When the formula works


One of the most popular articles on our website is “When the Formula Fails,” which challenges the formulaic approach to spirituality in performance oriented churches and groups.

Recently I have been asked several times about when the formula seems to work.  “Why does the formula work for them?”  When we do the prescribed thing, it doesn’t work.  They say we didn’t do it right or we didn’t have enough faith or we have unconfessed sin or we didn’t do it long enough or some other excuse.  But it must work because it worked for them.  Really?

There is a fallacy in logic called an “error of generalization.”  You might remember it as “hasty generalization” or even “jumping to a conclusion.”  The error springs from the practice of noting something in a small number of cases and believing it to be true in all or most cases.  This is the source of most stereotyping and many old wives’ tales.  It is also the foundation of most marketing today.

Little Billy has a bad sore throat and wants something hot to drink.  Dad gives him a cup of coffee.  The hot coffee feels good on Billy’s throat and the sore throat goes away by the next day.  Mom and Dad try the same thing when Betty gets a sore throat and she has the same results.  Now they know forever that coffee cures sore throats.

Now, for the logicians out there, I have to admit that was also the error called “false cause.”  False causes usually come from hasty generalizations.  The point is that Mom and Dad have only observed two instances where coffee was consumed at a time when the children had sore throats.  They really haven’t done any more study or investigation.  Hundreds of parents may serve their sick kids coffee and experience no more success than a temporary ease of pain.  But there will always be the cases of Billy and Betty to “prove” that the formula works.

I know that’s a silly example, but it really isn’t any different from saying that moms who wear skirts all the time will prevent promiscuity in their daughters.  Just because you can point to nice girls whose moms wear skirts does not mean there is a cause and effect formula.  Nor would it be true that playing certain music will keep your kids from sin.  Or that forbidding fiction reading will keep your kids from fantasizing.  Or even that a certain brand of car will ensure fewer repairs.

This really isn’t hard to understand.  One reason the formula seems to work for certain people is that the events fell into place that way.  They did a certain thing and they experienced a certain thing.  Even if they can convince us of a cause and effect, there is no formula in that.  It simply is an examination of what happened.  But just because it happened to them does not mean it will happen to you.  The idea of a formula is a lie.

There are a couple other reasons it might seem like the formula works for others, but I will comment on those in future posts.


Filed under Grace definition, Legalism

4 responses to “When the formula works

  1. Amy Nygren

    Thank you for posting this perspective and challenging the cultural axiom that all of life’s struggles can be reduced to a single key and 5 steps. I’ve discovered that God is so much more than my wounds and that His healing is a varied adventure that follows no pattern or human plan.

  2. UnForsaken

    Logic! This is one of those things my N claims to be good at. What irony! Logic has repeatedly saved my sanity, but it also puzzles me because the conventional conclutions of others are not reached that way. Your examples are ideal. The people I know are so used to using that form of generalization they think I am using it when making basic statements. I have stopped sharing because people thought I coulsd be judging simply by being different in piont of view ! No, I’m not a formula person, but I also don’t expect them to be like me –something they can’t seem to grasp. If they share something , it is to brag , or to find out how many agree with them, or confirm their own value in some way. But a very few people have seemed to make formulas work and still not be too taken over by their peers . I am really Happy for them as they seem to just be doing what God wants for them , living lives God has arranged beautifully. The ” events fell out that way” and as they follow Him they seem content and not afraid of having their choices questioned , or just seeing someone different be just as happy!

  3. UnForsaken

    I forgot : Thank You! ” The Idea of a formula is a lie”. I Love IT!

  4. Recovering

    I struggle with a show on TV that I have watched who have a large number of children. I have often thought that they just did everything right so it turned out right. It makes sense what you are saying here. Who couldn’t do all that they do and spend vast amounts of time raising their children..they are both home…they have rental properties (we don’t don’t know anyone who does), they have to be getting paid insane money TO DO THE SHOW and here is a point…they don’t allow tv in their home but yet ARE ON TV. They have countless vehicles to drive, even large tour buses to go all over. This is not reality. This isn’t what an average Christian family has. I like the sweet spirit about the mother, but I think shows like this trip up Christians not help them. Funny there are no shows on when the kid is throwing up, the money is all gone, the car is wrecked or they had relationship failures in the home or with others. That is what is real.

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