(In Part 1 of this post I discussed the nature of faith and the component of faith which is our human responsibility. Here in part 2 I discuss both God’s portion in faith and the nature of doubt.)
C. God Helps Us to Believe
That first part of faith that we’ve discussed is our portion of faith, but faith is not just ours, as if it were a thing entirely up to us. In the scriptures faith is described as a gift. And the giving part of faith is God’s work. In this, God helps us to believe. He helps us to have faith. What that means in practice is that we do not believe blindly and without reasons; we believe because God has given us reasons to believe.
In the simplest terms, then, genuine faith is always reasonable. The decision to believe is an honest choice made because of the reasons presented to you by God. And we are able to make this choice for two separate kinds of reasons, broadly speaking. The first of these is because our faith is historical. And what I mean when I say historical is that what we believe really happened, and therefore believing in Christianity is on the same order of belief as believing in the fall of Rome, the rise of Nazi Germany, the founding of Canada, the birth of Mahatma Gandhi, or any other historical fact.
Open your bibles with me to the book of 1 Corinthians, chapter 15. Paul in this letter is writing to correct a host of abuses at this church he had founded, and near the end of the letter he goes back to the central, essential basics of Christianity to make his point. Follow along as I read it now.
1 Corinthians 15:1-20
1 Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
Christianity rises or falls on the fact that what we say actually happened. We believe. We don’t wish hopefully. We don’t try to drum up nice feelings about this. We believe that Jesus Christ came in the flesh, lived on the earth, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, died, and rose from the dead on the third day. On this we live or die, and without it we are nothing, the scum of the earth. If someone asks you what your faith is, your simple answer is some form of the creed, or 1 Corinthians 15. I believe in Jesus Christ.
This is the first way that God helps us to believe; He has acted, personally, actually, truly acted in history. And the second reason that our faith is reasonable is because of who Jesus is. Jesus is the Word of God.
Let me explain. Look with me at John’s gospel, the first chapter, the first words. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” That word that John uses for ‘word’ is terribly important—it’s the word ‘logos’. And more than just ‘word’ is means reason; it identifies speech, and sensibility, and what is right in the universe. It is embedded in our words “theology”—a system of thinking about God; “psychology”—a system of thinking about human nature; “biology”—a system of thinking about living things, and so forth. John, in claiming that Jesus is the ‘logos’ is claiming that in Jesus we have the central principle of sense-making in the universe. He is the variable which solves the equation of all life.
That this is a gift that supports our faith becomes clear as we reflect on what is being said here. John (and the other New Testament authors with him, by the way) claims that God himself took on flesh and walked among us. That the person of Jesus Christ is actually, really, truly, God Himself speaking and acting and living in our midst. That our faith, our saying “yes, I believe” to God, is based on something that God Himself said.
This is great news for us, because we are a people who are time-bound, culture-bound, history-bound, and earth-bound. The only information we can get about things like eternity, time, and the purpose and destiny of humanity comes from our own limited, materially bound resources. Science, in its strictest sense, is the best that humanity can do, but as good as it is it can tell us almost nothing about God. Far from being a reason to doubt God, as many conclude, I think this makes good sense. After all, the only person in the universe who can tell us Who God is and What He is like is God Himself. He is an infinite, eternal, perfectly powerful, perfectly good, omniscient, omnipotent being. Limited as we are, and God being infinite as He is, means that only God can speak about God. We understand this intuitively in other areas of our lives. If you need plumbing help you go to a plumber. If you need help getting in shape you find a physical trainer. But who do you go to if you need help with divine matters? Who from an earthly perspective can say anything of substance about eternity with any authority? Who better to speak for God than God Himself? And that is precisely what we have in Christ: God, speaking for Himself, authoritatively; Jesus, the logos of God; Jesus Christ, absolute reason perfectly embodied in human flesh.
This is a big part of what we mean when we say that the Christian faith is revealed. It was not something men invented on their own; it is not a myth. It is not something that we chose because we thought it convenient; our theology is not based on what we like and dislike. Our faith is something we believe in because we believe it to be true. In Christianity, God has spoken. Having faith means listening to and agreeing with Him.
Faith, then is a combination of human and divine work. Faith is the activity where the human will interacts with the divine will in space and time. It is the work of humans because we must choose to believe. It is the gift of God because the content of what we believe is something He has revealed to us; something we could not have known on our own. And so this is what it means to have faith: to believe God when He spoke for Himself in the person of Jesus Christ; to say, “I believe this,” and commit to believing it in the face of your changing moods and feelings; and then to commit to conforming your life to Christ and his teachings.
A further, critical thing happens that is essential to this combination of human and divine in faith. When we believe what God has revealed to us, He gives us His Spirit to help us believe. The Spirit is a gift that seals a believer with God. The Spirit maintains faith. The Spirit encourages the heart. The Spirit is what works to create the obedience of faith within us. Having believed, we receive the Spirit, and the Spirit begins to change our personalities in impossible ways. In this, through believing, we become living testimonies to the continuing work of God in the world. Faith in others can then be created through God working in the real, living history of our lives.
D. Faith is Always Tested
You may ask, and many others have asked this, if our faith is based on reality, on what really happened, then how come there are people who don’t believe? If God has proved himself in history, why doesn’t everybody believe it? And, more recently, some of you have asked, “If faith is a gift, why doesn’t God give it to everyone?” There is a common answer to each of these questions, and it stems from the nature of faith itself. And that is the truism that Faith is always tested. It is part of the nature of faith that it must be, will be, tested. If you are going to have faith, you must expect testing.
Let me explain this further. God gives us the gift of our faith—He reaches out to us supernaturally—but He does not do this in such a way that it violates our freedom to accept or reject Him. We are always free to choose God, or not choose, God. That is part of our human nature—that God has given us the gift of freedom—and God does not violate this human freedom. We possess this freedom because we are creatures made to love, and love that is compelled is not true love. Only love that is chosen and committed is true love. And this, quite simply, is the reason why not everyone believes. And it may seem strange for you to hear me say this, but the very fact that people don’t believe the gospel, however sad that is, is itself comfort that the gospel is true. That God gave humans freedom, that humans misused their freedom to sin, and that the restoration of humans to God involves God reaching out to humans and humans needing to respond with faith. Of course some people are going to reject the gospel, because the God who is revealed in the Bible doesn’t compel people against their will. If everyone believed I would be suspicious that God had compelled us.
What this means for us, in part, is that faith and doubt always interplay together. Our world is not a place of perfect clarity—if it were, it would be a place of compulsion, and that is not how God works. Obscurity is an integral part of the preconditions for faith. Blaise Pascal, scientist and Christian apologist, says that there is enough light in the world so that people who choose to see can see clearly, and enough darkness so that people who refuse to see are also confirmed. The doubt of our world is part of God’s design for faith; it creates the conditions where faith is tested, and proved.
We are tested in a host of ways. And in all these ways the same response to the test is called for: we view our temporary test in light of what we know to be true. In all this we must remember that tests are temporary. No test of faith lasts forever. In this our spiritual lives are like hikes through mountains and valleys. In moments of spiritual clarity we stand on top of a mountain. We can see great distances. Our journey is before us. We can see the road and we have hope. For many people, their conversion to faith is a mountaintop experience. But we cannot stay on the mountaintop. We’ve got to descend into the valley. While we are heading into the valley we remember the mountaintop clearly and still have hope and encouragement, even though things are getting darker as we descend.
Then, when we reach the trough of the valley, we are in the full swing of doubt. Clouds obscure our vision of the mountains. We are tempted to lose our way. We begin to wonder if there ever were mountains at all, if there ever was a spiritual experience at all, and if any of this really matters. But as Winston Churchill once said, “If you find yourself walking through Hell, don’t stop!” Keep moving forward. Eventually you will come upon another mountain. Things will begin to clear. New vistas will emerge, and in time you will come to the top of another mountain. From that vantage point you can look back on the valley you went through, and forward to the future of faith.
Throughout this whole journey we must remember the mountain. We’ve got to judge the unclear by the clear. We’ve got to measure our faith against our experiences, and not judge our faith by our experiences alone. We must—we absolutely must—have the assistance of the Church as well. This is one of the mysteries of the faith as well, and an essential one: Christian faith always happens in community. The Church is a community of faith because we support each other on our faith commitment. Think of it this way. One of you will be on the mountaintop, another heading into the valley, a third will be stuck on the valley floor, another will be on your way out. Only together to we have a complete picture of the landscape of faith. And when you are blinded by doubt the best defense you have is to trust in people who have a better vantage point than you. That’s what the Church is.
What are the things we experience in the valley? Chief among them is our passions—our desires for sin, our whims, our fleeting thoughts. Each of these tests our convictions. Remember that faithfulness and unfaithfulness are measurements of our obedience. How you behave in the moment of testing is terribly important for your faith, because in those moments of passion we’ve got to make a choice—will I remain faithful, or will I cave to this moment? Our sinful desires are the most common test of our faith, but another test is that there will be times when God removes His hand of favor to see if we are choosing Him for Himself, or for what He gives us. He withdraws His presence from us to test us—and the test is this: have we really chosen God for God, or because God makes us feel good? This is the whole story of the book of Job.
Through the test of faith we must maintain perspective through community and hold fast to what we know when things become unclear. They will become unclear. The only question is whether or not you will remain faithful.
(In part 3 of this post I will discuss what people mean when they say, “I think I’m losing my faith.”)