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Petting the Wrong Dog
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How many of you here today have ever wished to yourself: “If only I had more faith”? Or maybe someone has said to you, “You know, if you just had a bit more faith, God would do such-and-such for you. Your prayers aren’t getting answered because you don’t have enough faith.

I’d like to make an important point about that—and we’re going to study diligently what the Bible tells us about faith. But if you’ll forgive me, I’m going to begin by telling you what even I admit are rather lame jokes. I may have to have the organist signal to you when I’ve gotten to the punch line, but here goes. This is the first one.

A man is standing on a street corner waiting for a bus, and he notices next to him a man and a dog. So he says to the man in a very friendly voice, "Does your dog bite?"

"No," the man says.

All right. So our friend reaches out and gives the dog a pat on the head, and when he does, Cujo just takes a rip out of the man's hand, and almost bites his arm off at the elbow. I mean, he really digs in. It’s a scary moment.

Well, the man yanks his hand back and screams at the other passenger, "I thought you said your dog doesn't bite!" The other man gives him an innocent look and says: "That's not my dog."

Okay, that’s the end of the first joke. Some of you probably won’t start laughing until you’re in your cars going home this afternoon, and you’ll suddenly get it. But here’s the second one.

A man runs into a pharmacy and shouts in desperation to the druggist: "Quick! Hurry! Have you got anything for hiccups?"

Without warning the man in the white jacket fills up a cup of ice-cold water and throws it in the man's face. Splat!

And the first guy screams: "What did you do that for!"

The druggist put the glass back down. "You don't have the hiccups now, do you?"

"No," the customer said. "But my wife out in the car still does!"

Now, I’m going to be the first to say that these are not my two best jokes, despite what some of you think. But you know, these two goofy little stories actually make a pretty decent spiritual point. This kind of twisted humor comes from a false assumption or an action being directed at the wrong person, in the wrong direction. Petting the wrong dog or throwing water at the non-hiccuping spouse. Directing your energy into the wrong channel of action.

Here’s my observation. In the Christian experience, we face much the same dilemma. Millions of believers are trying to go about getting the experience of faith—and they don’t do it the right way.

All through this sermon series, we've been talking about surrendering to God and then building a faith experience with Him. Once we’ve embraced Calvary, well, then we want for our faith to grow. We want to go from a little to a lot, from immature faith to mature faith, to a grownup kind of faith. And as soon as we do that, a temptation begins to bubble its way up to the surface.

What is faith? We've said several times here that faith equals trust. Trust equals faith. If you know someone and you know them to be good and solid and caring and dependable, you're going to have faith in that person. It’s that way in all of our human relationships: right here at the church, in our jobs, in our casual friendships, with our spouses and relatives. And it’s that way with God.

Some of you old-timers will join me in remembering the words to this classic gospel song. “The more I trust Him, the more I love Him. Nothing good for me He’ll deny. The longer I know Him, the better I can show Him; I couldn’t stop now if I try.” So of course, the faith relationship just “gets sweeter as the days go by.” So love leads to trust and trust leads to love—and both of them lead to obedience and fulfillment.

But many, many people, including veteran Christians, begin to have faith in faith! That’s right. They start looking at faith as its own kind of power, a spiritual entity all its own. They make having faith their goal instead of making knowing Jesus their goal.

Back in 1993 an important book came out entitled Christianity in Crisis. The author was a man named Hank Hanegraaff, and the radio host of the program, “The Bible Answer Man.” In his book he endeavored to expose a dangerous trend in the Christian church where preachers, especially on radio and TV, were leading their audiences to believe that faith is a thing, a spiritual force all its own that we can tap into if we go through enough mental gymnastics. Listen to this startling statement that he reports coming out of this troubling movement:

“In Faith theology, it is not the true God who reigns supreme. In Faith theology, the real heroes of the faith are those who learn to work in harmony with the force of faith—and all this is ‘sanctified’ through the use of the name of Jesus. Jesus is the MasterCard which will allow you to charge to your heart's content. Your only credit limit is the extent of your own faith. As one TV preacher puts it, `If you have bicycle faith, all you're gonna get is a bicycle.'  But if you have Rolls Royce faith, you too, like that very preacher, can drive a Rolls.”

Again, let me say, this is a troubling spiritual trend where believers spend a lot of energy and time trying to build up their faith. Focusing on their feelings and their emotions and their inward religious thermometer. But the reality is this: if you grit your teeth and suck in your stomach and try hard to conjure up faith or “work up” more faith, you're essentially throwing cold water in the face of the wrong person. You're aiming your efforts in the wrong direction.

We’ve gotten some helpful ideas from the writing of Adventist pastor Morris Venden, and he makes this observation: “Faith is trust—and trust comes from communication and acquaintance with One who is absolutely trustworthy.”

Do you want to have more faith right now? Then don't work on having more faith . . . work on getting to know Jesus. Would you like for your faith to be stronger, more steadfast? We all would like that. Well, then, redouble your efforts to get to know Jesus. Do you wish your faith led you to greater obedience? Romans 1:17 says it can: The just shall live by faith.

The New International Version says it even more plainly: The RIGHTEOUS will live by faith.

If you want that experience, then don't work on getting more faith. Don't work on being more righteous. Work on getting to know Jesus more. The more you know about Him, and the more you know Him—the more faith you’re going to have in Him. It’s always worked that way, and it always will. The eleven disciples didn’t really have a life-changing kind of faith in their Master until they went through the upper room, and then the Garden of Gethsemane, and then Calvary and then the Resurrection. But as they got to understand the overwhelming nature of Jesus’ love for them, His sacrifice on their behalf, the goodness of His character, the power of His resurrection, the truthfulness of His teachings . . . they came out of Pentecost with a faith in Jesus which has changed the world.

There's a slippery spot in the road right at this juncture. Just a few pages over in the Bible, Romans chapter four, we read this in verses four and five: Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his FAITH is credited as righteousness.

Now, that’s a wonderful verse, isn’t it? That’s the heart of the Christian gospel. Works and obedience are wonderful things, but they are not items that result in “salvation credit.” They bring honor to God and they make us vibrant and appealing Christians, but they don’t earn us homes in heaven. That’s Gospel 101, and here at this church we embrace Romans 4 with everything we’ve got.

But, you know, as soon as we begin to study even a great verse like this one, a Christian pillar like the doctrine of righteousness by faith, ironically the devil is right there in our reading room with us. "That's right," he says. "You're getting it now. Good for you. Faith is everything, and you’re so clever for finally seeing that! You're growing in maturity. What you need to do is to work on faith. Righteousness by faith. You need to try to make yourself believe. Why don't you get a little bit more intense and try to get more faith?”

Here's just one more paragraph from Morris Venden's book, To Know God: A Five-Day Plan. Listen: “But the devil is a liar—in fact, the Bible says so in John 8:44. The truth is that both righteousness and faith come as the result of a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Faith is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end. And it always comes and grows, in its genuine form, from a relationship with Jesus that is firm and alive."

And then he adds these two great observations: "Righteousness does not come to those who seek it—[righteousness]. Righteousness comes to those who seek Jesus. Faith does not come to those who seek it, but to those who seek only Jesus."

There’s another marvelous Christian book I’d like to recommend; it’s entitled Knowing God, by Dr. J. I. Packer. He writes at length about how many believers get into a zone where they want to “feel” faith somehow. One weekend at church it’s kind of an emotional thing—and they like that. So the next week they want that buzz, that excitement again. Maybe it comes from very charismatic sermons, or from a certain kind of music. And these people begin a quest for more and more hype, more emotions, more tears, more sensations.

Now, there is nothing wrong with tears in their place. There are hymns and verses which move me to an emotional state as well. But folks, that is not necessarily faith! Faith is a deep, abiding realization that Jesus is a wonderful and reliable friend, and that we can trust Him to always do what He has said He will do.

Let’s think as we close about a Bible hero who came to that reality.

A man named Job was the center of a universal drama that he didn't even know was going on. You can read in chapters one and two where God says to Satan: "What have you been up to?"

And the enemy says, with a rather smart-alecky tone: "Walking up and down on the earth. I'm in charge down there. It’s my territory and things are going great."

God replies: "You're not in charge of everyone. Have you taken a look at My servant Job?” (This is a bit of a Venden paraphrase.)

And Satan makes a most reasonable accusation: "Duh! Big deal! Job just worships You because You take care of him. You’ve made him the richest man in the county, so his love for You is tainted. He doesn't love You for Your own sake. He loves You the same way a slot machine player loves a rigged game."

"Let's find out," God says. And He permits Satan to swoop down and just flatten everything. In one stunning and tragic afternoon Lucifer takes away everything Job has except, unfortunately, his wife and three so-called friends.

Let me say again: Job has no idea of the debate going on upstairs. He’s not privy to this galactic dialogue. All he knows is what's happened to him, and right now it’s all bad.

But the amazing thing which should inspire us today is that Job has faith! Not faith as a power of its own or a quick promise he can claim to make those sores and boils go away. He has faith that no matter what God does, it will be good in the end. He has faith in the right thing: in God Himself.

The New International Version text notes for Hebrews chapter 11, the "faith chapter," say this: "Faith must have an object, and the proper object of genuine faith is God."

You see, Job did not “have faith in faith.” He had faith in God. How did he get it? Where did it come from? Well, it came over years of communication and building a relationship, a friendship. As a result, he was able to keep on trusting in God even to the point where, over in chapter 13, he says: "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him."

You know, in Dr. Hanegraaff's book, Christianity in Crisis, there's a chapter entitled "Faith Hall of Fame.” Job's in there, of course. And Hanegraaff makes this powerful observation: "The greatest demonstration of faith is trusting God even when you do not understand."

Later on the same page he adds this: “Faith, far from being a magical force conjured up through pat formulas, is the sort of confidence in God exemplified by Job as he persevered in the midst of affliction, trusting God despite the whirlwind which blew his life into oblivion. True faith is perseverance in the midst of the storm."

And you know, in the end God was able to confront the devil again. "Take a look," He said. "Job's not serving Me because of what he can get out of it . . . because right now he's not getting anything out of it. You asked Me to back off—and I did. Is it possible that Job trusts Me because He loves Me? Is it possible that some of these human beings on your planet can learn to love Me because of what My Son has done for them, instead of for selfish reasons?"

And the way Morris Venden describes it, at this point the devil begins to fidget and shuffle his feet in the dirt and wish he was somewhere else. He really doesn't have anything else to say.

Some of you remember the tragic religious scandal involving Pastor Jim Bakker and the PTL empire. Pastor Richard Dortch, a lieutenant in Bakker's organization, spent a year and a half in a Florida prison as inmate #07423-058. While he was incarcerated, he came to understand in a brand new way what Christian faith was really all about. Here's his new one-line definition from the book Integrity: How I Lost It, and My Journey Back: “Faith is not determined by winning or losing, but by simply resting in the plan God has for us.” Shall we pray?

Lord, thank You so much for being a great and gracious God. We want to have faith—not in feelings, or in our ideas and theories, or even in faith itself. Please help us to have faith in You. Help us to spend time each day coming to know and love You more. Please bless our moments where we seek You; please reveal Yourself to us in new and growing ways. Increase our faith, Lord, as we increase the measure of our devotion in seeking You every day. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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