Is faith all we need to be useful to Jesus? That’s not as easy a question to answer as it might seem. Certainly faith is all we need to enter into a relationship with Him, but being useful goes beyond that. As we continue our series, Being Useful, we talk about something that has to go with our faith if we’re going to hit that mark. Keep reading to find out what it is.
Get Your Head on Right
I grew up in a hymn-singing church. Every single Sunday morning we sang hymns. As a result, the great hymns of the faith are like a warm, familiar embrace for me. I suspect that in this room, I’m not alone in that sentiment either. I suspect there are many of you who grew up with the hymns and have a genuine love in your heart for them. Now, I love worshiping by singing more contemporary praise music too, but just like anything that was a regular—and positive—feature of your childhood just feels good, the hymns are that for me.
But, as wonderful as so many of the hymns are in terms of their music, their words, and their rich theology, marking them out as superior to more modern musical styles simply because they are older is an error in thinking. The fact is, some of them—even some of the most beloved of them—are just as theologically lightweight as so much contemporary music. Let me give you an example that just might get me in trouble. Remember: I love the hymns.
How many of you know the hymn, “Trusting Jesus”? How many of you could probably sing at least a verse or two by heart if you had to? How does it go? “Simply trusting every day; trusting through a stormy way. Even when my faith is small, trusting Jesus that is all.” The rest of the song talks about simply trusting Jesus through all the various trials and tribulations of life. It leaves you with the impression that if you just trust Jesus, everything will be okay. Here’s the uncomfortable part: Is that true? Are we good if we simply trust Jesus and don’t worry about anything else? Ready to throw things at me? My answer is this: It depends.
You see, quite a few folks hold to an idea of faith as more of an emotion than anything else. It’s something you dig up in the pit of your stomach. It’s mostly just feeling really good about Jesus and the idea that He’s God. If something along those lines is what we have in mind when we sing about trusting Jesus with the familiar hymn, we could not be further from the truth. Faith is really good and important. It is the foundation to our relationship with Jesus. As we talked about last week, it’s the secret to pleasing God. But faith by itself isn’t enough. If trusting Jesus is all we have, we don’t have enough to get us there. We need something more.
This morning we are in the third part of our new series, Being Useful. The big idea for this journey is that we all have a desire in our hearts to do something significant. We want to accomplish something that will gain us acclaim. We want to be useful. That goes for our lives on the whole, but also more specifically for our relationship with Jesus. If we are going to follow Him, we want to do it in such a way that we have an impact for the kingdom of God. Not a few people have sought such a thing along the lines laid down for us by the world around us. They’ve sought fame or bestsellers or big churches or other things along those same lines. And some have been remarkably successful in these attempts. But big doings have never been the way to be useful for Jesus. As we discovered in the first part of our conversation, with Jesus, significance comes from character, not achievement.
We found this by looking at something the apostle Peter wrote and which is serving as our theme verse for this whole journey. At the beginning of his second letter he said this: “For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being useless or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” As we said then, what Peter writes there should absolutely stop us in our tracks. If being useful to Jesus is something that matters at all to you, Peter tells you right here how to do it. You possess and grow in “these qualities.” Of course, that just raises a rather important question: What are “these qualities”? Well, just before this summary statement, Peter tells us. They are faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, brotherly affection, and love. As we are going to be talking about all this week at VBS, God’s power gives us everything we need to pursue those. For the rest of this journey, we are taking a look at each one of these qualities in turn to understand more fully what they are, how we can have them, and how we can be growing in them.
Last week we started with faith. More than being simply the foundation to everything we have with God, faith is the secret to pleasing Him. Or, as we put it then, making God happy starts with trusting Him. This is the case because in trusting God, we are committing our lives in a tangible, meaningful way, to the idea that He is someone worthy of our trust. In particular, we are adjusting our lives in light of the hope we have in His promise to one day right every wrong and richly reward all who have committed to serving Him faithfully.
As we take the next step with Peter this morning, I want to zero in on this idea that having faith causes a change in us. One of the things we looked at last time when examining the author of Hebrews’ defining faith as the substance of things hoped for, was that hope without faith is empty. The problem is that too many people get hope and faith convoluted in their minds. They start talking about faith in terms of hope. Hope may get us through the day, but it won’t save us. Faith does. We wrapped up by asking how we know when we’re getting this faith thing right.
Remember what I said? I said that when we get it right, our lives look different. As a matter of fact, the idea that faith should make our lives look different is one that is pretty firmly defended by another New Testament author. Just a couple of pages over in your Bibles, Jesus’ own brother, James—and think about how amazing it is that we have something Jesus’ brother wrote and how much credibility it gives to the resurrection, because what would your brother have to do in order to convince you that he was the Messiah?—wrote some pretty well-known words about the necessity of faith to make our lives look different. In James 2:14, this leader of the church in Jerusalem wrote to believers in the neighborhood of the church: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can such faith save him?” After offering a couple of examples to make his point a bit clearer, he adds to the pile in v. 24: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” His point is not, as folks have occasionally alleged, that we are somehow saved by a cooperation of works with our faith, but rather that a faith which is merely expressed and not lived is worthless to us. It will not save us. It is dead. It’s little more than hope in a fancy coat. Again: We need something more than mere faith as an expression of trust.
Well, what is it exactly that we need to add? Peter points us to this in the second item on his list. If we are going to be useful to Jesus, we need to have faith, but we need to add to our faith, goodness. The Greek word there can also be translated as “virtue.” If our faith is to do us any good at all, it should result in a flourishing of virtue in our lives. This, of course, just begs another question: What is virtue?
Virtue is not a thing so much as a description of a thing. It is a description of a kind of nobleness of character that encompasses several different characteristics—including some of the other qualities on Peter’s list. Ethicists, philosophers, and moral reformers have been talking about virtue and what makes someone virtuous for a very long time. The list has varied some from culture to culture, but some characteristics have always been considered necessary to have if you are going to be a virtuous person. Aristotle had twelve virtues in his list: courage, temperance (which is self-control), liberality (being generous), magnificence (being joyful), pride (the good kind), honor, good temper, friendliness, truthfulness, wit (having a sense of humor), friendship, and justice. Over the early centuries of the church, church leaders developed their own lists of virtues. Prudence (wisdom), temperance, courage, and justice were identified as the cardinal virtues. Faith, hope, charity (the old word used for what we would call love today), fortitude (which is basically courage), justice, temperance, and prudence, were identified as heavenly virtues. While earlier thinkers like Aristotle didn’t have the worldview category to put it this way, through the lens of Jesus, we understand that all of these things are reflections of the image of God.
Because we are creatures created in the image of God, we have a natural sense of what kinds of things are in harmony with our creation. We recognize who we were made to be even if we haven’t always been able to give precise word to it. But, apart from the indwelling help and presence of the Holy Spirit, our best attempts at bringing our lives back into rhythm with the beat of the world God made have been feeble and incomplete at best. We have started only to stop short. We have recognized virtue and pursued it, only to have sin twist it into the worst possible version of its true form. With the Spirit’s help, however, these fractured pursuits can—and should—become altogether more organized and intentional.
Let’s build here on what we talked about last week—I told you we’d be doing that after all. Do you remember what we said faith is? Faith is living today as if tomorrow is a reality. In particular, because of our trust in God’s virtuous character backwards to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, we trust in His character forward to the promise of eternal life and make the life adjustments that correspond to eternal life in the kingdom of God. In other words, when we have faith in God, we live now as if we will be living then. Well, in the kingdom of God, the rule and reign of God will be perfect and complete. His people will perfectly reflect His image in all we do, think, or say. Won’t that be a great day? By our faith, we bring reality to this hope.
When we get this right, though, what does it look like? If we are trusting more and more in the character of God, we should be coming to more and more reflect that character in our own lives, right? And what did we say about the character of God? It is fundamentally virtuous. All the virtues find their highest expression in Him. The closer we get to Him, then, the more fully the virtues should be manifesting themselves in our lives; the more virtuous we should become.
But is it really that easy? We just get closer to God and presto! we become virtuous? Well…yes…but also no. Yes, in the sense that it is indeed true that the closer we get to God, the more virtuous we will be. There is absolutely a one-to-one correspondence there. When we grow closer to God, we will become more virtuous. But, in order to become more virtuous, we have to grow closer to God. See what happens when we flip that around? That’s where the challenge comes into play.
Think about it like a mirror. When you hold a mirror up to something really closely, it is going to reflect whatever it is really well. The further away it is, while it will still reflect what it “sees,” the details are going to begin to be lost to the distance. As more and more other things enter the picture, it will be harder and harder to focus on the one you’re trying to reflect. And, if the mirror is dirty, the reflection is going to be more and more obscured and inaccurate. Should the mirror become warped, the image is going to be distorted even to the point of being unrecognizable. Are you with me?
There are two real challenges here for us, then. The first is that we’ve got to keep the mirror of our lives close to Jesus. The way we do this best is by things we’ve talked about before—reading the Scriptures consistently, praying diligently, pursuing the spiritual disciplines, and etc. We’ve talked about these before and will again at some point in the future, so I don’t want to spend any time on them right now. Instead, I want to focus the rest of our attention this morning on the other challenge here: Keeping the mirror clean and not warped. How do we do that?
Well, the normal approach would be to focus in on our behavior. If we can just do better, we’ll be better. And there is at least something to be said for that approach. For instance, have you ever started doing something you didn’t really want to do but felt it was the right thing to do, but then over time gradually came to more and more want to do it? Your doing shaped your being. That happens on occasion. But, more often than not, those are exceptions to the rule. More often than not the reason it works is because somewhere in the back of our minds we have embraced the idea that the particular behavior is right. We are simply leaning harder into that than into our desire for immediate comfort.
For instance, let’s say you start exercising to get in better shape. You don’t want to at first, but you get up and do it anyway. Every day. And you never want to do it. But after a while, the exercising becomes part of your life’s rhythm and even though on any given day you could probably find other things to do, your day doesn’t feel quite right without it. Then, you really shock yourself by encouraging someone else who’s not currently exercising regularly like you are to start doing so. Have you become a fitness junkie, changing your being because of your doing? Well, in a sense, yes. But, more importantly, you had the belief that exercise is a positive thing already there in your mind from the beginning. If you hadn’t, you never would have gotten started in the first place. What you really did was not change your being by doing. You simply brought your behavior into greater consistency with the worldview belief you already held.
Here’s what I’m getting at: We do the things we do because we believe they are the right things to do. Now, that’s not a hard and fast rule. There are times we act in ways that are inconsistent with our beliefs, but not very often. And even in those times, we behave inconsistently because there is a deeper belief that justifies our inconsistency in that particular situation. To put a pithy point on this: Behavior follows belief.
Stay with me here: If the things we do—sin, for instance—are what dirty up and warp the mirror of our lives, then we need to change the things we do. We generally intuit that even if we can’t always give expression to it which is why we tend to focus only on our behavior. We can see that. We experience that. But, if behavior always follows belief, then meaningful changes to our behavior aren’t going to happen until we address the beliefs behind the behaviors. Right? If we are going to be virtuous people, then, who properly reflect God’s image in our lives, how we think is going to have to change before what we do will meaningfully move. There’s a reason Paul wrote in Romans 12 that the transformation that must take place in our lives before we can become the living sacrifices God deserves is one of mind, not behavior.
The question therefore becomes this: How do we do that? What kind of practices or disciplines can we incorporate into our lives that will lead to this needed transformation of belief such that we can successfully add the virtue to our faith that gives it the substance it needs to do its saving working in our lives? How can we swap out the ideas we hold to be more reflective of the truth? How can we keep bad ideas from gaining access to our heart and mind? I’m going to set one practice before you this morning by which we can see this happen. It may seem simple, but it’s a lot harder than it sounds. Yet if we’ll embrace it, it will allow this spiritual transformation to take place in a way that will make virtue the easy prize to claim it seems like it should be.
Turn with me to the apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. Philippians is a remarkable little document. It is easily Paul’s most joy-filled letter. He had a special place in his heart for the Philippian church. For all its joy, though, Paul wrote it while chained to a Roman guard waiting what he surely knew would be his execution at the hands of the infamous Roman Emperor Nero. How did he exude the virtue of joy—or magnificence, as Aristotle might have called it—in such dire straits? By putting into practice the very things we are talking about this morning. Find Philippians 4 with me. Here as Paul was nearing the end of the letter, just before he launched into some closing material, the apostle offers the readers some parting words. He starts very specific, but then gets much more general. Listen to this starting from Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
That’s powerful stuff, is it not? It’s made all the more powerful when you understand Paul’s circumstances. He had indeed rejoiced in all kinds of circumstances. He was unfailingly gracious with his ideological opponents. He never worried, but prayer earnestly in all situations. He knew the peace that passed all understanding. He was simply calling them to do what he was already putting into practice and experiencing the benefits of. But, kind of like we are doing today, all of this begged the question of how. How do we manage such faithfulness to the kingdom of God? Paul lands on the answer in v. 8. Look at this with me: “Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things.”
In other words, if you don’t want junk inside dirtying up your mirror, don’t let it in in the first place. Here’s the thing: Living virtuously starts with thinking virtuously. If our idea pool is polluted, everything that comes out of us going to be coated in filth. Thus, if we want clean stuff coming out—if we want to be virtuous people—we’ve got to clean up the pool. Living virtuously starts with thinking virtuously.
So then, it’s time to take a bit of inventory. How’s your thought life? Do you regularly think thoughts that are glorifying of God? In your quiet moments, when nobody else is hitting you up for something, where does your mind go? Are your thoughts full of envy and jealousy? Are they angry and bitter? Are you constantly comparing yourself with others? Are you lustful and prideful? Are you mostly just discontent? Now, maybe that’s not you at all. Maybe your mind is where it should be. Others around you would second that. But then again, maybe they wouldn’t. And if they wouldn’t, why wouldn’t they? Because your thoughts, your idea well, isn’t where it needs to be.
What are some true thoughts you can think? How about this one: God’s love for you is as great as it will ever be and it won’t get any less than it is right now. Or maybe this: Even though you are all broken by sin, Jesus still died for you and holds out grace if you will accept it. Or perhaps this one: All people are uniquely and beautifully created by God including you. That last thought is honorable as well as true. What are some honorable thoughts you can be thinking? How about just ones? So often impurity clouds our vision. What could we imagine that is pure? Do you see how we do this? Virtuous living starts with virtuous thinking and where unvirtuous thoughts are ravaging our minds, we need to get rid of those in favor of ones that will lead to the end we are seeking.
But, changing our thoughts and rooting out the bad ideas that wreak havoc on our lives when unleashed into the world around us is only half the battle. We’re never going to be successful at getting rid of them if we keep on letting more in at the same time. Bailing water out of a ship with a hole in the side of it is a futile effort. That means we need to tighten up our mental filters so that we stop letting the junk inside in the first place. What kinds of media do you consume? Because, here’s the thing: Media are not neutral. Every piece of media we encounter comes packaged with a set of ideas. All of them. Every single tv show, movie, book, billboard, magazine, blog post, Facebook status update, tweet, and whatever you call Instagram posts is angling to plant some idea in our hearts and minds. If we just let those pass through our ocular or aural filters without a second’s worth of thought, we may be pouring junk into the trash can we’re trying desperately to empty. Every time you encounter an idea in the form of a piece of media, stop and ask the question: What is this trying to teach me, and does it accord with the Christian worldview? Now, this does not by any measure mean we cut ourselves off from “non-Christian” media. That would be foolish…for the most part. There are some media that are poisonous enough we need to stay away entirely. But for most of it, we stay tuned in, but run it through our filter in order to keep bad ideas at bay while letting the good ones take root. Virtuous living starts with virtuous thinking and this is how we make sure our minds are a tool for sanctification rather than an active impediment to it.
Ah, but evaluating ideas like this so that we can properly exhibit the virtue our faith demands requires thinking. It requires careful thinking. It requires careful thinking that takes a bit more effort than just letting the ideas pass through unaddressed. That kind of thinking requires something of us. It requires something beyond virtue. Or perhaps it requires the adoption of one virtue in particular. We’ll talk about what that is next week.