While I try to be optimistic, I think it’s fair to say that many Christians hold a faith that doesn’t work in reality.
Maybe their faith “works” in that it gives them some kind of assurance that their sins are forgiven, or that they’ve got the golden ticket and are going to heaven when they die. But when it comes to the challenges of everyday life, their faith doesn’t provide the tools they need to deal. I highlighted this problem in my last post about why Christians are turning to spiritual practices like yoga instead of Jesus for their spiritual care.
Some of this has to do with the debate between “faith” and “works” that’s been raging in the western Christian world now for centuries on end. Personally, I think this debate is almost entirely unnecessary, even if it is fun to engage in from time to time. At the end of the day, though, I suspect the strict dichotomy it generates has nullified our concept of faith as act.
Forgive me, but I’m gonna sneak a little Bible study in here. You might be familiar with the story from Luke 17:11-19 where Jesus tells ten lepers to go and show themselves to the priest as if they were already healed of their leprosy. The text says that they were healed as they went.
If you ask me, that’ll preach. In fact, I believe this passage is significant for the way it stresses the act of faith. The lepers weren’t healed when they heard Jesus’ word or when they “believed” it in their hearts, but when they acted on it. As they went, they were healed.
Faith v.s. works
There is a long and storied debate in western Christianity over the relationship between “faith” and “works.” Some might even say it stretches all the way back to the first century. For evidence, they will point to the tension one feels when reading the letters of James and Paul.
“We are saved by grace through faith,” Paul writes, “It’s not of works so that no one can boast.”
“But faith without works is dead,” James retorts, “You show me your faith without works and I’ll show you my faith by my works.”
Sure seems like the makings of a good debate to me. Apparently, I’m not alone in this feeling. The debate between “faith” and “works” has persisted in many different forms throughout the centuries, from Augustine and Pelagius in the early fifth century to the Reformation of the sixteenth century. You’re probably more familiar with the Reformation.
Speaking of that time, Robert Capon writes:
The Reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered in the dusty basement of late medievalism a whole cellar-full of 1500-year old, 200-proof grace – of bottle after bottle of pure distillate of scripture – one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly. The word of the Gospel, after all those centuries of trying to lift yourself into heaven by worrying about the perfection of your bootstraps, suddenly turned out to be a flat announcement that the saved were home before they started…
Of course, it was neither that sudden nor that dramatic, but you get the point. Something big did happen that altered the course of history. Not just Christian history either, but world history.
If there ever was a time to warrant such a sharp distinction between “faith” and “works,” it was sixteenth century Europe. When papal representatives are selling indulgences in the streets, fleecing the poor by telling them that “the moment the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs,” I for one am perfectly alright with a guy like Martin Luther standing up and nailing his 95 theses to the church door.
At the same time, even Luther preached that “The only saving faith is that which casts itself on God for life or death.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who was killed for resisting Adolph Hitler during the second world war, echoed Luther’s sentiment some 400 years later when he said, “The only person who has a right to say they are justified by faith alone is the person who has left all to follow Christ.”
Hard words. Bonhoeffer had very little time for what he called “cheap grace.”
The result of this trend is that many Christians possess a faith that doesn’t work in reality.
I don’t mean they aren’t busy doing things, even “Christian” things. They might be going to church, giving their offerings, serving the poor, and so forth. What I mean is that they lack a genuine spiritual experience that facilitates their own growth and enables them to meet life’s challenges head-on.
If you listen closely, you’ll hear this coming out in the stories Christians like to tell.
For instance, Christians love a good prodigal story (Luke 15). We thrill to the tale of redemption when the young son returns home and Dad kills the fattened calf to celebrate. But then we call it done once the party is over. We don’t know how to get up the next day and deal with the relational fallout between alienated brothers for whom one sentimental moment of reconciliation will never be enough.
There’s a certain kind of theology under girding our failure here, I think. We treat faith like a magic wand that’s supposed to get one “saved” at a moment’s notice because we view salvation as a one-time legal transaction rather than a substantive experience of spiritual transformation. We downplay the need for spiritual formation and genuine reconciliation in exchange for teary-eyed apologies that seem to come “from the heart.”
In short, our long game sucks.
All kinds of problems stem from this view, of course, not least of which is the way we let abusive pastors back in the pulpit after they take a little time off to “heal” from their issues. This is why narcissists are having a field day within the church. It’s a tremendous issue that both Catholics and Protestants need to take more seriously.
But that’s big picture stuff. The question for most individuals is, do you have a faith that works?
Again, I’m not talking about the afterlife — heaven and hell and all that. Nor am I asking if you’re busy with “Christian” activities — “proving” your faith in the way that James seemed to insist. I honestly don’t care about that stuff. I’m asking whether or not your faith enables you to effectively deal with the challenges of life. Does it really make a difference here and now? Does it bear you up under suffering? Does it stimulate your personal growth? Does it give meaning to life?
If not, you might consider taking the course of those lepers. All genuine relationships begin with faith, after all. You meet someone in whom you take an interest. They seem to reciprocate that interest. So you extend trust to them by opening a part of your life in their direction. If that trust is received and not broken, the relationship will continue to deepen as you gradually extend more of your trust to them. As it began, so it progresses — by faith.
We do this every day with the people in our lives without stopping to think about the mechanics behind it. The gospel is simply an invitation to do the same thing, but with God. That’s not so hard or complicated a concept, is it? Don’t bother with the mess all those religious gate keepers have made of it. This is what it means to live by faith: To extend your trust, risk being vulnerable, and see where it leads.
I might not be your run-of-the-mill pastor, but I still encourage people to do this. If you’re a Christian or a person of faith but your faith doesn’t work in real life — don’t settle for that. Be honest about it. Ask yourself what’s going on. Bounce your thoughts off of someone you trust. But for God’s sake, don’t just keep going to church and repeating the mantra you learned as a child when all it is to you is a second-hand belief system with no grounding in reality.
M. Scott Peck said it best: “To be vital, to be the best of which we are capable, our religion must be a wholly personal one, forged entirely through the fire of our questioning and doubting in the crucible of our own experience of reality.”
I think Peck was on to something here. In fact, I believe it with all my heart, so much so that I won’t hesitate to urge you to give it a try. It’s not always the most pleasant experience, but it will land you on solid ground eventually. Not the solid ground of pretend certainty, but the solid ground of genuine, living faith.