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Faith and Sincerity


It is easy for people who have been steeped in church tradition to think that our emphasis on sincerity and obedience to Jesus are radical departures from some more fundamental Christian teachings about faith and grace. For that reason, I would like, in this study, to concentrate on the concept of sincerity as it relates to the more traditional term "faith".

Tolstoy tells a story about children swimming in the middle of the ocean, and being offered a life rope from a ship. He says that if they refuse the rope it is not because they lack faith in the rope, but only that they lack awareness of their need for such a rope. He seems to imply that people could have faith in Jesus and still be lost because they did not recognise the seriousness of their need for him.

St. James also observed that there is a form of faith that seems to be fruitless spiritually. He says that even the devils have this faith. In fact, they "believe and tremble". Nevertheless, it does not produce changes in the way that they live their lives, and so it is useless or "dead" faith.

But Tolstoy and James may be calling something faith which is not, in the life-saving regenerative sense, true faith.

It helps to understand that everyone has faith... every day of our lives. We have faith in a hundred different things, and every bit of faith that we have affects the way we act as a result. If you believe it is going to rain, you act accordingly. If you believe someone likes you, you act accordingly. If you believe something is dangerous, you act accordingly.

But when the Bible talks about a faith that can bring eternal salvation, it is presuming that we all understand that the faith being mentioned is faith in God.

It's a bit like references to prayer. We assume that people know we are not talking about prayer to the devil or to false gods when we encourage them to pray. And so when we talk about faith in the Christian context of salvation, we are only talking about faith in God. Nothing less than this can qualify as "faith".

In a few instances, the Bible specifically refers to faith in Jesus. Other times it refers to faith in God the Father. In some references (e.g. John 3:16) it is not clear which of the two must be the object of our faith. Often (e.g. Ephesians 2:8) no reference at all is made to the object of our faith. But surely we must agree that it would have to be faith either in God or Jesus, in order for it to have any eternal effect.

We believe that faith in Jesus the Teacher will eventually lead to faith in Jesus the Son of God. However, we will limit our remarks in this study to faith in an all-powerful Creator God (whether revealed through the Son or through creation itself).

Tolstoy's illustration breaks down because he represents God as a "rope" to "save" us; and he goes on to say that people do not avail themselves of the rope because they do not recognise their need for it, i.e. just how terribly "lost" they really are without him.

But faith in God (as opposed to faith in a particular means of salvation) will eventually lead us to grasp the rope with every fibre of our being; for faith in God will make us overwhelmingly aware of our human predicament.

God, in Tolstoy's illustration, is more like the vastness of the ocean than the rope. Every thought of God points us to eternity, and to the perfection that we fall so far short of. It makes us realise our utter need for salvation in every sphere of our lives. The more the children believe in the vastness of the ocean, the more they are going to realise that they cannot go on swimming forever and that they are eventually going to need the rope. They will drown without it.

Because it is so easy to continue religious activity at the same time that we bury our heads in the sand to escape the reality of our finite existence, people delude themselves into thinking that they have faith in God when all they have is faith in their religion and in their religious activity. At best, religious faith is only faith in the shadow of the real rope. People put all their faith in counterfeit plans of salvation because of their lack of faith in a real God who is bigger than their religion. Their religion becomes a way of escaping that frightening truth.

When Moses asked God for his name, God refused to give him a name. He said, "I am whatever I want to be." (Exodus 3:13-14) That must have been frustrating for Moses, who wanted a name to stand against all the other names of the competing religions of his day. But the true God of the universe is angered by mankind's ridiculous practice of trying to box him up in some kind of fundamentalist "idol" that can be marketed in the name of yet another religion. And this idolatrous practice continues in Judaism and so-called Christianity as well.

Faith in God is faith in a power and an intelligence that is so far beyond our comprehension that we could never hope to be able to understand the smallest particle of all that he represents. He is ultimate truth, and we are but darkness by comparison. Our darkness cries out to be enlightened by him. Our mortality cries out to experience his immortality. Our weakness cries out to be caught up in his all-powerful presence.

All of this flows as naturally and spontaneously from faith in God as ducking your head flows from believing that a rock propelled at your head is real. Because we believe that God is real, nothing else in life matters more than knowing him and being totally conformed to his will.

Obviously, we all fall far short of this. Instead of being totally absorbed with God, we become more obsessed with the demands of our flesh - what to eat, what others think of us, how to pay the rent. But it is only because we do not have faith in God that we do this. Oh, we make an intellectual assent to the fact that he exists, that he is omniscient, eternal, and all-loving, that we are all going to die one day, and that he is our only hope. But we do not focus on these truths for more than a few minutes at a time. Worse still, we ignore them altogether the moment our flesh makes some minor demand on us. We live most if not all of our lives with more faith in money, food, sex, and popularity to meet our needs, than faith in God to meet them. (Note: I'm not saying here that these needs are nonexistent, but only that we often allow them to totally occupy our minds when we should be primarily focused on God.)

Intellectual faith is what James was writing about. He said that even the devils had such faith. In fact, James went further. He said the devils also "believe and tremble". Their faith in God actually scares them. But they do not repent. They do not beg for God's forgiveness for such indifference to his existence. They do not try to change their ways. Instead, they become more and more stubborn about going on living the way that they are already living.

And that is a pretty accurate picture of the entire world today, except that today they have even stopped trembling! They don't want to think about God. They don't want to think about death. They don't want to think about the flaws in their half-baked formulas for salvation. And above all, they don't want to think about the implications of the teachings of Jesus. We've seen it in the staunchest religionists each time we have tried to turn the conversation to the teachings of Jesus.

Jesus said, "This is the condemnation: that light is come into the world, but people love darkness more than light, because their deeds are evil." (John 3:19)

Here is where we see the link between faith and sincerity. Real faith will respond positively to the light. It will seek out the light. It will want to know the truth... even if the light shows the person exercising such faith to be wrong. A person with real faith will seek to change in conformity to the truth, rather than hide behind religious idols, dogmas, and traditions.

Because of this willingness to change, real faith in God will eventually unite all sincere people in the world, regardless of their various religious affiliations.

 

The Bible says that "If we walk in the light as he (God) is in the light, we will have fellowship one with another and the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, will cleanse us from all sin." (1 John 1:7)

The church today wants to be cleansed from all sins without walking in the Light. They want a doctrine to save them without any need on their part to be sincere. And the leaders of the church have shown no shortage of willingness and imagination in creating doctrines which will profess to do just that. Sincerity is ridiculed by all of them as useless when compared to the saving power of their various "articles of faith".

The Bible says that if we hunger and thirst after righteousness, we will be filled. (Matthew 5:6) But the church wants righteousness without any hungering or thirsting (i.e. without any sincere seeking after God's truth). The result is that all they get is mass-produced (theological) self-righteousness.

The Bible says that the pure in heart will see God. But the church teaches that we can see God, not by examining our thoughts and motives, to be sure that they are pure, but simply by undergoing some ritual cleansing that they say will make our hearts pure in God's eyes, no matter how impure they may actually continue to be in our daily lives.

All that is needed, they say, is blind faith in the doctrine, blind faith in the institution, blind faith in the hierarchy, blind faith in the ritual, and it will work. Faith in a God who is bigger than all of these things is not necessary. In fact, such faith will only lead to doubt in the veracity of the idols that our religious leaders have served up to us, and so it must be regarded as dangerous, if not evil. Anyone who teaches such faith must be regarded as heretical... as trying to "work their way to heaven" through such things as sincerity.

Well, that's the choice you have... a faith that leads to total surrender to God, or a faith that leads to seeing surrender to God as dangerous. Only one faith will save you; and if you believe in God at all, the choice is easy.

(See also A Confession, by Leo Tolstoy.)

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