The Practical Root of Unbelief
Christian men and women ought to be highly skeptical of the word practical as it’s often used in everyday conversations. When we scrutinize its usage, we discover that it frequently serves as a kind of shorthand for one of the most basic but profound forms of idolatry—namely, the desire to play God. Two common instances illustrate the point, the one touching on our day-to-day affairs, and the other involving our moral choices.
On the one hand, life’s routine trials (financial insecurity, relational breakdown, illness, and death) prompt us to seek out experts who can offer solutions to our problems. Though I’m certainly not recommending we spurn professional help when and where it’s needed, it is revealing that spiritual remedies (prayer, meditation on Scripture, fasting, laying on of hands, etc.) are often treated as a last resort, rather than a vital means of addressing our problems. If we’re on the verge of bankruptcy, for instance, why is it more practical to forego prayer in favor of lawyers, accountants, and financial consultants? When we’re dealing with crippling depression, why is it more practical to prioritize therapists and medicine, rather than our Lord, his word, and his people? Again, I’m not recommending we abdicate professional help; I’m drawing attention to the order of our priorities in times of crisis.
The Temptation to Prioritize Convenience Over Conviction
The word practical is also used to excuse behavior that we would deem indefensible under ideal circumstances. In his book Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre makes a convicting distinction between what he terms “excellence” and “effectiveness.” He has in mind the martial society of ancient Greece, where military victory was initially viewed as an indication of moral superiority. As always, philosophers showed up on the scene to ruin everyone’s fun by posing the question, “Is there such a thing as a military victory that’s also a moral defeat?” It doesn’t take much reflection to confirm that there are clearly wrong ways to win a war and indeed wrong wars to fight. On a broader level, there are wrong ways to go about securing ends that we perceive to be good.
In MacIntyre’s scheme, excellence pertains to moral purity (the good), while effectiveness denotes the means adopted to achieve that good. Ideally speaking, both of these work together. Most would recognize a holistic education as a great good for young people, for instance. In this case, the educated mind, along with all of its salutary habits and sensibilities, constitutes the arena of excellence, and sound educational institutions with stellar teachers and curricula constitute the means of effectiveness. Here, the connection between excellence and effectiveness is seamless.
But life is rarely ideal in its circumstances and MacIntyre maintains that in times of crisis, we’re often forced to choose between excellence and effectiveness. Will we prioritize convenience and practical expediency over what’s right? What happens when education is viewed in purely instrumental terms, rather than as an important avenue into a more fulfilling life? We see college admissions cheating scandals involving celebrities (and many others) trying to “game the system” in order to get their children into elite schools that will guarantee them lucrative careers. Here we have a clear example of the prioritization of effectiveness at the cost of excellence.
And yet, in our cultural moment, we often lack a clear sighted means of addressing this kind of injustice other than pointing to the fact that these people had the great misfortune to get caught. After all, these parents were just being “practical,” and trying to make sure that their kids have a bright future. Who could fault them for wanting the best for their kids? We’re faced with the same impasse when we’re confronted by elaborate cheating schemes among students, politicians, CEOs, and so on. In cultural terms, people who gain an unfair advantage without getting caught are often richly rewarded and subsequently celebrated. If we can’t conceive of moral behavior putting us at a genuine disadvantage, we’ll find our conscience crippled in times of crisis.
Extreme examples such as the admissions scandal usually run the risk of obscuring the small moral compromises that litter the scenery of our daily lives. The thread running through the divorce of effectiveness from excellence is dishonesty. Dallas Willard once asked an audience to consider the consequences of dispensing with all dishonesty in their lives. He concluded that they would have no choice but to put their complete trust in the Lord. It’s a convicting proposal because it illuminates just how much we depend on playing fast and loose with the facts in order to get by. Though wisdom and discretion are clearly called for, an uncompromising commitment to honesty in our life is Christ’s clear expectation of each of us.
It’s just here that we begin to worry that Jesus is out of touch with the basic fabric of human life—that he’s idealistic, impractical. One basic way to translate the rationalization of sin in our lives is to say that we feel the need to take matters into our own hands. The thinking goes something like this: “God can’t possibly understand the complexity of my situation. There are layers here. That or he doesn’t care. At any rate, I need to handle this. I’ll take care of it myself, since nobody else will. I know what I need. I just need practical solutions at this point.” Such is the logic of idolatry. It is predicated on the assumption that Christ is not on his throne and in control of the world and my life, and that, in the end, it is human effort that makes the difference. It’s our world, not God’s world.
Non-Anxiety as a Mark of True Realism
The practical root of unbelief in our lives thus consists in our willingness to live as though God does not exist. It’s a condition that afflicts countless Christian households and we see its practical outworkings every time men and women opt to put their ultimate trust in human efforts, rather than the rule of our Lord. Craig M. Gay identifies this as one of the key hazards of the modern world. Conversely, obeying Christ’s commands regardless of the cost is one of the most basic indications of our true allegiance to him. It’s a stance that communicates a complete trust in Christ and his kingdom. As such, it offers a foretaste of heaven to a culture ensnared in the chaos of self-idolatry.
To reflect carefully on Jesus’s words in Matthew 6:25-34 is to be forced to come to terms with our unbelief. In the face of life’s innumerable turmoils and calamities, our Lord has the audacity to tell us not to worry. But either Christ is Lord of all or he is not. If we claim to follow Him, but find ourselves plagued with anxiety, we must come to grips with the root of unbelief in our hearts. Empowered by His Holy Spirit, we must surrender our cares to Him, place our lives into His hands, and choose to live on the basis of His rulership. We shall then shine as beacons of hope in a weary world.
Though it may sound like the height of lunacy to relinquish all worry, if Christ is in fact who he says he is, such a posture is simply the mark of one who is in touch with reality. Though cynicism is frequently mistaken for realism these days, it is those who belong to Christ and exhibit the fruits of His Spirit who are the true realists. This is God’s good world and we have every reason to rejoice.
The Practical Root of Unbelief
This content on the reliability of the Bible was originally printed in Decision Magazine. False Impressions “I don’t want to take a bath—I’m clean enough!” My impassioned protests as a six-year-old at bedtime were quickly rebuffed by this powerful tool from my parents’ arsenal of guilt-inducing mottoes: “The Bible says that cleanliness is next to godliness!” […]