Who is at the center of your faith, you or God?
Ouch! It’s a calling-you-out-on-the-carpet kind of question. It’s an important question. It’s a question that I came face-to-face with in a recent conversation.
Not long ago, I got a “Hi, how are you guys?!” message out-of-the-blue from someone I had worked with a lifetime ago in Kansas. At that time, we had spoken briefly about faith, as our family was getting ready to embark on a stepping-out-in-faith-journey to Bellingham, WA. He had asked a few questions and said, “Wow, I wish that I had a faith like that!”
a little background…
In our family, my husband leads us in a desire to do God’s will above our own in all things. When we lived in Kansas, we began to pray about where we should live and what kind of work we should do, and asked God to guide us according to His will. We ended up moving to Bellingham, WA. We didn’t have a job lined up, we didn’t have a house lined up, and we knew this was an important step of faith for us. We set out from Kansas with all of our worldly possessions packed in a little 5 x 10 trailer behind our truck, and trusted God to provide the light for our path step-by-step. We shared our testimony about this faith-journey with many people in the days leading up to our move, during the 40-days-and-40-nights of our move, and as we arrived in our new home.
So back to my recent conversation. When I heard from my former co-worker, I remembered our conversation about faith. I had thought, at the time, that his comment meant that he was following the Lord, and desired to have greater faith in the Lord’s provision when things look uncertain. Because that’s what faith means to me. Faith is in God, and more faith means greater devotion and obedience to God in the face of all kinds of temptations and uncertainties. So I updated him on where we’re at, asked what he was up to, and asked how his walk with the Lord was going. And he gave me some updates and closed with, “I’m not religious. More spiritual, really. I believe in God. He always has my back.”
And that’s when I realized that we didn’t work from the same definition of faith, after all.
I realized that when he said he wished he had a faith like ours, he didn’t mean, “I wish I had faith to spend time in prayer seeking God’s will, and then obediently begin to do God’s will in faith even when the future was still unknown and uncertain.” Rather, he simply meant, “I wish I had the self-confidence to go ahead and do what I want to do without worrying about what might happen.” And that’s quite a different faith, and that’s quite a different god.
Because God’s primary characteristic is absolutely not that He always has your back. God is not a cosmic safety net who gives you much-needed support and encouragement as you launch your plans, and then is there to catch you and set you back on your feet when you stumble and fall. In fact, He will let you fall to whatever depths are necessary to bring you to your knees and on your face before His throne, because He knows that is the only thing that will save and protect your eternal soul. God is a sovereign, eternal, Creator King Who deserves your full devotion, your faithful commitment to try with every ounce of your being to obey His commands even though you know you will fall short, and your desperately humble repentance as you cast yourself at His feet, acknowledging how entirely unworthy you are of all of His mercy and grace and affection. If you live your life guided primarily by the principle that God has your back, you can be certain you are facing the wrong direction.
Faith in the god-who-always-has-your-back is a self-centered faith, not a God-centered faith. And it is a very common sort of faith.
In fact, only a few hours later, I stumbled across a comment from a friend-of-a-family-member, contemplating world events, who said much the same sort of thing. “I believe in God. But people bring bad stuff on themselves. My God doesn’t do that.”
a little sidebar
To be honest, it irks me even to capitalize “God” in this quotation, because I know that the god who is being described here is not God, at all. He is simply a self-tailored image that forms a pleasant background for someone’s own plans and wishes and desires and understanding.
And really, this is nothing new. Self-centered faith has got to be the most prevalent faith in this country at this time. Faith in some cosmic being who is different things to different people but is always cheering us on towards greater comfort and achievement and happiness and self-fulfillment. But this is not God at all. God is who He is. He is very specific in His nature. He is the same to all people, and is the same for all time. He does not in any way compromise who He is to fit who we would like Him to be. He tells us exactly who He is, at length and in no uncertain terms, in His word that has been written and made available for us to study, and it is up to us to listen, learn, accept, and obey.
There are many who would say that the gods of all different religions are actually the same god, and that we just call him by different names based on our own understanding and interpretation. But the truth is that God has a name, and we must learn to know Him by it. God gives His name throughout scripture in different forms, because each form describes a never-changing aspect of His character. But that doesn’t mean we get to call Him by whatever name we choose. Rather, we must learn to call Him by the names He has chosen.
The moment that we think we can define God on our own terms, we are putting ourselves in His place in the center of our faith.
I have seen it many times, in many people. I have heard so many people say, “Of course I love God the most. That goes without saying.” I have heard so many people say, “Of course God is first. But He wants me to love myself like He loves me, so I focus on that.” I have heard so many people say, “Of course God is the most important thing. I just also like to make things relatable so that people can be comfortable and then eventually be drawn to Him.”
This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me.(Matthew 15:8, KJV)
Many, many different ways of honoring God with our lips, while our hearts are far from Him. Many, many different manifestations of self-centered faith.
And I suddenly remembered that our family has been accused of having exactly this kind of faith, ourselves!
Any time that we share with people about our journey through life, we try to be very careful to keep God at the center of our testimony. We talk about doing everything in prayer. We talk about seeking God’s will and not our own. We talk about the wonder of taking that next step in faith, not knowing what will happen, and then seeing how God had things aligned all along. We talk about how God has taught us to reduce our own needs and wants, and seek His ways more. But for all of that, even some of our closest family members, who also say they are Christians, have described us this way: “It’s great, they’re just doing what makes them happy!” “Oh, well, as long as you love what you’re doing, that’s what really matters!” “We don’t know why they ever left the PNW to move to Maine, but I guess they love it!” “Yeah, we’d like to do what Joe and Sydney did – just sell everything and do whatever you want!”
And so I had to ask myself the question – is my faith God-centered, or self-centered? Is that really what I’m doing, just doing whatever I want, and then slapping God’s name on it? Is that really what I’m expressing to others, that I do what I want to do and what makes me happy? Because it’s an important question, and it’s important to dig in and get the real answer!
So every time I find myself facing that perception, I question myself in prayer before the Lord. “Lord, am I chasing after my own selfish desires? Help me to desire Your will above my own.” I question myself in practice. I look for something that I know I might selfishly desire, and I seek to put God’s will above my own by giving it up in some way. This might mean fasting from something, or even something as simple as setting aside something I’m enjoying working on in order to do something for someone else. I question myself in humility. “Lord, if I am being selfish, I know that You are the only one Who can open my eyes to it. Please guide my steps and help me put You first in my life.” I look critically at my writings, at blogs and posts and books. Do I glorify myself? Or do I glorify God? I look at my comments and responses to others. Do I seek or bask in praise? Or do I take every opportunity to point back to God’s glory and His amazing word?
I will never be finished asking myself these questions and examining myself for traces of selfishness. In fact, I will always find them. But by God’s grace, by continuing to come back to Him for help with selfishness, I will continue to walk in a God-centered faith and not a self-centered faith.
But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.(1 Corinthians 2:14, KJV)
And yet, for those who live in self-centered faith instead of God-centered faith, I realized that they will never see the difference unless the Lord opens their eyes and changes their perspective. No matter how carefully we share our testimony, no matter how specifically we describe our journey, no matter how scripturally we explain our faith, a person whose faith is self-centered can only see others as having self-centered faith, as well. To a person whose faith is self-centered, all of those expressions about “doing everything by prayer” and “trusting God” and “following God’s leading” are just fancy, spiritual ways of saying, “doing what I want to do.” Because a natural, self-centered faith can never comprehend a spiritual, God-centered faith – it is foolishness to them.
And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.(John 14:16-17, KJV)
And so unfortunately, what I ultimately realized is that this is a message that can only be preached to the choir!
If God is at the center of your faith, you already grill yourself on this question all the time, knowing the constant temptation and danger of pride and selfishness creeping into our worship, and diligently striving to continually subordinate self to God in all things.
And if self is at the center of your faith, you will be blinded from the truth, and only the supernatural grace of God will ever change that.
And so, I parted ways with my former co-worker, with a thumbs-up to his last message and a heavy heart for his condition and the condition of so many others like him, praying that God might open his eyes to God-centered faith as only He is able.
But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.(Matthew 19:26, KJV)