We have chuckled every time we have driven through Kane lately. The sign out front boldly proclaims, “The spirit lives on.” It is evident from that saying that the people of the town realize that their town is no more. A few buildings remain and a few families still live there, but the town is effectively gone and only the spirit lives on.
The situation is similar for many churches across the country. In fact often it cannot even be said that the spirit lives on. The building is still there, a few elderly ladies attend services which the minister from the next town holds once every two weeks. A local board keeps the building in decent repair, but the life of the congregation is gone.
When Jesus warned the church in Ephesus in Revelation 2:4, “you have left your first love,” he indicated a real and frightening possibility. A church can become unhealthy and even die when it loses its passion for the Lord. Today, we will begin to look at another of the quality characteristics which make for a healthy church. The fourth quality characteristic we will look at is passionate spirituality. The question which this characteristic asks is, “do the people here have a love for the Lord which is evident in all of life?” “Is there spiritual life here?” A church can have all the programs, lots of people attending, a great building, but if the people in it are not passionate about their love for the Lord, that church is not healthy and that church will not grow.
Over the next four weeks, we will look at four aspects of passionate spirituality. Next Sunday, being thanksgiving, we will look at the thankful attitude which can help us realize God’s goodness to us. In two weeks, we will look at how our obedience to the Lord fits into our love for him. In three weeks, we will look at prayer. Today, we want to think about whether or not we really believe God and how we can grow in faith.
I. Practical Atheists
A. Many Of Us Are Atheists
Psalm 14:1 says, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” When we read this verse, we may think about people like Madeline Murray O’Hare who has pushed the atheistic agenda in the United States. We think about people who declare loudly that there are so many logical reasons why it is evident that there is no God. We think about those people who proclaim that if there is a God, why does he allow suffering. To them the fact of evil in this world demonstrates that there is no God. But do we ever think about ourselves? Notice that the text says, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”
Eugene Peterson, the author of The Message, picks up on this when he says in another book, “These kinds of atheism can be treated with appreciation and respect. The passionately protecting atheist, sensitive to suffering, can be welcomed as a partner in a spiritual and moral struggle against evil. His companionship is a defence against smugness. The intellectually discriminating atheist can be accepted as an ally in sceptically rejecting all the popular, half-baked stupidities named “god” that abound in our time” …but he goes on to say, there is “Another kind of atheism… “in their hearts.” Their atheism is never voiced and may not even be conscious, but it is lived - with a vengeance.” Who is the atheist who says in his heart that God does not exist? Is it not the person who may loudly proclaim belief in God, but with every action demonstrate that he or she does not believe? Are we perhaps the atheist spoken of by the Psalmist? What our hearts believe is evident in the way we live. Does our living show that we believe? A.W. Tozer says, “Let the average man be put to the proof on the question of who is above, and his true position will be exposed. Let him be forced into making a choice between God and money, between God and men, between God and personal ambition, God and self, God and human love, and God will take second place every time…the proof is in the choices he makes day after day throughout his life.”
B. Recognizing the Struggle to Believe
If our hearts condemn us in this, we are not alone in this struggle to believe. Abraham is identified as a great man of faith, but there were times in his life when he did not act in faith. Twice he acted in the same faithless way. One time, recorded in Genesis 12:10-20, Abraham went to Egypt because of a famine in the land. When he got there, he was afraid that the king of Egypt would want to take Sarah away from him and harm him. Abraham did not have enough faith in the promises which God had made so he told Sarah to tell the king that she was his sister. He lied to save his own hide. His actions were those of an atheist. Many years later, he went to live in the territory of Abimelech, the story is found in Genesis 20:1-18. Again he feared for his life and safety and told Sarah to say that she was his sister. His defence at the end of the story shows what was in his heart. He answered, “I said to myself, ‘There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’” He did not have enough faith in God to believe that He was looking after him. His actions revealed that he was a practical atheist.
How often we act in the same way!
I knew a man who began to live with his unbelieving girlfriend. We confronted him to encourage him that this was not God’s best plan for him. He became very angry with us. He was a Christian, but he did not have enough faith in God to believe that God’s plan for his life - not marrying an unbeliever and leaving sex until marriage - was God’s best plan for him. He was acting like an atheist.
I knew a Christian who became addicted to VLT’s. He did not have enough faith to believe that contentment is found in God and not in all the things that this world tempts us with.
I knew another person who was without a job for a little while. He spent a lot of needless energy worrying about how things were going to work out. He did not have enough faith in God to be confident that God’s plan for him was the best and would be worked out in His time. He was questioning in his heart, “Where is God?” I know his story well because he is me. I have acted like an atheist.
Every meal we give thanks to God for our food. This is right and good, but do we really believe that He has given it to us? Would we be so thankful if our pantry, freezer, wallet and bank account were empty? Do we really believe that it is God who has supplied all our needs or do we “in our hearts” say “there is no God.?”
The sad reality is that most of us at least some of the time act as if God does not exist. We come to church, we teach Sunday School, we sing loudly of God’s power and wisdom, but in our hearts we say, “There is no God.”
Why do we not believe? The reason is that, like Abraham, we fear the wrong things. We fear the power of an enemy, we fear that we will lose what we don’t want to lose, we fear that in losing what we don’t want to lose, we will come out worse. We fear everything that has no power and fail to fear the one who has all power.
II. Moving Towards Belief
I appreciate the prayer of the man who came to Jesus to ask for his son to be healed of an evil spirit. In Mark 9:24, “…the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” I too need help with my unbelief.
Ben Patterson in the book “Waiting” says, “Will we believe Him? Probably not, a good deal of the time. But God will emerge the victor in our struggle to listen to him and trust him.” Even though we struggle with unbelief, there is hope. How can we move from being practical atheists to being people of faith?
A. Yield to God’s First Move
When we realize that we are often practical atheists, we may begin to panic and wonder how we can scramble back to God. The wonderful thing about faith is that God has always made the first move towards us. Throughout the Bible, we see God moving towards people. It was God who came to Abraham and told him to go to a far country where he would make him a great nation. It was God who came to Abraham to let him know that in his old age he would have a son. It was God who came to Moses and asked him to lead his people out of Egypt. And so it has been throughout the history of God’s people. It was God who sent Jesus to redeem us. I like Ephesians 2:4-10 where the movement of our salvation is clearly lodged in God’s initiative. Follow the logic some time when you read this passage. It says, “But God…God raised us up…the gift of God…God’s workmanship…” In John 6:44 Jesus affirms this movement when he says, “no one can come to me unless the Father …draws him…”
In The Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer says, “We pursue God because, and only because, He has first put an urge within us that spurs us to the pursuit.”
Now this is not a reason for inaction or carelessness. It is rather a word of comfort that as we struggle to believe, God wants very much to have us believe and He puts the desire in our hearts and if we give him the slightest open door, he will flood our life with affirmation that He exists and will remove from us the impression in our hearts that there is no God. Growing in faith involves not so much our grasping for faith as allowing the movement of God towards us to be fully met with a welcome in our own hearts.
B. Recognize Your Position Of Need
When we finished our work in Manitou about a year ago, I wanted to be pastor of a Winnipeg MB church. Since I was well known, had lots of experience as a pastor and since there were 5 MB churches in Winnipeg looking for a pastor, I was sure that it would simply be a matter of time before I would be placed in such a position. As the months passed and one church after another did not call us, I began to get worried. I did not want to give up being a Mennonite Brethren and I really wanted to be in Winnipeg. God had other plans for me. He was moving me forward in faith. Through the experience of taking my wishes away from me, He brought me to the place where I had to ask myself what I depended on. He took away something I loved so that I would learn to love Him above all else.
In Matthew 5:3 Jesus says , “Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” William Barclay paraphrases this, “Blessed is the man who has realized his own utter helplessness, and who has put his whole trust in God.”
One of the ways in which God leads us to trust Him more is by taking away things we love so that we will love him more than anything. In “The Pursuit of God,” A.W. Tozer says, “There must be a work of God in destruction before we are free.” “It is never fun to die. To rip through the dear and tender stuff of which life is made can never be anything but deeply painful.” However, “He desires not to tear from us our loves, but to push us back to our life - him.” This was my experience.
As we experience such difficulties, we can have one of two reactions. I once worked on rebuilding a Volkswagen engine. Now I am not a mechanic, but I had a book and it seemed not too difficult. I had re-assembled the engine and I was ready to put it back onto the car. Try as I might, I could not make it fit and I became thoroughly frustrated. At this point, I had two choices. I could give up, take my biggest sledge hammer and smash the engine or I could realize that I was in over my head and needed help.
When we come up against a crisis in our life, we have two choices. We can give up all hope and become angry and bitter or we can realize that we are in over our head and we need help from God. Faith grows when we come to the place of humility - the realization that we need help. With the Volkswagen, I asked for help an did eventually get it going.
Often it is through difficult circumstances in life which force us to recognize our need that we come to this place of humility and then to faith, but we don’t have to do it that way. The reality is that at all times we are in need of God. If we will humble ourselves daily and recognize our utter dependence on God daily, we will learn to trust God, daily. Popular psychology tells us to have a good opinion of ourselves. Perhaps it would be better if we daily realized our weakness and threw ourselves on God.
C. Gaze Upon The Face Of God
How can we come to the place where we recognize our dependence and live by faith? The best way I know is to daily and regularly look into the face of God.
Psalm 123:1,2 says, “I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven. As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he shows us his mercy.”
The servant in Old Testament times was not like the worker today, a self sufficient, independent person who worked for another person and then went home to his own duties and pleasures after work. The servant of that day was totally committed to the master and worked for him or her at all times and was totally dependent upon the master for life itself. It could truly be said that such a person looked to her master or mistress in utter dependence and trust. That is the attitude of heart which we need to learn to cultivate. A.W. Tozer says, “…faith is not a once-done act, but a continuous gaze of the heart at the Triune God.”
He also says, “When we are looking at God we do not see ourselves- blessed riddance.” Isn’t that the way it is, we love to have a pity party for ourselves. If we look at God, that miserable party is over and we come to peace. On some of the most discouraging days I had last winter, I made a choice to spend time thinking about all that God had done - in creation, in salvation and in my past experience. Whenever I did that, I came to peace.
The wonderful thing is that such looking can be done at any time and in any place. We do not need to go to church, we do not need to adopt a particular posture. Whatever we experience in life, an inward glance towards God, a glance of remembrance or a glance seeking help will be a powerful spiritual event which will bring hope and encouragement.
The best activity we can engage in on a daily basis in order to focus our gaze on the friendly face of the Father is to spend time daily in His Word. It is the record of who He is and what He has done. It is full of stories of weak people who were practical atheists and who in gazing upon God found Him triumphing in the midst of their circumstances.
What will happen if we regularly spend time looking at all that God has done? Will not such a perspective help us to grow in faith?
D. Affirm What Is Real
The temptation and struggle with such a gaze upon God in our need is that we think that it is looking at something which is not real. I once heard a child’s definition of faith as “believing what is not real.”
Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”
Faith calls for a gaze into an unseen world. That does not mean that it is a world that is not real. We depend so much on our eyes that we have a hard time understanding what we cannot see. Yet the evidence for the existence of the unseen world is all around us, we just don’t always see it.
When the armies of the Arameans surrounded Dothan, the visible thing which Elisha and his servant saw were an army of chariots surrounding the city intending to capture and kill them. But that was only the visible reality. Elisha prayed that his servant would have eyes to see what was real, what was the invisible reality, and that was the much larger army of God’s angels surrounding the city.
Philip Yancey says, “We human beings instinctively regard the seen world as the "real" world and the unseen world as the "unreal" world, but the Bible calls for almost the opposite. Through faith, the unseen world increasingly takes shape as the real world and sets the course for how we live in the seen world.”
Tozer says, “God and the spiritual world are real. We can reckon upon them with as much assurance as we reckon upon the familiar world around us.” “our trouble is that we have established bad thought habits. We habitually think of the visible world as real and doubt the reality of any other.” “As we begin to focus upon God the things of the spirit will take shape before our inner eyes.”
E. Trust God Not His Gifts
As we come to the place of our need and learn to gaze upon the God who is real, we will develop trust in God. As we do so, we will experience blessing from God. We will find that He is sufficient for every need.
It was difficult to give up what was precious to me, but as I did, I have come to realize more and more that I have gained something much better. God has blessed us and we rejoice to be here. I am finding great meaning in my work. God has given Carla a job that she thought she wanted even before we left Manitou. He has given us a great community to live in and has blessed us with many new friends. We are still close enough to Winnipeg to do the things we enjoy there, but far enough away that we don’t have to live with the traffic every day. We are very thankful for all he has given us. But as we rejoice in his good gifts, a new danger to faith arises. We begin to trust in His gifts and not in him.
When Abraham, after so many years, finally got the son of promise he had longed for and had waited for, God asked him to do something totally unexpected. In Genesis 22:1-14, God asked him to sacrifice this son. We wonder at God’s requirement, but there was a very important purpose in it. He wanted to see if Abraham was more focused on the gift of the son that God had given or on God. The sacrifice was necessary to help reveal that Abraham loved God and that he trusted God and hoped in God. As much as he loved Isaac, he loved God more.
This is the lesson of faith which we must also learn.
Ben Patterson in “Waiting” asks, “Why was Abraham asked to sacrifice his son?” The answer, “Because Abraham, and you and I, are to trust God’s Word, not the way we perceive he is going to keep that word.” “The great betrayal of faith is to trust in the gift instead of the giver of the gift.”
He also says in another place, “One day, in death, everything will be taken from us: spouse, children, home, health, car, career - everything. Then all we will have will be God and his promise. But that is all we ever have.”
Faith will grow as we learn to look to God alone and not only to the things he gives us.
When Carla’s father passed away suddenly of a heart attack at the supper table, her mother said, “God makes no mistakes.” I don’t know what kinds of struggles she had before she said that, I don’t know what kind of struggles she has had to really accept that afterwards, but I do know that at that moment, in weakness and brokenness, she was willing to live by faith. She has continued to live by that faith.
We will not always succeed in living by such a strong hope. Many times our actions will reveal that in our heart we have said, “There is no God.” But God continues to draw us to Himself. Slowly and gradually as we are forced to recognize our emptiness, as we gaze on the wonder of his gracious and awesome presence, as we come to understand that He is real even though we can’t see Him and as we grow to trust Him and not his gifts, we will come to a deeper faith and a closer and more intimate relationship with Him. As we grow in such a faith, we will develop a passionate spirituality, a deep and growing love for the God who is.