There were a handful of illustrations and analogies that I had picked up during my youth ministry days. I had used these clever-sounding parables at the climax of sermons and Bible lessons. They were part of my shiny tool kit of preacher sayings. They had aroused interest and intrigue from my audiences, but the gilding had begun to tarnish. After being in ministry for about seven years, I was no longer sure they were of value. One of these illustrious illustrations, which I'm sure you've heard, was the wheelbarrow illustration. It goes something like this.
"Let's say that I strung up a tight rope across Niagara Falls. I then took a wheelbarrow and carefully balanced it on the tight rope. With ease, I pushed that wheelbarrow across the tight rope without falling. After seeing that, would you believe that I could do it again? " Most will say, "yes."
"Now, let's say that I invite you to get in the wheelbarrow and go for a ride as I push you across that tight rope. Would you be willing to do that?"
At this point, most will fidget a bit because it sounds both frightening and unwise. The speaker then gives the application. "That's what it's like to trust Jesus. It's not enough to know he can save; you have to get in the wheelbarrow."
I admit that I had used this illustration to explain salvation a number of times when I was speaking on a regular basis. I liked it because it was vague enough to hide that I wasn't sure what was required for salvation. As I was approaching my mid-twenties, the analogy began to unravel on me. What exactly does the wheelbarrow ride represent? I was questioning everything, and no sacred cow was too holy to escape being dissected.
There was another analogy that I heard quite often in the years leading up to my twenties. It was the chair illustration. It went something like this.
“Faith is like sitting in a chair. It’s not enough to believe that the chair will hold you. Faith is when you actually sit in the chair.”
Once again, this illustration was probably valued for its power of obfuscation. Though it was supposedly designed to illuminate some biblical idea, it did nothing but hide the truth from plain sight. Was faith so mysterious that it could not be explained by normative definition? Why was the substance so elusive that it required enigmatic illustrations? I had begun to think that these types of obtuse metaphors made the meaning at least once removed from the audience's understanding. If I couldn't understand it, certainly there were others.
One Sunday, I was visiting a church in Tyler, TX. The youth minister was speaking. He was passionate and interesting to listen to. I could see why he had a booming student ministry. He even had long hair, an ambiguous fashion statement that could be simultaneously associated with Jesus' hairstyle, and a rebellious teen.
I don't remember the subject of his sermon, but I do recall that he used the chair analogy. "It's not faith until you actually sit in the chair," he said as if it made perfect sense. Maybe to some, it did, but to me, it stuck out like a twice-hammered, black-nailed sore thumb. His entire sermon had led up to that point. He finally was dispensing his sage wisdom and he used the chair illustration to do it.
In my younger years, I would have wandered out without question. I would have assumed the speaker knew something I didn't and I wouldn't want to embarrass myself by asking a dumb question. At this point, though, I had begun to suspect the impossible. I had started to think some preachers were saying things from the stage that they couldn't really define or explain. I was nursing the notion that these kinds of illustrations were not actually designed to illuminate the truth, but instead, hide the inconsistencies of the message.
I worked my way to the front at the end of the message. There was a line of congregants shaking the minister’s hand and congratulating him on his wonderful message. After waiting in line, I shook his hand, thanked him for the message, and asked as simple a question as I could.
“In the chair illustration, what exactly does the sitting down represent? I mean, I want to make sure I’ve sat in the chair, so how do I do it?” I asked. I didn’t portray any animosity in my demeanor. I certainly didn’t mean any disrespect, but the question must have bothered him for the response he gave.
"Thanks for keeping me on my toes," he said before turning and abruptly walking straight away. I wondered if he was going to get a chair to demonstrate. Nope, I watched him strike up a conversation with someone else. He had turned his back on me without giving an answer. Had I offended the guy, had I said something inappropriate or was it possible that he didn't know either. As I look back on it now, I realize it's a tricky question. The wheelbarrow analogy shares the same trickiness.
Sitting in the chair and riding in the wheelbarrow apparently, represent faith. The illustrations are supposed to demonstrate that faith is something more than just mentally agreeing with certain facts. So, I wanted to know what the 'something more' actually was. It seemed as if there should be a readily available answer.
In reality, the definition stands between a rock and a hard place. If you say that sitting in the chair is changing your lifestyle and doing good works, then you've just established a good-works-for-salvation market place. You'd effectively be buying your salvation by right living. If it's something more than mere mental activity but something less than good works, then it leaves the answer in a meaningless neutral zone where there exists nothing but the elusive vagaries of circular reasoning.
Some try to tackle this difficulty with the introduction of emotion and will. Supposedly this helps split the hairline division between sitting and not sitting in the chair. The apparent distinction is often explained as head faith and heart faith. In those years, I often heard preachers say, "Many people miss heaven by 18 inches, the distance from the head to the heart." I recently measured the distance from my head to my heart, and it wasn't anywhere near 18 inches. With an 18-inch head-to-heart distance, a person would have to be Goliath size. Though, that is the smallest of the difficulties with this head and heart illustration.
Though the youth minister was not able to answer the question, others have. They say that sitting in the chair or riding in the wheelbarrow represents when the belief moves from your head to your heart. Once again, this definition sounds meaningful, but when a clear difference between these two types of faiths is explained, they share the same confounded endpoint.
Emotions are a function of the mind. Passion does not literally take place in our aorta or left ventricle. Others have tried to explain that heart faith, sitting in the chair, and riding in the wheelbarrow, is when your beliefs work their way not only into your emotions but into your will. This always seemed to be simply a cleverly disguised way of saying, you’ll do good stuff if you’ve really experienced faith.
In those years, I heard a preacher say that one way to determine if you're really saved is, "Check and see if you love Jesus more than sports, cars, your career, or your hobbies." This preacher, who has become quite famous now, would end his bit by saying, "What does your heart say about Jesus?" He placed the path of salvation through the heart, supposedly where the emotions and will power lived.
I always had a hard time with that. On what scale am I supposed to determine what I love more? In the end, I could only judge by my actions and works, but supposedly salvation isn't given on the basis of actions and works.
For years I was bathed in a constantly cascading waterfall of strange cliches, oblique illustrations, and obscure analogies. The result left me feeling like there were no answers that lay beneath these carefully constructed distractions. Faith and salvation's requirements couldn't be defined any more than a mist can be grasped in hand. I wanted to understand how all of these aspects fit together, but there were no clear and consistent answers as far as I could tell.