Phones are a huge blessing in the realm of communication. We can talk to someone who lives thousands of miles away and it is like they are in the room next to us. Yet we all have received a phone call from a random number that turns out to be a scam. In fact, as technology for communication has improved so has technology to scam and solicit. Scammers are even able to take an actual phone number used by a real person and use it as their own so more people will answer. If you’re anything like me than that has sewn small seeds of distrust into who is calling me, is it a real person or is it a counterfeit caller?
Counterfeit problems are not only in phone calls or money; they also happen in almost every area of our life including our faith. Paul argues against a counterfeit gospel in Galatians, John warns against counterfeit teachers in his letters. Counterfeit teachers and beliefs about God bring everything about Christianity into question and under suspicion.
We face this counterfeit problem today and perhaps even on a grander scale. So, what do we do? We turn back to the Word of God the source of truth and let it speak for itself. God reminds us that our hearts need repentance from our illusions of religion, from feelings that are idolatrous, and from our expectations aimed at God.
God Calls Us to Repent from Our Illusions of Religion
“Vanity of Vanities! All is vanity.” Is the first words we hear from the preacher in Ecclesiastes. The Hebrew word hebel or, as we know it “vanity,” connotes what is visible or recognizable, but unsubstantial, momentary, and profitless. Why does the preacher begin with this negative word? Why is he saying everything is profitless?
Ecclesiastes was one of the last books to be written in the Old Testament, probably around the late Persian and early Greek periods. Israel is past their exile, past the tensions of rebuilding their community, they are at peace. Because of this many religious people in their community became overconfident in their wisdom and developed a false illusion of religion. They knew how God worked and knew when God would work. Eugene Peterson writes, “it was overconfident piety, sure that it knows God’s mind better than he does himself, and neurotic apocalyptic, sure that doomsday is just around the corner.” Faith in God for the people of Israel had become muddled with illusions of a religion based on formula, based on what humans thought instead of what God does. In other words, they had life figured out.
The fitness industry is one of the fastest growing industries. Everywhere you look, there are diet fads, workout routines, and fitness stories that will make you look like a supermodel or body builder. The picture presented is a person who has it all together because they took this pill or followed these steps. They are a person who does not seem to have any problems in their life, and they are always smiling. It is the illusion that life will be better if you follow their plan.
In a similar way, the religions of that time and even our religions of today whether Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim present this illusion that if you follow these steps, if you go to temple, if you sacrifice the right things to God then you will have it made.
God uses these words by the preacher in Ecclesiastes to shatter our illusions. God reminds us that faith is not built on human formulas, not built on morality, not built on money, or anything by human standard. Faith is built on God. The wisdom of the world? Vanity. Money? Vanity. Human morality? Vanity. God used the preacher to say no to such illusions and to call people to stop looking at themselves and look to God.
In John 14:3 we hear something quite similar as Jesus tells his disciples, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” It is not what we do to be with Jesus. Having money will not save us. Having a certain type of religious practice. Living a certain type of way. None of it will save us.
What God calls us to do here is repent from the illusions we have built by turning away from them and turning to him.
God Calls Us to Repent from Our Feelings that Are Idolatrous
God also calls us to repent from our feelings that are idolatrous. In Ecclesiastes 2 we reads this, “I said to myself, come now, I will test you with pleasure so enjoy yourself. And behold it too was futility. I said of laughter, ‘it is madness,’ and of pleasure, ‘What does it accomplish?’”
Throughout the Old Testament there was a competition of religious worship and one of the gods was Baal. Baalism’s emphasis was on a subjective experience. It was how you felt that determined how close you were to the divine. God was no longer holy or majestic, but an object of feeling. Religion became a worship that says, “I will give you satisfaction. You want religious feelings? I will give them to you. You want your needs fulfilled? I’ll do it in the form most attractive to you.”
Perhaps you have heard the phrase, “I just did not get much out of it.” People say this about certain workout programs, certain television shows, and in our context, they say this about religion. The question is focused on what they can get out of worshiping God. What do they have to gain? This is why there are thousands of churches who spend large amounts of money on setting up the perfect worship experience. The focus is on the production they can put on, the events they can have to keep people coming. It is trying to make God most attractive to people who might happen to visit or even to keep people attending. This focus is consumer based and has led to people being displaced and not having a church home, because they are looking for a God and worship experience that benefits them best.
God is not based on how we feel, and when we use how we feel or what we get out of worship as the criteria for religion we will never be satisfied. Ecclesiastes 2 paints a painfully plain picture that pleasure and possessions are just as meaningless as human philosophy and reason for the basis of our faith. Yet why do we think that if we had more of a budget, we would have more members? Or if we had the right brand or programs?
God is not concerned with having fair weathered followers who only show up when there are five-dollar bills on the pew. God does not want people who only show up to worship when they are feeling good or comfortable. God wants people who seek God and God alone. Who base their faith on God’s Word in the community of God’s people.
God calls us to repent from our feeling-based worship that is subject and private. God calls us to repent, and this means that faith in God is not how I feel when I am alone, but how I act toward God in relationship with God’s people.
God Calls Us to Repent from Our Expectations Aimed at God
Illusions and feelings both play into our expectations about who God is and what God does. In fact, expectations are the core sickness that illusions and feelings are symptoms of. Ecclesiastes 3 tells us that we are not in control. It begins with telling us that there is an appointed time for everything, and the one who set these times. The one who made these seasons is God not us. Verse 11 says, “He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.”
The problem that Israel had and that we have is that we have reversed the order. We place the gifts that God has set as the definers of our reality. We place these expectations on the creation to define the Creator.
When I was coming home from England in 2019, I had very similar expectations aimed at God, myself, and this church. As we began talks about my position as head pastor, I had expectations that I would bring organization and that I would grow the church. I expected that because I was now pastor, God was going to faithfully provide more people to step in the doors of the church. If I build the space, hire the right positions, get the right advertisement, Lakeview Baptist would become a beacon to the community of Lacy Lakeview.
Then came a pandemic where everything shut down, and a whirlwind of other unfortunate events followed to where we are today. My expectations were shattered, not because I did not work or that I sat on my hands, but because I am not in control of God.
We pray fervently expecting God to give us that positive answer we want. We follow the pattern of reading our Bible, having devotions, helping with the church, and we expect that God is going to reward us in some way. Our expectant eyes have traded God for a future of prosperity. God will not be controlled by our actions. God is not defined by what we expect of him. God defines who he is by his love towards us in his revelation. We don’t get to decided what God will do based on what we do.
As Christians we have been given a daunting task and that is to trust God in all that God does. To Trust God means we repent from placing our own human expectations on the divine will of God. To trust God means we let go of what we define as successful or great and allow God to move as God sees fit.
When we expect things of God like expecting God likes our brand of worship better than another churches, or that God only appears when I feel God, than we are dooming ourselves to disappointment, our hearts have become crowded like the temple. Repenting of expectations means we are allowing Jesus to come into our hearts and clean out this mess and clutter of how we have illusioned, felt, and expected church to be. We are dying to ourselves for Christ to bring life.
I invite you to read and re-read this book of cleansing as we learn what it means to prepare our hearts for the Lord. Our first step is always repentance, to turn ourselves away from our illusions, feelings, and expectations and towards God coming to us. God is clearing away what we mistake for religion, what we mistake for Christianity, and most definitely what we mistake for God. When God clears this, when we finally let go of these false understandings, we now have the space, the ability, and most of all the freedom to hear the true Word of God.
Benjamin Fountain is currently the pastor of Lakeview Baptist Church in Lacy Lakeview, TX, where he has served in a multitude of roles since 2016.