The Gift of God

By Steve Manskar

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Christ at Emmaus, Rembrandt. Public Domain.

“You become what you love.”

This phrase is at the heart of James Smith’s powerful book, Desiring the Kingdom. In it he makes the convincing argument that the mainline, Protestant church has operated under the mistaken assumption that knowledge leads to faith. We’ve bought into the notion that if we give people good information and programs then they will become faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. We’ve believed that if we fill Christian heads full of good knowledge then that good knowledge will result in changed behavior. In other words, we have operated under the assumption that “you become what you know.” Smith says that this is not the way human beings work. He argues convincingly that we have it backwards.

Human behavior is influenced much more by the heart than by the head. Smith tells us that marketers understand this very well. They convince us that we will become the persons we want to be if we buy that car, computer, sports drink, or drug. Marketers know that we are motivated by our desire for acceptance, belonging, and security. They know that if they can get our heart, then the head will follow. For too long the church has done the opposite.

We need to understand that filling heads full of good information one day a week rarely results in world changing disciples of Jesus Christ. What we get is well-informed admirers of Jesus. The culture bombards Christians with messages, images and choices nearly every waking hour of every day of the week. If all the church asks of Christians is to show up for an hour or two on Sunday to listen to an alternative story, how can we expect to equip the people to live as witnesses for Jesus Christ in the world?

If all we ask of members is to show up for an hour, or two, once a week; and that time consists of listening and discussing various topics and ideas related to Christian faith, then the church cannot compete with the culture’s ability to persuade and convince. This is borne out by the fact that most Americans who identify themselves as “Christians” live lives that are indistinguishable from their atheist or agnostic neighbors. They have been taught that being a Christian is the same thing as being a “nice” or “good” person/citizen. There is no gospel here. This idea is no different than the dominant civil religion that permeates American popular culture.

“You become what you love.” If the goal of Christian formation is for persons to become more and more like Jesus, then we need to know him for who he is. Jesus is not a concept, idea, metaphor or character in a great story. He is the crucified and risen Lord of the universe. He is not a dead prophet. He is a living Savior. If the church is to counter the culture’s power to persuade, convince, and form character then we must help Christians know who Jesus is and teach them how to live in relationship with him and with one another. In other words, the church needs to be in the business of teaching and doing the practices of loving God with all the heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving the neighbor as we love ourselves.

In 2 Timothy 1:3-7 we see an example of how the early church understood faith formation. Paul understood very well that you become what you love:

I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Look at his description of how Timothy received the gift of faith. That’s the first thing we need to understand: faith is a gift. It is not an accomplishment of the will or of intellectual acuity. Faith is the gift of God. This gift is transmitted through relationships characterized by love, trust, and intimacy. Timothy received his faith through the love of his mother, Eunice, who, in turn, received the gift from her mother, Lois. I think it’s very important that Paul names these two women and their relationship to Timothy. Faith is God’s gift to us through the people and relationships that form our character and identity.

The second thing we need to understand about faith is that it is relational. Faith is a relationship because God does not come to us as an idea, concept, argument, doctrine, or creed. Faith is a relationship because God comes to us in the person of the living, breathing, flesh and blood Jesus Christ. And we come to know Jesus through others who know him better than us. Faith is a relationship because grace is relational.

This is why initiation into the early Methodist societies was learning a set of practices intended to introduce them to Jesus and live in the world as his friends and witnesses. John Wesley understood that the way to form a person as a disciple of Jesus Christ is to teach her or him how to participate in the relationship with him. If they receive the support and accountability needed to make those practices habits, then the people will become more and more like Jesus.

People receive faith in Christ by spending time with him, in the company of other Christians, through obeying his teachings to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself. To help us do this Wesley developed an integrated system of small groups and a simple rule of life, known as the General Rules: do no harm by avoiding evil; do good to all, to their bodies and to their souls; do worship, searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, the ministry of the Word, and fasting or abstinence. Wesley and the early Methodists understood, along with Paul and the early church, that you become what you love.