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