Faith, Anxiety, and Sloth

A few years ago, I was diagnosed with a form of cancer and was treated. The treatment was successful, but I found it hard to enjoy that success because I was afraid my cancer would return. Once a year I am required to take a blood test to make sure that my condition hasn’t changed. During the weeks that lead up to the test, I always find it hard to concentrate. I feel agitated and unfocused. I am busy but not productive. In Luke 21:34 Jesus warned: “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap.” According to Jesus, we can waste our energy in worrying just as easily as we can on carousing. This anxiety is a peculiar form of sloth.

The stereotype of sloth is a lazy person. Someone who won’t get off the couch or get out of bed in the morning for work. But sloth is much larger than the stereotype. The way of sloth is a path of ill-conceived short-cuts and ignored responsibilities. Sloth practices neglect under the guise of simplicity and mistakes apathy for ease. Sloth is a sin of omission, but that does not necessarily mean that sloth is inactive. Sloth is a sin of rationalization. Those who ignore responsibility always have an excuse for not doing what they are supposed to do.

Sloth is a sin of omission, but that does not necessarily mean that sloth is inactive.

Sloth exerts the minimum required effort and would prefer to exert no effort at all. When sloth makes an effort, it is usually under duress. Sloth is listless and half-hearted. Imagine the worst stereotype of the sort of service we receive at a bureaucratic hub like the division of motor vehicles and you have a picture of sloth. Sloth seems like a pretty harmless sin compared to the sort of things that others do. We kind of admire it. That is until we have to depend upon a slothful person. Or are put into a position where we have to work with them. Or are waiting in line.

The sin that the ancients called sloth includes laziness, but it involves more. Sloth can manifest itself in many forms. At times it looks like ennui, an immobilizing lethargy that leeches away our interest in those things that ought to concern us. But sloth can also be active and profligate, causing us to squander our time and energy on meaningless trifles at the expense of other obligations.

Sometimes sloth is the person who can’t get up off the couch, but it is also the person who won’t sit down. When sloth manifests itself as agitation, it is filled with the kind of empty activity that fails to provide results, rest, or even pleasure. The agitation of sloth is to work what junk food is to nutrition. It burns hot but adds no value. We are busy but busy with the wrong things. In its agitated form, sloth is a particular form of dissipation, squandering our energies in empty pursuits. These may be pursuits of the flesh, the concerns of ordinary life, or even misguided spiritual pursuits. 

Sometimes sloth is the person who can’t get up off the couch, but it is also the person who won’t sit down.

Sometimes this agitated form of sloth is situational. It is the result circumstances. Some situation comes into our lives over which we have no control: a family crisis or a medical diagnosis. Things change at work, and we are uncertain how it will affect us. Suddenly we find ourselves in a new normal that is a cause for worry. In other cases it is result of temperament. Some of us have a natural tendency to worry about things that are purely hypothetical. Our anxiety does not spring from things that might take place. It does little good to remind ourselves that none of these things has happened to us yet. It is possibility that grips us not the actuality. In these cases sloth is not so much a matter of laziness as it is paralysis. Anxious sloth can also have the opposite effect so that we exhaust ourselves in an attempt to prepare for all the possibilities and ignore the bread and butter concerns of daily life.

I have learned from painful experience that anxiety adds no value to my life. The anxiety I feel will not change the outcome of the test. Nor can it prepare me to face a relapse of my cancer, should it come pass. Anxiety only drains my energy and distracts me from the things that I need to do. Anxiety creates an environment where sloth can flourish by pointing out our helplessness without pointing us in the direction of God’s loving care or powerful support. Anxiety whispers in our ear each night but not in reassuring tones. Its counsels are counsels of despair.

We think that the solution to this problem is more power or a change in our circumstances. But Jesus points us in a different direction. He urges us to view our powerlessness through the lens of faith. “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” Jesus says. “Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matt. 6:25-27)

The implied answer to Jesus’ first question is yes. We are much more valuable than the birds of the air who are cared for by our heavenly Father. The answer to His second question is no. Worrying cannot add a single hour to your life. In Luke’s version, Jesus adds, “Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?” (Luke 12:26). The impossible thing for us is a “very little thing” to God. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that God will always give us what we want. What it does mean is that God will always have our back. What does this truth mean for those of us who sometimes suffer from the paralysis of worry? It means that the God who gives us our life as a gift will sustain that life until it is time for Him to reclaim it.

The God who gives us our life as a gift will sustain that life until it is time for Him to reclaim it.

I know that the day is coming when my body will eventually fail me. My cancer may never come back. Indeed, I hope and pray that it doesn’t. But sooner or later, my body will betray me. My heart or my lungs will give out. Some unexpected disease will claim me. Or my aging body will call it a day and quietly shut down. My body will betray me, but God never will. The fact that we are not in control does not necessarily mean that things are out of control, even when things are at their worst.

Os Guinness has said, “Sloth is so much the climate of the modern age that it is hard to recognize as a deadly sin.” Guinness calls sloth, “the underlying condition of a secular era.” He might also have said the same of agitation. Agitation is so much the climate of the modern age that we don’t recognize it as agitation. It is simply the environment in which we live. It is also the underlying paralysis which keeps our culture in a perpetual state of motion but which does not deliver us to any satisfying destination.

Our agitation is actually pretension.  It is a disguise we wear for our own benefit, a mere affectation we use to persuade ourselves that we have more power than is truly the case. And in my own case, it is a kind of sedative which I use to distract myself from the fear I feel. Because, in the end, it is not cancer that I fear but death. And the only remedy for death is Jesus Christ. He is the one who shared our humanity “so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14-15). Even though I cannot always feel the truth of this promise, I have staked my life on it. And my death.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.

Help My Unbelief

The first believers I knew talked a lot about faith. As far as I could tell from what they said, faith was a variable commodity. Some had more and others less. The difference mattered since the results one might expect from God depended upon the amount of faith one was able to muster. Perhaps that’s why we spent so much of our time declaring our faith. When it came to prayer, it seemed that quantity was associated with volume. The more faith we wanted to prove that we had, the louder we prayed. I am not sure who we were trying to reassure more. Was it for God’s benefit or ours? It did not seem to make a difference either way. I felt no more certain no matter what the volume, while God did not seem to give my loud prayers any more attention than my soft.

In those days, it also seemed to me that the measure of one’s faith was determined by the size of the request. I thought faith was a muscle and praying was like weight training. The more you exercised it, the greater it grew. The larger the request, the greater the faith. I decided that my requests were too timid. I was asking for pennies when I should have been seeking gold. I decided that if I was going to become a person of faith, I needed to believe God for greater things.

I decided my requests were too timid. I was asking for pennies when I should have been seeking gold.

About that time, my mother’s health failed. She grew so weak that my father had to carry her to the car and drive her to the hospital. The doctors performed exploratory surgery, and she grew worse. I stood at her bedside and prayed that God would heal her. She died instead. I prayed that God would raise her from the dead, the way that Christ called Lazarus from the grave. The casket remained closed. In the months after my mother’s death, my father’s alcoholism worsened. I prayed that God would deliver him from bondage. His alcoholism eventually killed him.

But this is a one-sided picture. It leaves out all the prayers that God did answer, requests both great and trivial. They seem to fade in my memory. Somehow, it is the refusals that stick. Perhaps I don’t want to think about the others because they remind me how often I have been anxious about trivial matters. Each time I have asked for bread, the Father has never given me a stone. Or maybe it is because listening to the full scope of my requests is an uncomfortable reminder of how shrill my voice often sounds when I cry out to God. I may come into God’s presence kneeling like a petitioner, but I speak to Him as if He were a servant. My requests sound more like demands. I sometimes wonder why I even have to ask at all. Why doesn’t God just give me what I want?

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus invites His disciples to make requests of their Heavenly Father. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” Jesus says. “For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8). Jesus signals the Father’s welcome by piling on imperatives of invitation: “Ask…seek…knock,” Jesus urges. But there is also embedded in this language a subtle indication that the answers to our requests may not come as easily as we might like. Before we can receive we must ask. Before we find we will need to seek. Before we may enter we must knock.

“Ask…seek…knock,” Jesus urges us. But there is also embedded in this language a subtle indication that the answers to our requests may not come as easily as we might like.

There is a hint of persistence in all of this. For some things, we must ask and keep on asking. We will seek for some time before we find what we want. We will knock, and the door will not swing open for us at once. Nevertheless, Jesus invites all those who are His to bring their requests. The quiet reminder of our need to persist, which is implied in both the word choice and the verb tense, is meant to relieve our fears. Delay does not always signify refusal and refusal is not necessarily a rejection. Like any parent, the fact that our Heavenly Father does not always give us what we want does not mean that He does not love us.

It is a mistake to measure our faith based on the size of the request. It is equally a mistake to place our confidence in the measure of our faith. Some of us have more faith than others. But if prayer is a lever, it is God who acts as the fulcrum. The power of faith depends upon God not on the size of our request. It only takes faith the size of a mustard seed to move a mountain (Matthew 17:20). The thing we ask of God, whether it is great or small, is not the object of our faith. Our faith rests in God.

God is not the object of our faith either. God is not an object at all. We are in a relationship with Him. When we objectify God, we turn Him into an idol. Jesus condemned the objectification of God in prayer when He warned about the babbling of pagans, who “think they will be heard because of their many words” (Matthew 6:7). Prayer does not work like magic. You cannot recite a formula and compel God to do what you want. Prayer is a relational act, and a central feature of any relational request is the right of refusal. Even a child can refuse, though there are often consequences. It is only the slave who cannot refuse, and God will be no one’s slave.

Prayer is a relational act, and a central feature of any relational request is the right of refusal.

Of course, this may offer only cold comfort to those for whom God’s answer is no. Given a choice between a genuine relationship with God and the thing we want, many of us would choose the thing. A relationship seems like small compensation compared to health or love or that job we had hoped to get. We aren’t exactly mercenaries where God is concerned, but we are often little better. We are like the crowd that came looking for Jesus on the other side of the lake after He had fed the multitude. “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill” Jesus chided. “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval” (John 6:26-27). When the crowd asked Jesus what kind of work He had in mind, His answer to them was faith. “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29).

Well, we do believe. Or at least, we want to believe. We want to believe enough to get what we want. I admire the great men and women of faith whose biographies once fueled my fantasies of how my Christian life would turn out. But I do not see myself in them. Instead, my prayers sound more the man in Mark 9 who brought his demon tormented son to the disciples. “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid” the man told Jesus. “I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”

I admire the great men and women of faith whose biographies once fueled my fantasies of how my Christian life would turn out. But I do not see myself in them.

I can easily imagine a note of reproach in the man’s voice. “What kind of slipshod operation are you running here, Jesus?” the man seems to say. But Jesus refuses to accept the blame. “You unbelieving generation,” Jesus says, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.” To whom is this rebuke directed? Is Jesus speaking to the father? Is He criticizing the disciples? The answer is that Jesus seems to be talking to both.

Whatever the disciples’ failure was, it was not a failure of confidence. They seemed to have plenty of confidence. They were as surprised as anyone that their attempt to help the boy had failed. Later on, when they were out of earshot the crowd, they asked Jesus to tell them where they had gone wrong. “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” they asked. “This kind can come out only by prayer” Jesus replied. So if the disciples hadn’t attempted to drive the demon out with prayer, what had they done? At least in this instance, theirs was a faith without reference to God. Indeed, this wasn’t faith at all. It was confidence. They had cast out demons before. They could do it again. They thought they had this.

Whatever the disciples’ failure was, it was not a failure of confidence.

Once in Jesus’ presence, the demon threw the boy into a convulsion. He rolled around on the ground and foamed at the mouth. Sounding like a doctor, Jesus questioned the father about the boy’s condition. “How long has he been like this?” Jesus asked. “From childhood,” the father answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

If I were writing the story, Jesus would give His bumbling disciples a sidelong glance to remind them of their failure. He would say something compassionate to the father and command the demon to depart. Instead, Jesus reproves the father. “‘If you can’?” Jesus says. “‘Everything is possible for one who believes.’”

I see myself in the father. Only my point of doubt is slightly different. It is not “if you can” but “if you will.” I know that Jesus can. I’m just not sure that He will. Especially when it comes to those things that I have been praying about for a long time and haven’t seen any evidence of His interest in my case. The father’s prayer is also my own. “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

Here is the measure of faith that God seeks. It is not great faith, equal to the size of the request that we are making. It is not even perfect faith, one that is unmixed with any doubt. It is not self-confidence. If anything, it is the opposite. To me, this man’s request is the purest form of prayer. It is not the blustering assurance of the apostles. Nor is it the scolding complaint of the father in His first approach. This is the cry of the helpless.

God does not scorn our requests, but He will not be manipulated by them either. We cannot use faith as a lever to force God to do our bidding. We cannot bully God with our prayers or make Him feel guilty. Indeed, Jesus has assured us that such measures are not needed. “Do not be like them,” Jesus says when He compares the prayer of faith to the prayer pagans, “for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8).

Here, then, is what faith looks like. Faith is trust. It is the assurance of a child who relies on a parent to provide what is needed. Faith is a trust, which does not always make us feel comfortable, but which is nevertheless convinced that God ultimately knows what is best and that He will do what is right. Faith is our helpless reliance upon God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.

The Dogs of Heaven

Two Dogs Playing

My little dog died last week. Her name was Gidget. The end was sudden. That is to say, it was unexpected by me. Looking back I can see that my pup’s health had been in decline for a few weeks, perhaps even for months, but I was unable to recognize the signs. We took her to the vet hoping for an easy fix. There was treatment available but the cost was prohibitive and the overall outcome uncertain. We chose to put her to sleep. This is the second dog I have lost. I was hoping that the experience would be easier. It wasn’t.

Picturing a world without my beloved pet is hard. There are moments when I forget that she is gone. I think that I can hear the jingle of her tags or the sound of her paws as they pad across the floor. I listen for her quiet breathing at night. Then with a stab of sorrow, I remember that she is gone. I am alternately impatient with God and irritated with myself. Is this an example of the goodness of God we read so much about in the Bible? Wasn’t there something he could have done? Should I have done more? I am an adult and not a child. I am a person of faith. I have experienced losses in my life that were far more serious than this. I should just get over it. But I don’t.

I can’t decide if the grief that I feel is for myself or for my pet. I suppose it is both. Each time I have watched a pet die, the experience has prompted me to ask questions about death, eternity, and God’s goodness. How can I love something so much and suddenly find that it no longer exists? My theological sophistication evaporates along with my detachment. I am shaken to the core. I ask the question that every child asks: Do dogs go to heaven? If not, why not?

When I examine the question through more detached eyes, it seems foolish to me. What would heaven be like for dogs? When I look back on my dog’s short life, I realize that it consisted mostly of sleeping, eating, and sitting on my lap. She did not read books or think deep thoughts. She did not even watch television. She did not have a job or contribute to the greater good of society. Indeed, she did not have a regard for society at all. Only for the squirrels who sometimes strayed into our yard.

The prospect of a heaven which includes dogs raises any number of theological questions for me. What would they do? To whom would they belong? Some dogs have had more than one owner in their lifetime. Some have no owner at all. The Pharisees once asked a similar question about wives. Jesus was impatient with them. “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” he said. “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 29:30-31).

Might not the same be true when it comes to our pets? Perhaps in eternity the need we feel for their companionship disappears along with the rest of the old creation. Or is it possible that at the end of all things when the world is made new they too will be changed along with us? C. S. Lewis seems to suggest that such a thing is possible. As Lewis puts it in The Problem of Pain, “…the man will know his dog: the dog will know its master, and in knowing him, will be itself.” Lewis later admitted that he was on speculative ground when making this statement. He was not stating a fact: “All that we can say for certain is that if God is good (and I think we have grounds for saying that He is) then the appearance of divine cruelty must be a false appearance.”

When we cannot understand God’s actions or the reasons behind them, we must cling to what we do know. Jesus is right, of course. My doubts, as well as my questions, are born of ignorance. I do not really grasp the extent of God’s power: “In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:10). The eye that sees the sparrow fall sees the falling tear as well. I do not think God will answer my questions. But his word does assure me that my pup’s life was in his hand. Just as mine is.

Shadow of a Doubt

I had a friend in college who said that Jesus appeared to her in her dreams. The two had long and meaningful conversations. I was terribly jealous. I wondered why Jesus didn’t appear to me too. Then one night I had a dream about Jesus. He sat at the end of my bed and spoke to me. He didn’t look like I had imagined he would. For one thing, he had blond hair that looked like it had been shaped by a stylist. He grinned at me, his white teeth shining in the dark. He looked like the host from a TV morning show. But it was the conversation that bothered me most. He just wasn’t making any sense. When at last I realized that what he was saying to me was only gibberish, I woke up.

I have to confess that my first thought was, “Yeah, that’s about right. That’s just the sort of Jesus who would appear to me.” Not the Jesus I read about in the gospels. No, I get surfer dude Jesus with blow-dried hair and dental implants. Then, for a brief moment, I felt a stab of panic. What if it really was Jesus? What if, up close and personal, Jesus turns out to be a figure sold to me by the church’s public relations machine? Would I someday discover that what I believed about Jesus had all been a carefully manufactured façade? Like a celebrity who has evaded his handlers, would he prove to be only ordinary in the end? What if the light that had blinded me on the road to Damascus was only the flash of the paparazzi’s cameras? Or, perhaps even worse, what if I got to know the real Jesus and realized that I didn’t especially like him? I know that such a question is unimaginable to most evangelicals. But you have to admit that such a thing does sometimes happen in our other important relationships. We all have people to whom we must “relate’ but with whom we feel distant or uncomfortable. It may be a boss, coworker, parent, or sometimes even a friend.

Evangelicals often say that Christianity is a “relationship” and not a religion. I understand what we are trying to do when we say this. We want to humanize Jesus for people (as if the incarnation were not enough). We do not want them to confuse faith with the rituals that are associated with the Faith.  But sometimes I wonder if we make too much of it. Is it possible that the “relationship” frame is as liable to misunderstanding as the “religion” frame? Many of our notions of relationship are sentimental. This is especially true of our idealized relationships. What is more, many of our relationships (especially in the dating realm) are voluntary associations that are a function of personal attraction. We meet somebody and if we like them we enter (or attempt to enter) into a relationship with them. But what happens if, after we enter into a relationship, we find that we don’t like their personality as much as we thought we did at first? What if “relating” to the person makes us uncomfortable or our sense of that individual’s personality is elusive?

I am not suggesting that we may find, upon closer inspection, that Jesus really is the shallow creation of some public relations machine or that we will hate his personality once we finally come to know it. My point is that the rhetoric of ordinary relationships is probably not an adequate framework for understanding all that it means to be joined to Christ. Such language predisposes us to expect certain kinds of experiences with Christ that we rarely have. I can’t help noticing that Jesus’ own disciples did not always feel comfortable with him. Sometimes, like the disciples in the storm, it was because Jesus far exceeded their expectation (Luke 8:25).”Who is this?” they asked. There is a measure of distance implied in such language. The effect of such experiences on the disciples was not a sense of casual familiarity but one of awe and sometimes even terror. This does not change after the Resurrection. If anything, it intensifies the experience. When John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” comes face to face with the glorified Christ, he is so startled that he faints dead away (Rev. 1:17). At other times, the discomfort experienced with the disciples was because Jesus disappointed them. They looked for bread and Jesus offered himself instead (John 6:53-54, 60). They expected him to drive away their enemies. Instead, he surrendered to death at their hands and then walked out of the tomb they buried him in (Luke 24:19-24).

Either way, the disciples sometimes found their experience with Jesus to be profoundly unsettling. For those who were able to successfully make the transition from surprise or disappointment to faith, the result was not comfortable familiarity but a sense of mystery. There was apprehension (in the old sense of the word) but not comprehension. They were able to grasp something about Jesus but not with comprehensive understanding. John, who arguably “knew” Jesus better than any of the other disciples, tells us that such knowledge is yet to come for us (1 John 3:2).

In an essay on the subject of faith, Dorothy Sayers observes that a faith is not primarily a comfort, but a truth about ourselves. “What we in fact believe is not necessarily the theory we most desire or admire” she explains. “It is the thing that, consciously or unconsciously, we take for granted and act on.” Her friend and peer C. S. Lewis made a similar observation about faith. Faith, as Lewis defines it, is “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.” I am suggesting that the same thing is true of the “relational” faith that joins us to Jesus Christ. Although faith often includes an experiential dimension, it does not require a particular kind of emotional experience in order to be genuine. Instead, faith requires that I take certain truths about Jesus and his relation to me for granted and act upon them. The relationship that I have with Jesus Christ is not dependent upon the way I feel about the relationship. This relationship is a fact before it is an experience. As C. S. Lewis has wisely observed, it is not a mood. Indeed, according to him, one of the functions of faith is to teach your moods “where they get off.”

It was not a carefully argued apologetic that reassured me after waking from my dream. Instead, I was reassured by the Jesus I encountered in the Bible. He was nothing at all like the Christ of my imagination. He exceeded my expectations. He disappointed me too. Fairly often, I might add. On too many occasions I came to him like the disciples, with my own assumptions about what he should say and do, only to have those expectation shattered. I quickly discovered that the Jesus of the Bible was beyond my control. I could not manipulate him with my prayers, bribe him with my behavior, or wheedle him with my praise.

We often treat doubt as if it were mostly a matter of unsettled reason. If we can prove that the Bible is historically accurate or that it agrees with science, we feel that we will overcome the doubter’s objections. But I think there are other factors in play when doubt’s uncertain shadow looms over our hearts. Certainly, it is a lack of confidence. Like Eve, we hear a whispered question which undermines our thinking and unsettles our soul: “Did God say?” However, more than anything else, I suspect that most doubts arise from our own lack of imagination. We cannot really envision Jesus as he truly is. We prefer a more controllable version to the one we read about in the Scriptures. Someone who is more comfortable and predictable. If such a Jesus shows up in your dreams with his shining smile and comfortable patter, you should probably ignore him. He is only a figment of your weak imagination. He bears as little resemblance to the real Jesus as a kitten does to a lion.