Monday, June 22, 2009

You believe... but how much?

In Mark 9:14-29, the Bible records an interesting story about a demon-possessed boy whom Jesus' disciples were unable to help. The demon had robbed the young man of his speech, and would throw him to the ground in foamy-mouthed convulsions.

When the father brought the boy to Jesus, Jesus made a comment that seems a little harsh and maybe even out-of-place: "O unbelieving generation! How long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?"

Unbelieving? Really? It's not as if Jesus had been around. Prior to this, he had been up on the Mount of Transfiguration, with Peter, James, and John. In fact, he had only just arrived on the scene. So since the father didn't have access to Jesus, he tried the next best thing--he asked some of Jesus' disciples for help. He asked the disciples whom Jesus himself had already commissioned and given authority to drive out demons (Mk. 6:7) to liberate his son from the evil spirit that was controlling his life.

But it seems that Jesus' appraisal of the situation was right on track, after all (imagine that!). For the father says, "If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us." Jesus responds, "'If you can'? Everything is possible for him who believes." And the father immediately answers back, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"

I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.

What a very interesting statement. It seems that belief and unbelief are not mutually exclusive, that we can possess both simultaneously. There are not many opposites that fall into this category, making belief and unbelief a rather unique pair. For example, it would be difficult to see how a light or a TV or a stove could be turned off and on at the same time. Not many people would ever think of saying, "I am relaxed; help me overcome my stress!" But belief and unbelief seem to be different.

At a recent conference, Craig Groeschel, pastor of in Oklahoma, made the insightful observation that Christians usually live with and move among three different levels of belief:

  • I believe in the gospel enough to benefit from it.
  • I believe in the gospel enough to contribute to it comfortably.
  • I believe in the gospel enough to give my life to it.

At the first level, we believe enough to accept and enjoy the benefits of following Jesus--forgiveness of sin, assurance of eternal life, peace, hope, joy, acceptance, self-worth--but we don't want our faith to cost us anything.

At the second level, we begin to realize that it's not just about accepting God's love for us, but about loving God in return. So we begin to contribute our money, our time, and our talents and gifts for his use. We might join a small group where we can practice loving other people, or begin serving in some ministry to benefit other people. But, of course, we don't allow our faith to get in the way of the things we really want, like weekends of camping, our golf league, and a flat-panel TV or a big house. We contribute--but up to a point--not in a way that's going to inconvenience ourselves.

At the third level, there is no longer a concept of serving oneself. Faith and life are intertwined, and every decision, every dollar, every priority is made from a perspective of how best to serve and grow the Kingdom of God. There is an abandonment of self and a total commitment to God and his glory.

Groeschel says that true clarity comes not from the identification of these three levels, but from understanding that success at level three, can easily cause us to slip back into level two. This is because level three is where we grow spiritually, where our capacity for impact is expanded, where our understanding of God is deepened, and as we adopt this new level of belief, allowing it to sink deep into our hearts and minds, in time it becomes the new "normal" for us. It becomes a regular part of our lives. What was once sacrificial and challenging, now becomes... comfortable.

To return to level three, we must listen closely to what new steps God is asking us to take--steps that will lead us again out of our level of comfort and into the level of radical obedience and trust. And if we consistently resist what God wants to do in us, if we keep on saying "no" to him repeatedly, we find ourselves back at level one. We aren't really contributing to the gospel at that point--no matter what it looks like on the outside. Our spirituality becomes a matter of keeping up appearances. We're really only in it for the goodies we get, the benefits we find.

Belief and unbelief actually live quite easily side-by-side.

So it's as if Jesus is saying to us, "You believe... but how much?" The Bible tells us that Jesus will not do miracles where there is a lack of faith (Mt. 13:58). Faith in him is a condition that he places on everyone who comes to him, asking for his help. And without faith, it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6).

In our church, we talk often about Real Spirituality, Real Community, and Real Story--our Key Three. Our Key Three are all about living out a level-three faith. But there is a level-two version of these values that we often settle for--Fake Spirituality, Fake Community, and Fake Story. Together, they make up an unconvincing, unattractive, unfulfilling life. Starting next week, we're going to be exploring these counterfeit rivals for the vibrant, level-three faith that Jesus died to bring us.

But until then, you might start asking yourself, "How much do I really believe?"

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