Do you have an early faith memory? Maybe you used to pray at bedtime with your parents or God saved your narrowly escaped bodily harm when you were young (in my case this happened more than once lol). As far back as I can remember I’ve always believed.
So over the years I’ve put a lot of thought into exactly what belief means. Maybe you have too. While I’d like to say that I’m happy with all of the answers I’ve found, that’s just not true. Because I, like many other people, see myself as a rational person, I’d like to say that my faith is firmly founded upon reason and logic. But it’s not. Certainly I’d say that my faith is logical … or better yet that logic compliments what I believe nicely. At the same time, I know that I am more than the product of my experiences. Nothing controversial here. I’d imagine that most people feel the same way I do because, in my view, all people are religious in one form or another. What I’m getting at is this: faith, mine and yours, can’t be dependent upon reason or experience alone. That’s because there are too many negative experiences in this life and too many seemingly logical arguments that would undermine the things our hearts say to us on the inside. So instead, my faith and yours has to be more than that. Our faith has to be defined on some level by the object of our belief (on God himself) otherwise it’s not faith to begin with. What I’m saying is that faith isn’t reason or experience – faith is faith. Faith comes from and is defined by God, not by us, and certainly not by stained glass, empty rituals and our tribal terminology.
So why do we believe? I guess I still haven’t answered the question. While I’m at it, let me also ask, “Is faith even reliable in the first place?” These are things a lot of people wrestle with and they probably cause some to give up on the subject altogether. If that’s you, I’m encouraging you today to not give up that easily. Both logic and experience tell me that there is an answer for you right around the corner if you can wait for it. Though they don’t come naturally to us, waiting and patience are the name of the game with faith. So I guess that’s what I’m trying to accomplish here. I want to encourage you and others to believe, like I do. I definitely don’t want you to become me. I just want you to believe … or maybe to help you see some simple ways in which you already do and, I guess, to help you to understand what true faith is. Maybe faith looks different than you’ve been told. My faith certainly looks different than others have said it should. So here are a few reasons I believe along with some characteristics of true faith that I hope will encourage you to know that God is far closer to you than you might realize.
1. FOUNDATIONS (Good Stories Are Faith’s Foundation)
When we’re talking about faith it might be helpful to lay some groundwork. In other words if faith is a structure, a house, let’s think for a minute about the blocks we’re building our house on. Are they strong? And if not, how do we make them more firm so that the whole thing doesn’t come crashing down around us? Jesus said something like this. In his Sermon on the Mount, he said that a wise person will put into practice the things that he said. He said the one who does this is like a person who builds his or her house on a bedrock foundation that will help the whole structure to withstand all the storms and trials of life.[i] Is it easy to concisely define what Jesus said? The answer is both yes and no. In the Sermon on the Mount he explained what true religion looks like. There he said that true morality comes from the heart, pleases God and blesses others. But more fundamentally than that … what did Jesus teach? Jesus’ teachings and those of the Bible for that matter (including the Sermon on the Mount) are not just limited to good morality. Maybe you don’t realize it but Jesus’ teachings are the culmination of a people and a history – the Israelites. Ever heard of them? If you fail to see their relevance, however, that’s OK. Speaking even more broadly, the Bible tells the story of humanity, the story of who we are and where we are going. What I’m getting at is this: God’s message is (at its heart) a story, a narrative and firm faith is always based on a good story, not on good teaching alone.
Think for a moment about how important stories are. When I was a kid a lot of cartoons would include a thirty second public service announcement teaching children some moral principle that could make the world a better place. In my case it was GI Joe and Transformers. For you, it might have been John Wayne, the Lone Ranger or Pikachu. While I can’t remember a single public service announcement, I do remember a lot about the adventures of those that I looked up to. I remember how they fought the bad guys, overcame adversity and did the right thing. Then, as I grew up, real life examples from history and the Bible gave me even more inspiration. Ultimately, I learned far more from narrative, from “story” than I did from any textbook. Why is that? We can remember so much about our cultural adventures yet we have to work hard to stay fluent with a second language or a skill of some kind? Stories impact us so powerfully and so permanently because stories provide the context in which our values, ideologies and beliefs exist. In truth, the flawless morality Jesus taught us from the mountainside is meaningless without his suffering and resurrection from death as a demonstration that those teachings came from God himself – a God who loves and cares for us completely. The same thing could be said about the whole of the history of Israel (and world history for that matter) which begins in the garden where we fell. The rest of the Scriptures look forward to our Redeemer who, by his work, helps us to live as we should in the present and will one day remake us in his image.
Too often I’ve tried to complicate the reasons for my faith. Too often I’ve tried to prove it through reason or justify it as the better experience. In reality, I think the answer is a lot simpler. The truth is I believe because the story is so good it must be true. And that’s what I think true faith does. True faith, a strong faith, embraces a strong narrative. Everyone believes in a story about where we came from and where we’re going. God’s narrative, however, is by far the best one out there. It is, in fact, the Narrative. It’s your narrative and mine. It’s the greatest story ever told. It’s the foundation of my faith and it’s a great starting place for you to see faith itself from a better vantage point.
2. AFTERTASTE (Faith Leaves You Feeling Good Long after the Fact)
One of the things we like best about good foods and drinks are the aftertaste they leave us with. No one wants to drink something that tastes great at first and then turns bitter when you’re finished. Likewise, one of the reasons I believe is that (to me) God’s message is the best one out there. Metaphorically speaking, it leaves me with the best aftertaste. It has great and meaningful implications for all that I see, know and experience. It makes the most sense of what I see in the world. I guess at the end of the day, I just can’t see things any other way. I’ve tried to see things from other faith perspectives and, at times, live my life a different way but I just can’t. And I don’t want to. God’s story gives me an explanation beyond chance. It fulfills a deep longing I have on the inside, the need for a deeper experience or meaning. God’s message tells me why there is suffering in the world. We caused it a long time ago. But his message also leaves me with the hope that he’s going to fix things too. I guess that message just makes me feel a lot more whole on the inside … not just for myself though. It makes me feel better about people who don’t have a voice, those who have experienced tragedy and others who just feel alone.
Like I said, faith has good implications. One of which is that we are not alone. By that I do not mean that Aliens are among us. No. God is with us. And he made us for something better. Our story is better and our Creator has a purpose for our pain. Sure, this point is somewhat logical al in nature. I look at our message and the other options and I think to myself, this one makes more “sense.” But that’s OK. Reason compliments true faith. It informs it. It’s just not the ultimate reason we believe. If it is, our faith isn’t from God but from intellectual principles. In that case we can be reasoned out of it. Simply speaking, I believe in part because I just think God presents us with the best option. Maybe you think the same thing. Unlike other messages, other stories, his leaves the best taste behind long after I’ve taken a drink. I guess that’s what Jesus meant when he said he offered us a different kind of water.[ii] His water fills us up, completely. Once we take a drink we lack nothing. Likewise, God’s message truly quenches our thirst but not just the kind we feel on our taste buds. God’s story leaves us in better shape than it found us. It’s like the finest wine that gets better with age. It sits better than anything else out there and that’s why the aftertaste of God’s great message provides an excellent place for you to establish yourself and your faith.
3. INSIDE-OUT (Faith Is the Activity of Your Soul and Moves Outward)
The more I think about it the more I realize the faith that I have is something that God has given me. That’s the conclusion of us Christians. We say it’s God’s Holy Spirit at work in our hearts. It’s not a set of rules I practice that tries to conform the inside to the outside. That’s the way it seems to me a lot of people practice it. But that’s not what it’s like for me. Rigid rules or punishments don’t change the heart. They only change behavior and that only temporarily. Things can’t move inward like that. My gut tells me that you’d agree with that. My life seems to be completely the opposite of the whole “outside-in” thing. Instead, my entire life has been an example of trying to work outward what’s in my heart. I think that’s what true faith does. It begins with the soul and works its way into our actions.
At the end of the day there is no rational reason I believe. I would like there to be but there’s not. I just believe. Some would say that the rational mind is the gateway to the heart but I’m not sure. In fact, I think that’s misinformation. And whatever this thing is on the inside of me that drives me to do what I do (faith) it can’t be from culture, conditioning or my psychological make-up. It has to be from God otherwise it would have died out a long time ago. In fact, if faith itself were not from God, religion would not exist. So in that sense I’ve come full circle in that irrational faith becomes the only rational answer. It’s something on the inside of me that can only be explained by the work of a personal God. And this thing on the inside which transcends rationality and personal experience is the only explanation for me and for you. If anyone reasons within themselves a sense of right and wrong and then seeks to do it they prove what I am saying. I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at your life like a story but you should. In that narrative you are the hero and you’re living your life according to what you think is right and wrong. But why do you do the things you do? No one is forcing you to. It’s because you are a person of faith. You believe from your soul that God rewards those who diligently seek him. The good news is that he does just that and he’s made himself near to you right now, maybe more so than you’ve ever realized.
4. TERMINOLOGY (Faith Speaks Your Language)
For many people, the language they speak is a form of separation, especially if that language is different than the surrounding culture. It’s hard to relate with someone when you don’t understand what they’re saying. Fortunately for us, God speaks our language. This is definitely true in my case. One major explanation I would give for my faith is my love of history. Just like other things my love of history has informed my faith. Again, it’s not “why” I believe. It just jives with it, if you know what I mean. I don’t know why I believe in the events of the Bible I just do. And to me, nothing better demonstrates the greatness of our book than it’s interaction with history. Many great philosophers have come and gone but none of them have built on one another to paint a bigger picture for world history beginning with creation and concluding with our bright future. The point of what I’m saying is that we’ve seen those things come to pass. We’ve seen them come to pass through the coming of a man named Jesus two thousand years ago and now through the working out of his kingdom in history. That kingdom is still growing every day, despite the claims of some to the contrary. In the West it looks like unbelief is running rampant but in other parts of the world faith is growing like crazy. Don’t let the skeptics fool you either. It’s still alive and active here too, in the West I mean. Faith just looks different here than it used to. The more I study history the more I realize there is truly only one explanation for the emergence and the prominence of Christianity: It’s all true. This interaction with history speaks my language if you know what I mean and it’s also one more part of my faith structure.
What’s Your Faith Language?
Getting back to the point, the good news in all of this isn’t a bunch of boring history. The good news is that if God speaks my language, he is also speaking in a way that you can relate to him and what he’s doing. God is described in many such ways by the people of faith who have proceeded us including: artist, author, creator, competitor, ruler, doctor or healer, provider, scientist, mathematician, thinker, lover, life-giver, family member, musician, servant, savior and human being, just to name a few. Can you relate with any of those things? I’d imagine you can. That’s what I mean when I say God speaks your language. He is intimately involved in your passion. You just didn’t know he was there. So your faith will help you connect his will with the things that you love. It will help you find greater (not less) fulfillment in life. I’d imagine faith is something you want more (not less) of for that and other reasons. Faith helps you to see into the future and move towards something you don’t currently have, something that’s not there right now but will be one day. Maybe you’re trying to solve a problem or help someone else. Either way, faith will light the path for your pursuits and God himself will give you the strength to follow it just like he has for me and others all these years.
5. HONESTY (Faith Has Doubts but Does Not Despair)
A lot of explanations could be made for the things we do and think. Here I’m just limiting it to a few and doing the best that I can to keep it simple … hopefully I’ve done that. Along those lines, my father used to always say to me that honesty is the best policy. I think this saying holds true with faith. And if I’m being honest I’d say that, while I have doubts, God has never given me reason to disbelieve. He has actually done quite the opposite. For over twenty years I have not been able to get away from faith. So far, it’s been my experience that I can’t disbelieve. This brings me back to my first point that my faith and yours comes from God in the first place.
Nonetheless, if anything, my faith in God’s great story has only grown. Some people say there are errors and man-made manipulations in our Bible but (to be honest) it’s just not true.[iii] I’ve studied the Bible and I’ve spent a lot of money studying books about the Bible. All of that has brought me more firmly to the conclusion that it’s all true. Yes, this stuff actually happened. Honestly it’s quite impressive too. We really have no reason to believe that the content of God’s book was either manipulated or man-made. Sure our understanding of that book often changes as we grow. This is true both personally and culturally. The Bible is an authentic account that is completely true and is still coming true. In my honesty, I can say that I often have had and will continue to have doubts. I’m sure you do too. Yet those doubts, however, have never given way to despair. Then as I’ve followed God in faith, he’s answered many of those doubts and on other occasions paved the way for new questions. Questions and fears don’t mean the whole thing isn’t true. They just mean that my understanding isn’t yet what it will be. They also illuminate the nature of true, real and reasonable faith.
What about you?
I truly hope you are encouraged by what I’ve said. That’s been my intent. I think a lot of people don’t see the relevance of faith in their lives. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Faith is transformational for everyone. It has been for me and it is for you. If you don’t view yourself as a person of faith I’d like to open the door of belief to you. Also I’d like to help you see, maybe in small ways, how faith will enhance your passion. If you already believe I hope you’ve come to see how faith is so much more than you thought it was. Faith calls out to us all to be stronger people. It is building a house in which we and others can live. I hope you see that and that you desire like I have to follow God’s call and find his true fulfillment.
I think a great way to apply what we’re talking about here is just to ask God to enhance your faith. That’s it! I am confident that if you ask him he will do it. And when you ask, be willing to go where he leads you remembering that reason informs but doesn’t replace faith. You might not know where you’re going. Abraham didn’t. God gave him a direction and a couple of steps at a time and it took child-like trust for him to follow the path God laid out for him. He made mistakes. But he got a lot of things right too. That’s what faith is all about. Faith sometimes doesn’t know “how” but always understands that God, not us, is going to get it right. If you’d like to read about Abraham’s faith journey and those of others check out Hebrews 11 in the Bible. It’s known as the “Hall of Faith” and may God greatly enhance your life as you and others come to know him more!
[i] See Matthew 7:24-27
[ii] See John 7:37-39
[iii] If you’d like a good resource on textual criticism read Daniel B. Wallace, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence, Kregal Publications: Grand Rapids, 2011.