Sunday I stayed home from church. My four year-old son had a stomach virus. Saturday, my wife spent the day doing load after load of laundry stained with various unmentionable bodily fluids. Even the dog soiled her bed, and then my wife spilled her coffee all over the bathroom getting ready for church. Coffee was the least disgusting part of the cleanup.
This was not how we planned to (or wanted to) spend the weekend.
I am a Christian, which to me means I know Jesus Christ, and He knows me in a very personal, intimate way. He’s not just “God” in the intellectual sense, but He’s my God, my guide, my friend, my Father, and my Savior. “My” in the way that your closest confidant keeps your secrets. But that doesn’t stop everyday life from trying to pull me out of relationship with God, and with the people He placed in my life.
Sure, I know “God is with me” even when I’m stuck in the bathroom with a sick little boy. I know He’s here even when I’m not having a “holy moment” or singing hymns or worship songs. But that’s an intellectual knowing, a head knowing. As much as I hate to quote the movie Frozen, this really applies.
The heart is not so easily changed, but the head can be persuaded.
My heart has trouble understanding the presence of God when the world is throwing so much at me. It’s not a new problem, and it’s one of the main reasons that people with head-knowledge of Christianity never get to the heart of the issue. A more thoughtful source, G.K. Chesterton, said
The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.
“Ideal” means perfect: the conception of the most suitable form of something. It means people like the advantages and benefits of Christianity, but dislike the difficulty of attaining them. The world has a slogan for this: no pain, no gain.
Just how difficult is it to attain the Christian ideal?
It’s pretty hard. Really hard. Ultimately, it costs nothing less than life itself. The Christian ideal runs so completely counter to the world and human nature, that it’s utterly impossible to get there without a complete heart change. Persuading the head alone is simply inadequate.
The world seeks to assimilate
What does the “world” want with me and my heart? It seeks to assimilate me. Society seeks to make me a well-adjusted, functional cultural cog in its wheel, and my heart is drawn to the acceptance and approval it gives back.
The Bible has a great example of the heart versus the world in a boy named Daniel.
Then the king instructed Ashpenaz, the master of his eunuchs, to bring some of the children of Israel and some of the king’s descendants and some of the nobles, young men in whom there was no blemish, but good-looking, gifted in all wisdom, possessing knowledge and quick to understand, who had ability to serve in the king’s palace, and whom they might teach the language and literature of the Chaldeans. And the king appointed for them a daily provision of the king’s delicacies and of the wine which he drank, and three years of training for them, so that at the end of that time they might serve before the king. Now from among those of the sons of Judah were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. To them the chief of the eunuchs gave names: he gave Daniel the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abed-Nego. (Daniel 1:3-7)
Daniel was one of the “best and the brightest” of Israel. He was young, good-looking, and smart. Today, a boy like that would be “discovered” by Hollywood, or if he played football, by the NCAA, and put on a pedestal for us to idolize. He was on the fast-track to success and celebrity.
King Nebuchadnezzar conquered Israel, destroyed Solomon’s Temple, and sacked Jerusalem. He carried off the wealth of Israel back to his treasury. He also sought to assimilate Israel into Babylon’s culture, to make them more governable. It worked in the ancient world just as well as it works today. Like today, the king valued youth, athleticism, wit and beauty.
We’re conditioned to value these things. I want to lose weight, not simply to be healthier, but to look better. I want to do well at work, not just to satisfy my own intellectual curiosity but to be thought well of by others, to be respected, not to mention to be rich (or at least more comfortable). I wish I could be young again, but we all lose that battle, some more quickly than others (boyish good looks are not my strong point).
Notice that Nebuchadnezzar had the boys’ names changed: Daniel was called Belteshazzar; Hananiah was called Shadrach; Mishael was called Mesach, and Azariah was called Abed-Nego. In Sunday school lessons, we learn their Babylonian names, not their Hebrew names. Assimilation happens when I look at myself and call myself the name the world gives me.
“Fatty”, “nerd”, “privileged”, “bigot”, “old”, “ugly”. These words have meanings that cut to our identity, yet they are entirely dependent on someone else’s point of view. They go straight to the heart, and cut the head out completely. In other words, the head can be persuaded of being a disciple of Christ, a child of God, an obedient servant of the Most High, yet the heart can be a slave of a sinful, worldly identity.
Daniel was given all of the trappings of a privileged life: a special diet, special training, room and board in the palace. Yet Daniel’s heart was not persuaded by the world.
But Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s delicacies, nor with the wine which he drank; therefore he requested of the chief of the eunuchs that he might not defile himself. (Daniel 1:8)
Living in faith is living purposefully
Daniel purposed in his heart. Daniel lived his faith, and his faith required that he not assimilate into Babylonian culture. Easy to say; really, really hard to do. Faith is not some blind belief in something; faith requires purpose. Anything great in life: winning the hand of the spouse you are pursuing, landing that ideal job, raising successful children, achieving your goals; they all require purpose.
Simply having a purpose achieves nothing. Plenty of people have great purpose in their life, and achieve zero. I’ve set lots of goals and purposes, promises to myself, New Years’ resolutions, that haven’t gotten anywhere. I’ve made more goals and promises that went nowhere than ones that I’ve achieved.
The world’s most respected people are those who live purposefully and achieve their goals. Even those who don’t achieve their goals, but spend their lives in purposeful pursuit are respected. We are hard-wired to respect purposeful people because the human spirit needs purpose. Living without any purpose at all leads to mental illness and suicidal thoughts. Ask anyone suffering from depression.
Living purposefully starts in the heart. Starting any endeavor takes motivation, and motivation is not an intellectual exercise, it’s a heart thing. Motivational speakers don’t stand around and deliver lectures, they inspire. They tell stories about people who have achieved their dreams, or died trying. “Dream” is just a word representing faith in something, which begets purpose.
Faith in God inspires us to live purposefully. God has given each of us an identity in Him, a role in His Kingdom, and a code to live by. He has given us the stories of hundreds of people in the Bible who have lived purposeful and inspiring lives. He has also given us millions more people in every generation to inspire us to faith.
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2)
Our faith motivates our hearts to live according to God’s purpose.
Faith will be tested
If it were only so easy as to set a goal to live for God, and live purposefully to do it, we’d all be as holy as John the Baptist or Moses. No pain, no gain.
So Daniel said to the steward whom the chief of the eunuchs had set over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, “Please test your servants for ten days, and let them give us vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then let our appearance be examined before you, and the appearance of the young men who eat the portion of the king’s delicacies; and as you see fit, so deal with your servants.” So he consented with them in this matter, and tested them ten days. (Daniel 1:11-14)
Daniel had to believe that God would honor his faith, and he allowed that faith to be tested. Later in Daniel’s life, his faith would be tested much more severely. I’ve heard it preached lots of times that there are only three positions with regard to life’s storms: you’re either in one, about to be in one, or just coming out of one. In living a purposeful life for God, every storm is a test, an opportunity to believe God and live that belief, or to live according to the world.
This weekend, for me, was one of those tests. We rarely get a Saturday with absolutely nothing going on, with perfect weather, when we can sleep in, and hang around with the kids, or get projects done. I was looking forward to it. My wife was looking forward to it. And of course, it didn’t happen. As a Christian, I can either grumble and blame God for letting all this ruin my weekend, or I can remain thankful to God for giving me the faith to live for Him through it.
Such a small example scales up: trusting God with my career, my finances, my kids, and my health are all large-scale versions of the small day-to-day tests I face. If I can’t have faith for one weekend of stomach bug, then I’m just fooling myself saying that I have faith for bigger things. It’s like dieting or exercise. If I say I’m not going to eat sweets and lose 10 pounds, but don’t have self-restraint to keep away from candy or to exercise on a daily basis, it’s a useless goal. It doesn’t pass the test.
Living purposefully, in faith, means we have to prepare for the test. We have to prepare mentally, physically, and spiritually—the mind, the body, and the heart—every day. Reading God’s word every day is a great way to prepare for the test.
One more point: if you see the same tests happening over and over again, and they remain just as challenging every time, it means you’re not growing in faith. If you go to the gym and bench press 150 pounds, and every time you go it doesn’t get easier to lift, then you’re not going to the gym enough. Just saying.
God rewards faith
But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. (Hebrews 11:6)
Receiving God’s reward and pleasing Him are not the same thing as receiving God’s love and salvation. Salvation is not a reward.
Let me say that again: salvation is not a reward.
Salvation is a gift.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
The faith I received for salvation was not any work of my own, or purpose of my own; it was totally God’s purpose for me. And for you, and for every soul on planet Earth. Salvation is not the reward for believing in faith that God exists and that He desires to save us.
I can’t emphasize this enough because believing it is one of the worst hindrances to building faith, rewarding faith, any of us can possibly carry. This one false belief leads to a lifetime of living in circles, never achieving anything according to God’s purpose for us. It leads to a lifetime of frustration, disappointment, and crushing guilt that God never meant for His sons and daughters to be burdened with.
Every time we mess up (and I do a lot), believing that God’s reward for faith is salvation means that we can potentially lose that reward for lack of faith, or by questioning that faith. If God granted us salvation as a reward for saving faith, then we could never be sure if we really had saving faith, and thus, if we are really saved by it. Salvation is by faith, not by works, and even saving faith is a gift of God. In short: if you are saved, you received the gift of saving faith. Period.
A good rule of thumb: if you have enough spiritual awareness to know that you are questioning your saving faith, and you remember having it at any moment before asking the question, you are still saved. Put another way: if you have never questioned your faith, and never before asked God to give you saving faith, ask now*, and He will give it to you. No other requirements.
It’s not my purpose to get into “once saved always saved” or Arminianism versus Calvinism. For the purpose of identifying saving faith from rewarding faith, it is enough to know that saving faith is a gift of God, free for the asking, and not subject to recall, “for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29).
Rewarding faith is the faith built by living a purposeful life, obedient to God’s commandments, and His calling. Daniel lived with rewarding faith and was rewarded by God’s favor.
And at the end of ten days their features appeared better and fatter in flesh than all the young men who ate the portion of the king’s delicacies. Thus the steward took away their portion of delicacies and the wine that they were to drink, and gave them vegetables. (Daniel 1:15-16)
God answered by giving Daniel and the other boys better health than those who ate the king’s menu. That, in turn, inspired them to continue honoring God in faith, and according to His purpose.
As for these four young men, God gave them knowledge and skill in all literature and wisdom; and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams.
Now at the end of the days, when the king had said that they should be brought in, the chief of the eunuchs brought them in before Nebuchadnezzar. Then the king interviewed them, and among them all none was found like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah; therefore they served before the king. And in all matters of wisdom and understanding about which the king examined them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and astrologers who were in all his realm. Thus Daniel continued until the first year of King Cyrus. (Daniel 1:17-21)
God took the faith these young men had built, and used it for His purposes, while at the same time, continuing to build their faith. And in building his faith, Daniel learned his own purpose and calling which God had gifted him. Daniel could supernaturally interpret visions and dreams. This one miraculous gift of insight gave Daniel access to the kings of Babylon, indeed the ability to influence history in a substantial way. In fact, the book of Daniel is widely accepted as the companion to the book of Revelation in providing God’s purpose in the end of the age and the defeat of Satan. That’s quite a calling.
What is the reward?
The reward is not of this world, although part of it may be glimpsed in this world. That part is the fulfillment of our calling in Christ. The Apostle Paul wrote
Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)
“That which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me” is my reward in Heaven. The pressing and attaining is building up faith and reaching toward a calling set before us by God before the creation of the Earth. Always forward, always upward.
In Heaven, we will receive the full reward, though like the twenty-four elders in Revelation 4, we will cast our crowns at the feet of the One who sits upon the throne. I haven’t done a Hebrew and Greek word study on “reward” in the Bible, but in English, and using the New King James Version translation, it appears 68 times. In relation to the wicked, their reward is certainly here on earth, or to be cut off forever from God. Regarding the righteous, God has a better reward.
He does. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:12). He said again in one of the last verses in the New Testament, “And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last.” (Revelation 22:12-13)
Rewarding faith is that which Jesus, the Alpha and the Omega, gives to us according to our work. What, specifically, that reward is, is not for us to know in this life. But assuredly, it is far beyond anything we could ask or think (Ephesians 3:12).
His love, our hearts.
His purpose, our purposeful lives.
His gifts, our calling.
His plan, our obedience.
His prize, our pressing toward the goal.
That’s how I get through a disappointing weekend where I didn’t even get to attend church.
One day at a time, I do it by faith, and you can do it too.
*If you have never asked the Lord Jesus to forgive you of your sins, click here for the most important decision you’ll ever make.