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How to Grow Strong in Faith

How to Grow Strong in Faith

Feb 25, 2018

Passage: Romans 4:13-25

Preacher: The Reverend Andrew Van Kirk

Category: Faith


One of the things most remarkable to me when I was a child about my grandfather was the strength of his hands. His were hands that made things; and you could feel it when he picked you up, carried the heavy bag, opened up the stuck jar, or showed you how to cast the fishing rod.

Maybe he had good hand genes as well, but my grandfather’s hands grew strong because of the work he did with them. He was an engineer by trade; he was (and still is) a carpenter and cabinet maker by hobby and by love. My grandfather has spent his life literally making things: things of steel by day, things of wood by evening and in on the weekends. Those hands took raw material and bent it to to his will. Which is what I thought would happen to my fingers when he shook my hand. He’s in his mid-80s now, and while they may have weakened some, those hands are still strong. They grew strong as he worked with them.

We can generalize this specific case, and the larger principle is one with which we’re familiar: the muscles and bones we work the hardest are the ones that grow the strongest. You can see it at the gym: those guys with the big huge arms and shoulders and the little tiny legs — Arnold Schwarzenegger on top, chicken little on bottom — you know what workouts they’ve been doing.

This same principle applies to our faith as well. Look at the second half of verse 20 in our reading from Romans: “he [Abraham] grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God.” Like my grandfather grew strong in hands as he gave his effort to his work; like Schwarzenegger-Little grew strong in upper body as he did bicep curls, Abraham grew strong in faith as he gave glory to God.

Now, a word about the context here. Throughout our reading from Romans Paul is referencing the story about Abraham and the birth of Isaac to his wife Sarah. Paul assumes everyone knows this story by heart; the way we know the story of the Alamo, or the Mayflower. Just in case you’re not as familiar with the Abraham and Sarah story as Paul was imagining here’s the short, short version.

God promised Abraham that, by the children of his wife Sarah, he would become the ancestor of many nations, and all the world would be blessed in him. Abraham thought this was great, except Abraham has no children. His wife Sarah was not only barren, she was far to old — it had “ceased to be with her after the manner of women” (as the Bible delicately puts being post-menopausal). Moreover, Abraham was 100 years old, so not exactly a prime reproductive specimen himself (here the Bible passage we just read is not so delicate: his body “was already as good as dead” Paul writes. As a side note, I believe this to be the least optimistic assessment of aging in the entire scripture).

Anyway — Abraham was too old; Sarah was too old. How was this supposed to work? It seemed impossible. Paul’s point is that Abraham was faithful anyway — not because it made sense, but because the promise was of God. Abraham didn’t weaken (v. 19), he didn’t waver (v. 20), but grew strong in faith.

And he grew strong in faith by giving glory to God.

For some reason, we tend to get this the wrong way around. We think faith comes first, then our giving glory. But that’s not the order. Giving glory to God produces faith, not the other way around.

This is an incredibly useful realization for the development of one’s spiritual life. This is a concrete Biblical strategy for the development of faith, and so the development of a deep and eternal relationship with God. Give glory to God.

Of course, this also provides a clue to how we can end up eroding our spiritual life, for the inverse is true too. Want to know the best way to grow weak in faith? Stop giving glory to God.

This makes perfect sense. Think about it. What’s the easiest way to lose strength in your muscles? Stop using them. This is one of the reasons why falls among the elderly are so dangerous — after a certain point, if a person stops walking for very long, they’re unlikely to ever regain the strength to do so again. There are at least 50 high school athletes in here — we used to be able to run and jump and lift things that now we can’t. We didn’t choose to grow weak; we just stopped doing the things that made us strong.

What’s the easiest way to lose a foreign language? Stop speaking it. When I moved to Dallas from Princeton, I had developed some ability to read two thousand year old Hebrew text written on parchment without vowels. I stopped reading in Hebrew and now, well, now opening my Hebrew Bible makes me feel bad; I can barely remember one word out of five. I didn’t choose to forget my Hebrew; I just stopped doing the things that made me strong in it.

What’s the easiest way to lose a friend? Stop talking to them, stop being with them. Friendship, the kind that’s there for you when you need it on a Tuesday afternoon, takes time spent together. The primary reason grown-ups don’t have friends is that our lives and living situations are not naturally conducive to spending unstructured time together. Most friendships don’t fall apart because the people no longer like each other, they just stop doing the things that make their friendship strong.

What’s the easiest way to lose your faith in God? Stop worshipping. Stop praying. Stop giving glory to God. Most people don’t actively choose unbelief — they just stop practicing their faith, they stop giving glory to God, and behold, their faith grows weak. Which is, if you stop to think about it for more than half a second, exactly what you’d expect to happen.

“He grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God.”

To grow strong in faith, give glory to God. But what does this entail?

Shall we do more singing, “My God, you’re an awesome God…”

I mean, there’s nothing wrong that. But there’s more to it than that. Abraham’s glory giving was not just a matter of worship, but a matter of trust, of seeing God at work.

God’s glory is in doing things that are otherwise impossible. For Abraham and Sarah, the impossible was having a child. And it happened. They didn’t understand how; but they had faith.

Impossible things still happen. I hope many of you saw Tyler and Emily McLaughlin’s video this week as part of our Lenten Devotional series. Tyler and Emily talked in their video about waiting to start a family. They were childless, and really — as far as anyone, with a medical license or otherwise could tell — it wasn’t going to be possible for them to get pregnant naturally. And yet they did. Their son Ian was, as they called him in the video, their miracle baby.

Naming Ian for what he is, a miracle, is a way of giving glory to God. Surely there is some proximate medical explanation that goes along with this miracle — how else is God supposed to work that miracle except through biology. The choice we have to give glory to God is not deciding whether biological processes contributed to the outcome (of course they did). Rather, the choice to give glory to God is deciding whether we give God the credit.

We have the same choice when we view a majestic mountain panorama. Should we give credit to the forces of tectonic plates and erosion, or should we give credit to God with a prayer of thanksgiving for his handiwork, worked through natural forces as tools.

This matter of giving glory to God is where there is something right about coaches and MVPs who give post-game interviews and thank Jesus and give God all the credit. I don’t know that Jesus is all that involved in the outcome of college basketball games, but what is true is that whatever glory accrues to us as human beings is but a reflection of the glory of God, the source of all good things. Giving credit to God is a way of saying, as the old ad campaign had it, “I am second.” God is first. To God be the glory.

If we get out of practice at this giving glory to God thing, we run an almost certain risk of running our faith aground on the shoals of doubt. For at the center of our faith is the cross, not the one belonging to the dead Jesus, but the one belonging to the Jesus who lives, who was resurrected from the dead. If we can’t give God glory for the impossibility of baby Ian, how will our hearts have enough faith to trust God with the impossibility of resurrection?

To God be the glory. Faith follows that to which we give glory. Put another way, you can tell what a person believes in by that which they praise.

Indeed, I believe our faith would grow to an entirely new level if every time we were to post to Instagram or Facebook or Snapchat we said a brief prayer giving God glory and praise — a picture of a delicious dinner: “God our provider, thank you for this rich food,” a beautiful sunset: “God your glory fills the heavens,” our kid doing something adorable: “God, your love is reflected in the eyes of this my child.”

You can grow strong in your faith, just like Abraham. Just like Abraham, give glory to God.

The great thing about faith (and this is really Paul’s larger point in Romans from where our reading came) is that faith is the most egalitarian quality there could be. Faith is the basis of our righteousness before God. Righteousness is a legal term originally, it means we stand innocent, we are in right relationship, rather than a guilty relationship before God. Because our righteousness before God is based on faith in Jesus Christ, not on our own actions or abilities, anyone can have righteousness. We are all, in principle, equal in our capacity for that righteousness, for it will be “reckoned to us who believe” — who have faith. Not everyone can be an astronaut, not everyone can be a pop star, not everyone can be President, not everyone can be CEO, not everyone can even be wealthy — but everyone can grow strong in faith.

Faith is not a work; it’s not even a statement; it’s a relationship. And just like any relationship, faith can grow strong, and faith can grow weak. Give glory to God, and grow strong in faith in God, believing in the impossible things God can, and will do, in your life. Amen.