Is our faith Childlike or Childish?

As a kid I sang in Sunday School, “Jesus loves me, this I know, ‘cause the Bible tells me so.” When it comes right down to it my reason for believing in Christ hasn’t changed over the decades. I have yet to see God but I know without a doubt He exists and, furthermore, that His love for me is incalculable. I’m reminded of that every time I open up His Holy Word and dive into His invigorating revelations. Those who insist that if they don’t see, feel, taste or smell God He can’t be real can’t know what Christians know. Repentance, the “turning from sin” part of our deliverance from evil, can be savvied by some unbelievers because they’ve come to understand (through trial and error) it’s in their best interest to not be bad people. But faith, the “turning to” side of our conversion, involves risk they aren’t willing to take. The Apostle Paul defined it succinctly in Hebrews 11:1, “…faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see.” Faith isn’t weird. We all put faith in a myriad of things we can’t prove. I can’t prove the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second but I have faith it’s true. One major problem is too many folks think you have to abandon logic to have faith in God. Not so. Thomas Aquinas held that faith and reason intertwine. He said faith uses reason, and reason can’t succeed in finding truth without faith. Norman Geisler wrote, “Reason accompanies, but does not cause faith. Faith is consent without inquiry in that faith’s assent is not caused by investigation. Rather, it’s produced by God. Reason can be used to demonstrate God exists, but it can never in itself persuade someone to believe in God. Only God can do this, working in and through their free choice.” In other words, human reckoning alone without God being involved will label faith as foolishness. And without faith you’re lost. Ephesians 2:8 reads, For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…”

When reason and faith climb into the ring together usually the result’s a bloody draw. Look, Jesus didn’t make things complicated and neither should we. When reading the New Testament it’s helpful to note the Greek words for “faith,” “belief” and “believe” are so similar they’re interchangeable. Christian faith, fundamentally speaking, is belief – belief that Jesus was God incarnate, just as He claimed. Faith is belief Christ not only forgives sins but can transform lives. Mostly, faith is trust – an act of commitment proven by one’s opening the door of their heart and mind to Jesus. The bottom line is this: placing your faith in Christ is a crucial decision you make on your own. Why is it crucial? John 3:18 states, The one who believes in him is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God.” Thus to say belief is important is an immense understatement. The choice is yours to make but the Scriptures teach that without faith it’s impossible to please God. Belief means committing yourself to Christ by surrendering your life to Him unconditionally. Billy Graham wrote, “Believing is your response to God’s offer of mercy, love and forgiveness.” Realize that Jesus did everything necessary for us to have life everlasting. That’s what He meant when He proclaimed aloud from the cross, It is finished(John 19:30). The Heavenly Father’s plan for our reconciliation and redemption was signed, sealed and delivered two thousand years ago. All a person need do to qualify is say “I believe.” It’s astoundingly simple when you think about it.

Yet for some belief doesn’t come easy because salvation’s not something they can use their senses to confirm. They insist on more than just Scripture-based assurances. Even Christians can fall into that trap. There are days when we might say to ourselves, “I don’t feel justified” or “I don’t feel forgiven.” But consider while you may not feel like your body is actually a conglomeration of 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms (the smallest constituent unit of ordinary matter) the fact is you are! There’s 10 trillion of those teeny little suckers in every one of your cells! So reality and perception obviously don’t always jive. Because feelings can vary from moment to moment it’s not wise to bank on them for assurance of being saved. Rely on the Word of He who created all there is. The One who not only created power but is the source of all power. Jesus is God, the One we can fully trust to fulfill His promises. He has no incentive not to do what He said He will. And notice in the New Testament “belief” and “faith” are always presented in the singular tense. They don’t come with long “to do” lists attached. Over the centuries men have developed and prescribed creeds, doctrines and tenets but God didn’t. His only request of us is to believe in His Son, Jesus Christ. Therefore faith is the opposite of being anti-intellectual. Its premise is extremely logical in that it asks us to trust that the Creator who made the cosmos and keeps it running in perfect order has the ability to save us from ourselves. Francis Schaeffer wrote, “Man is made in the image of God; therefore, on the side of the fact God is a personal God the chasm stands not between God and man, but between man and all else. But on the side of God’s infinity, man is as separated from God as the atom or any other finite [object] of the universe. So we have the answer to man’s being finite and yet personal. It’s not that this is the best answer to existence; it’s the only answer. That’s why we may hold our Christianity with intellectual integrity. The only answer for what exists is that He, the infinite-personal God, really is there.”

God displays His unimpeachable fairness by making faith in Christ voluntary. He’s never bribed, tricked or coerced anyone into becoming a Jesus-follower. While it’s true the Holy Spirit will do everything He can to convict a person’s conscience and lure them towards the Lord, in the end belief is always left up to the individual. God has made our need for forgiveness and justification as plain as the nose on our faces through His issuing the Ten Commandments and in every word of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. But it’s still up to us. And it’s all or nothing because faith involves the whole essence of our being, not just part of it. J.I. Packer said, “Knowing God is a matter of personal involvement, in mind, will, and feeling. It would not, indeed, be a fully personal relationship otherwise.” I can’t imagine what living in this crazy, violent, incoherent world would be like without my faith in Jesus. I suspect I’d have the same opinion as Solomon when he exclaimed, I reflected on everything that is accomplished by man on earth, and I concluded: Everything he has accomplished is futile – like chasing the wind! (Ecclesiastes 1:14). Because of Christ I have wonders galore to anticipate in the here and now and beyond the grave. I agree with Reinhold Niebuhr’s comment: “It’s by faith in the God revealed in One who died and rose again that death can become the basis of new life, that meaningless turns into meaning, that judgment is experienced as grace.”

My last essay focused on repentance, an essential element of the salvation process. Here I’ve tried to make it apparent that putting one’s faith in Jesus is the next critical step in becoming born again. While doing those things may seem apparent to long-time believers we can never assume a newbie won’t have lingering questions. And isn’t the point of our trying to be more knowledgeable about God’s Word so we can be more effective at bringing lost souls to the foot of the cross? The novice may ask things like “How will I know I’m saved?” “How long will it take?” “Will I start freaking out in uncontrollable spasms when the Holy Ghost moves in?” or “Will I melt into an embarrassing pool of tears?” The honest answer should always be “I don’t know, but I do know you’ll never regret it.” While none of us can tell them precisely what their reaction will be we can comfort them by saying they’ll know an inner peace that transcends human understanding and that their relationship with Christ will be as unique as their own fingerprints. What we all have in common is that God leads each of us to a juncture in our lives when He grabs our attention one way or another. Then, if we’re willing to repent and believe, He converts us and we become a new creation. How God does this varies with each person. The way He relates to me is different from how He relates to you. He didn’t change me on the spot via some magic trick; He began working on me just as I was – an ungrateful, pride-filled sinner. Like His unfathomable love for me, it was intensely personal. Yet His ultimate goal is the same for everybody. He wants us all to be born again.

God knows the ideal way to reveal Himself to each truth-seeking man or woman. As always, the perfect example is found in how Jesus did it. He approached His disciples differently according to their personality. After His baptism two of John’s followers tagged along behind Jesus. One of them was Andrew. Jesus asked them what they wanted. I’m sure the shy Andrew mumbled they were just curious about where He was staying. Jesus knew calm conversation was the way to gain Andrew’s trust so He invited the men to spend the afternoon with Him. Andrew then summoned his erratic brother Simon to come meet the Messiah. Jesus wisely changed his tactic to fit the man. He knew a friendly chat wouldn’t impact this guy. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon, the son of John. You will be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter) (John 1:42). Peter was the word for rock. A volatile sort all his life, Jesus was informing him He could change him into a man who was steady as a granite boulder if he was willing to put his faith in Him. It was exactly what Simon wanted to hear. The next day Jesus encountered Philip. He knew Philip would respond positively to a straightforward, no-nonsense suggestion. Jesus simply said, Follow me…” (John 1:43) and he did. Philip then recruited Nathaniel, a prayerful type of fellow who desperately wanted to connect with God but was wary of being duped. Before they even shook hands Jesus said to him, Look, a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit! (John 1:47). Nathaniel knew in that instant he was in the presence of someone extraordinary. When Jesus said, I tell all of you the solemn truth – you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man (John 1:51), Nathaniel needed no more convincing.

Jesus didn’t hand a carefully-worded religious tract to Andrew, Peter, Philip and Nathaniel. He customized his introduction to accommodate their specific yearning to enter into a personal relationship with God. That’s what being born again is. My path to being able to have faith in and trust unreservedly in Christ wasn’t traversed in a day, a week or a year. It took decades for the Holy Spirit to get through to me. Eight years ago I wouldn’t have been in a position to give my testimony any more than I could’ve lectured on nuclear physics. If Paul would’ve been around he would’ve rightly called me an infant in Christ and told me the same thing he told the Corinthians, I fed you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready. In fact, you are still not ready…” (1 Corinthians 3:2). Though I considered myself Christian my whole life I was almost 60 before I went “all in.” Because I’d never studied the Bible or devoted time for fellowship with other believers I was still an ignorant tenderfoot who needed to digest a lot more solid food to be of use to God. Most Christians don’t take as long to fully commit as I did but, nonetheless, it rarely happens overnight. For instance, Paul went off and studied in Arabia for three years before starting his ministry. I can relate to Moses because it took 40 years of hanging out in the desert before he was competent to confront Pharaoh on behalf of the great I AM. While it’s tempting to go shout “Jesus saves!” from the rooftops when we first surrender to Christ and the Holy Spirit takes up permanent residence in our heart the Scriptures warn against putting the cart before the pony. Dive into the Holy Word. Absorb it. Let it teach you God’s will for your life. You’ll know when the time’s right to spread the good news to the world.

I mentioned Paul scolding the believers in Corinth for not growing up out of spiritual infancy to a more advanced level. On the other hand, Jesus made it clear “…unless you turn around and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven! (Matthew 18:3). A critic would deem this a contradiction but it’s not. Philip Yancey wrote, “Somehow we must learn to distinguish between appropriate childlike behavior, a prerequisite for the kingdom of heaven, and inappropriate childish behavior, a mark of stunted growth.” An example of being childish would be to get angry when caught up in circumstances contrary to our liking and scream “God, you’re not being fair!” A more seasoned Christian in the same situation will have learned to deal with the fact that it’s life in this fallen world that’s “not fair.” Becoming a legalist can also indicate a childish mindset. Grace saves and distinguishes a follower of Jesus, not strict adherence to “the Law.” Paul was once such a stickler for upholding Jewish statutes he used them to justify murder and oppression. After his conversion he realized legalism ironically fosters disobedience because most of those laws were conceived by imperfect humans. In Colossians 2:23 he wrote, Even though they have the appearance of wisdom with their self-imposed worship and false humility achieved by an unsparing treatment of the body – a wisdom with no true value – they in reality result in fleshly indulgence.” Paul preached that love, not stoic obedience to religious mandates, was the key to freedom.

How do we become more childlike than childish? Frederick Buechner described three traits we, God’s adopted children, should cultivate. First, we must avoid having too fixed a preconception of reality. Too often believers settle for lowered expectations, letting their hope that things can change fizzle away or they stop trusting God can heal wounds they’ve learned to live with. Healthy, loved children haven’t lost their ability to believe in a better world nor should Christian adults. Second, we must know how to accept a gift. Kids don’t ponder whether they deserve the present under the Christmas tree; they joyfully tear into it without a hint of self-consciousness. Jesus didn’t question the motive behind a woman’s dousing his feet with expensive perfume, He knew it was an expression of pure gratitude and adoration and accepted it as such. A childlike spirit allows us to receive God’s blessings as palpable manifestations of His amazing generosity without worrying whether or not we earned them. Third, we must emulate the trust of an adolescent. With a parent by their side they’ll fearlessly cross the busiest street. That’s the kind of faith God wants us to have in Him. The Greek root of belief means simply, “to give one’s heart to.” Most adults have learned along the way that doing that requires setting aside our self-protective instincts and courageously jump in. Walter Ciszek, an early 20th century Jesuit priest, endured a hard life full of persecution. In his book, “He Leadeth Me,” he wrote, “By faith we know God is present everywhere and is always present to us if we but turn to him. So it is we who must put ourselves in God’s presence, we who must turn to Him in faith, we who must leap beyond an image to the belief – indeed the realization – that we are in the presence of a loving Father who stands always ready to listen to our childish stories and to answer to our childlike trust.” That quote says it all.

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