Faith is the dirty little secret behind Christianity. It suppose it’s necessary, but given the choice I often think I’d prefer an alternative.
Faith can be like the little “donut” spare tire found in the trunk of many smaller cars. When all else fails it’s nice to be able to dig it out so you can keep on moving down the road. But as soon as possible you want to replace it with something that feels a little more substantial.
I’m discovering that much of my ambivalence towards faith comes from a basic misunderstanding we often have about what faith really is. We often tend to look at faith as something we need to do, as if we were the ones doing whatever needed to be done for the object of our faith to be true. When faced with a crisis, we cringe and brace ourselves as we muster up as much God-optimism as we can in order to make sure that His promises still hold true.
Taken this way, faith becomes a verb, an action; like peddling an exercise bike on a generator to keep the lights on. Actually, it’s a form of fear: we worry that if we were to grow tired of faith-peddling the lights of Heaven would dim. If we can only keep “faith-ing” hard enough God will provide what we need from him—working all things for our good or forgiving our sins or guiding us when we face decisions.
It’s strange that we picture faith in that way, because that’s not at all how the Bible describes it. Hebrews 11 doesn’t describe faith as an effort, but rather as a kind of visibility: “Now faith is being…certain of what we do not see.” Faith is an ability to see something that was already there whether we’d spotted it or not.
I live in Northern California, and I enjoy the San Francisco Bay. One of the things I love most about the Bay is the fog that often creeps in. When the fog arrives things change quickly. The city of San Francisco suddenly vanishes, or Angel Island or Alcatraz may turn up missing. Drivers across the Golden Gate Bridge may begin their crossing with no visible proof that the other half of the bridge even exists. Once while sailing I discovered that the city and two prominent islands disappeared around me in ten minutes’ time. That was weird.
People who live in this area have learned to adapt to the fog. There’s no widespread panic because of a missing bridge or misplaced mountain. Folks have discovered that all those landmarks are still there; they’re just temporarily out of sight. They have learned that if they can just be patient for a few hours they will get their bridge back and their mountains and islands will once again return. That’s just how fog works. (Earthquakes, on the other hand, have been known to make lasting changes.)
The principle is this: fog doesn’t change our landmarks; it changes our visibility of those landmarks.
I find that the same principle applies to faith. There are days when God’s hand can be clearly seen in my life. I can bask in His love and my heart is felled with a sense of confidence in His care for me. But there are other days that aren’t like that at all. A fog of doubt or a haze of shame creep in and suddenly all of those spiritual realities seem to have vanished. No matter how hard I may try to muster up the sunny emotions I might have enjoyed before nothing seems to help. All my peace and joy seems to have vanished, like the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge.
And that’s where a Hebrews 11 kind of faith comes in. Faith is my awareness of the fact that all those things are still there, even when i can’t see them at the moment. It takes a kind of faith to drive across a bridge when you can’t see the other side. It takes the same kind of faith to continue loving a difficult family member, or to continue serving in a ministry role or following a call to a particular ministry, or to continue to fight a chronic temptation.
Taken in a broader sense, our faith doesn’t necessarily change some of our fundamental realities, it only exposes them. My faith doesn’t cause God to be faithful; it simply discovers that He was faithful all along.
Seen this way, faith becomes a kind of imagination; seeing things in the fog. Not fantasy, mentally rearranging the landmarks as I might wish, but a realistic imagining of what I know to be true. When the visibility drops on the Bay I can still visualize where the bridges are and where the islands are located. With the help of my GPS I can still tell how things are laid out, even if I can’t really see.
So also when my awareness of God is obscured. I can picture God loving me or providing for me or forgiving me even when that’s not how it looks because I’ve discovered that those things are really true. With the help of my Bible I can still tell how things really are, even if I can’t currently see.
I’m learning that I don’t have to make God faithful, I simply need to enjoy the fact that He already is. That takes the pressure off, letting Him do most of the work.
And I can handle that.