The myth of privatized faith (or why "don't judge me" is wrong-headed)

One of the most well-entrenched myths of the last 300 years is that one's religious faith is a private matter. In the modern period, Western culture challenged the church to prove on scientific grounds that the claims of the Bible are true. Attempts were made, but by and large the church retreated to the only safe place it had: the interior of the human individual. Faith was seen as a private matter -- something that happens only between the individual and God. Consequently, no one else can judge the authenticity of one's faith.

In today's postmodern culture, the individual still reigns supreme. In fact, Western individualism is more radical than it has ever been. Each individual is free to choose his or her own brand of faith, and "haters" are rebuffed with postmodernism's trump card: "Don't judge me."

Is faith a private matter? Or is faith something so public that supposing it is private is outright ludicrous? In fact, is one's faith so public that others have perfectly good grounds to judge it?

The truth is unsettling, and it can be found on the lips of a preacher who was known to say unsettling things: John the Baptist. With a couple of sentences, he blows up the myth of privatized faith.


Matthew summarizes what must have been many interactions between John and the Pharisees and Sadducees:
[John] said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." (Matt 3:7-10)
The key word here is fruit. People who are turning toward God produce the corresponding fruit of repentance. People who belong to God bear good fruit.

John is using a metaphor easily understood in his agrarian culture. People commonly grew and harvested olive, date, and fig trees. They understood the difference between a fruitful tree and an unfruitful one.

Now suppose someone was to say to John that fruit is a private matter to the tree itself. Only the tree can know whether it has fruit or not, and no one else should be so presumptuous to tell it otherwise. Pretty silly, isn't it? In reality, everyone walking by can see whether a tree has fruit. Fruit, by its very nature, is not private; it is public.

Likewise, people who belong to God are not those who have a secret reservoir of faith known only to themselves. Rather, their deep and personal faith will show up in "fruit in keeping with repentance" or "good fruit." It's as if John was saying, "You say you have faith? Your everyday life will tell the tale." Do others see greed or contentment? Worry or peace? Hard-heartedness or kindness? Resentment or forgiveness? Revenge or grace? Distance or compassion? Apathy or love? And so on. Such things are on display in everyone's day-to-day behavior for all to see.

Later James would write, "Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds" (James 2:18). And much, much later, Dallas Willard would argue extensively that following Jesus is a way of life that shows up in concrete attitudes and behaviors that manifest themselves in public ways.

Privatized faith is a myth. Faith is public and always on display.

So what to do? Here's a tip for today. Ask God to show you one area of your life where he wants you to produce plump, juicy, sweet fruit, but you are currently producing no fruit at all or shriveled and sour fruit. Then be on the lookout for how he answers your question. He might do so on the spot or over a few days. In response, it would be wise to focus energy and attention on that one thing he shows you until you are more fruitful in that one area.

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