By Ryan Phipps
I've gone through two seasons in my life where I was on the verge of giving up my faith altogether. Nothing tragic had occurred. I didn't get sick. I hadn't lost anyone I loved. I wasn't disappointed about anything in my life. I had just come to the conclusion that my faith was of very little use to me any longer.
As I observed the world and all that went on in it, I saw that those without faith and those with faith both suffered and succeeded in equal measures.
A few of my closest friends identify as agnostic or atheist. They are some of the kindest, moral, ethical, and charitable people that I know.
My larger circle of friends identify as people of faith. They are also some of the kindest, moral, ethical, and charitable people that I know.
My non-believing friends attribute their admirable behavior to the innate goodness of humans.
My believing friends attribute theirs to a God at work in them.
FAITH IN AMERICA
We believing Americans are plagued with a strange vice. For many, God is a kind of being or presence that we pray to and do things for in hopes of receiving something good in return.
For instance; one may want a change of career, a mate, a child, maybe even a bigger apartment (me!) and so we pray to God for these things.
We also pray for emotional things; perhaps a better mood, the courage to be more kind or to have a greater surplus of patience.
Still, other times we pray for those we love that are suffering, or even those that we don't know who have been touched by tragedy.
But how many times have you asked God for something and never received it?
If I had to count, it would outnumber all the grains of sand in the seas.
THEN WHAT IS THE POINT?
I was counseling someone in my office the other day and he said, "Jesus said that if I ask I will receive. Why am I never receiving what I ask for, even when what I am asking for is not rooted in anything selfish?"
I responded, "What if prayer is more about what it does to you than what you receive from it?"
"What do you mean?" he said.
I responded, "What if prayer is about the shaping of the heart and not about the getting of things?"
He threw his hands in the air, raised his voice and shouted, "Then what's the point of believing in God at all, then?"
And therein lies the capitalist, American gospel.
Many of us believe that faith, prayer, good behavior, charity, whatever, are all a means of getting the things that we want from God- a tether of sorts that transports goods and services from the divine realm into our lives of "spiritual" materialism.
We incentivize faith. Many of our prayers are nothing more than transactions- a cost of doing business with God.
Like the gentleman in my office, I too have gone through the same frustrations many times over in my life.
What I have learned over the years is that my faith, my prayers, and my doing of good is not something required of me to "purchase" the things that I need (and want) from God.
The point of my faith is that it deepens my human experience. By drawing closer to God I find myself drawn closer to others, wanting to see a world that is ever on a brighter trajectory.
And you may rebut, "But isn't that what skeptics want, too?"
Yep. It is. And that gives us a kinship that is deeper than debates, doctrines, and dogma. It makes us partners in the making of a better world. Gandhi once said,
Whether spiritual or skeptical, this is what the vast God of the cosmos is trying to draw humanity toward- conscience.
What of all that I believe then? Jesus. Prayer. The doctrines I do hold to?
I would posit that these are not devices that I use to get what I want from God, nor strategies for convincing the unconvinced to believe what I believe. They are bits of grace, ever shaping me into a person of greater conscience.
Conscience is the prize. It is the point. It is the key.
Ryan is the Lead Pastor of Forefront Church in Manhattan, NYC. Forefront is an interdenominational, multi-site congregation dedicated to cultivating a just and generous expression of the Christian faith in New York and around the world.