Wednesday, September 30, 2009

No Rebuke for Our Believing Fears

Just a quick observation to add to yesterday's post. In yet another gospel account of disciples in a boat, crossing the sea, and becoming fearful, we'll see again that Jesus reproved his disciples not for their honest fears, but rather for their disbelief in his word.

This time (in Matthew 14:22-32) his disciples are on their way back across the sea at the end of a long day of ministry with Jesus. He has healed the sick and fed over five thousand people with only five loaves of bread and two fish. He has remained to pray; as the disciples are making their way back to the other side in the boat, night falls and they are now struggling against a contrary wind, beaten by the waves. Suddenly they see what they take to be an apparition... it is their Lord, coming to them, walking on the water! They cry out in fear, "It is a ghost!" But what does our Lord say? Does he reprove them for this fear--"O you of little faith?"

No, not for this; rather, he calls out to them with his cheerful encouragement, "Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid!" There is no reproof. They are struggling; they need their Master. Peter, that importunate one, answers him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." The Lord says, "Come." We know what happened next; Peter obeyed well at first, but seeing the wind, he forgot Jesus' command to come, and began to sink. The Lord graciously answered his cry for help, took his hand, and then came the searching question: "O you of oligopistos, of little faith, why did you doubt?"

What I'm aiming at here is that, again, Jesus didn't rebuke the disciples for their weakness of fear. Peter only earned that reproof when he failed to believe that the Lord would do what he said; in his simple command to Peter, "Come!" were all the promises of heaven to enable Peter to come. Because he told Peter to come walk on the water, Peter certainly could, if he would only believe his Lord. As Augustine said, "O God, command what You will, and give what You command." Our faith is in the promises of this great God to enable us to do his will.

His will for us, the new covenant people born into a church in Acts 2, is revealed in the pages of the Bible. Our job now is to become familiar with this Bible so that we understand how to read it, how to rightly interpret it in all its different parts, how to love it so that it truly becomes a weapon in our hands, the sword of the Spirit, laying open what needs to be exposed, bringing grace and truth to bear on all that is false.

And our Lord will never rebuke us for our honest doubts and fears, so long as we are saying with the Psalmist, "When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?" (Psalm 56:3-4).

Monday, September 28, 2009

Mustard Seed Faith

The nature of Christian faith, first given at salvation and put to work afterwards, can be a source of confusion for believers. A careful biblical study of what faith is and how it works in our lives can help to clear up misunderstandings we may have; let’s examine one Scripture passage together and hopefully find encouragement in our approach to God’s word.

In Matthew 17:20, Jesus told the disciples that if they only had the smallest amount of faith, like a mustard seed, they would be able to accomplish great things (to move a mountain was simply a Jewish metaphor for doing the seemingly impossible.) This promise can cause Christians today to wonder what’s wrong with them. They feel that their faith must not yet be what they take our Lord to be saying…the minimum amount, so to speak. As if he’s saying, ‘Look, can’t you even drum up this much faith…faith the size of a mustard seed? If you can just drum up that much, you can do some great things!” Feeling that we don’t have the faith to move a mountain (or overcome our worst habits), we accept that we are sadly lacking. We make a choice either to glaze over and “disconnect” from this teaching and go on, or stumble in our walk and suffer a rift in our close fellowship with the Lord.

But neither is necessary. A right understanding of these words of Jesus should bring both light and encouragement to those who struggle with the issue of faith.

It’s important to know that our Lord isn’t asking the disciples to drum up “at least” a mustard seed-sized faith. Rather, he’s giving them some good news…that it only takes that! Even if it is only that small, he’s telling them, the size of one of the tiniest seeds known, their faith will be enough to accomplish great things, and for this reason; it’s not their faith itself that everything depends on, but the One their faith is in. Their tiny faith must be in the greatness of the God who can uproot mountains and move them to another place.

Before Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples often failed to grasp and believe who Jesus was, so they often failed to understand and obey his words. He reproved them more than once for this…“O you of little faith.” The Greek for the phrase “little faith” is oligopistos; it doesn’t mean “no faith,” but rather “ineffective”, “defective”, or “deficient” faith, reflecting their muddled understanding of who Jesus was. They were reproved for their hard hearts in not understanding his teaching, and for their failure to believe and obey him.

This story from the gospels may help shed some light. Luke, in 8:22-25, gives the account this way:

“One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ So they set out, and as they sailed he fell asleep. And a windstorm came down on the lake, and they were filling with water and were in danger. And they went and woke him, saying, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ And he awoke and rebuked the wind and the raging waves, and they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ And they were afraid, and they marveled, saying to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even winds and water, and they obey him?’”

Notice that Jesus revealed his will for the disciples when he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” When the violent storm blew up, the disciples became afraid; Luke assures us that they were indeed in danger. When the frightened disciples went to him, saying that they were about to die, he woke up and rebuked the storm, and it ceased. Then he asked them, “Where is your faith?” Why did the Lord reprove them?

Not, I think, because they were afraid and woke him up; it was rather their disbelief that he could and would get them to the other side in spite of his expressed purpose to do just that. “We are perishing!” they cried. (Matthew adds that they asked, “Do you not care?”) Their unbelief in his words was rooted in their hard-hearted failure to understand who he was, as seen in the last verse of Luke’s account.

And we have this same problem today! Lacking a true grasp of the character and accomplishment of Christ, we fail to believe and act on his words (Matthew 7:24). We don’t understand that the faith he calls us to exercise is simply to believe him; it is a settled trust in who he is, in what he has accomplished, and in his word. The purpose of the gospel accounts, John tells us, is that we too may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing we may have life in his name.

Jesus does not ask us to drum up faith. Faith is a gift (Ephesians 2:8) as well as something we must exercise, and its object is God, the mover of mountains! What he has said he will do, he will do. We place our tiny trust in his great power and ability, described in the Bible for us so that we can believe. This is the nature of faith, and this is its purpose…to believe the promises of a great God, and believing them to act upon them, and so give glory to him both in this life and in eternity.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Futility of Regret

I came across this essay by A.W. Tozer on Paul Martin's blog, and posted it here for my own benefit and enjoyment. Hope it's of help to you too.

The human heart is heretical by nature. Popular religious beliefs should be checked carefully against the word of God, for they are almost certain to be wrong.

Legalism, for instance, is natural to the human heart. Grace in its true New Testament meaning is foreign to human reason, not because it is contrary to reason but because it lies beyond it. The doctrine of grace had to be revealed; it could not have been discovered.

The essence of legalism is self-atonement. The seeker tries to make himself acceptable to God by some act of restitution, or by self-punishment or the feeling of regret. The desire to be pleasing to God by self-effort is not, for it assumes that sin once done may be undone, an assumption wholly false.

Long after we have learned from the scriptures that we cannot by fasting, or the wearing of a hair shirt or the making of many prayers atone for the sins of the soul, we still tend by a kind of pernicious natural heresy to feel that we can please God, and purify our souls, by the penance of perpetual regret.

This latter is the Protestant's unacknowledged penance. Though he claims to believe in the doctrine of justification by faith, he still secretly feels that what he calls "godly sorrow" will make him dear to God. Though he may know better, he is caught in the web of a wrong religious feeling and betrayed.

There is indeed a godly sorrow that worketh repentance, and it must be acknowledged that among us Christians this feeling is often not present in sufficient strength to work real repentance; but the persistence of this sorrow till it becomes chronic regret is neither right nor good. Regret is a kind of frustrated repentance that has not been quite comsummated. Once the soul has turned from all sin and committed itself wholly to God there is no longer any legitimate place for regret. When moral innocence has been restored by the forgiving love of God the guilt may be remembered, but the sting is gone from the memory. The forgiven man knows that he has sinned, but he no longer feels it.

The effort to be forgiven by works is one that can never be completed because no one knows or can know how much is enough to cancel out the offence; so the seeker must go on year after year paying on his moral debt, here a little, there a little, knowing that he sometimes adds to his bill much more than he pays. The task of keeping books on such transaction can never end, and the seeker can only hope that when the last entry is made he may be ahead and the account fully paid. This is quite the popular belief, this forgiveness by self-effort but it is natural heresy and can at last only betray those who depend upon it.

It may be argued that the absence of regret indicates a low and inadequate view of sin, but the exact opposite is true. Sin is frightful, so destructive to the soul that no human thought or act can in any degree diminish its lethal effects. Only God can deal with it successfully; only the blood of Christ can cleanse it from the pores or the spirit. The heart that has been delivered from this dread enemy feels not regret but wondrous relief and unceasing gratitude.

The returned prodigal honors his father more by rejoicing than by repining. Had the young man in the story had less faith in his father he might have mourned in a corner instead of joining in the festivities. His confidence in the loving-kindness of his father gave him the courage to forget his checkered past.

Regret frets the soul as tension frets the nerves and anxiety the mind. I believe that the chronic unhappiness of most Christians may be attributed to a gnawing uneasiness lest God had not fully forgiven them, or the fear that He expects as the price of His forgiveness some sort of emotional penance which they have not yet furnished. As our confidence in the goodness of God mounts our anxieties will diminish and our moral happiness rise in inverse proportion.

Regret may be more a form of self-love. A man may have such a high regard for himself that any failure to live up to his own image of himself disappoints him deeply. He feels that he has betrayed his better self by his act of wrongdoing, and even if God is willing to forgive him he will not forgive himself. Sin brings to such a man a painful loss of face that is not soon forgotten. He becomes permanently angry with himself by going to God frequently with petulant self-accusations. This state of mind crystallizes finally into a feeling of chronic regret which appears to be proof of deep penitence, but is actually proof of deep self-love.

Regret for a sinful past will remain until we truly believe that for us in Christ that sinful past no longer exists. The man in Christ has only Christ's past, and that is perfect and acceptable to God. In Christ He died, in Christ he rose, and in Christ he is seated within the circle of God's favored ones. He is no longer angry with himself because he is no longer self-regarding, but Christ-regarding; hence there is no place for regret.