Monday, January 27, 2020

Misplaced Faith

Faith 4

          What is faith? It is seeing with your heart. It is stepping out on the belief. It is leaning
          All of that is true, but here’s the rub: You can understand and/or do all three of those and still be entirely wrong about faith. How? By misplacing your faith. I do not mean losing it. I mean misplacing it. I mean putting it or placing it in the wrong thing. You can ignore the logical evidence you see and instead see with your heart, and find you should have paid attention to the logical evidence. You can ignore the doubt and act only on the belief, and step directly onto a landmine. You can lean in complete dependence, and collapse because you leaned on the wrong thing. Faith itself is not enough. Faith alone is not a magical source of blessing and goodness. No, it is not faith; it is faith in God. And Jesus answering saith unto them, Have faith in God (Mark 11.22).
          The Scripture is filled with examples for us, both good and bad. Speaking directly to our subject, we find a surprising number of the latter in the area of faith. People have been people in every generation of history. They have believed – and misplaced that belief. I do not like to just give Scripture lists when I blog but this one will be helpful here, I think. All of these are examples of misplaced faith.

          -believing in military power
Psalm 20:7 Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: But we will remember the name of the LORD our God.

          -believing in money
Psalm 49:6 They that trust in their wealth, And boast themselves in the multitude of their riches;
7 None of them can by any means redeem his brother, Nor give to God a ransom for him:

          -believing in crime
Psalm 62:10 Trust not in oppression, And become not vain in robbery: If riches increase, set not your heart upon them.

          -believing in humanity
Psalm 118:8 It is better to trust in the LORD Than to put confidence in man.

          -believing in politicians
Psalm 146:3 Put not your trust in princes, Nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.

          -believing everything you hear
Proverbs 14:15 The simple believeth every word: But the prudent man looketh well to his going.

          -believing in idols
Isaiah 42:17 They shall be turned back, they shall be greatly ashamed, that trust in graven images, That say to the molten images, Ye are our gods.

          -believing in the power of your own lies
Isaiah 59:4 None calleth for justice, nor any pleadeth for truth: They trust in vanity, and speak lies; They conceive mischief, and bring forth iniquity.

          -believing in your own beauty
Ezekiel 16:15 But thou didst trust in thine own beauty, and playedst the harlot because of thy renown, and pouredst out thy fornications on every one that passed by; his it was.

          -believing in your own goodness
Ezekiel 33:13 When I shall say to the righteous, that he shall surely live; if he trust to his own righteousness, and commit iniquity, all his righteousnesses shall not be remembered; but for his iniquity that he hath committed, he shall die for it.

          -believing in your friends
Micah 7:5 Trust ye not in a friend, Put ye not confidence in a guide: Keep the doors of thy mouth from her that lieth in thy bosom.

          -believing in a false Messiah
Mark 13:21 And then if any man shall say to you, Lo, here is Christ; or, lo, he is there; believe him not:

          -believing in yourself
Philippians 3:4 Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more:

          -believing an extra-biblical revelation
1 John 4:1 Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.

          I love the humanity of this list, the sheer continuity of it. I have heard each of these praised at some point or other in my own personal experience. In other words, misplaced faith is something that every generation, indeed, every person has to deal with.
          Having faith is not enough. Understanding what that faith is and seeking to live a life of faith is not enough. We must place that faith properly. We must have faith in God.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Faith is Leaning

Faith 3

          So far in this blog series I have give you two definitions of faith. Faith is seeing with your heart. Faith is stepping out on the belief. I should be moving on past definitions at this point but I find I must bring you one more. As a man who works in words I find I love them. When used properly they can be so precise, so revealing, so targeted. In the context of this discussion, they are highly helpful. They show us exactly what God wants us to understand about Him, about our relationship to Him, and about how our lives are supposed to function. The definition of faith I bring you today is exactly this, at least it is to me. So what is that definition? Faith is leaning.
          I attended a Christian high school. It was operated by a local independent Baptist church in our area. At various times, between 5 and 20 children from our church attended this school along with me. The church that sponsored the school was bigger than our church. The pastor was younger than my father, who pastored our church, and he was much flashier than my father. He attracted people to him with seemingly little effort, although I am sure my teenage understanding was rather immature and ill-informed. At any rate, after a few years of mushrooming growth the pastor sadly succumbed to moral failure.
The resulting implosion in the spirituality of the teenagers in that high school was fearful to see. It still haunts me, truth be told. More than three decades past, and most of them are still out of church, dealing with various addictions and divorces, and the consequences that come from a life lived away from God. Each of us is responsible for his own sin, but that man will answer to God for being the earthly genesis of much of it. That genesis of an entire life lived wrongly well into middle age I faced as a teenage boy. My classmates went from being serious about God to being hypocritical, from being sold out to selling out, from being all in to being into everything. They smoked. They drank. They partied. They became sensual. They became hardened toward authority and toward preaching. In short, they became the infamous rebels that are the subject of so many Christian school chapel sermons.
I am no better than any man, and substantially worse than quite a few. But God in His grace gave me the grace to take a stand when most of my classmates went the wrong direction. In a word, I did not follow the multitude to do evil. I kept walking with God. I tried not to be a goody two-shoes or a Billy Bible about it, but I just kept on the same spiritual track we all had previously been on.
Some years later I found myself face to face with one of my high school classmates. He knew and I knew what had gone on back then, what he had done and what I had not done, and the path our lives had taken over the intervening years. He looked at me, mustered up his courage, and gave voice to a question that he must have pondered for quite a while. He said, “Tom, you stood back in the day when we all went wrong. How did you do that?” I thought for a moment, and then answered him simply. I called his name and said, “I did not stand. I leaned. It just looked from a distance like I was standing.”
Paul said it this way to a weak but strengthening Corinthian church. Moreover I call God for a record upon my soul, that to spare you I came not as yet unto Corinth. Not for that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy: for by faith ye stand (II Corinthians 1.23-24). How did I stand when those around me were falling? By faith. It is the same way Daniel and his three friends stood. It is the same way Joseph stood. It is the same way David stood. It is the same way anybody who has ever stood for God has managed to stay upright. By faith, knowing what was right, we leaned our human frailty upon the Lord. We depended upon Him to give us the strength to be and do what it is we were supposed to be and do.
Perhaps the most well-known passage on faith in the Scripture record is Hebrews 11. It lists example after example of saints of old who did spiritual things others around them found impossible. Explicitly, Hebrews 11 links those spiritual exploits to faith. How did Noah prepare an ark when everyone in his world was going the other direction? By faith. How did Abraham obey when he went out not knowing whither he went? By faith. How did Sara find the strength to carry and deliver a child at a marvelously advanced age? Through faith. How did Moses turn his back on all the pleasures of sin a rich, young Egyptian man could indulge himself in? By faith. How does weakness become strength? By faith. How do we obtain a good report, a good enough report that years later men marvel at how we stood and compliment us on it? Through faith.
One of my favorite Scripture passages is Deuteronomy 33.27. The eternal God is thy refuge, And underneath are the everlasting arms. That phrase is familiar to you because of the wonderful hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
Leaning on the Everlasting Arms!
What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,
Leaning on the Everlasting Arms!

Leaning, leaning,
Safe and secure from all alarms;
Leaning, leaning,
Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.

          That is what faith is. It is leaning on someone else’s strength. It is realizing you do not have the ability, the power, the strength, the talent, the experience, the personality, the charisma, the charm, the authority, or the force to accomplish something you are supposed to accomplish. So you go to the Lord. You reach out to Him. You tell Him you know you are incapable of doing this or accomplishing that. You humbly bow your heart before Him and simply ask for His help. And then you lean on Him.
          Others marvel at what you accomplish. They sit back and say, “Wow.” But you know it is not in you to produce a “wow” out of anybody. All that is in you is debilitating weakness. So you lean. You depend on Him.
          That is faith. And it wonderfully pleases God.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Faith is Stepping Out on the Belief

Faith 2

          Last week, as we began our series on faith, I furnished you with an initial definition: faith is seeing with your heart. This week, I want to look at another facet of the gem of belief. This is another descriptive phrase designed to help you understand what faith is and how it operates.
          Let us begin with the idea that faith is first belief. That sounds redundant, I know, but follow me. Faith is my initial reaction of belief when I hear something. Think of Lot and his peers, for example. When the angels brought the news to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah of their soon coming destruction each hearer had to decide whether to believe or scoff. Lot, for all the criticism justifiably hurled at him later, reacted first with belief.
          Faith begins with the instinctive, or perhaps I should say initial, pointing of the arrow of the compass of my heart toward, “Yes, I believe that.” I was a very young boy when my parents told me the Bible was the Word of God. I believed them. I believed It. I reacted in faith. I was very young when I was taught that Jesus was God’s Son, that He died on the cross for me, that He rose from the dead for me, that He is coming again for me, and that He would take care of me in the intervening period. My first reaction, my initial response was to believe.
          Though it is true to say that faith is first belief, it is also incomplete. For intellectual honesty, personal experience, and biblical example show us that the initial belief is soon mixed with doubt. Cast your mind back to the Garden of Eden. When God limited the trees that Adam and Eve could eat from in Genesis 2.16-17 and promised them the negative consequence of death if they disobeyed they initially responded with belief. Yet within just a few verses we find the devil sowing the seed of doubt into that faith in Genesis 3. Yea, hath God said? God spoke. The initial response was belief. That belief was soon followed by doubt.
          The devil understands how powerful faith in God is and how much God values it. Consequently, there may be nothing he works quite so hard to subvert and destroy. He does this several different ways, as we shall see, but one of the very first ways he does is by attempting to sow doubt into the ground of initial belief. He casts doubt on the authenticity of God’s Word, on the infallibility of God’s Word, on your understanding of God’s Word, and on your application of God’s Word. He casts doubt on God’s timing, God’s power, and God’s willingness to honor His Word. And on a thousand other things.
          Do recall Israel’s response when they first came to border of the Promised Land? Yes, they sent spies in but it was not because they were uncertain whether they could or should go in, rather they sought to determine how they should go in. Those spies were sent under God’s direct instruction (Numbers 13.1-3) as a reconnaissance force. Only later did they resolve themselves into a Committee of Doubt, determined to vote themselves and the people of God directly out of obedience into sin. First there was faith. Later, there was doubt.
          I cast my mind back to one of my early yet serious experiences with this. I surrendered to the ministry at fourteen, and all through high school I carefully considered which Bible college I should attend. I prayed about it, studied on it, and sought counsel about it. Finally, I made my decision. I would attend Hyles-Anderson College. I believed – see the faith? – that God was leading me there and that this is what God wanted. Yet as the first semester rolled along and I kept losing jobs through no fault of my own, as I watched my school bill mount and my inability to pay it mounted right alongside guess what crept into my heart? You know the answer, right? Yep. Doubt. Maybe I was wrong? Maybe this is not what God wanted? Maybe I did not have what it took? Maybe I should quit? Yea, hath God said?
          It is important for me to stress here that I am not talking about scoffing and mockery. I am not talking about a blatantly rebellious refusal to believe. I am talking about the normal or usual sequence of events for God’s people. I am talking about someone whose initial reaction is belief, but who very soon finds doubt creeping into their mind.
          Fortunately, we are not yet done laying out this progression. The first reaction to God’s Word is belief. This initial reaction is soon followed hard on its heels by doubt. But then faith, real faith, rises back up. It casts its eye on the Word of God and choosing to ignore the siren call of doubt, it steps out on the belief. This then is the progression: faith à doubt à stepping out on the belief. Ergo, my second descriptive phrase for faith is born – faith is stepping out on the belief.
          Let us say I invite you to my home for a meal. You readily accept, and step inside the door. I kindly take your coat and hat and hospitably point you toward a rickety, cane-bottomed decorative chair straight out of the eighteenth century. You pause. Why? You are weighing – pun intended – the alternatives. The chair looks like its best centuries are behind it. Your girth is substantial. Will it hold you up? Yet why would I point you toward it unless I full well knew it was up to the job? Inside of you a split-second war rages. On the one side is faith, trusting my judgment and trusting that chair to hold you up. On the other side is doubt, accusing me of malfeasance and insisting the chair is to be avoided. How do I know which one of those two wins? By your actions. If you avoid the chair, doubt wins. If you sit in the chair, faith wins. Faith is stepping out, or in this case sitting down on the belief.
          Every person reading this blog post knows what it is like to entertain doubt in God and in God’s Word. But entertaining that doubt does not damn you. Acting on the doubt would but entertaining it does not. Your heart is revealed to God by your actions. If you act on the belief even while doubt is present in your heart you are not condemned for such. You are applauded in His world. Why? You are stepping out on the belief.
          If you care to examine the stories of the great men of faith in the Scripture you will find this pattern repeated ad nauseum. They were not scoffers. They did not have a faith unmixed by doubt. Instead, when God spoke to them they reacted with initial belief, entertained doubt as it crept in, and then stepped out on the belief even thought the doubts were still present.
          God instructed Abraham to leave his home and family, and God promised to give him a new land and many, many descendants. His initial response is belief, as evidenced by his leaving Ur. Doubt, however, rears its head, as evidenced by the events surrounding Ishmael. Yet when all was said and done we see in Romans 4 that Abraham had clearly risked everything on the faith side of the ledger, and was thus blessed. 
          Peter, on the darkest night of the Apostle’s lives that side of the crucifixion, in desperate excitement turned to a Jesus walking on the water and said, Bid me come unto thee on the water (Matthew 14.28). Jesus uttered one word. Come. Is that being an apparition, a ghost? Or is it his Messiah? Peter’s initial reaction is faith, evidenced by the fact he stepped out of the boat. That faith was soon mixed with doubt, as evidenced by the fact he began to sink. But in the final analysis, Peter trusted in Christ, evidenced by the fact he cried out, Lord, save me (Matthew 14.30). There are layers of faith and doubt interwoven through this story but it is glorious to see Peter step out on the belief.
          Understanding this puts the lie to one of the more egregious scriptural fallacies about faith. That fallacy says faith has to be pure, entirely unmixed with doubt, for God to bless it. The truth of the matter is the complete opposite is revealed from one end of the Bible to the other. This side of eternity faith is often mixed with doubt yet it is exercised as faith and blessed as faith nonetheless – when we act on the faith regardless of the doubt we feel or hold.
          It is not unusual for me to come across some long-standing saint of God making a second profession of faith in Christ, or even making repeated professions of faith. It is not a lack of understanding of the Gospel that drives such actions; it is rather a lack of understanding of what faith is and is not. “Well, I’m not sure I really believed the first time” is the rationale. It is an unscriptural rationale. We are not saved by a pure faith unmixed with doubt. We are saved by a faith that steps out on the belief, that casts itself solely on Christ as our hope for redemption, forgiveness, and eternal life, a faith that views itself as unworthy and wonders from time to time but obtains salvation for us nevertheless. Even a little faith can move mountains. Even just a grain of faith. Yes, there is Bible teaching that a strong faith is not mixed with doubt, but faith does not start there. It must grow to that point via long experience with God. And to say that God does not honor faith unless and until it is entirely free from doubt is not only illogical, it is just plain wrong.
          Let me prove it to you.
          In Mark 9 we find the story of a man afflicted with a demonically oppressed son. Jesus was not available but the next best thing – His disciples – were. So he presents his son to the Apostles asking for deliverance only to see the Apostles fail miserably. In one of the most encouraging personal interchanges in the entire Gospel record we find Jesus seeks first to ascertain the man’s faith. Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. That sounds like it comes straight out of a Pentecostal television broadcast. What follows next most assuredly, however, does not. And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief. If the fallacy is true, if our faith has to be pure, unmixed with doubt, in order for God to honor it this guy and his son do not have a snowball’s chance in hell. But that is not the case. Instead, we find a rejoicing father and a young boy gloriously delivered. Why? Because the father, though justifiably filled with doubt, stepped out on the belief. He came to Christ. He asked of Christ. He threw himself, doubts and all, on Christ. And was delivered.
          Beloved, you do not have to be some kind of super-Christian in order for God to respond to your faith. You do not have to measure up to the stature you imagine Bro. So-and-so to be. No. When the doubt comes – when, not if – you just have to step out on the belief.
          That is faith.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Faith is Seeing with Your Heart

Faith 1

          One of the most important things for every Christian to well understand and apply is faith. It is involved in the birth of the Christian life for we are saved by grace through faith. It is also involved in every aspect of the Christian life that follows for whatsoever is not of faith is sin. Not only is faith an omnipresent requirement in the Christian life, it is also a varied spiritual grace. What I mean by that is faith, like the best of diamonds, has a multiplicity of facets, angles, and applications. For these reasons, I have long wanted to write about faith at some depth. Thus it is I have decided to spend the next thirteen weeks writing a blog series on faith.
          To begin properly in any theological discussion we must carefully define the word under discussion. Today, I want to give you a working definition of faith that we can continue to draw upon as the series moves forward. It is this: faith is seeing with your heart.
          The normal way you and I see is with our eyes. For the blind, they use their fingers and their ears. But in either case, seeing involves sensory input and a reasoned, logical response to that sensory input. For example, if I see snow when I glance out the window before walking out the door first thing in the morning I may well adjust my course of action. I may exchange my shoes for boots. I may exchange my driving gloves for a thicker pair. Etc. As I write this it is January in Dubuque, Iowa. If someone came along and told me it was going to be 100’ Fahrenheit at noon today I would not believe them. I would look at the snow. I would look at the calendar. I would call to mind my long experience with January weather at this latitude. Then I would compile all that I see and know into an evidence that calls such a prediction ridiculous and proceed to ignore it.
          Christianity is, in a word, the exact opposite. We cannot, we dare not, we must not live our life based on what we see. While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal (II Corinthians 4.18). For we walk by faith, not by sight (II Corinthians 5.7). Which two passages immediately call to mind the classic definition of faith in Hebrews 11.1. Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. The eyes of our logical human reason cannot adequately see the proper way to approach life. God is a spirit. The spiritual is unseen. God moves in mysterious ways, as William Cowper says, ways our minds cannot
William Cowper
by Lemuel Francis Abbott c 1792
comprehend. We must be willing, instead, to embrace doctrine and practice that appears on the surface as illogical, unreasonable, and even hard to pin down sometimes. We must step out on an invisible bridge, one which we cannot see with our bodies or our minds. One we can only see with our heart. One which we believe is there even though there is no evidence of such to our senses.
          For scriptural example I offer you Moses. By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king: for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible (Hebrews 11.27). He chose to suffer affliction with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season. He left the best job in the most advanced civilization on Earth. He observed the Passover and sprinkled blood on his doorpost. He walked between walls of water in the Red Sea. All of these Hebrews mentions in the context of Moses’ faith. And not a single one of these decisions made any sense based on what Moses could see or could reasonably infer. They weren’t made by sight; they were made by faith. He didn’t use his eyes or his human reasoning to see as he made decisions. He saw with his heart.
          Let us turn again to the very beginning of our Christianity, our salvation. It is no coincidence that God tells us the lost are blinded. He chose that word on purpose. Those who come to Christ are said to have the eyes of their understanding opened. Well, how do they get saved? By trusting Christ in their heart. Faith does not use eyes; it uses the heart. That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness (Romans 10.9-10). You and I have never laid eyes on Christ. It does not make sense to believe a man who lived and died two thousand years ago on a different continent can take us to Heaven. We ignore that. We believe anyway. We make a decision by what we see with our heart.
          Doubt is often called the opposite of faith. I do not hold that position, as I will explain later in this series, but it is true that the most famous skeptic in human history just might be Doubting Thomas. Why is he called thus? Because he insisted on seeing with his eyes when he should have been looking with his heart. The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe (John 20.25). But that would not be faith, would it, beloved? Not at all. It would be sight. And sight is not faith.
          This is why the Christian science of apologetics, while helpful, will always be limited in its usefulness to the cause of Christ. That is why I do not and will not make it a major point of emphasis in my ministry. The battleground of belief is not sight or reason; it is the heart. Those by the way side are they that hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved (Luke 8.12). I have read more philosophy than a man can shake a stick at. In fact, just last week I finished a history of the era of Bacon, Locke, Spinoza, and Leibniz. For dozens of pages Will Durant rambled on comparing this philosophy to that one, this argument about the existence of God with that one. The problem was not the writing; Durant is brilliant. The problem is not the thinking; Bacon, Locke, Spinoza, and Leibniz outclass me by a country mile. The problem was rebellion. They refused to humble themselves and believe God. Instead, they embraced the wisdom of their own minds, what their own reason and senses could perceive, and built a god in that image. They would not lay aside their own reason and in humility believe in their heart the simplicity of God’s revelation contained in Scripture.

          What does all of this mean for you and me in a practical, everyday sense? Mature Christians learn to look beyond what their eyes/reason tell them and judge things through the eyes of faith. I do not mean to say that faith is always unreasonable. But faith is always invisible. Faith is not visual; it is presuppositional. It presupposes certain things to be true, whether they appear to be true or not, and then acts on those presuppositions. Faith says, “I know how it looks, but I do not care how it looks; I care what God told me.” This applies to societal and personal standards of right and wrong. It applies to our priorities. It applies to our fears. It applies to how we deal with past hurts. It applies to our relationships. It applies to my concept of what I am to be and do, about how to live the entirety of life.
          Peter often gets a bad rap in our day, but say what you will we cannot get past one fact – he got out of the boat. His eyes, experience, and logic told him he could not walk on water. But when Jesus said, “Come”, he ignored the evidence before him and believed in what Jesus said anyway. And he did just fine. Well, until he started to squelch the faith in his heart with the evidence of his senses.
          Beloved, when we are called to walk by faith let us keep looking squarely at the invisible Christ. See him with your heart. And make your decisions based on seeing with your heart rather than your eyes.