The Mysterious Grounds for Faith

When reality seems to deny any confidence we have in God, how can faith persist?

We do not get very far into reading the Gospel of Mark before Mark starts to recount stories of Jesus’ miracles. We have three accounts already in chapter 1, with allusions to several others. These three accounts report healing miracles. They are short and largely unembellished.

Chapter 2 begins with another, more colorful, account (Mark 2:1-12). Jesus is in the Galilean town of Capernaum. He is teaching in a house. A large crowd has gathered to hear him.

While he is teaching, several men bring a paralyzed man to him to heal. The crowd is so dense around Jesus that they cannot get close to him in the house. So the men climb onto the house roof, open a hole in the roof, and lower their friend to Jesus on a pallet.

Presented with this disabled man, Jesus first forgives his sins (an action that scandalizes the religious scholars in the audience) and then commands the man to rise and walk. The paralyzed man does just that, carrying his pallet out of the house.

The Centrality of Faith to the Healing

What I find fascinating about this story is the reason Mark gives for Jesus performing this healing. Mark says that Jesus does this when he sees the faith of the friends who bring this paralyzed man to him. It is not the man’s own faith that leads to his healing. It is the faith of his companions.

I found myself dwelling on that detail. Just exactly what was the faith these companions were expressing? It was not a recitation of beliefs. Jesus does not ask them to recite a creed before he heals. They do not acknowledge his Messiahship or his divinity. So what did constitute their act of faith?

When the companions bring their friend to Jesus and open up the roof to let him down into Jesus’ presence, they do so out of a confidence that Jesus will indeed heal their friend. They have a confidence in Jesus’ desire and power to do the healing.

It is that trust in Jesus’ good will and power that constitute their faith. They trust that Jesus will not turn them away when they approach him and that he will in fact have the power to heal their friend.

The Most Potent Existential Challenge to Faith

What I find curious about this story is how it reflects a more universal reality about a life of faith.

I am convinced that the most deadly existential objection (as opposed to an intellectual objection) to Judeo-Christian monotheism is the existence of evil in the world, especially as evil affects the lives of innocent people. The greatest example of that challenge is the Holocaust of World War II. But it is far from the only one. The deadly cancer that kills a toddler is just as much a challenge in its own way.

Judeo-Christian monotheism has traditionally taught that God is morally good, loving, and all powerful. The reality of persistent evil seems to challenge fatally this assertion. It suggests that 1) God is not good, or 2) God is not loving, or 3) God is not all powerful, or 4) all three.

Many have abandoned trust in God because of the experience of evil and its challenge to traditional theology. How do we defend the character of God in the face of evil? This is the issue traditional theology calls theodicy. It is the fundamental problem that the characters in the Book of Job are struggling with.

If I read the Bible right, the Old Testament grounds its confidence in God fundamentally on the experience of the Exodus. The New Testament grounds it confidence in God fundamentally on the experience of the passion and resurrection of Jesus. If God has proved faithful in the past, especially in response to injustice, God will prove faithful in the future, too.

The full confirmation of faith, however, will come only in the future, at the time that theologians call the Eschaton, that time when history comes to an end and God’s creative and redemptive plan will be fulfilled in all its depth and glory.

In the meantime, we can offer no ultimately convincing rational answer to the challenge. It persists as an intellectual challenge to the fundamental assumptions of the Bible and any religious faith based upon the Bible.

The Answer from the Whirlwind

 Interesting to me, the answer given in the Book of Job is not in the end a rational answer. It is simply an experience of the transcendental presence of God. God never explains to Job why Job has suffered the horrors he has. Instead God addresses Job out of a whirlwind. God simply presents himself to Job in his transcendental power and presence. It proves enough for Job. He repents of his obsession with finding an answer.

Now the men who bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus do so out of a trust in Jesus’ good will and power. This is their faith, and it is their existential response to the problem of theodicy in their friend’s concrete situation. Their faith in the good will and power of Jesus is confirmed by the reality of the healing that follows.

Mark says that when the paralyzed man stood up and walked out of the house, the crowd was astounded. I find myself, on the other hand, astounded at the faith of the friends. Where did such faith come from?

In the end, where does the faith of any of us come from, if not from some inner intuitive experience of the reality of God, an experience that conveys in itself a confidence in the character of the God we trust? Our faith is neither grounded in reason nor in emotion, but in an ineffable experience that is beyond understanding.

This will never be satisfying to a rationalist, but it does acknowledge that there is a mystery about this thing we call life, a mystery that ultimately cannot be comprehended, but it can be trusted.

If you, my readers, have any thoughts on this issue, I welcome your responses.

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The Character of Saving Faith

Scripture text: Mark 5:24-34
[Jesus] said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace…

When Mark tells the story of Jesus healing a woman who had suffered from blood hemorrhages for 12 years, he climaxes his telling with Jesus’ final words to the woman: “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”

The Greek word translated “made well” is the verb sozo. It can also be translated “saved.” So Jesus’ words are a statement about salvation: Your faith has saved you.

But what kind of faith is Jesus talking about? A common misperception is that Christian faith means believing certain doctrines, like the doctrines of the Apostles’ Creed. If this is what faith means, then we are saved by our intellectual beliefs.

But I don’t think the woman with her hemorrhages was thinking about the Apostles’ Creed when she reached out to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. This is not the faith Jesus is commending. Instead she believed there was power in Jesus to heal her. She believed that enough that she pushed through the crowd so she could touch him.

For the Biblical authors as well as for Jesus, saving faith is fundamentally trust, trust in God and then in Jesus whom God has sent. It is not simply intellectual belief.

This is not to say that the Christian gospel has no intellectual content. The doctrines of the church tell us something about the God and the Jesus Christ we are called upon to trust in. The doctrines point to the fundamental character of God and his Son. That is important if we are truly to trust in God. But trust goes much deeper than intellectual belief.

Now here’s the point I want to make. It is our behavior, not our words or our feelings, that shows whether we trust or not.

Let me use an analogy to clarify what I mean. Let’s assume you are a part of a hiking party walking through a mountainous landscape. You come to a massive crevice in the earth. It separates two sections of your trail.

The crevice is deep, plunging several hundred feet. At the bottom jagged rocks litter a riverbed through which runs a torrent of water. If you lose your balance and fall into the crevice, it will be instant death.

The sole way across the crevice is a rope bridge. The bridge appears flimsy as it sways in the breeze. You are not sure it will hold you if you step onto it.

Your guide tells you it is a strong bridge. He has crossed many times, and it has always held up. He tells you something of how the bridge was made, of what materials it is constructed, to reassure you of its strength. Other hikers attest to how they have crossed it and found it to be as the guide says. The guide invites you to continue your hike by stepping on it and proceeding across.

Now you may be inclined to believe by the guide’s remarks and the comments of the other hikers. You may say to everyone confidently, “I believe this bridge will hold me up if I cross it.” But your faith in the bridge remains purely an intellectual belief, until that moment when you step on the bridge and begin to walk across.

At that moment, intellectual belief turns into trust. You express your trust by stepping onto the bridge. Trust expresses itself in behavior.

Now when our Christian gospel calls us to place our faith in Jesus Christ, it is calling us to more than an intellectual belief in doctrines about Jesus. Those doctrines tell us something about who Jesus is, his character, and his relationship to God his Father. They are like the hiking guide telling you about how the rope bridge was made and from what materials.

Other Christians may share their experience of trusting in Jesus. Again that is like your fellow hikers sharing their experience of crossing the bridge.

You may believe everything they say in your mind, but still balk at stepping on the bridge. Your faith has yet to become trust. But the moment you step onto the bridge, your faith transforms into trust.

To continue with the analogy, we may say that Jesus Christ is like the bridge across the crevice. If we would experience the fullness of life that he holds out to us, we must trust him carry us across to the life he promises. We show we trust him to do so by making as sincere an effort as we can to live out our lives as he teaches, to live in what I call the Jesus Way.

He introduces us to that Way through his teachings and his actions that serve as examples of his Way. This is the way, he says, that leads to life. It is a way that focuses on forgiveness, justice, compassion, and love.

What does such a life look like? We have the gospel stories about how Jesus lived. We have Jesus’ teaching and commandments. We have the teaching and admonitions of the apostles. And we have the stories told in the Old Testament.

It is important to keep in mind what Jesus says to his disciples at the Last Supper:
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love….” (John 15:9-10) Our behavior expresses our love and trust.

Here Jesus is consistent with the whole thrust of the Old Testament. Many Christians in fact misunderstand Judaism. Old Testament religion is not a religion of works in contrast to the New Testament religion of faith. The call to trust God and his promises lies at the heart of the Old Testament as much as at the heart of the New Testament.

When God calls Abram to leave his country and family to go to a land God will show him, Abram shows his trust in God by going. Trust in God is shown by obedience to God’s ways as revealed to us in the Torah and in the commandments. Our behavior expresses what we really trust in life.

Of course, as we walk in the way laid out for us by God, we find we cannot truly walk that way by our own will power alone. We must constantly turn to God for the power that comes from him. Prayer is always an essential ingredient in the life of obedience.

Why is all this so important to me? In part, because it says something important about the basis of church membership. In the Presbyterian Church, to which I belong, church membership is based upon two criteria: the profession of faith [or trust] in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and a commitment to living in a fellowship under his rule. (See the Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church, USA, 2007-2009, Paragraph G-4:0100.)

Notice this does not say anything about believing certain doctrines or following certain practices. That is not to say the doctrines and spiritual practices are not important to Presbyterians. They are. But they are not the essence of saving faith. Trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior and a commitment to living in fellowship under his rule is the essential.

If we sincerely trust in Jesus to the capacity we are able, I believe the Lord will lead us in time to see the truth in the doctrines and the value in the practices of the church and to make them our own. We do not need to believe all the doctrines or practice all the spiritual practices in order to begin to walk the Jesus way.

As we walk in the way God lays out for us, we find that our trust opens up space for the power of God to make us well, in spirit, in relationships, and often too in body.

Discerning God with Hindsight

Bible text: Exodus 3:7-12

I love reading the story of how God calls Moses to go to Egypt, confront Pharaoh, and lead the Israelites out into freedom. It is told in Exodus, chapters 3 and 4.

I love the story because Moses is such a reluctant leader. He raises one objection after another as to why God has chosen the wrong man. This series of objections climaxes with his blatant and direct statement to God in Exodus 4:13: “O my Lord, please send someone else.” Talk about hutzpah with God.

When we talk about God being in the transformation business, there is no better example than Moses before and after.

I was reading this call story recently when one thing God says jumped out at me as it had never done before. In Exodus 3:7-10, God reveals for the first time why he has confronted Moses out of the burning bush. He is calling Moses to the daunting task of leading the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage.

This evokes Moses’ first objection, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Moses does not see himself at being up to the task—at all. This is more than a big hairy goal. It’s an impossible goal.

God responds: “I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

God promises to be with Moses. God also assures Moses that he will be with Moses with a sign: when Moses’ task is complete, he and the Israelites will worship God on this mountain of Sinai.

Now most of us when we seek a sign from God seek some kind of divine guarantee that God is truly with us. We want proof that the promise will be delivered. And we want that proof here and now.

But God gives a proof that lies in the future, not in the here and now. Moses will know that God was with him when in the future he arrives back at Mount Sinai. In the meantime Moses must live by trusting in a promise that has no guarantee in the present. He must, like all the faithful through the ages, walk by faith, not by certainty. He must trust in God’s promises, period.

The life of faith is challenging. And sometimes I worry that I have been deluded into adopting a way of life that is nothing but foggy illusion, illusion that will vanish when the burning heat of reality settles in. I long for certainty, but certainty is not given. We walk by trust, not clarity.

The clarity comes, paradoxically, by hindsight. I have found that when I am living out the life of faith, I have no certainty that God is with me and directing my life. Living can feel very confusing and sometimes disorienting. But as I look back on my life journey, I begin to see how God was at work in all that confusion, leading me forward into the man I have now become.

When that happens, I feel a sense of awe. The promise to Moses and to each one of us has proved true. God was with us. With hindsight, we see providence at work in a way we can never perceive as we look into the future.

I can never prove to you that God is at work in your life. All I can do is tell my own story and share the story of those whom we read in the Bible, people like Moses. The proof of what I say and the Bible says will be your own experience, as you step out fearfully into a life of trust.

So the life of faith always involves risk, but maybe that is also what makes it an adventure.

Living by Faith is Living Life Riskily

Scripture text: Isaiah 7:14-16

Among Christians this passage in Isaiah is one of the most beloved in the Old Testament. We have heard it read at Christmas celebration after Christmas celebration. Following the gospel of Matthew, we read it as a prediction of the virgin birth of Jesus. If we read it without those Christmas trappings, however, it speaks a much more jarring message.

In its original context, the passage is set during the reign of the Judean king Ahaz. Judah is under severe threat from its two northern neighbors, Israel and Aram. They have invaded Judah or are about to do so. When they capture Jerusalem, the two kings of Israel and Aram plan to overthrow the dynasty of David and set up a puppet king in its place.

The threat seems desperate enough that Ahaz is contemplating inviting the king of Assyria to come to Judah’s rescue. (Ahaz ultimately does just that, with disastrous results for not only Israel and Aram, but also Judah.) At this moment of crisis Isaiah visits Ahaz and delivers a word from God. Don’t take any such action, God tells Ahaz. Instead have faith in God, and you, Ahaz, will be firmly established.

As a confirmation of this word, God gives Ahaz a sign. A young woman shall bear a son and name him Immanuel (which in Hebrew means God with us). Before the child has emerged out of toddlerhood, the two kingdoms of Israel and Aram will be gone.

This sign is meant to confirm the promise of God and to strengthen Ahaz’s trust. But notice how the sign works. It places the guarantee of God’s promise into the future. That’s not how we usually expect a sign to work. We expect a sign to provide a solid, unchallengeable reason in the present to trust the divine promise.

The sign God gives calls upon Ahaz to trust in God’s promise without a present guarantee. This means that Ahaz must trust without any guarantee other than Ahaz’s trust in the reliability of God. (The ultimate guarantee is God’s own character.)

This means also that if Ahaz decides to trust in God’s promise, he must step out and accept a risk, a high risk. The life of faith becomes a way of living riskily.

This is quite the opposite to the way we often hear the life of faith presented in our churches. The more common way is to present the life of faith as a way of life that leads to security and stability. We enter into God’s shalom by trusting in God. Yet such an approach tends to obscure the reality that the life of faith always involves some acceptance of risk.

When we walk with God by trust, we can never know in advance where it will lead us. It may lead to a resolution of our problems, to emotional stability, and even to prosperity. But it does not always do so. It can lead us as well into situations of danger, persecution, high anxiety, and even deprivation.

Yes, the life of faith is backed up by God’s promise that he is leading us into his kingdom of peace and wholeness in the end. But getting there can involve accepting real risk. And I think we need to accept that as a fact of the life of faith.

Is it possible that learning to live life riskily is also part of the way Christ fulfills his promise that he has come to give us life, full life? A rock climber seldom feels more alive than when he or she is climbing a steep mountain cliff. The climber must be fully alert and conscious of each movement he or she makes. Is not the thrill of skydiving not tied up with the realness of the risk involved?

In a comparable way, is the life of faith never more fully alive and vivid than when we are called to step out into a situation with some risk in following