An active faith starts with small beginnings
The Gospels tell us that our faith is like a mustard seed, though small, it can grow to become a big tree. Our faith can start small. It is alright to start small. We should not despise small beginnings. Never think that something is too small for us to do for God. If we miss these small beginnings, then we may not start doing anything at all, not to say grow something big. Rev Edmund Chan once said, “Dream big, start small and build deep.” If our faith is active, we would have a lot of small beginnings—small little things that we do to transform our own lives for the sake of God, self and others. One day, these little things would make great impact in the kingdom of God.
An active faith makes effort to grow in transitions
Sometimes we are discouraged to see how slow our faith grows. As Rome is not built in a day, our faith will not grow substantially overnight too. For a mustard seed to grow into a big tree, that would take years. There is no need to get discouraged if we are moving slowly. The important thing is that we are moving! As it is written in 2 Peter 1:5-7, “For this reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.” The verse before this tells us that the motivation to grow in faith is Christ. We can grow in faith because of His divine power and great promises. Peter went on to tell us that we need to make every effort to add to our faith. This faith is being added on incrementally when we walk in tandem with God. We are not transformed over night, but bit by bit and step by step. Verse 8 made it clear, “For if you possess these qualities in increasing (italics mine) measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” If the world has been telling us to be effective and productive, it is time to be effective and productive in Christ first! Let God sail us through those transitions in faith, He does not want us to stay stagnant.
An active faith acts from within
I am sure most of us are familiar with James argument regarding faith and deeds in Chapter 2. But we need to take note that this is not only an external behaviour, but something that stems from within. In fact, an active faith begins with the right attitude. James argued that if we were biased against the poor, it is as though our faith is dead. Our faith, then is one that is “for show only”. We can easily fall into this trap of performance these days. We can serve because of our need to perform (and sometimes for others to see) rather than worshipful acts from within. Inside us, we may be hollow. Someday, we may just breakdown. Take down that mask and be genuine. Let acts of faith grow from within us. It is never too late and too slow because we have a God that is greater than what we think, behave and act.
As we begin this New Year, many of us would like to see ourselves growing in faith in the Lord, but how can we really grow our faith? Is it just spending more time reading the Bible and praying more to God? Sure, these are essentials, but they are not the end. Many of us can get stuck in this great resolution that we made and soon enough, the year ends without us trusting more in the Lord. After all, faith is something intangible, and probably vague as well.
As we looked into the Bible, we can have a few glimpses of various people who grew in faith. There is Abram who responded to the call of God to leave His homeland to an unknown land. There is also the young David who stood up and fought against Goliath. We also see the four friends who brought their friend who was lame to Jesus by lowering him down through the roof. Even the tax-collector, Zecchaeus, promised to give back the money he had cheated from the people. There are countless examples. Perhaps, the common thread in all these biblical examples would be a respond to act upon something after hearing the word of God or knowing about God. The people never just sit there without acting upon something. Their faith grew in the Lord as they act upon what the Lord directed them to do.
But what are some of the things that people are often challenged to? There are two aspects that I would like to highlight here. Hopefully, these may help us sense what the Lord in doing in our lives and thus motivate us to take a leap of faith to trust in Him.
The first aspect is that we are often challenged to sacrifice. As in the case of Abram, he had to sacrifice his ties with his household and the comfort he used to enjoy in his homeland. Later on, before God made a covenant with him, he was also challenged to sacrifice his long-awaited son, Isaac. Similarly, when God wants to lead us to a greater level of faith, we are often challenged to sacrifice something dear in our lives. These are often things that cost us. For that matter, a sacrifice would not be a sacrifice if it does not cost us or no longer cost us. As such, in our faith journey, God would continually lead us to sacrifice our “Isaacs”, may it be in terms of relationships, finance, career or comfort, etc. However, let us remember that our sacrifice is never greater than that of the Lord Himself, in case we adopt a victim mentality. Jesus is our greatest example of sacrifice and as such, we must be careful not to give the Lord a “cheap” or “convenient” sacrifice.
The second aspect is that we are challenged to take risks for God. Again, in the example of Abram, he was to take the risk of setting out to the Promise Land without knowing where it really was. He also had to risk taking the life of his son Isaac and believed that God would resurrect him. But after entering the land, he failed twice for not risking to tell the people that Sarah was actually his wife. We also see Rahab risking her life by lying to her own people that she did not see the spies from Israel. Daniel is another great example, not to mention people like Paul and Jesus, of course.
We can see that the test of faith is closely related to risk taking. In taking risks for God, our faith is often challenged. Without the need for risks, we can easily depend on our own experience and expertise. But when God leads us to greater faith, we are venturing new grounds to face uncertainties that our experience and expertise may fail us. We are often “cornered” to just trust and depend on the Lord, period.
If we really want to grow in faith this year, then be prepared for this great adventure. Our reading of God’s Word, prayers and circumstances in our lives would challenge us to make new sacrifices and even take risks for God in new grounds and uncertainties. For some of us, it may be a career switch. For others, it may be forsaking our holidays to do something more meaningful. Some may need to learn to give beyond their means or to serve God in a new ministry. Some may need to take the risk to challenge someone to receive Christ, while some may be taking a yoke of discipleship. In any case, sacrifices must be made to God and risks must be taken as we grow from faith to faith. But just a note of encouragement, there will be no sacrifice too painful or risks too big for us, God’s provision and grace will surely see us through and make us stronger in faith.
Many discipleship structures in churches today are often left to the Sunday schools or cell groups. As such, they are often run as programs based on certain curriculum. While these programmatic discipleship and curriculum-based discipleship has its strength, especially when they can provide a clear overview of what the key areas to be addressed are, however they are not sufficient to build a strong disciple. Of course, it would help us much if the disciple is self-motivated and self-disciplined. But we usually have to build a person up from scratch. There two important aspects that I want to highlight.
The first aspect is that discipleship has to be personal. We can see this example clearly in the lives of Jesus. Though the disciples often move in groups, Jesus made the effort to interact with disciples personally. He dealt with the preassumptions and preoccupations of each disciple personally even though teachings were taught to the disciples together. Perhaps this is a good model to follow. While it is important for the disciples to undergo some form of training in groups or in classes, most of the things are being internalised when they are discipled personally. This is a time where the discipler can clarify and instill the teachings of Christ with greater intensity. But sad to say, most leaders today are not able to carry out personal discipleship. They have so many meetings, planning, vistations, sermons, administration and coordination to do that they have no more time for the most important ministry for church leaders. Discipling and developing people are often left out, if not, pass down to some other people. Since this is the main task that Jesus did, I believe that it is the same for us too. Many of the things that church leaders do today should be delegated to others so as to allow the leaders to do the more important job of discipling and developing disciples. As leaders of the church, this job is best done by us and not others. This is perhaps the key to building a strong church with good successions.
The second aspect is that discipleship has to take place naturally. Jesus never told His disciples when they were having class. In fact, everywhere was His classroom. He did not have a program or a curriculum to follow. Everything just flow out of Jesus naturally. He taught them along the way and He used whatever the disciples were discussing to form His lessons. He just followed their topics and discussions accordingly. As such, He was able to seize their most teachable moments. We too need this kind of informal settings to disciple others. This is a time when they are off guard and open to us. Sometimes we may be too deliberate. But too much planning can make us functional. Our disciples can get so serious that we cannot see their true needs. If we have been walking with Christ closely, why not let Jesus overflow out of us naturally. Rely more on the Holy Spirit, and less on our knowledge, skills and experiences.
When we make discipleship personal and natural, we would realise that we ourselves would have also grown tremendously. Discipleship is no longer about programs or structures alone, but an adventure with Jesus and His people. We would learn to rely more on Him as He makes us a better discipler.
Will we be satisfied if we are only given the sign of Jonah today? The people of Jesus’ time were asking for miracles and signs to prove that Jesus is the Son of God. But Jesus was not willing to do so. He was not afraid that He would lose His popularity if He didn’t. He was even prepared that some of His disciples would leave Him. Why is this so?
Jesus was looking for disciples who would build their faith on Him and Him alone! This faith must be hinged on the death and the resurrection of Jesus. This is the only sign of Jonah that Jesus revealed. We may be going in and out of the church every week, but what is our faith hinged on?
Some build their faith on miracles and signs. While God still performs miracles today, it is not the basis of our faith. Will we still be zealous for God if we do not see signs and wonders? God need not choose to work through miracles and signs every time. He can be silently working in other inconspicuous ways.
Some build their faith on biblical numerology and symbology. There are people who get so excited when the preacher talks about numerology and symbology in the Bible. Sometimes I doubt if there are elements of superstition in this. While numbers and symbols play an important part in the Bible, their interpretations must never be over-emphasized. There is always a chance of subjectivity in them. These interpretations can encourage us about the reliability of the Bible and the character of God, but they should not become the tenets of our faith.
Some build their faith on answered prayers. Do we always expect God to say yes to our prayers? What if God answers our prayers in another way? Will we be disappointed? There’s a saying that prayers change things. But I tend to think that prayers change us even more. Through prayers, God is aligning our thoughts to His, before He grants us the desires of our hearts. Just imagine what would happen if God answers all our prayers according to our wilful wishes. Therefore, never build our faith on answered prayers according to our wishes, God is faithful no matter how He answers our prayers.
Some build their faith on prophecies. People get very excited when the so-called prophets prophesied about the revival of their lands. Churches organise lots of revival meetings to hype-up their churches. People get so busy and so excited but yet the irony is that many end up not spending personal quiet time with God. They can end up building a shallow spiritual life based on excitement and activities generated by prophecies. The strange thing about some of these prophecies is that they were not even coupled with repentance. In God’s message of revival, there is always a message of repentance before revival comes. But we often only hear the good news without the bad news in these prophecies. This is worrying, especially when a huge number of people flock to respond and proclaim Jesus as their Saviour. While I am glad to see people coming to know Jesus, I wonder if we are building some kind of pseudo-Christianity. Acceptance of Jesus must always come with repentance. It is not just about receiving Jesus as Saviour but also as Lord.
Some build their faith on prosperity. Some people receive Jesus because of the good things they can receive from God, particularly wealth. This group of people believe that if we believe in God, God would also bless us with the riches of the world. They believe that they are poor because they have too little faith. But the truth is that both poor and rich can become Christians and not every Christian would become rich. I do not think we can say that Jesus or His disciples were rich. In fact, they were poor. Their riches were not of this world but of the world to come! They are blessed because they would inherit the kingdom of God. If we are poor, it is all right. It does not mean that we are more sinful or lacking in faith, it is the boundary the Lord portions for us.
Some build their faith on their leaders. Leaders can become the objects of our faith if we are not careful, especially prominent or charismatic leaders. While many of these may be great leaders, they can become the idols of the church. Some leaders are very charismatic and have the tendency to draw people through their inspirational talks. Believers can end up following blindly what the leaders say and do. They end up taking the leaders’ words as gospel truths, usually without checking and examining them with the teachings of God. Perhaps the leaders are just so good convincing the people using the words of God. No one can detect how they have misused the words of God. May God grant us the discernment. While leaders are appointed by God, they are not God!
Some build their faith on friends. Most of us come to know Jesus through our friends. We also tend to stay in our church because of our friends. But what if our friends are all gone? Will we still believe in God and worship Him every Sunday? While friends are very important to help us build a sense of belonging, our faith cannot be built on them. Each of us has to build our own faith on God while living in a community as a family of God. There can be no substitute.
Jesus is the Rock. All believers are called to build our faith on Him. While we may be worshipping God, we need to examine ourselves if we are just going after the emotional hype. We may become self-centred and self-serving individuals as a result. Idols within us are often more scary than those without because they are unseen enemies hidden in us. They might be left undiscovered if we do not spend time to examine ourselves. We might end up deceiving ourselves thinking that we are holy and growing in the Lord. Never just look at the external, look deep within and build that inner being God has called us to be. Be satisfied if we have no other signs but just the sign of Jonah alone. That is enough to save us.