Faltering Faith

Dr. Brian Allison

How is your faith? As I speak to Christians, I receive the sense that many are struggling and stumbling in their faith. Different ones are confronted by their appallingly weak faith, and, as a result, they appear spiritually dead. So, I put the question to you – and please be honest, for this is absolutely critical – how is your faith? Behind every faltering, and even failing, faith is the influence and work of Satan. Some who are reading this message may be faltering in their faith, and perhaps are on the verge of failing in their faith. That is why you lack zeal and power; that is why you lack solid commitment and dedication to Christ. Remember, behind a weak and stumbling faith is the work of Satan.

Recently I was speaking to a young lady, a university student, who was quite articulate. At one time, she professed the Christian faith. She believed in God; she even grew up in a religious educational system. When she entered adulthood, becoming more independent, she abandoned her faith. Now, to be sure, though she is responsible for her actions and behaviour, there was something diabolic going on in her life. Through the activity, work, and influence of Satan, she abandoned her faith. Where are you with respect to faith? In Luke 22, our Lord observed the Passover with His disciples, after which He instituted the Lord's Supper; and after leaving the Upper Room, He turned to Simon Peter, and He said, "'Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.' And he said to Him, 'Lord, with You I am ready to go both to prison and to death!' And He said, 'I say to you, Peter, the cock will not crow today until you have denied three times that you know Me'" (vv. 31-34).

God allows Satan to test believers

Jesus looked at Simon, and said, "Simon, Simon." The repetition of the name was to alert Simon that Jesus had something very important and serious to say. This address conveys a note of urgency. Jesus endeavoured to arrest Simon's attention so that he would listen very carefully to what He was about to say. In fact, Jesus punctuated the seriousness and importance of his message, by saying, "Simon, Simon, behold;" that is, "Pay attention, Simon;" or, as one commentator has put it, "Watch out, Simon!"

Having sounded the urgent note, Jesus warned, "Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat" (v. 31). Jesus here warned Simon beforehand that Satan insisted on testing him in order to determine whether he was really genuine, whether he was really loyal and committed to Christ, even as he claimed to be. The image of sifting like wheat is a picture of testing to reveal what is true and good. The agricultural image is that of someone who has a sieve; and the wheat with its chaff are put on the sieve, and it is violently shaken in order to separate the wheat from the chaff – what is good from what is bad, what is true from what is false. Jesus, in effect, said to Simon, "Simon, listen, Satan is going to violently shake you to determine what is really true inside you and what is really false, what is really genuine and what is really bogus."

Satan is God's instrument for testing us to determine the genuineness of our faith, to determine whether we are really committed to Christ, or whether we simply have an empty profession of faith. That is why we may say that behind every faltering and failing faith is the work of the evil one. Notice in the text that Satan "demanded permission" to have Simon. There apparently was spiritual interaction and discussion behind the cosmic scene. Satan has to secure permission from God to test believers. God is sovereign, He is in control. Satan cannot attack believers unless God gives him permission. That is a consolation. But we must remember, God is pleased to allow Satan to attack His people; to surrender His people for a season in order to test them. This was true of Job. We read in Job 1:8ff., "And the LORD said to Satan, 'Have you considered my servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.' Then Satan answered the LORD, 'Does Job fear God for nothing? Hast Thou not made a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth Thy hand now and touch all that he has; he will surely curse Thee to Thy face.' Then the LORD said to Satan, 'Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him.' So Satan departed from the presence of the LORD." We read again in Job 2:4ff., "And Satan answered the LORD and said, 'Skin for skin! Yes, all that a man has he will give for his life. However, put forth Thy hand, now, and touch his bone and his flesh; he will curse Thee to Thy face.' So the LORD said to Satan, 'Behold, he is in your power, only spare his life.'"

So, Satan comes before the Lord, as the accuser of the brethren, and he names this saint and that saint, and he demands permission to have them in order to sift them like wheat. And God is pleased to say, "He (or she) is in your power. Attack him (or her), test him (or her), but here are the boundaries, here are the limits." Sometimes God is pleased to give us over to Satan to determine whether we really do believe Him, whether we really are genuine in our faith, whether we really are committed to Christ. That is not a pretty prospect, but we must bow to the sovereign and wise will of God.

Prayer counteracts the work of Satan

We are not defenseless when Satan is allowed to test the genuineness of our faith. Our main recourse is prayer. Jesus assured Simon, "But I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail" (v. 32a). Satan is the great adversary, Christ is the great Advocate. Generally speaking, it is prayer and, in most cases, only prayer that will counteract the onslaught of the evil one. When God is pleased to permit Satan to attack us, and put us through the wringer, the power of prayer repels him and quashes his schemes.

Jesus prayed for Simon prior to the testing ("I have prayed"). Jesus knew that Simon was going to be tested, and He prayed in advance for him. We might call this forestalling prayer – praying beforehand in order to prevent or thwart some impending misfortune. And sometimes God allows us to understand and realize, by His grace, what is about to happen in order for us to take up the work of prayer. Prayer really does change things. So, Jesus assured Simon that He had prayed for him. Jesus is the great Intercessor, and we need Him to continually pray for us. Christ ever lives to make intercession for His people. It is comforting and helpful to have God's people praying for us, but we need Christ's prayers, especially if we are faltering in our faith; it is a life-death struggle. Believers need to cry out to Him, "Lord Jesus, pray for me." We will not pray that unless we realize that we really are in a life-death struggle. Only prayer can help us in such cases; and if Jesus is not praying for us, then we are lost.

Jesus prayed that Simon's faith would not "fail," that his faith would not utterly cease, that he would not abandon Christ. It is possible for professing Christians to have a faltering and failing faith. To be sure, we believe in the sovereignty of God, and that by His grace, we are saved. However, we equally believe in the free moral agency and responsibility of the individual, though the elect can never perish. We are ultimately looking at a mystery. These are not empty or hypothetical words of Jesus to Simon.

Do you know what causes a faith to falter, and even fail? – the devastating power of fear. The pressures and stresses of life drain the spiritual life and vigour from us. We get caught up in the 'rat race' of this world, and we begin to spiritually drift; and we justify ourselves, saying, "Well, God that knows I am busy, and I can forget about Him for now, and attend to these matters." Listen, God is pleased to make our whole world collapse because we have not put Him first in our lives. We are to seek first God, His kingdom, and His righteousness, and everything else will be added to us (see Mt. 6:33). When we see things going awry, and things not working out, and the stresses and the pressures squeezing the spiritual life out of us, we need to realize that God is trying to get our attention. Now, it is with these stresses and pressures that we begin to fear and become anxious, saying, "What are we going to do now? What is going to happen? It seems that things are falling apart." We are thus driven to self-absorption. It is fear and anxiety that destroy faith.

But God allows Satan to test us in order to make us spiritually stronger. Jesus encouraged Simon, "And you, when once you have turned again [i.e., retraced his steps], strengthen your brothers" (v. 32b). God's testing will either make us or break us, it will either make us stronger or it will make us weaker, it will either draw us closer to God or it will repel us from Him. Now, we know that Jesus' prayer for Simon was answered by what Jesus says here. Simon would not utterly fall away. He would recover; and in recovering, he then would have a spiritual responsibility to fulfil. Let us remember that Jesus' prayers are effectual. Jesus can successfully pray that we persevere in the faith. He is the Author and Perfecter of our faith (Hb. 12:2a). Though we do not like tribulation, affliction, or suffering, God is pleased to bring these messengers of sanctification into our lives so that the true spiritual state of our hearts may be revealed; so that we may clearly see whether we really love Christ and really want Him, or whether we simply serve and worship Him for the blessings we can receive. We should not love the blessings more than we love the Blesser. So, testing either makes us or breaks us; and the testing is designed to strengthen us and to draw us closer to God.

Simon received instruction to strengthen his brothers. Do you see what this is saying? We have a spiritual responsibility to strengthen others. Once we have received grace and have been strengthened, having come through the fires of testing, we must help others. We are to communicate to other believers the grace that we have received from Christ.

Only testing determines the reality of faith

Simon apparently was indignant at Jesus' words. We read, "And he said to Him, 'Lord, with You I am ready to go both to prison and to death!'" (v. 33). In effect, Simon retorted, "Jesus, what are You talking about? What do You mean I am going to falter? What do You mean that my level of commitment is going to suffer? What do You mean that I am not going to be loyal? Listen, Lord, I am so committed to You that I am willing to go to prison, or to be martyred for You." Peter, of course, did not know what he was talking about. It is relatively easy, when things are going well, to say how committed we are to Christ. When we are not experiencing pain or suffering, we are like the Rock of Gibraltar; and nothing (we believe) will move us. We say, "Lord, I love You. I will remain faithful to You; nothing will shake me." But God is pleased to put us to the test, and 'to put up' what our mouths have spoken.

Simon was very sincere, but he was also self-deceived. We may be very sincere in professing the level of commitment we have to Christ, but when the axe falls, then where are we? When the suffering comes, what is our response? Again, God brings testing into our lives to determine the reality and quality of our faith. Simon was proud concerning his commitment to Christ; pride comes before a fall. The Scriptures teach, "Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10:12). Spiritual pride may say, "Yes, I am doing fine, I am doing great. Yes, I am seeking the Lord every day. I feel on top of the world. Yes, I am coming out to the church meetings. Lord, I will follow You and never be unfaithful." And Jesus says to us, "Will you? How about if sickness comes your way? What will you do when things become financially tight? Then where will you be?" True faith rises above circumstances.

Notice how the Lord responds to Simon, "And He said [here is the truth, Simon], 'I say to you, Peter, the cock will not crow today until you have denied three times that you know Me'" (v. 34). This is the only place in the New Testament where Jesus personally addresses Simon as Peter (though He identifies Simon as Peter in Matthew 16:18). This is ironical. Peter mean 'rock'. Jesus, in effect says (if I may be permitted to be a bit facetious), "I say to you, Mr. Rock, you will run away like a scared hare. You will not only deny Me once today, but you will deny Me three times within the next twelve hours."

With these words, Jesus revealed the nature of Simon's faltering faith. Peter would be put into the situation in which he would have the opportunity to confess allegiance to Christ. Maybe some who read this message have been in a similar situation. Have you denied your Lord this past week because you were afraid or embarrassed to confess His name? Perhaps, you have denied the Lord, who bought you with His precious blood, when He gave you the opportunity to witness of Him. If you wilted this past week, being embarrassed to talk to a friend, or a neighbour, or a family member about Christ, how will you fare and stand when the situation becomes really intense or heated? Were you more concerned about your image and reputation – what people will think? Did you say, "What will they think if they know I am a Christian? I want them to like me. I want to be part of the in-crowd. I will witness through my example. Yes, I will just show love." But the Word of God says that we must also speak. It is through the foolishness of the message preached that people are saved; and in simply behaving properly, we appear no different than an unbeliever who is morally upright, yet still worldly. We need to quit with the excuses and self-justification.

A little servant girl said to Simon, "This man was with [Jesus] too." To which, Simon replied, "Woman, I do not know Him" (Luke 22:56b,57). Two other people said similar words to Simon, which he in turn denied. Peter had the opportunity to make good on his commitment and promise, but he miserably failed. He proved to be a liar and betrayer. When that third denial came, and the rooster crowed, Jesus turned and looked at Peter – that was all – and Peter crumbled in shame, and wept bitterly.

How is your faith? Have you denied your Lord recently? Have you refused to witness, to speak His name, because of fear or embarrassment? Your courage to stand up and speak of Christ demonstrates the reality and quality of your faith. Such opportunities are arenas for the testing of your faith. You may boast about reading your Bible for an hour daily, or praying for half an hour daily, and yet still be devoid of true faith. True faith is courageous; it is bold. Real faith stands up for Christ and speaks the Word; and does not say, "Oh, but it does not seem to be a convenient time now. I will look for a better opportunity." Believers must quit the game playing, and honestly admit that they are weak in their faith; and admit that maybe they really do not know Him Whom they claim to know. True faith is indeed willing to go to prison for Christ, and even to die for Him.

If you are faltering in your faith, be of good cheer. Right now in the quiet of your heart, and with humility, ask Jesus to pray for you, and to restore you by His grace. His prayers are effectual; and when you are restored, when you do return to Him, strengthen your Christian brothers and sisters.