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From Selfish Faith to Authentic Faith

June 11, 2009

When we’re at our selfish worst, world hunger could be solved, world peace could be ushered in, and cancer could be cured — all within the space of twenty-four hours — but if our hair doesn’t do exactly what we want it to, it’s an awful horrible day…

When our happiness is dependent on what happens to us and when our self-focus determines our daily mood, our joy will necessarily be limited to whatever good thing happens to us…

[But] when you know you’re doing something solely out of love for God and a desire to see his kingdom prosper on this earth, there’s an unrivaled inner satisfaction that fills your soul.

~ Gary Thomas, Authentic Faith

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

~ Paul, Philippians 2:3-4

Recently, I’ve noticed a “self-centered” faith in myself, (and I’m not the only one who has noticed). This has been found in the way I talk, walk, act, and especially complain. Nothing has been too little, or insignificant for me to complain about — from my boss, to my co-workers, to my students, to my life, no money, Korea, taxis, and the list goes on. I’ve felt and acted in the manner Gary Thomas described in his book Authentic Faith:

When (my) happiness is dependent on what happens to (me) and when (my) self-focus determines (my) daily mood, (my) joy will necessarily be limited to whatever good thing happens to (me).

Is it any wonder then, that I’ve begun having problems in my relationships with other people (especially my girlfriend)? Or that my joy level has been sapped to almost nil? Or that my anger, aggression, tension, and stress levels have risen through the roof? My selfish attitude, and selfish faith have been constantly asking — demanding — “what’s in it for me?”

Recently, I encountered a situation that literally forced me to stop and examine myself and my life. My initial thought was that nothing was wrong with me, I was completely normal, possibly a bit distracted and stressed, and that other people should lighten up, give me a break, think more highly of me, and give me more, more, more. But regardless of how much I got, or how nice my life was, my stress and aggression never seemed to lessen much. And then one evening, I was faced with a potentially life-altering ultimatum from a dear friend of mine: basically, “shape up or ship out.” My friend gave me all week to contemplate things and urged me to “find again your first love: Christ.”

I’ll be the first to admit that I thought I’d never lost Him. ‘I go to church regularly (more than regularly even, you might say), I play on the worship band, I “take care of” the church website (although I’ve been lazy to perform regular updates), so how could I possibly have “lost” Christ?’ I thought. But one thing was very true: the fact that I was hopelessly distracted: by TV, computers, and money. I needed to remove those distractions quickly, so I put my TV in the closet, and took a week-long break from web design (computers + money).

Flashback

I still remember the first time in my life I’d been nearly completely distraction-free. It was two years ago when I went with some friends to Jeju island in Korea and we stayed out on a very small, secluded island off its coast for a few days. Out on the beach one night in complete silence, under the stars and with the ocean waves gently lapping up on the shore, I cried out to God for the first time in nearly two years, and complained. The basic gist of it was, “I’ve been a Christian my whole life, sure I went my own way for a while, but I’m still a good person! I never stopped being a good person, so why did you bring me to Korea?” (and then the complaints came).

For two and a half hours I sat on the beach complaining, wrestling with God, telling Him that He did me wrong, yelling, shaking my fist, and biting my lips. And God remained silent. Finally, when my mouth and soul were empty, and my spirit was quiet before God, he spoke. But he didn’t speak in the way I expected.

He didn’t tell me I was wrong, and He was right. He didn’t tell me I should change my life. He didn’t offer any explanations. He simply directed my back to Himself with words not unlike those he spoke to Job in chapter 38.

1 Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said:2 “Who is this that darkens my counsel
with words without knowledge?

3 Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.

4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.

5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?

From Job 38 to nearly the end of the book, God presents questions like these to Job, over and over again, not because He wants answers, but to remind Job who is really in control of things. As I lay there in the sand, God asked me similar questions: “Look in the sky, who made those stars? Can you count them? Can you count the sands you sit on? Who made the dolphins you saw earlier today? Who knows their course? Who directs them to migrate, to swim, to spawn? Who created this island? Who created Korea? Surely you know! And therefore, you must know the plans I have for you here!” I was stunned and spoke as Job speaks in chapter 40:

1 The LORD said to Job:2 “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?
Let him who accuses God answer him!”

3 Then Job answered the LORD :

4 “I am unworthy—how can I reply to you?
I put my hand over my mouth.

5 I spoke once, but I have no answer—
twice, but I will say no more.”

6 Then the LORD spoke to Job out of the storm:

7 “Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.

8 “Would you discredit my justice?
Would you condemn me to justify yourself?

And there it was. I was condemning God to justify myself. I complained about the Universe to its Creator as if I knew all things. He wasn’t happy and He put me back in my place, and I was humbled. See Job 42:

1 Then Job replied to the LORD :2 “I know that you can do all things;
no plan of yours can be thwarted.

3 You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.

4 “You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.’

5 My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.

6 Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.”

There on the beach, I repented, asked God’s forgiveness for my presumption, gave Him my heart again, and prayed for the next 30 minutes for all my friends who’d come with me to the island: that God would reveal Himself to them as He had to me, and that He would bless them.

When I returned to Jeonju, I got baptized in our church and started discipleship and mentoring with our Pastor.

The Change: Selfish to Selfless

And here I sit today, again after weeks of complaining, and forgetting who is really in control of the whole situation. My own selfish attitude and selfish faith (even though I went to church regularly) made me lose sight of God and His grace. Endless distractions, mind-numbing television, the over-importance of my web design, and my constant “I’ve got to hurry, no time for that” attitude all contributed to making me feel more important than I am and built up my selfishness. Even on a good day, on a payday or a “date day”, my selfish attitude would complain about a stain on my T-shirt or something equally unimportant.

I used to worry about people trying to change me. But in Authentic Faith, Gary Thomas points out that God already does that, from the moment He saves us. He writes:

Augustine captured the spirit of Paul when he wrote that “God fashions us, that is, forms and creates us anew, not as men — for he has done that already — but as good men, which His grace is now doing that we may be a new creation in Christ Jesus.” In other words, when God’s Spirit transforms us and recreates us, he does so with a view toward making us less selfish and more inclined to serve others — that is to make us good. He doesn’t just save us, but intends to change us.

Wow, kind of like growing up eh? And here I’ve been drinking from my baby bottle trying not to grow up, not to change. But, it’s time to accept the fact that if I ever want a truly satisfying and meaningful life and relationship with God and others, I’m going to have to change. But, Gary Thomas is also quick to point out that this kind of change comes first on God’s initiative and not our own (after all, how can I simply will myself from selfishness to selflessness?). But we must be moldable and willing to change when God initiates it and starts to grow us. And we can pray that in God’s infinite wisdom and grace, he will initiate our change from selfishness to selflessness and lead us from selfish faith to authentic faith.

In Closing

This whole meditation came out of the beginning of my change of attitude, removal of distractions, remembrance of my “first love,” and a few questions Gary Thomas poses in Authentic Faith. They are questions I think we should all be willing to ask of ourselves:

How concerned are we, truly, about God’s church, and what sacrifices are we making on its behalf to give evidence to that love? Are we so busy with personal, individual pursuits that our passion for the church has dimmed?

and later…

How are we adopting Christ’s passion for his body, the church? You may be doing everything seemingly right individually, but what is your role in Christ’s community? God has blessed you. Wonderful! Now how are you going to use that blessing to bless and build up others?

* Authentic Faith quotes are from Chapter 2

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