The Optimized Christian Faith
by Jeffrey Snell
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In my journey so far, I’ve encountered numerous perspectives on how to live a godly life. It’s interesting to me that there is so much variance in people’s understanding, but I suppose that is linked to the variety in our experiences and in the shapes of our creation, all reflecting the endless creativity of Jesus – something to be celebrated! Despite all these differences, I’ve discovered most end up in one of two categories.
The first approach is one that seems to have emerged in the late 1980′s, gained strength through most of the 1990′s, and stirred a storm into the sea of Christian theology. I’m referring to the belief that, if one is a true Christian and possesses superior faith in God, their life should be bereft of social and physical detriments like financial poverty, chronic illness, even suffering of any kind. This position is quite vividly contrary to God’s word. (Rom. 5:3; 2 Cor. 6:4-10, 8:1-3; Js. 5:10; 1 Pet. 2:19) I’ll call this the “superior faith” position. Since no one likes to suffer, this modified definition of the Christian life held obvious attraction. Proponents blasted traditional applications of Scripture, encouraging many in the Church to cast off admonition in the form of restraint or humility as merely the resignation of doctrinal leaders to a sub-optimized faith. Some pastors, evangelists and authors began teaching that believers who were poor or struggling with health issues quite simply had an inadequate faith. Many referred errantly to Matthew 14:31 and similar passages of God’s word to support this view. They encouraged those suffering so to work to increase their faith, promoting the principle that a “superior” faith would automatically result in a wealthier, healthier life. Who wouldn’t want that?
The primary flaw in the foundation of the “superior faith” idea was the presumption of or abandonment of belief in God’s sovereignty. The Lord was reduced to a sort of prayer vending machine, our faith the coins. Not enough coins deposited, you get old, stale candy. Put enough coins in, you hit the jackpot. The monetary allusion was not incidental, and many of these very public teachers received great wealth, attributing their status to, inevitably, a great faith. No doubt to the private chagrin of these teachers, however, many believers who trusted this expository claim discovered – typically after long roller coaster rides of disappointment, interpreting their disappointment as another sign of weak faith, regrouping, further disappointment and finally disillusionment – this principle just did not deliver. In some cases, most disturbingly, this final disillusionment was accompanied by untreated illness which had progressed or deepened poverty and estrangement from family.
As these results accumulated, the socio-religious pendulum seemed to swing far the other direction to a second prevalent perspective which has gained popularity up to the present. A much more contrite, subdued treatment of faith, this approach promotes the decrepit nature of man and emphasizes our utter destitution before a holy God. This approach I’ll call “destitute faith.” Preaching and teaching from this worldview, church leaders encourage believers to constantly remind themselves of how sinful they are, how they offer absolutely no value to God, how every thought in their minds, every movement of their heart, every action of their hands, even their prayer itself, is corrupt. This is a fairly obvious counter to the “superior faith” worldview’s extremes, seeking to disable spiritual arrogance; unfortunately, answering one extreme with another rarely culminates in productive learning, let alone understanding.
While great benefit and growth result from acknowledging our shortfall from God’s glory and true humility before His holiness, repeatedly describing the redeemed as worthless or soiled begins to degrade faith. I contend this rigorous unraveling of God’s work – by demeaning we who have become as His children – disregards the perfect balance of His precious living word and commits a similar error to the previously described teaching. (Rom. 7:18-20) Shame and despair are fueled which can draw believers away from Christ by deeply discouraging their souls; an act which does not align with Scripture. (Phil. 3:13-14; Col. 2:2-3)
These imbalances are motivated by a desire to counter another view rather than a desire to grasp the Creator’s view. Both the “superior faith” and “destitute faith” tactics, if you will, contain truth. The Scripture is clear that withholding certain areas of our thoughts and actions from Jesus results in diminishing the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our daily walk (read about grieving the Holy Spirit in Ephesians 4:29-31). This supports the “superior faith” assertion that the degree by which we experience God’s presence and see His hand at work is tied to our faith. Correspondingly, by reminding and being reminded that, without the excruciating bloodshed and magnificent resurrection of Jesus, none of us had any hope whatsoever, we keep our feet firmly planted in spiritual reality. (Eph. 2:12-13; 1 Jn. 1:8-10) This bears out the pressure of the “destitute faith” teaching to resist denial of our sin or placing our hope in anything but Jesus.
The difficulty here is not that these two worldviews are useless; it’s that they are incomplete. And incomplete solutions which purport to be holistic answers to life’s struggles always result in disillusionment which hinders the believer’s growth. Such teaching can also produce a cynical notion of the Church, inside and out. In my mind, that is enough to label them “harmful.” Again, this result is essentially the product of seeking to counteract an errant belief rather than seeking Jesus’ own perspective of living.
As a writer, I have learned to strive to “show” rather than “tell” a story. It’s just a more effective way to communicate ideas, emotion and why events are important. The astonishing beauty of the gospel is that God has taken this approach, and done so perfectly! God could have merely described the life He calls us to as His adopted children; but in His superb wisdom, He instead perfected His work by actually entering the physical world of mankind and living what we live every day. We are blessed beyond imagining to hold in human hands vivid accounts of Jesus’ attitude, actions, words, penetrating insight, compassion, love and grace. We have but to read the four gospels to witness how Jesus: Treated His relationship with the Father; responded to the needs of those around Him; struck the perfect balance of confidence and compassion, holiness and mercy, power and humility; and dealt with sin and the enemies of God.
Let us cease trying to conjur a construct of faith which is more complex, more productive, and which better satisfies our flesh’s desire for accomplishment and power. Pray for the eyes to see the subtle trickery of Satan, egging on the residual sin in your flesh to twist the truth so it feels nicer, fits ambitions better, or “fools” the world into attending church. These are neither godly objectives nor attitudes, but the outworkings of a truly weakened and misplaced faith which has adopted the world’s methodology. (Phil. 2:3; 2 Cor. 4:1-2)
There is a perfect relationship with the Father we can pursue, and He calls us to it constantly. The map to this treasure is not hidden to anyone but those yet outside salvation. In fact, it’s resting on a table or shelf in most of our homes. Are we using it? Are we taking the simplest, Holy Spirit-led route – emulating Jesus? Or have we preferred a more calculated method, our version of God’s work, a better, more optimized Christian faith?
Copyright (c) 2010 Jeffrey R. Snell
Scripture Taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION
Copyright (c) 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.
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