I had two stumbling blocks to get over in my spiritual pilgrimage, both having to do with faith. If asked what it meant to be a Christian or how one is to be saved, I knew the answer as well as most people in the church – believe in Jesus and try to live a good life. And I did try! I was as good of a boy as anyone I knew. I did not “sow wild oats” at any age. I did not drink, smoke, take drugs, tell dirty stories, or swear. I treated people nicely. I was fairly religious. I placed nothing on my Bible and even read it through once. I memorized the Child’s Catechism. I worked at being good so that I could be accepted by God.
Yet I lacked assurance of God's acceptance. I remember watching Billy Graham on TV and hearing him proclaim, “I know I am saved!” “Sure,” I thought, “You are Billy Graham. Of course you will be saved.” I was not a Billy Graham. I was a timid boy who had done nothing great for God. I never was sure if I was keeping all the commandments the way I should. I could not tell if my good deeds outweighed my bad deeds, not that I was noticeably bad; I just couldn’t be sure if I was good enough. Finally, at a Billy Graham Crusade of all places, I caught on…for the most part. Salvation is by faith, not by works. I needed to believe in Jesus, what he did for me.
Other experiences helped push me past this stumbling block of faith. Soon afterwards, I met the Christian band who impressed on me that the focus of my faith is to be on Christ himself. Salvation was not about an impersonal faith in doctrine; it was about true faith in the Person of Jesus Christ. The experience at Explo’72 all the more impressed the central role of faith.
And yet, the concept of living by faith remained a stumbling block, this time for keeping good relations with God. I did not have to travel very far along the Christian path before discovering that the trip would be more challenging than I had realized. It was not that the road seemed steep but that I easily grew weary. I needed to renew my faith periodically to keep up the zeal and prove to God I loved him. As time went on I was surprised to find old sins sneaking back into my life. What was wrong with me? What kind of gratitude was I showing Christ for all that he had done for me? I needed to be more committed. I needed more discipline in my religious duties. I should be out evangelizing more.
These nagging worries eventually took another twist, from what’s wrong with me to what’s wrong with God. Why will God not do more in my life? I am a minister. I work hard to serve God. Why doesn't he produce more results? And then the question became clear: What good is faith? Yes, it gets us salvation but then what? If my life is nearly the same as before, if I am seeing no miracles, and I struggle in my own Christian walk, what good is faith? This discontent with God left me feeling even guiltier and annoyed with myself.
It was preparing a sermon in Mark 5:24-34 that led me to my next “I get it” moment. The passage presents the story about a woman healed from a sickness by touching Jesus’ garment. Jesus tells her, “Your faith has made you well.” There was my troubling puzzle, not only staring me in the face, but actually challenging me to respond. What good is faith? Will it heal the sick or not? Will it move mountains or not?
I turned to Hebrews 11. It depressed me more as it spoke of all the great things that men and women were able to accomplish by faith. Then I read the summary in verses 32-40:
And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets– who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection.
I did not find any of these examples comforting. I was not conquering kingdoms; I was not risking and then escaping death miraculously. None of my prayers kept a person mortally ill from death, much less raise anyone from the dead. But the passage continues:
Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated– of whom the world was not worthy–wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
This gave me pause. Here were believers who did not “succeed.” They did not escape death, nor were they raised from the dead. They suffered and did not win victory against their foes. Then came the clincher:
And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
What is the common element here? Both the “victors” and the “non-victors” were commended for their faith. What did faith accomplish for both? The light came on: It kept them faithful. What is the purpose of faith in our lives? To make us faithful to God. And it is being faithful to God that matters.
It all began to make sense to me. What is it that I really want to be able to say on my deathbed? I was not inspired by being able to say, “As I look back over my life, I thank God that I was spared any great struggle. Everything went well for me.” No, I wanted to say, “I have gone through good and difficult times. There have been many struggles, but I am glad I can say I have remained faithful to my God.” Even unbelievers understand this principle, that what makes life worth living is to remain true to what one holds dear. As Don Quixote sang of his quest: “And I know if I only be true to this glorious quest, then my heart will lie peaceful and calm when I’m laid to my rest.” If the secular world could understand this concept, surely I as a Christian could. What more did I desire than to hear my Master say to me when he greets me, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21)?
The context of that verse is the parable of the talents, in which a master gives to his servants different amounts of coins to invest for him. Each servant is measured according to what he is given. My mistake all along had been to measure myself against others with the gifts and abilities given to them. Even then I did not understand the role of circumstances which enhanced or interfered with a person’s growth and service, and which were controlled by the providence of God. I worked under the assumption that because faith accomplished great things, the measure of my faith could be determined by the “success” of my ministry.
But now I understood: What matters is by faith to be faithful to God in all circumstances. It is to remain devoted to his service, neither allowing prosperity to lead us astray in pride nor giving in to despondency in adversity.
One other lesson about faith struck me in the same way as this lesson about faithfulness. This time I was sitting in my usual chair on Tenth’s pulpit platform listening to Dr. Boice preach. “I know what God wants,” he said. (That caught my attention. That really is the question we should be asking and the answer we should most want to know.) “God wants to be believed.”
“I get it!” The essence of faith is not believing in God as much as it is believing God. I believe in God because I believe him. I trust God because I believe what he says. This is why God takes our faith personally. To accept or reject the Gospel his Word is to accept or reject what he has given and spoken.
This understanding steadied my spiritual walk. One of my ongoing worries was whether or not I would remain faithful to God. Given my weakness, how could I know I would not give up the walk? I know now I will make it to the end. Why? Because “he who began a good work in [me] will bring it to completion” (Philippians 1:6). When reading such a verse before, I might have said to myself, “I hope so. I am such a weak believer.” That may sound like a humble thought, but in truth it is arrogance. What I was really saying to God was, “I hope you are right. I am a tougher case than most, and I don’t know if you are up to the job.” Understanding this insult has time and again stopped me in my tracks when I began to express a “humble” doubt about what Scripture plainly teaches.
What matters with faith is to remain faithful to God. And what faith places its hope in is the God who is faithful to his word.
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