Monday, October 31, 2011

Right Beliefs are not Enough

In her excellent article, "Attending to the Gaps between Belief and Practices," Amy Plantinga Pauw makes a brilliant observation about Jonah. She notes that in spite of Jonah's exemplary beliefs about God, Jonah struggled terribly with his actions, that is how he put those beliefs into action. I've observed two things that this really helped me understand. First that we evangelicals are sometimes fanatical about getting the details of our beliefs just right. And second, that God rarely waits for us to have our beliefs perfect before acting with and through us. I'd like to explore this a wee bit in today's article.

The way that I've often expressed this obsession with right beliefs is as the evangelical quest for certainty. It is the age old quest really - how do I know that I'm really one of the saved? Different generations have answered this question differently- for instance the Protestant work ethic comes from the Calvinist notion that you know your are one of the "elect" if God is blessing you and that is no where more evident than in financial blessings. Leaving aside the difficulty that this posed for the poor in Switzerland, the result was an idea that working hard, earning lots demonstrated that one was "right" with God. We might laugh at that notion, but it has effected the fabric of our culture in ways we are often sadly oblivious too. I would claim that in our generation, marked by theologies of modern apologetics, we have turned the mark of being saved into one of having the "right" beliefs.

"Right" beliefs, sometimes called orthodoxy, is about what we believe about God, the world, humanity and the relationships between these three. The thing that frustrates me most is that the people I encounter who are the most obsessed with championing a particular version of these beliefs are also most often those least interested in acting out the practical and ethical implications of their beliefs. I've even had people try to "correct" my beliefs while I was about the business of demonstrating God's love through my actions. This is why I've often found the post-modern incredulity towards dogma to be helpful. Not that beliefs are not critically important - beliefs will always shape (and be shaped by) our actions. But when we make Christianity merely a religion of beliefs we completely miss the point of what God wants to do - and it just might be to preach an effective campaign of grace to our "enemies".

And then there is the case of those who just do, often with incredible results, yet often from a set of beliefs that leaves us shaking our heads. Gary Best has commented in the past that the Word of Faith people often see more healings despite their theology. Why is that? I know some would want to vilify the healings that happen amongst the more actively charismatic. But isn't that just a way of justifying our own inaction? The reality is that they see more because they ask more often. God isn't nearly as hung up about orthodoxy as we are. That doesn't mean God loves our ignorance - but God looks deeper than we do, God sees hearts. Personally, as someone who has come from the more actively Charismatic background, I have seen some of this shift in my own life and ministry. Really what we did in the past was a lot like shooting a shotgun. We saw lots of healings and other cool stuff simply because we would pray at the drop of a hat. We saw lots of unanswered prayers too, but often we would find ways of justifying those (sometimes to the emotional detriment of those we "ministered" to). Bottom line is that we had faith, but we also had beliefs, some of which were quite destructive to the lives of those who followed us. I had a friend even take his own life over the notions of holiness promoted in those groups! This is not trivial stuff.

The struggle we all have is how to connect beliefs to practice. Jonah's flight mirrors our own flight from what we know to be the implications of our beliefs (as in what our beliefs call us to do). If we really believe that God breaks into the world with real manifestations of the Kingdom - then why do we not pray at the drop of a hat? But, like Jonah, we run away afraid as much that it might happen (and we won't know how to deal with it) as that it might not happen. Perhaps this is exactly why Jonah's story is so endearing to us - it is after all the ubiquitous sunday school story. Perhaps it is because God knows this is the very dynamic we are called to struggle with. We are meant to keep both belief open to God, but grounded in what we already believe about God (look at what Jonah believed about God and God's character). We are meant to act both on what we believe and to act before we sort out all of what we believe. Jonah reminds us that God is patient yet relentless. Two sides of the same coin, so to speak. We are called to be strongly rooted in what we believe, but relentless in our quest for the truth (even when it changes our beliefs!) and we are equally called to be relentless about doing the works of God yet patient and expectant that God will shape and grow our beliefs as we act them out.

In the Vineyard we have tradition of trying to balance head and heart. For me, this is another way of expressing the tension I have described above. Heart is about what we do and head is indicative of what we know. Both aspects feed and spur on the other. A balance of head and heart means that one is open to the other, and vice versa. Hopefully this short message encourages you in your quest for the radical middle, to struggle with the living of the beliefs God is growing and maturing in our lives.

Frank Emanuel, Freedom Vineyard, Ottawa

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