No pretenders allowed: Faith is an all-in proposition
By Brooke Stacia Demott
When UPS pulls into my driveway, our kids absolutely erupt. The boys wildly announce the arrival of the ‘The Present Truck’ and everyone, even my teen, rushes the front door. Everyone loves a box in the mail, right?
Well, not everyone.
Someone I know has a real aversion to receiving packages from family. It’s not that they send terrible gifts; on the contrary, they’re often useful, or stylish, or fill a timely need. Yet, her heart falters a bit when she sees the return address. Why? The gifts are, essentially, guilt offerings. Her family has no real interest in a relationship; they recognize a responsibility, and they’re dutiful to respond with an external show of commitment; but that’s where it ends.
I’ve heard her say that she’d rather have nothing at all, than these consolatory tokens of a relationship that doesn’t exist.
It’s a sobering reminder to me of Jesus’ caution to his disciples during the most famous sermon in history, recorded in the book of Matthew as the Sermon on the Mount. After a historic teaching on the nature of God and his revolutionary standards for both holiness and love, Jesus ends with a warning so disturbing that many a believer cowers at the thought of it.
‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me … ‘ —Isaiah 29:13
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my father in heaven. On judgment day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
These words are alarming. Not even a miracle worker can pry open the gates of heaven? The Lord declares that he doesn’t even know such people, and casts them aside as employees of sin. What hope is there for us, if God’s standards are so impossibly high, and unpredictable?
The secret lies in understanding that a relationship with God is not one of transactions, but of heartfelt interactions.
First, to “know” someone in the biblical sense is to have deep communion with them. It’s a mutual indwelling of hearts, not just a surface acknowledgement. God knows all of our names — but only has deep communion with those who desire it of him.
In the book of Malachi, the Lord grieves over his people; they were going through the lackluster motions of worship with cold, distant hearts, motivated by duty rather than love. He laments, “Oh that someone would shut the doors that you wouldn’t kindle the fire of my alter in vain! For I take no pleasure in you, and I will not accept an offering from your hand” (Malachi 1:10). Surprisingly, God is addressing faithful churchgoers — even priests!
Uncovering the facade
Jesus referred to people who use good deeds to cover up wayward hearts as hypocrites, which, from the Greek word hypokrisis, means actors.
“Don’t pray loud, verbose prayers in the streets, or blow a trumpet when you give, or draw your faces when you fast, like the hypocrites do, to show off — they have their reward in full.” Jesus warns that religious actors may bow before the applause of men, but the Lord turns his face from them.
Their motivation is only to appear, and feel, holy; not to serve God. While they impress others with eloquent speech and feigned humility, their hearts are swimming with ambition, lust and greed. Such people live exactly as they please, making excuses if they get caught, as if the God who dwells in secret could not see behind closed doors.
This is why he refers to them as practitioners of lawlessness. To practice something is to commit yourself to it, immerse yourself in it, and engage it regularly. Whatever you practice, you’ll get good at — and with enough practice, it becomes second nature. These people practice looking like real Christians, simultaneously cultivating selfish hearts.
It’s frightening to think that it’s possible to live a life of piety, and yet be rejected by God. But our lives need not be subject to dubious religious roulette; if we have ears to hear, we’ll find that God has communicated clearly all we need to know.
The Lord requires a person to be fully submitted to him — to love him with all of their heart, soul, mind and strength, and love their neighbors as themselves” (Luke 10:27). This is a much higher calling than a prayer at bedtime or a check in the offering plate — in fact, it’s an even higher calling than full-time ministry. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
There is no degree of external commitment that can keep our spiritual ledger in the black with God. Good deeds — even great ones — aren’t enough. We need a deeper involvement.
“If anyone confesses that Jesus is the son of God, God lives in him, and he in God” (1 John 4:15).
If we believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and savior, and seek forgiveness and salvation in his name, then, the Holy Spirit indwells and empowers us to love God with sincerity, and serve God effectively. We’ll no longer live with false assurance in our religious activities, or in fear that we haven’t done enough.
Is this to say that our good works never matter? Of course not. Our motivation is everything; the same present can be despised, even rejected, when given in the wrong spirit — but received with joy when given in the right one.
“Search me, God, and know my heart; test me … see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).
• Brooke Stacia Demott is a columnist with In Good Health newspaper. Got a question for Demott? Feel free to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.