29 May 2012

Simple Faith

In his Daily Readings, C. H. Spurgeon wrote, “Take care that thy faith is of the right kind—that it is not a mere belief of doctrine, but a simple faith, depending on Christ, and on Christ alone.”

In addition to numerous verses about salvation by grace alone, or the singularity of Christ's messianic office, the passage of Scripture which comes to mind as I ponder Spurgeon's words is the short dialogue from Mark 10 in which Jesus tells the disciples that they must become like children in order to enter the Kingdom of God.  This statement runs contrary to the very way we as Americans think about religion.  Understanding God is a journey of spiritual enlightenment, right?  Children can't understand the difficulties of life, much less the more complex elements of doctrine and religious symbolism.  In fact, Paul himself speaks of spiritual childhood as a phase which believers must seek to leave behind because lack of maturity means ineffectual righteous living (1 Cor 3.1-3; 13.11).

In this regard, I think that American Christians are especially in danger of practicing the “belief of doctrine” against which Spurgeon cautioned, because we are subscribers not only to countless religious denominations, but also to post-modern concepts of individuality and independence.  As a people, we like philosophy and education.   We like to understand and debate religious doctrine.  We like to be smart.   But as Spurgeon reminds his readers, true faith is not characterized by knowledge.  Belief in morality and Biblical truth is certainly essential to Christian living, yet it is not an end in and of itself.  Therefore, if the faith that we claim as Christians is merely a type of head knowledge -- the type of faith which understands the existence of something but does not cling to or truly depend upon it -- what can be said about the integrity of that belief?  What good is it to believe directly in the good of a principle and only indirectly in the originator of the idea?  We fail to have true, saving faith in Christ if we do not prioritize true belief over dogmatic principle or the pursuit of greater spiritual knowledge.  True faith is not the practice of religion.  It is not years of study.  It is necessarily simple and it is necessarily life-changing, finding its base in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ alone.

The classic sermon illustrations for faith are the chair and the wind, but both of these object lessons fail to truly encapsulate the principle of faith.  I sit in a chair with confidence, knowing that it will hold me upright.  The factors which play into that confidence are based upon logic, vision, sense of balance, understanding of the integrity of the chair.   As for the wind, I feel it on my face, and though I cannot see it, I know it is there.   But I'm not really exercising faith to believe that it exists.   I know it exists due to the evidence my senses supply.  Faith in Christ, on the other hand, is not based upon peripheral senses, logical reasoning, or sight.  What Spurgeon is pointing to is the type of faith which puts all trust and belief in the character of Christ, His saving work, and His promise to return.  This is the faith of a child, the type of raw, unrefined belief which is not muddied by reasons.  It is simple dependence upon Christ.

Aside from realizing the foundational nature of this type of faith, it is also important to understand that true Christian living is impossible without this type of faith.  It's the difference between merely talking the talk and actually walking the walk.  James defines the co-dependent nature of faith and works, but also establishes that the faith must come first -- that it (faith) is the foundation, and the works which follow are the building itself, or the evidence of the secure faith.  The command which Paul gives to the Ephesians, to be “imitators” of God and to walk in His footsteps (Eph 5.1, 2), is impossible if our faith is simply an empty practice of Scriptural commands and not an expression of heart-worship.  Works without faith accomplish nothing, and a compartmentalized faith which is perhaps based in Biblical principle but does not affect one's lifestyle is dead (Jas 2.26).

However, we can't forget that the works of an unrighteous man are counted as nothing more than dirty rags (Isa 64.6).  If your faith is not in Jesus Christ, if your belief is not solely in Him, it doesn't matter how many commandments you keep or how many Sundays you make it to church.  You fall short of God's standard.  Practice of doctrine is nothing without saving faith, because we do not do anything to attain heaven (Galatians 2.16).  Christ's blood is the only payment for sin which God the Father will recognize.

To the Christian who places more emphasis on understanding theology than daily depending upon the sustaining power of Jesus Christ our Savior, I would challenge you to evaluate your standard of living.  Is your faith truly in Christ, or in your ability to reason?  Is it the type of faith which stimulates you to die to yourself daily and practice an Ephesians 5.1-2 lifestyle, or one which simply likes to impress scholarly minds with your knowledge of hermeneutics or theories of eschatology?   Faith is not truly saving unless it is transforming.  If your life is still characterized by any of the things Paul lists in Ephesians 5.3-5 without struggle, it may be time to re-evaluate what your faith is truly based upon.  It doesn't matter how many Bible commentaries you have on your shelf if your conduct isn't affected as a result.

Simple faith, on the other hand, is characterized by submission to the will of the Father (Matt 7.21).  Jesus outlined the greatest commandment as loving God the Father with all heart, soul, and mind, a devotion which will naturally result in loving our neighbors as ourselves.  As James stated, we are not saved by our works, but our love for the Lord -- if it is genuine -- will result in an outpouring of love for one another which validates the faith we proclaim.  This is not by any means to say that we shouldn't seek to broaden our understanding of God through the Scriptures and other means of study – as Peter captures it, we should be like newborns desperate for the spiritual milk which the Word provides in order to grow stronger and mature into strong practitioners of the gospel (1 Peter 2.2).  Spurgeon is saying that the Christian life is about stripping away the periphery, reducing the practice of religion to its essential component.  Simple, transforming faith is revealed in the life that is marked by dependence upon God, not upon intellect or personal righteousness.  The Christian who is dependent upon God alone is the one who can love his brother without expecting reciprocation, and who does so because he loves God so much that he cannot contain his joy in Christ.

10 May 2012

Love Isn't Hard! ...When They Love You in Return

The question I've been asked since Tara and I got married is the one I suppose all newly weds inevitably hear for the first year of marriage: “So how's married life?” My perpetual reply is, “Wonderful – nothing but blessings,” a genuine statement which nevertheless seems to always prompt a snort of laughter at my obvious naivety, accompanied by some variation of “Wait ten years and then I'll ask you again.”

There's a sobering level of dissatisfaction in marriages today, within and without the church, a perspective that is influenced both by culture and by disappointed expectations. People approach marriage the way they approach a carnival: it's fun, it's exciting, it's flashy, but eventually you're going to get tired of riding the ferris wheel. They aren't really in it for the long haul, though they may claim to be initially, because they expect love – when it's “right” – to be spontaneous, carefree, easy. If it's “right,” then it shouldn't be a chore.


Undoubtedly, it isn't difficult to love someone who visibly appreciates and reciprocates your efforts. That mutuality is what makes Hollywood romance so magical: the perfectly spoken word at the perfect moment; that instant where the eyes lock, so clearly communicating everything the lips do not; the gentle caresses which dilate the pupils and steal the breath of both the lovers and the audience – all of which is the result of a mutual attraction which has been boiling just below the surface. We all know this isn't real, yet we all buy into the ideal. We all want our relationships to be like that. We anticipate struggles ahead when we say our vows, but we also subconsciously expect that the magic touch will get us out of arguments, that abruptly kissing our spouse in the middle of an argument will make it all okay (trust me, it doesn't). When hardships roll around, we may not be surprised or even initially frustrated, but our desire to continue loving slackens when problems linger.

Love isn't defined as conditional in the Scriptures. Circumstances do not (or should not) affect it. As Paul writes, perfect love “hopes all things, endures all things,” and ultimately “never ends” – never fails or concludes (1 Cor 13.7, 8). Packaged in these words is a sense of survival: we don't have to endure when things are easy. The real challenge is sacrificing for someone who might, instead of expressing gratitude for your care, retaliate with anger, spite, or arrogance. As Christ reasoned with the multitudes, “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them” (Luke 6.32). In other words, loving someone who will love in return is no measure of your ability to love unconditionally. At the point where affection or service is reciprocated, a sacrifice becomes more of a privilege than a challenge. The true test of our love for others comes when we are faced with the option to “love our enemies and do good,” and to “lend without expecting to be repaid” (Luke 6.35).

Loving the unlovable is not an option of Christianity. The stamp of God's moral character upon His children, His holiness within us, is that we will glorify Him by loving others unconditionally, being merciful as our Father is merciful (Luke 6.36). We exhibit His attributes through our love of one another, an action which is an expression of worship. This includes loving our enemies, the ones who mistreat us and abuse our intentions. Sadly, this description also fits our spouses.

When someone fails to love us, even our spouses, responding in anger is never justified. Regardless of whether or not we know our attempt at humility will not be accepted, we must respond to his or her sin in love. However, loving the individual in spite of his or her sinfulness doesn't mean simply faking a smile and saying, “It's okay.” It does mean that the avenue for honest communication and extension of forgiveness is wide open. Marriage relationships are built upon communication, honesty, and friendship. Loving others requires us to do hard things, to challenge one another, and never allow our spouse to continue in sin just because we don't want to open that can of worms. This is the way marriage remains beautiful. As Timothy Keller says in The Meaning of Marriage, “You may not feel tender, sympathetic and eager to please, but in your actions you must be tender, understanding, forgiving, and helpful. And if you do that, as time goes on you will not only get through the dry spells, but they will become less frequent and deep, and you will become more constant in your feelings. This is what can happen if you decide to love.”

As children of God, our response to anger, sadness, sarcasm, and even indifference should always be love. This requires us to decide to love as Keller says, because love is not our default response. In our flesh, we want to respond in a like manner when we are wronged. According to culture, history, and Hollywood, that is only justice. But that's the natural response. The supernatural response, on the other hand, is to love, to turn the other cheek, and offer our coat to the thief when he has already taken our shirt (Matt 5.38-40). In marriage, this looks like forgiveness for the same sin committed against us once again, giving preference even when we know it won't be appreciated, maintaining patience and grace in communication. Though we battle with our own flesh, the power of Christ enables us to respond in love even in the face of harsh words. Perseverance and sacrificial, unconditional love are the components which can melt the hardened heart of the spouse, but it will not happen overnight.

Disillusionment with marriage is the result of selfish expectations. Stubbornness and selfishness are debilitating diseases which go hand-in-hand, and are especially deadly because they often go unnoticed by the one who has contracted them. The one who suffers as a result, because he or she does notice them and their effects, is the spouse. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the husband and the wife to address issues of sin in each other, not taking offense and withdrawing when their attempts at love are rejected (because confronting is absolutely an act of love), but seeking to draw out the sin which is hardening the heart of his or her spouse. Tim Keller writes, “What keeps the marriage going [during hard times] is your commitment to your spouse's holiness. You're committed to his or her beauty. You're committed to his greatness and perfection. You're committed to her honesty and passion for the things of God. That's your job as a spouse. Any lesser goal than that, any smaller purpose, and you're just playing at being married.”

Commitment to beauty and holiness is not easy, and it will not always be fun. It will require work, and it will involve tears, but mutual perseverance will guarantee joy. Playing at marriage looks like, “I love you the way you are and I don't want you to change.” Walking in love however, looks like, “I love you the way you are, and because of that, I want to help you change.” Spouses who challenge one another in this way, so that they can be more like Christ together, practice the unconditional love Paul describes in 1 Corinthians. Marriage is certainly not a carnival. We cannot enter into such a covenant-based relationship expecting joy without sorrow. In fact, more so than any other human relationship, marriage will challenge, stretch, and tire us, and it is intended to, because the purpose which God ordained in married is aiding one another to be more like Jesus. If you are disappointed because married life does not meet your expectations, it's a good indicator that you entered for the wrong reasons.

Marriage is never about getting – it's always about giving, whether it's hard or not.

In sum, our ability to love the way Christ loves us is truly measured not by how strongly we love the ones who show us love in return, but by how we love our enemies and the ones who have wronged us. We know this type of love firsthand, because it was while we were enemies of God that Christ laid down His life for us (Rom 5.10). Because we have received such immeasurable grace from God, how can we justify failing to love the individuals in our lives simply because they don't always show us the love we expect? John records, “But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3.17, 18). Are we meeting each other's needs (in marriage or otherwise), or are we simply looking out for our own well-being? Deed and truth go hand-in-hand, and we cannot claim the love of the Father if our ability to love the unlovely does not imitate His.

I think the next time someone asks me about my married life, I'm going to respond by asking him or her the same question.