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Christians

God’s Faith

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This post originally appeared on my website www.orderingchaos.com, but it really belongs here. So I moved it.

Christians think a lot about faith and admire those who exhibit great faith. Yet we also often follow the rest of our culture in reducing faith to believing a set of unprovable propositions about the nature of reality. We think of faith as believing that there is a God, that God loves people, that he is offended by their sin but made a way for them to be forgiven, and so on. But faith is much more than believing propositions. It is personal trust. Rarely do we consider the trust that God has in human beings.

Consider the story of Job. It is usually read as a story of exceptional patience under exceptional hardship. There are some odd things in the narrative, however, that don’t really belong to a consideration of Job’s suffering. The first two chapters describe scenes in heaven about which Job knows nothing. In both scenes, Satan the Accuser presents himself before God, and in both scenes God invites Satan to consider Job. Pause for a moment and let that take your breath away. Imagine God boasting to Satan of your faithfulness and integrity. God had so much confidence, so much trust in Job that he told Satan, “He is the finest man in all the earth—a good man who fears God and will have nothing to do with evil.” (Job 1:8). Satan immediately rises to the challenge answering God’s boast by impugning Job’s motives. Job’s integrity is just quid pro quo. Satan declares that he can make Job curse God to his face. God’s response? Go ahead, Satan. Do your damnedest. Just don’t harm him physically.

The next thing we know, Job loses all his children and all his wealth in a series of catastrophes. But contrary to Satan’s prediction, he does not curse God or even badmouth him. He expresses grief at his losses, tearing his robe and shaving his head, but acknowledges that he was born with nothing and may die with nothing. And he blesses the name of the Lord instead of cursing him.

Then we get a variation on the previous scene. Again God broaches the subject of Job’s integrity. This time Satan replies, “Skin for skin. A man will give anything to save his life. Touch his body with sickness, and he will curse you to your face!” Once again God lets Satan probe Job’s integrity, this time with sickness and unremitting pain. Once again Job’s integrity remains unscathed. Job is dismayed, depressed, confused, and tormented by questions, but he never doubts God’s overarching goodness. He demands an explanation as one might demand an explanation from a trusted friend for behavior that appears decidedly unfriendly. God denies Job’s right to know, essentially overwhelming him with questions too deep for his understanding until Job cries “Uncle!” He never lets on about the bet he had with Satan that Job wouldn’t crack.

Again and again throughout the bible God chooses to entrust his work to people who seem unworthy of that trust. Think of Moses, who kept making excuses against God’s call until God finally told him he had no choice. Think of Gideon, so afraid of the Midianite invaders that he was threshing in a wine press. Think of Simon Peter, so bold in declaring his willingness to die for Jesus but so craven when officers showed up to arrest him. What extraordinary faith God has in people!

In demanding faith from his people, therefore, God is not some megalomaniac who expects others to believe his lunatic ramblings. No, he simply demands the same trust from us that he has repeatedly shown to us. Like a good father, he expects his children to emulate his character.

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Just Deserts

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Among atheists, Christians have a reputation for consigning people to heaven or hell based on the orthodoxy of their beliefs. You can be a sexual predator who preys on children, but if you confess your sins and accept Jesus as your savior, you have a guaranteed spot in heaven. On the other hand you can be a world-class humanitarian, but if you deny the basic tenets of the Christian faith, you are doomed to hell. To be sure, this is something of a caricature of Christian beliefs, but I think it describes fairly accurately what many Christians believe to be true. However, there is no foundation for this view in the Bible. The Biblical view of judgment in the afterlife is that it is based on deeds. Again and again, both Old and New Testaments stress that all people will be judged according to what they have done, whether it is good or bad. This includes Christians. Nowhere in the Bible is there any mention of people being judged according to their beliefs. Everyone is judged according to their deeds.

Suppose a man believes—as some Muslims reportedly believe—that he will go to heaven if he kills an infidel. Will he be sentenced to jail for such a belief? Will our courts fine him or exact some other punishment for this belief? No. He will go to jail only if he is found guilty of actually killing someone. Are human courts more righteous than God’s? Of course not. Then how can we think that God will condemn people or reward them for what they believe?

Someone may object at this point that there are many Bible verses that also tell us we are saved by faith, that God rewards believers with eternal life in heaven, and that these rewards are not promised to unbelievers. To answer this objection, I need to introduce a distinction in different kinds of believing.

I believe that the earth is round, that the sun is a nearby star, that all life on earth has a common ancestor, that Abraham Lincoln was our 16th President, and that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Will any of these beliefs save me? No. They will not. Most of them have little or no impact on how I live my life. Even the last one cannot save me if I do nothing about it. It is perfectly possible for me to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and not follow him or do anything that he commands. These are what I think of as propositional beliefs. They are beliefs in certain propositions, statements of fact or opinion. This kind of belief is almost never meant when the Bible talks about faith. James is a notable exception, and if you want to see what the Bible has to say about whether faith or deeds are more important, read James 2:14-26. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

See? James points out that demons believe in God’s existence. Merely believing that there is a God gets you no brownie points with him.

I believe in my children. I believe in my wife. I believe in myself. I believe in Jesus. This is a different kind of belief. This is not an academic assent to certain propositions. This is relational trust. I have confidence in my kids. I have watched them grow into adulthood and take responsibility for themselves. I know they have learned good principles, and I have done my best to set them a good example. I believe in them. Likewise I believe in my wife. She is talented and smart and strong, and she can do what she sets out to do. I trust her. And, yes, I trust Jesus. He has proven himself loving and good in everything I know of him. He encouraged me when I struggled with depression, and he has given me a family to love, enriching me beyond anything I could have hoped for or imagined. This is the belief the Bible talks about, confidence in God’s goodness and love as a father to us all. It is this faith that saves us because we fully entrust ourselves to him, fearlessly doing what we know is right because our souls are at rest in him. By this faith we share with others when we have barely enough for ourselves. By this faith we speak out against injustice. By this faith we continue to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus even when we are ridiculed for believing impossible stories.

What we believe matters far less than what we do, but what we do depends a lot on whom we trust.

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Misplaced Guilt

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Guilt often misleads us. We think that we ought not to fail, that we ought to be competent at whatever we undertake, that we ought to anticipate what will happen and be prepared for it. The things we berate ourselves for are our incompetencies. But only God is all-competent.

Jesus showed us what a good person is like. A good person is totally dependent on God. Jesus did only what he saw his Father doing. He always left outcomes up to God and just did what he knew was right. From a human perspective, his life was a failure. Executed for insurrection, he did nothing of lasting note except persuade his followers of something really insane—that he was God’s unique Son. Yet his life and death and resurrection have transformed the world.

God does not consider our failures as important as our disobedience. Again and again in the bible, he demonstrates his displeasure at being disobeyed. And disobedience arises from distrust. It was so when the Serpent tempted Eve. She doubted the goodness of God’s purpose in prohibiting the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is so now whenever we don’t do what we know is right because we fear the repercussions. One essential part of Jesus’ teaching is that God loves us and treats us as his own children. He taught us to trust God so that we would have the courage to obey him. The repentance he demands is not for our failures but for our disobedience and the distrust it springs from.

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