The difference between faith and foolishness

If all eternity hangs in the balance, why faith? Let’s be real here. Faith doesn’t seem like the most efficient way to get a human race on board. Why doesn’t God show up in more tangible ways? 

Answering that question properly hinges on gaining a better definition than we usually give to the principle of faith.

In Hebrews 11:1, the writer tells us that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Another version calls faith “substantive.” The Message version of the scripture gives this definition: “(faith) is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see.

Anyone who comes to God must believe he exists. There is no other option open to us. Of course, there is more to salvation than acknowledging his existence but belief is where it begins. We cannot reason his existence nor can we  feel it. Knowing God requires faith.

Faith, then, is spiritual intelligence. As a way of understanding, it is as relevant as mental or emotional intelligence. Faith is a way of expressing something we recognize as true but cannot describe in reasonable or natural ways. In answer to the question, “why faith?” the response is that faith is a higher form of knowing. It isn’t the “honorable mention” when nothing else works; it is the gold standard.

Faith is a higher form of knowing.

Jesus says as much in John 3 when he explains the kind of spiritual knowing that comes with a relationship to a spiritual being. He teaches that people born physically are born in water, from the womb. People born spiritually are born into the Spirit. Spirit-existence is not equivalent to physical existence. We get in trouble when we try to equate the two.

Jesus goes on to compare this Spirit-knowing to the wind. It is something we know to be real, even if we don’t see or control it. In the same way, we don’t have to see or control the Spirit to know it to be real. Claiming it as truth, Jesus goes on, births us into a different kind of reality. Faith, then, is about being brought into a spiritual life. Decisions begin from that place; wisdom begins there. We begin to know everything else only as it relates to what we know by faith. Faith, used well, orients us outward from a God-center, rather than inward (or upward) from the world. This is why it is a higher form of knowing.

If only we would use our faith as it is designed! Not as a default when nothing else works (“I’m miserable, but I guess I will hang on by faith.”), but as an orienting point that makes everything else make sense. The problem with too much contemporary Christianity is our perversion of good faith. We tend toward empty faith — using it almost like a shoulder shrug for things beyond our control. Or we manipulate the word as permission for all manner of treacherous and self-serving decisions. It doesn’t work, of course. God is not partial to manipulation. But that doesn’t prevent us from trying and from manipulating others in the process.

But that? That isn’t faith; that’s foolishness. Foolishness says, “I know I don’t need this thing I’m after, but I want it. And because I want what I want when I want it, I’m going to call this leap I’m about to make a leap of faith, even though Jesus probably isn’t within ten square miles of it. I’m going to call this faith, because it makes people think I heard from Jesus when I do that, so if Jesus doesn’t come running to save me from myself, maybe people will.”

That’s not faith. That is spiritual malpractice.

Faith is something else entirely, something with the flavor of wisdom, maturity and persistence. I’m thinking of a friend of my mother’s, who wanted a swimming pool in her back yard. She kept after her husband about it. He didn’t want an in-ground pool so try as she might to convince him otherwise, he didn’t budge. Eventually, she got tired of begging, bought a shovel, and started digging. One shovelful at a time, she dug most of a hole for an in-ground swimming pool. When she got in above her head, he got on board. I suspect faith looks more like this than like that of someone who claims to know the preferences of God for self-serving purposes.

Faith says, “If you want a swimming pool, you may have to invest in a shovel.” In other words, faithfulness embraces preparation and persistence, honors investment and counts the cost. Faith trusts the promises of God, but never manipulates them toward selfish ends.

It seems to me that the great moves of God tend to happen in the hands of those who practice a healthy faith, when people who love God invest themselves in partnership with his purposes and are oriented toward life from the Kingdom down. It happens not so much by lofty platitudes and grand-standing but by people who are willing to hold prayer in one hand and a shovel in the other.

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Is your spiritual life a system or a pile of parts?

Confession: My life and ministry have suffered greatly for lack of working systems. My problem is not laziness or lack of passion. Pretty much, I like just about every idea I come across. I don’t miss opportunities for lack of desire. I miss out for lack of knowing how to take good ideas (and more critically, “God ideas”) and design systems that move those ideas forward.

Why do systems matter? Think of it like a pile of bicycle parts. That pile, theoretically, is a bicycle. Everything is there to make a bicycle. Of course, in the form of a disconnected pile, it isn’t going anywhere.

There is no system to a pile of parts.

Now suppose I know something about bicycle construction (which I don’t but suppose I did). Suppose I know enough to be able to look at a pile and know it has the makings of a bike. In fact, I could call that pile my bike, and even be very proud of my pile of parts. “Look at that pile!” I’d say. “There’s one heck of a bike in that pile!”

Now suppose I find in my bike pile a rusty bolt. This bolt won’t do, I think to myself. I become angry about this one bolt and return it to the people who gave me the pile. I yell at them for giving me this bolt. “Self-respecting people don’t use rusty bolts!” I exclaim. In an attempt to placate me and keep my business the bike people sheepishly replace the bolt with one more to my liking.

Which I then throw onto the pile.

Which still isn’t moving.

Now I have a better bolt but I’m no closer to riding a bike. Why? Because while my pile of parts is a bike in theory, it is not a bike in reality. Until the parts are connected so they make a system that moves me forward, I don’t actually have a bike … just a pile. And a pile without a system won’t take me anyplace.

Let me say that again: A pile without a system won’t take you anyplace.

And here is the challenge for far too many folks who follow Jesus. What we call a spiritual life is for most of us no more than a pile of disconnected parts. We attend a worship service, maybe check in at a small group, pray before meals, and read a devotional book over breakfast or coffee.

We have the parts, but no system.

Then, when we discover a piece of the pile that isn’t to our liking — a small group that isn’t fun enough or a worship service that doesn’t “feed us” or music that doesn’t fit our taste — we pull that part out and hold it up to the person responsible so we can complain. “This piece is rusty! No self-respecting person wants a piece like this!” And maybe the person to whom we complain adjusts to keep us happy. They give us a better part. Or we go someplace where that part is more available. Then what do we have? All we have, really, is a shinier part to toss back onto the pile. Which is taking us no place, because we have no system.

Brothers and sisters, this is an oppressive way to live the Christian life. It is life-sucking and fun-sucking, both for us and those around us. Who wants to carry around a heavy and oppressive pile of parts that are actually designed to fit together into a system that carries us and takes us someplace spiritually?

This is the point of the means of grace — prayer, Bible reading, worship, journaling, fasting, group accountability. These parts are meant to fit together into a cohesive system that takes us closer to Christ. They are meant to be fashioned into something that serves us spiritually, so we can become all we were created to become.

Do you have a system designed to take you someplace spiritually? Or do you have a pile of parts? Are the activities connected to your faith in God oppressive or life-giving? Do they leave you frustrated and angry, burdened and tired? Or are they moving you forward?

Hear this: The system on which you build your life determines not only your growth in grace but also the quality of your joy.

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