By: Rick Thomas
Have you ever wondered how it is possible to believe the right things, but yet do the wrong things? It happens all the time–at least to me. I’m daily put in situations where I have the opportunity to do the right thing.
Sometimes, in those moments, I make the wrong choice–even when I know what the right choice should be. This creates a gap between what I know to do and what I actually do. If you are like me, then you too have a gap.
Do not be discouraged, you and I are not alone. The truth is that no Christian is perfect. We all live somewhere in the gap, between what we know to be true and what we regularly live out.
This is why it is hard for you to uncharitably judge another person when they fail. I suppose it would be easy for you to judge Christians who sin if you didn’t live in the gap with them.
It is through the reminding of our personal gap we are constrained from being judgmental. How could you or I judge others when we too are living in the gap?
The question should never be, “Is there a gap between what you believe and what you do?” The biblically informed person knows there is only one right answer. It would be more helpful for gap dwellers to ask other questions.
How big is your gap?
What are you doing about your gap?
Who is aware of your gap?
Are you seeking to close your gap?
Is your gap widening?
How often do you talk to God about your gap?
How are you soliciting the help of your friends to close your gap?
Since we all have a gap, it is better to think about these questions rather than bemoaning the fact we’re not perfect. The real deal for us is whether we are running to God or running away from God. Tim Keller said it this way: Sin is running away from God and grace is God’s effort to pursue and intercept self-destructive behavior.
God knew we would live somewhere in the gap, so He created grace for undeserving people. Grace is His empowering favor which can be appropriated for gap dwellers. All you have to do is determine if you’re going to apply God’s unmerited favor to close the distance between you and Him.
Your function and your confession
What I’m really talking about here are functional beliefs and confessional beliefs. I have used the term functional atheism in the past–a term connoting the dilemma of the unbelieving believer.
Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” – Mark 9:24 (ESV)
Functional beliefs are the beliefs ingrained in you which guide your perception of things–your understanding of things–and ultimately, they are the primary influences of your behavior. Your functional beliefs are who you really are.
These beliefs are the ones that put you in the gap. They are different from your confessional or core beliefs. Your confessional beliefs are the things you have learned about God from His Bible. These beliefs are perfect and pure truth.
For example, a common core or confessional belief is God is good. The Bible is clear on this. No Christian would dispute the goodness of God. It’s a core tenet of how the Bible talks about our Father.
Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. – Psalm 25:8 (ESV) For how great is his goodness, and how great his beauty! – Zechariah 9:17 (ESV)
And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. – Mark 10:18 (ESV)
While we don’t struggle with this confessional belief as is, there are times when our confessional belief can be interrupted and muted because of the grip our functional beliefs can have on our minds.
When function trumps confession
Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. – Jonah 1:1-3 (ESV)
The most common occurrence of this is when we are not getting our way. How about you? When you find yourself at the intersection of God’s story and your story, how strong is the pull to yield to your desires rather than His?
Jonah was one such man. Though he was a good prophet who loved God, there was one particular situation in his life where he had to decide whether to cling to his confessional beliefs–who he knew God to be, or his functional beliefs–what he wanted instead.
He chose the latter and rather than following God, Jonah ran the other way. I can’t fuss with Jonah too much here. I’ve done this many times. A few weeks back I got angry at my wife. In that moment I felt the pressure Jonah felt.
Will I trust and follow God by living out the pure Word of the Lord or will I allow my functional beliefs, which are telling me to do things my way, rule the day. I, like Jonah, chose my desires over God’s.
In that moment it did not matter what my confessional beliefs were because I was not yielding to the Word I confessed. Truth does not matter if you’re not going to live by it. If functional beliefs are going to win out, then you’re no better off than an atheist, in that you’re acting out functional atheism.
Before you progress through the remainder of this article, take some time to reflect and jot down situations where your functional beliefs have trumped the good Word of God you confess to believe.
I know lying is wrong, but if I’m in a place where I may look bad, I may choose to lie rather than speak the truth.
I know I should love my wife the way Christ loved the church, but when she displeases me I want to punish her through my anger.
I know I should forgive others as Christ has forgiven me, but when someone hurts me, I want to make them pay for what they did.
I know God looks on the heart and is not impressed with this jar of clay, but I want to dress to impress.
I know looking twice at a woman is lust, but I enjoy the sleazy satisfaction of looking at women.
I know I should obey my parents, but they are not perfect and there are times when I judge them for this, which motivates me to disobey them.
The real and present danger of gap-dwelling
What’s your disparity? Where are you in the gap? You have one and there are things that motivate you to raise the functional flag of your life, while lowering the confession you know to be true.
Self-protection, self-preservation, and self-promotion are three hidden idolatries that will feed and fuel your functional beliefs. Most of the time your functional beliefs will run under the radar of your known and perceived behavior.
Part of what it means to live in the gap is to put forth a highly edited version of who we really are. We’re not dumb enough to live according to our full functional beliefs in the raw. We keep those things hidden.
The problem with hiding our functional beliefs from others is that we can start to believe our own publicity–our self-promoting efforts to present ourselves better than we really are. This is also called self-deception.
It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. –Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets, P. 3.
However, if you are really a believer then you want your functional beliefs exposed and you want to change. You know you can’t live a lie. That’s insanity. Insanity is fully ensconced para-normal thinking. You don’t want to go there.
”Para” means alongside of or outside of. Para-normal thinking is beside normal thinking or outside of normal thinking. Normal thinking is biblical thinking. Sanity is living as close to biblical thinking as you can possible get.
To choose to continuously live outside the clear and normative teaching of the Word of God will eventually lock you into biblical insanity and your conscience will soon follow your functional beliefs by hardening you in the gap.
You don’t want this. This should scare you to death–I hope. You have the Word of God and the Spirit of God, both means of grace given to you to help you change your functional beliefs until they are submitted to and guided by your confessional beliefs.
If there is a disconnect between your functional beliefs and your confessional beliefs, you must discern, decipher, and determine to break the disconnect that keeps you stuck in the gap. It’s a trap you must be extricated from so you can truly be free, while making the fame of God great in our world.
When the fool was fooled
Jonah’s initial response and actions seemed to say, “If I act like God isn’t there and act like God doesn’t care, then eventually things will work out according to my best and what I want.”
Though you may not have said such things, it is a compelling argument from the functional gods, isn’t it. Honestly, I have done this before. Even though God was clearly speaking to me not to sin, I persisted in my own way and sinned.
I was pretending the truth of God’s Word did not exist. I slavishly pushed God out of my mind by allowing my functional gods to shout my true confessional beliefs down. This freed me to sin. It didn’t matter what God’s Word said. It didn’t matter what God knew about me in that moment.
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. – Hebrews 4:12-13 (ESV)
Functional beliefs can make noise in your mind. It could sound like the following:
I want a life according to what I want. If I continue to hold onto my functional beliefs, then I can get what I want, even if it means divorce.
If I want a certain thing from a person and if I ignore what God says, then I can use anger to get what I want.
When you run from God there will always be a ship ready to take you where you want to. If you harbor impure thoughts, eventually there will be a bed for you to act out your passions. If you harbor self-pity and an “I deserve better” attitude, you will find a sinful solution for your sinful desires.
And when these things happen, your sinful desires will be affirmed. You may be surprised how many times I have heard a person justify their sinful behaviors through the signs they experienced.
Here is an example:
I was feeling horrible in my marriage and though I was not looking for anyone, Brad came along. It was like we had known each other all our lives. (And so the unbiblical nonsense goes.)
Because she got what she wanted, she talked herself into believing God was in it. Jonah could have been like this too. He ran from God and guess what? A ship was ready to take him to Tarshish. My, my. Ain’t God good? Not!
“If I disobey God and nothing bad happens, then nothing bad will happen.” You may disobey God and nothing bad may happen, but don’t be so biblically naive to think what you’re doing is right or justified.
A false peace can take you to hell. I heard it said that “there is one thing worse than hell. It’s going to hell, while thinking you’re going to heaven.” Jonah got what he wanted, but what he wanted was not what God wanted. He was the fool who was fooled by his deceitful desires.
Just because you can sleep in a storm does not mean you are doing the right thing. Eventually Jonah’s problems grew worse and yours will too when your functional beliefs and confessional beliefs are at odds with each other.
But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.” – Jonah 1:5-6 (ESV)
From the time Jonah arose from his sleep, we see how all his functional beliefs were all false. He may have dismissed God, but God did not dismiss him. He may have hoped not to get caught, but God was mercifully on his case.
Jonah’s functional beliefs said, “If I run, God won’t care.” Jonah’s functional beliefs said, “If I do what I want to do, God won’t intervene.”
Be sure your sin will find you out. God does care and God will interject Himself at some point in your life. Interestingly and maybe ironically when the mariners woke up Jonah, he told them who his God was. This was his confessional belief.
This was what he really believed, though what he believed was completely different from what he was doing. Right theology does not always lead to obedience. A right confession of faith does not keep you from heading in the wrong direction.
Jonah had functional beliefs that were opposing his confessional belief and he was separated from God. Is your life a faithful picture of the implications of what you say you believe about God and the Gospel?
I haven’t always lived up to my preaching, but I’ve never lowered my preaching to fit my living. – Vance Havner
Are there areas in your life where there are functional contradictions between what you say you believe and how you truly live? What is your theology of sin and grace?
There is only one way to close the gap between function and confession: you have to go back to your theology of sin and grace. You grow in closing the gap between your confessional beliefs and your functional beliefs by cultivating an ongoing, deepening sense of sin and grace.
What I mean is you cannot ignore the sin or the grace in your life. If you ignore the sin, you won’t see it clearly and you won’t be able to appropriate God’s grace to your sin.
The main deception in this problem of the gap between functional and confessional beliefs is how we view sin and grace. As you probably already discerned, the only way you can live in the gap is you have to be comfortably numb to your sin.
You can become comfortably numb by minimizing your sin. You do this by twisting, ignoring, re-labeling, justifying, rationalizing, or blaming your sin away. This will keep you in the illusion of all is well, while living in the gap.
In order to snap out of the gap funk, you must take your soul to task. The following are some tips which will help you do just that–if you will take them to heart and enlist the help of a few good friends: the Spirit, His Word, and His children.
When you sin, you need to think more deeply about what you said and did than you may have ever done before. Then you need to ask God to reveal to you what you did or said and why you did and said it.
You must look under the sin, by delving down into the true motives of your heart to understand why you did what you did. Behavioral sin always has a heart motive. While you’re not called to go on a dismal, introspective, and morbid sin hunt, you are called to repent of your sin, which is more than your behaviors.
If you move too quickly to grace without thinking about the heart issues which led to the sin, you will not be able to bring a satisfying conclusion to your mind.
You must give the Spirit more opportunities to examine the “runaway strategies of your heart.” Jonah must sit down and give some solid biblical thought as to why he ran. It may have looked impulsive, but there were functional idols feeding the engine of his mind.
Without wallowing in your sin, you want to clearly identify all the false beliefs which motivated you to sin. In order to do this, it’s imperative you get some help from your friends.
As God gives you clarity, you need to spend time in praise and thanksgiving for the Gospel that saved you and continues to keep you from the destructive consequences of sin in your life.
I would recommend you write out a praise list, noting the many ways God has come to your rescue. Thank Him audibly for His persevering grace in your life.
Share with your friends what you did and what God did and how you have been rescued from ongoing destructive behavior. Let the fame of God be known to others.
This will do several things:
-It will remind you of what God did.
-It will motivate others to follow the path you’re on.
-It will make God’s name great.
-It will create accountability in your life as you share your story, which may keep you from running to Tarshish again.