The Virtue of Intention
I have been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between faith and action. Having recently left a demanding corporate position, I now find that my days are far different from the heavily structured lifestyle to which I had grown accustomed. The change in circumstances has allowed me to write and has provided a welcome opportunity to reflect upon and re-evaluate the priorities and motivations that have driven me for the last twenty-eight years.
I am a product of the American evangelical church—a church I love dearly and, although well aware of her many faults and limitations, I support wholeheartedly. I am also a classic example of the American dream. I worked hard, played hard, followed the rules, and prospered. My circumstances are the envy of the greater proportion of the world’s inhabitants. But my reflections have raised a number of unsettling questions. What was the purpose of my efforts? How is the world better because I was in it? Was God glorified by my achievements? So far, I am left unsatisfied by my answers.
Now don’t get me wrong. As I said earlier, I have played by the rules. I have done all that was expected of me and more—for my family, my employers, and my church. In fact, if you knew me you would probably think I’m a pretty nice guy. And by the standards of the society in which I live, I probably am. But I have become increasingly aware that the standards by which we measure ourselves have become woefully inadequate to the task before us. This is especially true of people of faith. We ask too little of ourselves beyond achieving material comfort for ourselves and those who are dependent upon us. Church attendance, tithing, charitable giving, even writing an encouraging blog post or Facebook message is not enough. All of these things are meaningful—even commendable. All are worthwhile. But they are only a starting point. I am now convinced that our lives should be more than an effort to meet a subjective set of societal standards which allow us to blend in and be accepted among our well-scrubbed and prosperous neighbors. A life of real worth and meaning requires a much more intentional effort.
The Apostle James had this to say:
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” James 2:14-18 (ESV)
Now most of us are already reasonably familiar with this text. I certainly was and assumed, without much introspection, that I was living by the standard it advocates. When confronted with the needs of others I did my best to meet them. But I have come to realize that in the tightly regulated existence I created for myself and my family over nearly thirty years I rarely encountered the needs that were most urgent. I went to work with people who were my peers and who traveled in the same social circles that I did. I went to church with people who looked and behaved similar to me. And like me, they were generous and compassionate to those around them.
But you see, our prosperity and privilege shielded us from confronting the vast majority of the evils that plague our world. Speaking only of myself, I must confess that I have been blind to the real needs and suffering around me. Simply living up to the standards of society and playing by the rules hasn’t been enough. Making a real difference requires an intentional effort to step out of our comfort zone on a regular basis to seek out opportunities for action. Waiting passively for the opportunity to come to us abandons those outside our immediate social circle to their fate.
I don’t yet know where this sobering realization will lead me. I trust and pray that it will be to a place of obedience, usefulness, and fulfillment. But I hope you too can profit from my experience and heed the words of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew.
“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Matthew 6:32 (ESV)
May God bless us and guide us as we seek a better way.