Pragmatic Faith

Our question for the day: how pragmatic can we be as followers of Christ without losing our credibility? Is there, in other words, such a thing as a pragmatic faith? Or are the terms an oxymoron and the stuff of hypocrisy?

Faith, we know, is a response of trusting obedience to God and his word. But what do we mean by pragmatic? Informally, pragmatism is a philosophy that measures actions by their usefulness. A shorthand summary is familiar: “The end justifies the means.” A pragmatic position can then be viewed as opposite to a principled ethical stance.

Pragmatism might be as simple as a decision to break the roadway speed limit by a safe degree in order to get home early. Or, if we know no one is really checking, to fudge our age by a year or two to get a discount on a hotel room or a ticket to a sports event.

But when does pragmatism cross paths with faith? Recently many American Christians seem to have been pragmatic in voting for a presidential candidate who has all sorts of obvious moral baggage. Why? Because, “He’s more likely to pick a good Supreme Court Justice.” And, “He’s a lot better than the other candidate!” Call it pragmatism among the faithful.

Behind this sort of reasoning is some level of presumed omniscience—a confidence that the pragmatist can anticipate the likely range of outcomes that may come with the given choice. A little bit speeding, for instance, isn’t really a problem … even if the roads are a little slippery from the snow. Or, there really isn’t a problem with a few white lies if they allow the liar to get a contract; or if they smooth out a marriage.

We see this sort of pragmatism in the Bible.

Abram, for instance, was just being practical—increasing his survival prospects in a tough neighborhood—by saying his wife was his sister. His son, Isaac, then did the same thing for the same reason; and both men still came to be part of the Bible’s pantheon of faith!

Abram, we should add, was trying to help God out in another decision—at Sarai’s instigation—by having a child through his slave, Hagar. No harm could come of that, right?

And centuries later Pontius Pilate clearly believed Jesus didn’t deserve to be crucified, but he crucified him anyway. It was a practical decision because he knew his boss, Caesar, wouldn’t be happy once the local Herodians sent word back to Italy that a worrisome Jewish “king” had been spared.

Pragmatism also drove the disciples. Judas Iscariot, for one, lost confidence in the direction Jesus was taking as a Messiah; and he realized he could earn some money by helping the authorities arrest him. Peter bent the truth in order to save his own skin by denying Jesus. And all the disciples fled for cover once Jesus was arrested—obviously a pragmatic decision to avoid their own arrests and possible deaths.

Finally let me say I don’t really believe the Bible ever endorses pragmatic faith. God confronted most of our exemplars before their decisions firmed up as their final direction in life; or, in some cases, the men came to ungodly ends. It was, for instance, by God’s mercies that we read of the recovery and restoration of Abraham, Isaac, and the eleven disciples—with Peter’s example most obvious in the John 21 narrative. Judas and Pilate, by contrast, are forever despised.

Even our secular political examples should give us pause in light of Biblical measures. A lack of integrity among political leaders, over time, always bears unhappy and dangerous fruit. The examples of ungodly kings in the Bible eventually led to national collapses and captivities.

And even recent history reminds us of how the German ambition last century, after the First World War, was to restore their dignity and national status. This led them to accept a distasteful—obviously morally flawed— national leader who, they all believed, could be managed by normal political means.

Finally, let me add a caveat. We need to acknowledge that personal pragmatism can, at times, overlap with spiritual uncertainties.

Paul addressed this in Romans 14 where the differences between Jewish believers and Gentile believers created honest differences about whether to gather for worship on Saturday or on Sunday. And whether meat should ever be on the menu—given the prospect of it having once been offered to an idol—and so on. The various options were, in some measure, acceptable.

Yet Paul’s ultimate direction is twofold: make any decisions with the certainty that we’ll all have a conversation with God about our choices in a day to come (verse 12); and whenever our choice is not of faith, it is sin (verse 23).

I write this with a heart tender to my own vulnerabilities here—all of us have our own hypocritical moments and paths. Yet, thankfully, we can be assured that Jesus doesn’t look for perfection, but for hearts soft to his Spirit’s rebuke and to his gracious restoration—whenever it’s needed.

Thank God for such grace as we embrace his call to live by faith in a faithless world.

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About R N Frost

R N (Ron) Frost is a student of history, especially the history of Christian spirituality. Ron served for more than 20 years at a Portland, OR, college and seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was a professor of historical theology and ethics. Ron is now a pastoral care consultant with Barnabas International. In this role he provides care, coaching, encouragement, and educational services to those in overseas cross-cultural ministries. This involves a number of trips to worldwide destinations each year, each by invitation. All his services are gratis, so ministry partners are needed and welcomed. Go to Barnabas International for more information about this unique ministry and for a link that offers support options.