We have all probably heard the phrase, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” If you haven’t heard it or don’t think that it is true, try getting a new job in a new industry. It’s frustrating, right? We think that we can know all about a subject or topic and that’s great. But when it comes to actually landing the new position or getting that promotion, sometimes What is just not enough. It takes knowing the right person at your dream job or getting a good word in with the boss.
I want to take that idea a step in another direction. When it comes to our faith, I have found a struggle between the Who and the What. Sometimes, we allow the What of our faith to be placed on a pedestal of sorts while we take away the power of Who. We all have the tendency to place more value on what we believe in over who we believe in, and that is a problem. When we do this, a few issues start to appear, and they can be very hard to rid our faith of.
1. The What has a strong propensity to polarize. If you’re not too sure about that, look around at how many denominations there are. You would have thought that God promised Abraham that there would be as many denominations and sects as there are stars. I have personally lost count of how many there are and how many minute details separate some of them. To me, this is a problem. In the early church world, Paul and other leaders continually discussed how Jesus was important and things like circumcision and what type of meat people ate weren’t so important. In fact, they were really unimportant in light of what had been done for the church less than 100 years before.
So, what happened? The church started senseless debates over circumcision that got them nowhere. In Romans 4, Paul specifically addresses how Abraham’s righteousness began before circumcision (the What). Does that sound familiar? Apparently, church people haven’t changed much in 2,000 years. Fill in the blank with any non-essential topic, and you have two camps with a heated debate leading to more division and less inclusion which ends up turning people away. That turns away the people who are curious and just want to know who God is. No wonder the Church has such a hard time hanging onto people these days. People don’t want the useless arguments and debates that force them into choosing a side. They want what everyone wants - a community, and community is not possible in the midst of chaos and shaming. We don’t have to align all of our beliefs with someone in order to show love, community, and grace.
2. We will find ourselves battling a stagnant faith. When we place What on the pedestal, it becomes an idol of sorts. Nothing should be placed above the Who. Growing up, What we believed was vital to being called a Christian and looking back now, it was probably a little too important. Don’t misunderstand. I do think that what you believe and why is very important. The issue comes in when it becomes too important and is treated as the “Sacred Cow”. At that point, it can start to be dangerous even. In Out of Sorts, Sarah Bessey says, “If our theology doesn’t shift and change over our lifetimes, then I have to wonder if we’re paying attention.” When I first read that, my reaction was an automatic opposition. Why? I think it’s because of my church experience. We were taught that we need to believe A, B and C. Any deviation was wrong and possibly heretical.
What I have come to find, on the other hand, is that I am happy that my beliefs and views on certain issues have changed, and that I have experienced growth in many areas by reading, praying, seeking and talking with people in my community. I want to pay attention, and I want God to reveal new and different aspects of who He is. When we elevate the What, Who is not given the proper power and placement in our lives. Who becomes a nice idea and What becomes a rigid religion. Unfortunately, when that happens we become like the Pharisees. They knew all the Whats for an empty cause without the Who.
3. It creates the quick cure vs. the lifelong healing. This past week, I had an opportunity to listen to a message from a professor I had in college. He brought up an idea that he first came across in a book by Rachel Held Evans. In Searching for Sundays, she talks about church being in the healing business as opposed to the curing business. This struck me as very true because the Who is more important than the What. To be in the curing business, we have to rely more on What. The message went on to say that looking for a cure is the result of a formulaic or if/then type of faith. The formulaic faith works perfectly if there is only the What. We can take a set of beliefs, doctrine, or principles and manipulate them enough to come up with a cure to almost anything. We can arrange them just right to make them work to our advantage.
The only problem with that is the Who. Who can’t be manipulated into some kind of formula. Who breaks molds and transcends our understanding of the What. Who brings purpose to the What. It is in the Who that we find healing; the long term and holistic healing. There is a thought among some Christian circles that if we just believe a doctrine, then we will be cured from whatever it is that ails us. Or they breathe a sigh of relief once you agree with their rules. It’s almost as if they need to hear you say you believe in this or that to be “in”. Again, this places the What in an awkward place of power while undermining the Who that gives grace to our doubt and unbelief. What loses its grip when doubt surfaces. Who becomes stronger in the weakness of our faith.
This Who brings us a sort of faith that is grounded and rooted. The What can only sustain so much when the formulas don’t add up and when the quick cure doesn’t provide a deeper healing. Who will bring together all of the Whats and unify with love, grace and humility. Who gives us a simplicity and wholeness. Who is the steady and unwavering power when the What changes over time and we start to doubt and contemplate our faith. I want to leave with an excerpt from a blog post I read by Brian Zahnd:
When we confuse faith with the correctness of our God-facts, we are a disaster waiting to happen. Certitude about God-facts is never how the Bible uses the word “faith.” Faith in God is trusting God. When we trust God we give control over to God, which is, as Peter Enns says, “a more secure place for faith to rest than on the whims and moods of our own thinking.”