Sincere and simple — and sharp and savvy

Photo: James, Unsplash.

A folksy pastor visiting my con-gregation commented on my sermon after church. “Thanks,” he said. “You kept your cookie jar on the bottom shelf.” 

Whether it’s true or not, I know the temptation of the top shelf, the allure of turning the fire hose on the congregation after you’ve dug three commentaries deep into a passage of Scripture all week. 

I’ve got words. I’ve got ideas. I’ve got insights, people. It’s all too easy for some kind of erudition to overshadow the everyday call to live a sincere and simple faith in Jesus.

In 2 Corinthians 11:3, Paul speaks of his hope that the Corinthians will not lose their “sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” He uses a rhyming pair of Greek words that could also be translated “sincere and simple.”

What does it mean to live a sincere and simple faith in Jesus? 

“Simplicity” is a sparkling word for us Anabaptists. We aspire to live simply and spend simply and dress simply. 

Simplicity can take on anti-intellectualist hues that track back to Menno Simons, who complained that pastors from establishment churches were “greeted as doctors, lords and teachers” while Anabaptists were slurred as “bootleg preachers, deceivers and heretics.” (Oh, to be called a bootleg preacher.) 

Still today, some Plain groups eschew education beyond the eighth grade. I remember my traditional Mennonite grandparents asking me as I headed off to college whether they would still recognize me when I came home. 

“Simple” can imply an intentional kind of naivete — sort of the King James version of “special.” That’s all I have to say about that.

But I wonder if there are ways to be sharp and savvy followers of Jesus, people who have read up on the world’s chutes and ladders even as they are judicious about the ones they choose to take. 

The apostle Paul was a towering intellect. True, he regarded all his credentials as nothing compared to knowing Christ and him crucified (Philippians 3:8; 1 Corinthians 2:2). And yet, Paul criticized the Corinthians for not being wise enough to work through complicated human issues in their congregation (1 Corinthians 6:1-6). 

His letters, with their theological depth and artistic breadth, demonstrate how Paul saw his mind completed in Christ, who gathers up “all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10). 

“I may be untrained in speech,” Paul goes on to tell the Corinthians, “but not in knowledge” (2 Corinthians 11:6). And though, in the end, knowledge will pass away, the sincere and simple faith Paul commends is neither top shelf nor bottom (1 Corinthians 13:8). It looks like what he sought to live out for himself: a willingness to respond to Jesus’ leading in all aspects of his life. 

Christ’s truth informed Paul’s teaching (2 Corinthians 11:10). Christ’s strength gave meaning to Paul’s weakness (11:29-30; 12:9). Christ’s leading guided Paul’s decisions (12:14). 

That’s a sincere and simple faith — one that’s supple and responsive to Jesus. It doesn’t intellectualize its way out of and around Jesus’ word. It’s willing to be stopped in its tracks, to be challenged, to suffer when the cultural currents shift.

The medieval monastic Thomas à Kempis wrote in his booklet The Imitation of Christ: “On the day of judgment, surely, we shall not be asked what we have read but what we have done; not how well we have spoken but how well we have lived.” 

A sincere and simple faith is one that not only reads and speaks but lives. Like the blind man in John 9, a sincere and simple faith doesn’t need to interrogate all the hows and whys. It just knows that it’s received light from Jesus. 

Learning and intellect, smarts and savvy — the whole portfolio of gifts that we’ve inherited or developed (or both) — they’re good and precious insofar as they’re deployed for the love of Christ.

In so many ways, the shelf is irrelevant. “This is what we pray for,” writes Paul, “that you may become perfect” (2 Corinthians 13:9). It’s sincere and simple faith, top to bottom. 

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