Then Jesus told him [Thomas], "You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me."
-Jesus, John 20:29
Faith is hard. Let me rephrase that. Faith that is informed by real life is hard. It’s actually pretty easy to believe a lot of things that aren’t rooted in reality. I can believe that God answers every single prayer request of mine (not true). I can believe that ultimately if I do good things and love God, life will be relatively painless (not even close). I can believe that good always prevails in the end (also not true, if by “the end” you mean this life). I can believe that God will give me what I want if I just have enough faith or pray hard enough. It’s a nice sentiment, but we have all learned that God isn’t our spiritual ATM, doling out the goods if we just plug in the right code each time. Faith is complicated, and faith is hard.
Ok, enough cynicism. That’s actually the issue we’re talking about.
Faith can feel smooth until we have those experiences that call everything into question. A family member that doesn’t share our faith even though we pray for them and try our best to point toward Jesus. A chronic illness that doesn’t go away. Cancer. The loss of someone we love. The job that we just cannot seem to find. The unending suffering and poverty of so many in our world. The seasons of life where God feels absent EVEN when we are seeking after God. Pain and abuse at the hands of those who claim the name of Jesus. These things throw our logic and call into question deeply held beliefs. They can fling us into chaos.
French philosopher Paul Ricour became well known for identifying three stages that people go through in their faith when they have strong feelings called into question. And he wears flip glasses and an indoor scarf, so he must be really intelligent.
It begins with what he calls….
First Naïveté- these are childlike perceptions. They are untested truths that simply are. We accept these perceptions from a young age, and we usually never wrestle with them. But something happens that forces us to, and some of them start to break down. Then we move toward….
Confusion- Many people never move beyond confusion. They are bombarded by their questions and left broken. Confusion is necessary in spiritual formation, but it’s not the end. At this point we have two options. We can throw away everything that we believe in these areas and move toward unbelief. Or we ask critical questions and lean into the tension. We don’t run from the questions, we run toward them, seeking to find what is true about God as found in Jesus.
If we persevere, there is something beautiful on the other end of the tunnel. Ricour calls it….
The Second Naïveté- This is where you can wrestle with questions, but it doesn’t sink you any more. You can hold on to what is good and real, and let go of the assumptions that used to be attached to them. Your faith has stretched from a list of assumptions and moved into a living, breathing connection with the God that trumps truisms. This is the area of spiritual formation, where joy and mystery can dwell together. This is where pain is permitted because life is hard, but God is good and with us in the midst of it. This is the place where cynicism fades, and real faith emerges. This is a new type of childlike faith. Hope is restored, but this time with depth.
The way we get there? Relatively straightforward:
We let Jesus define the nature of God for us, and we keep focused on Him.
Like the writer of Hebrews encourages us,
And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
Instead of our faith resting on existential untested beliefs, or on never-ending deconstruction, it becomes placed on the living person of Jesus. In the second naïveté we realize that God can be good even though the world is often brutal. We see that the Kingdom breaks through all the time, though not yet in its fullness. We see that heartache is where Jesus meets us and brings peace, instead of heartache meaning that Jesus doesn’t care. And unanswered questions aren’t to be feared, because we’re not alone.
Belief remains important, but the relational journey with God will always be more transformative than collecting a list of beliefs about God.
Christian author Wendell Berry makes this simple statement in his fabulous poem, The Mad Farmer Liberation Front:
"Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts."
So that’s today’s encouragement. Don’t be afraid of the hard seasons of faith. Don’t be afraid of deconstruction. But don’t wallow in your cynicism forever, because Jesus is alive and ready to walk with us on the other side. Move toward joy today.
Jesus, shape us.
For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;
His faithfulness continues through all generations.
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Oh God. Sometimes that sums it up. I have many “Oh God” types of days.
Days when I wake up and read about our world. I read about parents and children being separated. I read about wars and rumors of wars. I read about opioid epidemics destroying a generation and I read social media judgments about others that break my heart because NOBODY IS LISTENING.
And I think, Oh God…
There are days that I look at our church. And I think about the pain that so many have gone through. I think about chronic sickness, unanswered prayers, and difficult family relationships. I think about divorce, I think about mental illness, and I think about so many other things that are heartbreaking to deal with. Sometimes I get sad. Sometimes I get angry.
And I think, Oh God...
Then there are days when I look inside myself, my laziness, my lack of love and compassion, my impatience in ministry and parenting. Days when I’m more selfish than un, days when I’d rather just do something else, days where it’s so easy to critique everyone around me rather than search my own heart.
And I think, Oh God…
And there are days where I look around at people trying to find meaning, people hiding deep hurts and insecurities because they don’t know it’s safe to be honest.
And I pray….
And then there are other days.
Days when I think about the way that Jesus has transformed me. Days when I look around and see good being done- lots of good being done- in the world, and through the beautiful community that I’m a part of. There are days when I notice all the people who have been changed by grace- when love overcomes evil. Days when I see that second chances, miraculous moments, and forgiveness have become normal moments in lives touched by Jesus around me. There are days when I’m in awe at how God’s peace remains available to us even when we are scared, worried, devastated, angry, or confused. There are days when I really believe.
And I marvel…
Sometimes there is joy. Sometimes there is anger. But always, there is God. Peter had it right that day in the book of John when life was getting hard (6:68). He was trying to trust and follow this Nazarene with a vision and figure out what this kingdom was all about. But things weren’t neat and clean. Peter kept failing, and he had big questions theologically that weren’t going to be fully resolved anytime soon. But when Jesus asked Peter if he was going to leave him just like the rest of the crowd, his response still pierces my soul.
Who else would I go to? You have the words of real life, eternal life.
Sometimes we praise. Sometimes we cry out in desperation. Sometimes all we have to offer is anger, confusion, or sorrow. But always, may we bring those things to God. If you are having an Oh God day or an Oh God week, may you know that God hears your cry, joins you in your journey, and loves you in an impossibly beautiful way.
Our prayer today:
Oh God. Thank you for hearing me.
“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.”
-Jesus, Matthew 11:28-30
See what kind of love the Father has given to us in that we should be called God’s children, and that is what we are!
-1 John 3:1
Jesus Plus. It sounds like a new app for your phone, doesn’t it? Perhaps it’s a new devotional book that will help you get more out of your Bible reading! Or better yet, maybe it’s a new supplement directed toward that ever powerful marketing niche, the Christian subculture…. “We all know that Jesus gives us life, but for those days when you need just a little more, have a Jesus+ ® and serve the Lord with vigor!
Actually, when I say Jesus plus I mean this little thought in the mind of a disciple that whispers that peace is accessible only if you trust Jesus AND do all the right things. So we chase after this peace and identity all our lives, and in the process we miss the greatest message of Jesus.
In our recent LifePath talk about the book of Acts, the gang from Jerusalem headed out to Antioch to tell the new non-Jewish Christians that in order to really experience salvation, they had to have Jesus + the law of Moses. Then they’d be set, and they could be confident in their identity as God’s children. Grace? Yes, but also!!! There are so many alsos…..
There is a temptation in the Christian journey to seek out peace by doing enough, rather than acknowledging that by grace, we are enough.
We often deal with these thought patterns in our lives today...
"If I do enough for God, I can rest well tonight.”
"If I work hard enough, God will look on me with a smile and say 'well, done.’”
“God must be so disappointed in me because I make mistakes every day.”
But we’ve got it backwards. That stifles life in God, rather than encourages it. For a deep life, the starting and ending point is not what we do toward God, it’s what God does toward us. THEN, we can spend our lives seeking to know God more deeply and love our neighbors more fully- but all of that is done out of a peace-filled confidence in our identity as recipients of God’s never-ending love.
Until we grasp this, we won’t rest well. We won’t love well. And we won’t live well. Endlessly striving for perfection will not shape the character of Jesus in you. But knowing that the grace of Jesus is available to you right now, in all your imperfect glory- that brings a peace and confidence that might just inspire you to do something amazing. It might just transform you more than any Jesus +program out there.
Trusting a living relationship like that is hard. We prefer rule based approaches. The great 20th century French theologian Jacques Ellul summed it up well. “Saying that God loves us grants us no reassurance. We would prefer it if he gave us fifty things to do, so that when we had done them we could be at peace. We do not want an ongoing relationship with God. We prefer a rule.”
Jesus Plus is a myth. You don’t need to strive in order to be at peace with God. It's been given to you. You are loved.
Maybe today, you could take a walk and dwell on how much you are loved.
Maybe today, you could give yourself the same grace that God gives you.
Maybe today, you could tell someone how loved they are- even when they didn’t do something amazing.
Jesus, help me live out of the grace and love you freely give, not in an effort to earn it.
And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward. - Jesus, Matthew 10:42
And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. - Paul, Colossians 3:17
Recently I got together with my friend Daniel, another pastor whom I deeply enjoy spending time with. We drink tea, talk about struggles and joys of ministry and we pray together.
Daniel has a knack for seeing God at work everywhere and seeing opportunities to live out discipleship everywhere-- no matter how small. I arrived at our meeting spot just after he did, and he didn’t know I was behind him as he walked inside. Every few steps he stopped, bent over, and picked up a small piece of trash. He has a habit of doing this everywhere he goes. He is committed to making God’s world more beautiful. Whether it’s a kind word to a sad person, a simple prayer in his head for a stranger passing by, or a handful of trash picked up to care for the earth we’ve been given…. nothing is too little to be meaningless.
How easy is it for us to do nothing because we convince ourselves that a little isn’t enough to really make a difference?
Last week I wanted to start running again after taking a few weeks off. My schedule was limited on the day I wanted to start, however, and I only had about a 20 minute gap in the afternoon. In my past life of long distance running, I would have scoffed at a 20 minute run, since anything under 5 miles wasn’t even considered legitimate in my mind. Twenty minutes is not enough to even make a difference, I would have told myself. So I almost didn't do it. However, this week, I took the opportunity that was in front of me. It wasn’t a lot. But it made a difference. It got me running again. And it was a glorious 19 minutes of wind in my face and time outside with Jesus.
As we journey with Jesus, we are constantly confronted with the temptation to do nothing because we can't do everything.
I don’t have an hour to sit in silence with God today. So I won’t even pray on my drive to work, because it’s not enough to make a difference.
A text message letting someone know that I care takes so little effort, that it probably would feel meaningless. It’s not enough to make a difference, so I guess I won’t send it.
There’s SO much trash in the world! What difference does it make if I pick up ONE piece of litter?
There are millions of homeless people in our country. I can’t change that. So I won’t do anything.
The Bible is way too intense and confusing to understand it all. So I won’t read any of it, because
I won’t learn enough to make a difference.
Our marriage is so screwed up that it is beyond repair. So I won’t set my pride aside and do the little kind thing that I know I could do, because it probably wouldn’t make a difference anyways.
Every day we are confronted with little invitations to enter into deeper life with Jesus, and little opportunities to build God’s kingdom in our world. And every day we convince ourselves that little isn’t worth our effort. So every day we miss out.
What is the thing today that you think is too small to make a difference in God’s kingdom?
Where do you feel paralyzed by an overwhelming task? Trust God, and just start wiggling a toe.
Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love. -Mother Teresa
God, thank you for inviting us into your mustard seed kingdom. Take our small efforts and grow them into something transformative.