Yesterday, our youth group discussed faith in action.
The Scripture was from James 2. We discussed how true faith is not created by action, but will create action. If you want a job, you don’t just sit around and pray; you get proactive, take a shower, send out applications and resumes, network. If you want to help the needy, you don’t just sit around and pray; you get creative, volunteer, brainstorm, sacrifice. There’s a part that’s God’s to do, and there’s a part that’s ours; God’s will is a collusion of the two.
I was also careful (after having given a poor impression at first, like I seemingly did above) to tell my teens that prayer in itself is action. We sometimes say of a situation that “All we can do now is pray.” All we can do? That is the greatest possible action! The fact that we resort to prayer after exhausting all our own resources tells us how backwards our view of the world is. Prayer does stuff. If you’re sick, you don’t just lie on the couch and post miserable Facebook memes; you get intercession, call some believers to lay hands on you and pray for your healing, as if you believed James 5:14-15 is actually true(!). Like heat from a flame, real faith will be given away by the action it generates.
But this morning, I got to thinking.
There are times when faith means no action.
I have a friend who’s single. She believes God has a plan for her romantic future, although it’s taking a while. But he has given her clear directions in the meantime. Do not initiate. Do not pursue. Do not date, in general. I know this is par for the course amongst Christians, partially because dating is considered evil as a rule(?!?!), but also because it is widely believed in the church that a man should generally be the initiator in a potential relationship while a woman should be the responder.
But the reason for God’s directions to my friend, according to her, have little to do with the morality of dating. It’s more about her.
God is breaking her.
My friend is the type to initiate; she’s the type to pursue. She’s an Abraham. If left to her own devices, she would try to make everything happen herself. This can be just as much ungodliness as sitting around praying without action; action can be just as godless as inaction. It’s a credit to my friend that she sees this, that she can view God’s movements in her life through the lens of sanctification. It’s a habit that brings her more clarity than most people, for it explains one of the great mysteries of God.
God does not work the same way with everyone.
Did you know this? It’s not occurred to everyone, but you can see it in Jesus as he moves in and out of people’s lives. He rarely heals the same way twice, for one thing. Then there’s this fascinating passage:
Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”
Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”
Why on earth would Jesus be saying not to follow someone?
Matthew Henry’s commentary put it this way: “His resolve seems to have been from a worldly, covetous principle; but Christ had not a place to lay his head on, and if he follows him, he must not expect to fare better than he fared. We have reason to think this scribe went away.”
Jesus saw the heart. He rejected the man, something we would not expect him to do, and thus is revealed the fault in trying to guess or predict Jesus’ moves. He’s working with things we can’t see.
It was the same with Abraham. Although James 2:21 cited Abraham’s offering of his son Isaac as an act of faith, Abraham also had a problem with acting out of faithlessness. He twice tried to protect himself by passing off Sarah as his sister, instead of just trusting God. He tried to make God’s promise of a son happen through his own cleverness (Genesis 16) by sleeping with his handmaiden. It went sideways. I have to wonder if Abraham was simply thinking what many of us would after a long delay: “Did I hear you right, God? About that thing about being promised an heir? Is there some action I’m supposed to be doing?” In this case, Abraham’s faith, correctly manifested, would have involved no action – only waiting on God.
So when that son did finally come along, the conduit of the promise, God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice him had a certain irony to it. “You like to act, Abraham? Here’s an action for you.” It was a test of whether Abraham was willing to put God first. But as my pastor pointed out a few weeks ago, and as Hebrews 11:19 reveals millennia later, it was also a test of Abraham’s faith in God’s power. Did he believe God could fulfill the promise even without Isaac? Was his faith in the conduit, or in God?
“Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.” (Hebrews 11:19)
Since every heart is different, sanctification will look different with every person. Thus Jesus will make moves in another person’s life that we may not understand. There are commands, of course, that are universal for everyone. He’ll never tell Joe down the road to covet your car in order to sanctify him. But at other times, he’ll be counterintuitive. He’s elusive, unexpected, clever. He cannot be pigeonholed, certainly not systemized as religion attempts to do.
So…how do we know when faith means acting, or standing still?
That’s the reason and the beauty of God’s unexpectedness. It requires us to seek him. A person could assemble a list of Christian rules and principles to live by, spend his entire existence obeying him, and never once talk to God. That’s not what he wants. (Though, tragically, that is exactly what some people give him.) He wants relationship. So he allows mystery, shadows, and the unforeseen. He builds a certain darkness into our lives so that we must turn to him – directly, in prayer – for light.
I’m not going to try to tell you the solution to your current struggle, whether it involves action or deliberate, tranquil inaction – being a “turtle on a fencepost”, as I once heard a preacher put it. That’s God’s privilege. But I can tell you there is great joy and peace just in the asking. Do I always end my posts with this? It seems that way. Oh, well. We all need to hear it again. Every hour.
And when God needs you to hear his directions, he’ll make them known. He can shout through our doubt.