How powerful are love and faith?
Most Junior High girls who are involved in a Bible-oriented church will opine that their favorite chapter is I Corinthians 13, “The Love Chapter.” Few of us would challenge the beauty of the Paul’s eloquence in these verses, especially his crescendo in verse 13, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
The view that love is central to all things, however, is not a given, as some assume. Of the three virtues—faith, hope and love—love is the greatest (for it is built upon faith and hope and thus the highest virtue attainable). When most people in the English speaking world use the word “love,” its image is often disconnected from faith or hope. Such love is not the type of love Paul envisions. Christian love is founded upon Christian faith and hope. Compassion, on the other hand, is commonly practiced throughout the world by people who may have no inkling as to who Jesus is. Lost people often put us to shame with their compassion and willingness to sacrifice.
Despite the glories of love, love is no competitor when contrasted with God. Love is one of God’s many attributes, but expressing love has no power to change people apart from God’s decision to use it. The fact that God can use love—just as God can use our witness to reach the lost—does not mean that the power is in the love itself. Nor is our evangelistic efficacy a result of our witness in itself.
Our urge to control
We human beings are bent with an internal desire to improve the world and our lives. We invent, we subdue, we reconfigure what God has given us to make life more comfortable. We seek to make our businesses more profitable, our families better off, and our lives filled with quality times. This instinct is generally admirable, despite its frequent misuse. It began in Eden. In Genesis 1:28, we read:
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (NIV)
The command to “subdue” implies an instinct to tame the wild, to cut out a comfortable niche for ourselves, to bring our environment under control. We must remember, however, that we are a fallen people. As Christians, we must live by faith in God’s wisdom and sovereign hand. It is sometimes frightening to live by faith, so we try to control God and others through “spiritual means.”
We can ask God to bring us comfort or blessing in answer to prayer. Sometimes the answer is as close as James 4:2b, “You do not have, because you do not ask God.” On the other hand, James warns us about asking to satisfy our lusts.
“Faith” as a tool for control
Reverently asking God to grant a request in prayer is a good thing, but prayer can denigrate into commanding God. This is sometimes done in the name of “faith.” Some televangelists make a good living by tapping into our desire to control God through a mystical force they call faith—a force so potent, they seem to believe, that it can bully God into being our servant. God exists for our comfort.
I would counter that faith is a gift God gives us to accomplish His will, not a self-determined clenching of our spiritual teeth. It is about God and His glory, not faith itself. Faith is but a vehicle; its potency is that it exalts God’s trustworthy character. To trust God is to bring Him glory, to risk our destiny on the basis of His integrity. To doubt Him is to insult His trustworthiness. Doubt is the ultimate disrespect.
A temptation exists to use another vehicle—godly living—as a force that destroys resistance in both man and God. Some misunderstand a verse in 2 Peter to advocate this idea:
Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.
But the picture here is not of a wife who is keeping her beliefs secret. The assumption here is that the gospel message has already been communicated. The issue is how a husband may be won over to faith, persuaded to embrace that gospel. The wife, who has been a pagan, has tossed away her idols and has begun fellowshipping with Christians. The husband knows of her conversion. But rather than badger, she is encouraged to allow her walk with the Lord to demonstrate the reality of her faith. Perhaps God will use her godly example as part of the process of winning her husband to faith.
Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the gospel at all times—If necessary, use words.” Francis was wrong. It is always necessary to use words, for the gospel is not about decent living, but about Christ dying for our sins, being buried and raised (I Cor. 15:1-5); it includes a call to repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. But it is not necessary to badger, repeat, and nag—which is what Peter is addressing. In the I Peter text, the husband has heard the word, but rejected it thus far: “if any of them do not believe the word….” You cannot disbelieve what you have never heard. The godly lifestyle of the wife is a means God may use to win them. But the efficacy of her godly lifestyle is not enough. It takes something much more: God’s working within.
Love as a tool of inherent power
In society, love is persuasive. Lost people, for example, admire one who shows compassion and helps others. The entire direction of a society, project, or family can be altered by love. God can use love to overcome barriers. Yet love—as a spiritual force—has no efficacy apart from God working by His Spirit. Love is persuasive, but it is not regenerative.
Thus you cannot “love someone into the kingdom.” To enter the Kingdom of God, one must be born again, born of the Spirit. And that event is as mysterious and unpredictable as the wind (John 3:1-16). If we could aim so many units of love at someone and that would produce regeneration, we would be determining the destiny of others. We would also be eliminating the operation of their wills. This way of thinking basically says, “If we push the right buttons, we get the corresponding results.”
Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Despite the great love God has shown in Christ, most people are completely unmoved by it—or at least not moved enough to become serious followers of Jesus Christ. Love cannot substitute for regeneration. God must open our eyes and our hearts before we can respond to this love in a life-changing experience of the New Birth.
So where are you in your view of God? Do you see God as one who cannot resist faith, like a genie freed from a lamp must grant three wishes? Is He one who has given you the power to regenerate others by love? Or is He a God who wants you to exercise faith, one who earnestly desires for love to be the hallmark of your life—yet one who says, “I am God and your are not. You do not have control”?
Since the lust for control is what turned Lucifer into Satan (Isaiah 14), and since the lust for control was the force behind the temptation of our first parents, how sad it is when we take good things—like faith and love—and turn them into means of control. Faith and love are means of blessing, and they are vehicles God can use. Remember: “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.”
It is time for our theology to advance beyond Junior High level. Love and faith have zero power—unless God invigorates them!
Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic in Cicero, Illinois. During his senior year in high school (in 1974), Cicero Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed later felt a call to ministry and enrolled at Moody Bible Institute (B.A., Pastoral Studies/Greek). After graduating, he served as pastor of Victory Bible Church of Chicago (a branch work of Cicero Bible Church) and married Marylu Troppito. In 1983, the couple moved to Kokomo where Ed began pastoring Highland Park Church, where he still serves. Ed and Marylu have two adult children, Hannah and Luke. Ed loves to write. He has written over 500 weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and populated his church’s website with an endless barrage of papers. You can access them at www.highlandpc.com.