The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Fabled Faith

During the gathering of Jesus’ followers on Sunday, we witnessed a number of followers obey Jesus’ command to be baptized. Before each one was baptized, he or she recited their journey to that point. Each one talked of how he or she came to understand his or her need for Jesus’ sacrifice. Some spoke in terms of sin and repentance, others in terms of purpose and hope. With each one, I listened intently, waiting for certain indications of an authentic and full understanding of his or her own need and Jesus’ provision for them. In some I heard and was satisfied; in others questions remained.

There is this belief among some I know, and I would include myself in this group to some degree, that it is a better faith, a more complex faith, or a more correct faith to excise all selfish motives from faith. We who believe this harp upon the justness of such a thing, that all benefit derived from our faith in God is merely and only a byproduct of our pursuit of God’s glory—that our faith drives us to seek a purely selfless end, to do God’s work with no thought of the cost to ourselves. We who believe this also secretly disdain those who come to faith because they saw some personal benefit in it. Or, if we forgive them their immaturity in the faith, hold this against the more mature in faith who persevere in their faith because they see some personal benefit in it. These benefits are generally spoken of in terms like purpose and meaning and hope.

Those who think as I do see these benefits only as byproducts, and we puff ourselves up by saying things like, “Yes, but true faith is to persevere in the absence of purpose,” or “God’s work is good for its own sake, and if it comes at the cost of my feelings of purpose or hope, so be it. I will pursue that good end in spite of its personal cost.” We who think like this also think that this is a more noble faith in some way.

Let me offer a parable with which we might better think about these ideas.

In the fifteenth century, King Matthew was a loved and respected king in old Europe. He treated those he ruled with a firm justice. His loyalists compared him with the likes of Marcus Aurelius and the best of Rome’s Caesars. He was no despot and allowed his people considerable freedoms. He owned thousands of slaves, but he did not mistreat them, and he punished those who did. His kingdom had flourished under his rule, and his people praised him in public and private.
News came one day that a dreadful king and a pillaging army were laying bare many of the kingdoms to the west and were moving east with clear intent to do the same to King Matthew’s.
For the good king, this was not the first defense he had made for his people—for they were in fact his kingdom, not the land. King Matthew had kept a ready army of his own, well-trained and experienced in battle. Yet, with the news came information about the size and ferocity of the pillaging army and of the conquering king’s own limitless lust for power. He knew that his own army could not provide adequate defense for his kingdom. Thus, he sought to enlist any of his kingdom who were willing to serve, and many earnestly did so. (Isn’t this a wonderful story?) Yet, even this, the King knew, would still be inadequate. So, from his king’s court, King Matthew sent out representatives to hire mercenaries who would fight for him. He promised to pay them handsomely and provide for their families. Many more, knowing of the King’s integrity in these matters, gladly offered their assistance. With them, the King’s army had swelled to sufficient numbers.
When the dreadful king and his army invaded, there was a terrible battle. The king saw many of his enlisted men, of the kingdom loyalists, and of the mercenaries fight and die in the days-long battle that took place. He mourned their deaths, recognizing their sacrifice, and honored their courage.

Of these men who died, those in the army, those among the commoners, and those who were mercenaries, whom do you think the king most loved?

We often categorize (that is, judge) others of faith in a similar way. We separate the commoners out from the military men, and they from the mercenaries. We separate them out for variations of honor and respect. Those commoners we hold up, honoring their love for the king to so willingly go fight for him and their country. We honor the troops who were so committed as to choose this occupation, to train and prepare for just such an event. And as for the mercenaries, we think of them less, for they were quite selfish in their motives. We fail not to affix the mercenary title to them whenever they are spoken of. It is less noble, we say, to give one’s life for a cause which he could not believe in without the promise of some personal benefit.

It all, for us, comes down to motives and benefits. He with the purest motives and the fewest benefits deserves the greatest honor. Put in this succinct manner, it seems quite pitiful to think in such a way. And in fact, as long as we think in such terms we are quite distracted from a more deserving thought: the king’s love. These men, no matter their motives, ultimately gave their lives for the king’s cause. And in that moment when they came face to face with death, motive mattered little. They chose to die for the king’s cause no matter the intervening motives by which we’ve judged them.

In the case of faith, we who think like this come to a conflict that is quite subtle and hidden. As we judge the motives of others for coming to faith we do a disservice to God’s grace. We in fact skew God’s grace until it is hardly grace at all. When we judge the mercenaries as less noble, we are essentially saying that they are less deserving. And there we have incidentally made God’s grace a blessing that is based on us (even if only in part). We have begun to believe that God’s grace is not truly grace completely, that his love in fact depends somehow on our motives, that his grace cannot extend beyond the mercenary motives of personal benefit. But in fact, his love and grace can extend beyond our mercenary motives just as much as it does beyond every sinful choice any of us has ever made.

It was well intended that we would try to defend the king’s honor. After all, we only wanted to give the king the most noble love and grace by believing that he loves those with the purest motives and the fewest benefits: the commoners and the troops. But in our desires to maintain the king’s untarnished reputation, we soiled it ourselves by spreading the belief that the king’s love extended only to the most noble but not to the mercenaries. We tarnished his honor by believing that his love could not reach to the mercenaries as well.

But let us not forget that in fact it was the king himself who sought the dirtiest of reputations, who embraced the worst motives. It was the king himself who saw his finest linen garments bloodied so that we might one day reap the benefits.