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Questions People Ask: “How Is Faith Kept Strong?”


Daniel 3:13-18   Luke 17:1-6   1 Peter 1:3-9


[1] I am asked constantly how faith can be kept strong. The person seeking my help assumes that there’s such a thing as faith. But of course there isn’t, is there. There’s no such thing as faith. There’s no such thing as faith precisely in the sense that there’s no such thing as marriage and no such thing as sin. For the same reason there’s no such thing as love.

No such thing as love? Exactly! No such thing as love. Love isn’t a thing; love isn’t something. Love is a relationship; specifically, love is the relationship of self-giving; love can never be a thing!

In the same way sin isn’t something, a thing. Sin is the violation of a relationship; specifically the violation of our relationship with God. Strictly speaking, sin doesn’t exist and never will; sinners alone exist. Love doesn’t exist and never will; a person who loves is what exists.

In the same way there’s no such thing as marriage. Marriage isn’t a thing; marriage is a relationship; marriage is the unconditional commitment of a man and a woman to each other, which commitment tolerates no rivals and is meant to be terminated only by death.

There’s no such thing as marriage, sin or love. There’s only a relationship of one sort or another.

Faith isn’t a thing that we are to keep strong. What’s to be kept strong is a relationship, the most significant relationship that can occur in anyone’s life.

[2] People ask me all the time how faith is to be kept strong. The request assumes that faith is strong now and needs only to be kept strong. But is it? Whose faith is strong? The disciples, those most intimately related to our Lord, cry to him, “Lord, increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5) Why do they speak like this? Because they know that their faith is weak; they know that their relationship to Jesus Christ is anything but invincible. Jesus replies, “If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed…”. Plainly, the faith they have is less than a smidgen!

Peter cries to Jesus, “I’m ready to go with you to prison and to death!” (Luke 22:33) Peter feels his faith to be as resilient as spring-steel. Much more realistically Jesus rejoins, “Peter, Satan is going to sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith (indisputably weak) won’t disappear. When you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” Plainly Jesus feels Peter’s grasp of him, Jesus, to be only fingernail-deep, and that of Peter’s fellow-disciples to be no deeper.

It’s no wonder the book of Hebrews exhorts us, “Look to Jesus, the author and trail-blazer of your faith; look to him — lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees”. (Heb. 12:1,12) Who among us, then, wishes to boast of strong faith? At the end of the day all of us can only plead, “Lord, increase our faith.”

In it all we must remember that faith is a relationship, not a thing; to plead for stronger faith, then, is to plead for a firmer grasp of our Lord himself. To be sure, he strengthens our faith in him; he fortifies our grasp of him. At the same time, in response to him we must exercise the faith whereby he binds us to himself. How do we do this? How do we exercise this faith so as to strengthen our intimacy with him?

[3] (i) First of all we must treasure the truth (i.e., the truth of God) we have come to recognise; we must treasure truth and never surrender it. To be sure, none of us grasps the totality of the truth of God. And those who are setting out on the Christian venture may grasp relatively little of the truth of God. Still, truth is truth, however small may be that aspect of the truth which has stamped itself upon us. Then whatever aspect of the truth we know to be true we must treasure. As we do we find the sphere of truth growing larger and larger and our confidence in God’s truth growing greater and greater.

One of my friends tells me that when he was only a teenager he came to disbelieve virtually all he had heard in church and Sunday School. He came to disbelieve it all because he was becoming convinced that very little in life, very little in world-occurrence, is as it seems. When still a teenager he came to understand that appearance isn’t actuality. What is commonly perceived has little to do with what actually is. In the same vein my friend came to see, as a thoughtful teenager, that life is riddled with deception, subterfuge, misrepresentation, out-and-out disinformation, corruption of every kind. Individuals traffic in this insidious duplicity; so do institutions; so do governments. Almost despairing now, almost without an anchor, almost without any solidity on which to stand as he looked at until mesmerised by the quicksand all around him in life (i.e., almost without hope), there remained one matter that my friend couldn’t disbelieve; he couldn’t deny evil, couldn’t deny the existence and efficacy of radical evil. Radical evil abounds; radical evil disguises itself and preys upon the naive and unsuspecting. Radical evil insinuates itself everywhere, deploying every tactic from the most frontal bullying to the most subtle seduction. My friend was left with disbelieving everything; everything, that is, except the ubiquity of evil and the militancy of evil. Negative as his one certainty was, however, it was his anchor in reality. Negative as his anchor was, it was incomparably better than illusion (no anchor at all). My friend clung tenaciously to this anchor and kept clinging to it until the one aspect of truth that he treasured was joined by other aspects of truth as the sphere of truth swelled for him.

William Sloan Coffin jr., for 17 years the chaplain at Yale University; Coffin came from a family that was religiously indifferent. As a young man he had to attend the funeral for a friend. At the funeral he heard it said over and over how dreadful it was — as it is dreadful — that someone so young died when so full of promise; heard it lamented over and over that life is unfair, that so much of life is nonsensical, that the young man’s life had ended so soon, and so on. Suddenly Coffin found himself protesting — for reasons he doesn’t know yet — “‘Not fair’? What’s the measure of fairness? ‘Nonsensical’? What’s the criterion for meaning? ‘His life ended so soon!’? Whose life is it, anyway?” That was the clincher for Coffin: “Whose life is it?” It occurred to Coffin, despite his religiously indifferent upbringing, that no one’s life is her own; everyone’s life belongs to another, the Other. Coffin treasured the truth that had just stamped itself upon him as truth; very quickly the sphere of truth in which he had resolved to live grew and grew and grew some more.

We may be able to articulate relatively little of the inexhaustible significance of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. But if we know deep-down (despite all nay-sayers) that he has been raised and therefore he himself and his way have been vindicated as true even though countless others deny it; if we know even this much we know enough of the truth to keep us oriented to the truth and keep us moving deeper into the truth.

To treasure whatever truth we know is to find the sphere of truth looming ever larger for us. On the other hand, not to treasure the truth we have is to find, in the words of Jesus, that even the little we have is being taken away from us. Faith as slight as the proverbial mustard seed grows as truth as slight as a candleflame moves toward truth as bright-shining as the sun.

(ii) In the second place there is yet more for us to exercise if faith is to be strengthened: we must resolutely obey whenever we are aware that we are to obey. To obey in lesser matters (what we, in our shortsightedness, call “lesser” matters) is to find a solidity on the basis of which we can then obey in greater matters. Victory over temptation now is a bridgehead from which greater victories can be gained. Conversely, defeats today can only spell greater defeats tomorrow. In other words, disobedience in lesser matters lands us in a swamp wherein we can only wallow in greater disobedience.

Hockey players sitting in the dressing room before a game may exhort one another with much bravado, “We can win this game! Let’s go!” But anyone who has played hockey knows that bravado wins nothing; furthermore, no hockey team wins a game, wins the game as a whole. Games are won when the first six players playing the first shift win the first shift on the ice. Then the second shift wins the second shift — and before long, the team has won the first period. On it goes. Win the game? Nobody ever plays a game at a time; what’s played is a shift at a time.

I am always disturbed by people who speak of life as if life were an entity to be lived well (or lived poorly) all at once. But life isn’t this. Life is a series of daily matters; and not merely a series, but an accumulation of daily matters, a swelling snowball of daily matters. Since what is snowballing is crucial (what is snowballing is our life, after all), and since daily events, habits, opportunities, decisions, deeds are what the snowball gathers up, then daily events, habits, opportunities, decisions and deeds are crucial themselves — for good, to be sure, but also for ill. George MacDonald, the Scottish novelist and poet who was the single most important human factor in C.S. Lewis’s coming to faith; MacDonald writes, concerning those who complain that their faith is weak and never seems to get stronger, “It is simply absurd to say you believe in Him, or even want to believe in Him, if you do not do what He tells you.” Obedience where obedience is challenged invariably strengthens faith, as disobedience invariably weakens it.

There’s no point in our saying that all this talk about obedience is too abstract to be helpful, since no mention has been made yet as to the substance of our obedience, the details of it all. There’s no point in our saying that we have never heard a dramatic Damascus Road voice we cannot deny summoning us to an obedience we cannot doubt. There’s no point in our saying we don’t know where to begin in this matter of faith-quickened obedience. All we need do is re-read the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount or the second half of any of the epistles. What is required of us isn’t in doubt.

Even if we know what we are to do in obedience to Jesus Christ, what moves us to obey him? Positively, our gratitude to our Lord who has been to hell and back for us; our gratitude moves us to obey him. Negatively, our fear of the consequences of not obeying moves us to obey him. If you tell me that fear of consequences is a shabby motive for stifling the temptation to disobey, I shall agree with you: it is an inferior motive. But it’s infinitely better than no motive at all; what’s more, inferior as it is compared to gratitude, our fear is God-appointed. Why else the solemn warnings that scripture addresses to God’s people? Years ago, wrote a wise Christian minister, a crow was feeding on carrion (as crows customarily do); specifically, the crow was feeding on carrion that was itself floating in the Niagara River in winter. The crow continued pecking away until it heard the rumble of the falls — whereupon the crow flew away; rather, it tried to fly away, only to find that river-spray had frozen its feet fast to what it had been feeding on.

As a spiritual counsellor I have spoken with dozens of people who have foolishly turned away from that obedience which they knew in their heart to be required of them; turned away for any number of reasons, none of which can excuse the disobedience that then occurred, and none of which can undo the consequences that then followed. Thereafter, I have noticed, they found God problematic; they found worship pointless; they found faith shrivelling. Of course they did.

At the same time I have also been graced with dozens of people who resolutely obeyed what they knew to be right even when it seemed difficult, even when others didn’t know what terrible struggle was going on inside them, even when what they knew they were to do was unpopular, even when what they knew to be right they couldn’t articulate as right. They simply obeyed whatever light they had, only to find light increasing, God more vivid, worship more compelling, and faith stronger still.

(iii) There is yet more for us to do if faith is to be strengthened (i.e., if our relationship with our Lord is to be firmer): we must surround ourselves with people of faith. I am forever intrigued by the four men who brought their paralysed friend to Jesus. (Matt. 9) The text reads, “When Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, my son…'” — and ultimately the man found a strength in his legs that allowed him to walk. (Walking, we should note in passing, is the commonest Hebrew metaphor for following the God-appointed way that spells freedom and life.) “When Jesus saw their faith.” Whose faith? –the faith of the four men who were carrying their friend. Surrounded on four sides by men of faith, the paralysed fellow found himself freed.

Certainly I agree with Martin Luther: “Every man must do his own believing, just as every man must do his own dying.” Luther is correct. When Jesus Christ addresses me and invites me to follow him and summons my obedience, no one else can answer for me. When Jesus called Matthew, Matthew’s cousin couldn’t answer for him, just as Peter’s wife couldn’t substitute for Peter or someone from the crowd for Zacchaeus. We must each do our own believing, for here no substitutes are permitted.

And yet as surely as I agree with Luther I cannot deny the significance of the four men who aren’t paralysed themselves yet in whose company someone who is paralysed is freed. The man benefited immeasurably simply from being in the company of people of faith.

Many of you are aware that Dietrich Bonhoeffer established a small, underground seminary to train pastors for the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany. (The national church, the state church, had capitulated to government ideology and government control and was thoroughly Nazified. The Confessing Church consisted of far fewer pastors and people who publicly “confessed”, in the Reformation sense of the term, that Jesus Christ is the one Word of God to be heard and heeded in life and in death.) We can scarcely imagine how sorely faith would be tried as university faculties of theology “sold out” (not one faculty of theology in any German university sided with the Confessing Church); tried again as pulpits were closed to Confessing pastors; tried again as a knock at the door might just be (and sooner or later was) the secret police rounding up another candidate for imprisonment or execution. In the wake of such heart-stopping trials of faith anyone’s faith would feel weak. In this situation Bonhoeffer wrote two things we must always remember: one, Christians find immense joy and immense encouragement in the physical presence — the sheer, simple physical presence — of each other; two, the Christ I see in my fellow-Christian’s face is always stronger than the Christ I find in my own heart.

As much as I need the physical presence of fellow-Christians, and as much as I need to see the Christ in my brother’s face, my fellow-Christian’s physical presence and face aren’t always available to me. What then? Next best is Christian biography. Biography doesn’t bring us the physical presence of fellow-Christians, but in the profoundest sense it does acquaint us with our brothers and sisters in faith themselves. I have found my faith strengthened as often as I have surrounded myself with the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12) who have finished the relay race ahead of me and are now cheering me on from the finish line.

I have found my faith strengthened through coming to know a man like Ignatius Loyola. Loyola persisted and persisted and persisted yet more until the pope finally recognised (in 1541) Loyola’s gift to the church, the Jesuit order. I have been encouraged again and again by the courage and the resilience of the early-day Jesuits. Those men were indomitable amidst missionary hardships during the 16th century. One of them, Francis Xavier, had a huge role in the spread of the gospel in India. In India he is venerated to this day. In 1597 the Japanese crucified 120 Jesuit missionaries, the Japanese thinking it “smart” to have the Jesuits “try on” the cross about which they said so much. What did the order do in the wake of this slaughter? It sent out another 120 young men immediately. Are you aware of the role of Patrick of Ireland in preserving the gospel — and classical learning too — in Europe amidst the barbarian devastations of the dark ages? When I was pastor in Mississauga for 21 years I made sure that the congregation heard many times each year about Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, John Calvin, the Puritans (there are too many Puritans to name), Alexander Whyte, John Wesley, William Sangster. Speaking of Wesley, did you know that when Francis Asbury took early-day Methodism with him to America and summoned young men who were fired with Wesley’s spirit as surely as Elisha was fired with Elijah’s, of the first 700 Methodist ministers in North America 50% were dead before they were 30 years old? Two-thirds of the first 700 Methodist ministers in the new world didn’t survive long enough to serve twelve years! If this is all we know of these men then we know enough to find our complaining slinking away and our faith surging forward.

I have a long been a member of the renewal movement in The United Church. And for years, in this regard, I have written a column, “Heritage”, in the movement’s journal, Fellowship Magazine. For years I trudged on, wondering whether there was any point to my continuing to write the “Heritage” articles on the subject of Christian biography for Fellowship Magazine. For years the only letter-to-the-editor I saw concerning any article I had sweated over was a letter from my sister! I was about to tell the editor that nobody read the articles and the column should be dropped when the magazine surveyed its readers and learned that the “Heritage” articles, Christian biography, are the single, most frequently read part of the magazine. Plainly, thousands of readers know that to absorb the life-stories of Christ’s people is to find their own life in Christ strengthened.

Faith is always strengthened as we surround ourselves with people of faith.

(iv) There is one thing more that strengthens faith: work undertaken for Jesus Christ, but undertaken in the wider world. At best the world is indifferent to faith, hostile to it at worst. When we spend ourselves at a task we’ve undertaken on account of our love for Jesus, and spend ourselves at it in the world, we shall find ourselves in an alien environment among people who don’t see why we even bother. At best, then, isolation threatens to chill us; at worst, hostility threatens to immobilise us.

In this situation, paradoxically, we find faith strengthened. How? We find ourselves akin to the principal character in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The man’s detractors kept pouring water on the flame of his faith in order to extinguish it, while unbeknown to them, out of their sight, oil was always being poured on the flame of faith to keep it burning ever brighter.

So it is with us. Faith is tested when the world is where we exercise our faith. Faith is tested when it is drenched in the cold waters of indifference, hostility, contempt, misunderstanding. Yet it will be our experience too that right here, by God’s secret operation, oil is always being poured on the flame of faith to keep it burning ever brighter.

When the disciples cried to Jesus, “Lord, increase our faith!”, they wanted only to have their relationship with him — known, enjoyed, cherished already — made stronger and stronger until that day when faith gives way to sight, hope gives way to its fulfilment, and love gives way to nothing except more love, for ever and ever.

                                                                                                     Victor Shepherd   

March 2002