Input-based Religion

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Human beings thrive on predictability. Life is so much simpler when things operate according to set rules and when outcomes are guaranteed by the level of input.

Consider the world of sport. Sport is attractive because of its unambiguity. Teams are easily identifiable by their uniforms. Rules are clear and predetermined. A definitive result is normally the outcome. Sport is very much unlike life. In sport, us and them, right and wrong, winner and loser are clearly ordered. If your team remains disciplined, plays as a team, and outperforms the opponent, the result is usually predictable.

We sometimes think that faith should work the same way, don’t we? Is this not what we are taught by popular portrayals of the Christian life? Consider the stories told in the Kendrick Brothers films. If your team will acknowledge God, you are sure to win the football championship. If you follow a set of predetermined rules, even the most doomed marriage is sure to succeed. The moral of every story is pretty much the same: Success is determined by the level of your devotion. The formula is simple: Do what God expects and positive results are guaranteed.

But after the final whistle has blown, or the credit reel has run, we return to normal life and are reminded that things don’t always work that way. Sometimes Christian sport teams lose. Marriages are not always magically healed by the commitment of one spouse to do the right thing. Apparently, devotion is not the secret ingredient to immediate and unparalleled success.

Psalm 25 speaks somewhat into this reality. David begins the psalm by expressing his devotion to the Lord and pleading for deliverance from his enemies: “To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; let me not be put to shame; let not my enemies exult over me.” He unmistakably draws a contrast between his devotion to Yahweh and his enemies’ disregard for God’s law. He trusts in Yahweh while his enemies are “wantonly treacherous” (v. 3). If he lived in a Kendrick Brothers film, the psalm might end with an inspiring Casting Crowns anthem and everybody living happily ever after.

But that’s not where the psalm takes us. Instead, David—the one who trusted in the Lord, as opposed to his “wantonly treacherous” opponents—confesses his own sin. “For your name’s sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great” (v. 11). “Forgive all my sins” (v. 18). As you read the psalm, you realise that David’s confidence was not in categories of us and them or perceptions of right and wrong but in the unwavering faithfulness of his God. “Remember your mercy, O LORD, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old” (v. 6). He didn’t imagine that success lay in following a particular formula. “Troubles” and “distresses” (v. 17) were still his reality even though he could claim “integrity” and “uprightness” (v. 21). Such integrity and uprightness were no sure cure; he was still at the mercy of divine faithfulness. “Redeem Israel, O God, out of all his troubles” (v. 22).

The Christian walk is usually more ambiguous than we would prefer. Performance does not always produce positive outcomes. Christianity is not an input-based religion. This psalm is a helpful reminder that we find ourselves every day at the mercy of divine faithfulness. Our hope does not lie in a religious system of predictable rules and outcomes but in the living God, whose steadfast in and faithfulness are sure.

As you head into another day, divest yourself of the lie that your hope and security lies in your own performance. Cast yourself instead on the steadfast love and faithfulness of God, most clearly seen in the Lord Jesus, and on display every day for those with eyes to see.

Let’s remember today to rest in God’s unchanging faithfulness to his people—even when trials and afflictions don’t immediately abate.

Stuart