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Crucial Words in the Christian Vocabulary: Faith

 

               Luke 17:5-6                Daniel 3:13-18                     Romans 1:8-17

I: — “Faith,” a schoolboy once said, “is believing what you know isn’t true.” The boy couldn’t have been right. Everywhere in his public ministry Jesus endeavours to create faith, nourish faith, strengthen faith. Disciples ask him to increase their faith. The book of Hebrews reminds us that without faith we can’t please God. Faith is a matter of believing what we know isn’t true? Ridiculous. Yet it’s no more ridiculous than other misunderstandings and perversions that abound.

[1] Think of the perversion that virtually equates faith with gullibility, with suggestibility. Some industrial sales manuals maintain that potential customers differ in their “faith capacity.” What’s meant is that some people are more readily “taken in” than others. P.T. Barnum, the inventor of the circus sideshow, maintained that there’s a sucker born every minute. No one disagrees. Still, when we see people “fished in” by religious hucksters we know that such gullibility has nothing at all to do with that faith which Jesus longs to see flourish in us all.

[2] Another perversion is the notion that faith is a blind believing, a blind following, once the intellect is wilfully suspended. “Put your brain on the shelf, and then the way will be open for faith.” Older adults sometimes recommend this approach – foolishly – when thinking young people are first confronted with geology (the age of the earth) or biology (evolution) or psychology (the fact and influence of the unconscious mind.) Thinking young people shouldn’t be told, “All that stuff is hypothetical. Put it aside. You’ve simply got to believe.”

Wilfully suspending one’s intellect in the interests of a blind believing and blind following is never God-honouring. God requires us to love him with our mind. We should never encourage mindlessness in anyone. All we need do is ponder the cults and assorted “isms” that ensnare and distort younger people and some who aren’t so young. And if the word “cult” suggests a bizarreness so remote from us that it would never seduce us, then think of ideology or advertising or social pressure. And while we are at it we should think of something more formal than subtle advertising or social pressure; namely, intellectual life. Twenty-five years ago I was asked to conduct a congregational event exploring the question, “Where have all the young people gone?” Those present blamed the university; they blamed the philosophy department in particular. The philosophy professor was denounced as the devil in disguise. I told the meeting that I studied philosophy ardently for five glorious years. Am I the devil in disguise? Right now I teach philosophy. Do I foster unbelief? If faith can’t survive rigorous intellectual examination then faith is no more than superstition.

[3] Another misunderstanding is that faith is a matter of working up religious feelings and affections. We tend to associate such effusiveness with the charismatic movement. Let me say right now that the charismatic movement has been a blessing to the church. At the same time, it has unfortunately tended to make experience(s) of a peculiar sort the touchstone of “true faith.” As a result some people are left trying to work up psycho-religious vividness. If they do manage to work it up they are tempted to think themselves religiously superior; if they don’t work it up they are tempted to think themselves spiritual failures. But in fact the concentration on emotional self-stimulation produces an artificiality that indicates neither the presence of faith nor its absence. Faith is never a matter of working up some kind of intrapsychic heat and fireworks.

 

II(1): — Then what is faith? Faith is entrusting as much of ourselves as we know of ourselves to as much of God as we know of him. This is how it begins. Regardless of how much we think we know of ourselves, we know very little. And if we are taking our first steps in faith, then of course we know very little of God. Still, we begin by exposing as much of ourselves as we know of ourselves to as much of God as we know of him – which is to say, faith begins as simple encounter with God. It is an elemental meeting with God; dialogue with God. It isn’t dialogue, of course, in the sense of presumptuous chattiness. It isn’t off-putting overfamiliarity. But unquestionably it’s a deliberate meeting with him and self-exposure to him. Specifically, faith is an encounter with God that God initiates; after all, he has pursued us since the day we were conceived. Through the encounter God initiates with us he awakens us to him, turns us to face him, and wants only that we look upon him as longingly and lovingly as he has long looked upon us.

To say it all differently: in Jesus Christ, and specifically in the arms of the crucified, God embraces us. In the strength and desire that his embrace lends us, we now want to embrace him in return. Faith, then, is an encounter with God as he awakens us to his initiative and awakens our response.

For years now I have quietly smiled to myself as I have observed human behaviour that reflects animal behaviour. When human beings are pressured (hunger, for instance, even the hunger of having missed only one meal) I have noticed that what we have in common with the animal world rises to the fore. This shouldn’t surprise us; after all, the Genesis sagas tell us that we and the animals were created on the same “day.” We and they are cousins. When I was very young I was told that the apes and we differ in that (among other characteristics) apes don’t have an opposable thumb. And then one day at the Metro Zoo I saw a gorilla pick up a straw between its thumb and forefinger. Then perhaps we differ instead inasmuch as God loves us humans? Scripture informs us, however, that God loves the animals and provides for them and protects them. God loves all of his creation and is grieved to see it abused. Scripture insists just as pointedly, however, that God speaks to human beings alone. God addresses humankind alone. Faith therefore always has the character of a dialogue with him who is always trying to get our attention.

By “dialogue” we mustn’t understand “after dinner conversation.” It isn’t an armchair matter. Engagement with God can be riddled with turbulence. Our engagement with God can take the form of anger as well as elation, accusation as well as adoration. Following his all-night encounter with God Jacob’s name is changed from “Jacob” (“deceiver”) to “ Israel ” (“he who contends with God”). In all genuine faith there’s an element of wrestling with God. When someone dear to us dies horribly; when disappointment falls on us like a collapsing wall; when betrayal savages us and shocks us, it’s appropriate that we react as Abraham and Isaac, Moses and Jeremiah react: “What are you up to? Why did you let me down? Where were you when I needed you most?” Everywhere in scripture one of the surest signs of faith in God is his people’s anger at him. For these people at least are serious about God.

We must never think that genuine faith in God means that someone is henceforth perfect, understands perfectly, behaves perfectly. God’s people are his people just because they have encountered him and are serious about him. Still, their engagement with him can and will contain elements of confusion, imperfection, moral deficiency and spiritual defectiveness. Everywhere in scripture Abraham is foreparent of all believers, the prototype of faith. Under terrible pressure Abraham lied twice, passing off his wife as his sister, aware that if men wanted to rape his wife they would kill him first; if they wanted to rape his sister they wouldn’t bother to kill him. “She’s my sister,” Abraham shouted. Cowardly? Yes. Self-serving? Yes. False? Yes. Deplorable? Yes. It all disqualifies him as person of faith and even model of faith? No. Perfection is never a condition for the reality and solidity of faith.

James and John selfishly seek places of honour in the kingdom – but they are still disciples. Peter lies and betrays his Lord three times over. Martha fiddles with trivia even as the master visits her home. Martin Luther King jr., civil rights leader and martyr, behaves with women in a manner that no one can extenuate. John Wesley, leader of the Eighteenth Century Awakening, lacks self-perception to the point of appearing ludicrous. But none of this disqualifies people as disciples. Our engagement with God is real, true, substantial, all-determining even as it remains riddled with assorted deficits, deficiencies and imperfections.

 

II(2): — Faith is more than encounter, however; it is also understanding. Imagine that we have newly been exposed to Mozart’s music. Gradually we are drawn into the world of Mozart’s music. We know beyond doubt that this world is real. It’s so very real, in fact, that it brings before us riches and wonders and human possibilities that we had never before had reason to imagine. Now at this point we understand next to nothing of music theory or music history or music technique. Still, once we’ve been exposed to Mozart’s music and it has captivated us we surely want to learn something of Mozart’s music, its structure and its glory. We surely want to learn something of his relation to other composers, his place in the musical tradition, his musical “signatures” by which we can identify characteristics that tell us, “This is Mozart.” As our understanding grows we find that our new perception in turn magnifies our delight in his music. The result is that we appropriate ever-greater Mozartian depths and riches.

Understanding does as much for us in our encounter with God. Once he’s got our attention, however he managed to do that; once he’s turned us to face him, moved us to embrace him in light of his embracing us; once we are captivated by that sphere which he is himself, we are constrained to gain understanding. We do gain it. Gaining it doesn’t mean merely that our minds are richer than before (even though this is not to be slighted); it doesn’t mean that we now have more words in our vocabulary; it means, rather, that our richer understanding in turn admits us to richer depths in God himself.

We must always remember that God is as upset at spiritual immaturity as we are at physical or psychological immaturity. Greater understanding is one aspect of spiritual maturity. We can taste the frustration and annoyance of New Testament writers who belong to Christian communities where there’s little or no advance in Christian understanding. Typical in this regard is the frustration of the unnamed author of the epistle to the Hebrews: “Milk is for babies; solid food is for grownups. Therefore let’s leave the elementary doctrines of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying the foundations all over again.” The author, exasperated, is saying, “Can’t we move past Grade One? Are we always going to be at the level of ‘Now I lay me down to sleep’?” We all know that stunted development anywhere in life is tragic. The stunted development of faith is no less grotesque and no less tragic. I disagree wholly with the suggestion, usually uttered with the air of superior wisdom, that sermons have to be scaled down to a twelve year old level because that’s the understanding level most adults have (supposedly.) To capitulate here is to guarantee a congregation of twelve year olds.

Faith is going to be strengthened; faith will come to possess greater certainty; faith will avoid being blown away by devastation or fished in by hucksters only as the understanding aspect of faith is enlarged and deepened and enriched. Parents will be equipped to provide Christian nurture for their children only as parents themselves move past Grade One. A congregation gains resilience and wisdom and stability and depth only as maturity is gained. Understanding of the way and word and work of God is essential.

At the same time we should be aware that greater understanding of God issues in greater understanding of life under God. It yields an understanding of history; not of the details of history, but of history as the theatre (or at least one theatre) of God’s activity. It yields an understanding of the human; not the sort that a medical education provides, but awareness that human existence is inextricably related to God and can be apprehended only as God himself is apprehended. It yields an understanding of marriage; for marriage is a covenant modelled after God’s covenant with his people. God keeps his covenant with us when we don’t keep our covenant with him.   This is to say, marriage ought always to aim at reflecting the faithfulness, patience and persistence of the God who loves us more than he loves himself. Faith understands both the necessity and the limitations of human reason; i.e., faith understands that irrationality is inexcusable even as rationalization threatens at all times.

Faith includes understanding, an understanding that newly understands the truth of God and the truth of God’s creation.

 

II(3): — Faith is something more: a venture, a life-venture. Life is more than understanding. Life is a venture that has to be lived. Faith is life ventured under God.

Right here some people recoil. They have been wounded so very badly in the past, or fear being so badly wounded in the future, that venture is the last thing they want. They want to establish a corner of life that they feel to be safe and secure, and then freeze it; preserve it; hang on to it; protect it. Understandable as this is, however, to do this is simply to put in time until the undertaker closes the lid and the pastor drops the handful of earth. The book of Hebrews recognizes the temptation and its consequent peril: “We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed; we are of those who have faith….” Throughout the book of Hebrews life is depicted as a journey, a pilgrimage, a venture. Plainly the author appears to think there are only two possibilities: either we shrink back and shrivel up, or we keep moving ahead even if at times the venture is a little more adventuresome than we thought it was going to be.

When I was seven years old my family rented a summer cottage for one week. I longed to row the rowboat. But I was also afraid of the lake. I tied the boat to shore with a ten-foot rope and began to row. After two strokes of the oars the boat jerked awkwardly, drifted back to the dock, and I rowed again. I had done this several times when my father said, “If you want to row the boat and go somewhere, untie it.” Then he saw my divided mind: I wanted with all my heart to venture forth on the lake but I was afraid to. What could he do to quell my fear and free me to row the boat into deeper water? He climbed into the boat with me. I untied it and we set off together.

In the person of his Son, Christ Jesus our Lord, God has embarked on the life-venture with us. The Easter narrative of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus reminds us that the same risen Lord who kept company with the two men then keeps company with all his disciples now. Because he does, our fear is checked, checked enough to let us get started on the venture and to keep us in it.

When I say “venture” I don’t mean “outing.” An outing is a recreational activity, like a picnic or a hike. I don’t wish to suggest either that “venture” always entails what’s grim. Still, on the whole life is more serious than an outing, with more at stake.

And when I say “venture” I don’t meant that we are to pursue the extraordinary and the heroic. To do this is first to render life artificial and then to discover that our “heroism” isn’t heroic enough.

Life is ventured when we face, face up to, face ahead despite, whatever life casts up. Life is ventured when by God’s grace we endeavour to do something with it beyond utter passivity or sheer complaining. From time to time life is going to give us lemons. We can suck them, only to sour ourselves and others, or we can make lemonade. Our Lord Jesus Christ, always on the road with us, the pioneer of our faith; he happens to be rather good at making lemonade.

At one point the people of Israel found themselves in the wilderness on their journey to the promised land. Slavery was behind them. The promised land was ahead of them, yet so far ahead of them as to be out of sight. Wilderness existence was wearing them down, so much so that they were tempted to renounce the venture. A word was given Moses to give to them: “Tell the people of Israel to go forward.”

 

At the beginning of the day and at its ending faith isn’t wilful stupidity or superstition. Faith is an encounter with God in which our understanding of him and us and our world continues to grow. Faith is a venture in which we are going to meet setbacks but in the face of which we are not going to shrink back and shrivel up. And when we are stuck with lemons, we shall cling more tightly to our faithful companion on the venture who turned cross into triumph and in whose company lemonade-making is never impossible.

Then may God increase your faith, even as he increases mine as well.

                                                                                               Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                 
February 2004