Vision is a good thing. Everyone needs a preferred picture of the future. It’s good to know the problem, the solution, and why we are the ones who should attack that problem now with the prescribed solution.
We all want our lives to be better, and vision gives us the encouragement that at least we know where to look. Without some kind of vision, the difficulties of our lives can feel like when you’re looking for your keys or phone and you have already looked everywhere. It’s easy to have hope that you will find what you’re looking for if you know you have some more places to look. But once you have looked everywhere, discouragement or panic sets in. Vision, at the very least, allows us to hope that there is still something that we can do to find the life we want.
However, we need more than vision to accomplish something real and worthwhile. I heard Tim Keller use the example of a cavalry. Back in the day, someone would blow a trumpet and then the horses with their soldiers would charge. Vision is like the trumpet. If you don’t have something directing your strength, it won’t go anywhere. But to accomplish the vision, you have to have the strength of horses. It turns out, accomplishment comes from many disciplined, convictional, ordinary, faithful actions. Without these five components, we don’t accomplish even the smallest vision.
It’s hard to accept that this is how our visions are accomplished. Most of us don’t want discipline, we want some “dynamic” that makes everything work. We’ve all seen things that seem to accomplish themselves. Things that look like a wave of momentum. Memes or videos that have gone viral. We’d all like to start something that seemed to infinitely generate its own energy and carry itself to completion. But this kind of dynamism doesn’t solve the world’s biggest problems or our most important problems, nor does it lead people to Jesus. Jesus never asked us to compete with the world’s dynamism.
No vision is accomplished without conviction. We hear people talk about vision a lot. Yet, visions are like dreams: they can flow like liquid encouragement from our imagination, but without conviction, they can disappear as quickly as a crying baby can ruin a good dream. Conviction means the state of being “fully convinced” something is true. Consequently, it produces a kind of powerful and clarifying stability that dreams and visions can never provide. If any of us has a vision that constantly endures, it is because it is built upon our convictions. Unless our character is rooted in strong moral and spiritual beliefs that we are fully convinced of, whatever vision our imagination produces will result in a kind of mental mist. Only a vision rooted in conviction will be the best vision we can produce. Only then will the vision remain clear and stable. And only then will it be immediately connected with all our strength through discipline.
Almost any worthwhile success comes from many small decisions and actions moving in a disciplined direction. That means that most of our greatest triumphs will be accomplished through a lifestyle we would call “ordinary.” We should never confuse embracing the ordinary with falling into a life that is typical. People who confuse typical with ordinary will lose their nerve, because they’ll be afraid they are wasting their life. However, this fear usually leads a person into pursuing unproductive and destructive drama.
Doing the ordinary requires courage. God doesn’t want us to be afraid to build something ordinary. This is true no matter what we are building and is especially true of his church. It is best to remember that God is the one who creates splendor. In Haggai, the Israelites were building “paneled” houses (Haggai 1:4). They were trying to make their houses look good—to give them a kind of splendor. And yet they weren’t building the temple, God’s house, at all. And when they did build God’s house, he asked them if they thought it seemed like “nothing” (2:3). He knew that’s how they felt. He knew they feared their work would be insignificant, typical. And yet he said three important things to them (2:4-5).
- “Be strong”
- “Do the work, all you” (the leaders and all the people together)
- “For I am with you”
God knew they needed courage not because their enemies were upon them, but because the discouragement of insignificance was upon them. What was the result of that discouragement? Their courage had failed, and they had given up on their vision. When that happens, we tend to invest in worldliness, like building paneled houses. But God understands our desire for splendor and to be part of something truly great. So he told the people, “In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory” (Haggai 2:6-7).
However, we should notice that God gives splendor when we are strong and do the work, knowing that he is with us. This happens when we use discipline, built on real conviction, through many seemingly ordinary actions.
Faithfulness doesn’t just require doing the right thing in the moment (self-control); it means continuing to do the right thing over the long haul (perseverance). You can see this in the passage we memorized as a church, 2 Peter 1:3-11. The apostle says that we should add to our faith, goodness; to goodness, knowledge; to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance. Only then can the result be godliness, real brotherly kindness, and finally love. None of those final three virtues have any chance without perseverance.
Perseverance, like any virtue, is a strength that we must build. Yet, as with all Christian virtues, it must be built in the heart from the inside out. That is why the apostle Peter starts with faith. Being fully convinced of that faith—having added to it goodness and knowledge—is what establishes a foundation of conviction on which self-control, and then perseverance, can be built.
And yet, part of what our faith should create is a knowledge of the goodness of perseverance itself. God’s love is described in the Bible over and over again not as unconditional, but as unfailing. God’s love never fails. It never runs out of energy. If God finally condemns a human soul, it’s not because he ran out of personal strength. It’s not because he got tired of loving someone. The book of Hosea makes this point when God calls the prophet again and again to love this prostitute of a woman named Gomer. When we see the unfailing nature of God’s love—its absolute perseverance—we will see the inherent beauty and greatness of perseverance. Consequently, we will long for the strength ourselves.
The God who saves by faith demands action. Christians sometimes struggle with being saved by faith and yet seeing that action is required in the Bible for salvation. One way to solve this apparent difficulty is by asking a simple question: do you know what someone believes by what they say or by what they do? This is the point of James 2:18. James understands that God saves us by faith and counts us righteous when we believe in the Son of God. And yet he also knows that we do what we believe. This is a fundamental truth about all human existence. People actually can’t hide their motives or their beliefs. They can’t hide them because they are constantly doing them. And so it is with everyone in relationship to their vision.
We will act the way we believe. If we have faith and conviction in the goodness of discipline, perseverance, and the picture of our vision, we will act. That is, so long as we are seeking God’s kingdom and his righteousness first. Because we will give our energy and action to that which is first in our life and heart. We can very much believe in faith and conviction, goodness and discipline, perseverance and a godly vision, but if we believe in anything else more, we will act toward that end.
So although action is necessary, it is as much a gauge on our real beliefs as anything else. Our actions tell us the real order of our values and convictions. They show us what we believe in more, and less.
But what if you do believe your beliefs that don’t fit your actions? What if it feels like the beliefs that can’t lead your behavior are authentic? What if you really do believe in godliness but you aren’t strong enough not to look at porn or fornicate? What if you want to be a good steward of your body or money, but you still spend or eat in a way that feels more like a reaction than a choice? Or what if you believe in gentleness and affirmation, but you still find yourself screaming at your spouse, being snide with someone at work, and lecturing your kids unhelpfully? Does it mean God just thinks you’re a fake: self-deceived and self-damned?
That wouldn’t be my first thought. It’s possible that is the case (see Matthew 7:17-29 and 2 Corinthians 13:5-8), but I wouldn’t look there first. It’s more likely you are dealing with a “two masters” scenario. The remedy is found in Romans 12, which I’ll be preaching on this Sunday (January 28). We’ll look at this problem in the next blog post.