Christine Caine: Eyes on the Promise—Part 2

Don’t miss Part 1 of our interview, where Christine Caine talks about her story of abuse and how her ministry began.

There is a kind of holy alchemy to your story, as the Holy Spirit turns the lead of the difficulties in your early life into the gold of remarkable service to the vulnerable, overlooked and marginalized. Knowing how deeply your past has affected your present ministry, I was curious to see the title of your latest book Don’t Look Back. There must be such nuance around engaging the past for you.

I’m glad you picked up on the nuance. That’s the greatest tension in life and ministry—because the way I have found healing and wholeness is by dealing with my past. Anyone who’s listened to me in the past 35 years would know that something I’ve always said is that the blood of Jesus does not give you amnesia. It gives you a life beyond your past, but it doesn’t get rid of your past. It doesn’t—and you don’t ignore or minimize it. In fact, the only way to truly find healing and wholeness is to face our past square on and to move forward in Jesus. We hold that tension.

But where this book came from is this: I traveled to 21 countries last year, which is pretty typical. I spoke in a huge range of churches from a wide breadth of denominations in every stream of the church. Everywhere, I heard people asking, “When are we going to go back to normal?” Saying things like “I didn’t sign up for this,” or “Everything has shifted so much.” Or whenever they talked about their church, they would go on and on about “pre-pandemic” and how things were in 2019. Everywhere. It became clear that a huge number of us are, for understandable reasons, living in the past. So many people are becoming stuck.

But Jesus knew all this was going to happen. All the chaos. Jesus knew about the trauma, the reckonings, the shaking that has happened over the last three years. The instability has felt like it’s everywhere: political, cultural, environmental, economic. But Jesus knew. This is the world we were called to. He gave us the Holy Spirit and called us to ministry. He didn’t fall off the throne. 

The game plan hasn’t changed. All the promises of God are still yes in Christ Jesus, yes and amen. The purpose? Still the same. Our telos? Still the same. What we’ve been called to do? Still the same. But everything that can be shaken has been shaken. And yet, people are still stuck in systems and structures, understandings and expectations, hopes and ideals that we had before any of these massive changes hit. It’s like we’ve forgotten that Jesus is still with us. Like we’ve forgotten that he’s still the same yesterday, today and forever. He is. Not our method of church. Not our structure. Not our systems. Not our understanding of ministry. Not how we do it. The same people who believe that you can’t put new wine into old wineskins are asking, “Can we please go back to 2019?” Sorry, we can’t go back to how it was. The world is different now.

The past years have exposed that maybe we have had some misplaced hopes. Perhaps what has been revealed in many of us who have been shaken as leaders is that perhaps we need to realign our hopes to Christ who is our eternal anchor. Maybe the hope was in a system or a structure or a method or in people. Maybe it was in acceptance or approval. Insert whatever. We’ve all had this reckoning at one point or another if we’ve been in ministry long enough. We have to ask, were we really in it for Jesus? Or were we in it for us? For our comfort or our success?

This is what we’ve signed up for. Trials. Read the Bible. And while these things are deeply sobering and deeply painful, they are also deeply important. 

Tell me more about the image of looking back.

I was reading Luke 17. While I don’t have all my theology perfectly buttoned up on that passage, Jesus is referencing Noah’s flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, etc. It’s a description of a world burning down. And in the middle of this, Jesus drops three words that leap off the page at me: “Remember Lot’s wife.” In the middle of describing a world burning down, what is it Jesus calls us to remember? Lot’s wife.

That drew me back to the original passage in Genesis 19. That whole chapter is so deeply painful, especially against the backdrop of the world and the abuse scandals in the church. And what happens to Lot’s wife? Well, she looks back, and is turned to a pillar of salt. After a word study, I think there’s a case to be made that she looked back longingly. It was not looking back to deal with her stuff, it was a desire to go back. It was a lingering. That explains so much of the current temptation that I see in all sorts of places. The longing to go back when the call is to go forward.

When I say, “Don’t look back,” I’m not saying, “Don’t deal with the past.” I’m saying, “Don’t long for something that can no longer ever be.” Deal with the past. But don’t get stuck there. A lot of people at this moment are so stuck. It’s because we fear the future. It’s unknown. We are realizing that we never really had as much control as we felt we did.

Here’s what I’m asking—can we lift our heads? Can we fix our eyes on Jesus again? He is drawing us forward. If we could have that eternal perspective, it would change everything. My overarching point to churches and their leaders is this: We don’t want to get calcified into a pillar of salt looking back when we need to be the salt of the world in the future.

Now obviously there are a variety of reasons for “looking back.” Grief is one—and very understandable. Can you speak about that? Is there an opportunity present even in mourning what has been lost?

I don’t think we’ll ever see the opportunity if we don’t go through the grief. I come from a segment of the church that’s not very good at mourning. We tend to just go, “Praise God! Let’s move on.” But then everyone falls apart at some point in the future because no one is dealing with their stuff. So, the thing about grief is that you can try to deny it, but it will come back somewhere in the future. The other danger is to become stuck in your grief, unable to move forward. The Scripture speaks to both of those, and the Bible gives great examples of healthy periods of mourning.

We have to feel our grief. If we don’t mourn those unmet expectations and learn to find the comfort of God, we will be stuck. It’s not about finding all the answers. That’s not what it’s about. There are many things I have hoped for that now are not going to happen. It’s that simple. But at the end of the day, I must learn to bring them to the foot of the cross. I need the power of God to be able to leave these things with him as part of my mourning process. There are some things I have felt peaceful about. There are some things I have wept and wailed over (I’m Greek, so everything’s emotional, thank God.). There are some things that I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to reconcile with, but I can trust what I do know about God more than what I don’t understand about this situation. [If we don’t] name it and own that we had hoped for something that we must now let go, we won’t be able to move through it. We will quit, crumble, deny and compound our problems somewhere down the track. Eventually, it will all unravel. The stuff we talk to others about? Well, we as leaders need to go through it too.

So there’s a balance. On the one hand, we need to name our grief and acknowledge it. On the other hand, it’s a little like what the Lord said to [Samuel]: “How long will you mourn for Saul?” (1 Sam. 16:1). We need to move on if we want to keep up with what God is doing. The book speaks to both. I’ve tried to encourage those who need to sit with their grief to sit with it and to encourage some of us to stop looking back and start looking forward.

Tell us more about the process of looking forward. What needs to change in us—our beliefs, attitudes, practices—to make this possible and faithful?

For most of us, it’s a consistent change of our attitudes. It’s growing in our capacity to believe God. Ultimately, it was believing God that was counted to Abraham as righteousness. The only way that you can keep moving forward, especially in a world and a ministry culture that will keep beating you up, is by constantly renewing your mind. 

Ultimately, it comes down to a faith issue. Do we believe, in this increasingly secular world where there’s so much outrage, deceit, disillusionment and disappointment, that faith is a good fight? We must decide that. I’m not talking about a culture war fight—which is absurd nonsense—but the fight of faith where I have to fight to truly walk by faith and not by sight in this world. 

[There’s] a lot of lowering our expectations of the Bible, of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, of God’s capacity to bring transformation to our lives and the world. I see a lot of settling out there among leaders—succumbing to the culture, upholding the status quo. More than a specific cultural issue, what’s at stake is faith. And if we lose that, we lose the very linchpin of the Christian life. Faith is supernatural. We’re basing our eternity on the idea that [a] dead guy got up 2,000 years ago. That’s not normal. Even the most highly educated and urbane Christian will never really be cool in this world because we believe something impossible. So with this as the foundation of our faith, shouldn’t we have practices of faith where we get our spirit believing God? If we already believe something that would be termed absurd by natural, rational people, why not believe it all? That God still speaks and heals and transforms today, that there is still room for signs and wonders even in the middle of great disappointment.

To me, that is the hope: that transformation can still happen, that we can have peace in a peaceless world, that we can have joy in a joyless world. We can be kind in a mean world. We can have love in a hateful world. We can be those people by the power of the Holy Spirit. To me, what keeps me looking forward is the hope that God can still do the impossible, that God still is who he says he is, that he is good and that he does good, that he will do what he said he will do, that he loves everyone, and that there is beauty around us.

How, practically, do you live this out in your ministry and leadership?

We all need to have spiritual practices and rhythms in our life to make space for this remembering. For me, it’s getting outside. I love nature. It keeps me in awe and wonder of God. If we don’t make space for beauty, we’ll stop seeing it. If we don’t make space for love, we’ll stop feeling it. We need people and things that build hope in us or we will be hopeless, no matter how spiritual we are or how much Bible we know. This has to do with the people around you, the places you go, the practices you cultivate. It’s not impossible; we just have to fight our flesh. Sometimes it’s just a lot easier to spend all our time on social media and get caught up in all the yelling and screaming. Our flesh is gratified then, but it’s killing our spirits. It’s a lot easier to surround ourselves with negative, critical people and to ruminate on disappointment, discouragement, betrayal, hurt and mistakes. I mean, it hurts to look forward. When you’ve been in darkness for a while, the light is not comfortable. It doesn’t feel good at first.

And this is where leaders matter so much. Like we see in the story of Moses and Joshua, leadership has the potential to either lead a generation into the promise or keep them out of it. That’s the hard truth. There were 12 seasoned leaders who were chosen to go into the Promised Land—the land that God had already said he had given to the people. But even though they saw the milk and honey, even though they were practically tasting it, and even though they were holding the promise, they took their eyes off it. They began to look at what frightened them. Their eyes were off the promise, and they were looking at the problem instead. And what did they say when their faith failed? “We can’t do it.” And so an entire generation did not go into the promise God had for them because 10 out of 12 leaders failed them. Caleb and Joshua were not better, more articulate or cooler or anything. They just believed God.

What then is your message to leaders in this moment?

Keep your eyes on the promise. Be drawn into the promise Jesus has for us. Let’s bring our people with us into that, no matter how painful it may be. Even though it is much harder in this cultural moment to keep looking forward, we must persevere. We will sound foolish, like a cry in the wilderness of hope and faith and light and love. This may be offensive to many people today, both in the world and in the church. So, we have to be willing to be like John the Baptist, not only to point out how the world is burning down, but also to see the hope in the midst of it all. We must not look back, but look forward in faith to the One who is calling us. 

I have never been more hopeful in my 35 years of following Jesus. I see the Spirit of God moving in such incredible ways. In countries like Pakistan, Thailand, Cambodia. All through South America. We don’t have to panic. We just have to keep people focused on Jesus. He’s drawing us, like he always is.

As I watch this generation, I know that we can’t sell them a better lifestyle. But we can promise them a great Savior. There is a generation rising now that has been let down by church and every institution. We know all that. But what we need is a generation that is able to linger in the presence of God. It’s only when we linger there that we are marked and transformed.

There is a generation coming together ready for this moment. From all traditions, all nations. All we have to do is stop looking back, and choose instead to look forward, to do what the author to the Hebrews said: to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.

Paul J. Pastor is editor-at-large of Outreach and author of several books. He lives in Oregon.