Faith can sometimes seem like the dirty little secret behind Christianity. It’s necessary, but given the choice we’d really prefer an alternative.
It’s not that we’re opposed to faith. On the contrary, we often refer to our religion as “the Christian faith.” Our trouble lies in having to actually use our faith. It’s like that little “donut” spare tire found in the trunk of many smaller cars. When you’re really stuck 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.
Clearly the Bible takes faith seriously. Hebrews 11 puts it simply: “Now faith is being . . . certain of what we do not see.” In Romans 1:16-17 the apostle Paul claims an unblushing confidence in the gospel as our only hope for righteousness, “a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.”
From the Bible’s perspective, faith is clearly what counts.
Yet its claims about faith can sound silly in our post-Enlightenment world that trusts in human reasoning. After all, having faith seems an awful lot like being gullible or naive, and who wants to be viewed that way?
At the heart of this struggle lies the conviction that we humans ought to be able to “get” whatever is going on in the spiritual realm. If there really is a God, we ought to be able to not only detect God, but also to agree together on just who God is. And if there really are moral absolutes, they ought to make absolute sense to us, and so on.
But we overlook the fact that our human capacities are limited when it comes to the spiritual realm. Trying to determine spiritual realities with human reason is like trying to listen to FM stereo on an old AM radio. Even the sharpest human logic can’t determine just what lies beyond our experience.
Human reason still has its value. We can use it to better understand what is grasped by faith (the study of theology) and even to test the plausibility of claims of faith (the study of apologetics). But the moment we try to use human reason as the foundation for our beliefs, things start to wobble.
Faith and Fog
I wonder how many of our difficulties with faith stem from misunderstanding what faith really is. We often approach faith as if it were a verb—something we have to do, like pedaling an exercise bike on a generator to keep the lights on. When faced with a crisis, we may cringe and brace ourselves as we muster up as much God-optimism as we can in order to make sure that God’s promises still hold true.
This attitude is really a form of fear: we worry that if we were to grow tired of pedaling, the lights of heaven would dim. But if we can keep “faith-ing” hard enough, God will provide what we need—working all things for our good or forgiving our sins or guiding us when we face decisions.
It’s strange that we picture faith that way, because Hebrews 11 doesn’t describe faith as an effort, but rather as a kind of vision: “Now faith is being . . . certain of what we do not see.” Faith is an ability to see something that’s already there, whether we’ve spotted it or not.
I live in northern California, and I love to spend time near the San Francisco Bay. One of the things I love most is watching the dramatic fog roll silently in.
The city of San Francisco, or Angel Island, or Alcatraz, can suddenly vanish, Drivers may begin crossing the Golden Gate Bridge with no visible proof that the other half of the bridge even exists. I recall being on a sailboat once and suddenly making the eerie discovery that all my familiar landmarks had disappeared in the fog.
People who live in the Bay area have learned to adapt to the fog. There’s no widespread panic when a bridge disappears or a mountain vanishes overnight. We’ve learned that if we are patient for a few hours, we’ll get our bridge back and our mountains and islands will return. That’s just how fog works.
The principle is this: fog doesn’t change our landmarks; it changes the visibility of those landmarks.
I find the same principle at work in faith. Some days we can clearly see God’s hand in our lives. We feel God’s love and bask in God’s care.
Other days aren’t like that at all. A fog of doubt or a haze of shame creeps in, and suddenly all those spiritual realities seem to have vanished.
That’s where the Hebrews 11 kind of faith comes in. Faith is our awareness of the fact that all those things are still there, even when we can’t see them.
It takes 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 spouse or child or to continue following a call to a particular ministry or to continue to resist chronic temptation.
In a broader sense, our faith doesn’t necessarily change our fundamental realities; it only exposes them. Our faith doesn’t cause God to be faithful; it simply helps us discover that God has been faithful all along.
Living by Faith
So what does it mean for us to live by faith?
When navigating by faith in the fog of life, there are three actions that can help us find our way:
- We need to accept our need for faith. To live by faith we need, first of all, to come to terms with our faith-phobia. We need to somehow make peace with the fact that our faith can be plausible without having to be proven. To live by faith we need to learn to resist the panic that can creep in when the visibility of spiritual realities dims.
- We need to do whatever we can to clear the air. Here’s one thing I’ve discovered about fog: it’s easier to see familiar things in it than unfamiliar things. When fog settles on the freeway near my home I can still spot my usual exit even if I can’t yet read the signs. But if I were traveling in another town I could get lost quickly. The same is true with our faith. It becomes much easier to hold on to God’s promises in times of stress if I can recall plenty of times when God has previously shown himself to be reliable.
- We need to keep looking. When confronted with fog, we really have only two choices: to squint our eyes or to shut them. Most drivers, when encountering fog, will squint, craning their necks to spot familiar silhouettes through the gloom. But imagine how disastrous it would be if a driver simply gave up, taking his hands off the wheel as he entered a fog bank, thinking, “It’s too foggy to see—what’s the use?” (A freeway is a bad place to become directionally agnostic.) We face a similar choice when encountering spiritual fog. Will we strain to see how God may be working in these circumstances, or will we simply conclude that God has failed us?
In short, it’s not about us. We don’t make God’s providence happen. We didn’t invent the promises of Scripture, and we can’t enforce them.
I still have mixed feelings about faith. Given the choice, I would prefer to live by sight. But I’m discovering that the fog that appears in my life really doesn’t change anything. While I can’t make it go away, I’m also not in charge of keeping bridges and landmarks in place when my vision is obscured.
Fog isn’t so bad if I know what’s real. Thanks to Scripture, I do.
And so I have faith.