“The formula of faith does not always work for the faithful.” – Dr. Charles Wesley Knight
“Follow Christ for His own sake, if you follow Him at all.” – J.C. Ryle
There was a point last year, and a point this year, when, if I had to describe my relationship with God, I would say it was, “not working.” My relationship with God did not work. It wasn’t working out.
Typically when we say, “our relationship is not working,” what we mean is that we’re not getting our needs met. We’re not getting what we need, want or expect from the relationship. It hurts to be in this relationship, so we contemplate a break-up or a divorce or a departure from values or a turning away of some sort.
In human relationships, typically we say “this relationship is not working” when there is no mutuality or reciprocity, such as in terms of respect, time, or care. We mean that the other person is not holding up their part of the deal.
I applied the same definition to my relationship with God. I thought my relationship with God was not working because God had reneged on His promises and He was not holding up His end of the bargain. I wasn’t benefitting from this relationship in the way I thought I would… or should.
Is that not why we get into relationships in the first place? In our self-centredness, don’t we get into relationships and stay in them because we want to benefit somehow or because there is a potential benefit to us? I mean, we don’t pursue relationships in which there is no mutual benefit: Sex. Friendship. Companionship. Intellectually stimulating conversations. Hand-holding on the beach. Playing Taboo or Apples to Apples. Someone to fold the clothes (I hate folding laundry) while I cook. Isn’t that why we get married and make friends? Isn’t that why we get into a relationship with God? Don’t we pursue Him because we’re promised endless happiness, companionship, security and salvation?
I thought that for all of my loving Jesus and proclaiming Him and defending Him, I wouldn’t be in this situation, or my life wouldn’t look the way it does. I thought I would have something to show for my heart for God. I expected a discernable, immediate, earthly reward for my obedience.
I felt that the God whom I encountered in the Bible was different from the God who showed up in my life. I’m sure I’m not the only one:
You trust in the Lord, but your path seems more crooked than ever and is anything but straight.
You delight yourself in the Lord, but the desires of your heart go unmet.
You’ve sought the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and yet you still seem to be lacking.
You have not because you ask not. You ask, and you still do not have.
The Word says, “Knock and the door shall be opened.” One of my friends has a daughter who left the church. When questioned by her parents, she said, “I knocked, and no one answered.”
We pray, we fast, we go on prayer retreats, we stay chaste, we keep our virginity, we go to church, we get super involved in ministry, we get super satisfied with God, we’ve loved ourselves to the brink of narcissism and loved God to the point of piety, but we are still single.
What happens when you do everything that you are supposed to do, but you don’t get what you’re supposed to get out of your relationship?
That’s the place from which my resentment towards Him stemmed. That’s why I didn’t think our relationship was working. That’s why I thought that I should try other methods, or find a new partner altogether.
Perhaps you can relate. Perhaps you have an earthly relationship or a heavenly relationship that “does not work.” Your partner or Partner does not seem to be doing their share or holding up their end of the bargain.
Following God is hard. It often sucks. I mean, God gives good gifts often during the journey, but they are not given in return for anything that we have done. They are not given out of desert or obligation. They are just given because He is God and God is good, and yet what’s frustrating is that these providences seem to be given arbitrarily.
So what then? What happens when you relationship doesn’t work?
What then do we make of this relationship with God?
It’s at these times that I’m sure many have left the faith. When we ask “Where was God when I hurt?” and we hear silence or grope for answers and come up short, there seems little impetus to dedicate ourselves to a stoic and unyielding God.
It’s at this point that a lot of couples face that question and break up. A lot of married couples face that question and get divorced. For me, divorce from God is not an option. I need Him. My life is predicated on His existence. So I told myself that I must find a way to stay in this relationship. But I, regrettably, couldn’t find one.
Recently, I remembered that I should know better.
A few years ago I preached the response to my current problem.
I preached a sermon called “Fire and Desire” and I talked about the three Hebrew boys and how they refused to bow down to the image that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. They would not bow or bend. They preferred death before dishonor. And when given a chance to repent before being sentenced to death, they said in Daniel 3:17-18, “O King Nebuchadnezzar, we have no reason to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God, who we serve, is able to deliver us from your hand O King. But if not, we will not serve your gods nor worship the image which you have set up.”
I explained to the congregation that a relationship with God is not a bargaining matter. Yes, God has often contracted with nations in the Bible (like the Hebrew nation), but I wanted to show that our relationship with God is not contractual. No true relationship is.
I told them that there are what I like to call “conditional Christians”: Christians who follow God on the condition He comes through for us. But these conditional Christians so often turn their backs on God when He doesn’t answer in the way in which we are seeking. God you didn’t hold up your end of the bargain so I’m not going to hold up mine
But Martin Luther King, Jr. in a similar sermon, “But If Not” talks about how there is a “though” faith and an “if” faith, and how ideally we need to have a “though” faith:
This simply means, my friends, that the ultimate test of one’s faith is his ability to say “But if not.” You see there is what you may call an ‘if’ faith, and there is a ‘though’ faith. And the permanent faith, the lasting, the powerful faith is the ‘though’ faith. Now the ‘if’ faith says, “If all goes well; if life is hopeful, prosperous and happy; if I don’t have to go to jail; if I don’t have to face the agonies and burdens of life; if I’m not ever called bad names because of taking a stand that I feel that I must take; if none of these things happen, then I’ll have faith in God, then I’ll be alright.” That’s the ‘if’ faith. You know, a lot of people have the ‘if’ faith. Jacob found himself in that dilemma once, and his faith was contingent on an if. And he said “Now if God will be with me and if he will keep me in this way that I go; and if God will give me bread to eat and raiment to put on, that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then shall the LORD be my God.” That’s the ‘if’ faith; Jacob hadn’t quite gotten to the essence of religion.
There is a ‘though’ faith, though. And the ‘though’ faith says “Though things go wrong; though evil is temporarily triumphant; though sickness comes and the cross looms, neverthless! I’m gonna believe anyway and I’m gonna have faith anyway; though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof, the LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”
Job had “though” faith. We know this because, when he was sick to the point of death he was able to say, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.” Habakkuk had “though” faith too (Hab. 3:17-18).
King goes on to say that ultimately, religion is not a bargaining matter:
“ A lot of people bargain with God. “If you just let me avoid pain, God; if you allow me to be happy in all of its dimensions; if you don’t allow any suffering to come; if you don’t allow frustrating moments to come, then I’ll be alright, I’ll give you a tenth of my income, and I’ll go to church and I’ll have faith in you.” But religion is not a bargaining experience, it’s not a commercial relationship. And you know, no great experience in the bargaining atmosphere. Think of friendship, think of love, and think of marriage. These things are not based on ‘if,’ they’re based on ‘though.’ These great experiences are not based on a bargaining relationship, not an ‘if’ faith, but a ‘though’ faith.
And I’m coming to my conclusion now. And I want to say to you this morning, my friends, that somewhere along the way you should discover something that’s so dear, so precious to you, that is so eternally worthful, that you will never give it up. You ought to discover some principle, you ought to have some great faith that grips you so much that you will never give it up. Somehow you go on and say “I know that the God that I worship is able to deliver me, but if not, I’m going on anyhow, I’m going to stand up for it anyway.” What does this mean? It means, in the final analysis, you do right not to avoid hell. If you’re doing right merely to keep from going to something that traditional theology has called hell then you aren’t* doing right. If you do right merely to go to a condition that theologians have called heaven, you aren’t doing right. If you are doing right to avoid pain and to achieve happiness and pleasure then you aren’t doing right. Ultimately you must do right because it’s right to do right. […] You must love ultimately because it’s lovely to love.”
And we – I – ultimately must love God because He is God, and it is lovely to love Him.
I’ve slowly realized that often times the journey entails persisting and loving God when He doesn’t seem too good and when the gifts dwindle and the mercies (seem to) wane. We have to have faith whether He blesses us or not.
Sometimes we can make an idol out of the things for which we are praying I said. I asked them: “What do you love more – the answer to prayer or the One who answers prayer?”
Our problem, especially for single women as Grace Thornton beautifully articulates, is that, “A lot of girls were sold on a deal and not on a Savior.”
“A lot of girls were sold on a deal and not on a Savior.”
— Grace Thornton (Grace for the Road)
She says that instead of encouraging women to fall in love with Jesus and by so doing He will bring you a mate, what “If I’d had on my bulletin board, ‘Fall in love with Jesus.’ That’s it. Bottom line. That’s everything you need to know, to work toward, to put your hope in.”
I remember when I took a class on Talmudic law when I was in law school, and I kept this passage:
“When one’s …approach to faith and its values is based on anticipated gain, such faith is on shaky ground and open to disappointment, disenchantment, and the inability to face life realistically. Prayer should not be an act of investment in some eventual advantage; prayer should be of value for its own sake… The living of the value is its own reward. The prospect of meeting the leader of a country surely excites the person involved. Such a meeting is a thrill of its own. It would be absurd for one who is visiting a leader to expect some tangible reward for the experience. The visit is its own reward; the relationship, if it develops, ample recompense. Gratitude for having a minute with the leader is the normal reaction.” – Chapters of the Sages, A Psychological Commentary on Pirkei Avot by Reuven Bulka
I think it’s a message for all of us, regardless of relationship status. If our relationship is not working, it’s because we aren’t pursuing God for His own sake. Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego were saying even if He doesn’t deliver us, we will worship Him only. We worship God because of who He is and not for what He can do for us. We must worship God because He is God. Not because He can save us. Not because of what He can give us. Not because of anything that He can give us, but because He is God.
A.W. Tozer once wrote, “Bernard of Clairvaux begins his radiant little treatise on the love of God with a question and an answer. The question, ‘Why should we love God?’ The answer, ‘Because He is God.’”
And we ultimately must love God because He is God, and it is lovely to love Him.
I’ve come to realize that we don’t and we can’t worship God because life with God is good. Life with God may not always be good, but He still must be worshipped. You worship God period. It’s not about whether the relationship “works” or not. That word is inapplicable. It is about whether a relationship exists with God and is He God in your relationship. Period. The question is “Is there or is there not a relationship,” not if it ‘works.’
It’s also not about benefits or happiness. As C.S. Lewis says, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” He says elsewhere, “if you want a religion that will make you happy, worship yourself. But if you want a religion that will make you holy, worship God.”
So even if He chooses to be mean, to quote Katerina von Bora (aka Protestant Reformer Martin Luther’s wife), “I will stick to Christ as a burr to cloth.” Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him. Or as Habbakuk says:
Habakkuk 3:17-19Amplified Bible (AMP)
17 Though the fig tree does not blossom and there is no fruit on the vines, [though] the product of the olive fails and the fields yield no food, though the flock is cut off from the fold and there are no cattle in the stalls,
18 Yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the [victorious] God of my salvation!
Though He may not save me, like Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego, I will still trust God. Though my life isn’t what I want it to be, I will worship God. Though my relationship doesn’t work, though I experience the unexpected and go through things I would rather not go through, I will love God regardless.
So what do you do when your relationship doesn’t “work”? You continue working. You continue worshipping. You continue trusting. You continue loving. You continue loving Him because He is God. It’s not an easy answer, and it’s not a perfect answer, but it’s the only one that will work when your relationship doesn’t.