Paradox of Faith and Believing Before You Believe

Standard

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!”

Denominationalism: “My Church Is Better Than Yours!”

Standard

People divide up.  Segregation occurs naturally in groups as individuals seek out others who have something in common with them.  It students find those of common interests, social status, gender or race.  It happens in communities—people choose to live with people more similar to them.

But where division should not happen is in the church.  Not according to the Apostle Paul, at least:

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:2‭-‬6)

I believe the first sentence, “Be completely humble and gentle,” is key to the second part being true of us.  With pride comes contention (Prov 13:10) and without humility there is divisivion.

Paul further elaborates:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloeʼs household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”  Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (1 Corinthians 1:10‭-‬15)

The message is clear in the words of Paul—the church should not be divided into competing denominations and, if Scripture is to be believed, we should be grieved by division in the church and preach against it.

We should stand united against this:

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church. (3 John 1:9‭-‬10)

Diotrephes evidently thought he was pretty special.  He desired preeminence, made slanderous accusations and was excluding other Christians from fellowship.  We aren’t told why he was banning people, but his attitude clearly is condemned as wrong in the passage.

A church divided against itself…

The church today is divided up into many denominations.  There was the big schism between East and West that was caused by disagreement over Papal primacy, the Filioque added to the church creed, canonization of Scripture and multiple other issues.  After various attempts to reconcile differences over many years the result was eventually mutual excommunications in 1054 that are regarded as the terminal event.

Then came the series of splits in the Western church, the so-called Protestant Reformation, set in motion by Martin Luther’s protests over the sale of indulgences in the 1500s, leading to the formation of a “Lutheran” church and culminating in the 33,000 denominations that we have today.  My own Mennonite denomination was the eventual product of a radical and rebellious (sometimes violent) Anabaptist movement.

My church is part of many Mennonite “conferences” that recognize each other to a greater or lesser degree.  Some groups considered “old order” (who reject modern technology) with a spectrum from “liberal” to “conservative” as broad as the overall church and spawning more variations (some who resist being called Mennonite) recognize each other to a greater or lesser degree… yet typically only allow their own members to take communion.

Mennonites today, unlike the schism in 1054 or other splits caused by larger more meaningful matters of theology and doctrine, tend to divide over the minutia of application.  Things like the style of coat, size of a floral print on a dress, color of socks, facial hair, and any number of nitpicking details which nobody in the world outside Mennodom would care about, can precipitate a church split.

For example, in my church the two big controversies that led people to leave were over hair style.  First, several families left for a more conservative conference because a little girl had bangs.  Later, a liberal contingent left because of a feud over a bit of peach fuzz.

Complete absurdity.

This is a reality in clear opposition to the teachings of Paul and the “unity of the Spirit” he describes.

What is the problem?

We have names from A to Z in front of our church buildings to proudly tell people what church tradition we follow.  We announce “I am of Menno Simons” or of this “Lutheran” theological perspective or that “Methodist” doctrinal division and promote a form of tribalism.  The result is a confusing mess that only a religious historian could untangle.

But, I can hear the protest: “Shouldn’t people know what denomination we are?  I mean, they’ll find out eventually, better to let them know before they enter and disturb us, right?”

And thus we prove we value our denomination more than we do welcoming others of Christian faith.  It is the spirit of Diotrephes, a prideful desire for preeminence and control; it is love of our own dogmatic ideas over other people.  It is the kind of attitude Jesus condemns:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. (Matthew 23:13)

The “teachers of the law and Pharisees” thought they had every right to shut people out based on their biblical standards.  But Jesus warns them that they will be shut out the way they shut out others.  It seems the same message Jesus preached of forgive as you wish to be forgiven (Matt. 6:14) and judge as you wish to be judged (Matt. 7:2) and that should give pause to anyone humble enough to know their own imperfections.

The Mennonite church I grew up in will refuse to baptize a believer who doesn’t go through a class and agree to follow their own list of standards.  They would go so far as deny communion to a person from another denomination.  And this inhospitable attitude is not a problem to most of them.

Maybe God will be inhospitable to those who have denominational pride and shut out other believers different from themselves?

Some things to consider…

1) Reconsider having a denominational name in front of your church.  Do you understand the admonition of the Apostle Paul against division?  If so, why do you see it as allowable to emphasize a man’s name, a particular doctrinal slant or denominational tradition in front of your church?  What if our true worship was supposed to be less about theological correctness and more about our truthfulness in love and forbearance?

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12‭-‬14)

2) Stop attacking, belittling, and making slanderous accusations against other denominations.  I know I know, Catholics are idol worshippers, Joel Osteen isn’t negative enough (more about hell, please) and Calvinists are too fatalistic, predetermined or something like that.  But Scripture tells us, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” and warns: 

If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. (Galatians 5:15)

Perhaps, before we get too sanctimonious, we should consider this:

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:11‭-‬12)

3) Be less resistant to criticism and more receptive to correction regarding your own denomination.  It is easy to circle the wagons when our own church tradition is scrutinized, and to react defensively rather then be open to rebuke.  For example, nearly any time I blog about the defects of my own religious culture, there’s usually a chorus of those crying, “My Mennonite church isn’t like that!”  Many are in denial—but that is their pride.

We should practice introspection and be open to the possibility that outsiders might see our flaws better than we do, because:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8‭-‬10)

There is no weakness in acknowledgement and confession of fault.  There is no need for huffy recriminations (“Well, they do it too!”) if we are truly humble.  Christianity is about forgiving and being forgiven, not about defending the image of our denomination.

4) Baptism should be uncoupled from denominational indoctrination and membership.  There is nowhere in Scripture where baptism is seperated from profession of faith.  Yes, we should disciple young believers, teach correct doctrine and encourage good application.  However, that can come after baptism.  There is no reason why a baptism should wait weeks or months.  And, if you belong to a church that ties baptism to extrabiblical church standards, speak out against it.  We should welcome the young in the faith rather than add our own prideful denominational requirements:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matthew 18:1‭-‬5)

5) Do not refuse to allow other Christians to participate in your Communion service.  Paul warns against eating and drinking unworthily (1 Cor. 11:27) and this is reason for introspection.  However, what is neither said nor implied is the idea that a church leader should determine who is worthy or not worthy.  Yes, we are told that an openly wicked and unrepentant person should be excluded (1 Cor. 5:13) and yet that doesn’t mean we should deny those of other denominational stripes from the table.

We must rebuke Diotrephes and welcome other believers even if they do not meet our own denominational standards.  There is one church and one Spirit—we must take a stand against the spirit of division.  We need to stand against sins of pride and denominationalism.

Marriage as Martyrdom: The Truly Christian View of Love and Romance

Standard

​Do you want to know a secret? 

You are never ready for marriage nor are you ever worthy of anyone’s faithful abiding love and nobody is.  We are all fatally flawed, even those of us who are more capable of hiding it beneath a facade, and eventually our own immanent human weakness will be made known.

Some, for fear of being exposed as the frauds, never open themselves up fully to the love of others.  They prefer the safety of the illusion that they are able to create (in the solitary confines of their own minds) to the risk of honesty about their own hopelessness.  This is a worldly approach to love, it is all about proven performance, all about carefully maintained outward appearances and it lacks true faith.

Others make themselves vulnerable.  They confess their faults openly and let their flaws be known.  They would rather deal with the pain of rejection than deal dishonesty with themselves or others.  These people have hope of finding real love because they have humbled themselves, they have taken this risk to confessed their own sinful imperfection, and choose to live in faith of forgiveness rather than in fear.

Christian love transcends existing reality and, in true communion with God, seeks to find a more glorious future—reaches out in faith rather than dwell alone in fear of our imperfection.  Jesus sacrificed all while we were still dead in our sins, Jesus healed even those who did not take time to thank him, and faithful followers must do the same.  Christian love is a preemptive love, it is a truly selfless love only possible through means of God’s grace and a genuine spiritual transformation.  Christian love is always a gift given to those completely undeserving.

In contrast, the secular world has a version of love that is special favor distributed based on past performance, it is only given out in expectation of a return bigger than the investment made and abandoned quickly when the initial pleasurable feelings of an expected return fade.  It it is a selfish false love despite the selfless romantic language it is often disguised in.  It is a love of “what’s in it for me?” and is the only kind of love those without the Spirit of God can show.

The religious hypocrite may too use the language of faith and grace to describe their love.  However, with a bit of testing of spirits, sometimes their lack of truth in love can be revealed and their acting the part (as hypocrites) will be known.  This self-seeking love and self-serving spirit is found all over the church—even tacitly sanctioned in the romance and courtship arena.  But in marriage the truth of our love is known.

Is our conservative Mennonite idea of romance purely Christian or somewhat worldly?

I must vote the latter. 

As much as I hear talk about being the “right person” and emphasis on past and anticipated performance it is quite evident that we have an idea of love being something that is deserved.  It is the very antithesis of the Gospel of Jesus Christ we profess.  If love were indeed something earned then we would all be stuck in an impossible situation in relation to God and hopeless.

It is paradoxical, but many of the things the world uses as a basis to reject people and withhold love are the very things only love can cure.  For example, many prefer to criminalize addiction and take putative measures against addicts.  Unfortunately this approach is often extremely counterproductive, we drive those suffering further towards the margins of society, and a growing body of research shows that connection (a practical expression of love) is the solution.

We in the church, as religious people, do make an effort to reach out to those on the margins of society.  I have great respect for those faithfully involved in prison ministry, who visit the elderly interned in nursing facilities or for those who conduct clubs for disadvantaged children.  However, these are also things that can be done mostly out of obligation or religious duty, an attempt to earn the favor of God, and not out of genuine Christian love for others.

We can maintain a facade of Christian love in church and church activities.  But there is a point when the truth of the kind of love we possess will be brought to light.  And, while I’m not talking about only romantic love, our romantic and marital love is where this mask can no longer be maintained.  Sure, we can fake self-sacrificial love around our religious peers when preening for their approval, but we will not give away our whole life for our lie and therefore must keep some places off limits.

It is ironic that many conservative Mennonites (the same who affirm a belief in a doctrine that would preclude them even defending loved ones) also preach an extremely self-serving me-first worldly idea of romance.  I’ve had a father literally whip out a calculator while trying to explain why I was ineligible to court his daughter.  It is appalling faithless hypocrisy and yet never really seriously questioned.

My way or the highway: If I can’t marry who I want to marry, why marry at all?

Marriage, as something self-interested, means we will only marry when the calculations favor our own interests.  This, again, is a worldly idea of love and the antithesis of actual Christian love.

Unfortunately many in the church, going against their profession of faith, will only marry when they believe that it will produce a future advantage for them and choose based in things like family pedigree or past performance.  They rely on their own understanding and not faith in God.

Such might have been the case when a young woman named Emily Cavanaugh turned down a suitor back in the spring of 1938.  She rejected a young man’s love because he didn’t seem to be getting anywhere in life and she believed he would never amount to much.  She wanted a leader in the church and, by her analysis, he lacked that potential. 

That young man rejected by Emily later preached to millions.  He even acted as a personal advisor in matters of faith to Presidents of the most powerful nation in the world.  I had the honor of hearing him speak to the multitude at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens.  His name is familiar to many people today.

The man? 

Evangelist Billy Graham…

One should note carefully that all of the significant men in Scripture were losers and outcasts by worldly standards.  Noah was a drunk, Abraham was too old, Isaac had his head in the clouds, Jacob was a liar, Moses had murdered a man and couldn’t speak confidently and this pattern of God using the unlikely candidates continues into the New Testament.  Matthew was a collaborator with an enemy occupation, Thomas had doubts about Jesus, Peter was a basically racist (with a bark much bigger than his bite) and a Paul was actually abusive against the faithful.  They were misfits, but God saw what others did not.

Consider what God told Samuel when he was in search of a leader for his people:

“Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

The man who fit the requirements was King David.  David, unlike Saul before him, was not a man of impressive stature and was a mere shepherd (a menial task) at the time Samuel found him.  What David had was a strong faith that was not recognized by his peers and yet was already known to God.  The courageous warrior and Biblical hero that we know today only emerged later in the story.  One can imagine the faith that it took for Samuel to anoint this unknown commodity as the future leader of a nation.

I believe those who reject a suitor (or a marriage eligible woman) based in their own expectations and arbitrary standards may want to reconsider their own profession of faith in a man run out of his own home town as a false prophet.  I would recommend some reflection on the words Jesus spoke to his Bible-believing (and deceived) detractors: 

“Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (Matthew 21:42)

Jesus was also turned down by his rightful bride because he was deemed unsuitable.  That is a reality worth considering when it comes to how we pick and choose today.  Perhaps our reasonable standards today are wrongheaded and unGodly?  Perhaps we are no better than our unfaithful religious predecessors?

Do our American ideals for love and marriage fail in delivering orthodox Christian imagery?

Marriage, in western society at least, has somehow become a legal arrangement dependent on human vows and will.  But this “till death do we part” contract view of matrimony is not necessarily the most faithful understanding in Christian tradition.  In fact it is this view that makes the very definition of marriage dependent on human whims.  Marriage has become about us rather than about God.

But, what if we were to put God at the center of the marriage union instead of human effort and need?

The Orthodox Christian marriage tradition (in contrast to our Western and somewhat Catholic originated ideas) puts much more emphasis on the eternal perspective and mystery of God.  And, in fuller recognition that God is the one who creates the martial bond, they make no wedding vows.  To them God makes a marriage commitment sacred, not human promises.

Most significantly, the Orthodox view puts stronger emphasis on the symbolic and positive spiritual value of Christian marriage.  It does not treat marriage as if a mere compromise for human weakness.  As an Orthodox friend of mine explains it:

“…marriage is the means blessed by God from the very beginning for a man and a woman to be yoked together in order that they might achieve union with God.  In Orthodox Christian teaching, the original intention of God is reaffirmed by Jesus in his teachings and in his blessing of the Marriage Feast at Cana. Furthermore, the Orthodox put a great deal of emphasis upon the mystery of Christ and his Church—the Bridegroom imagery of Ephesians 5 and see marriage as one very important manifestation of God’s love for his children.”

(Fr. Anthony Roeber, priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America and Professor of Early Modern History & Religious Studies, Penn State.)

Conservative Mennonites do like their symbolism.  We have persistently held onto symbolic Christian practices (like veils, kisses of charity and foot washing) long after the mainstream church abandoned or neglected them.  This cultural penchant for resisting change could give the impression of faithfulness.  Unfortunately, our reality of heart can sometimes be vastly different from what we display outwardly.

Is our concept of marriage a reflection of a radical commitment to Christian self-sacrificial love?  We might say that our romantic endeavors are God honoring and rooted in faith, but is this actually true?  Or, beneath the veil of religious symbolism, is our romance spiritually vacant and about our own personal preferences?

Love as God loves and for God wants to do through us, not for what we want to choose for ourselves.

I believe emphasis on choice and knowing (on our own terms) often comes at the expense of faith.  There is cognitive dissonance in the church when you compare our courtship ideals to what we expect in marriage.  In courtship we forget about God’s perspective and adopt a worldly approach.  Yet then we expect that self-centered attitude to disappear once some religious ritual is performed? 

Marriage is not about our choosing what is best for ourselves.  To be successful in marriage requires commitment to self-sacrificial love and giving up our own rights to another.  I believe that our American/Western culture is hung up choice and independence, it is to our own spiritual detriment too, but there are few who address this weakness in our courtship ideal.  We push human calculations, our own personal or political advantages, and not faith.

The worldly perspective of romantic love is self-centered and is only about a person getting what they want.  But the true Christian ideal is martyrdom:

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.  Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—’For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” (Ephesians 5:21-33)

That, a text oft used at weddings, is a great guide to marital relationship.  However, to remain consistent, isn’t this the same reality of love that should be guiding our lives and including the whole process leading to marriage from start to finish?  Can we truly expect Christian love to be made manifest in marriage when we married for selfish gain or to advance our own personal agenda religious and otherwise?

A faithful follower of Jesus should marry because they wish to better serve God by their devoted self-sacrificial love to another.  It should not be a market based decision, a weighing of available options and determination to select what will be most beneficial to ourselves.  When marriage is about our own plans and ambitions it becomes as a business transaction between two people.  Yes, we can dress it up in the language of love or romance and celebrate it together in religious formality, but we might as well call it what it is: legal prostitution.

There is sometimes a vast difference between what people say they believe and what they actually believe in practice.  We can claim to be ready to sacrifice anything in service to God, but are we actually willing to sacrifice our right to marry or marry the person of our own choosing?  Do we bring honor to God in our romance or are we as self-seeking and carnally minded as our secular neighbors?

It’s not what you can obtain through romantic pursuits, but about the glory God will obtain.  Marriage, for a Christian, should be a great testimony of our faithfulness, a practical display of a transcending self-sacrificial and eternal commitment to love.

Our romance, according to the most ancient of Christian traditions, can be our greatest witness and testimony of faith put to practice.  In truest form marriage is a dying to ourselves for love of another or martyrdom.