Talking Ashes

Most already have the fact that today is Ash Wednesday on their radar. But, if you are like me, you aren’t entirely sure what you are going to do with that information.

I have two major themes that to discuss here. The first is cognitive dissonance and the second is actionless faith.

Cognitive dissonance is defined as being in a state inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes. Although this includes hypocrisy, it means a bit more than that. It can also equate to what is becoming popularly referred to as moral injury.

I love the term moral injury, because it is something that had insufficient terminology until recently, and was referred to as feeling guilty. But guilt is a bit more complicated. Remorse for doing something wrong usually refers to guilty feelings. Moral injury is the after effects, after knowing you are forgiven and the guilt has been lifted, but still trying to deal with the destructive effects that your wrongdoings had. For instance, if I have a patient that I know requires a lot more time than I have to give because I’m busy in the clinic, and I don’t give them the time they need or deserve, I know I’m doing something wrong, but I don’t know how NOT to do that wrong thing because I am part of a flawed system that places more priority on volume than quality. Then that person, let’s say, gets admitted to the ICU, and I may have been able to prevent that had I adequate time to assess and evaluate them. Once I am forgiven for this, I should be done with it. I can even forgive myself. But there is a lingering effect from that sort of thing, it’s not guilt, it’s no longer remorse, it’s moral injury.

So let’s draw the logical line to connect both cognitive dissonance and moral injury.

I live in California. I am not a rich man by any western standard. I live in a very average home, in a very average suburb, make an average salary and have access to average resources like health care and financial assistance (welfare), should I fall on hard times.

I have a good friend who was born and raised in a rural village in one of the least developed countries in the world. He has worked hard and endured much difficulty in his life and has little to show for it, materially. He has been trying to build a house for his family for years, but struggles to find the funds, or hold onto the funds he saves to build the home. Due to the relative instability of living in such an environment, he took out a loan to finish his home.

My monthly mortgage is about the same as the loan that is breaking him, financially (no, I don’t have a big mortgage, I’m in fact very lucky to have such a small one).

$500 would literally put a roof on his home.

I just had to spend $3300 to repair my 5 year-old minivan that broke down. Sure, it may seem like a necessity to most Americans to have a running minivan, however, $500 to my friend could mean the difference of he and his children surviving the next bout of malaria through the wet season or not. Not having a minivan is not a matter of survival, it is a matter of extreme inconvenience.

I spend much less money on luxuries than I used to, but compared to life in places like this country in West Africa, I live an extravagantly wealthy lifestyle.

On average, Americans spend 10%-15% of their annual income on vacations.

With no frame of reference, that may seem reasonable to most, but it is a painful number for the globally-aware. What that kind of money can do for a family in a place like Togo, where parents have to make tough decision on which kid to provide an education for because tuition is $40 per year and they can only afford to educate one of them.

I KNOW the right thing to do, yet over and over and over, I don’t do it. That is cognitive dissonance that has led to a moral injury. Essentially, I feel guilty for living an average lifestyle. How can anyone morally justify this lifestyle when so little could do so much? But what can I change?

So onto point number two, which you can now see is closely linked with the first.

Actionless Faith

“Actionless” isn’t even really a word, because, let’s be honest, it’s an oxymoron. Either you have action or you have inaction. And same goes for faith, either your faith compells you, propels you into action, or you have no faith.

Let’s look carefully at James 2:14-26, because we talk about this all the time, yet seldom actually change, or put our words into action.

Faith and Works

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can such faith save him?

15 If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, stay warm, and be well fed,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.”[a] Show me your faith without works, and I will show you faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one. Good! Even the demons believe—and they shudder.

20 Senseless person! Are you willing to learn that faith without works is useless? 21 Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by works in offering Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active together with his works, and by works, faith was made complete, 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,[b] and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 In the same way, wasn’t Rahab the prostitute also justified by works in receiving the messengers and sending them out by a different route? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

James 2:14-26 CSB

I think this is at the heart of the criticism that we endure (and sometimes deserve) as Christians for saying that we are praying for someone but what we really mean is that don’t have the time or energy to get wrapped up in their mess so we will say a prayer instead.

For 14 years I struggled with having a calling into missions, and proclaimed my pursuit of it, but did not actually do it. Sure, I was doing stuff to pursue that calling. I was gaining experience with street evangelism, learning to disciple, teaching Bible studies, taking seminary courses, finishing my medical education, but I wasn’t in the mission field. Nor did I know how I was ever going to get there. And once I did, it was only for a short time. I could talk all day about the importance of making disciples among the nations, but I wasn’t doing it. I was comfortably sitting in my home town, evangelizing to people who had access to churches, bible book stores and numerous resources, but I was not reaching out to the unreached.

Even now, after only spending a year doing this in West Africa, I still bear the weight of an actionless faith, because, let’s face it, it’s hard to find time in the busyness of life to actually commit to doing it. I want to go back. My whole family wants to go back. We don’t understand how or if we can at this point, and would like to understand that. But we don’t have the network we need right now to make sense of all this.

Yet, we give tons of advice don’t we? “You’ll get through this, just trust Jesus.” We pray for our neighbors and each other’s difficulties and crises. We remember Aunt Bethany’s fungal infection in our prayers. We are CONSTANTLY praying for safety, I mean, don’t even get me started on our prayers for safety…. We ARE safe! How about WE go do something that actually involves risk where prayers for safety are actual heartcries for protection? Heaven forbid we encounter an unsafe situation!

Faith in Action

Every action should begin with prayer, and that prayer should be continuous during action. But here’s the difference prayer + faith + action makes:

Photo of men’s ward, from website

There was this young man, we will call him Mohammed. He was a Muslim 20 year old with a bright future, going to school and well-loved by several missionaries around him. He was a talented musician and for years had been cared for, loved, and had the gospel presented to him on a number of occasions. Then, while he was in medical school, he developed a tumor. The tumor was growing fast. He left school to go back to the mission hospital where he had grown up for care. Every missionary physician that saw him recognized the tumor and knew that it was terminal.

It seemed like everyday he grew weaker as treatments failed. He was given a bed in the “infection ward” as a comfortable place to slowly pass away.

Though several missionary physicians visited and prayed with him daily, he seemed no closer to giving his life to Jesus. Then, for some reason, a doctor from Oklahoma showed up and took a special liking to this young man. He’d sit every day for hours and hours in the crowded, hot, smelly, humid infection ward, reading gospels to Mohammed through an interpreter. And every day, he’d pray for Mohammed to be healed, telling him that even if God chooses not to heal him, He is still a loving faithful father.

After that doctor from Oklahoma left, I continued the daily dressing changes and began to see the tumor and ulcer improving, almost like the cancer was gone and now the body was just healing like a normal open wound would. Day after day I saw rapid improvement. I started to talk to the other physicians about what I was seeing, and they didn’t quite believe until one day, out of frustration I begged a missionary physician to come look at what I was seeing, just to prove that I wasn’t crazy. He couldn’t believe his eyes. He called other physicians over, one after another, we broke down into tears and thankedGod over this young man. We were witnessing a miracle. (Just want to be 100% clear, I had nothing to do with this recovery. All I was doing was changing his bandages once or twice a day.)

What we didn’t realize is that when the wound was at its worst, and showing no signs of healing, the Mohammed had secretly decided to give his life to Jesus.

This young man had been prayed for for over a decade by missionaries, effort had been put in by many, and one in particular that was unable to be present for the recovery portion. And by faith, Mohammed was healed, not by human hands and human wisdom, but that faith was not devoid of action. Devoid of action, Mohammed may not have ever come to know Christ, or to find comfort in the words of the gospel read by a doctor with a southern drawl in a Boomer Sooner t-shirt.

Faith that draws us into action, that is real faith. Platitudes and words of encouragement do not help when the chips are down. They have no real substance when faced with real suffering, real death, real discomfort, or real brokenness. We need to do things, not talk about, strategize about, learn about, study how to do them. That can mean actually getting to know your neighbor, inviting someone into relationship with you who you know is a mess and hurting, routinely setting aside time to show them that you really are invested in them.

What we do is as important as what we believe, because if we say we believe something, like “Jesus will get you through,” without being willing to be the hands and arms of Jesus, they are just words. I know this because I am the worst example of this. It has been my natural tendency to “give encouragement” in suffering, when what my suffering brother or sister needed was someone willing to be “in it” with them. That requires a willingness to share in sorrow, suffering, and pain. It requires us to put aside our consumeristic values of comfort and the pursuit of happiness to instead be present in both word and deed. It is difficult. Paradoxically, giving up the pursuit of our own happiness is not giving up that pursuit at all, but rather pursuing the one thing that really does produce everlasting and transcendent joy, loving others.

And I mess up a lot. Sometimes when I try to help, I get a hero complex thinking that my wisdom and experience and training is what my brother or sister needs, when in actuality, all they need is a humble heart to listen and be present in their pain, not offer advice, or counsel. We are not in the business of fixing people. We are in the business of loving people.

So my question is, are there sins of apathy, selfishness, and/or cowardice that are preventing you and I from loving others that we need to repent of in this season?

This was a long post. I’ll have a shorter one tomorrow where I will discuss what it means to be present with people. I welcome your comments. Would love to hear from you.

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