One of the most popular spiritual concepts only works in its proper place.
Recently I ran across the story of a young man who had a bipolar condition. He was on lithium for a while, and because of the particular doctrinal stresses of his religious group, always felt guilty about it. So he “faithed up” so to speak, and claimed a healing. Within a short time, he came to believe that his faith had delivered him. He got off his medication, and everything was fine.
Then around the nine month mark, his mind began swarming with suicidal thoughts again. Members of his church told him the devil was testing his faith. He drilled down further, believed harder, refused to let his mind go toward disbelief.
No matter what, his problem grew worse. With a sliver of resolve and one prayer left, he got back on medication, and with difficulty, managed to got his personal situation under control. But by then he also had to deal with a crisis of faith. Had God failed him? What, if anything, had his faith actually been worth?
In that situation, as in many like it, we are not dealing with a divine failure, but a poor human understanding of faith. Sad to say, religious groups perpetuate faux faith by virtually telling people from the pulpit to pray and presume that whatever one believes must happen, when you want it, and how you want it. And if it doesn’t happen, you didn’t believe hard enough. It’s as though faith were a magic wand.
Let’s stop the inspirational talks, already. Enough with the motivational speakers and Gurus. If we want to understand biblical faith, we need to come to the Bible, and examine it for a proper understanding.
Ephesians 2:8 says, “for by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
This verse has to do with God giving a gift. His way of doing it is surrounded by three popular theological terms—grace, salvation, and faith. These three are so recognizable to Christians, author Ronald Dunn says they’re like drapes that have hung in a house or forty years, until the sun has bleached all the color out of them.
Only a careful handling of the Bible will restore their color.
The first important feature about Ephesians 2:8 is the order of elements in it.
Grace is first. It describes God’s attitude in giving, which is generous, free, and has nothing to do with the merit of the receiver. In fact, as soon as merit is involved, grace changes into something else. Grace is all about the Giver, and regardless of what shape you’re in, He has something to give you anyway. He never begrudges, like I did as a boy, when I was forced to share my toys with my undeserving brother, who, after breaking all his, wanted to play with mine.
God’s grace cannot be earned. It can’t even be repaid. Unless of course, you want to run the risk of insulting the giver. For instance, if you invite me over for dinner, and my first reaction after the meal is to open my wallet, you’re not going to like it. Not at all. The best thing I could do would be to eat, enjoy, and praise the cook. But grace not only freely gives, it is the opposite of what we deserve. It’s more than a free meal; it’s you inviting me over for dinner after I vandalized your home.
The starting point of Ephesians 2:8 is a gracious God who gives, not a human who believes. If faith was first in line, it would resemble my calling your home, inviting myself over for dinner, and then dictating the night, the time, and the menu. Such presumptions fall short of grace, because they are presumptuous, and have no wisdom in them. The believer becomes a god in his or her own right, as they choose to create health, wealth, and toys. But the real God has something more and better in mind. His grace comes first because only He knows how to give, and when.
Grace sets the Christian faith apart from all the world’s religions. In worldly systems, humans with their faith and obedience come first. Then, if they prove meritorious in their efforts, divine favor will follow. The Christian faith however, puts God and His graciousness first. To any self-respecting founder of world religions, that’s crazy. It allows seriously messed-up people to come to God without proving themselves. How could you ever build a top-shelf religion doing things like that?
But maybe that’s a game God never was interested in.
What does He give? He gives what we need most—salvation. If God were to hand over everything we wanted without first forgiving our sins and implanting a new life within us, we’d probably be dead in a week. As the gift given, salvation must come first. Yet even after this salvation, God continues to act graciously toward us. Romans 8:32 says, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” He has already given us the best in Christ. Anything beyond that point would be a small gift, indeed.
Thankfully, God knows little things are important, too. The disciples once asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, and after the strategic level requests for His kingdom to come, He told them to pray for their daily bread—needs of our current time, like money, food, shelter, and such. None are too small to ask for and receive.
And this brings us to the last thought in the Ephesians 2:8 lineup—faith. What does faith do? It doesn’t create. It receives. Faith is like spiritual hands for receiving the gift from the gracious God. Faith is the connection point between God and us, even if that faith is only as big as a mustard seed.
We’re all familiar with the term “grace period.” It means that originally, there was a length of time given to accomplish something. But financial and academic organizations correctly assume most people can’t get their act together. They tack on an extra cushion of thirty or ninety days. During that period, deadlines are suspended, payments are overlooked.
God has created a grace period for us. It lasts from the day we believe in Christ, all the way to the day of our death. He knows that none of us can get our act together. Not now, not ever.
So, we live in the grace period. During this time, God gives and gives and and you receive and receive, even though you don’t deserve it. In fact, He arranges situations to stimulate your desire for more of Him, and to increase your ability to receive.
At the end of the day, I don’t have faith in my faith. I have faith in the Giver.