Rethinking Evangelicalism’s Tropes #3: Faith

Standard
Juan de Valdés Leal - 'The Sacrifice of Isaac'

Juan de Valdés Leal - 'The Sacrifice of Isaac'

Evangelicals love the Reformation. While most Evangelicals are not Lutherans, you’ll get a lot of head nods if the importance of Martin Luther’s actions comes up in casual conversation. And it’s next to impossible to talk about Luther without talking sola fide.

But as much as Evangelicals want to talk about faith, I’ve found that the more educated an Evangelical is and the higher up on the socio-economic ladder, the more the issue of faith becomes one of talk and conjecture rather than actual practice.

In fact, when some hoped-for and prayed-over outcome fails to come to pass, anymore it seems that the most intelligent and wealthier Evangelicals are most likely to come up with a tortuous explanation for the failure based on issues of God’s sovereignty or His will. What they don’t ever want to say to one who failed to receive is “The failure was due to your lack of faith.”

In Evangelical circles, at least in the educated and wealthier ones, claiming that one failed to have enough faith is tantamount to shouting a racial slur or vulgarity in someone’s face. We just don’t do that. We’re too afraid of hurting someone’s feelings.

Problem is, I’ve read the New Testament and the writers are constantly telling us that God honors faith and that doubters shouldn’t expect to receive anything from Him. In short, we didn’t get what we asked for because we lacked faith. It’s our fault, not God’s, no matter how hurt our feelings may be to hear that.

I looked up the phrase your faith in the ESV version of the Bible, and Jesus uses that term nine times in a positive sense, typically along the lines of “your faith has made you well.” Those faith possessors got what they wanted because they didn’t doubt but instead trusted Jesus wholeheartedly.

Lack of faith is almost never (and I’ll show you the one semi-exception that I know) rewarded. Instead we get passages like this:

[Jesus] went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief.
—Mark 6:1-6a

Jesus could not do many miracles in His hometown because his old neighbors rationalized away whatever faith they may have had in Him. They came up with naturalistic, “educated” explanations of why they could expect so little from Jesus. And they received the results of their unbelief.

Then there is this:

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
—James 1:5-8

How often do we ever apply that passage to our own lack of faith? Instead, we treat those words as if they apply to some nebulous, theoretical other.

In the truly “impossible” situations, Jesus deals with the unbelieving by choosing who stays and who goes. Witness His actions here:

While [Jesus] was still speaking, there came from the ruler’s house some who said, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” And he allowed no one to follow him except Peter and James and John the brother of James. They came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and Jesus saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. And when he had entered, he said to them, “Why are you making a commotion and weeping? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But he put them all outside and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him and went in where the child was. Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” And immediately the girl got up and began walking (for she was twelve years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement. And he strictly charged them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.
—Mark 5:35-43

Jesus took only the three disciples most likely to trust Him, and He had all the scoffers removed from the house. Why? Because He has no room for those who lack faith.

On the positive side, there’s this:

As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
—Mark 11:20-24

I once wrote a post about that Mark passage, claiming it was the least-believed passage in the Bible. I stand by that statement. That so many of us Evangelicals will try to explain away the very upfront nature of Jesus’ statement here, making excuses for ourselves and for others, is a sign that maybe we’re just as lousy at the faith thing as Jesus’ doubting neighbors.

As for Jesus even remotely rewarding doubt, the only passage that comes to mind is this one, and I believe the Lord puts this in the Scriptures as a cautionary tale (and with a big qualifier):

And they brought the boy to [Jesus]. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.
—Mark 9:20-27

Jesus here is somewhat shocked that the father of the boy questions His ability to work through faith. Despite this, He restores the boy to wholeness, though one could argue that He does so only after the father confesses the error of his unbelief.

Yet don’t we routinely add “if you can” to our prayers to the Lord? Aren’t we constantly hedging our bets when it comes to asking for big things in prayer?

And who are we that we should be let off lightly? Maybe someone needs to simply say to us, “You didn’t get what you wanted because you didn’t have enough faith.”

My mother died from brain cancer. She died just months after our first child was born, right when we needed her most to help us. That my father had died just months before her only compounded how much we needed her help, if for no other reason than the major relief of having an on-call babysitter now and then.

During my mother’s illness, I had to come to grips with the fact that I didn’t have much faith to believe that she would be healed. Her kind of cancer was almost always 100 percent fatal within a couple years of diagnosis.

Now my perspective on supernatural healing and the ability of the Lord to work miracles was no different then than it is now. But the fact remained that a part of me doubted that God would indeed raise up my mother to wholeness. I remember the months of her slow decline and my lying in bed at night realizing that I just didn’t have enough faith to believe she would be restored. And she died.

Now it may be a horrifying thing to some of you to hear me say this, but honestly, I need to own up to my lack of faith for her healing. Her death may in fact be partly due to the lack of faith in me and those around her. It may not, but I can’t excuse myself. The whole incident made me realize that I needed to grow up.

I think it’s time we stop being babies about faith. Maybe we need to man up and accept that perhaps the bad outcome was because we simply did not take God at His word and failed to have faith. That may be galling to people. It may be hurtful to those who have suffered loss. But I can’t find any excuses in the New Testament for doubt. They just aren’t there. If we say we believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God, then we have to come to grips with this reality right from the myriad examples in Scripture: People who have faith get what they ask for and people who don’t have faith don’t.

One last thing: Paul’s thorn.

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
—2 Corinthians 12:7-10

That passage is the one most people will cite when it comes to unanswered prayers said in faith. I will fully concede that God did not give Paul what he prayed for.

But I will add what few people ever do: God audibly spoke to Paul to specifically explain why the apostle would not receive what he prayed for in faith.

When God audibly speaks to you and me to give us a reason why we should stop praying for something in faith, then we’ve got a great reason to stop praying and start accepting the hard answer. Otherwise, this is how we are to pray—always:

And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.'” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
—Luke 18:1-8

That final question of Jesus should haunt us. That we try instead to make excuses for our own lack of faith should haunt us even more.

Failing the Sniff Test

Standard

The last few days, I’ve been unable to shake this thought: In what ways do American Christians appear different from their non-Christian neighbors?

I’m sure each of us knows of people who volunteer their time to help the less fortunate, take opportunities to seek out deeper meaning in life, are kind and considerate, who engage in common rituals, pay their taxes, love their kids, help their neighbors, work hard to better their community, shun the obvious sins, and are generally nice, fine people.Yet those same folks make no pretenses of being born-again believers in Jesus.

For some reason, though, we apply those same traits and qualities to Christians and ascribe them a passing grade for being a good follower of Christ.

The Bible says:

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.
—2 Corinthians 2:14-17

Any guy who has wondered about the suitability of a garment worn once knows about the sniff test. Stick a nose in that shirt and inhale. If it doesn’t smell like Satan’s backside, it’s still wearable.

Christians have their own sniff test to pass, though the aroma is far more pleasing than a simple lack of BO. At least it should be. The sniff testWhat really bugged me as I thought about this passage is that I’m no longer certain if the Church in America today smells any different than the world.

In a lot of ways, too many Christians in America ARE little more than peddlers of God’s word. In fact, we’ve somehow made being a peddler of God’s word a good thing, as if it shows commitment to a spiritual life! Even worse, too many of us aren’t even devoted enough to be a peddler of God’s word. We just kind of exist. Just like that nice, fine non-Christian who pays his taxes and volunteers to read to elderly people a few times a week.

Seriously, I think that too many of us have substituted rituals for genuine knowledge of Christ. And for those who claim genuine knowledge of Christ, what of their lives makes them smell different from the rest of humanity? What does genuine Christianity look like in America 2010?

I like Keith Green. His music has meant a lot to me. In one of his live recordings, he says that the defining quality of a true Christian is being bananas for Jesus. Again, I like Keith, but the tepid applause on that recording to his definition underlines his swing and miss. Being bananas for Jesus simply isn’t enough.

What I cannot escape is this passage:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
—Romans 8:14

Ask any Christian about being led by the Spirit of God, and you’ll get a million different replies as to what that means. Most of those answers, sadly, will fall into a category of vague impressions about decision-making or about being nice to people—again, the kinds of motivations that stir non-Christians. That’s not good enough to pass the sniff test.

Consider this:

Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened. For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus.
—Acts 9:10-19

Isn’t that the “led by the Spirit of God” that Paul is talking about in Romans 8:14? How ironic that it serves as part of his own conversion story.

Now we can talk all we want about visions and miracles and so on, but part of us doesn’t believe they’re real. We’re hardcore rationalists in America, and if someone came up to us and shared the story that God said to go down to such and such a place to pray over a blind enemy so that enemy would receive his sight again, our deflector shields would be cranked up to 11. The first thought we’d have is that this is a dangerously unstable individual. A religious nutjob.

And that’s why we no longer pass the sniff test.

If we’re to be the aroma of Christ, then we have to smell—and act—in ways that look nothing like the world. I’m not talking about being an anti-culture warrior, either, but living supernaturally.

Too many of us have lost that aroma because we have no place in our lives for being led by the Spirit. The only thing that separates the person with Christian sympathies from the genuine believer is the presence of the Holy Spirit indwelling the believer. No religion on this planet makes the contention that Christianity does about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. That IS the mark of the Church.

Yet the average “born-again Christian” in America exhibits no signs of being indwelt by God Himself. There may be plenty of signs of being a “peddler of God’s word,” but next to nothing that shows evidence of the genuinely supernatural. And if that’s the case, that person won’t pass the sniff test.

The only hope for the American Church is that we get serious about rectifying the lack of presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Christians are not of this world. Our Kingdom flows from the supernatural and penetrates the natural. If that’s not how we think, work, and live, then it’s no wonder that we smell like this decaying world.

God Speaks Through Dreams

Standard

“‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.'”
—Acts 2:17-21

At my church’s VBS last week, the theme revolved around Joseph, the one who by God’s revelation saved all of the known biblical world. The dream of JosephGod spoke that plan of salvation to Joseph through dreams.

Evangelicals don’t do well with dreams. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the average church who would claim to have the gift of interpreting dreams. In most churches, the mere mention of the role of dreams in directing the church, planning for the future, or meeting the needs of people too afraid to share their needs publicly will get you an initial blank stare that morphs into that “I smell a heretic” scowl.

Yet any pass through the Bible reveals dreams to be a common means of God speaking to and guiding individuals, groups, and nations.

Which is why the enormous pushback by some Christians against dreams is a big problem.

That passage in Acts that starts this post…a few questions:

1. Is the Bible the authority for how we should conduct our lives?

2. Are we still in the Last Days?

3. Is the Holy Spirit still being poured out?

If you answer yes to all three questions (and you should), then guess what? You affirm that God speaks to people today through dreams.

See, that wasn’t so hard, was it? 😉

Fact is, there’s no biblical argument that can be formed against dreams as a contemporary, God-ordained means of revelation. None.

Despite that truth, we Western Christians get upset at the idea of using dreams as a way to order our lives and the life of the Church. Why? Because dreams are messy and sometimes weird. And man, do we Westerners hate anything messy and weird in our churches! Still, that says more about our own foibles than it does about the veracity of dreams as a form of approved divine revelation.

I strongly believe, though, that our automatic rejection of any kind of God-ordained revelation that occurs outside the Bible’s chapters and verses is a major flaw in the contemporary Church. As much as I love the Bible and affirm it as the final arbiter of truth, the Bible may not speak to specific situations that are not explicitly stated in its pages. Yet the need for specific answers remains.

A case in point: For a church looking for a new pastor, the Bible does not say which of five great candidates would be the best choice. How then do we choose if all five meet the Bible’s exacting criteria for the role of pastor? By drawing straws? By hoping that the other four will get calls from other churches and leave us with only one candidate? By relying on our intellects to scry out the right man?

When the early Church had a similar issue, this is how it was resolved:

Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
—Acts 13:1-3

Plenty of good candidates, but the Spirit did not select Simeon, Lucius, and Manaen for the work, did He?

This is how the Church is to function in those specific, individual situations to which the Bible does not directly speak:  by listening to the Holy Spirit’s extra-biblical voice.

I know that rubs a lot of people the wrong way. I’m sorry. Man up, because this is what the Scriptures say in response:

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.
—1 Thessalonians 5:19-21

So rather than tossing out all extra-biblical revelations—dreams included—we are to test them. We then retain and act on those that pass the tests.

We’re doing that, right? No? You say we’re just throwing them all out instead?

*Sigh.*

Should we be surprised then when our churches seem adrift and lacking in direction? Or when our rational church decisions produce irrational results? And what about when bad things happen to good people because no one bothered to address what may have been an unrevealed, yet fixable, problem before it got out of hand?

What would have happened to the biblical world if Joseph had despised his dreams and the dreams of others? Would we even have a Bible?

A city surrounded by enemies decides that maintaining a city army is messy, demanding, and costly. So despite what the city charter says, the city leaders decide to disband the army. When the barbarians storm the gates, won’t there be regrets for what was ignored?

Yet this happens all the time in our churches because we simply do not want to deal with dreams (and other types of supernatural revelation) as a means of legitimately hearing from God.

When I was about 18, I had a dream that a friend drove onto some train tracks and his car stalled just as a train was coming. The dream was so frightening and vivid that I awoke and started praying for my friend.

Just a few hours later, that friend told me how he’d been out in the wee hours of the morning when his car stalled on railroad tracks just as a train was coming. He couldn’t start the car and worried that he would have to leave it on the tracks, only to find his door refusing to open. But one last twist of the key got the car started, and he drove off the tracks just moments before the train came hurtling through.

What if I had ignored that dream and not prayed for my friend right then? Do you think the outcome would have been different? I do.

Someone else was blessed because I took action regarding the content of a dream.

For several years, a terrifying recurring nightmare troubled me in my 20s. The dream was always the same. I’d awake thrashing and in a sweat, my heart pounding.

I was fortunate that the University of Cincinnati is known for sleep research, so there are a greater than average number of folks in the area who deal with sleep and dreams.  I was able to find a Christian man who helped people understand their dreams. He and I spent several months working on my recurring nightmare, plus other dreams.

In the end, God gave us an answer to what the nightmare meant. Once I understood, I was able to take specific actions that resolved the issue behind it. The nightmare then ceased.

I was blessed because I took action regarding the content of a dream.

More recently, I had a recurring dream that troubled me. Going back about six years, I’d have this one dream about once a year. Then 18 months ago or so, I started having the dream about once or twice a month. I was stymied by what to do about the dream because it didn’t fit real life situations as I knew them. Nothing in the dream conformed, so I excused myself from taking action because I rationalized away the need to do anything.

Just a few days ago, I found out that this recurring dream had sadly come true. The dream proved more real than the shadowed appearance of “reality.”

I did nothing about a dream. A sad outcome resulted. Now I can’t do much about that outcome.

I believe that the outcome would have been different if I had prayed fervently about the dream, despite the seeming nonsense of it. Instead, I disbanded the army and let the barbarians storm the gates.

Four steps we can take to restore the value of dreams in our lives and in the life of the Church:

1. Believe that God wants us to listen to our dreams — He IS speaking to us, so we need to heed what He is saying.

2. Respect recurring dreams — If a dream (or dream theme) recurs, it may be God’s way of demanding our attention because the dream is important. (Genesis 41:32 — “And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about.”)

3. Pray — Ask God for the following:

a. Discernment — We need to know which dreams are genuinely from Him (and not from the triple-meat pizza we ate before bedtime) and require us to take notice and action.

b. Interpretation — We must always ask for an interpretation of dreams, either by the Holy Spirit’s illumination within us or by the wise words of those blessed with a gift of interpreting dreams.

c. Direction — We must take action on God-ordained dreams once interpreted.

4. Share our dreams with other believers— A dream may not mean much alone, but when similar dreams are shared by others, a pattern may emerge; so if a dream seems vivid, don’t be afraid to talk it out with wise believers and other Christian dreamers.

Someone’s going to say it, though: “But Dan, can’t dreams be misinterpreted or mistaken?”

Yes, they can. But that’s OUR fault. Consider this:

And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.”
—Genesis 41:15-16

Joseph understood the source of interpretation. If we genuinely operate in the Spirit with regard to dreams and their interpretations, God is faithful to provide answers; He is the interpreter. Like Joseph, we must be tapped into God if we are to handle dreams correctly.

Here is the starting point for handling all dreams correctly: We establish the Bible alone as the arbiter of the meaning behind a dream and its interpretation.

If I have a dream in which I leave my wife and kid and become a meth dealer, the meaning of that dream is most certainly NOT that I should leave my wife and kid and become a meth dealer. No dream interpretation or subsequent action on that interpretation should violate Scripture—ever. Scripture stands as the authority over all dreams, interpretations, and actions taken.

This is not to say that the dream itself can’t be awful or that events in the dreams can’t stand contrary to Scripture. Just as people in the Bible sometimes act contrary to the will of God, the events of dreams may portray sin. It may be that God is trying to root out sin in our lives or in the lives of someone we know.  Proceed cautiously, though.

If you or I have a dream, will God be angry with us if we take the simple baby step of praying about it? Will we be chastened by Him for taking everything—including our dreams—to Him in prayer?

If we take dreams seriously and always pray about them, I think God will bless us in mind-boggling ways. Yes, some dreams will prove to be nothing more than too much TV before bedtime, but God’s not going to be angry if we take even that dream to Him in prayer. It will just peter off into nothing of any consequence—except that we spent a little more precious time before the God who loves us.

The ramifications of ignoring dreams are huge, though. In the face of an approaching famine, the words of God that come to us in dreams may be all that stand between life and death.

So, what’s the problem with us and dreams?