“Exasperating” is the word I would use to describe my experience with calculus in college. With its complicated and stodgy equations, advanced math was never my forte. But my interest in formulas was piqued years later when I heard this equation in a sermon: RT + T – F = S. Here’s what it means: Right Things, plus Time, minus Feelings, equals Success.
I’m not sure what type of “success” the pastor had in mind exactly, but it left an indelible mark on me. His principle was that if Christians simply do the right things for long enough, and shelve their feelings, then success will follow.
I was excited. By plugging in the right spiritual data, I could finally control some aspects of my life! The rubric I formed was easy: Consistent prayer, plus lengthy Bible reading, plus mentoring an at-risk youth, plus sexual purity, equals me earning an amazing wife and a dynamic international ministry.
I followed this methodology for a long time. When I failed in some area of this blueprint, I would double down on my efforts, convinced it would eventually pay off. Certainly, if I hold to this blueprint, success will follow, I thought. Fast-forward 15 years — I’m still waiting for those dreams to come true.
The formula failed. Why?
A Foundation for Faith
Looking back on that sermon, my pastor might have actually meant “spiritual success” by his recipe. I obviously didn’t take it that way, however. Even though I wouldn’t have admitted it, deep down I wanted my rewards from above to come from me being “good enough” for “long enough.”
I now realize how extremely unhealthy it is to build a relationship with God on a transactional agreement. But the idea is appealing. If things worked this way, we could simply enter the right spiritual data, and with time our follow-through would produce the right spiritual blessing [insert yours here].
But our lives in Christ don’t operate this way. First, the Lord is deeply personal. “Abide in me, and I in you,” Jesus says in John 15. “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.”
Furthermore, God isn’t formulaic; He’s familial. 1 John 3:1 states, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!” He cares about us, His children. “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26)
God gives gifts — not rewards based upon our merits. And nothing can surpass the gift He gave through His Son Jesus. The Holy Spirit is another gift from the Lord. Jesus says that He will “guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). The Spirit brings us other gifts, including His fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.
Any attempt to find a combination that unlocks other gifts on earth, such as a spouse, perfect health or financial success, is futile. There is no master key. God’s gifts may include these things, but no number of spiritual practices will produce them if they are outside of God’s will.
God is not the means to an end — He is our end. He’s the goal. What we are promised this side of heaven is an intimate relationship with the Father through His Son Jesus Christ. But we have an active part, as well. When we pray, fast, and act in faith through the power of the Holy Spirit, God moves.
God is unpredictable. That’s probably one reason why Jesus healed people in several different ways. To one blind man he used spit, to a dead girl he spoke, and a bleeding woman only needed to touch his robe. When the Lord blesses us one way — with a miraculous healing, for example — it never guarantees an encore.
My friend Chase met with a Christian man who was known to work powerfully in the Spirit. Chase was struggling with various ailments, and God healed him — all except for his Celiac disease. Why didn’t God restore my friend 100 percent that day? He doesn’t know. Should we fail to praise God for what the Lord chose not to do in my friend’s life that day? No.
When Formulas Fail
I have found that as a Christian, it is tempting to substitute formulas for an intimate and dynamic relationship with Jesus. One of the most common is the Try Harder Formula. I was king at this. This formula whispers that if we pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps, we will earn God’s blessings. I know from experience that this path leads to a dead end. We are saved by God’s grace and must continue to live by faith. That’s why the Apostle Paul admonished the Galatian church, “How foolish can you be? After starting your new lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort?” (Gal. 3:3)
Maybe when the Try Harder Formula hasn’t panned out, you’ve tried the Sacrifice Formula. This approach uses martyrdom in an attempt to get the required result. One time I fasted for many days so God would answer me about a relationship. At the end, I was hungry, and all I heard was crickets.
Maybe you have sacrificed finances, pleasures or relationships because you believed it was God’s will — and you still didn’t get what you wanted. It’s tempting to be jaded when our carefully constructed offerings don’t produce results. I’ve screamed at God more than once out of a sense of entitlement.
And we can’t forget about the Waiting Formula. We’ve all done it. Are you single and have been waiting for years — even decades — to find that elusive spouse? Maybe you’ve combined this with the Sexual Purity Formula and are now bitter that you haven’t earned a wife or husband as a result of your good behavior.
Each time we use one of these formulas, whether we realize it or not, we are attempting to buy the Almighty. But trying to bargain with the Lord through our hard-earned “God Bucks” is a sure roadblock to a real, thriving relationship with Him. God is not a machine where our prayers and good works turn His lever; He is a loving Father who wants us to trust Him.
Friend or Formula?
Impersonal formulas might have worked for Pythagoras, Einstein and even Betty Crocker, but not Jesus. Speaking to His disciples, Jesus says, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” Stop and think about how awesome it is that God calls us His friends and invites us into His inner circle!
Seek God’s presence just like you would a close friend’s. Remember that He’s not the agent of blessings. He is the blessing. Miroslav Volf writes that “Love passionately desires the presence of the beloved.”1)Volf, Miroslav. (2005) Free of Charge. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.
Set aside time to simply love and be loved by Him instead of campaigning and petitioning Him for the things you want. Years ago, when I would arrive to visit my nieces at Christmastime, their first question was, “What gifts did you get me?” It was cute when they were preschoolers, but now that they are teenagers, it would be unfitting.
Looking back, I know my pastor’s intention wasn’t to mislead his congregation. If he meant that spiritual maturity is gained as we consistently seek the Lord, he was right. Indeed, cultivating more of God’s grace in our lives by practicing pathways to Him is foundational to our faith.
These avenues to God’s grace include prayer, Scripture reading, fasting, service, solitude, meditation and many more — ironically, the same practices mentioned previously. But they are not perfunctory duties; instead, they are opportunities for us to experience His love and be reminded that we are sons and daughters of Christ.
Only the Lord is capable of loving us and bringing to fruition our deepest hopes and dreams. I know true success will come as I engage with a personal God, not a procedure. Can He be mysterious in giving His gifts? Yes. But can I trust God’s timing and portion to be what I need? Absolutely.
Copyright 2017 Eric Demeter. All rights reserved.
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|1.||↑||Volf, Miroslav. (2005) Free of Charge. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.|