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Our faith is useless if it's not applied; our church is pointless if it doesn't make the world better
There is an inherent problem with believing in the metaphysical. The best way to express our belief is with tangible expression. The metaphysical must express itself physically to matter. That is the power of the Incarnation. God with us transcends the gap between the metaphysical and the material. Jesus allows us to express our fragile faith.
It’s hard to keep your faith. I know, I keep saying that. I have been telling that to myself in an era that has so many Christians spouting off nonsense. Our faith, I think, is fragile and susceptible to attack from cynics and critics alike. It can be easy to simply dismiss it as naïve altogether. Some of Christianity’s critics might think it is a faith for the weak, offering hope to people that just can’t seem to get it together. That might be true, though; but I don’t think it’s the worse thing, in fact. People need hope, and faith in something greater can offer them that.
Nietzsche’s criticism of Christianity, for many people, still rings true (though I doubt many would be able to go the existentialist). He said, “Christianity was from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, life's nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in ‘another’ or ‘better’ life.”
This biting criticism too often seems true, doesn’t it? People question Christianity all the time because it seems like Christians are so full of hot air. Just today, a young person was asking me why I follow Jesus and why I believe in God. My reasons are largely personal (see them here), but I still think we might want to have some bigger reasoning beyond the personal.
I think our faith needs results. Our faith is useless if it's not applied; our church is pointless if it doesn't offer people tangible improvement in their lives. Christianity has to work to work. It has to produce something. It needs to make a meaningful difference. It can’t just be in our heads. It can’t just be ideas that we assent to.
I am reminded of this in my systematic theology class. Personally, I find the course material to be very stimulating and even entertaining. But sometimes I’m at a loss to its practicality. Christians, especially the heady ones, love to get lost in their heads and have abstract debates. My friend recently said it’s safer in your head. I think that is true for some of us. It’s safe because it’s just philosophical. I often need to get out of my head and apply my faith. I don’t really follow Jesus because it “makes sense.” I follow Jesus because Jesus works and his work is evident in the world and in me.
My faith is reassured to me every day in many ways. The hope I have in Christ is demonstrated frequently in humanity and creation. In my life with my vantage point, I hope even a prudent shrewd observer would see Christ in all things!
But that’s the thing though. I think we need to offer that vantage point to the people around us. We need to help them see the world through Christ and see Christ in the world. Especially in times like these!
I think part of the problem is simply being able to notice where God is and how God is moving in the world. But another part is actually offering tangible improvement in people’s lives and the world. Critical Christians will often ask a church a question about whether the neighborhood they are in would notice if they up and left. I think that’s a good question, but it often results in condemnation.
I don’t think we should condemn ourselves, but rather learn to name the good that we are doing. Sometimes it’s subtle, and sometimes it simply “goes without saying.” I think we should say the things that we think go without saying. It might encourage the people around us.
I think we need to keep talking about the tangible work that the church does in people’s lives and in their worlds. For starters, it gives them meaning beyond themselves, the possibility of hope beyond the material. Most people are not arrogant enough to assume that all that exists is in the observable, and our ability to consider something greater than ourselves may very well point to that Greater Thing. But even naming the meaning of that abstract principle is hopeful.
Faith itself can be sustaining when the circumstances of the world are not. When we are more than our circumstances, we have furthered and deepened our hope. When we can hold our faith, and even protect it, despite giant forces that seem hellbent on destroying it, we are accomplishing a great thing.
In community, we can defeat loneliness and find a friend. Sometimes I hear people talk about not joining the church for the “wrong reasons,” and somehow, making friends is one of those ulterior motives. Not for me. One of the best things about community is friendship and connection. You can belong before you believe. You don’t need to buy it all before you dive in. Participation in worship doesn't need to be transcendent, it can just be encouraging. It can just make you feel good. If we do that, we've accomplished our goal. Our community should be affirming!
But remember, it is not your unwavering faith (as if that were possible) that holds you together. The Savior that holds you even when your faith doesn’t work. Even when you fail one another. God doesn’t just forgive you, God loves you. God fills in the blanks. God fills it in. Jesus holds us, prays for us, and finishes us.
Even if you don’t think that’s how it works and you think I’m full of shit, that’s OK. Or if you’re with the French existentialists, or even the writer of Ecclesiastes, with the meaninglessless of life. If you experienced all you can and still don’t buy it. If you’re Han Solo in A New Hope and just think this whole thing is a bunch of simple tricks and nonsense. Honestly? That’s OK. God still finishes it and finishes us. God’s grace is bigger than our ability to believe it. God’s commitment to world redemption and reconciliation is bigger than our assent. I’m not saying this so that you don’t try, but so that you can fret not even if you fail.
Community offers more than an antidote to isolation, though. It can move us toward transformation through accountability, through agreement, through covenant. Life in Christian community can develop us into better people. It can transform us. Prayer and centering have benefits on their own, regardless of their utilitarian result. Even breathing exercises calm us down.
And that doesn’t even begin to address the tangible differences that we can make in the lives of others through our peace, justice, and compassionate efforts. That tangible expression of the Gospel is a crucial part of our movement as well. Bailing out mothers in prison so that they can see their kids? That’s a wonderful application of the Gospel. Annihilating debt? Giving out free baby goods? Passing laws for affordable housing? Protecting the environment? All of that offers tangible proof that Jesus is alive in the world, and it makes our faith more than the abstract.
I am grateful to be a part of a community that cares about real-life expression and application of our faith. I’m honored to be on a team of pastors that wants our faith to be real and authentic. I am afraid too much of our faith hasn’t been. It’s not too late to change.