Rector's Blog: When I Don't Want to Believe
This blog is also available as a podcast
I’m not all that interested in having faith. I’m not. Yes, I lead a faith community. Yes, I believe in Jesus. Yes, I’m a Christian. But if I’m going to be honest with you, I have to tell you that I don’t like this faith thing. And my reasoning for this is simple enough: I prefer certainty. I don’t want to believe things – I want to know them. I don’t want to believe in Jesus: I want to see Jesus, touch his scars like Thomas did. I don’t want to believe in life after death. I want to know it’s verifiably real. I want God to show up at a nationally broadcast Bengals game and say, “Hey, everyone! It’s me: God!” So we can all see and know God is God and stop having to believe it. And while we’re at it, I hope it’s a home game, so I can get down there and see for myself.
There’s a line in Scriptures that says faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. I just cannot tell you how much I don’t want this to be true. I don’t want to hope for things, and I don’t want to have conviction in unseen things.
For many years this was a big stumbling block for any kind of religious pursuit for me. I believed in God, but I didn’t want to believe in God: I wanted to prove God’s existence and get it over with. At that time it seemed pretty clear to me that loving my enemy and praying for those who persecute me and turning the other cheek and giving money away without any desire for reimbursement, and forgiving without reservation and loving without condition would all be much more doable if I knew without a doubt that there was a God and that God unquestionably wanted me to do these things. I was prepared to be obedient if God was prepared to convince me.
This desire for certainty is not confined to religion. I want to know that my kids are going to be ok – that all three of them are going to survive growing up, and that they’ll find their way in the world. I don’t want to hope it – I want to know it. I want to know that my wife and I are going to celebrate our 50th anniversary someday, and I want to know that you’ll be there to celebrate it with us. And I want to know that this country I love so much and this church I love so much will still be around. I don’t want to have faith. I want certainty. I want to know.
And it is at this point that it occurs to me: I don’t get to know much of anything. I can almost hear the God I believe in saying that to me: You don’t get to know, Phil. You. Don’t. Get. To. Know. And if the God I believe in isn’t real, it’s still true. There’s so much of my life I do not get to know. So much of it comes back to my beliefs, my hopes, my convictions - the way I act in the face of the unseen.
This, then, is faith: Faith is how I respond to the uncertainty. Faith is the decision to believe that love and mercy and beauty and justice are the truth of us. Faith is also the decision to live into the things I believe. Let me say a little more about what I mean there: 22 years ago I realized I believed in God. I did not decide to believe in God, I realized it was something I believed. That’s not the faith part. The faith part came when I decided to trust that belief and live as if it were true.
Faith is just part of the deal. You have come to believe certain things, and you have decided to live as if those things were true. It’s not confined to religion. Rather, faith is a fundamental underpinning of our daily lives. And yet, the thing about faith is nobody seems to think they have enough. It’s like we all live with two baseline assumptions: 1. Faith is important and 2: I don’t have enough of it.
Whenever I talk with people about faith – and I do that a lot – I hear confessions that people don’t actually think they have enough faith. Maybe that’s you. Maybe you’re one of the people who says to me, “I don’t go to church enough.” And, hey, you’re right, you don’t. I’ll see you on Sunday. But I’ll tell you this: The people who are there every Sunday also don’t believe they have enough faith. This sense of spiritual inferiority is deeply ingrained.
And it’s not a new dilemma. It’s been going on for ages. Once, when Jesus was describing to his disciples the things they’d need to do to follow him – you know, things like forgive people and love people and admit when they’re wrong and ask for forgiveness when they hurt others – their response was to plead, “Increase our faith!” In other words, if you want us to live lives of love, we’re going to need more faith. One man came to Jesus asking him to heal his son. Jesus said, “Believe it.” And the desperate dad had the best response I can imagine – especially when I read it in the old English, “Lord, I believe: Help thou mine unbelief!”
Isn’t this us? Isn’t this our response to the uncertainty life keeps throwing our way? Fine, I can deal with the uncertainty if you’ll just give me more faith that it’s going to work out. I can deal with being told to believe if you’ll just help me get rid of all this unbelief.
In the story, Jesus doesn’t teach the man how to believe better. Jesus heals his son. And in the story, Jesus doesn’t increase the disciples’ faith. He tells them if they had faith the size of a mustard seed they could move mountains.
Now, let’s stay right here for a moment: Because often Jesus’ response is interpreted as an admonition: As if Jesus is saying, if only you had even a mustard seed of faith.
But I don’t buy that. These disciples have quit their jobs and left their families and followed Jesus. Literally. That means they’ve been faithful. I don’t think Jesus is calling them faithless. I think he’s saying, whatever faith they need to live lives of Love – they’ve already got it. They don’t need more faith. They need to accept that the faith they currently have is actually enough.
What if you believed that? You think you don’t have enough faith? What if you do? Next week I’m going to write more about how we understand the faith we have. But in the meantime, what if you – who have decided to live your life as if love and mercy are real, as if beauty and justice are possible – what if you are being faithful right now? What if when Jesus referred to us as people “of little faith” that little faith was enough? What if, just for today, you let go of judging yourself as incomplete, and just accepted that whatever belief is kicking around within you is incredibly beautiful and holy?
Tags: Rector's Blog