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Do not be discouraged; you and I are not alone. The truth is that no Christian is perfect. We all live somewhere in the gap between what we know to be true and what we regularly live out. Personal hypocrisy is why it is wrong to judge another person uncharitably when they fail. It is the reminder of our “gap” that restrains us from being judgmental. How could you or I judge others when we, too, are living in the gap? The question should never be, “Is there a gap between what you believe and what you do?” It would be more helpful for gap dwellers to ask other questions.
The real deal for us is whether we are running to God or running away from God. Tim Keller said it this way: “Sin is running away from God, and grace is God’s effort to pursue and intercept self-destructive behavior.” God knew we would live somewhere in the gap, so He created grace for undeserving people. Grace is His empowering favor appropriated for gap dwellers. All you have to do is determine whether or not you will apply God’s unmerited favor to close the distance between the person you are and who He is.
What I am talking about here are functional beliefs and confessional beliefs. I’ve used the term “functional atheism” in the past to describe the concept of the unbelieving believer.
Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
Functional beliefs are the beliefs ingrained in you that guide your perception, which are the primary influences of your behavior. Your practical beliefs are who you are. These beliefs are the ones that put you in the gap. They are different from your confessional or core beliefs. Your confessional beliefs are the things you have learned about God from His Bible. These beliefs are the perfect and pure truth. For example, a typical core or confessional belief is that God is good. The Bible is clear on this. No Christian would dispute the goodness of God. It is a core tenet of how the Bible talks about our Father.
Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way (Psalm 25:8).
For how great is his goodness, and how great his beauty! (Zechariah 9:17).
And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone (Mark 10:18).
While we do not struggle with this confessional belief, there are times when our confessional beliefs can be interrupted because of the grip our functional beliefs have on our minds.
Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD (Jonah 1:1-3).
The most common occurrence of this is when we are not getting our way. How about you? When you find yourself at the intersection of God’s story and your story, how strong is the pull to yield to your desires rather than His? Jonah was one such man. Though he was a good prophet who loved God, there was a particular situation in his life where he had to decide whether to cling to his confessional beliefs (who he knew God to be) or to his functional beliefs (what he wanted instead).
He chose the latter. Rather than following God, Jonah ran the other way. I cannot fuss with Jonah too much here. I have done this many times. A few weeks back, I was angry with my wife. At that moment, I felt the pressure Jonah felt. Will I trust and follow God by living out the pure Word of the Lord, or will I allow my functional beliefs, which are telling me to do things my way, to rule the day? I, like Jonah, chose my desires over God’s.
At that moment, it did not matter what my confessional beliefs were because I was not yielding to the Word that I confessed. Truth does not matter if you are not going to live by it. If functional beliefs are going to win out, you are no better off than an atheist in that you are acting out “functional atheism.” Before you progress through the remainder of this chapter, take some time to reflect and jot down situations where your functional beliefs have overpowered the Word of God that you confess.
What is your disparity? Where are you in the gap? You have one, and some things motivate you to raise the functional flag of your life while lowering the confessional one you know to be true. Self-protection, self-preservation, and self-promotion are three hidden idolatries that will feed and fuel your functional beliefs. Most of the time, your practical beliefs will run under the radar of your known and perceived behavior. Part of what it means to live in the gap is to put forth a highly edited version of who you are.
You are not dumb enough to live according to your full functional beliefs in the raw. You keep those things hidden. The problem with hiding your functional beliefs from others is that you can start to believe your publicity, your self-promoting efforts to present yourself better than you are. This practice is called self-deception. If you are a believer, you want your functional beliefs exposed, and you want to change. You know you cannot live a lie. That is insanity. Insanity is fully ensconced paranormal thinking. You do not want to go there.
”Para” means “alongside of” or “outside of” something. Paranormal thinking is beside “normal thinking” or outside of normal thinking. Normal thinking is biblical thinking. Sanity is living as close to biblical thought as you can get. Choosing to live continuously outside the clear and normative teaching of the Word of God will eventually lock you into biblical insanity, and your conscience will soon follow your functional beliefs by hardening you in the gap.
You do not want this, which should scare you to death, I hope. You have the Word of God and the Spirit of God, two means of grace given to you to help you change your functional beliefs until they are submitted to and guided by your confessional beliefs. If there is a disconnect between your functional beliefs and your confessional beliefs, you must discern, decipher, and determine to break the disconnect that keeps you stuck in the gap. It is a trap that requires extrication so you can be free to make the fame of God great in your world.
Jonah’s initial response and actions seemed to say, “If I act like God is not there and act like God does not care, then eventually things will work out according to my best and what I want.” Though you may not have said such things, it is a compelling argument from the functional gods, isn’t it? Honestly, I have done this before. Even though God was telling me not to sin, I persisted in my way and sinned.
I was pretending the truth of God’s Word did not exist. I slavishly pushed God out of my mind by allowing my functional gods to shout my true confessional beliefs down, which freed me to sin. It did not matter what God’s Word said. It did not matter what God knew about me at that moment.
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Hebrews 4:12-13).
Functional beliefs can make noise in your mind. It could sound like the following:
When you run from God, there will always be a ship ready to take you where you want to. If you harbor impure thoughts, eventually, there will be a bed for you to act out your passions. If you harbor self-pity and an “I deserve better” attitude, you will find a wrong solution for your sinful desires. And when these things happen, you will affirm your sinful desires. You may be surprised how many times I have heard a person justify their immoral behaviors through the signs they experienced. Here is an example:
I felt horrible in my marriage, and though I was not looking for anyone, Biff came along. It was like we had known each other all our lives. (And so the unbiblical nonsense goes.)
Because she got what she wanted, she talked herself into believing God was in it. Jonah could have been like this too. He ran from God, and guess what? A ship was ready to take him to Tarshish. My, my. Isn’t God good? Not! “If I disobey God and nothing bad happens, nothing bad will happen.” You may disobey God, and nothing terrible may happen, but do not be so biblically naive to think what you are doing is right or justified.
A false peace can take you to hell. I have heard it said that “there is one thing worse than hell. It is going to hell while thinking you are going to heaven.” Jonah got what he wanted, but what he wanted was not what God wanted. He was the fool whose deceitful desires fooled him. Just because you can sleep in a storm does not mean you are doing the right thing. Eventually, Jonah’s problems grew worse, and yours will too when your functional beliefs and confessional beliefs are at odds with each other.
But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish” (Jonah 1:5-6).
From the time Jonah arose from his sleep, we see how all his functional beliefs were false. He may have dismissed God, but God accepted him. He may have hoped not to get caught, but God was mercifully on his case.
Be sure your sin will find you out. God does care, and God will interject Himself at some point in your life. Interestingly, ironically, when the mariners woke up Jonah, he told them who his God was, which was his confessional belief, not theirs. His confession was what he believed, though what he believed was utterly different from what he was doing.
Correct theology does not always lead to obedience. A proper confession of faith does not keep you from heading in the wrong direction. Jonah had functional beliefs that were opposing his confessional faith, which separated him from God. Is your life a faithful picture of the implications of what you say you believe about God and the gospel? Are there areas in your life where there are functional contradictions between what you say you believe and how you indeed live?
I haven’t always lived up to my preaching, but I’ve never lowered my preaching to fit my living. —Vance Havner
There is only one way to close the gap between function and confession: you have to go back to your theology of sin and grace. You grow in narrowing the difference between your confessional beliefs and your functional beliefs by cultivating an ongoing, deepening sense of sin and grace. What I mean is that you cannot ignore the sin or the grace in your life. If you ignore the sin, you will not see it clearly, and you will not be able to appropriate God’s grace to your sin.
The central deception in the gap between functional and confessional beliefs is how you view sin and grace. As you probably already discerned, the only way you can live in the gap is by being comfortably numb to your sin. You can become comfortably numb by minimizing your sin. You do this by twisting, ignoring, re-labeling, justifying, rationalizing, alleviating, or blaming your sin away. Any of these responses will keep you in the illusion that all is well while you are still living in the gap.
To snap out of the gap funk, you must take your soul to task. The following are some tips that will help you do just that if you will take them to heart and enlist the help of a few good friends: the Spirit, His Word, and His children.
This final point will do several things:
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Rick launched this training network in 2008 to provide life-changing resources that equip Christians to help others. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology, and in 1991 he received a BS in Education. In 1993 he was ordained into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University in Santa Clarita, CA. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).