By John Bowen
We have a tendency to tame the Bible—indeed, to tame Jesus. As one friend says, “Jesus was not your average Rotarian.” Life is safer and more comfortable if we soften the rough edges of Jesus’ teaching to make it manageable. “Take up your cross”? “Ah yes, my rheumatism is my cross to bear.” Well, no, actually—because you didn’t choose your rheumatism. Taking up our cross is a death sentence we choose. Not quite the same thing.
One example is the parable of the talents. Two servants invest their talents and make a profit. The third plays safe and buries his talent. Lesson: use the gifts that God has given you. That’s fine. It’s basically what we do already. In fact, I’m not really sure why Jesus bothered to make a story about it, it’s so obvious. Yawn.
My view of this parable changed when a friend pointed out that the first two servants took a huge risk. They had no guarantee that their investments would succeed. They could have lost everything, all of their talents, and had precisely nothing to show the master on his return. The third servant played safe: no risk, no chance of loss. No profit either, of course, but keeping the money safe and secure was his first concern. Honestly, which servant would you want as your church treasurer? Certainly not the first two. But we know who got praised. The ones who obeyed the master—and took a risk.
Half-truths about faith
People will often say, “Faith isn’t to do with what you believe, it’s the way you live”—which is a half-truth. The true half is, as James puts it, “faith without works is dead.” The untrue half is that what I do is in large part dictated by what I believe. If I believe the universe is meaningless, or that people are just “big-brained lumps of slime” (as I once heard atheist philosopher Kai Nielsen say), or that COVID-19 is a hoax, I will act in one way. On the other hand, if I believe that there is a good Creator who was present in Jesus Christ and is redeeming the world, I will act quite differently.
I suppose one of the biggest risks I ever took was to start doing debates with philosophy professors on the existence of God. Why did I do it? I suppose on one level it was because friends I trusted told me I could and should do it. Then there was an opportunity—and nobody else who was able to step in and do it. But ultimately, it was a risk of faith. If I really thought God is the way Jesus says God is, if there was a need for this in the mission of God, if my community thought I could do this—maybe I should try.
Was it scary? Absolutely. I prepared like crazy. Far more than my opponents. (Why would they need to be scared, after all?) I would hide in a washroom cubicle immediately beforehand to pray and try to calm my nerves.
Now, don’t worry. I’m pretty sure debating philosophy professors is not a risk you are called to take. Living out our faith doesn’t always involve huge risks. Giving thanks before a meal is certainly an act of faith—I wouldn’t do it unless I believed there was Someone to thank—but, in the privacy of my home or a church gathering, it’s hardly risky. If I say grace in a restaurant, on the other hand, it feels a little weird. My heart beats a little faster, and I probably make the prayer shorter than I might otherwise! It’s a risk. A small one, certainly, but a risk all the same.
Faith needs adrenalin
What risks, big or small, might our faith inspire us to take? Something that will take us out of our comfort zone. Something we would not do did we not believe the Christian faith. Something that will make our hearts beat a little faster and get the adrenalin flowing. What kind of thing might it be?
I can’t speak for you, but I know what challenges me:
To stop and speak to a panhandler, look them in the eye, smile, ask their name, give them something more than a loony, and say, “God bless.”
To be angry with God when I am disappointed—when a prayer is not answered, when the friend whose healing I have prayed for dies instead.
To apologise—to my spouse, my child, my friend.
To give away enough money that it makes me nervous.
To volunteer for a new missional ministry.
Our faith is reflected in our choices. And all I know is that, when I have chosen risks of faith, my faith has grown stronger, and I have found God more real.