Thriving Faith in an Antagonistic World, Part 1

(This post and the following two are the text of a sermon preached at my church on December 4, 2011.)

Declaring yourself a Christian sometimes feels like inviting a riot.

I’m calling this series “Thriving Faith in an Antagonistic World,” and really the title should say it all. I want your faith—your trust in God—to thrive—to grow, live, and reproduce—in a world that is antagonistic to your faith. I say that the world is antagonistic because it is. The world is the enemy of your faith. It doesn’t want you to succeed in loving and serving Jesus. It wants to cripple you.

I, of course, inhabit a community of faith. The vast majority of my interactions with people on a regular basis is with either Christians or people who are seeking Christianity. But over the past few weeks I’ve had time to reflect on your lives. I’ve interacted, increasingly, with some non-Christian communities online, and I am struck by just how hostile people are to our faith. Even giving an allowance for some of the mysteries of the internet, where masked and screen-named people feel released from social constraints and therefore say whatever hateful thoughts come across their minds, the attitudes about Christianity I’ve encountered, if they are at all accurate, are horrifying.

What I see is that there is, primarily, a culture of virulent and vocal atheism, and this culture has essentially two arguments it uses to cast doubt on your faith. The first argument is that science, as a discipline of experiment, is in every way superior to faith, which is blind belief in things that are unknowable; that your faith is a matter of private opinion, and science—what is ‘reasonable’—is a matter of verifiable fact, and the two are incompatible in the public sphere. A ‘strong’ argument from this position is: “Don’t push your religious opinion on me, I only believe in scientific facts.”

The second argument weighed against Christianity is to claim that faith—this blind belief in the unknowable over and against reason—is to blame for a great many evils in history. All someone has to say in this argument is a phrase like: “The Inquisition,” or “Killing witches,” or, more recently, “Standing between loving gay people and their happiness in marriage.” And with a stroke the argument is made. As a Christian you are responsible for killing people who disagree with you and ruining other people’s happiness. And implied in this argument is the assertion that you are a fool for being a Christian, because Christians did those things and they were fools. Case closed.

As a consequence of this hostile culture, whether or not you’ve actually gotten into a debate with someone about faith, there is a sense that your faith ought to be kept private, to yourself. Admitting you have faith means admitting to a kind of weakness, opening yourself to contempt. It means that, in today’s world, if you say, “I have faith,” it is assumed that you have just said “I have no mind.”

Caught in the middle between these two groups—between those with faith and those without it—non-Christian onlookers get pretty much all their information on what faith is from the atheist camp. As a result, they believe the lie that ‘faith’ and science are diametrically opposed, that to be faithful and reasonable at the same time is impossible, and that Christianity is all about destroying happiness. And regardless of whether or not they purchase the atheist line of thought, they certainly choose to remain in the middle, undecided. After all, if choosing faith meant becoming the kind of caricature that atheists uphold with regard to people with faith, then I wouldn’t want to be one either.

Some seventy years ago a scholar named Dorothy Sayers wrote a series of essays about the Church, in which she documented what was then the perception of faith from outsiders. Her words are as strikingly accurate today as they were in the 1940s. She wrote the following:

Q: What is Faith?

A: Resolutely shutting your eyes to scientific fact.

Q: What is the human intellect?

A: A barrier to faith.

(Sayers, The Dogma is the Drama” in Letters to a Diminished Church, p19)

And nothing has changed. She could have written those words yesterday and the perceived caricature of Christianity is just as accurate. And the frustrating truth of the matter is that this culture of anti-Christianity is so potent that we, within the Church itself, have allowed these false understandings of science, reason, faith, and history to be our understanding. We have allowed the enemies of faith to define faith for us, which means that when we talk about faith, or even try to have faith today, we do it on their, false terms. Then, when we work to bring other people to faith, we even do that—our most important work, evangelism—on the basis of a misunderstanding of faith. Against these trends we must move from our perception of faith to the reality of faith; from the caricature to the real thing. Because if we are going to have faith in any meaningful way, we’ve got to define it for ourselves, and understand it for ourselves, so that we will know exactly what we believe and have a genuine answer for why we believe. Anything short of that is dishonest.

I say all this to say that I have a new compassion for you all. I am concerned about your faith. Because whether or not you’ve come under attack yet, at some point I am confident that you will. And when that time comes, I as your pastor want to have done everything I can to strengthen your faith so that you can stand firm for what you believe, confident in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In short, I want boldness to come from understanding.

What is Faith?

What I want to do with the remainder of our time today is provide you with an understanding of what faith is. This correct understanding should have three impacts on your life. First, knowing what faith is you will know what to do. As long as you think faith is the absence of thinking reason, you are guaranteed not to know what to do. Understanding faith is therefore like reading the instructions; we’re all idiots until we open the book. Second, knowing what faith is you’ll know what to do when faith is tested. And all faith is tested—it’s part of the nature of faith. But if you don’t know what faith is, you’ll misunderstand the test, and very likely fail it. Third, knowing what faith is you will know how to respond to someone who says the words, “I think I’m losing my faith.” And many of you, whether or not you’ve heard those words personally, may have thought them yourself. But most people don’t know what they are losing at all. I want you to know what’s going on.

A. Faith is Not a Feeling

Let’s begin then, with defining faith. Ironically we’ve got to start off by identifying something that faith is not, and the first thing to say about faith is that Faith is not a feeling. For so long we have allowed ‘faith’ to be confused with a certain feeling of belief, a fervor, a kind of cheerful hope or ignorance, a “I don’t know I just believe!” with the accent on the ‘lieve‘ which is more suitable for girls who longingly daydream that they’re going to meet Justin Bieber and go on a date with him. In short, we have taken faith to be an emotion-packed wish. If you only wish hard enough, what you are believing in will come true. This is not to say that there is no emotion in your beliefs, that there aren’t periods in your Christian life when you will feel really faithful, and times when you won’t, but these feelings are not your faith. Faith, instead, is what you believe.

Let’s get at this difference closer by talking about the word ‘faithfulness’. Faithfulness is that quality in a person who possesses faith and acts in accordance with it. A person with faith ought to be faithful. Now, to say that faith is a feeling is to say that faithfulness, as a way of evaluating our faith, is a measure of how much you felt God throughout your life. But this is highly suspect. We know already that our feelings are fickle. They change from day to day and hour to hour. Furthermore, my feelings are one of the most unreliable guides to action in my life. If I depended on my feelings to make all my choices, I would make terrible choices. My feelings cannot support my marriage. My feelings will not make me a responsible and truly loving father. My feelings will make me a fickle pastor. Just in practical terms, nobody maintains a sense of inner fervency at all times; everybody has periods when they’re down and low. Faithfulness cannot be a measure of your feelings because nobody here has control over his or her feelings. And so we must, we absolutely must, separate our feelings from our faith. They are not the same thing.

B. Faith is Belief

Faith is not a feeling. It is a belief. And what that means is that a person who has faith believes certain things despite their feelings. A small series of statements will make this clear. Faith means that:

  •  I believe X.
  •  I believe X despite my feelings.
  •  My belief in X means Y for my behaviour.

Let me try and clarify this further, using marriage as an example. Faith means that I believe X. When I married Liesel, I chose her exclusively for the rest of my life. That is a belief, and I am choosing to believe it each day. If I say the phrase, “I believe Liesel is my wife,” I’m not offering a wish, but declaring a fact. Next, faith then means that I believe X despite my changing feelings. My feelings about Liesel change from day to day, but my marriage is a commitment that dominates my feelings, not the other way round. The next step of faith is that believing in X means Y for my behaviour. Because of my faith commitment to Liesel I must behave in different ways than I would otherwise. I provide for my family. I come home at night. I eat family meals with them. I don’t cheat or lie. I care for Liesel and Moses and Cates. Now, all three of these—that faith means I believe X, that I believe it despite my feelings, and that my belief has impact on my behaviour, reveal what it means to be faithful. I am faithful when my outer life accords with what I believe. I am unfaithful when it doesn’t. And therefore faithfulness and unfaithfulness is not about my feelings so much as it is about my behaviour.

Did you feel it all the time? DID YOU?

When you get to the end of time, and St. Peter meets you at the gate of heaven (as he seems to in all the cartoons) I want you to imagine that he’ll have two rubber stamps in his hands. One stamp will say “Faithful” and the other one will say “Unfaithful.” Which stamp you get will not by any circumstance depend on how you felt on a day-to-day basis about Christianity; it will depend almost entirely on your obedience to the teachings of Jesus. The life of faith—the faithful life—is not a matter of your feelings, but of your obedience.

This, incidentally, is the meaning of the scriptural phrase “faith like a mustard seed.” The mustard seed is a tiny seed, but the plant that grows from it is quite large. And so mustard seed faith does not describe small faith in the sense of quality, it is that all faith, by the nature of faith, grows through repeated acts of small obedience. To plant a mustard seed is to perform a very small task. But planting it is an act of obedience: you are trusting in the nature of the seed. When you perform small acts of trust, God is able to work in your life. And so faithfulness, great faithfulness, as we see it in others, is always an accumulation of small faith-deeds. It is a lifestyle that reaps steady and gradual rewards. I say to you that there is no such thing as big faith and little faith—as if some people have great faith while others have small faith. All faith is small. It only appears big because it is accumulated.

Let’s take a look at what faith is again then: Faith is the act of believing in something. For the Christian faith, it is believing in the central dogmas of Christianity. These are the very dogmas which we recited this morning in the Apostles’ Creed. This statement is, quite simply what we believe. It is not primarily a feeling, it is a statement of fact.

That’s the first part of our faith. It is, in fact, our part of faith. We must do the believing. Our souls are ours, free to respond to God as we wish, and our Faith as Christians is our choice to respond to God’s revelation with belief. Faith is saying “Yes, I believe you” to God.

(Parts two and three of this post are forthcoming.)

7 comments on “Thriving Faith in an Antagonistic World, Part 1

  1. Great word! Many blessings!

  2. lbwolpert says:

    “These are the very dogmas which we recited this morning in the Apostles’ Creed. This statement is, quite simply what we believe. It is not primarily a feeling, it is a statement of fact.”

    I agree that our faith is more than our feelings. However, St. Paul seemed to indicate that when it came to the Christian faith, it was a faith in “unseen things”. Believing someone is your wife when you married her seems like a more concrete reality than believing that Jesus rose from the dead and will come again to judge the living and the dead. It may be quite as true as the fact that Liesal is your wife, but it isn’t happening now, and it can’t be proved (other than faith) that it will ever happen. I think this is where, even though I believe in Jesus, I am most sympathetic to atheists. The God of truth is one that most of us seem to have very limited direct experience with. Sophisticated theology addresses this, but it still is not the same as being able to ring someone up and actually interact with them.

    I actually stumbled upon this website when reading the review of Francis Spuffords Unapologetic. Again, although Francis may make too much of the emotional side of Christianity, our emotions are pretty powerful things. It doesn’t seem very productive to say we can’t address them other than by saying they aren’t always reliable. Do they have any basis in truth, and what can they reveal to us about the world?

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hi Laurie,

      Thanks for taking time to read this. It’s now been so long since I wrote it that I had to go back and review it myself :)

      I think, in response, the passage I want to draw your attention to is 1 John 1, where John talks about the things he has seen with his eyes, and looked at, and touched with his hand, and to which he testifies. The faith that John wants us to have is faith in something (that is, Someone) that really happened in space-and-time. John’s testimony is in place precisely so that we, who no longer see, can have the same faith as him, in these real, tangible realities.

      I also want to draw attention to 1 Corinthians 15 (esp vss 12-19), where Paul says that if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead then we are most pitiable of all people. The objective fact of the resurrection of Jesus is the bedrock of the Christian faith. If it didn’t happen, we’re wasting our time.

      All that to say that if the Christianity we claim is based upon and related to New Testament Christianity in any sense of the term, then that faith is based on the objective realities of Jesus–realities which our scriptures claim are no less real than me than committing to my wife in marriage. Of course, if the New Testament isn’t authoritative in that sense, and if we can believe what we wish–if, more to the point, Jesus is whomever we wish him to be–then the debate is meaningless. Faith is whatever we want it to be. But let us be clear that that is not what the NT authors have in mind.

      Regarding emotions, I am eager to put them in their place, not to squelch them. Emotions must serve the truth, not truth serving our emotions. They, like our reason and will, are subject to absolute guides. The problem with Spufford’s book is not that he made too much of the emotions–in fact, I don’t know that he said anything really about the emotions at all, except perhaps to put them over against truth. As if a thing could be emotionally true but objectively false. If the truth is True, then it is True for our reason as well as our emotions, and both must fall in line appropriately.

      Every Blessing!

      Jeremy

  3. Laurie says:

    Well this is helpful, but I still wonder if as subjective, contingent beings whether or not we can possibly hold “the Truth” in such a way as to not be swayed by our wishes, desires, feelings, and thoughts. I think too much certainty about our ability to find the truth can lead to vast over-reach and smugness where humility is called for, if not hatred or oppression of “the Other”. I believe in Jesus, but I feel like I’m constantly investigating its truth claims. Does that mean I don’t really believe until I know “the truth”? As a fallible mortal, how could I ever be sure? Maybe the best thing to do is just cling to the promises of God, who does not change. But I still think a little sympathy for Francis is in order, a genuine beilever, who holds perhaps unorthodox positions on hell and homosexuality. His chapter on Yeshua is one of the most beautiful descriptions of the love and suffering of Jesus I’ve ever read.

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Regarding sympathy for Francis, no-go for me. It is a bad book and I will continue to say so as often as I am given opportunity. That isn’t a referendum against his life in Jesus–only against his life as an author for Christianity. I’d feel the same way against people from Westboro Baptist. They may have real faith, they ought not to be acting the way they do. I would no more recommend Spufford for devotional reading than I would Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind. They are both terrible theology, however nice it might feel to read them.

      No, we can’t hold the truth. Truth is not a thing that is possess-able. I wrote the following the other day for a Sunday School class I’m teaching, which is worth quoting again here:

      “Returning to human knowledge, it is important to remember that truth is an idea. It is not something I possess. There is no such thing as my truth or your truth. Rather, truth is a measure of correspondence; it is the judgment of transcendence upon my thoughts and actions. My thoughts are true to the degree that they correspond to ultimate reality, to the degree that I have consistently rejected the facts as they are for me and have pursued the facts as they really are, to the degree that I have allowed reality to perform its persistent work of iconoclasm.”

      But as my mentor used to say, there is a difference between final words and sure words. Just because there are no final words doesn’t mean there aren’t sure words in the meantime. As you learn and grow, you develop a sense of those words which are sure. You will always be able to plumb them deeper, to explore the truths further, but you will have some sense that at least you are on the right track.

      If you’re a reader, I’d recommend locating a copy of Baron von Hugel’s “Letters to a Niece.” (There’s a review somewhere on this blog.) I think it would be a worthy read for you.

  4. Laurie says:

    Well you seem awfully sure. I’m sure this reflects a long period of study and reflection, and an extensive education. I think healthy criticism is generally a good thing. However, wouldn’t it have been possible to at least spend some focus on what Francis got right, and not just what was wrong? It didn’t win all those awards for its heretical parts, but its prose, its depiction of Jesus’s love and sacrifice, its refutation of new atheism, and its attempt to make Christianity intelligible to people who could care less about it, which actually is quite an important service and one that follows a long and noble history in Christendom.

  5. Laurie says:

    “Returning to human knowledge, it is important to remember that truth is an idea. It is not something I possess. There is no such thing as my truth or your truth. Rather, truth is a measure of correspondence; it is the judgment of transcendence upon my thoughts and actions. My thoughts are true to the degree that they correspond to ultimate reality, to the degree that I have consistently rejected the facts as they are for me and have pursued the facts as they really are, to the degree that I have allowed reality to perform its persistent work of iconoclasm.”

    This will be my last comment for a while, sorry if its overwhelming. I’ve been puzzling over what is the difficulty in our having a conversation that might bear more fruit, and I think it’s this. While truth may be a correspondence to a reality, it still has to be held by a person. Jesus re-interrupts the Pharisees corrupt interpretations (of course being God this really works) but many Christians have in essence interpreted the Bible in various ways at various times. Martin Luther emphasized the absoluteness of salvation over the indulgences of the Catholic church, and Martin Luther King Jr. interpreted the Gospel in such a way that allowed him to draw inspiration for the civil rights. Hopefully you agree both of these men were serious Christians, otherwise I’ll feel a bit at a loss as to who you think is in the actual Christian camp. Revelation and the Holy Spirit does not mean that these things can be filtered without the mind, body, and spirit on a human level (at least on this Earth). Human ability therefore to interpret truth is therefore filtered through sinful human beings who do have wishes and desires sin and disease mental illness perhaps demons etc. I feel like you think you can get around this because you refer to the Scriptures, but I don’t think you can. I humbly admit that in our conversations you may be much closer to the truth, but you don’t seem very open to the idea that other Christians may be on to something, or that people in other religions could also obtain truth through God’s mercy. I appreciate the dialogue, but your certainty makes it more of a one-way street, rather than two people learning from one another. I’m also not sure what makes you think all human desires are disordered, because I think the God of the Bible often works through peoples desires, for children, for wealth (Job is fairly blessed at the end of the story) for healing, and for acceptance and belonging. I accept that our age is one of narcissism and hedonism, but not all human desires should be painted with that brush. Anyway I appreciate your willingness to correspond. God bless and good luck.

    Laurie

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