Friday, September 26, 2008

“From Faith to Faith”

Rom. 1:16-17[1]

In one respect “faith” has always come very easily for me. Except for some rebellious days as a teenager, I have pretty much always felt “attuned” to God—from my earliest childhood! But faith has also always been very hard for me. I have always been something of a skeptic. I question pretty much everything! That, I think, made me a pretty good teacher, but it makes it hard to have faith in anyone or anything!

I think that faith is hard for us all these days. The notion of “being still” and trusting in God to accomplish the redemption of the world (cf. Psalm 46:10) is one that I think is next to impossible for us—at least I think it can seem that way. We are people who live by the creed, “don’t just stand there, do something!” We are people who love to build our houses (cf. Matthew 7:21-29)— as long as we get to be doing something, we will build our houses on rock, on sand, on the side of a mountain, on a beach, in a swamp, or in a desert! For us, the call to faith might as well be “don’t do anything, just stand there!”

I think part of what makes faith so hard for us is that it is simply impossible to be certain about things like God and redemption, the afterlife and ultimate destiny. I know there are those who come up with all kinds of “evidences” that “prove” why we should believe. At the end of the day none of those arguments can achieve certainty for us—at least not the kind of certainty we’re looking for. That “faith” as agreement demanded by force—whatever the argument may be, whether “fulfilled prophecy” or “miracles” or “coherence” or “the inerrancy of scripture”—has never done much for me as a way of approaching “faith.” I tend to think that in the long run it doesn’t do much for most people.[2]

At the same time, the conclusion that since we cannot have certainty we cannot have faith has never worked for me either. I grant that in this day and age it is impossible to avoid the suspicion that if something sounds too good to be true it must be too good to be true.[3] Nevertheless, if our “suspicion” is the final judge of all things, including spiritual things, then all we really have to go on is our own (limited) intellectual ability and our own (incomplete) experience of life. But the question I want to ask all the “masters of suspicion” is whether we can “suspect our own suspicions” enough to find our way clear to trust that which is beyond our grasp![4]

The inescapable fact is that faith is always something of a leap. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said it this way: “No uncertainty, no risk. No risk, no faith.” [5] What makes faith such a risk is that it is a decision, an exercise of the will, even faced with the lack of conclusive evidence![6] That’s why faith is a matter of conviction, not certainty or proof.[7] When we look at life as it is and the world as it is, we have a fundamental choice—we can choose to see all the pain and suffering, all the evil and injustice and believe that is the true reality of life. Or we can see that as the “unreality” of life, and choose to believe that the true reality of life is a fundamental goodness that comes from a loving God.[8]

One of my favorite authors, Henri Nouwen, talks about faith as the process of moving from the “illusion that I am in control of myself” to the conviction that “we are all beloved daughters and sons of God”![9] The great Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth describes it as God’s great gracious “Yes” to all humankind in Jesus the Christ that changes everything, at least potentially.[10] Another favorite author, Anne Lamott, calls it “traveling mercies.”[11]

At the end of the day, however, faith is still a challenge for us. There is a sense in which all this is way beyond the pale for us. It is something that strains our ability to grasp or even to imagine. The idea that a God of grace and mercy loves us unconditionally with a love that will never let us go is is something “so unheard of, so unexpected” that it can only appear to us as something “incomprehensible and meaningless,” as a “vast impossibility.”[12]

I think there are a lot of people these days have a hard time with faith. It stands to reason that faith is the opposite of doubt, and most of us are better at doubting than faith. But I would argue that our doubts do not mean that we don’t have faith. In fact, I would say the opposite: our doubts are an integral part of the process of faith! Like any relationship, “the decision to trust the other has to be made again and again.”[13]

Why do we trust another human being in this world? Those of you who have had any experience with human relationships may have concluded that we cannot and should not! But even after we’ve been burned in relationships, we seem to be willing to take the risk to trust another flawed and fallible human being. I think the same thing is true for faith—as Pascal put it, “the heart has its reasons which reason does not know.” I think that’s why the Apostle Paul could say that it is "the person in right standing before God by trusting [God]” who “really lives” (Romans 1:17, The Message).

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/1/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Søren Kierkegaard observes that in matters of faith, “for every proof there is some disproof.” See Charles E. Moore, ed., Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, 256.

[3] Richard B. Hays, “Salvation by Trust,” The Christian Century (Feb 26, 1997): 218-223, accessed at, says it this way, “Living as we do on this side of the Enlightenment, we cannot escape the intellectual impact of the great ‘masters of suspicion’: Nietzsche, Freud, Marx.”

[4] Hays, “Salvation by Trust”; cf. also Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 53.

[5] See Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 203-230; quoted in Provocations, 70; cf. also Barth, Romans, 39.

[6] See Keith Ward, God: A Guide for the Perplexed, 213.

[7] Kierkegaard contrasts faith as conviction with mathematical “proof.” He observes that in matters of faith, “for every proof there is some disproof.” See Provocations, 256.

[8] Ward, God: A Guide, 209 defines faith as “committing ourselves to the continual possibility of goodness.”

[9] Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 52, 61-62, 128, 140. He says (p. 118), “Only God is the father and mother who can love us as we need and want to be loved.”

[10] See Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3:622, 649-50, 660-61, 711-12, 789, 798-99; cf. also Moltmann, Church in the Power, 55-56, 187.

[11] See Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, 106.

[12] Barth, Romans, 38, 108-9; cf. John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews: “grace has always the appearance of contradiction.” Quoted in Barth, Romans, 19

[13] Hall, “Faith: Response in Relationship.”

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