This week we’re looking at the third, and maybe most humanizing, chapter in Crazy Love. It is also named “Crazy Love,” and I mean, it’s not wrong. This chapter is a gold mine for a conversation Evangelicals really need to have, but it’s also heartbreaking. Got daddy issues? So does Francis Chan, and “Crazy Love” is about how he tried to create a better mindset for his relationship with his Heavenly Father after living in fear around his own father. Yeah, this one’s real. Grab a blanket or a beer or curl up with a pet, lads, ’cause Chapter 3 goes in.
If you’re new to the party, Crazy Love is a book that calls for American Christians to revitalize their notions of who God is (our breathtakingly powerful Maker) and live a radical, sacrificial, crazy-in-love-for-God life to prove it. Published in 2008, it swept through American Christian communities right onto the New York Times Bestsellers List. I’m taking Crazy Love chapter by chapter to deconstruct the beautiful and the toxic in Chan’s ideas — and see how they echo larger issues with American conservative Christian theology in general.
This week’s theme: Evangelical Christianity’s “personal relationship with God” is just Christians reproducing the cycle of abuse in their own lives on a cosmic level. We deserve better.
Francis Chan opens the chapter with the claim that most American Christians miss out on what God’s love for them really is for a lot of reasons. For him, it was his relationship with his own dad that tripped him up. This is his story.
dad and DAD
The concept of being wanted by a father was foreign to me. Growing up, I felt unwanted by my dad. My mother died giving birth to me, so maybe he saw me as the cause of her death; I’m not sure.
I never carried on a meaningful conversation with my dad. In fact, the only affection I remember came when I was nine years old: He put his arm around me for about thirty seconds while we were on our way to my stepmother’s funeral. Besides that, the only other physical touch I experienced were the beatings I received when I disobeyed or bothered him.
My goal in our relationship was not to annoy my father. I would walk around the house trying not to upset him.
He died when I was twelve. I cried but also felt relief.
The impact of this relationship affected me for years, and I think a lot of those emotions transferred to my relationship with God. For example, I tried hard not to annoy God with my sin or upset Him with my little problems. I had no aspiration of being wanted by God; I was just happy not to be hated or hurt by Him.
Don’t get me wrong. Not everything about my dad was bad. I really do thank God for him, because he taught me discipline, respect, fear, and obedience. I also think he loved me. But I can’t sugarcoat how my relationship with him negatively affected my view of God for many years (54).
This is the thing about Francis Chan.
I was talking (/ranting/trying to laugh about) Chan with some apostate friends a while ago, and one of the topics that came up is how weirdly, aggressively submissive and self-diminishing Francis Chan’s theology is. Then someone brought up the idea that the only way someone gets to thinking this way is if they’ve been through so much shit that these ideas really do seem normal.
If you’ve been reading along and wondering how in the hell Francis Chan could react to the God he describes in such mind-bogglingly dehumanizing ways (calling humans puny and undeserving in response to a magnificent Creator and universe, saying that we are extras in life and delusional to think otherwise, describing stress as reeking of arrogance), this is why.
Francis Chan never explicitly characterizes his experience with his father as “abuse” in this book. I don’t know if he has in any sermons he’s given. It seems clear as damn day to me that this was abuse, and I don’t think anyone reading this would disagree. In fact, I’m pretty sure Francis Chan would agree unless he has issues with how loaded the word is, because on some level, he knows this was wrong and that he did not deserve it.
Because he didn’t. Knowing how fucked up Chan’s theology can be, having studied and loved and tried to live out his writing in this book, all I feel reading this is just sad. Our ideas of the world are founded on our ideas of who we are. I wish so badly that Francis Chan would know that he deserves better. At the end of the day, Chan is just a guy with fucked up experiences who tried to break the cycles humans use to hurt each other and create a more loving, authentic Christianity. He just never actually got there. At some points he gets SO CLOSE and then swerves right into a toxic extreme. This is just another example of what I mean.
In Love with the One I Fear
If I could pick one word to describe my feelings about God in those first years of being a Christian, it would be fear. Basically, any verses that describe His overwhelming greatness or His wrath were easy for me to relate to because I feared my own father…
Most Christians have been taught in church or by their parents to set aside a daily time for prayer and Scripture reading. It’s what we are supposed to do, and so for a long time it’s what I valiantly attempted. When I didn’t, I felt guilty.
Over time I realized that when we love God, we naturally run to Him — frequently and zealously. Jesus didn’t command that we have a regular time with Him each day. Rather, He tells us to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.’ He called this the ‘first and greatest commandment’ (Matt. 22:37-38). The results are intimate prayer and study of His Word. Our motivation changes from guilt to love.
This is how God longs for us to respond to His extravagant, unending love: not with a cursory ‘quiet time’ plagued with guilt, but with true love expressed through our lives. Like my little girl running out to the driveway to hug me each night because she loves me.
Fear is no longer the word I use to describe how I feel about God. Now I use words like reverent intimacy. I still fear God, and I pray that I always will. The Bible emphasizes the importance of fearing God. As we talked about in chapter 1, our culture severely lacks the fear of God, and many of us are plagued with amnesia. But for a long time, I narrowly focused on His fearsomeness to the exclusion of His great and abounding love. (56-57).
For some parts of this I’m following Chan, and then others he just totally loses me. Some of what he says just seems to directly contradict past chapters and the nature of his theology itself. Chan writes that “true love” doesn’t come from guilt, it comes from straight up wanting to love. I’m behind that. His comparison of loving God like his daughter runs out to jump into his arms is adorable. He actually describes how the birth of his daughter changed what parenthood and love was for him later on.
I just wish Chan actually wrote that idea into his actual theology. He has self-awareness without the follow-through. That is where people get hurt.
I’m gonna guess we all agree that fear isn’t healthy in ANY relationship. Actually, that’s not even a relationship at that point, it’s just a power dynamic, and abuse is nothing without a power dynamic. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that our parents’ and grandparents’ generation in America tended to have more authoritarian or just plain abusive upbringings (Dad rules the house), but believe in a God who echoes them. I think people will create relationships according to what’s normal or instinctual to them.
Maybe that’s why Chan says he thinks we shouldn’t love God out of guilt even though in the last 2 chapters, he just told us:
- “But know this: God will not be tolerated. He instructs us to worship and fear Him” (28)
- “We cannot escape Him, not even if we want to” (32)
- “But to put it bluntly, when you get your own universe, you can make your own standards. When we disagree, let’s not assume it’s His reasoning that needs correction” (34)
- “But then there’s that perplexing command: ‘Rejoice in the LORD always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (41)
- “Why are we so quick to forget God? Who do we think we are?” (42)
- “Don’t let yourself forget. Soak it in and keep remembering that it is true. He is everything” (51)
Yeah, you’re right. No guilt here. No. Guilt. Heeere.
It turns out that Francis Chan doesn’t think we shouldn’t fear God. He actually believes we shouldn’t JUST fear God. That is where he loses me.
It feels like he just gets so close to unlearning shitty relationship dynamics (you’re not supposed to be afraid of your dad and you’re not supposed to serve, worship, and never question him), but he isn’t there yet. I was rooting for him to get somewhere good, and then he served up the last paragraph. It makes me wonder how he went through the whole editing process without stopping and going wait, uh… maybe I’m just reproducing the heavy-handed fear and control bullshit that my dad made me think was normal in the theology in this entire book.
I don’t judge him for not completely getting rid of his FLEAs, and I want to treat his experiences with respect and sympathy, but I WILL hold him to task for the consequences that abuse-flavored ideas have had for other people.
Recently, out of a desire to grow in my love for God, I decided to spend a few days alone with Him in the woods… I had no plan or agenda; I just opened my Bible. I don’t think it was coincidence that on the first day it fell open to Jeremiah 1.
After reading that passage, I meditated on it for the next four days. It spoke of God’s intimate knowledge of me. I had always acknowledged His complete sovereignty over me, but verses 4 and 5 took it to another level: ‘The word of the LORD came to me, saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.'”
In other words, God knew me before He made me… (57-58).
You know. Just a guy. In the woods. For four days. With a Bible.
This is right in line with the all-consuming control that Chan teaches God has over us. For Chan, this is comforting, beautiful, and celebration-worthy… and it also leads him to belittle humans. Again.
If Francis Chan grew up being shown that he was worthy of love, would he still grovel so much at just the thought of receiving it? If he’d realized it and started changing how he thinks now, would he? What is he passing on to his congregations and his kids?
This is the God we serve, the God who knew us before He made us. The God who promises to remain with us and rescue us. the God who loves us and longs for us to love Him back.
So why, when we constantly offend Him and are so unlovable and unloving, does God persist in loving us?
In my childhood, doing something offensive resulted in punishment, not love. Whether we admit it or not, every one of us has offended God at some point. Jesus affirmed this when He said, ‘No one is good — except God alone’ (Luke 18:19).
So why does God still love us, despite us? I do not have an answer to this question. But I do know that if God’s mercy didn’t exist, then there would be no hope. No matter how good we tried to be, we would be punished because of our sins.
Many people look at their lives and weigh their sins against their good deeds. But Isaiah 64:6 says, ‘All our righteous acts are like filthy rags.’ Our good deeds can never outweigh our sins.
The literal interpretation of ‘filthy rags’ in this verse is ‘menstrual garments’ (think used tampons… and if you’re disgusted by that idea, you get Isaiah’s point)… (60)
HE COMES SO CLOSE TO RECOGNIZING THAT HIS CHILDHOOD IS STILL AFFECTING HIS THEOLOGY. So close… He says that when he was a kid, offending others led to punishment. He could have said after that, and that was wrong, and that really hurt me, and I realize that I don’t deserve punishment, and it’s not something we should keep believing in our relationships with God today.
But this is not something Francis Chan seems to have worked out in his life this far. I understand that. I get that this shit is hard to work through. I get that you can go on believing so many awful things about what you deserve without even realizing it’s not normal. That’s why therapy is so helpful.
“So why does God still love us, despite us?” BECAUSE YOU DESERVE IT! This just screams to me that Chan hasn’t resolved a lot. I hear a little kid talking in that sentence. Someone who hasn’t learned that people don’t love you DESPITE YOU. People love you BECAUSE OF YOU. That’s not how love works. And it breaks my heart to hear this grown man say this sincerely not knowing the answer. Crazy Love is a manifestation of Francis Chan not understanding that love is better than that.
It makes total sense to me why Chan might still believe this. With the father he described, I’d expect that he felt like his existence was not wanted or welcomed, it was tolerated. If you live your life in fear and on edge, trying to be less of a burden so the people who say they love you won’t hurt you, and only being touched when you’re getting hit, you’re gonna feel like people permit you to exist and that you are the problem. If they love you, they love you despite you. And that’s fucking heartbreaking. He deserves so much more than that. I did. You did. We all do.
The thing is, Evangelical Christianity is tailor-made for abuse survivors. If you are coming from a world where being controlled, tolerated, loved despite yourself, and hurt because of yourself was normal? Evangelical Christianity is the most natural thing in the world to fall into, with the added bonus of a promise of someone who will love you no matter what.
What gets me MOST in this damn chapter, though, is that Francis Chan has heard this argument. In fact, he ADDRESSES IT. And then he swerves again! It’s like a practiced move at this point! The mental gymnastics on this guy…
Do I Have a Choice?
While I was speaking to some college students recently, an interesting twist on the contrast between our unresponsiveness and God’s great desire for us to come up. One student asked, ‘Why would a loving God force me to love Him?’
It seemed like a weird question. When I asked the student to clarify what he meant, he responded that God ‘threatens me with hell and punishment if I don’t begin a relationship with Him.’
The easy retort to this statement is that God doesn’t force us to love Him; it’s our choice. But there was a deeper issue going on, and I wasn’t sure how to answer it in the moment.
Now that I’ve had time to think about it, I would tell that student that if God is truly the greatest good on this earth, would He be loving us if He didn’t draw us toward what is best for us (even if that happens to be Himself?) Doesn’t his courting, luring, pushing, calling, and even ‘threatening’ demonstrate His love? If He didn’t do all of that, wouldn’t we accuse Him of being unloving in the end, when all things are revealed?
If someone asked you what the greatest good on this earth is, what would you say? An epic surf session? Financial security? Health? Meaningful, trusting friendships? Intimacy with your spouse? Knowing that you belong?
The greatest good on this earth is God. Period. God’s one goal for us is Himself (59-60).
- “The greatest good on this earth is God.” Uh, source?
- WHAT DO YOU MEAN THAT SEEMED LIKE A WEIRD QUESTION? Being forced to love and serve someone is so natural to you that you had to ask him to clarify?
God, this reminds me of the time someone asked him what he thought of homosexuality and he ended up saying we should excommunicate divorcees too. You know. To make it fair.
- “The easy retort.” Oh yeah. We’ve never heard this one before. I think I know how it goes: well actually now God gave humans free will because if He just made us worship Him then we’d just be robots and that’s not true love, so you can choose whether you want to go to hell or not. You’re literally saying that if Door A has serving, loving, apologizing to, and being loved by an invisible man for eternity and beyond, and Door B has a modest helping of eternal torture, that Door A is a choice? It is a free choice in the same way coercion through violence gives you a “choice.” But it’s not a healthy, loving, or remotely fair one, and it’s not something you should be teaching children is okay or the way things are. Why isn’t THAT obvious.
- I DON’T EVEN KNOW HOW TO REACT TO THIS PART AHHHHHHHHH!!!!
Is Francis Chan’s answer REALLY that “courting, luring, pushing, calling, and yes, even ‘threatening'” is just an ass-covering move so no one can say God isn’t truly loving?!
I CANNOT wrap my head around the fact that Chan is trying to tell us that God threatens us with hell and punishment if we don’t serve him forever because he loves us? That is THE wildest take I’ve heard on “I hurt you because I love you and I know what’s best for you.” What that’s saying is, “I already decided that I’m what’s best for you, so I’m gonna give you the choice to worship, fear, and love me, but just to encourage you to do it, I’m gonna make the other choice hell.”
If he sincerely believes this, his idea of love is shot.
Christians can do better. Christians MUST do better. Break the cycle of abuse. Throw out abusive ideas of love. Change your relationships with God.
What happened in this chapter — seeing how Chan’s ideas of love got fucked up and how he tried to course correct, but still ended up in such a bad place — was awful. Sometimes it was incomprehensible. Sometimes I felt nothing but sympathy.
The deepest lessons we learn in life are not in the classroom, on paper, even in the field. They are the lessons we learn from how others treat us. These lessons slip under our tongues. They seep deep into our skin, permeate our blood, sink into our very marrow. We live them out on a cellular level. We carry them like air in our lungs.
The lessons that hurt we learn hardest. We cling on to these, sometimes without even knowing, because facing the possibility that they were wrong and therefore that we were wronged is so scary. It can upend our whole worlds. To understand that you didn’t deserve to be treated that way. To realize that that person who said they loved you, never really did. To know that this pain could have been avoided, or that you were so cut off from your own self, you didn’t even know the pain was there.
From what he shared, the lessons that Francis Chan learned growing up were that he was tolerated at best. When he was touched it was to be hurt. To be beaten, yelled at, made fun of, isolated, blackmailed, spied on, physically hurt, violated, humiliated, deprived, gaslighted, limited, as a person — it all says one thing to you. That the other person’s feelings matter more than your pain. That they come first. It is the ultimate dehumanization. They have the right to express their anger, righteousness, frustration, annoyance, and tiredness by taking away your right not to be hurt.
No wonder Francis Chan still believes that humans are worth so little. No wonder why he thinks love only happens despite you, not because of you. No wonder why he thinks someone who is bigger than you wins the game, so don’t ask questions, never forget how small you are, and never stop serving him.
No wonder why his love needs fear. No wonder why his love is crazy. After all, that’s abuse in the most callous words. Crazy love.
How many more pastors, Sunday School teachers, parents, and ministers reproduce this hurt in their own theology? How common are these ideas in Christianity — that you should be so lucky that God (for some reason you can’t comprehend) deigns to care about you, that you should grovel in gratefulness for his love, that you should fear him?
How many people believe this stuff? How many people start to think this is how their human relationships should be too?
When you bring abuse into religion, you don’t just make it normal. You make it sacred. You make your own god an accomplice in your abuse. You self-inflict. You are helping no one. You are healing no one. You are changing nothing. You’re just preserving the game. You’re just dropping the burden on the next generation. You’re just continuing to allow yourself to hurt.
I know it’s hard. I know that taboo and silence and culture are all accomplices in preventing us from even admitting we need to heal, nevertheless healing. I know not everyone can go to therapy, not everyone can even find it, and not everyone has even realized the stigmas against it are wrong. I know calling things abuse or toxic or unhealthy or undeserved in our lives means seeing people in our lives in a different light, and even having to confront them. I know it means having to confront ourselves.
Nevertheless, go forth and fix your shit.
Because your kids deserve better. Because your congregation deserves better. Because YOU deserve better. Because it’s worth it. Because you can’t keep going like this. Because it’s wrong. Because love can be so much more than crazy.
Here’s to everyone out here who’s already trying.