Paradox of Faith and Believing Before You Believe

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A few years ago, having finally fully embraced the promises of Jesus, I set out on a journey of faith and pursued the impossible love only possible with faith.  I wanted to transcend that “it” that always kept me just short of success and finally put to rest the fear of being the servant who buried his talent.

My mom had always told me that God had saved me for a special purpose.  My name, she told me, meant strong-willed and the name was appropriate given that my first week of life was a desperate fight to survive.  But my fierce determination and persistence could not have kept me alive.  It is only because of the dedicated care of physicians (including my uncle Elam) and nurses, along with the prayers of relatives and friends, that I am writing now.

Still, that was a battle that didn’t end without some scars both physical and otherwise.  I was the late-bloomer, notably smaller than my same-age peers, often riddled with anxieties, and seemed perpetually stuck trying to catch up—but never able.  There have been many times in my life when it felt like one of those nightmares where you know what to do but your reaction is slowed and you can’t avoid the disaster.

Failure and Moving Forward

Over the years I began to doubt my mom’s words.

What great purpose could I have, a thirty-year-old living in Milton?

But, spurred by faith, I decided it was now or never; I put aside feelings of inadequacy and began to write.  I wrote a book, “Paradox of Faith,” and then started to blog here.  I decided to say “yes” when asked to speak at church and my confidence grew as a result.

However, I still wanted to trust God more; I decided to go all in on faith and reach out for something impossible for me.  I thought I should be a missionary overseas (an activity very encouraged in my church) and yet knew that it was something that I would need some help to do.  So I prayed earnestly for a way to overcome my limitations and then reached out to those whom I trusted were my brothers and sisters in faith.

What I got in response was a cold shoulder and harsh dose of the faithless reality behind their well-polished religious facade.  Not only couldn’t they help me, but they smiled to my face then slandered me behind my back, and drove my faith into the rocks with their complete indifference.  I have to wonder how many of them realize that I’ve stopped attending their church six or seven months ago?  I’m obviously not needed there, nor do I feel especially wanted or truly cared for by most who attend there.

I hit the rocks again.

If it was not for one person, someone on the opposite side of the world, who told me, “if you go, take me with you,” I would likely have ended my life by my own hand.  But, I had helped them through their own time of despair and desperation, I believed they would be thrown back into chaos and confusion if I failed them—I could kill my own hope, but I could not rob them of theirs.  My faith had been ruthlessly murdered by those who were supposed to help it, but my precious bhest was determined to pull me back from the grave.

It has been a real struggle, despite all the good things going on in my life, to see past this failure of faith in my church.  I’ve always been a Mennonite, I wore it on my sleeve, it has been my identity both religious and cultural, where I sought acceptance and validation—but there’s no way to remain there after all that has transpired over the past couple years.

But how do you go forward when you lost your faith?

I cared and yet I didn’t.

I was angry and simultaneously indifferent.

I continued living on the outside but my hope inside was dead.

I wanted to forgive those who had hurt me—but, without faith, how was it possible?  Why would I?

One of the reasons I continued writing was because of the unconditional love of a good stranger, now my editor and friend.  They came to me like the angel that ministered to Elijah, telling me that my writing had spoken to them and offering to help.  This wonderful person offered to be my faith when I had none and didn’t abandon or harshly judge me.

I began attending a church of another older Christian tradition.  That choice was the result of a fatherly figure who came into my life about a year prior and had gained my trust with his humility.  I was amazed by his prompt and detailed answers to my inquiries.  For the first time in years I left church feeling renewed.

But then something happened.  I spooked.  I looked back and became mired in those questions nobody could answer.

I did not attend any services for a couple months.  However, a few weeks ago, because of my special someone, my bhest, telling me she needed me to be strong in faith for her, and a timely meeting with my wise fatherly friend, I decided to follow the paradoxical advice given to John Wesley who also doubted:

“Preach faith until you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

As someone who sought to be authentic, that advice (basically “fake it until you make it”) bothered me when I first read it years ago.  It seemed dishonest to me.  It also seemed silly and irrational.  If we must fake something being real for it to become real in our mind, then what’s the point?  Isn’t that the very definition of delusion? Why not only believe what is real instead?

But now the choice wasn’t about me anymore, it was about the one that I loved, my bhest, and to love them properly required me finding my faith again.  I could not find it in those who took it, nor produce it of myself.  I was already reaching down as deeply within myself as I could to find faith and coming up empty.  And yet, right at the right time, right before a meeting with my fatherly adviser, my mind was ready to receive some council.

We met to discuss my “God problem” and first agreed that there is no rational means to prove the existence of God.  With the mystery of God established, he broke my dilemma down to two options: 1) accept a life void of deeper meaning and purpose—nihilism, or 2) live with the assumption of something greater to come, embrace the mystery of God, and have faith.

He encouraged me to attend services again and that’s what I did.  My questions are not all answered, but with his help I’ve established the right trajectory again, and—oddly enough—my feelings of faith have begun to return as I act in faith for those whom God loves.

What is the paradox of faith?

Jesus, according to the Gospel of Mark, came upon a crowd in an uproar and asked what was going on.  A man, the father of a sick child, explained that the disciples could not heal his son.  To this, Jesus tells the crowd, “You unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you?” and then requested the boy be brought to him.  The father explained the boy’s condition then gave his plea:

“…if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.

“‘If you can’?” said Jesus.  “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:22b‭-‬24)

This father seems to have both belief and unbelief in him.  His initial plea is so weak that Jesus repeats it back as if to test the man a bit.  At this the exasperated father beautifully expresses a contradiction that only a person who has truly ventured out in faith can know: “I do believe, so help me to believe!”

It is this father’s contradiction that has become real to me as I ventured out in faith, the deeper we go the less we can rely on ourselves and must reach for something bigger.  Here are three paradoxes of faith I have encountered:

A) True faith is acting in faith before you have faith.  Faith is setting out in a direction, even when the outcome is uncertain, often while facing controversy and even despite some self-contradiction.  Faith is not the absence of doubt.  Faith is taking the first bold step in spite of your fears, anxieties and doubts.  Faith means deviating from what is our natural inclination, letting go of our own human understanding and reaching for what is only possible with God.  Faith, from a practical standpoint, is courage in the face of the impossibility.

Faith requires different things of different people.  It could mean swallowing pride and dipping in your own version of the river Jordan like was required of Naaman.  It could mean selling all you have, giving up your awesome plans and leaving your family behind.  It could mean marriage or remaining single.  There is no one-size-fits-all prescription in faith.  But faith is never passive, nor does it mean being placid; it takes persistence, and requires that we step out of the boat, like Peter:

But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:27‭-‬31)

That is an astonishing story.  Peter is both believing and disbelieving at the same time.  He challenges Jesus to prove that he is who he claims to be: “Lord, if it be you…”  Peter, bold as ever, asked for a miracle that applied to him.  There is no passivity or hesitation there, either.  Peter is willing to get out of the boat and attempt the impossible.  He is actually putting to practice the “take courage” part.  He, like the father with the sick child, is asking Jesus: “I believe, so help me believe!”

There are many religious people who avoid the humiliation of coming up empty-handed by re-branding their true faithlessness as “godly contentment” or being “realistic” or not testing God.  But the truth is that it takes no faith at all to sit on your hands, take life as it comes and do nothing.  Faith aims for the impossible at risk of failure.

You don’t have faith unless you practice faith and to practice faith means to love as Christ loved.  Faith is like a muscle that must be exercised to become strong and atrophies when unused.  The exercise of faith is to love your neighbors and especially brothers and sisters in faith.

Faith comes from praxis of faith.

B) Faith is acting in love before you feel love.  Anyone can love as the world loves.  Anyone can “fall in love” with someone who is attractive, adventurous and otherwise convenient to their own personal ambitions.  It is easy to love those who have already proven their value or have what you want, but loving only those who are like you and only because you anticipate getting something in return is not Christian love.

The church of my childhood is good at loving their own and especially good at loving those who represent their ideals.  (I know, because I am like them; I have shared their ambitions, I wanted a Mennonite wife and friends.)  But we are not good at loving those who are different.   We do not love courageously or in faith.  Sadly, with few exceptions, the love I’ve received at my church seems primarily to be a very explicable human kind of love (for biological family or for their religious cliques) and not the exceptional kind of love that transcends differences.

Why don’t we love as Jesus commanded?

The problem is when feelings lead rather than faith.  Many go through the motions of outreach and missions.  However, it is too often only a do-gooder project, a chance to prove our religious chops, a way to feel good about ourselves, and not sacrificial or done in sincere love.  The problem is not that we are bad people.  The problem is that it truly is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to love those who do not produce feelings of love within us first.  We may excuse our lack of love as “being a good steward” and wise use of resources, but could it be that we simply do not have the faith to go beyond our own calculations of another person’s worth?

We use what we know about other people as a reason not to invest in them.  We treat idioms like, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” as if they are truths.  We use our past and prejudices as guides rather than give freely to those who ask (Matthew 5:42) and trust God.  We do not act in an open-handed way towards others when we presume to know the future based on what we know of past performance.  Unfortunately, in doing this, we too often feed a self-fulfilling prophecy and are actually contributing to their failure.

The paradox?

Sometimes feelings of love come only after you practice love first.  Sometimes it is only after we have invested significantly in another person’s success that we begin to care about their circumstances.  Faithful love is not based on feelings.  Faithful love is doing more than what we are able to rationalize or justify as prudent in our own minds.  Faithful love means loving even when you may never see the results.

Faithful love is only possible for those who know that they did not deserve love themselves and act accordingly.  We were saved by grace and therefore should show grace to those who need salvation.

C) Nobody can save themselves.  Some of us can live in an illusion of independence, but even those without my traumatic birth experience needed the life support of a mother’s womb to survive and could not exist otherwise.  We are not self-creating nor self-sustaining creatures and all have gained through the work of others.  Nobody gives birth to themselves—not even a hermit in Alaska or Chuck Norris.

The same is true of our Christian life.  No man has saved themselves through their own efforts.  We cannot come to faith and remain faithful outside of Christ and the church he established.  I did not come to faith by my own efforts nor has anyone else.  Even the Bible is a written testimony of faith given, compiled, preserved, translated and interpreted by the church.  We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8) and this means that someone else acted graciously on our behalf to even give us a choice to act in faith.

I could get more into the theology and theory here.  But cutting to the chase…

Here’s How the Theory Played Out For Me

My own journey of faith started a new chapter a few years ago.  My faith was stronger than ever, but still could not overcome that invisible enemy that always seemed to keep me just short of success.  So, putting it all on the line, I prayed, “God, make the impossible possible for me” and believed (despite my unbelief) that faith would prevail.

But I did not sit and wait around doing nothing.  I resolved to be an answer to prayer before getting my answer to prayer.  I began to say “yes” (despite my feelings of inadequacy) and became more willing to take on new friendships with strangers that my religious peers would consider risky or dangerous.  I decided to love as I wished to be loved and not worry about my image so much.

Meanwhile, as I reached out in faith, my own hope against hope hit a wall of opposition and from the very people I had trusted to be faithful.  These were supposed to be the ones who would stand up for me, give me a chance, and show me love, but instead I got betrayal and lies.  It was confusing to me.  They would all say that they believed that the extraordinary claims of the Bible were true, but they sure didn’t act like it.

Eventually their doubts became mine.  My experience over the past few years seemed to be only a delusion.  The promises about faith written in the Bible seemed untrue; the existence of God isn’t something we can prove, and I just wanted to be free from the commitment that had just drug my heart through the mud.

Two Are Indeed Better Than One

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor:  If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.  Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?  Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:9‭-‬12)

It was because of the words of one very precious person that I didn’t act on my suicidal ideations.  A year before it was my turn to save them from their despair.  She was a single mother at the end of her rope, a little lost sheep, in a cold, dark, indifferent world, and not sure where to turn for help.  In her first message, after I accepted her friend request, she basically apologized and told me she was unworthy to be my friend.  My heart was instantly filled with compassion for her and I made it my mission to restore her faith.

Little did I know that a year later she would be acting as my Jesus and refusing to let go of my hand as I slipped beneath the waves.  She was my only reason not to throw in the towel on life.  I lived for her because there was nothing in myself left worth living for.  Later it dawned on me, in my faithfulness to her over the past year, I had sowed the seeds for my deliverance from despair.  In my love for her I found just enough meaning to the fight when I needed it most.

Around the time I had given up on faith, I got a friend request out of the blue.  This person, someone of admirable conviction and unusual love, was excited about something I wrote in a blog about an unnatural love only possible with faith.  Unbeknownst to them, the paradigm of faith that inspired my words was crashing and burning around me.   As much as I wanted to, I could no longer believe my own words anymore and had given up.

I more or less told this inquiring reader, albeit in different words: “the show is over, I was a peddler of nonsense, so move along now and don’t trip on the wreckage of my hopes and dreams.”  But, this new friend, instead of taking my advice, offered to be my faith, to be as Hur and Aaron who held up the hand of Moses:

As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. (Exodus 17:11‭-‬12)

They believed in the mission even when I was too exhausted to continue.  More than that, they offered the love that could only be explained by faith, they loved me through some of my most unlovable moments, and have not once failed in their commitment to be my editor.  It is probably their encouragement that kept me plugging away and writing my experience.

Angels, Transition and Forgiveness

This is where the story gets interesting.  To me, offering to edit my blogs was something only an angel would do.  So, to express my gratitude, while feeling beleaguered like Elijah in the wilderness, I announced on Facebook that I had found an “angel” and that choice of wording would become significant a couple days later.

But just before all that, not having a clue what would soon transpire, before my faith ran into a road block, I had blogged about a job transition that I knew was coming and also a premonition that something else bigger was lurking ahead.  Since posting that blog, the word “transition” had indeed been a big theme of my life.   That is why I clicked on a link about transitions that came up on my news feed.

The video, posted by a Christian friend, was one of those prophetic speakers that play to confirmation bias in the same way that fortune cookies and horoscopes do.  Basically, if you keep an insight vague enough it can be personalized by the reader and applied to almost any situation.  I’m pretty skeptical of these things and normally don’t pay too much attention.  However, the word “transition” in the title had hooked me.

I listened, nodding, as he talked about the difficulty of transition, he compared our transitioning to how an army is vulnerable when moving and explained how God would send an angel to guard over the transition.  Suddenly he had my full and undivided attention.  His advice?  He stressed the importance of forgiveness as necessary for success in the new endeavor—which is a message hit me right in the heart and, after hearing that word, forgive is what I wanted to do.

I had been given someone as an angel to guard over my transition.  I’m not sure if it is just a coincidence or not.  Maybe I’m reading meaning into it that isn’t there?  But the message was a profound reminder that the only successful way forward is the path of forgiveness.

Some Final Thoughts About Faith, Doubt, Encouragement and Love

No man, no matter how strong in faith, talented or independent can do it alone.  We need each other and often more than we know.

Maybe you are too proud to ask for help?  Perhaps you believe faith means stoicism?  If that is the case, then please consider that even Jesus wanted companionship in his hour of tribulation and that some of the most noteworthy characters in Scripture were sometimes cowards even after seeing amazing things directly from God’s hand.

If Jesus literally could not carry his cross without help, why do we think we can bear our burdens alone?

If our Savior struggled with anxieties in the garden of Gethsemane, why do we feel like we have failed because of our own fear and doubt?

There may be times when our faith is tested while we are alone and we must do our best to stand.  But that doesn’t mean we should leave others alone in their trials and tribulations.  Being a member of the body of Christ means “if one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26) and James tells us that our faith is expressed by how those in the church help each other:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save them?  Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing for their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.  (James 2:14-17)

There will be times where we all stumble and fall in faith.  We should encourage each other.  Do not be impatient when someone does not respond instantly to your love.  Sometimes it takes time for the water and nutrients to soak in.  Healing does not happen overnight for those who have been abandoned or severely wounded by the betrayals and indifference of others.

Who have you encouraged today?

Who have you helped?

My prior investment in others was the only thing that gave me the will to fight on.  The investment of others in my life is the only reason I am here writing today.  Do not neglect the important work of being your brother’s keeper.  Love those nobody else loves.  Love those that are unlovely and require faith to love.

Help With My Impossible Task

The church of my youth is full of nice people; a few did call to check in and probably more do care about me than took the time to inquire.  Most of them are very decent people, in my opinion.  However, I still found myself too often feeling spiritually malnourished while with them and I can’t live with settling for mediocrity or going through the motions.  A final act of betrayal by those in the group whom I trusted most left me spiritually dead and has convinced me of a need to change.  I would not have survived had not God provided ministering angels (in human form) to guard over me and I won’t ask for that again.

Thus, I find myself needing to do the impossible.  I am forced to transition from the church where I spent nearly four decades of my life to an orthodoxy that still feels foreign to me.  It is not my first choice, it has not been easy for me, and yet it is what I must do to remain faithful.  Big chunks of my identity, if not my entire identity, were caught up in my Mennonite denomination and letting go of that is difficult.  And not just that, the church is literally full of my family members; aunts, uncles, cousins and only remaining grandparent.  Until recently it was easy and comfortable to be there just putting in time.  But I know that I must live in faith and Jesus said to leave all behind and follow him.

So, as a final request, please pray for me to have a spirit of forgiveness.  I must do the impossible and move on from the denomination that I loved, but cannot move on while hanging onto my hurts or carrying bitterness.  My sincere faith was treated as garbage, the help provided by those I regarded to be my brotherhood for years was too often given grudgingly and seemingly always too little too late.  It is hard to forgive those do not take responsibility for their actions (or lack thereof) and should do better, but…

“Father forgive them for they know not what they do!”

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What Is True Distinction? (Matthew 23:5-12)

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The world loves distinctive dress and titles.

If I wear an expensive suit and fancy tie to an event, that will probably result in my being treated differently than if I show up in street clothes.  Having “PhD” behind my name would earn me more respect in some circles.

The world judges by outward appearance.

People rank and categorize other people based on what clothing they wear and what positions they hold.  Wear the wrong dress to an occasion and expect to be shamed in the gossip columns.  The climb up the social ladder can be brutal.

The church, unfortunately, is not much different.  The expectations and dress standards might vary, but the harmful focus on distinction of title or outward appearance is the same.

What did Jesus say about obsession with dress and titles?

Jesus, continuing his rebuke of unhelpful religious elites, said…

Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called “Rabbi” by others. ‘But you are not to be called “Rabbi,” for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.  And do not call anyone on earth “father,” for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.  Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.  The greatest among you will be your servant.  For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23:5‭-‬12)

The religious elites were obsessed with what other people thought and how they appeared.

Jesus mentions the “phylacteries” and “tassels” they wore, meant as symbolic reminders of their devotion to God, became about drawing attention to themselves.  They pranced to the front benches, loved to be noticed when out in public, and sought titles to impress their religious peers.

Jesus was unimpressed.  It is apparent that their religious devotion was not about God’s glory and honor as they would claim, it was all to draw attention to themselves and prideful.  Jesus again alludes to the tables being turned and roles being reversed—a time when the first shall be last and last shall be first.

But how is this applicable today?

Nobody I know wears phylacteries or tassels.

However, I believe the warnings against obsession with appearance still apply as much to religious people today as it did then.  We have different versions of the same prideful behavior in our churches today.

Here’s what we are doing:

1) Seeking the important seats:  I sit anywhere in the church because it does not matter.  There is nothing wrong with sitting in the back benches in an age of microphones and amplifiers.  Socially awkward people do not enjoy parading up to the front of the church; they don’t want the attention.  And so what if the rebels sit in the back, at least they are at church, right?

Funny how some Mennonite leaders have apparently not gotten the memo about those who love the “place of honor” and “most important seats” in a religious setting.  From the way they commend people who sit in the front benches you might be led to think that Jesus said that makes a person special or better.

Yes, there is something to be said for accommodating visitors and mothers with young children.  There’s also something to be said for not creating a distraction by yukking it up with your buddies.  We should always be considerate of others.

That said, seating position is no indication of spiritual condition.

2) Loving important titles: There are some people who use the letter of what Jesus said as a means to bash Catholics for their use of “father” in reference to church leaders past and present.

Unfortunately they entirely miss the point being made and in their arrogance are potentially slandering those who appropriately use these terms.  The admonition against calling anyone “teacher” or “father” is not about the specific words used, but about how and why they are used.

How do I know this?

Well, the Apostle Paul refers to himself as “father” (1 Corinthians 4:15, Philippians 2:22) and I’m doubtful he did it in ignorance of or contradiction to what Jesus said.  I believe he used it as a description of his true fatherly love and affection for the children of the faith and not vainly as a means to secure unearned respect from others—which is what Jesus was speaking about.

Sadly, those who turn the words of Jesus into a legal code miss the spirit of what he is saying.  Sure, they might never use the words he mentioned to describe themselves, but they do use words like “reverend” or “evangelist” in the same way as a Pharisee.  With different words they embody the same self-seeking spirit of the religious elites condemned by Jesus.

And we do this too.  We may not seek fancy titles outright.  However, I was turned down by a young woman who wanted someone who used “missionary” or “pastor” to flaunt their ambitions and I was uncomfortable describing my calling in those terms.  Love of religious importance is not unusual amongst Mennonites even if not as openly stated.

There is nothing new under the sun when it comes to spiritual pitfalls.  As my sister would say: Same manure, different piles.  Except she doesn’t use the word “manure” when she says it…

3) Dressing distinctly: It blows my mind how far off the mark people can be when it comes to matters of dress.  There are some churches where people will frown on those who do not wear a suit and tie (while some conservative Mennonites will frown on those who do) and for some reason carrying a big leather-bound Bible is important too.

It makes me wonder what these proper religious people would do if a man like John the Baptist showed up in camel’s hair.  They might be suffering from the same ailment as Saul’s daughter; Michal, when she saw David dancing in a “linen ephod” and called him a “vulgar person” for it (2 Samuel 6:14-23).  Apparently God was not impressed with her judgment of propriety according to what I read.

That is not to say we should intentionally draw attention to ourselves and dress in a provocative or ostentatious manner.

Which leads to my next point…

Many conservative Mennonites look to distinctive dress as a means to be a witness.  They claim this is an act of “non-conformity” and taking a stand against “worldly” fad and fashion.  And I do appreciate the idea of not being jerked around by every whim and fancy of the mainstream culture.

Unfortunately, this non-conformity of outward appearance does not always reflect change at a heart level.  We might not look like our “worldly” neighbors in the way we dress and yet many of us are even more obsessed with fashion than they are.  The smallest differences (the number of pleats in a dress or the collar of a suit coat) can lead to venomous accusations and division.

Distinctive dress has become a stumbling block for conservative Mennonites.  We judge each other based on our differences, we shut people out for not meeting our own dress standards, and forget to love each other as Christ commanded.  We have taken Scripture that instructs Christians to be focused on inner change rather than outward adoring (1 Peter 3-4, 1 Timothy 2:9-10) and turned it into a fixation about outward appearance.

Perhaps we forget what Scripture tells us about pride and clothing?

Peter describes the true distinctiveness of being “clothed” with sincere faith:

All of you, clothe yourself with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Humble yourself, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. (1 Peter 5:5-6)

We are told to be distinctively dressed.  However, that distinction of dress means to “clothe yourself with humility” and to “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 3:27, Romans 13:14) rather than with our own religious works–that is a far deeper distinction than mere outward appearance.  Our distinctiveness should be less about what we wear on the outside and more about being a manifestation of this:

A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34,35)

Distinguished titles and distinctive outward appearance is vanity when it causes strife or leads to a pecking order.  We must embody the character of Christ by loving each other as he commanded.  It is not about looking different or having a fancy title, it is about being different in heart.

If a person professes faith in Jesus, then accept them as a brother or sister and don’t be a religiously pretentious snob.  Jesus, as far as I know, did not dress like a Mennonite, Amish man or Baptist.  I’m doubtful he was much concerned about solids or stripes and the size of floral prints.

Jesus Assails Unhelpful Religious Elites (Matthew 23:1-4)

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I’ve always respected my father as a leader.  I consider it a privilege to have his example of Christian leadership in my life.  He’s a man who leads by example.  He does his best to get the job done right and always treats those under him with respect.

We all interact with leaders.  Many direct from behind by telling others what to do rather than leading by example.  We know of the parents who demand that their children do as they say and then do not live up to their own standards.  We know about politicians and celebrities who lecture about social responsibility while living in mansions.

Jesus is a man who led by example.

Jesus never asked anyone to do anything for him that he would not do for them.  He asked only, “Follow me” and then provided his example as a means to lead those he called to salvation.

For this, Jesus was also a threat to the established religious and social order.  There are always those who are privileged by the established regimes and governing institutions.

A hierarchical system serves those at the top.

And yet Jesus (after sending a rich young ruler away disappointed) promises his followers in his kingdom that the current roles would be reversed:

Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. (Matthew 19:28‭-‬30)

Jesus repeats this maxim, “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” at the end a parable in the next chapter.  In the parable, there are workers in the vineyard show up early and then cry “unfair” when those who show up later receive the same compensation.

That is not a message the religious elites and privileged classes want to hear.

I mean, they (and their ancestors) put their time in, and therefore they deserve the place of recognition and respect.  Follow the rules, earn the prize.  God was obviously blessing them for their careful religious devotion… right?

Then here comes this agitator, this Jesus, who dares to challenge and rebuke them.  Not only that, this provoker, he tells them the tables will be turned, roles will be reversed and their kingdom will be left desolate.

Jesus begins his sermon in Matthew 23 by taking direct aim at the unhelpful religious elites.

The text…

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:1‭-‬4)

There is a derisive tone to those words.  In one line Jesus tells his audience that they must respect those in the position of power and then in the next, he describes those who hold those positions of power in a way that could be considered disrespectful.

I do not take the advice Jesus gave to, “be careful to do everything they tell you,” as an endorsement of the rules.  I believe it is simply an acknowledgment of the real power they held.  To “sit in Moses’ seat” meant they could have you killed and that is pretty good reason to pay attention.

These religious elites, who saw themselves as better than everyone else, did not “practice what they preach”, according to Jesus.  They heaped on a “cumbersome loads” of standards and yet were not living up to what they preached.

This could mean a simple double standard: one set of rules for themselves and a different set for other people.  It might also indicate that they loved the “letter of the law” more than the Author of the law.

I believe it is the latter.

The “experts of the law and Pharisees,” we are told, “diligently” studied the Scriptures, thinking that in their to devotion to them they had eternal life (John 5:39) and the rich young ruler also claimed to have kept the commandments from boyhood.  There is every indication that these were devout and sincere people.

However, where the Pharisees went wrong was in what they prioritized.

Jesus prioritized people over the letter of the law.

Read Mark 2:3-283:1-6.

When a man was forgiven and healed, the Pharisees were more concerned with their interpretation of blasphemy laws than they were in the miracle.

The Pharisees were more concerned with looking righteous in the eyes of their religious peers than they were in the well-being of those of lower position who needed healing and salvation.

In questioning why the disciples of Jesus did not fast along with everyone else, there was a lack of understanding that unique circumstances can demand a departure from the normal religious routine.

Regarding the Sabbath they saw a rigid true-for-all-time black and white standard, but Jesus reminds them of when David’s servants violated the Sabbath and points to the humanitarian intent behind the law.

Jesus, in his anger against the legalistic thinking of the religious elites, heals a man on the Sabbath.  For this defiance of their tradition they began to plot how to kill him.

The law of the Pharisees is described as a “heavy” and “cumbersome load” by Jesus.  But, in describing his own way, Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

While the religious elites would not risk contamination (as depicted in the story of the Good Samaritan) and were “not willing to lift a finger” to move the burdens they put on others, those who followed after Jesus were instructed:

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)

The self-righteous elites were about preserving their status and image by following a religious code and demanding others live up to it, while Jesus led by his example self-sacrifice and urged his followers to prioritize love for others over their tradition.

The letter of the law is indifferent to the real needs of people.  The law is uncompromising and cruel.  It does not care about the impossible burdens it placed on those less privileged and powerful.  The law condemns all people to death.

The Spirit, on the other hand, is a comfort and helper in our time of need; he brings grace to those who will receive it.  A true follower of Jesus walks according to the Spirit (Romans 8, Galatians 5) and will help to carry burdens and bring newness of life.

Jesus speaks against the attitudes of Mennonite religious elites today.

I’m fortunate in that I’ve been spared the worst that the Mennonite religious culture has to offer.  Yet, a lighter dose of the same wrong attitudes does surface from time to time.

My own experience with the uglier side of the denomination is pretty tame compared to what others have experienced.  In the conference I’m a part of (Keystone), we didn’t have the control-freak bishops playing “religious policeman” and constantly adding to the rules or micromanaging and excommunicating people who don’t fit the mold.

However, we do have the complacent unhelpful attitudes of those Jesus rebuked and the same resistance to change.  Many will only help in their religiously prescribed ways (words of encouragement, offered prayers, etc) but do not offer much burden-carrying outside the range of our established protocol.

Mennonite employers will often use their position to privilege themselves, nobly willing to move heaven and earth for their own families, but too often at the expense of employees and their families.  I know first-hand accounts of men who work less than bankers hours (for good pay) while expecting those under them to pick up the slack.

There can also be the attitude that those who aren’t as successful as we are did not try hard enough or otherwise “deserve” it.  We too often hold those raised outside of our communities to a standard we are only able to achieve because of our home and heritage.  We expect others to rise to our own level when we should be bringing ourselves down to theirs.

To follow Jesus means to give up our special privileges for the good and welfare of others.  It means to humble ourselves and lead the way he did in when he left heavenly glory to live and die for us.  We too must step down to meet people where they are and help them to carry their burdens.

Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1)

That is how to be a Christian leader.