February 24 2010

Washington Post article
February 15, 1992

In McLean Class, They Learn to Accept God’s Love

by Carey Kinsolving

Jo Starbuck was addicted to perfection. So when her efforts to have a perfect marriage were spoiled by separation and divorce, she felt utterly worthless.

Tom McMahon spent years trying to resolve guilt over his father’s suicide. When he went to church, he felt only more condemnation.

Now, they both feel better about themselves.

Starbuck and McMahon are among those participating in a class at the McLean Bible Church, in which they’re learning to accept love instead of the rejection, guilt and frustration associated with real or imagined failures.

The class for single parents started in 1985, with McMahon teaching it. He said about 15 people attend the Sunday morning class, but the turnover is high because of marriage and job transfers.

Newcomers to the 1,200-member church, which meets at Langley High School because it has outgrown its facilities, usually find out about the class through checking off a box on a visitors’ card.

In October of 1990, a friend gave McMahon a book by Bob George entitled “Classic Christianity.” McMahon introduced his class to the book and began a discussion of its concepts. The book proved to be so provocative that it has become a “reference point” for discussions in subsequent classes, McMahon said.

“The book teaches that it’s not what one does, but what God did that gives people a proper self-image as totally absolved from guilt,” he said.

For Starbuck, 41, a marketing coordinator for a computer software company, the class that she started attending in 1986 served as a catalyst for healing. Starbuck said she recalled reading the word “grace” in her Bible 10 years ago, and pondering, “What does this mean?”

Thirteen years into her marriage, Starbuck was separated and, two years later, divorced. She was left to rear her two daughters as a single parent. Her commitment to perfection took more battering.

She felt, she said, “I had to do everything perfectly before God would accept me. That’s the trap a lot of Christians fall into.”

Instead of trying to do everything right, Starbuck now wishes she had relaxed and enjoyed what God was trying to teach her through her marriage problems. She attended the class for the final time two weeks ago, and is engaged to be married in May.

Although McMahon, 54, an air-traffic consultant, has never faced the feelings of rejection from a divorce, he has had to deal with the suicide of his father. McMahon recalled the sense of guilt he felt at 13 as the oldest of six children when his father died. For years he thought, “I’m one of the reasons he did that.”

Feelings of unworthiness plagued him throughout most of his 35 years with the Navy as an air traffic controller. He felt God was condemning him for his father’s death. He said he tried desperately to perform up to what he thought were God’s expectations.

The teaching of his former pastor only contributed to his problem, McMahon said, because the pastor taught that Christians could lose their salvation. McMahon said he described his former mind-set as: “If you mess up, and you don’t get it right, if Jesus comes, you’ve had it. So here you are going through life checking off all the boxes, always worried about whether you’re getting it right.”

McMahon said he now realizes that he was the son of a very troubled person, and his faith has helped him realize he is a beloved child of an accepting God.

In an interview from Dallas, George described his book as an attempt to apply biblical principles “in real life experiences that involve both falling down and getting up. Most of the time we just hear about the getting up.”

George himself experienced “falling down” – in his case, emotionally. He was teaching at a Bible college, writing Bible-study books, doing a 15-minute daily radio broadcast and was, as he put it, “busy and barren.”

George said he was doing all the right things, but had forgotten that the Christian life is allowing Christ to live through you, not just a lifestyle. He began to realize his problem when, for no apparent reason, he burst into tears while driving on the Central Expressway in Dallas.

George pointed out that the Bible tells about Peter’s denial of Christ and of King David’s adultery. “We would have left that out,” he said. “We don’t realize that it’s in those [difficult] life experiences we learn about the faithfulness of God.”

Using an accounting illustration to explain the struggle that many Christians face, George said that while God has taken their sins off his accounts receivable, many Christians fail to take them off of their accounts payable.

“The average Christian is sitting around with all of his debts still on the accounts payable,” George said.