Real Faith for a Real Life in a Real World.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Throwing Caution to the Wind

By nature, I am a cautious man. I like to know I am secure and my instinctive response to a new challenge is to assess the sufficiency of my resources. My life could be described as a punctuated equilibrium, to borrow a once-popular scientific term. The punctuation marks are the choices that led from one plateau of stability to another, each with different characteristics.

The positive transitions have been those events when I acted against my nature and took risks. Twice I have gone against parental pressure, leaving a safe apprenticeship to return to school and take my A-levels, and then leaving a safe-but-boring office job to do a physics degree. Twice I have ventured alone from the safety of my home environment, firstly to do that degree at a distant university, secondly to take a job in an unknown city. Latterly, I stepped nearer to a perceived financial precipice by moving to a costlier but deeply satisfying home in the country. Interestingly, the worst times in my life have resulted from transitions where I followed the 'safe' course: taking that boring office job, moving back home after my first degree, deciding to stay there when my parents split up, passing up a couple of opportunities to move away sooner. In my experience, the safe option may bring stability but rarely growth and discovery.

Our abilities and limitations are not bad in themselves. In fact, they can give us a good steer on our calling in life: I am good with computers, good enough to earn a reasonable living in the field, but, although I can cook well, I would never survive as a chef! The danger we face is to limit ourselves to only those opportunities that lie within our perceived limitations. Indeed, we can be so cautious as to never discover our boundaries; failure is always a possibility of risk-taking but so is adventure, and even failure teaches us valuable lessons.

In the spiritual realm, I have discovered that my natural caution mitigates against faith. Please note that I am not equating faith with recklessness: Jesus himself said we should not start to build a tower if we do not have the resources to complete it. Someone has said that faith is spelt, R-I-S-K, and so it is because it demands that we operate beyond our inherent abilities. Then again, it is not so because it does not demand that we operate without resources: God provides more than adequately for the work that he gives us.

The Bible tells us that God is real, that he loves us, that he is with us and that he wants to work in this world through us by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Bible is full of people who have demonstrated that. The best example of all is Jesus Christ himself, 'who, being in very nature God, ... made himself nothing ... being made in human likeness' (Phil 2:6ff). Even if we set aside the eternal salvation that he won for us (not that I would wish to), look at what he achieved: he changed the world, just by doing the things he saw the Father doing in reliance on the Holy Spirit. We too are human. We too have the same Holy Spirit, if we are his.

Over the years, I have acquired a sound grasp of biblical doctrine and theology. If this knowledge finds no practical use, amassing it is like working out just to develop an impressive-looking body. This knowledge does not in itself amount to faith. Even believing in the truth of this knowledge does not amount to faith. Faith is active: it is a way of life.

Down the years, my spiritual journey has mirrored my natural one: when I have taken the risks of faith I have grown, and the safe route has led to stagnation. Faith only grows if we use it, otherwise it atrophies. For those of us who are risk-averse, the acting out of faith can be a big problem. We cannot discover the real adventure of walking with God unless we live what we claim to believe. My real experience of God did not start on the night I became a Christian, it began when I took the risk of telling my schoolmates what I had done. Knowing the doctrine about the gifts of the Holy Spirit is not nearly so enriching as receiving my first word of knowledge and having the courage to share it.

The development of our faith is a journey that starts from where we are. In whatever condition we find ourselves, we can begin exercising again and improve it. As we use faith in small ways, God reveals the reality of his provision and encourages bigger steps. Each step can seem risky: what if we get it wrong? We may find that we are not designed for some avenues of service but that is OK: for mistakes there is grace and, I believe, the warm smile of God for trying. Ask a different question: what will we miss out on if we back away from the challenge? What might happen when God prompts you to do an act of kindness for someone, to speak a word, to stand up for the oppressed, to pray for healing?

We may well miss our vocation by not taking risks of faith. If we are prepared to step out with God, he will lead us into our calling. We can discover the things that our Father is doing and, just like Jesus, engage with them. The life of active faith is a voyage of discovery, and the route is uncertain. The important thing is to venture forth, allowing the wind of the Spirit to fill our sails; only when we are under way can we be steered. We get nowhere by staying in port.