WHAT THE CHURCH GETS WRONG ABOUT FAITH

I guess it makes sense that the church spends a lot of time talking about faith. Faith, it turns out, its a pretty important part of what it means to be a follower of Christ, and it also happens to be one of the most misunderstood parts. I’ve been a part of the church for a long time, and I’ve heard a lot of sermons preached about faith. Unfortunately a lot of them go something along the lines of "if you simply have enough faith, God is going to do/give/provide/show you the thing you are believing for."  

That sounds great, except, sometimes He doesn't.

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Sometimes we pray for people to be healed and they aren’t.  Sometimes we pray for a friend to overcome an addiction, and they don’t.  Sometimes we pray for God to move in one direction, and He doesn’t.  In fact, sometimes He moves in the opposite.

So my question is, why? Is it because of a lack of faith? Does God actually withhold the things He wants to do for us because we simply don't "believe enough?"  That doesn't seem likely to me based on who I know God to be.  

Don't get me wrong, I believe it's certainly true that most of us have far less actual faith than we'd like to imagine.  But I don't think that's the issue here. I think there's something else going on that has far more to do with the character of God and the nature of our relationship with Him - and specifically the nature of His promises.

One of the biggest problems is that I think that often we are believing for God to keep promises He never made to us.  And I think the church is part of the problem.  I think the church does a poor job helping people to understand that faith isn't trusting that God will do the thing we want Him to do.  Faith is trusting Him to do the thing He promised He would do.  

Faith is believing that God always keeps His promises.  It’s taking Him at His word.

Kind of like Mary and Martha expecting Jesus to show up and heal their brother Lazarus.  After all, when they sent word to Jesus that their brother was sick, He promises that “this sickness will not end in death.” (John 11:4).  But that's not what He does.  He doesn’t heal Lazarus. He doesn’t do the thing they are expecting Him to do. In fact, Lazarus dies. 

Later, when Jesus does show up they give Him a hard time. "Jesus, if only you had been here, our brother wouldn't have died.”

Did you catch that? “Jesus, if only you had…” There’s a sense of almost indignation that Jesus hadn’t done what they expected him to do.  He hadn’t healed their brother and the sisters were upset. They had asked Jesus to do something, and they expected that He was not only able, but that He would come through and deliver.  I’ve had a lot of “Jesus, if only you had…” moments in my life.  Maybe you can relate.  

“Jesus, if only you had healed my sister...” 

"Jesus, if only you had gotten me out of trouble..."

“Jesus, if only you had come through on this job I prayed for...”

"Jesus, if only you had made my wife understand…"

But that wasn't the promise Jesus made. He promised that the sickness would not END in death. The sisters only understood that as a promise on this side of death. They only understood it to mean that Jesus would do one thing, heal their brother. But Jesus’ promise is much better. If they had truly understood, they would have realized that Lazarus’ death meant only one thing - it’s not over yet. This isn't the end. That’s what Jesus told them.

There’s something else about the promise. It comes in verse 5 and reads: “It is for God’s glory, that God’s Son may be glorified.” Did you catch that? The sickness, and the promise has a purpose.  The thing you’re going through has a purpose.  The thing that you’re praying about but God doesn’t seem to answer, despite your faith, has a purpose.  Take Him at His word.  Every one of God’s promises accomplishes His purpose, and His ultimate purpose is His glory.  

Later Jesus says to the sisters “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” (John 11:40)  God is always working according to His purpose. He is always about accomplishing His plan, which the Bible tells us is to bring about His glory.  There’s no doubt, we’ve been getting in the way of that since the garden of Eden, but that doesn’t stop God from working to accomplish exactly what He set out to accomplish in each and every one of us.

Paul writes that “in all things, God works for the good of those who love Him, and are called according to His purpose.”  (Romans 8:28) The trouble is, we often want to be the one to define “good.”  We have our own idea of what is good for us, according to our plans and our agenda.  So we imagine that God’s promises align with our purposes.  Yet, the truth is that God is always working for our good, despite our misunderstanding of what that means.  We can always trust that no matter what, He is organizing and ordering our steps to lead us towards the best possible outcome - our good. 

If only the church spent more time talking about faith as trusting in what God was doing - what He said He would do, instead of faith as trusting that God will do what we want Him to do. I know, it preaches well to stand in front of a congregation of people, each with a list of things that they need from God. I get it.  Superstar pastors have preached it well, and churches have been built on this concept of faith.  So have a lot of disappointed and disillusioned Christians, who are wondering “Jesus if only you had…”

So church, stop encouraging people to believe in promises that God never made, and instead help people grow in faith - the steadfast belief that God always keeps His word.  He always keeps His promises, His promises always accomplish His purpose, and His purpose in your life is good.  

ABOUT FEAR

What are you afraid of?  I mean REALLY afraid of?  What keeps you up at night with fear?  If we are honest, we’re all afraid of something.  Some of us are afraid of spiders, or the dark.  Some of us are afraid of heights, or flying, or snakes.  If we’re still being honest, most of us are afraid of death.  Still, even if you are afraid of all these things, it’s unlikely they are keeping you up at night.  If they did, you wouldn’t be able to function.

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Some fear is healthy, keeping us safe, sort of like an internal guardrail. It works as a sort of warning bell that danger is near.  On the other hand, many of the things we are afraid of border on the irrational.  

I can remember playing in our basement with our 3 older children, who were 6, 4 & 3 at the time.  We are a “wrestle on the floor” kind of family, and even in our finished basement, when you get down on the floor, it’s even money that you might encounter a friend of the 6 to 8 legged variety.  

We used to call them pill bugs, or “roly polys” when I was younger.  My daughters call them “daddy kill it!”  

Now roly polys are maybe the least scary bug on the planet other than maybe fireflies, which are cool basically because they are fun to chase at night.  The number of people who have been attacked by, or killed by a rolly poly is exactly the same as the number of people who have been to Mars.  Zero.  More people are harmed each year opening Diet Coke cans.  Seriously, that's true.

Of course, none of that matters to my daughters, who are mortally afraid every time there is a roly poly sighting in our home.  The fear is paralyzing.  It keeps them from enjoying life in any meaningful way because all they can think about is the tiny little 6-legge ball over in the corner. 

Fear does that.  Fear takes over and everything else shuts down.  Instead of looking at reality, all we see is danger - whether it’s real or not.  All we see is the worst-case scenario, and our emotions respond as if that worst-case scenario is reality, not just some degree of possibility.  We begin to act out of fear, making choices to avoid danger at all cost, whether the danger is actually real or not.

I lived most of a decade in fear.  Every single day, my heart and mind were gripped by fear.  I woke up in the morning afraid.  By mid-afternoon the stress and fear had given me a migraine.  At night I would lie in the darkness while my spirit trailed inside me.  Most nights I would have to listen to music or Netflix just to distract my mind long enough to fall asleep. 

I wasn’t afraid of snakes, or heights, or even death.  Okay, I am afraid of heights - like really afraid of heights.  But heights are not what kept me up at night.

When I would lie in the darkness of our bedroom, the thoughts that would overwhelm me were much deeper fears.  I was afraid I wasn’t good enough - for my family, for my wife, for my friends, for my clients.  I was afraid that people would find out that the successful, put-together, confident image I worked so hard to craft was just that - an image.  

I was afraid that if anyone knew how broken I was, if they knew how much of a failure I was - that they would give up on me.  I was afraid of losing my business, my marriage, my family, my status, my reputation, and my life as I knew it.  

Life was spinning quickly out of control, and I was honestly afraid that my wife and my children would end up hating me if they knew that I was fraud - a fake copy of what I thought the world said I was supposed to be.

Fear drove me to live according to the darkest parts of my soul, the parts inhabited by shame and pride, instead of according to faith. Fear does that.  It drives you places you never meant to go and motivates you to do things you never meant to do.  And then it leaves you there.  All alone in your fear.

I was afraid of the unknown. I was afraid of being alone, and not being in control. And those fears drove me to almost destroy my family and my life. Don't misunderstand me - it wasn't fear's fault.  It was mine.  Fear was the motivation, but all of the action was mine.  I acted on my fear, instead of my faith. 

The Bible says a lot about fear, or rather it says a lot about what we should not fear.  In fact, it tells us to “fear not,” or “do not be afraid,” a little over 100 times.  I think this is because God knows something about fear that we don't.  I think it's because God knows that fear paralyzes us, and robs of of participating in His plan for our lives.  It causes us to make decisions that move us further into doubt and anxiety and further away from faith.

I also think that the Bible says a lot about fear because God has given us an alternative. I think it's because God gives us the antidote to fear.  Love. His love.  He invites us to walk not in fear, but in His love.  His perfect love.

"There is no fear in love.  But perfect love drives out fear.” 1 John 4:18

You see, the reason perfect love drives out fear is because the love of God through Jesus Christ drives away all shame, judgement and condemnation. It's already been wiped away. You've been set free from the bondage they have held on your life. So you can stop letting it drive you places you never meant to go.  You can stop letting it control who you are and what you do. It doesn't mean that you won't face some things, but you are loved by a God who will never leave you nor forsake you. (DEUT 31:8).  He will never leave you alone. 

Jesus calls us to trust in Him. Completely. He invites us to take Him at His word - which is what faith means by the way. When we do, there's no room left for fear to drive us because though we don't know all of the unknown, we know that the God who is leading us loves us perfectly.  

So, what are you afraid of?

 

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MAKE A LIST

I keep a list.  It’s a “for-real,” pen-on-paper list.  For as much as I love gadgets and technology, there is still something about putting ink on a sheet of paper.  There’s something about the mechanics of moving your hand across a piece of paper, leaving behind a trail of letters that form words, and words that form - in this case - a list.  A list of things that I’m thankful for.  

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I started keeping a list because being thankful isn’t always something that comes naturally for me, and they say that the best way to become better at something is to practice.  This pen-on-paper list is a way for me to practice.  In this area, I need a lot of practice.

To be honest, it’s not just that being thankful doesn’t come naturally to me.  It’s really more that I’m terrible at it. I find that often, thankfulness is not the default orientation of my heart - even though it should be. I have a hard time focusing on being thankful for the things I have - the people, relationships, opportunities, and even the stuff.  I often have a hard time seeing how incredibly blessed I really am. 

I think that thankfulness, or gratitude, is a hard thing for a lot of us. I’ve tried to figure out why, but I keep coming back to this realization that the more we have, the more we notice what we don’t have, and the less we notice what we have.

Sometimes I think it’s a problem with the math.  We sort of keep a running tally in our head of the things that we experience on a regular basis, and let’s face it - there are days when the math doesn’t work in our favor.  There are definitely days when it feels like the count leans far in the direction of “life is a mess.”   

We’ve all had those days.  The kids won’t get up in the morning, and getting them out the door and on the school bus is a nightmare.  The dishwasher and the washing machine break - in the same week.  Or, it’s the middle of May and the refrigerator dies, and then the air conditioner goes out. 

Sometimes work is miserable, or more accurately - someone at work is making things miserable.  Your neighbor got a brand new truck, and you’re taking your 10 year old Volkswagen to the mechanic for the 4th time this year.  Your co-worker is headed out on a 2 week cruise to Alaska while you’re stuck here on dry land, spending the next 14 days chained to your cubicle because the boss asked you to pick up the extra work.

You have a fight with your spouse, or your kids, or you have a fight with your spouse about the fight you just had with your kids.  There’s never enough money, or time, to do the things you want to do, and it can be easy to be whatever the opposite of thankful is. Ungrateful. Angry. Bitter. Depressed.  

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That list can tally up pretty quickly, without even trying to keep track.  It fills our minds, and our hearts, with a reminder that sometimes life is a mess - and sometimes it is. But if we could figure out a way to clear away some of the mess we could see that life is also beautiful. We don’t always see it, because we aren’t always looking, but it is.  Instead, we're looking at the list of messes, and they add up fast. But if the problem is with the math, than that’s actually good news, because we can do something about the math. We just have to balance out the equation a little. That’s why I keep a list.

For me, I’ve found that the best way to be thankful for what God has done for me, is to, well, remind myself about what He has done. It might just be me, but when I look at a list of all of the things that God has given me, and all that He has done for me, I can’t help but find myself thankful.  By the way, this is Biblical.  Psalm 77 says: 

"I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.” (Psalm 77:11-12)

And David writes in Psalm 103:2-5 (MSG) 

O my soul, bless God, don’t forget a single blessing! 

He forgives your sins—every one.

He heals your diseases—every one.

He redeems you from hell—saves your life!

He crowns you with love and mercy—a paradise crown.

He wraps you in goodness—beauty eternal.

He renews your youth—you’re always young in his presence.

I don't know about you, but that looks a lot like a list. David went through a lot, and he had plenty of reasons to be bitter, and angry, and depressed, and ungrateful, but he wasn't.  He wasn't because he made lists, and he remembered what God had done, and he was thankful.  And when I start to add up the list of reasons to be thankful, it changes the orientation of my heart towards gratitude. 

When I look back at where I’ve been, and how far He has brought me…

When I watch my wife interact with our children, or appreciate how she makes our house a home...

When I think about how fortunate I am to get to raise my 4 children...

When I look around at the people who love us, and have our back…

When my kids hug me before they leave the house to get on the bus...

When I look at the veggies growing in our little garden…

When I mow the lawn and think about how God has given us a beautiful place to live and grow as a family…

When I wake up our children in the morning and they are healthy and happy and whole… (okay, they're not always happy in the morning, but they wake up)!

When I stand on the sidelines at 4 soccer games a weekend and cheer…

When I see how God is shaping each of us according to His plan, and leading us through every adventure and every challenge... 

I am not only thankful, I’m hopeful.

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By the way, the fruit of gratitude is joy. That means, the more gratitude, or thankfulness, you have, the more joy you end up having. Joy is the result of choosing to be thankful.  It's what happens when you orient your heart towards gratitude.  Want more joy in your life? Be thankful. Want to be more thankful? Remind yourself what you have to be thankful for.  

Start a list. Today.

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