When Faith Fails

Dale and Nancy had just started dating when someone who claimed to be speaking on God’s behalf told them that their relationship would “flow like a river.” They took it as a sign and got married. It didn’t take long for things to unravel. Dale was controlling and abusive. He went back to some of the habits of his pre-Christian days. Drugs, pornography, and threats of violence turned the beautiful promise they had heard into a nightmare. If you had asked Dale and Nancy why they married so quickly, I’m pretty sure they would have said that it was a simple act of faith. They believed they were supposed to be together.

People make decisions like this all the time. Someone hears a sermon about the unreached masses and quits his job to go into the ministry. An older couple decides to adopt after their own kids are grown and gone because they believe it’s what God wants. But faith decisions don’t have to be big. Sometimes they’re small. We say something to a stranger because we feel the prompting of the Spirit. We give money to a panhandler we pass on the street. Sometimes things work out. Sometimes, like Dale and Nancy, the wheels come off, and we’re left wondering whether we got it wrong. Maybe it wasn’t God’s voice after all.

Simple or Simplistic Faith?

When I was a new believer, we used to talk a lot about having a simple “childlike” faith. But looking back on some of the things we did, what we practiced was not faith but naiveté. Our faith wasn’t simple; it was simplistic. At times, maybe even childish. One Saturday night a bunch of us piled into a car and drove down into the city of Detroit. We had no real destination in mind. We expected to be “led” by the Holy Spirit, stopping to pray at every intersection before deciding which way to turn. We ended up in a bad part of town, where we stumbled on a drunken man lying in a doorway. “He must be the reason God sent us here,” Ron said. Ron, a shifty-eyed prophet with a receding hairline and a penchant for falling into the folding chairs whenever the Spirit came upon him, was one of the self-appointed leaders of our little group. Ron thought we should take the stranger with us, but the man only wanted a few dollars to buy another drink. Despite his protests, we pulled him to his feet, bundled him into the car, and drove back to the suburbs.

Our faith wasn’t simple; it was simplistic. At times, maybe even childish.

The next day Ron brought our new friend to church and asked the pastor to take a special offering. The pastor politely declined. Maybe the pastor was suspicious. Perhaps he didn’t think it was the best way to help the man. Whatever the reason, Ron didn’t take the refusal well. He stood up in the church service, and in a prophetic tone declared, “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” Then he and the stranger walked out, followed by several chagrined church members who offered him money.

In a day or two, the stranger disappeared. Ron didn’t know where he had gone. Some hinted that he might not have been a man at all but an angel that we had entertained “unawares.” But I suspected that the poor fellow had made his way back to the doorway where we first found him. The whole affair bothered me. Was it really God who had guided us? Or had we merely gone downtown on a whim? Was ours a bold act of faith or a naive exercise of middle-class guilt? It is tempting to think that the answer these questions is in the outcome. If God had been in it, the man would have stayed, and his life would have turned around. But the stranger might have gone back to his old ways, even if God had prompted us to rescue him. Would things have been any different for my friends Dale and Nancy, if they had waited longer and gone through a traditional courtship? Perhaps. But there are plenty of people who have taken the long path only to call it quits in the end. Joshua Harris comes to mind.

Sincerity Instead of Faith

Sometimes, what we think of as faith is merely sincerity. We are convinced that we are doing the right thing. We think we are acting in God’s interest and at His prompting, but we are mistaken. Not only do we misunderstand what God wants from us, we misinterpret our motives. Like James and John, who wanted to call down fire upon the Samaritan village that refused to welcome Jesus, we think we are doing God’s will (Luke 9:51-56). In reality, we don’t know what kind of spirit we are of. James and John had sincerity enough to spare. What they lacked was self-awareness

In the past few months, we have seen a flurry of notable church leaders turn their back on the things they once believed. We want to know how such a thing can happen. How can people whose faith once seemed so prominent suddenly throw it away? Many conclude that such people were never really Christians to begin with. They “went out from us” because “were not of us” (1 John 2:19). Perhaps this is true. The Bible has many warnings about those who profess the faith but are imposters (1 Tim. 4:1).

But I wonder if some of those who have walked away believe that it is God who has broken faith.  They have turned their backs because the Christianity they embraced did not deliver on its promise. In most cases, as far as I can tell from the outside, it was not the gospel promise itself that has disappointed them but something else. It is more a vision of what their lives would be like if they only believed that has failed them. They are like those that Linda Kay Klein profiles in her book Pure, a blistering critique of the purity movement of the 1980s. Many in the movement seemed to believe that if they followed the rules and pursued sexual purity with a passion, they would live happily ever after.  Klein describes the reaction of Muriel, one of the subjects she interviewed, this way: “How could she believe anything evangelicalism taught her if the one thing they said was most important–remain pure before marriage and you will have a blissful sexual life after marriage and be supported by the larger community–wasn’t true.”

The Game is Rigged

Of course, it doesn’t have to be sex. The promise we believe might be something else. Maybe it is the expectation that the church’s leaders will behave like shepherds and care for the church. Maybe it is the conviction that if I put Jesus first, I will succeed. I’ll get the job I want. My ministry will grow and expand. Life will go the way I want. Sometimes the things that shake the foundations of our faith are embarrassingly small, but the basic reasoning is always the same. I have believed, so why aren’t things working out better for me? I am following Jesus, so why isn’t He doing more for me? Why aren’t things easier?

I am following Jesus, so why isn’t He doing more for me? Why aren’t things easier?

These kinds of questions aren’t asked just by apostates and people who have been taken in by the prosperity gospel. They are more common among people of genuine faith than you might think. This is the sort of questioning the Psalmist describes in Psalm 73: “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 73:1-3). The Old Testament patriarch Job also had questions for God. Job’s questions are the obverse of Asaph’s. Job doesn’t ask, “Why do the wicked prosper?” but instead “Why do the righteous suffer?” In each of these cases, the frame is a narrow one. The circumstances that cause us to question God’s goodness, and sometimes even our faith, are not always as noble as theirs. Our disappointments aren’t great disappointments like those of Asaph or Job. Too often, they are petty and self-absorbed. But for some reason that doesn’t make them easier for us to bear.

To the person who struggles with such questions there only seems to be two possible answers. Either there is something wrong with us, or there is something wrong with God. Of course, anyone who has spent time in the realm of faith knows that the latter possibility is not really on the table. The game is rigged, and the odds always favor the house. God is never wrong. The problem is always us. But the thing that is wrong with us may not be what we think. We thought the problem was in our execution. We weren’t playing the game the right way. If we just tried a little harder–if we followed the rules–we could make it work for us. When it doesn’t, we are tempted to give up not only on ourselves but on God. We are tempted to give up on God so the fault won’t be with us.

We are tempted to give up on God so the fault won’t be with us.

When my oldest son was about to graduate from high school, I had one of those parental conversations with him about adulthood, duty, and the necessity of doing things one doesn’t really want to do. When I was finished, he said, “So what you’re telling me is that life basically sucks.” That wasn’t what I was telling him, but I could see why he thought it was. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that you think I’m saying something similar about God. Does it seem to you that God’s primary agenda is to disappoint you? Perhaps you think I am saying that the “chief end of man” is to suck it up and lower your expectations. If God intends to leave us disappointed, His goal is that we would be disappointed with ourselves and the simplistic, bargaining faith to which we are so addicted. Like a doctor who must break a bone to set it, God shatters our misaligned expectations, so that faith will have room to grow in the right direction. He does not do this lightly but carefully. And often, I think, with tears.

The Danger of Smugness

What are we to make of the defections from the faith of so many prominent Christians? I think we ought to be careful not to be smug in our rush to judgment about them. It may be true that they were never “of us” to begin with. But we too are guilty of naïve faith and unreasonable expectations of the Christian life. We shouldn’t shrug off their repudiation of the foundational truths of the Christian faith. Their defection is a sin, and their loss is a tragedy. They are responsible to God for the decision they have made. However, some of the comments I have seen about their departure from the faith sound too much like gloating to me. Besides, we don’t yet know how their story will end.

Several years after my friends Dale and Nancy divorced, I talked with Nancy on the phone. She told me how terrible the experience had been for her and how, after the divorce, she had walked away from the church and from God. The promise had failed. She spent years feeling like damaged goods. She believed that God no longer had a purpose for her life. Then one day she realized that what she had believed about herself was a lie. Not only was God waiting, He was welcoming. At the time she and I spoke, Dale was still far from God. In a way, their story is a kind of parable. Some who have renounced their faith will discover that what they have rejected is not God or the gospel but a counterfeit. Others will continue to live in a way which suggests that “they were not of us” to begin with. But either way, God will be waiting.

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

Clean

According to family legend, my great grandfather was the first one to drive the twenty-mule team out of Death Valley loaded with borax. I have no idea whether this is actually true or not. Like most family legends, I suspect that it is a work of fiction. But I liked to recount this story to my friends when I was growing up since the twenty-mule team was featured in commercials on the popular television show Death Valley Days. It made me feel just short of famous.

Borax is a “detergent booster.” Apparently, it is used in a lot of other things too. Fertilizer, rocket fuel, and automobile windshields, just to name a few. But I always thought of it as soap. The same people who made Borax also made Boraxo, the hand detergent that promised to make hands “soft, smooth, and really clean.”

Looking back on it, cleanliness seemed to be the driving concern of most of the commercials we watched in those days. They fretted about clean clothes, clean floors, and clear complexions. What did this say about us as a culture? Were we especially dirty? Maybe we were just fastidious. Perhaps it was a little of both.

At points, the Bible seems similarly obsessed. The Old Testament, in particular, appears to be especially concerned about matters of cleanness and uncleanness with its detailed regulations about food, clothing, and its peculiar stipulations regarding spots and blemishes. When we read through these laws we do not get the impression that what is at issue is primarily a matter of hygiene. Indeed, some of the measures prescribed do not seem hygienic at all, especially when the “cleansing” agent is blood. Something else is going on.

The New Testament writer of Hebrews admits as much by calling such measures a “shadow” that can never perfect those who repeat them year after year. Instead of being a remedy, they were a reminder of sin (Hebrews 10:1-3). In a way, so is Jesus’ sixth beatitude: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8). The Greek word that is translated “pure” means clean. No other assertion shatters our illusion that these beatitudes are some kind of moral yardstick quite like this one.

What Jesus describes is a cleanness that originates on the inside and works its way out. Every other kind of cleansing with which we are familiar works the other way around. Jesus is not talking about getting clean but being clean. When we read his statement, we know instinctively that this is not what we are. If we do not know this, it can only be because we do not really know ourselves. We cannot hear Jesus’ assertion without wondering how it is possible for anyone to see God.

Like the others that precede it, we must take this beatitude as a promise. What Jesus gives us here is not a rod by which to measure our lives but a final portrait of what those lives will look like when Christ is finished with them. Purity of heart is not the condition we must meet in order to gain access into the Kingdom of God.  Instead, it is the final destination for those who enter that kingdom through the gate of Christ. He is the only hope we have of being pure in heart. “You can start trying to clean your heart, but at the end of your life it will be as black as it was at the beginning, perhaps blacker” Martyn Lloyd-Jones warns. “No! It is God alone who can do it, and, thank God, He has promised to do it.” Only the blessed can be pure in heart. They will see God.

Empty is Enough

I have reached the age where a large percentage of the articles that show up on my social media feed offer suggestions about retirement. They appeal to a combination of greed and fear. Apparently, your retirement savings need to be at least a million (if not more). Social security won’t be enough to cover your expenses. You need a steady stream of income from stocks or bonds or annuities, which are luckily being sold by whoever has posted the article in the first place. No matter the source, the message is almost always the same. Whatever you have, it probably isn’t enough. The aim is to make me nervous. It often works.

For people like me who by nature and long experience have learned to want more, Jesus’ blessing in Matthew 5:3 seems jarring and maybe even nonsensical: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Nobody really believes that less is more, least of all the poor. Those who want to view this remarkable saying as a statement about the genteel virtues of poverty are really saying that Jesus was merely a sentimentalist and of the worst possible sort. They imply that He was a naïve sentimentalist. “We should not think that Jesus merely wanted to give us a few maxims of practical wisdom, that he merely intended to talk about the blessing of suffering and poverty and console us by telling us that suffering would make us more mature” theologian Helmut Thielicke warns. “Jesus knew all too well that it can turn out just the opposite, that a man can break down under suffering, that it can drive us into cursing instead of prayer, and that its ultimate effect will perhaps be bitter complaining and accusing of God for his injustice.”

Yet the qualifying phrase “in spirit” hardly removes the scandal of Jesus’ pronounced blessing. In Christ’s day as in our own, one’s spiritual standing was considered to be a function of accumulated merits. This is true of all salvation systems save one. The world’s religions all operate on the same basic economy that we employ with our finances. More is always better. You can never have enough. And if you want to acquire it, you’ve got to earn it. There is no other way.

Jesus’ words are a diagnosis as much as they are a promise. Only the poor in spirit can be blessed because there is no other category for us when it comes to righteousness. This is what sets Jesus’ message apart from all others. Those who look to their own reserves to calculate whether they have enough holiness to find acceptance with God will inevitably come up short. If you want it, you must take it as a gift or not at all. This is what the Bible calls grace. Where grace is concerned, only empty is enough.

But this rule only makes sense in light of the second half of Jesus’ beatitude. His point isn’t about the inherent virtue of poverty, whether it is economic or spiritual. It is about access. According to Jesus, emptiness is the necessary precondition to entering what He calls “the kingdom.” Actually, Jesus doesn’t employ the language of entering here, even though He does elsewhere. Jesus uses the language of ownership. The kingdom of heaven belongs to the empty. Only they can claim it as their own because they alone know that they cannot buy it. They do not obtain it by natural right or by personal effort. If they are to receive the kingdom it must be delivered over to them by Christ Himself.

This is the first principle for any who wish to experience the blessedness that Jesus describes in the beatitudes. You must come to Christ as you are. You must come to Him empty and without anything to recommend you. All that you need will be given to you upon entry into His realm. You cannot store it up in advance. You cannot bring it with you as you cross the threshold. You can only come to Christ as a beggar and receive. There is no other way.