6 Ways Unbelief Works Itself Out

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Jesus gave us an illustration using trees at one point in His ministry. Having entered a contentious conversation with His opponents, the Pharisees, Jesus used the illustration to cut to the heart of the matter:

“Either make the tree good and its fruit will be good, or make the tree bad and its fruit will be bad; for a tree is known by its fruit. Brood of vipers! How can you speak good things when you are evil? For the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart. A good person produces good things from his storeroom of good, and an evil person produces evil things from his storeroom of evil” (Matt. 12:33-35). 

Jesus point is simple – ultimately, the Pharisees’ problem was not that they lied or cheated or tied heavy loads on men’s backs any more than a tree’s problem is not that it had bad fruit. In both cases the true issue is much deeper; what’s on the outside serves to reveal what’s wrong on the inside. The same principle also works in the positive sense of course – this is why James could so ardently claim in his letter that faith without works is dead (James 2:17).

What’s down in the well comes up in the bucket, so the saying goes. This is important for us to realize because if we know our own hearts, we know that we have an incredible propensity to drift. We drift from love, from truth, from surrender – and from belief. Often times this drifting is so slow, and so subtle, that we don’t recognize it when it’s happening. Very few people, for example, simply wake up one day and proclaim, “I do not believe the gospel any more.”

It happens instead over time. Slow. Steady. Drift. But while we might not recognize our drifting toward unbelief as it’s happening, we can often see signs of that unbelief played out. These things might seem like, on the surface, just character flaws or lack of resolve, but chances are these signs are indicative of something much deeper going on. Here are six examples of how unbelief might start to work itself out in your life and mine:

1. Fear.

One of the refrains you find repeated throughout Scripture is God’s command to His people to not be afraid. Why is God so concerned about our fear? Surely part of it is simply because He loves us, but it’s also because fear is revelatory. Our level of fear is an indicator of our level of faith. If we are beginning to drift toward unbelief then no doubt we will find ourselves frequently afraid because our gaze has drifted from God to our circumstances.

2. Anxiety.

Similarly, anxiety is not merely a personality trait. True enough, some of us are probably more bent toward worry than others are, but there is a reason Jesus specifically told us not to worry in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s not because bad things don’t happen; they do. And they will. The antidote for worry is not naivete; it is instead a firm belief in the fatherhood of God. Anxiety, then, is a checkpoint that makes us aware of our drifting from the simply truth of God’s providential love.

3. Vengeance.

Christians are not to be people of revenge. That’s not because people don’t deserve judgment for evil – they certainly do. Just like we all do. We are not to exact that revenge ourselves though because doing so puts us in the place of God as Judge. When we feel that we must execute justice ourselves, we should look deeply into our own hearts. What we might find there is the unbelief that God can, and will, set all things right in just the right way.

4. Shame.

When Adam and Eve first sinned, the immediate effects were two-fold – fear and shame. They hid from the God they once walked with in unbroken fellowship, ashamed for what they had done. But through the gospel, God covers that shame with the blood of Jesus. If we find ourselves continually pressed down by our past, the answer for us is not a good healthy dose of self-esteem. It’s instead to realize that we are drifting from the belief in the all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf.

5. Self-Promotion.

We live in a culture that tells us to self-promote. All. The. Time. It’s an age of instant celebrity when people are famous simply for being famous. No wonder, then, that we feel a constant urge to have our own take, express a quick opinion, and always always always respond to everything. This sense of self-promotion is indicative of something deeply wrong in our hearts. We have believed that we must advocate for ourselves, and consequently have drifted from the belief that Jesus is our true advocate, and that God will bring us into whatever situation and whatever opportunity He desires.

6. Compromise.

There has been much talk of compromise among Christians over the past two years. Many of us have (with differing degrees of difficulty and with varying degrees of publicity) been willing to compromise a moral stance on one issue because, we would argue, the greater good that can come with such compromise warrants it. I would only ask us to collectively consider this: What does it reveal about our faith if we are willing to not stand firmly on moral grounds? Does it show that we are wise, or does it show that we do not have confidence in the Lord’s ability to defend Himself and His reputation?

Drift happens, friends. The shadow of unbelief lurks in all our hearts, and sometimes the only way to identify it is through the symptoms. But what can we do when we see it beginning to emerge?

We throw ourselves again and again into the truth of the gospel. Our prayer becomes one of honest faith, like the hurting father who brought his son to the feet of Jesus: “I believe! Help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

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