There’s No Recipe for Life…and That’s a Good Thing

One of my favorite cooking shows is Chopped. Four contestants, usually highly trained chefs, are given a “mystery basket” filled with odd ingredients to make an appetizer, main course, and dessert. If the mystery basket is filled with gummy worms, jerky, pita bread, and pretzel sticks, the contestants have to head to the pantry and make a gourmet dish fit for three expert culinary judges…and they often do. It is impressive to watch the contestants turn seemingly unusable, or at least unlikely ingredients, into something edible (if not spectacular).

How do they do it? They understand the basic flavors of the ingredients (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savory) and attend to the appearance and textures of the dish. Knowing the flavor combinations, having expert techniques, and drawing on experiences cooking other dishes allows the contestants to make a lemon chiffon tart out of lemon cough drops, a stick of butter and bread sticks.

The Chopped competitors have an expertise developed through formal schooling, years of experience, or both. Natural talent surely has something to do with it as well…an innate orientation toward creativity. Still, you don’t develop the sort of expertise the Chopped competitors exhibit without dedicated preparation. They can work without a recipe because they understand deeply their craft. That leads to the question…what would it look like for Christians to develop the craft of thinking theologically and glorifying God with similar expertise?

Since college, a friend of mine and I have lamented “recipe theology,” or reliance on sets of principles that may or may not have been derived from God’s word rather than developing a deep knowledge of God from his word and the wisdom to live faithfully (even when life throws you a mystery basket and asks you to cook something!).

Following a recipe allows you to bake a particular sort of Christian cake (let’s say its vanilla), but only that sort of Christian cake (sorry…no carrot or pineapple upside-down cake). Sometimes only having one recipe or even set of recipes just won’t do. Improvisation based on a clear knowledge of God through the Scriptures is often required to navigate faithfully the world’s complexities (see my previous post entitled “More than Critique” for more on creativity and problem solving).

When you consider who God is and how he operates in the world, it is difficult to believe that any recipe or set of recipes could capture what it means to live with Him. Moving beyond recipes, however, doesn’t mean that we throw out all boundaries.

Chopped contestants have constraints within which they exercise their creativity. They can’t change the flavor profiles of their ingredients, leave out an ingredient, or cook dessert in the appetizer round. They also have judges with clear expectations about what they are expecting to taste…a balanced, creative, well executed dish.

Christians also have constraints. We can’t leave aside the Bible which is the final authority for life and faith. We can’t form opinions isolated from the historic and present community of faith. We can’t neglect the manner in which our words, actions, and commitments impact the world around us…the manner in which the world sees God in us. We need to remain committed to be and make disciples.

Scripture gives us a multifaceted rendering of God, not just a set of principles…not a recipe. Our lives as Christians cannot simply be about following a recipe…because we don’t really have one. We have a rich testimony about a God who loves us and desires to have communion with us. So…don’t settle for recipe theology. Instead, strive for a deep knowledge of God and the expertise to demonstrate who He is in word and deed…regardless of the ingredients you have in your mystery box.

JAMES SPENCER, PHD is President the D.L. Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization based in Northfield, MA, and author of Useful to God: Eight Lessons from the Life of D. L. Moody and Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind