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Faith from the Back Side
A Different Take On What It Means to Believe
By J. Ellsworth Kalas
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2011 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Faith from the Back Side
Scripture Reading: Hebrews 10:39–11:1
Since you and I are human, faith comes to us naturally. In its raw form, it's as much a part of who we are as the air we breathe. I submit that a newborn cries out not only because she must have food, but also because she believes that if she asks, someone will provide the food. We're made that way. After all, we were fed for all those months in the womb without our even asking.
I watch (a bit nervously as I grow older) as a father throws a baby in the air and catches him while the baby squeals in delight. The baby has faith that he will be caught, else he would be terrified at being torn from his security and tossed into space. As time goes by the baby learns fear, which is the opposite of faith and at times an intelligent corrective. And it's good that he does, because without the caution that comes from fear, the infant life would quite easily be lost. Some of our fears are faith that has been educated and equipped for everyday living.
But we keep the basic structures of faith so that we can carry on our day-today business. We pour milk on our cereal believing it carries nourishment and not deadly germs. We trust that the cereal was packaged in a clean plant, and if we're health conscious we check the number of calories we're taking on and the ingredients in the cereal, believing that the message on the box is true. We have faith in the apparatus in our car as we back out of the garage. If we're traveling a familiar road to work or school or an appointment we have such faith in our memory that we all but let the automobile guide itself. If instead we're following a map or some electronic guide, we trust the road and street signs along the way. We live out our lives in a world of faith.
We ratchet the faith up several notches when we go to the doctor's office. The doctor gives support to our faith by a framed certificate on the wall of the examining room that testifies to years of medical training. When he or she says, "You have nothing to worry about," we answer, "You've made my day." And if instead the message is a prescription or a call for further examination, we usually extend our faith an extra step and do what the doctor tells us to do.
When we stop en route at a financial institution, we don't think twice about the fact that this particular place happens to be called a "bank and trust company," using a prime synonym for faith as part of its very name. Nor do we think as we take a credit card from our purse or wallet that the word credit comes from the Latin credo—"I believe." Someone has faith in us or this little piece of plastic would lose its magic. The credit card comes from the same Latin word that gives us creed. We speak the creed of our religious faith at our place of worship, and we count on the creed of our financial faith each time we use the credit card. Faith is so woven into our living that we rarely notice its manifestations even while we're walking through them.
Until now I've mentioned only the commonplace areas of faith. But what shall I say about those profound expressions of faith that are the very heartbeat of our lives? What about the faith we have in coworkers, friends, and family members? We bet our happiness, our emotional security, and sometimes our very lives on the faith we have in people. Most of us have seen that faith betrayed at some point in our lives, and we've probably done our own share of betraying, ranging all the way from the kindergarten playground to a cherished friendship, a marriage, or a business partner. Nevertheless, most of us don't stop believing in people after we've had such an experience, and we feel sorry for anyone who allows such a breach of trust to turn them into a miscreant. We want to believe. Thus someone says after a shattering violation of friendship, "What I hate most is that I'm afraid I'll never be able to trust anyone again." The loss or the diminishing of the ability to believe in people is even greater than the loss of the particular relationship.
This is the stuff we human beings are made of. This is one of the signal elements that makes us human. We are not only rational creatures, creating creatures, and decision makers; we are believers.
When the book of Genesis tells us about Adam and Eve's dialogue with the serpent, the ultimate issue is a matter of faith—in this case, a matter of misplaced faith. They chose to trust in the counsel of the serpent rather than to believe in God. It was at this point that we humans lost our innocence. And it isn't surprising that Adam and Eve then hid from God, because once their faith was shattered (even if by a deceiving intruder) it made them doubt any authority. To doubt is to fear, so they wanted now to avoid God. Nor is it surprising that they began to distrust each other; thus Adam, who had been so pleased to have Eve, started complaining to God about Eve's misleading him. And we shouldn't be surprised when we learn that Adam and Eve were cast out of the perfection of Eden, because to lose faith is to lose paradise. Just ask any disillusioned romantic.
Faith is an essential element in living. Without it, we can't get along with others and we can't get along with ourselves. If we doubt others, we withdraw from them, even if we remain physically present. We can become antisocial even while engaging in social discourse. If we lose faith in ourselves we become our own ever-present, inescapable enemies. I agree with the Apostle Paul when he says that faith, hope, and love abide and that the greatest of these is love; but love itself depends so often on the faith we have in the object of our love and in the degree to which we trust our judgment in loving.
If faith is such an essential factor in life, and if furthermore it is such a normal part of our human equipment, how is it that when we need faith the most, we can't seem to get it? If faith is such a constant factor in our daily living, why do we find it hard to exercise faith where it matters most, in our dealings with God? And if faith is so important in getting along with people, in living with ourselves, and in knowing God and thus in enjoying life, how can we get more faith? Or how can we put our faith to work in those areas of life where it matters most, and at the times when we need it most?
For answers I turn to the finest short essay on faith to be found anywhere. You will find it in a New Testament book titled the Letter to the Hebrews. We don't know for sure who wrote this book. Most of the Epistles—letters—in the New Testament have a name attached to them, much like a letterhead on a piece of stationery, but this one moves right into its business without even a word of greeting. Nor do we know the exact date when it was written, although it was probably around the year 65.
It's easy to see why this letter was written. Some Christians in that long-ago time were losing faith ("losing heart," some would call it), and the unknown author wanted to restore it. Because of the nature of his pleading—his careful, extensive references to the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures—many assume that he was writing to Jewish Christians, thus the title that was given to the letter, a letter that is really more like a sermon.
The letter comes to a powerful climax in chapter 11. You can read this chapter in less time than it takes to read a newspaper account of yesterday's football game, and at times it moves in the same kind of breathtaking style so that you want to say, "I wish I'd been there to see it for myself." And at about that time the writer indicates that the game of faith—all the accumulated centuries of it—was played for your benefit, so that now the people who brought the game to this point are waiting to see what you will do with the continuing competition. You discover that you've moved from a seat in the stands to a place on the playing field. You started your reading as a spectator and now you're a key participant, and the people who began the game are now cheering you on.
I should have warned you that faith is like that. You can't spend your life viewing it from a distance. At some point you're compelled to be part of the action. That's because faith is woven into the fabric of our lives. Reading the eleventh chapter of Hebrews is something like attending one of those dinner theaters where they're performing a murder mystery and suddenly they make the audience part of the play, drafting them as witnesses to the crime.
It reminds me of a noted newspaper writer from the early twentieth century who said that Jesus was no doubt a very fine gentleman but that he, the newspaper writer, preferred not to be involved but to remain an innocent bystander. The writer of Hebrews won't let us be innocent bystanders. Faith isn't that kind of game, and we aren't that kind of creature. From what I know about angels, they may have a kind of bystander role because they don't seem to have any faith issues. But you and I, we humans, were made for faith, and the ultimate issue of our existence is the battle between faith and unbelief.
Not faith and doubt, mind you. These two are not opposites. Doubt is a way station en route to faith. I can't imagine getting to faith at a grand level that raises the hair on your arms without passing through doubt to get there. If I may change the figure of speech, faith is an edifice in which some of the grandest parts are the various stones and mortar of doubt. Don't worry about doubt. Doubt is the stuff that goes into the building of faith.
Unbelief is another matter. Unbelief sets itself against faith and is determined not to give it a hearing. Unbelief grows nervous in the presence of faith because it knows that if it stays around long enough, it will lose. It's an unfair battle, you see, because, as I mentioned earlier, you and I are made for faith, so unbelief is always an intruder, always working against what is magnificently native to us. As that fine eighteenth-century poet William Cowper wrote: "Blind unbelief is sure to err / and scan God's work in vain." Cowper knew from experience. He was a person often given to struggles with deep depression, so he wrestled many a pitched battle with unbelief. But he learned repeatedly that unbelief is sure to err.
As for doubting, it shouldn't be seen as a destination, but it has its place. There are some who find a kind of intellectual pride in doubting, suggesting that their doubts demonstrate the superior quality of their thinking. Not so. They may be demonstrating instead an unwillingness to come to a conclusion. Doubts are for the soul what a failed experiment is to the scientist; they represent a temporary delay in reaching the goal. The Spanish philosopher and essayist Miguel de Unamuno put it this way: "A faith which does not doubt is a dead faith." I don't want to put words in Unamuno's mouth, but as I see it, faith is a live and growing thing precisely because it is always contending with new areas of doubt.
We will see as we travel through the faith hall of fame that is given to us in Hebrews 11 that these exemplars of faith were also able doubters. Fortunately for us the writer of this Christian epistle, like the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures before him, wasn't afraid to be honest. These biblical writers didn't feel that God was in any way diminished by our human uncertainties. To the contrary, the faith position is all the better and all the more authentic for the struggles that lead to it. Faith is not a hothouse plant, protected from the elements, but rather jungle wild, finding its quality in the issues that we think might destroy it.
Nor is faith the exclusive position of saints. Saints don't make faith; but faith when it has its perfect work makes saints. As I read about the lives of great souls, some of whom have been identified by the Catholic Church as saints and some of whom are recognized simply by the common assent of the rest of us, I find that many of them are in holy combat to the day of death. This is because they have kept growing and have continually found new areas of spiritual conquest. Some of the noblest have lived through periods that they describe as "the dark night of the soul." And though in their struggle God has sometimes seemed far distant, they were in truth drawing closest to their Lord.
There are also persons who cannot be classified as conventional believers who nevertheless demonstrate remarkable faith at some particular time. I think of King Cyrus, a powerful man who had gods of his own. But "the LORD stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus" (Ezra 1:1) so that Cyrus made it possible for the Jewish captives to return to their homeland. For that circumstance he became a believer, and believed deeply enough to be radically generous and to deal repeatedly with resistance from Israel's enemies. Some of Jesus' most notable miracles were for faith's outsiders—like the centurion who sought healing for his servant. "Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof," he explained; and Jesus marveled that this man with no evident spiritual heritage showed more faith than people who enjoyed a heritage in Judaism (Matthew 8:513).
Nor is this kind of faith from beyond the borders limited to Bible times. Herman Melville was not a conventionally religious man, but I can find no stronger case for preaching than in his description of the power of the pulpit in his novel Moby Dick. John Steinbeck would probably be classified an agnostic, but in his novel East of Eden he wrestles with the issue of sin in biblical language more effectively than it has been done in most sermons I've heard. Often I read lines of quite secular poems that speak faith eloquently while the poet dwells in unbelief. When the nineteenth-century English poet Francis Thompson describes his flight from God in "The Hound of Heaven," he seems to recite the story of our human race in its fascination with faith in the midst of humanity's worst unbelief.
So it is that we begin our look at faith from the back side. Faith is part of our original human equipment, older than anything read or written. Nevertheless, it is our most embattled virtue, more difficult to hold onto than love. We exercise faith every day, in hundreds of secular moments, then struggle to find it in its purest form when we need God's help the most. The back side, indeed! Sometimes it's the only side we can seem to approach. Yet faith is nearer than our hands or feet and more real than the air we breathe.
It's time we learned more about it from a great, anonymous, first-century believer who was trying to help friends who thought their faith was almost gone. So it is that we go now to the eleventh chapter of Hebrews.CHAPTER 2
Faith Has an Attitude
Scripture Reading: Hebrews 11:1-2
Faith has an attitude. I'm using that term in the way you see it on the sports page when coaches or sports analysts say of certain athletes that they carry themselves with "an attitude"—that is, that they perform with a quality of such assured confidence that at times it may even seem like a strut. At its best there's nothing of arrogance in it, just the calm assurance that the athlete knows he or she is equipped to win. Their natural gifts and their preparation for contest make winning seem not simply possible but almost certain.
In the world of the spirit this is the attitude of those who choose to trust in God and in the promises of God. This doesn't mean that they're naive about the conflict in which they're engaged; generally, they're experienced warriors. They have a proper sense of the factors aligned against them: they know that the culture in which they live is probably unsympathetic to the purposes of God, and they know that sometimes the attitudes of the people around them—those people who expect defeat as surely as the faithful expect victory—can be enervating. And of course they know themselves well enough to know something about the problems within their own persons—the unevenness that comes within the workings of one's mind and spirit. They also know something about those elements that are our declared enemies—what the Apostle Paul refers to as "the cosmic powers of this present darkness ... the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12). The faith-person knows that any number of factors are marshaled in opposition. But the faithperson expects to win—not because the enemy is weak, but because faith's resources are substantially greater than the best of those that can be brought against him or her.
The faith-person knows particularly that the primary issue is not the quality of his or her trust in God, but rather the attitude God has toward us. That's part of what I have in mind when I speak of the back side of faith, and it is essential to the way we define and exercise faith in our daily living. I shall return to this later.
Excerpted from Faith from the Back Side by J. Ellsworth Kalas. Copyright © 2011 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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