By Charles Colson
Boris Kornfeld is the great paradox personified. A Jew who betrayed the faith of his fathers. A doctor whose years of training were senselessly wasted. A political idealist whose utopian vision led only to a barren Siberian prison. A prisoner who gave up his life for nothing more than a loaf of stolen bread. In every one of these areas, Boris Kornfeld was a failure—at least in the world’s system of values. Yet God took that failure of a man and through his single-minded obedience used him to lead to Christ another who would go on to become a prophetic voice and one of the world’s most influential writers: Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
For Kornfeld’s words did their convincing, convicting work, touching what Solzhenitsyn later called “a sensitive chord.” That was his moment of spiritual awakening; “God of the universe, I believe You again! Though I renounced You, You will be with me,” he cried out. It was a spiritual transfusion—life taken from one man and pumped into another for God’s sovereign purpose.
And in his conversion Solzhenitsyn saw clearly the kingdom paradox. For in the emptiness of that Russian gulag, he perceived what pleasure-seeking millions in the abundance of Western life cannot. He wrote later, “The meaning of earthly existence lies, not as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering, but in the development of the soul.”
Kornfeld’s brief Christian life was lived in circumscribed circumstances, almost in isolation. In many ways it would seem that his decision not to sign the medical forms (doing so was a death sentence to fellow prisoners), his reporting of the corrupt guard (for stealing the bread reserved for his patients), even his few hours of testimony to a perhaps terminally ill patient were futile, would gain him nothing but that which came in the end—a brutal death at the hands of his captors. Yet Kornfeld’s faith was strong, sure, and sincere. And somehow his fellow Christian and the Holy Spirit had communicated one fact to him: what God demanded of him was obedience, no matter what. Single-minded obedience in faith.
And that lesson of the Russian doctor’s life was my lesson: what God wants from his people is obedience, no matter what the circumstances, no matter how unknown the outcome.
It has always been this way. God calling his people to obedience and giving them at best a glimpse of the outcome of their effort.
Most of the great figures of the Old Testament died without ever seeing the fulfillment of the promises they relied upon. Paul expended himself building the early church, but as his life drew to a close he could see only a string of tiny outposts along the Mediterranean, many weakened by fleshly indulgence or divided over doctrinal disputes.
In more recent times, the great colonial pastor Cotton Mather prayed for revival several hours each day for 20 years; the Great Awakening began the year he died. The British Empire finally abolished slavery as the Christian parliamentarian and abolitionist leader William Wilberforce lay on his deathbed, exhausted from his nearly 50-year campaign against the practice of human bondage. Few were the converts during Hudson Taylor’s lifelong mission work in the Orient; but today millions of Chinese embrace the faith he so patiently planted and tended.
Some might think this divine pattern cruel, but I am convinced there is a sovereign wisdom to it. Knowing how susceptible we are to success’s siren call, God does not allow us to see, and therefore glory in, what is done through us. The very nature of the obedience he demands is that it be given without regard to circumstances or results.
A scriptural analogy of the unquestioning obedience God expects is found in Jesus’ healing of the centurion’s servant. Matthew and Luke tell how the officer came to Christ on behalf of his paralyzed servant; when Jesus offered to go home with him, the centurion quickly replied that he knew Christ need only give the command and the man would be healed. The centurion understood about such things because when he ordered his troops to go, they went; in the same way he perceived Jesus’ authority as that of a military commander to whom one gives unquestioning allegiance. Joyful to discover such faith, Jesus not only healed the servant, but used the centurion as an example of faith in his comments to the crowd.
The Bible makes clear, and experiences such as Kornfeld’s confirm, that unquestioning acceptance of and obedience to Jesus’ authority is the foundation of the Christian life. Everything else rests upon this. It also provides the key to understanding what is for many the great mystery of Christianity: faith.
Saving faith—that by which we are justified, made right with God—is a gift of God; and, yes, it involves a rational process as well since it comes from hearing the Word of God. “All right,” the struggling Christian may say, “but practically speaking, how does my faith become real? How do I get that vibrant, strong faith of Christian maturity?”
That’s where obedience comes in. For maturing faith—faith which deepens and grows as we live our Christian life—is not just knowledge, but knowledge acted upon. It is not just belief, but belief lived out—practiced. James said we are to be doers of the Word, not just hearers. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor martyred in a Nazi concentration camp, succinctly stated this crucial interrelationship: “Only he who believes is obedient; only he who is obedient believes.”
This may sound like a circular proposition, but many things are—in truth and in practice. Think of learning how to swim. We are told what to do. We gingerly enter the water, launch out, and promptly forget everything we’ve been told. We flail about, splashing frantically, gasping and sinking. Finally, usually at the point of utter despair, we capture for a moment the sensation of staying afloat. Realizing it is possible, we remember our instructions and begin to follow them. They work. Like learning to balance a bicycle or mastering a foreign language, faith is a state of mind that grows out of our actions, just as it also governs them.
So obedience is the key to real faith—the unshakable kind of faith so powerfully illustrated by Job’s life. Job lost his home, his family (except for a nagging wife), his health, even his hope. The advice of friends was no help. No matter where he turned, he could find no answers to his plight. Eventually he stood alone. But though it appeared God had abandoned him, Job clung to the assurance that God is who he is. Job confirmed his obedience with those classic words of faith: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.”
This is real faith: believing and acting obediently regardless of circumstances or contrary evidence. After all, if faith depended on visible evidence, it wouldn’t be faith. “We walk by faith, not by sight,” the apostle Paul wrote.
It is absurd for Christians to constantly seek new demonstrations of God’s power, to expect a miraculous answer to every need, from curing ingrown toenails to finding parking spaces; this only leads to faith in miracles rather than the Maker.
True faith depends not upon mysterious signs, celestial fireworks, or grandiose dispensations from a God who is seen as a rich, benevolent uncle; true faith, as Job understood, rests on the assurance that God is who he is. Indeed, on that we must be willing to stake our very lives.
There was a time when eleven men did just that. They staked their lives on obedience to their leader, even when doing so was contrary to all human wisdom. That act of obedience produced a faith that emboldened them to stand against the world and, in their lifetimes, change it forever.
Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” But how many of us know what this looks like in daily life? Does loving God mean going to church, tithing, having regular prayer times? Is it a feeling in our hearts?
A few years after Chuck Colson became a Christian, he realized that the more he learned about God’s love for him, the more he wanted to know how to love God. This book is the masterpiece Colson wrote after searching Scripture, history, and his own difficult experiences to answer his deepest question. He discovered that loving God is obeying God—rarely easy, sometimes inconvenient, often painful, and entirely satisfying. When we love God, we know the pleasure of living out our true calling.
Billy Graham considered Loving God “one of the most spiritually satisfying books I have ever read.” Joni Eareckson Tada refers to it as “the complete volume on Christian living.” With fascinating stories and engaging theological insights, Loving God has been bringing people closer to Jesus for over thirty years. In this hour of opportunity for the church and for our own spiritual lives, Loving God will inspire you to love God with your whole being. It’s what you were created to do.
Charles (Chuck) Colson was a popular and widely known author, speaker, and radio commentator. A former presidential aide to Richard Nixon and founder of the international ministry Prison Fellowship, he wrote several books that have shaped Christian thinking on a variety of subjects, including Born Again, How Now Shall We Live?, The Good Life, and The Faith. His radio broadcast, BreakPoint, at one point aired to two million listeners. Chuck Colson donated all of his royalties, awards, and speaking fees to Prison Fellowship Ministries.