Faith Beyond Formulas

I still remember the quadratic equation, due in part to a dynamic teacher who made up catchy jingles and in part to a love of order and rules. In both high school and college Chemistry classes, I loved stoichiometry because all the equations balanced out. It may have taken many minutes and a headache or two, but eventually everything found its right place. Neat, clean, predictable.


How often I have tried to force the Christian life into a formula. If I pray and tithe and seek you first, then fill-in-the-blank. In different seasons, the blank line has been filled in with statements like, “you will give me a spouse,” “you will redeem my entire family,” and “you will not let my children suffer.

Even more insidious are the side formulas I have created: If I suffer, you must show me tangible ways that you are working it for good on my timetable or These are the ways I am willing to suffer for you, Lord (x, y and z) but if these things happen (a, b and c) you must not be good or real or present. 

As I have been processing the unexpected and early suffering of close friends and reading Michael Card’s excellent and timely book, A Sacred Sorrow, I have been convicted of my inordinate love of formula faith.

Card makes the fascinating observation that the book of Job and the other books known collectively as Wisdom Writings were written during a time of confusion and upheaval in the life of Israel. The earlier books had led Israel to focus on Torah obedience. As they had tried (largely unsuccessfully) to keep Torah Obedience, they came to a period of disillusionment and questioning, “Is this really all it is cracked up to be? It doesn’t seem to be working.”

If you know anything of the book of Job, you know that his friends tried to press his situation of immense and complete suffering into their existing formulas of Torah obedience.

“Their one-dimensional conclusions are inescapable. Job is in the process of perishing for something he has done. There is no mystery, only the cold, hard reality of retribution.”

In his book, Intimacy, Henri Nouwen also talks about such formulaic faith that keeps God in the equations of control.

“God is the factotum which comes in handy in times of illness, shock, final exams, in every situation in which we feel insecure. And if it does not work, the only reaction may be to cry louder. Far from becoming the Other, whose existence does not depend on mine, he might remain the easy frame which fits best around the edges of my security.” 

According to Nouwen, “healthy development means a gradual movement out of the magical world.” If are not able to move beyond formulaic faith, “God remains the magical pacifier whose existence depends on ours. Prayers remain tools to manipulate him in our direction and religion is nothing more than a big, soft bed on which we doze away and deny the hardships of life.”

Thankfully, in the book of Job, we see God attempting to shatter His people’s rudimentary view of formulaic faith. We see the foreshadowing of a God who would break the incomplete equation of Torah obedience as He willingly broke His son on the Cross.

“The heart of the complete equation, which only Job’s suffering could have given him the arithmetic for, involves a God no one could have possibly imagined before, a God who pays the price for sin with Himself….The God of the completed equation is a God who is beyond all equations. He is wild and impossible and totally Other.”

Although we live on the other side of the Cross, we tend to live like Job’s friends, trying to force our live, our experiences and even our God to fit into a formula of our own making. When we do so, we negate the power of the Cross and cut ourselves off from the life-sap that flows from the mysterious yet marred Savior.

When you pray, what are the hidden formulas underneath your words and requests? Where are you approaching God with a formulaic faith? Where in your life do you see God showing Himself as the Mysterious yet approachable suffering savior who does not promise us a formula but Himself?

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