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16 February 2020

The Curious Christian Practice of Pragmatic Unbelief.

There is a curious tendency I’ve noticed amongst Christians, and I don’t exclude myself here. It seems to be quite widespread, and it can show up in all manner of ways. I’m talking about the curious Christian practice of pragmatic unbelief. Allow me to explain!

According to basic Christian belief, God is the Creator of all things. He made all things, He takes care of all things, He is all-powerful. Now a basic implication of this is that there really is no area of life where He is not relevant (if I can put it that way). Put differently, there is no area of life in which He is not interested or is inactive. In Matthew 10:29 we have a clear insight into this, for we learn that even the falling of a sparrow to the ground does not happen apart from God’s involvement. Right down to the smallest detail, then, all of life is in the Lord’s hands and is of interest to Him. He did make all things, after all!

Now here’s where the curious Christian practice of pragmatic unbelief comes in. The thing is that there are frequently areas of our lives in which we live and move as though God is disinterested or uninvolved. Now sometimes we do this very clearly, and even wilfully. A case in point is the neglect of personal devotional time with the Lord. If we go through even a day without prayer, without feeding our souls on His Word, we are exercising ourselves in practical unbelief. Although we confess Christ is Lord, yet we give Him no time in our day. It is wrong to do this, and we know it. But there is a more subtle form of this practical unbelief as well. We know it’s wrong to neglect time alone with the Lord, but there are other areas of life where we live in practical unbelief, and yet we remain entirely ignorant of what we’re doing. Let me give you an example or two to show what I mean.

Consider for a moment the study of mathematics. I once heard a Christian parent remark something along the lines of: “It doesn’t matter if you’re taught maths by a believer or an unbeliever, maths is maths!” They expressed a similar opinion about various other parts of a standard primary school curriculum. The idea was that whether you’re a Christian or not, it’s hardly relevant when it comes to maths. In other words, for all intents and purposes, they are saying that God is irrelevant for mathematics. Now there is a kernel of truth in what this person is trying to say. After all, both believers and unbelievers can do maths, there’s no question about that. And yet this perspective is also profoundly mistaken. Unbelievers can do maths, but this is not because God has nothing to do with maths, it’s because unbelievers, in a limited way, use God’s good gift of mathematics and yet fail to glorify Him for it. In fact, it’s worse than that, because they plunder His good gift of maths while simultaneously rebelling against Him and rejecting His precious Son. What a travesty! It is as though a child climbed up on to her father’s lap in order to gain the needed leverage for slapping him in the face! (illustration courtesy of Cornelius Van Til!).

To the extent that an educational curriculum does not recognize Christ’s lordship, then, or is not shaped and taught in terms of Christ’s lordship, it is simply an exercise in unbelief. When Christians ignore the need for Christ’s lordship to shape a curriculum, it is an exercise in pragmatic unbelief. The fundamental commitment to Christ is there for this Christian, and is no doubt sincere, and yet sinfully there are areas of life where, for pragmatic reasons, we live in an unbelieving way. I’ll put it another way: because a Christian is unaware that Christ is Lord of e.g. mathematics, they may feel perfectly and pragmatically happy to be educated, or have their children educated, under a godless curriculum. Now I’m not saying that it’s innately wrong to use a godless curriculum, nor am I saying that we cannot benefit under the teaching of an unbeliever, we certainly can. But I am saying that when we do either of those things, we must not do so ignorantly and without counter-measures to address the unbelieving manner in which they will be teaching us. And I am also saying that, in a broader-life sense, we must study and teach e.g. mathematics under the guiding insight of Christ’s total Lordship over everything. We may benefit from a godless maths instructor, but we will almost certainly need additional instruction from a godly maths instructor! (whether in person or through their writings).

Perhaps a couple more examples will further illustrate the curious Christian practice of pragmatic unbelief. Let us ask ourselves: do I use my recreational time with God in mind? In a very pragmatic way, we may think little or nothing of how we use our recreational time. Oh we will not use it for overtly godless things (which is good!), but we may well use it with little thought for God. Perhaps recreational time is “my” time. Perhaps I sneak a bit too much of it because I’m lazy. Perhaps I never even consider questions like: how much time is appropriate in God’s eyes for recreation and relaxation? How can I use my recreational time to glorify God? If we have not considered questions like these, there is a good chance that we may be exercising ourselves in the curious Christian practice of pragmatic unbelief!

A final example. Have you ever considered how your vocation may be used as a means for God’s glory? Was your choice of vocation influenced by a desire to glorify and enjoy God to the greatest degree possible? Do you consider how you might use your skills, opportunities and relationships in your vocation to honour God? To know Him more? And to make Him known? To the extent that we neglect these questions, we may well be exercising ourselves in the curious Christian practice of pragmatic unbelief!

In the Lord’s Prayer, our Lord taught us to pray: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Now this prayer is absolutely comprehensive. It is not: “Your will be done on earth where applicable…” No, the vision for the unfolding of God’s will on earth is total. There are no areas of life that are neutral when it comes to God’s will. There is nothing we can possibly think, say, or do where God is irrelevant. In Isaiah 11:9, the prophet speaks of a time in the future when “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” As we pray that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven, we are praying for nothing less than the fulfillment of this kingdom prophecy.

As we read the Scriptures, then, we must do so with the total confidence that they will equip us for “every good work” (2 Tim 3:17). Indeed, as we search the Scriptures we must prayerfully and actively seek to equip ourselves for every good work, that God’s will may be done on earth as it is in heaven. We must consider what God’s Word says in regard to a curriculum for education, for how to use our recreational time, for our vocations, for our worship, for our marriages and parenting, and for every other area of life. And as we pray daily in the Spirit and substance of the Lord’s Prayer, we will indeed be seeking that the Lord will enable and help us in this good work. We will be relying on Him to enable us to realise His will in our lives in every possible way. Just as God’s will totally directs all that occurs in the heavenly realms, so too we seek to see all that is on earth likewise totally directed according to His will.

And so as you pray this prayer, as you ask that His will be done on earth as it is heaven, know that you are combatting the curious Christian practice of pragmatic unbelief. Know that you are seeking the Lord’s help to understand and apply His Holy Word to every area of life. And as He enables us to do that by His Holy Spirit, we will indeed see this request being unfolded in our lives. We will see our lives consistently harmonizing with His will, and we will look forward by faith to the day when the knowledge of the Lord will indeed cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.

Soli Deo Gloria!