they can meet Jesus.

The number one reason people don’t go to church?  No one invited them.  A recent poll on hypocrisy revealed that while Americans (sorry, no Canadian data) generally dislike Christians, 78% of people who don’t go to church would have a conversation about faith with a Christian if the Christian was willing.  God’s mercy is bigger than we realize.

#5 Expecting Someone Else to be Responsible for Your Spiritual Growth
My basement flooded last week.  Thankfully, it appears my insurance is covering it and, after some initial long hours of hard work, contractors and clean up crews will pretty much do the rest.  (Which works well with my non-existent handy-man gift set).    We delegate and outsource so much these days.

How many of us expect something/someone other than us to be primarily responsible for our spiritual growth?  I think Christians look to their churches to “grow” them spiritually, while not asking the tough personal questions or doing the hard soul-work that comes in an authentic relationship with Jesus. 

We become so much more effective when church leaders work in partnership with parents to leverage every day at home plus the time together at church to shape a child’s future.

The same is true of us.  The more we put into our relationship every day — personally — the closer we grow to Jesus. 

# 6 Lousy Devotional Life
I just hear it all the time from people who come to tell me they’re not growing spiritually (often they begin by saying it must be the services…they’re not “deep” enough.)  Then, after a few questions and some listening,  I usually ask how their personal walk with Christ is going.  Too often (and sadly) this is what I hear:  I pray when I’m in the car.  Six days go by and I realize I haven’t picked up my Bible.  I pray in the shower.  I don’t pray much.  I’m just so busy. I heard part of James MacDonald this morning on the radio – that’s all I do.  I find the Bible difficult.  I get to it when I can.

So imagine if that dialogue was your approach to food.  If I eat at all, I eat in the car…grab it mostly through drive thrus.  Six days went by, and I realized I just hadn’t eaten.  I really only drink when I’m in the shower.  I just don’t each much…never got into a routine.  I get to food when I can, which is a couple times a month.

You get the point. 

This week, change your pattern.  I use a one year Bible.  It’s so easy.  I open the Bible and turn to January 13th…the readings are all there.  I reflect on those readings, pray over them, and pray over all kinds of issues.  Some days it’s dry.  But over time, regular devotion becomes a harvest that offers the finest food.

An amazing thing happens…when you go deep with God, He goes deep with you.   

#7 Living a Dual Life   

Too many of us have different personas for different environments.  We’re one way at home, one way at work, one way at school, one way at church, one way with friends, and in the end, we don’t know who we are. 

I remember struggling with this a lot in my teens and twenties.  I had a set of Christian friends and non-Christian friends and I was mostly a chameleon. Put me in a different environment and my colors changed.

I remember losing a lot of self-respect in the process and sensing it was a real impediment in my relationship with God.  So, I decided I wouldn’t play the game anymore.  I spent a number of years figuring out who I authentically was (that takes a while), making a list in my mind of the things I wanted to stop doing and others I wanted to start doing, and then mustering up the courage to step into environments and face rejection because I didn’t always play along.

I’m always hesitant to say a struggle is in the “past”, but since making the change I feel much more peace and like my life is aligned with a purpose worth the effort.  I rarely have to worry about what I said or did because it really doesn’t matter who’s in the room or who saw what: I’m basically the same wherever I go.  And that means people see my faults, not just my good side.

I’m relieved when I hear people say “One thing about Carey — what you see is what you get.”  I still don’t like everything people see or what I bring to every setting, but at least the consistency is refreshing.

#8: Changing Nothing, But Expecting Everything to Change   
Christians are great at blaming others (including God) for their shortcomings, and a bit famous for being lazy when it comes to personal change.  We sometimes change nothing but expect everything to change.

Many of us get stuck in life on harmful habits, patterns behaviors. (I think the Bible calls that sin.) But rather than acknowledging that we might need to face reality, deal honestly with our role in the problem, and come before God willing to change, we change nothing but expect the results to be different.  When things don’t change, we blame God for the misery in our lives.  It amazes me how at times I can change nothing but still expect everything to change.

The antidote is to face reality.  Reality is our friend.  If I’m stuck, what role did I play in getting me here?  (God is not some cruel puppeteer pulling our strings to make our lives miserable.) Confess it (Trap #9), and then begin to study the scriptures to get a fresh perspective on how to live and rely deeply on God each day for the power and strength to correct the problem.

When you change your attitudes and behaviors (God giving you the power and strength), that’s when things finally begin to change.

#9: Failing to Confess Sins   

I just don’t hear people talk about confession much any more. (Not like the priest/booth thing…the confess your sins while praying thing).    And honestly, I’m not sure how good my confession prayers really are.

Confession is so scary.  It means we stand naked, exposed before God for who we really are. The Bible even says we should confess our sins to each other.  No wonder we duck it.  It’s easier to justify behaviour, blame others, play the victim or just limp along and try again tomorrow.  Confession takes us into the jaws of our own shortcomings.

But it also takes us into the arms of God’s mercy.  Because when we see ourselves for who we really are, we also see God better for who He really is.  And He is merciful….deeply kind and able to love us into change.

What would we Christians be like if we really, deeply confessed our sins?  What would change? How would we be different? 

Confession.  Maybe becoming real with God about who we really are is one of the best catalysts to change we’ve got. 

#10. Confusing How You Serve God with Your Identity as a Follower of Jesus
I’ve seen this way too many times.  Serving God is great, and biblical.  But too often we get so hooked on what we do for Him that it becomes our identity in Him.   

We are worshipers of Jesus first, and servants of Him second.  In the church, so many people fuse their identity with what they do (their role) that it becomes deeply unhealthy.

If you got cut from your worship team, stepped back from the usher team, told you weren’t need to do sound again, would your love for God be threatened?  Would you still worship?  Would you dig deep into the Word?  Would you pray with gratitude?  I’ve seen too many people only go to church when they serve or play or preach.  That’s not really worship.  That’s a gig.  Underneath it (often) is a very insecure person who feels they need something to make them “acceptable” or “meaningful”.   Nothing could be further from the truth.  We have value — enough for Jesus to die for us.  That should be where we start.

If your service/job could be taken away from you and you could still have full participation in the life of Jesus, then you’ve probably got a healthy attitude toward how you serve God.  You serve Him because you love Him, and you serve Him out of gratitude for what He’s done for you.

How do you combat this trap?  I remind myself virtually every week that what I do is a privilege.  It’s not why God loves me and not why I love Him.  I also read daily Bible passages that have nothing to do with what I preach and pray about lots of things that are about “life”, not just church.  I remind myself I’m a worshiper first, a servant second, a preacher third.  It helps.  Ironically, when I get that order right, it actually frees me up to serve God far better than when I’ve got it wrong, because when it’s wrong my service is about me, not Him. Used by permission of the author.









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