Pragmatism vs. Faith

In my church recently we had some meetings about the budget, and I noticed that there were two perspectives that seemed to assert themselves. One perspective is what we might call realism or pragmatism. The pragmatist looks at the income and giving trends, the number of “giving units” in the church, crunches the numbers in a spreadsheet, and comes up with an estimate of what we can realistically expect in terms of giving in coming year. The income estimate determines what we can afford to do and what we can't. The other perspective is the “faith” perspective. This view says, “If God wants us to do this, He will provide the resources.” The advocates of faith tell us to dream big and move forward in faith even if the numbers say we can't afford to do the things that are being proposed.

Philosophically I tend to side with the people of faith, but in practice in my daily life I tend to fall on the pragmatic side. I'm not a big risk-taker, and often living by faith requires us to take risks.

So does the Bible say anything about this dilemma? Should we side with the pragmatists or with the people of faith? Has God ever told someone to move forward without giving them the resources they need ahead of time? Well, Abraham comes to mind, for one. God said, “Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father's house, To the land which I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). The author of Hebrews comments, “By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). God just said, “Go, and I'll show you where to go,” and Abraham went. He did not give Abraham a map or any specific directions. His command required Abraham to move out and trust Him as he went. God just gave Abraham a command and Abraham obeyed.

Another example is Moses. God sent Moses back into Egypt to lead Israel out. God did reassure him, answer his questions and equip him with supernatural signs he could use to convince Pharaoh to release the people, but still God was asking Moses to trust in Him and His power as he moved forward. He did not provide Moses with a vast army of angels to do the job before he went to Egypt.

Then there's Gideon. In Gideon's case, God actually took resources away from him. Gideon was facing the vast armies of Midian. The angel of the Lord had appeared to him and had commanded him to go against Midian and destroy them. Gideon was afraid and lacked confidence, so God reassured him by answering his questions and giving him supernatural signs. The angel of the Lord who appeared to him caused his offering to be consumed with fire that came out of a rock (Judges 6:17-21). After this Gideon made his famous test with the wool fleece on the threshing floor which we find in Judges 6:36-40:

Then Gideon said to God, "If Thou wilt deliver Israel through me, as Thou hast spoken, 37 behold, I will put a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece only, and it is dry on all the ground, then I will know that Thou wilt deliver Israel through me, as Thou hast spoken." 38 And it was so. When he arose early the next morning and squeezed the fleece, he drained the dew from the fleece, a bowl full of water. 39 Then Gideon said to God, "Do not let Thine anger burn against me that I may speak once more; please let me make a test once more with the fleece, let it now be dry only on the fleece, and let there be dew on all the ground." 40 And God did so that night; for it was dry only on the fleece, and dew was on all the ground.

When Gideon assembled the men of the nation, he had 32,000 men who came out to go up against Midian. But God said that was too many. He did not want them to think that they had defeated their enemies with their own strength, so He had Gideon release any men who were afraid, and 22,000 men left. God then said that even the 10,000 who remained were too many, so He had Gideon further reduce the number to 300. Now Gideon was facing a vast army of thousands with 300 men, and the Lord knew that he was fearful. He said to Gideon, “If you are afraid to go down, go with Purah your servant down to the camp, and you will hear what they say; and afterward your hands will be strengthened that you may go down against the camp” (Judges 7:10-11). Gideon went down and heard an enemy soldier prophesy that Gideon would defeat them. Thus strengthened, Gideon and his 300 men went against the Midianites and the Lord defeated them.

God understands that sometimes we need reassurance. He knows that we are fearful and hesitant to move forward in faith. I'm encouraged by the fact that God worked with Gideon and did not become angry with him. God answered His questions and assured him of His presence. God would provide and do the work if Gideon believed and moved forward, and in that way God got the glory.

Jesus also taught His men to move forward in faith, trusting God to supply their needs as they went in Luke 9:1-5. He told them not to take extra supplies with them, no food, no money, no extra clothing, etc. They were to trust in God's provision along the way.

Not all of Scripture negates the pragmatist's view, however. In the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus tells us of a man who went on a journey who entrusted a certain amount of money to each of his three servants and expected them to do what they could with the money while he was gone. Two of the servants were “good and faithful” and traded with the money and doubled it while the master was away. The third servant was “wicked” and “lazy” and merely hid his master's money. The point is that the Lord has already equipped us with resources He expects us to use and invest to achieve His purposes. We must ask the question, “What can we do with what the Lord has already given us?” We must seek to maximize the resources we have for His glory.

The pattern we see is that God gives His orders to His servants, and as they trust Him and move forward He provides what they need along the way. I think we can conclude that if God wants us to do something, He will provide the resources when they are needed. The trick, of course, is to be clear and certain about what God wants us to do. Abraham had no doubts about what God told him to do, nor did Moses or Gideon. God Himself came to them and said, “Go do this!” Too often I think we lack this kind of certainty about the specifics of what God wants us to do. We must be careful that we are not acting on presumption instead of faith, that we haven't concluded that our idea is also God's idea, and therefore God should come through and provide what we need to fulfill our vision. We need to be sure that what we think God wants us to do is really in fact what God wants us to do.

One of the keys, I think, to learning what God wants you to do is that often it will be something you would never tell yourself to do. Abraham would not have told himself to leave his home and family to head for some unknown place. Moses would never, of himself, have gone back to Egypt to lead Israel out. Gideon was far too fearful to cook up a rebellion against Midian by himself. God will sometimes tell us to do things that are way beyond our comfort zone. He will lead us to do things that we cannot accomplish apart from His intervention and provision. That way, we will have to trust Him and when He comes through for us, He gets the glory.

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