Friday, October 5, 2007

Formulaic Faith

This summer I read Donald Miller's book Searching for God Knows What. It's really an amazing book. It's been one of those books that has stayed with me for quite a while since I've read it, partly because of my own thoughts, but also partly because some of the high school students in our group have been reading it and talking about it with me. As I read it, I began thinking about doing a teaching series on some of the ideas that Miller addresses. So anyway, this week I started that series.

We talked this week about the problem of understanding faith as some kind of formula or recipe, where when we do this, God does that. I went on a Christian book web site this week and typed into the search engine the words "How to". The results were crazy! There were hundreds of books that had these words in their title. Why is it that we've taken this rich, mysterious, deep faith that we have and made it into a three-step process? Why do we want so badly to have a simple formula to follow? I think it comes down to an issue of control. When we follow a formula or a recipe, we know exactly what we are doing, and we know exactly the outcome to expect. The thing about biblical faith is that it tends to be messy, never the same twice, and often ends up with people doing crazy things. I think that scares us. That sounds like there's no control.

I think it also has a lot to do with our consumerist society. We are used to having a problem, a need, a desire, and being able to go out and find exactly what we want to fill that need or desire. I kind of think of it as infomercial faith. Every infomercial has the same basic format no matter what they are selling. There's always the guy who is way too excited about the product. There's also the guy who asks the obvious questions and is apparently really slow because he doesn't understand until it's been described three or four times. You know the guy - "Wait a minute, are you telling me....?" But they all promise the same basic things - it's easy to use, great results = happier life, and at very little cost to you. It doesn't matter if it's an ab machine, a cheese grater, a blender, a vacuum, or a machine that does all of those things, the promises are the same. And for some reason, I think that many of us have seen the effectiveness of this message and taken a God that's hard to understand, and a faith that often leaves us with more questions than answers, and tried to package it in a similar fashion. It's easy to use, it will make your life better, and at very little cost to you. Is that really the gospel of Jesus?

Call me crazy, but that kind of simple, packaged, formulaic, recipe-like faith just doesn't interest me. I don't believe there is a "how-to" book we can follow that tells us what faith is like because I believe that faith is about a relationship with a person, not a formula. Relationships are dynamic, changing, growing, they ebb and flow, they feel close at times, further at other times, and there's no "how-to" in the world that can teach you how to navigate that. Think about the relationships you have, whether its a friend, a spouse, a father or mother, a son or daughter. If I followed a book about "How to be married" and simply followed the steps outlined in said book, I think I might be looking for a new wife in no time at all. Love isn't formulaic. There's not a three-step process to being in love. My wife doesn't want me to follow a list of bullet points in my love for her. She wants my heart. In that way, Miller says faith is a lot more like falling in love than it is following a formula.

But some have argued that faith is a sort of formula. Scripture says things like "If we confess with our mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in our heart that God raised him from the dead, we will be saved" (Romans 10:9-10). Isn't that a formula? Confess this, believe this, and you will be saved. I guess I would just argue that saying something out loud, simply going through the motions, the right mechanism, doesn't save us. Confessing that Jesus is Lord is a relational statement. We are declaring the fact that He is our Master, He is the one we follow, and not ourselves. The title Lord implies a relationship. There's not really any way around that as far as I can see. God is constantly saying in the Old Testament, "I don't want your sacrifices, I want your heart." Jesus condemns the Pharisees with the same kind of fervor - telling them how incredible it is that they go through all the law and seek to follow it down to the smallest part, and yet they have missed the whole point of the law! They have no relationship with God, he doesn't have their hearts. I fully believe that God is less concerned (not unconcerned, just less concerned) with what we believe, and even what we do, than he is about having our hearts.

One of the real problems in the church that I think we're beginning to see a bit of resistance to in the Emerging Church movement is that we have really stressed knowing and doing the right things, and not so much of having a heart that is being transformed by a relationship with Jesus. We've stressed an intellectual faith over a relational faith. We've told people that faith is easy - just follow these steps. We've told them it will make their life better - happier, wealthier, healthier. We've even failed to tell them the cost - it might cost family, friends, possessions. Faith isn't simple. It isn't a formula. It can't be put into a "How-to" book. It's a constant, everyday, growing and changing, dynamic, exciting relationship with the living God. I'll take that kind of faith any day over a formula. If I can put God into a chart or graph and understand all the dynamics of the Scriptures and easily discern his will - then he must not be that great of a God. I'm reminded of Isaiah who says "Your ways are not my ways, nor your thoughts my thoughts."


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