When faith is just about you… and how that diminishes the faith of others

GraffitiFaith is something I care a lot about, and something I long to continue to grow in.  Faith is also something that I have struggled with periodically, and continue to wrestle with regularly. I used to see these struggles as a sign of poor faith, but have since come to realize that it is probably the opposite. For many of us, deep faith comes only on the other end of a series of struggles that have been (mostly) reconciled over time.

Said in a different way – some people are blessed to have a child like faith right from the beginning (and I am using that phrase in a complimentary way – Jesus himself says we need to have the faith of a child). I am happy for those who get there so quickly. Others of us have to contend with a number of factors along the way to get to the eventual place of trusting God with child like faith. I fall into that second category.

Because of that I have been attracted to, and seem to be attractive to, those who also struggle with certain dimensions of the faith experience. I regularly find myself having these types of conversations with both people inside and outside of the church, and those have certainly shaped the way I think about faith. Added to that is a growing number of conversations with young parents who are trying to figure how to and how not to talk to their own children about faith.

I think it is helpful to talk about what faith is (here is a link to one of my most recent sermons on that if you are interested – its the one from 10/6/13), but also to expose ways that we talk and think about faith that are unhelpful, shallow and even potentially harmful. That’s what I tried to do in this short, 4-post series (intro1, 2, and 3 are here).

Of the four that I covered, this final one is the broadest, and could easily be talked about as an additional dozen sub-topics. If you took a straw poll to identify the #1 reason why people struggle with their faith, I suspect you would get a clear consensus at the top of the list: a discrepancy between the way Christians talk about their faith and the way they live out their faith. It could go by other names too, with hypocrisy and lack of credibility the most common replacement terms.

I’m sympathetic to both sides on this one. My faith has been shaken at times by those who poorly represent Christianity, so I understand why so many people have trouble differentiating faith itself from its followers. But on the other hand I am also sensitive to it, because I am now one of those messengers myself, and I always hope that people can separate out the defects of the messenger from the importance of the message itself. I’m sure I’m as much a part of the problem on this one as I am the solution.

While there are dozens of discrepancies that could be pointed to in today’s day and age, I will focus on just one in this post: an individualized, internalized view of faith that does not call on people to take action on behalf of others.

That’s a mouthful, so let me say it a different way, in the form of a story. A few weeks ago I was in a meeting with a group of “social entrepreneurs” from the city of Chicago. These are men and women who are using their skills and expertise to try to address social challenges in the city. I was chatting with the woman sitting next to me, and she was really surprised to see a pastor in the group (which is so problematic in itself – shouldn’t that be the expectation of every pastor? Social entrepreneur might be a fancy title, but it certainly applied to Jesus!).  I shared some of the River City story with her, and then asked about her own faith background.

Her response was very typical of many of the justice oriented people I meet. “I grew up around church, but it was only focused on what happened inside the walls of the church. I was very aware of the pain and hurt in the world from an early age, and it bothered me that my church seemed so unconcerned. All that they cared about was whether we were certain that we were going to heaven. I’m just not attracted to that kind of faith.”

I told her I understood where she was coming from, and assured her that she was in good company. Jesus’ own brother couldn’t stand churches like that. This is a passage that is helpful to remember when we are tempted to think of faith as overly privatized, individualized, and self-oriented:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if people claim to have faith but have no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2.14-17)

If there’s one discrepancy between professed and applied faith that I could really zone in on, it would be what James focused on here. One of the underlying themes that has discredited faith for many people is lack of concern for both local and global issues, whether that be crime, poverty, failing schools, lack of health care, homelessness, hunger, lack of clean water, etc.

Faith that emphasizes one’s own personal connection to God without also emphasizing our connection to God’s work in the world is dangerous for a lot of reasons. Perhaps it is most dangerous for the simple reason that it colludes with what is already most wrong with us – an over obsession with ourselves. Part of the problem with the human condition is that we repetitively put our own needs and desires before those of others, and its easy to turn faith into the same type of consumeristic commodity.

When we search for a faith that is just about making ourselves feel better and checking off the correct boxes, we become complicit with the crooked desires that already threaten to deter us from the path to abundant life.

By re-rooting ourselves in a whole perspective of faith that unites our internal connection to God with our external action in the world, we achieve multiple things at the same time. First, we experience a renewed degree of vitality in our spiritual lives, because we are now living more in line with the integrated perspective of faith that is present throughout the Bible. Secondly, we begin to win back the credibility of faith that has been lost in this generation.

It is easy to get confused about faith in the culture we live in. Our culture is already so independent, self-centered, and individualistic, and it becomes so easy to translate all of our faith conversations through that lens.  But there does come a time where faith is more than God just trying to be your therapist – when faith is about more than trying to heal your wounds, or to help you to achieve your dreams. Faith is designed by God as a means to be saved from our own self serving instincts and to be able to be sent back out in the world so that we can make a difference in the lives of others.

That’s the thing about faith. If it is turned into a self-serving commodity used to make ourselves feel spiritually better, it ends up having the completely wrong effect. It not only erodes your own spiritual vitality, but has an adverse affect on the faith of others. They intuitively sense that faith should push people outward, and if all they see is the kind of shallow faith that James describes, they end up with the wrong conclusion.

Not to be lost among all this is the beauty of faith, and that is what we are meant to continue to return to.

Faith is the means by which fragile, lost human beings are able to be connected to the cosmic, almighty God. Faith is the means by which we can drink deeply and endlessly from the wells of God’s good grace. And faith is the means by which we can join God in the transformative, redemptive work happening in the world all around us.

That is the kind of faith leads to human beings being made fully alive.

So remember today, that God not only wants you to know him through deep faith, but wants you to be joined to his redemptive work through faith. And as you authentically struggle to live with that kind of faith, know that you are not alone. There are people in our lives that are struggling with their faith and trying to make sense of whether God is even out there or how to live this elusive life of faith, and when you begin to live it out and you begin to step into the life God has created you to live you begin to give concrete explanation of what it looks like to be connected to the living God.

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