How can we tell if you really believe in God?

For the ten years after I graduated from college I invested in discipleship and evangelism with university students. For the first seven of these years I was affiliated with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. This was a remarkable community of Christlike servants who, for the most part, showed me what it looks like to follow Jesus.

One particular experience seemed to bring staff together: the challenges of fundraising. Especially for married staff with children, fundraising meant an ongoing dependence on God. In my experience, there was a heavy reliance on prayer as we sought to fund our budgets each semester. Yet, in the difficult sacrifices there remained the compensation of solidarity and joy in the Lord. (Still, if you can, start making a monthly donation to a campus minister!)

It was in this context of dependence upon God and joyful service to others that I heard Brian Sanders, who served on InterVarsity staff at the time, explain his definition of love: sacrifice. Because of the sacrificial lifestyle that I saw in those who taught this message, I believed it. I believed that what God’s people meant by ‘love’ is to make sacrifices that enable others to thrive. 

This talk by Brian Sanders came to mind as I read Russell Moore’s reflections on why so many are abandoning the American church. After exploring a variety of possibilities, Moore puts his finger on the real problem:

The problem now is not that people think the church’s way of life is too demanding, too morally rigorous, but that they have come to think the church doesn’t believe its own moral teachings. 

While I enjoyed his essay, my concern is that perhaps we (not Russell Moore, but you and me) have forgotten what “morally rigorous” even means. 

How can the church show that it believes its own moral teachings?

First, we need to be honest about what we have gotten wrong. 

In particular, we need to reckon with how many Christian institutions were built or leveraged by charismatic leaders who accurately saw them as a means to fame, wealth, and success. 

As I’ve heard others say and remarked myself, evangelicals are theologically opposed to the prosperity gospel as an intellectual error. But our own lives demonstrate that we love prosperity and want more of it. Our structures and systems reward big donations, big audiences, and big growth. How could they not? 

Just ask yourself: who models a different way? 

Do boards — either corporate or non-profit — personally demonstrate sacrifice for the sake of the institutions they serve? Do auditing firms demonstrate to their clients what it looks like to live sacrificially? Do members of our churches encourage one another to adopt this pattern of life?

Yes, sometimes they do! Thank God. I’m inspired by many mentors and peers who show me the pattern of life I am seeking for myself. 

At the same time, these questions feel far too rhetorical.

Perhaps if we focused too much on sacrificial love we’d create environments of spiritual abuse. It’s a powerful concept that can be twisted to cause great hurt. So we need wisdom and maturity to walk in this direction.

But adding Christianity as the cherry on top of the American dream isn’t a safe alternative.

Paul’s warning

In 2 Timothy 3, Paul makes a bright contrast. He says there will be times of difficulty, even in the church. Why? 

For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive… (v. 1-2)

How often do these character traits disqualify someone from ministry?

Paul clearly evaluated this kind of person. To him, it was obvious that:

…they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all… (v. 9)

If only it were so!

Paul’s example

And Paul’s way of life was markedly different. It was characterized by faithful teaching, honorable conduct, and steadfast love. His normal way of life involved enduring persecution and experiencing suffering. In Paul’s dependence upon God, God’s word, and God’s ways, he knew the pathway to maturity (v. 10-16).

Is this what most American churches present when they invite men and women into the joy of knowing God? Do we carefully explain the expectation for sacrificial love, enduring persecution, and experiencing suffering in our new membership classes?

Even if we don’t formally state it, would new Christians ‘catch’ this spirit of sacrificial love from spending time with us and observing our lives? Do our lives look like the example set by Paul and Timothy, who were following in the example set for us by Jesus?

The meaning of sacrifice

Sacrifice is how we show that God is our treasure and joy.

Sacrifice is how we show that we have more than enough because of what Jesus has done for us, is doing for us, and will do for us. 

Sacrifice is how we show that we have tasted the sweetness of grace. 

Sacrifice is how we show that we understand our own lives as a stewardship. 

Sacrifice is how we show that our lives are empowered by God. 

Sacrifice is how we show God’s activity in the gospel has transformed our hearts from the ordinary course of this world to the dynamics of life within the kingdom of God. 

Sacrifice is how we demonstrate a conviction that our fellow image bearers are valuable to us — and to God — who personally abolished death through his own sacrificial death. 

I hope these aren’t original thoughts but merely a restatement of any number of Biblical passages. For instance, 2 Timothy 1:8-14:

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.

An inconsistent start

I remember one student I discipled who was particularly vulnerable about his struggles. Sometimes he’d tell me, “I’m just backing up to get a running head start.” 

I’m just backing up to get a running head start!

That express the joy of repentance so well. 

I see that I’ve gone the wrong direction. 

I see that I need to turn around. 

I’m humbled by my sin.

I’m ready to limp forward in dependence upon God. 

I think we’ve all backed up for long enough. In our efforts to be first, we’ve become last.

In the mercy of God, if we will confess our selfishness, repent of it, and walk in the path of sacrificial love, we’ll have a running head start.

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The header photo is by Photoholgic on Unsplash