One of the ironies of our Christian faith is that we are constantly met with apparently contrasting assertions in which the “true truth” lies in the tension.
In our evangelical tradition, for instance, we put great emphasis on the fact that faith must be personal; that is, believers are called to discover and nourish a living, personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Our faith must be individually chosen. Each of us must make that commitment to know, love, follow, and serve Jesus as his disciple. While faith is transferred from one generation of believers to another, the simple fact is that the faith of our fathers will die if it does not become the living and personal faith of our fathers’ children. Mere rote parroting of another generation’s faith, thought, traditions, or practices does not, by itself, produce a living, dynamic, contagious faith for the next. Or as Martin Luther put it, each man must do his own believing even as he must do his own dying. Faith becomes authentic and real only when it becomes personal faith.
And yet, there is another reality at work that our generation has too easily and thoughtlessly dismissed. Writing in a recent issue of Christianity Today, author Leslie Fields helpfully reminds readers that scripture regularly asserts that our faith is a precious gift we inherit and one which is much, much bigger than our tiny portion. Faith in Christ is a holy treasure that is gifted to the saints, to the church, and to the Body of believers as a whole (Jude 1:20–21). It is the same faith delivered to all the saints in the world through all of time. Fields rightly contends that while the faith belongs to us if we choose it, far more do we belong to the faith that has grasped hold of us. The danger of too strong an emphasis on the personal dimension of faith, Fields argues, is that “it ends up being about the wrong person—me.”
Paul warned about believers who would abandon the faith in favour of chasing after what their itching ears wanted to hear. The danger remains still (some writers have called it Protestantism run amuck!) in which we presume our tiny personal experience and understanding of the Christian faith is the sum total of the church’s faith. A friend of mine used to say that trying to get the mystery of God into his tiny head was akin to trying to get the Pacific Ocean into a teacup. The faith “that was delivered to the saints” will always be so much bigger than our puny grasp of it, and yet we will so cavalierly make judgment upon other people’s experiences and understandings, as though we had perfect grasp of the whole counsel of God. Worse, we will presume that God himself is confined to our little grasp of the mystery of his holiness, goodness, and will.
It’s this presumption that causes many to fall away. While few would ever readily admit it, the sad truth is that many who abandon the faith do so because God refused to jump through their own theological hoops or respond according to their self-centred timelines; that is, we presume the value of faith and in essence dare to measure God’s worthiness and value to us based on whether or not life works out to our satisfaction. If God delivers the goodies on schedule, well and fine. But if the sovereign Lord chooses to act in ways to stretch us, challenge us, discipline us, redeem us from sin and self and narrowness, and otherwise seek to form us into the image of his Son and to do so at cost to our comfort and ease, how quickly will we abandon the faith and decide discipleship is not for us.
The early church often used militaristic images to remind believers that when God enlists us as disciples, we are a people under orders and under discipline. Paul often talked about his being a slave to Christ. Faith is not a smorgasbord affair in which we get to choose what suits our sweet tooth, while ignoring what would nourish and give us health and strength. When the Lord summons us to the adventure of faith, he conscripts us into the boot camp of being made into saints and soldiers for the kingdom of God, and the Lord’s training will often be difficult, strenuous and painful. The sad reality is that too many of us want only a spectator faith in which Jesus shows up to serve out the preferred blessing of the day when we snap our fingers, rather than letting faith take hold of us and make us true servants of our Saviour who are ready to be made into the people who themselves become the blessings to our world.
The dilemma is that most of us are happy to be in control; we do not, however, respond very generously or wisely to the concept of letting God conform us to his plan, especially when that involves surrendering not only to his Word and Spirit, but also to the discipline of his Church in its theologies and holy traditions, its leadership structures and historical wisdom, or to the teachers and elders of the faith, be they lay or clergy. Our selfish tendency is to want God, faith, church, etc., all to be on our terms, and when God, faith, or church prove to have a logic, purpose, and will that clashes with ours, guess what and who gets rejected?
Faith must be personal, in that it is my placing of trust and my very life into Christ’s hands. But the individual choosing that makes faith real and personal must always be a ready and repeated surrendering to the authority of scripture, the commands and demands of Christ, and the godly mentoring and discipling that would flow from the Church in the power of the Spirit. I must choose to believe, but in doing so, I need affirm that the Faith has also chosen me, and now my journey of discipleship has to be far less about me and my wants and everything about Jesus and his purposes for my life, no matter how challenging or discomforting that may be. And if I am not ready to make that surrender, the question may be whether I’ve ever truly chosen to make that personal decision of faith in Christ in the first place.
There is a big difference between being a wannabe soldier and the real thing. So too with discipleship. Maybe that is why Jesus emphasized that following him involved picking up and carrying a cross. Yet it is the carrying of a cross that alone will make our faith truly personal.