“We walk by faith, not by sight.” 2 Corinthians 5:7
Faith. It’s a mysterious, wonderful, puzzling word. A stumbling block for some, a laughingstock for others, a lifeline for many. What is faith?
Let’s start with an analogy. We have five senses, or faculties. You’re using the sense of sight right now to read this, as I am to type it. My air conditioner is running, and I hear the blower. That is the sense of hearing. I can’t smell anything in particular right now, but a few minutes ago my Schnauzer came in to see me and her breath smelled like dead fish. The sense smell, unfortunately. I’m using the sense of touch to feel the keyboard beneath my fingertips and the cool air of the fan on my bare arms. I’m sipping a Diet Mt. Dew as I tap out this GraceWaves because it appeals to my sense of taste. Five senses. I use them to gather information about the physical world around me.
Very simply, faith is the sense I use to gather information about the spiritual world that surrounds and weaves its way through me.
Here, we are at the very heart of the belief vs. unbelief challenge. We are born into a physical world that is very obvious, can be both very comforting and very harmful. We are accustomed to using our physical senses from our first moments of consciousness to survive and to learn. Not surprisingly, the physical senses come very naturally to us.
By contrast the spiritual world is whispery and subtle. It’s no less real. In fact, it is the ultimate and final reality. Everything we know about the physical world tells us that entropy wins eventually in one form or another and all comes to nothing. The spiritual world we “sense” through faith is the real reality. This is Plato’s point when he taught that the physical world is a temporary and flawed reflection, or shadow, of the true spiritual reality.
The point is we can be lulled into a habit of being dependent wholly on the physical senses and become convinced that the physical world is all there is. This is why a spiritual experience is so often referred to in terms of awakening, seeing, or becoming aware. It’s religion’s version of The Matrix. Just take the red pill, and you see real things you might have sensed were true. That’s faith.
Like the physical senses, the sense of faith can atrophy from lack of use. That’s why for a deeply convinced atheist, the notion of faith seems incomprehensible and incompatible with intellect. I say this without superiority or condescension, but they do not have faith because they have not used it. They have chosen to rely exclusively on information they gather from the five physical senses. So really they start with a very closed presupposition that they won’t believe in spiritual matters until the empirical evidence is clear to them.
The Bible tells us that faith is a gift from God, and that He has put within all of us the sense of eternity. When we use faith we awaken and become aware. That is why to a person of faith the idea of living by the physical senses alone is incomprehensible and incompatible with intellect.
Both sides do well to resist being smug. I choose to enthusiastically, humbly, and gratefully embrace faith…without being angry at anyone else who differs. Use it or lose it, seems to apply to faith (at least temporarily).
Staying with the Bible now, we find several important nuances of faith. First, whenever in the New Testament you see the word “believe” or “belief” that is a translation of the Greek word for faith. So the most basic meaning of faith is to believe.
Now here is an often overlooked point: you choose to believe. Belief/faith is not forced on us. We are presented with a good deal of evidence, empirical actually, but then we have to make a choice. I think many people believe that faith just sort of appears, that it happens when the scales of evidence tip far enough. I think real faith is matter of choice. Each one of us makes a decision about where to plant our flag.
When faced squarely, this is an uncomfortable truth for believers and unbelievers alike. I could, in fact, make a good intellectual case for unbelief. Atheists are not dumb. I understand their arguments and actually find them persuasive to a point.
On the other hand, I can obviously make a good, intellectual case for belief. Christians are not dumb either! Smart people can believe in God and do so by the millions. That’s surely significant.
So what ultimately makes the difference? Choice. God does impress upon us This is very good news for any struggling or would-be believer. You can choose to keep or start believing. It’s not always easy, in fact it’s often not at all easy, but a part of faith is the choice to believe.
The challenge of faith is why trust and perseverance are additional and important nuances. I don’t know of any saint that doesn’t struggle with doubt. The dark night of the soul is a common experience and really shouldn’t be feared. It’s simply a period of time that will pass.
One of my favorite faith illustrations comes from Isak Dinesan who wrote a story about a man who became a rich author early in life. Like most people to whom wealth and fame happen unexpectedly, the young man developed significant adjustment problems. He had written out of poverty about poverty, but now he was rich and felt isolated from the conditions and the people who had given him his first book. He was estranged from his wife, from God, and even from himself. He wandered all night in the streets of Amsterdam, trying to sort things out. He decided that he would never write again and gave away the manuscript of a new book he was writing.
About at the end of his rope, he was considering suicide when suddenly, he felt overcome with the presence of God. God seemed to speak to him directly that he should write again, “’not for the public this time, or for the critics, but for me.’ ‘Can I be certain of that?’ he asked. ‘Not always’ said the Lord. ‘You will not be certain of it all the time. But I tell you now that it is so. You will have to hold on to that.’”
Ultimately faith is something you have to hold on to. Someone wrote “it’s a subtle chain that binds us to the eternal.” Just reach out, take hold, and hang on.
Dr. Terry Ellis
June 25, 2017