“If I had some more faith,” I said, “I’d be much more capable of dealing with this problem.”
I got the same reply that He gave to the disciples: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move.” It felt like a gentle rebuke rather than instruction. But after some prayerful reflection I now realize it was instruction. It was more instructional than I had ever realized before.
I had always taken His simple statement about faith as merely an analogy. I don’t typically see pastors and missionaries (people who presumably have great faith) moving mountains around. Even Jesus didn’t literally move mountains around. So it had to be an analogy, pure and simple.
But I started thinking about the literal moving of mountains. I have seen this sort of activity taking place, but it comes about as a result of a lot of hard work, planning, intelligence, and machinery. I focused my attention on the “hard work” part of this equation. Then I heard the scripture that refers to “work produced by faith” (I Thessalonians 1:3). I realized that it is faith that inspires us toward the work that we do. Most of my life I have been seeking God for guidance about that big question: “What should I do?” What should be the work of my life? I have lived my life believing that God responds to that question and that He directs us to the works that He has prepared for us to do. (See Ephesians 2:10).
Suddenly it all fit together. God has prepared in advance, works for us to do. He stands ready to communicate with us to let us know what those works are. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing comes from the word of God. The instant we hear what God has in mind for us to do, we receive faith for the doing of those things. It is a very tiny seed of faith (mustard seed size), but it is all we need. Once we know what God wants from us, what He has prepared in advance for us to do, we are then empowered and equipped to begin the process of doing it. The response from Jesus about needing only mustard-seed sized faith to move mountains doesn’t say anything about how long it may take to move the mountain. It may take years. It doesn’t say the mountain will move immediately and only in response to our telling it to move. It may take planning, intelligence, and machinery. The point is that the mountain-moving project begins with a tiny inspiration of faith.
So my prayer changed. Instead of asking for more faith I am now asking for His direction. I know that when He speaks His direction He will also provide a tiny seed of faith, and I will be able to do what He wants in faith. And it doesn’t take much.
For most of my life I believed that we lived in an open, intellectual environment in which competing ideas were being aired and debated. I believed that people generally listened to one another’s ideas in order to find and build their lives on the best ideas. Not too many years ago I was startled to find myself rejecting this fundamental belief. I started experiencing situations in which smart people did not even seem to be listening to ideas with which they disagreed. They were simply mocking the people who voiced those ideas, often without actually reading or seeking to understand the positions. I found myself among intellectuals who were using their intellect to engage in cynical and sarcastic protection of their previously-developed worldviews. I was shocked to discover this!
Not only was I shocked to discover this, I was also deeply un-nerved by the discovery. I had built my career and most of my life commitments (I was a teacher) on the premise that people who could think well and who had more knowledge would be sure to come closer and closer to finding the Truth. Since Jesus has declared Himself to be “the Truth,” I thought that I was serving a divine mission by devoting myself to this pursuit. To discover that people were generally not really pursuing Truth, even when they were well educated, was devastating.
So what is a more Biblical view of the way in which people come to pursue the Truth? I still think being able to think well and having knowledge can be a part of the picture. But when I look at a very striking Biblical example of a man who experienced a radical repentance, I do not see much involvement of the intellect. When Saul of Tarsus met up with Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, he experienced a powerful and inescapable intervention from God. He was blinded and knocked off his horse. This was spiritual activity rather than intellectual activity.
I realize the story of Paul’s conversion is only one case, and it is not possible to generalize from this one extraordinary case. But I do know that something more than intellect and knowledge is necessary in order for people to come to a genuine knowledge of the Savior. I believe I should devote myself more to prayer than to my former pursuits if I truly want a divine mission of seeing people find the Truth.
I’m curious about two things in a single story.
The story is found in Acts chapter 8, and it is about a man who had been practicing “magic.” He was called a sorcerer. He had been able to perform things that looked like miracles, and people followed him. That is, until he heard about Jesus. When he heard about Jesus, he became a follower of Jesus. Then Peter and John showed up, and God brought a whole new dimension to the picture. God gave the new converts the Holy Spirit. I know from my own experience that when the Holy Spirit enters the scene everything changes. Evidently this former sorcerer was pretty amazed and impressed by the Holy Spirit as well, because he asked Peter if he could purchase the ability to bring the Holy Spirit to people. Peter had an immediate, repulsive reaction to this suggestion. He basically told the man that he and his money could go to hell.
Now here are my questions. First of all, why did Peter have such a violent reaction? This fellow was a new convert to Christianity, he had come out of a life of counterfeit spiritual power, and you would expect him to need some time to change his understandings and perspectives. It doesn’t surprise me a bit that he offered to buy the ability to bestow the Holy Spirit. I can even detect the possibility of a good motive behind his request. Perhaps he just wanted to help people find and experience this new Christian life that he himself was discovering. What’s wrong with that? Did Peter really have to bully him like that? I’m curious.
I’m also curious about what happened to this man next and in the rest of his life. After Peter’s rebuke, Peter also told him that he was full of bitterness and was captive to sin. The guy had what I think is a wonderful reaction to this indictment. He asked Peter to pray for him. He didn’t dispute Peter’s judgment. He didn’t get angry and walk away and call the Christians haters and hypocrites. He apparently agreed with Peter and asked for prayer. And that’s how the story ends. So what happened next? Did Peter pray? Did the man sweeten up? I’d like to think so. But I am curious.
I heard of a man who was said to be full of grace and power. Grace. And power. Nice words to use to describe a person. I would love to have those words used to describe me. But that’s not all. He also is said to have performed miracles. That really sets him apart as a very special person. Full of grace; full of power; performer of miracles. I’d really like to be able to see this fellow in person. I’d like to be able to spend time with him. I’d like to be able to learn from him and follow his example. He sounds to me like an admirable role model.
If it were just “power” and miracle working that set this man apart, I could imagine that it would be possible that he could have been somewhat offensive. It’s possible. Nothing about power or miracle working, in and of itself, indicates that a person must be a “nice” person. But when he is also described as being full of grace, it is clear that he was not an offensive person. He was powerful and nice.
In spite of this, it is not his grace nor his power that put him in the history books. The man I’m speaking of is the man who became the first Christian martyr. Opponents of this man’s testimony about Jesus Christ stoned him to death. These opponents had to bring false charges and false witnesses against him in order to put him on trial. While on trial he gave a stirring and comprehensive history of the works of God and the failures of the people of God. This true history so infuriated his listeners that they reacted by stoning him to death. He committed no crimes.
So why did such an admirable man find himself facing such opposition? Goodness should not be met with violent opposition. The fact that it was, and is, should tell us something about the condition of the world in which we live. We should interpret things like this carefully. Such reactions to goodness are not rare or unusual. What does it tell us about the human condition that goodness and purity provoke violent opposition? Can we fix this?
It’s been quite some time since I’ve written here in Emmaus2015, and for that I offer my readers my regrets. I have just come from church, and today’s sermon addressed “Taking the Next Steps.” The closing part of the message was about responding to God’s leading, in terms of actually taking the actions that you know you must take to follow God. For me, that means returning to writing regularly for Emmaus2015. There are reasons I haven’t been writing, and as you might imagine, it has something to do with not feeling very close to God. But now – I will commit to resuming my writing. God’s power is redemptive, so I trust that it will be as if I never left.
Many years ago I had a boss who enjoyed teasing me about my faith. One day he saw me reading my Bible at lunchtime, and he mockingly asked, “How many times are you going to read that thing, Jimmy?” I think at that particular time the truthful answer would have been, “I’m working on my first time through, boss.”
Well, I’ve read it all the way through now. More than once, actually. I plan to keep re-reading it as long as I’m able to. Here’s one reason why.
Bible stories pretty much all have more than one character in them. As I read a story I find myself relating to one of the characters. I find myself seeing and interpreting the story mostly from that character’s perspective. For example, there’s the story where the rich guys are throwing big money into the collection plate while the poor widow drops in a couple of pennies. Jesus points out that she has actually given “more,” because she gave all she had to live on. Well, for most of my life I’ve read that from the perspective of the poor widow. Don’t be embarrassed to be tossing in those pennies. That pitiful offering is costing you more than the big bucks from the mega-donors are costing them. The story was a kind of pat on the back telling me that it’s OK to be who I am. But as I’ve gotten older my financial state has improved. My offerings are bigger now than they used to be, just because I’ve moved up on the salary scale. Now when I read the story of the poor widow I find myself seeing the perspective of the rich guys. I hear, “Don’t think you’re a big deal just because you’re tossing a big check into the collection plate.”
Frankly I never imagined that my perspective would change in that way. When I read that story as a young man I thought I’d always be the “poor widow.” I changed. The change in me brought about a change in perspective. Now my reading highlights different elements and different interpretations.
That’s one reason I’ll keep re-reading this wonderful book. I’m a different person each time I read it, and it keeps speaking to me in new ways.
It was one of those FaceBook things that you see: “30 Things You Won’t Believe Children Said” or some such catchy phrase. The one that caught my eye was a drawing of three giraffes: two tall ones and one short one. The short one couldn’t reach the leaves on the tree, and in the second frame it was lying dead on the ground. The caption asked children to tell what this illustrated about evolution. The child had written, “Giraffes are heartless creatures.”
But I guess it got me thinking about evolution. I am remembering a college professor I had who was teaching about social change. I almost couldn’t believe my ears when he asserted that humans had become the first species capable of controlling its own evolution. His point was, now that we understand biological evolution we can use that understanding to control our social evolution. I saw his point, but it still was shocking to think of the concept of evolution being applied to our social condition. He was excited by the prospect. I can see why, but I didn’t and don’t share his excitement.
One of the problems is, not everything should be subject to change. Some things are eternal and transcendent. Truth; beauty; liberty; goodness. I don’t want to live in a world where things like these are subject to changing (evolving) definitions. I want to live in a world where these things and things like them are taken as the unchanging ideals; the aims toward which we form our lives. It’s difficult to form your life and your society around ideals like these. It would be much easier to re-define the aims and live an easier life. But the life and the society we get when we mess around with the ideals will surely disappoint, in the long run.