Easy Christianity, Part 2

On Friday, I posted about how easy we have it in the U.S. and most other developed countries. Our idea of persecution is when the courts don’t allow a U.K. couple to adopt because they won’t tell their kid that being gay is an acceptable lifestyle or people shunning us because of our beliefs. The idea of being dragged out of our homes and beheaded sounds like a nightmare. I think this lack of persecution is one of the things that keeps many people from taking their Christianity seriously.

But it’s not the only thing. Most of the Christians I know, myself included, haven’t really attempted much for God. I’ve written a few books, but my marketing efforts have been half-hearted at best. I’ve spoken a few times to small church groups, but haven’t really pursued bringing any message before the church as a whole. And a lot of my friends go to church, go to lunch afterward, hang out the rest of the day, then live a very normal life Monday through Friday. They may refrain from hooking up on dates or smoking pot or lying, but their lives and mine are easy. Try to live a standard life with God at our side to help us when we need Him, but don’t rock the boat. Don’t ask Him for growth, don’t ask Him for help on a daily basis to shine as lights in the darkness, and certainly don’t ask Him for a calling so big that you can’t possibly do it without Him.

What if we did?

What if, when we woke up, our first thought was a prayer that our day would have at least one situation that we can’t make it through in God’s way without Him? What if we were to pray for a peace that passes all understanding, knowing full well that the exhibition of such a peace would require us being in such a situation that the peace makes no sense?

What if we weren’t satisfied with living the same lives, with the same goals and just a few less sins, as those who aren’t Christians?

I know that not everyone is called to make the same splash that Billy Graham has had. Not everyone will write the next “Crazy Love”. Yet how many are called to make more of an impact than they have? How many could be used by God, even to the extent Billy Graham and Francis Chan have, if they would only give up their own ends for God’s purpose? And, calling aside, how much stronger could everyone’s faith be (and the church as a whole be) if they were to pray for opportunities to grow their faith?

Veterans can vouch that being in a foxhole with someone creates a strong bond in most cases. When your life is in their hands and vice versa, when you face the enemy together, camaraderie is natural. Would the church likewise grow stronger if we were to pray that God would send each other opportunities to grow? Or if we were to share our struggles with our brothers and sisters so they can pray for us and we for them?

What if the weaknesses of our Christianity and our church could be solved by simply praying that God helps us do something harder for Him?

A week or two ago, I challenged people to pray for growth in their lives. This is a similar challenge: to pray that God would give you a calling you can’t accomplish without Him. It may not have a major impact in your eyes; it may only touch one person and even then, you might not see the results. But I believe only half the purpose of any calling is to help others; the other half is to grow closer to God yourself. What if that was our top priority? Our Christianity would certainly get harder, but it would finally be a Christianity worth having.

Easy Christianity

Most of you reading this are in the U.S. or another developed country. You obviously have an internet connection, probably have food in your fridge, a roof over your head, and a car. Your government may pass laws you disagree with on moral grounds because of your religion, but you’re likely not in any real danger of ISIS breaking down your door and beheading you if you don’t convert to Islam. You’re probably not subject to being arrested for passing out Bibles. And the odds of you being truly persecuted (targeted for your faith and subject to imprisonment, beatings or other corporal punishment, unfair trials, exile, death, forced into a labor camp, etc.) are slim, aren’t they?

What happens when something is easy, though? We have a natural human tendency to take it for granted. People walk all over the nice guy because he does things for people and doesn’t ask for what he wants in return, so it’s easy to take advantage of him. People win the lottery and the majority are back at work within a few years because they don’t know what to do with so much. And studies have found that people who receive education for free are generally more likely to quit or not take the course seriously. Why should it be different with Christianity?

I wish I were a braver man, so that I could honestly pray for more trials and embrace more rejection for my faith. I’m so used to having it easy that I don’t really know how I’d respond if there was a knife to my throat or, perhaps worse, the ever-present fear that there would one day be a knife, or that one day, my wife and kids could be executed in front of my eyes to punish me for my faith.

It’s so easy to forget how good we have it. We forget how rough it can be in other countries. Yet it’s this easy environment that breeds the complacency that has become the hallmark of the American church. We go to the service on Sunday and, for those who go early, we half-jokingly tell ourselves we’re a little holier than the later crowd for giving up our extra sleep. If you regularly blog or leave comments on others’ blogs, you probably know the indignation that boils up when someone attacks something you said. Or you may be embarrassed to admit you’re a Christian because others might not like you as much and you just don’t want to rock the boat.

There’s nowhere in the Bible where it says Christianity is a one-way ticket to an easy life. 2 Timothy 3:12 tells us that everyone who wants to follow God with a whole heart will suffer persecutions for it.

One of the strengths of the churches in China, North Korea, and others where Christians are actually persecuted is that those in it are all on fire. They have to be, because there is too much at risk to take going to church lightly, to treat it as a social club or as a way to look down on others because of their tremendous righteousness. This means that while there are new Christians, and while I’m sure all struggle with sin still and many have false ideas about Scripture because of a lack of Bibles or illiteracy, their hearts are all devoted to God, meaning they’re not driving others away with their judgmentalism or lukewarmness.

I know that it’s easy to say, “Bring it on!” to persecution when I know good and well it won’t really be brought here. Honestly, I’m not sure I’m ready for it if it were, but I know this: I want to be ready for it. I want to have a heart that burns for God so strongly that, despite the cost, I am His, fully and forever.

The War Between Faith and Ego

We joined a Bible study about a month ago. It meets on Sunday during the first service, so we go to that, then head on in to the second service. The leader is on vacation now, so I was asked to speak this Sunday. I think it’s primarily because I’m unemployed and have the time to develop a lesson, but I knew almost instantly what I’d talk about: taking your value from how God thinks of you instead of how you think of yourself.

Almost as soon as I accepted the invitation, however, my ego started creeping in, filling my head with visions of my speech being so enjoyed that people talked to the pastor about it, then he talked to me and invited me to share the message with the congregation and BOOM! my speaking career is born. I would love to speak to people all around the country and tell them how much they’re worth to God and how they don’t have to earn their value anymore. I’d love to help them overcome their slavery to their jobs, relationships, grudges, etc. But there’s a part of me that I can’t seem to get rid of that insists I should get some sort of glory for this.

I’ve been fighting these thoughts all week, praying for God to take my ego away from me. This morning, I asked why it was so hard, and He told me, “Because you feed your ego all day. How much time do you spend with Me?” I hadn’t thought about it like that before, but in all the games I play, I try to win so I can enjoy a victory or reward. When I work out, it’s more about Leah finding me attractive than it is about being in shape so I can live a longer, fuller life. When I post on Facebook, I check to see how many likes I’ve gotten. I had become so used to doing these things that I didn’t even consider how much my ego was involved with them.

I’ve been feeding my ego so much that I don’t even realize I’m doing it anymore. Meanwhile, my faith and my relationship with God have been getting by on the one light meal a day of Bible-reading and prayer time, plus the more substantial meal that it enjoys Sunday morning.

Whenever a new situation comes up, I often judge it based on my moral view of myself. “I can’t believe they did that!” “What’s going through their heads?” Sometimes, I realize why they’re probably doing what they’re doing and pray for them, but it’s not nearly as often as it should be. In my deceptive, selfish, incorrigible heart, I’d rather feel good about myself than help others. And I feed that part of me more than I feed my faith, more than I grow my relationship with God.

I need to no longer care what becomes of my lesson on Sunday, whether it’s rejected by everyone or is used by God to change lives. I need to no longer care whether any of you fine people follow my blog or like my posts. I need to speak Sunday and blog here because I love God and because I love others and want to help them. Feeding my ego is a waste of everyone’s time, whether what I do is done well or poorly.

I’m going to, with God’s help, leave my ego behind. It’s an awfully heavy thing to carry around anyway, after all that eating.

The Other Side of Jealousy

I got jealous of a friend last week. This guy seems to have it all: rich parents who are still together, money seemingly thrown at him all his life, lots of opportunities to travel when he was in his 20s, a beautiful wife, and (what I was really jealous of) he’s the co-founder of an up-and-coming software company, meaning that when it finally sells out or goes public, he could make tens of millions easily, maybe much, much more. It seems to be a great life for him. He can, I’m assuming, afford a nice, big house for him and his wife, provide for their children, the first of which is due in January, and save for retirement or, quite possibly, retire before he’s 40.

I was stewing in my jealousy a little until I found that the husband of a woman I’d met in my tax class last year had died. She was probably a few years older than me, but by no means elderly, so I’m assuming her husband was around her age. She was devastated by the loss and moved across country to be with family. I can’t imagine losing Leah. I don’t even want to think about the immense pain that would bring.

Since realizing that my life could be so much worse than it is, I’ve been a lot happier overall. Contentment isn’t about having everything, it’s about not needing more than you have. And when I strip away my ego, I still have a desire to retire early and travel, but I don’t need those things. I don’t need a big house or loaded checking account. I need God, I need her. And I have both. I can be content with those.

The Life Diagram

I have a question for you: what’s the center of your life? What is your primary purpose, the thing about which you care the most? That person, achievement, or possession you’d do anything, sacrifice anything, to get or keep?

For me, I realized Sunday in church that that was Leah. I am devastated when I feel I’m not providing for her. I’ve forgiven myself for most of my other sins throughout my life, but my failures with money and with my career have been hard for me to let go of since we decided to get married.

If I were to draw a diagram of my priorities, Leah would be in the middle right now. She would be the center circle from which all other aspects of my life branch out. Those that are important in their own way or important insofar as keeping her are close to her and larger. Those that are unimportant are farther away and smaller and often branching out from the more important ones.

I need to replace her with God in the middle circle for several reasons:

1. What I have in the middle circle will determine my other priorities. If I have Leah in the middle circle, serving God is important only when it doesn’t, in my mind, interfere with keeping her. If it does, I’m more likely to choose her instead of God or, when I do choose God, I’d probably do it grudgingly. Serving Him becomes a lesser priority than working to give her a nice house. Going to church is a lesser priority than cuddling with her on the couch.

2. What I have in my middle circle will determine why my remaining priorities are priorities. With God in my inner circle, Leah becomes someone given to me to help me serve God and draw closer to Him, an ally in life, my lover, and my best friend. If she is in the inner circle, she becomes something she was never meant to be: my life’s purpose. With Leah as the center, serving God with my books is often seen as a way to make money, a means God can use to open up the floodgates of His blessings which I have so richly deserved, rather than as a way to glorify Him and help others know Him as I do, regardless of whether there are positive consequences in my own life.

3. What I have in my inner circle is my passion. Right now, I’m entranced with Leah. She’s sitting across from me right now at our table, just typing away with her ear buds in, not even looking at me, and I could lose track of time staring at her. It’s romantic, yes, but where is my passion for God, a passion which should be even stronger? After all, God has done more for me, loves me more, has sacrificed more for me, has never wronged me and never will, and not only knows what’s best for me, but wants me to have it even more than Leah does.

What does your diagram look like? How do you want it to look? What’s standing in your way?

The Four Levels of Faith

It seems there are four levels of faith:
1. Comfort faith
2. 11th-hour faith
3. Rack, Shack, and Benny faith
4. Even though faith

Comfort faith is the level I was at for a long time. I believed in God and claimed I trusted in Him to guide me…provided I wasn’t concerned about money, health, or anything else major at the time. Leah calls it “sunshine faith.” When it’s all going well enough, it’s easy to believe in God. It’s even easy to say you’re believing in God to bring you things that don’t have a definite deadline, like a house or the right person to marry. You feel good because you seem to have both a faith in God and a great deal of comfort in your life. A lot of people stay here because it’s such a nice place. Sure, trials may come, but with the resources they have, they’re able to get through most of them just fine on their own.

But God rarely uses people whose faith is at just this level. Following God requires a deepening of your faith with Him. 

It’s also hard to let go of the things you have when your faith, not only in God but that He is better than what you are letting go, is weak. I think people either get contented at this level and so don’t seek God, or they know that seeking God comes at a cost and they’re simply not willing to pay it. Either way, this is the lowest level of faith, lulling those with it to sleep.

And there’s one last danger: when a serious trial comes, many people at this level will crumble. Their faith hasn’t been worked and so they have nothing to stand on. It would be like a 120 lb. guy walking into a gym after benching 40 lbs. at home and trying to bench 400 lbs. He’d be seriously injured, if not killed.

The second level of faith is 11th-hour faith. It’s a bit stronger because you’re willing to step out and follow God outside of your comfort zone, yet there’s still a safety net. Leah and I currently have this faith. We moved down to Houston, but when we think about our checking account, we think, “Ok, we can sell her car and that should bring in about 3-4 months’ worth of expenses. We also have our credit lines, which could float us for an additional 4-5 months. We’ll be ok, we’ll make it.”

Our faith is growing each day, but we’re not quite ready to fully trust God. We want Him to catch us, even though we’re not ready to let go.

There’s some good in being here. For one, it hurts, meaning that our faith is growing. I had a job search last year and God blessed me with a contract job. I was stressed, though, because we were down to about a month’s worth of expenses. This time, I’m taking it much better, but I’m not where I need to be. Not close. I keep thinking about what will happen with the search and, even when I daydream about what God could do, it’s still not letting it all go to Him to let Him decide what needs to be done. I’m still telling Him that I need a job, which is to say, that I need the first step, but then I can take it from there. And if He doesn’t come through for a while, it’s ok because I still have my safety net.

Then there’s Rack, Shack, and Benny faith. Those of you who know Veggie Tales probably get this reference to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. King Nebuchadnezzar set up an image of gold 90 feet tall and demanded that all people worship it. These three refused, so the king gave them another chance. They refused again, saying, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16b-18)

This is powerful faith, what I call “even if” faith. They were determined to believe in God and serve Him, even if He didn’t come through for them. Even if they were to be burned alive for their faith, they would not budge. I’m not there yet. I could believe in God and serve Him through more now than before, but being faced with the prospect of being burned alive…I’m not sure I could be that strong. They were willing to let go, to have no safety net under them, and, though they were hoping God would deliver them, their faith didn’t depend on His answering their prayers the way they wanted.

This is where it gets scary, though, because you don’t know whether He’ll answer your prayers in your way or let you get thrown in the furnace. And if you do get tossed in, you don’t know that He’ll protect you. This is the point at which you still pray for your plan, but have accepted His.

Lastly, there is “even though” faith. This is a subtle, but important, difference from even if faith. With even if faith, you’re still wanting your will to happen. You’re hoping God gives you a way out and you’re still looking for it. You’re willing, you can be committed, but the faith is different because the focus is different. Jesus, as the man, didn’t want to go the cross, but He was willing to go, knowing full well that there was no way out, that He would, without question, suffer one of the worst deaths in recorded history, despite having done nothing to deserve it. He went, knowing that for a brief time, He would carry the weight of all our sin on Him, becoming the sacrifice to appease His Father’s perfect and adamant justice.

I don’t know if it’s possible; to be honest, I don’t even know if I want to have this kind of faith. It terrifies me to be willing to march boldly into a certain and horrible death, worshiping God the whole way. And it doesn’t even have to be death. If I knew for certain that God would not come through for Leah and I and that we’d be on the streets, that we’d never have kids, and that we’d live short lives marred with diseases and abuses, it would be hard for me to serve still. If I were to lose Leah, I would come back eventually, but I don’t think I could worship God when it happened or honestly love Him. I tell myself “one step at a time,” but I don’t know how far I want my steps to take me. I pray simultaneously for the boldness that I need to wield this kind of faith and that I’ll never need to have it.

If anyone had this faith, it was Habakkuk. In chapter 3:17-19, he writes, “Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, though the labor of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food, though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls, I will rejoice in the Lord. I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, He will make my feet like deer’s feet, and He will make me walk on my high hills.” Or as Job said in Job 13:15, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.”

I am in the second level right now and part of my problem is I want to go back to the first as much as I want to press on to the third. I need to know more clearly the God I serve, and I need to let go of my own will in my life.

The Prayer Challenge

When we moved to Houston, Leah and I prayed for God to strengthen our faith and to teach us how to wait on Him. Some days we question why we ever did that. In a classic case of “Be careful what you wish for…”, God has been answering our prayer. When we moved, I thought getting a job would be easy, but two months into the search, I’m still looking. Still waiting.

It’s frustrating sometimes because I want the security of a job, of having a steady supply of money with which to support us and start building a future. I want to start saving for a house, to provide a good life for our children, and to begin their inheritance.

The problem is, in short, that in praying for a job, I’m really praying for God to take our future out of His hands and put it in mine, because I trust myself more.

Praying for faith and patience is exactly what we needed to do. We need more of God and less of ourselves. He knows what is best for us, what will draw us closer to Him, and what will drive us from Him.

I think we have a tendency to view life as a restaurant in which God is our waiter. We get to order whatever we want off the menu, then pay for it by going to church, singing a few worship songs, paying tithes, and generally living good lives. If we want a dessert, we may have to pay a little extra in the form of serving the poor.

I want to start treating it more like a child at his parents’ dinner table. As Ezekiel 2:8 ends, “open your mouth and eat what I give you.”

Do I have the kind of faith that will accept what God gives me, even if it’s something I don’t like? Do I want God enough to accept things I don’t want if He gives them to me? No, not yet, but I want to, and I’ve prayed to.

In Evan Almighty, God is talking to Evan’s wife and says, “When people pray for patience, do you think God gives them patience or does He give them opportunities to become patient?” Growth often hurts. Just as in working out, growth in faith requires testing your faith beyond its current limits. There will be setbacks, but there will also be more faith in the end.

I want to challenge you to pray for something that will cause you to grow. If you need patience, be prepared for things that will try your patience. If you need faith, be ready to step out in faith. If you need boldness, know that some situations will want to beat you into a corner. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.

For those willing to accept this challenge, I invite you to post on here what you’re praying for so the rest of us can pray for you. God’s not going to pile on so much that He breaks you, but He’ll pile on so much that you can’t take it without His help.