The Next Level of Unbelief

There’s an initial level of unbelief, I think, that’s common to everyone who has never before believed in God or His Son or His Spirit.

It is conquered when that person experiences, either in one moment or over a period of time, a sense of awe and wonder at the loving, perfect nature of God himself displayed in this world.

Those encounters may take place while reading scripture … witnessing an incredible display of beauty in nature … experiencing a powerful and motivating testimony … being the beneficiary of a generous act of mercy … even – yes, I’ll say it – seeing a miracle.

Or thousands of other unique moments which lift and transform us, instantaneously or gradually, into believers. As a result, we live lives that reflect His perfect love; we speak of it, we show it, we center everything we do around it.

There’s another level of unbelief, though, which troubles me deeply – because I know it too well.

It’s that level we sink into when the power of those moments fade in our memories, and we have accepted them as true, and they become a part of the everyday; the mundane; the quotidian.

We still believe, but the fervor has waned like the moon as it closes each 28-day orbit.

Life goes back to “normal.” From time to time, a small hint of that memory replays … or another tiny moment perks our faith.

But mostly, we just live out our lives on this new level of unbelief. We work hard; we even work hard at activities at church. Yet the world keeps going on as if nothing extraordinary has happened. God is still good, but life can still stink.

We defend the faith … but something is missing. Maybe we even find some hollow satisfaction in discussing faith with others; arguing our views over theirs. Perhaps we even gain a sense of achievement in denouncing others whose faith is different, or who have no faith at all.

And this is the message of the One who walks among the golden lampstands for the angels and ministers of the Church of Faded Faith:

I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. ~ Revelation 2:2-5

Therein – I believe – lies the secret of recapturing the forsaken first love:

Repent and do the things you did at first.

Do you miss the passion with which your journey of faith began? Do you miss the warmth in your heart at feeling God’s approving smile? Do you long to leave everyday behind and make every day an extraordinary experience for others as well as yourself?

Speak of His love. Show His love. Center everything you do around His love.

Just do it.

The Most Important Thing

I spend way too much time reading blogs.

One of the themes that keeps recurring as I spend way too much time reading blogs is some variation of the question, “What’s the most important thing?”

While discussions that follow in the posts and the comments are interesting – usually spawning a variety of answers and logic and texts to support them – I always come away with a nagging feeling of discontent. The issue of “the most important thing” is hardly ever resolved to anyone’s satisfaction.

It makes me wonder if there is no single “most important thing.”

What is most important for me may be of little importance to you. That may be true because of our heritage, our opinions, our outlook on life, our way of viewing scripture, our perception of God, our age, our maturity, our circumstances in life and blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. (That is an obscure term, probably Yiddish in origin, used by scholars to denote a precise and genuine meaning of which no one is exactly certain.)

Maybe what’s most important for Mike Cope is to reach the difficult-to-reach through a really challenging new ministry. Maybe what’s most important for Larry James is to help marginalized people help themselves. Maybe what’s most important for Charles Kiser is to teach a variety of people about God’s love from a tiny but growing church plant.

Maybe God has given us all different gifts – and different blends of gifts – through the same Spirit for the common good of the body. (1 Corinthians 12)

For the folks in Corinth, “Keeping God’s commands is what counts.” (1 Corinthians 7:19)

For the folks spread across Galatia, “… what counts is a new creation.” (Galatians 6:15)

In both cases, circumcision or uncircumcision counts for nothing.

For the folks Paul wrote in Rome, Abraham was justified by faith not works – because they were struggling with the idea that they had to earn justification (Romans 4).

For the folks James wrote, Abraham was justified by faith through works – because they were struggling with indolence and a misconception that mental assent justified them (James 2).

In both cases, active acceptance of God’s work in one’s life is absolutely crucial.

So for some, the most important thing is to call on God once they’ve heard; for others, it’s to preach; for still others, it’s to send those who will preach (Romans 10:14-15). And perhaps, as time goes on, those priorities will change according to the blend of gifts God sends them.

For the rich young ruler, the most important thing was to sell all his stuff so he could follow Jesus. (Matthew 19:21)

For one disciple, it was to follow right then without burying his father first. (Matthew 8:21)

I think, down deep, each one of us has a solid, reliable intuition about what is most important in this life. So perhaps when we ask the question, it should be “What’s the most important thing for me right now within God’s will?”

Maybe I’m just rationalizing in frustration. I gotta tell you, though …

This possibility that “the most important thing may be different for people that God made different” is of some comfort to me.

Except for the overwhelming conviction that I spend way too much mind-preoccupying, opportunity-squandering, butt-numbing time reading and writing blogs about the most important thing.

… when I should be out, going and preaching and baptizing and making disciples and teaching and doing good like Jesus did.

Hey!

Maybe that’s the most ….

Nah.

You Will Be Blessed

“When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” ~ John 13

We can argue until the cows are extinct about whether Jesus was talking about literally or figuratively washing each other’s feet, and my best guess is that if our answer is only one or the other, we’re wrong.

But let’s just ignore that little quibble for a moment and go to the last verse in the citation: “… you will be blessed if you do them.”

What Paul tells the Ephesians is the “first commandment with a promise” is also one that Jesus cites at least twice in scripture (Matthew 15:4 / Mark 7:10; Matthew 19:19 / Mark 10:19): “Honor your father and mother.” The promise? ” … so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.”

In fact, these are not the only two instructions which are connected with blessing. Paul said “first commandment.” Around the table of that last supper, Jesus mentioned, “these things” and “do them,” plural. When a woman interrupted His teaching about the war between good and evil to say, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you,” He responded, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:28).

Do we really believe that?

Do we have a sense for why words expressing “blessing” outnumber words expressing “cursing” in scripture about two to one; “salvation” outpacing “condemnation” about five to one?

Do we understand why the longest chapter in the Bible – Psalm 119 (and almost at the center of it) – is a paean of praise for God’s instructions; an expression of delight in meditating on them; a thanksgiving for the blessing of having them?

Because they’re not just good, they’re good for us.

Do we take Jesus at His word when He says, in effect, “You will be blessed if you just do it!”?

The GraceFaithWorks Sandwich – A Third Bite

In the second bite of this way-too-long running series (which began here), I made some unsubstantiated claims about what I believe. Unsubstantiated, that is, by citing scripture references – and I would like to correct that. I said:

”… whatever a Christian does in this life is really not his or her own work, but God’s work through her or him (1 Corinthians 12:6; Philippians 1:3-6; 2:13; Galatians 2:8; Hebrews 13:21). It is no longer we who live, but Christ in us (Galatians 2:20). He created us for good works (Ephesians 2:10). We’re partners in the good works He does through us (1 Corinthians 3:9; 2 Corinthians 6:1). He gives us the eyes to see them and the ears to hear of the need for them. He gives us the bodies, hands and feet to accomplish them (Luke 14:13-14). They become His hands, His feet (Acts 4:32-35; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:20; 12:27). He gives us the energy (Colossians 1:29) and time (2 Corinthians 9:8) with which to do them. He gives us His own example to show us how and why (John 13:15; 1 John 3:16). He gives us His own Spirit to empower us to do those good works (Ephesians 1:19). If we don’t do them, we don’t really believe (James 2:26). If we know to do good and don’t do it, it’s sin to us (1 Peter 4:10; James 4:17). And if others judge our gospel by the way we live it or don’t (Galatians 2:14; Philippians 1:27), by whether we do it or not – why should God judge us any differently (Matthew 25:31-46)?”

Some of my beliefs are insubstantial and unsubstantiated. These are not among them.

And I hope they give a few moments of quiet meditation to those who disagree.

Frankly, it gives me pause to realize that I am not applying the Nike hermeneutic as often as I should.

Confession is Good for …

… the soul, you say?

Then I must confess that I have not practiced what I preached. Not very much, anyway.

Almost 13 months ago I preached my one-and-only sermon, What the Rich Man Lacked.

I prayed about having not practiced what Jesus preached afterwards. I came to a conclusion: Jesus meant what He said. Whether He commanded or asked or instructed or advised us to “sell your possessions and give to the poor,” I believe He meant it to be something that would bless others and bless us for doing it – not just in the next world, but this one as well. So I decided that the Nike hermeneutic was best for this scripture: “Just do it.”

And so I did. A little. A few sales on eBay. A little money forwarded from my PayPal account to an online charity well-spoken of for its work in digging water wells in remote areas of Africa and other drought-hindered lands.

Not very much.

If I had done a lot, I wouldn’t have told you at all. I would’ve kept it to myself.

But I didn’t do a lot. I didn’t bless others very much. So it’s no wonder there was little blessing in it for me.

If confession is good for something, maybe it’s good for letting friends know of your failure to your commitment, so they can hold you accountable to it.

Will you hold me accountable?

The Gospel According to Nike

In Acts 9:36, it is said to be a habit of Tabitha.

In Acts 10:38, it is said to be characteristic of Jesus.

Romans 2:7 calls it rewardable.

Galatians 6:9 encourages us not to get tired of it.

TItus 2:7 says it’s a good way to set a good example; and 3:1 calls us to be ready about it. A few verses later in 3:8 and 14, we’re admonished to be devoted to it.

I Peter 2:15 suggests that it might silence our accusers – but warns five verses later in 20 that it may cause us suffering anyway – and confirms in 3:17 that suffering for it still beats the alternative.

And James 4:17 agrees.

What is it?

Scan through the gospels. Flip through the Acts of the Apostles. See if it’s not true that it was one of two primary foci of Jesus and His followers. One was good news. The other was doing good.

One let people know that God cares about them in the hereafter. The other let them know that He cares about them in the here-and-now.

The saints of scripture and their Savior didn’t seem to spend a lot of time in meetings discussing the best way to achieve it, or what the most efficient use of resources might be to get it done, or whether it was scriptural to do good on certain days or in certain ways. They simply followed the gospel according to Nike:

Just do it.

Do-er’s and Stoppers

You can find them in nearly any group of people, including every church:

The ones who go and do.

And the ones who are determined to stop them.

Nehemiah was a get-‘er-done-er. Unlike his contemporary Ezra (whose name does not appear in his work for the first 6 chapters, and who was sent by a foreign king to rebuild Jerusalem’s temple), Nehemiah takes the initiative – at some personal risk – to go and rebuild the walls. As nearly as we can tell, God doesn’t tell him to do it; doesn’t set up a king through prophecy to order him to it; doesn’t even “put it on his heart.” It is Nehemiah’s idea when he hears of how badly the wall has fallen into disrepair.

So he begins in prayer, takes action in faith, and goes to get-‘er-done.

By chapter 2 of the book bearing his name, he has run into the cease-and-desisters: Sanballat, Tobiah the Ammonite and Geshem, three ambitious stoppers. The rest of the book they ridicule, plot, scheme, and try to distract him by offering to “help” so they can further sabotage his ministry:

I answered them by saying, “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.” – Nehemiah 2:20

I love that answer. “Buzz off,” Nehemiah tells them. “It ain’t your hive.”

He didn’t quote it, but he had scripture to back him up. (See Deuteronomy 23:3.) It was the same message that the priests and leaders with whom Ezra served gave to the enemies of Israel:

But Zerubbabel, Jeshua and the rest of the heads of the families of Israel answered, “You have no part with us in building a temple to our God. We alone will build it for the LORD, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, commanded us.” – Ezra 4:3

I maintain that it’s a scriptural answer for the busy to give to busybodies:

“Buzz off. It ain’t your hive.”

New Testament scripture?

Sure; I’ve got one:

“Teacher,” said John, “we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward.

Jesus puts a gentle backspin on the answer. “You’ve got your ministry, John,” He says. “They’ve got theirs. Stick to yours. Leave theirs alone. It’s not a competition. Even the lowliest ministry has its place in My service.”

His teaching is clear. It’s not to go into all the world and stop every ministry you don’t agree with, or are jealous of, or that you’re convinced is too innovative and/or successful to be scripturally authorized.

It’s to go into all the world and tell His Story.

Find the way God has gifted you to do it best. Pray. Act in faith. Go do it. Become busy with it. Get-‘er-done.

And quit pestering the folks doing it the way He has gifted them.