I settled on the name for my blog, both the title and the subtitle, at least three years before I started writing it. A few years before that, I had read the phrase “relentless pursuit” in a book called Soul Survivor, by the well-known evangelical writer Philip Yancey. The book is a collection of essays in which Yancey reflects on the lives of people of faith whose testimonies had influenced him and whose examples he had tried to emulate. One of his subjects was the Russian author Leo Tolstoy, whose life Yancey described as devoted to a “relentless pursuit of authentic faith.”
As soon as I read that phrase, it etched itself indelibly on my mind. I could never give voice to my searching and striving in prose as elegant as Tolstoy’s, but in Yancey’s description of Tolstoy’s “relentless pursuit,” I recognized a familiar yearning. For half a century, I had been engaged in my own relentless pursuit of authentic faith. I still am.
And what do I mean by “authentic faith?” It has little to do with theological exactitude or doctrinal precision. That is not to say that it doesn’t matter what one believes. The essential elements of the Christian faith are summarized in such historical formulations as the Apostles’ and the Nicene Creeds. In general, any pursuit of authentic faith would likely require an affirmation of the truth contained in those fundamental declarations. But neither avowal of a creed nor adherence to a code of conduct, however rigorous, constitutes the authentic faith for which I have hungered.
In this regard, it may be helpful to reflect on the lines with which Yancey begins his chapter on Tolstoy. He writes…
My deepest doubts about the faith can be summed up in a single question: Why doesn’t it work? As I travel around the world, I see that Christianity brings many improvements to culture. Education, science, medicine, human rights, democracy, art, charity—all these grew most vigorously from Christian roots, and are stunted in some of the non-Christian countries I visit. Yet when I talk with devout Muslims or Hindus, they bring up the many wars that beset Europe during its most Christian era, and the crime, decadence, and family breakdown that mark the Christian west today. I have no defense against their arguments.
I have never met a serious follower of any religion who lacks appreciation for Jesus, but what about the church? As one Jewish friend said to me, “Jesus preached a beautiful gospel. We Jews are gaining in our admiration for Jesus. But show me the promised kingdom of God. Look at history, especially the Christian persecution of my race. Does this really look like a redeemed world?” The Jew looks at the world and asks why Messiah has not yet come; the Christian, who believes Messiah has come, wonders at the evil that still abounds.
I share Yancey’s frustration and echo his question concerning Christian faith: Why doesn’t it work? When I ask that question, however, it is not prompted so much by an inability to explain the presence of evil in the world. It has more to do with the tolerance for mediocrity in the church.
I know that sounds awfully judgmental. Perhaps I can soften that tone a bit by acknowledging that I am frustrated with myself first of all. Sometimes I wish I could take myself by the shoulders and give myself a good shaking, all the while asking, “Why are you satisfied with where you are in your relationship with God, His people, and the world around you, when there is so much more to know, to do, to experience? Why are you willing to make excuses for yourself and everybody else instead of falling on your face before God—the loving and merciful God Who wants to be more real to you than you can possibly imagine? Why must you always respond to the clear counsel of God, revealed in Scripture and communicated to your spirit by God’s Holy Spirit, with a rejoinder like, ‘Yes, I know, but…'”
That’s what I mean by “authentic faith.” A faith that cannot tolerate mediocrity in a relationship with God. A faith that will not make excuses.
When I came up with the name for this blog, I was in no condition—mentally, emotionally, or spiritually—to write a blog, at least not if I expected anybody else to benefit from it. At that moment in my life, my attempt to follow God faithfully and to live according to the convictions He had implanted in me had resulted in the loss of my job. And that was merely the tip of the iceberg. I was up to my armpits in what John Bunyan, in Pilgrim’s Progress, called the “slough of despond.” And truth be told, I did not know if I would ever get out of it alive.
The journey back has been painful, arduous, and maddeningly slow. I still have more questions than answers. And that’s a new place for me. I used to have all the answers. I once told a student of mine, who disagreed with me on a point of systematic theology, that I would extend to him, and to all who shared his benighted point of view, the freedom to be wrong. I said it half tongue-in-cheek, of course. But I halfway meant it, too. I hope I never say anything like that again. In fact, I don’t know if I could ever teach systematic theology again.
I am a thoroughly different person today than I was when I was nearly submerged in that pit of despair. I met Jesus there, again, for the first time. And He put His hands on my shoulders—His kind, comforting, nail-scarred hands—and he shook me, gently but firmly. And He asked me, “Why are you satisfied with what you have experienced in your relationship with me, when there is so much more to know, to do, to experience? Why are you making excuses instead of taking Me at My Word? It’s time to renew your vows, to recommit yourself to faithfulness and obedience, and to trust me to take care of you when the challenges seem daunting and the consequences severe.”
That’s what I mean by authentic faith. I expect it will be a lifelong pursuit. I guess that’s why it’s called a pilgrimage, a life-long journey in pursuit of no-excuses faith. Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.