Faith is hard work. Hard won, too.
“Just believe!” say some. After all, didn’t Jesus say, “Become as a little child?” (Matt. 18:3).
If, by faith, you are talking about – and, many Christians are – subscribing to a neatly packaged box of propositional statements, then yes, of course, faith is not so hard and believing is a simple exercise in imaginary make-believe, fairytale kinds of stuff.
If, on the other hand, faith is – and, it was for Jesus – trusting yourself to the Eternal Unseen to that point in fact that you are free of anxiety, fear, restlessness…in my case, it’s nervousness…then I suspect you’ll find faith to you the way I find it for me – hard as hell to live out.
It’s easy to “live-in” faith; it’s hard as heck to “live-by” faith. You’ll find the former in many churches; you’ll find the latter, however, only in real life.
For years, I went to church and just about anything I heard from the pulpit I would shout in hearty agreement, “Amen!” Faith was all so very simple in those days…the “good ole days” to which many religious folk wish would return. I told others to do what I found so simple myself, “Just believe!”
But then, just as it happens with children, the day came when the questions appeared. I think they started for me about the same time when Jonathan, my little boy, showed up and today it continues with my grandsons. My son started coming to me and, no matter what I told him, he would respond, “Why?”
My grandsons are doing the same. They ask “why” so often and with such dogged determinism, I sometimes find it annoying.
“Why do you question everything I tell you?” I ask.
At the time, it seldom occurs to me that, if they did not question me, they would never grow up.
And, so it is with most Christians today…with most churchgoers today. They’ve never grown up.
In faith…or, better, in faith-ing.
“Just believe!” they shout. “Become as a little child,” they say. Never realizing, however, that neither is possible, if you want more than some shallow existence…one that uses religion as a crutch to hide the real you from yourself…one that makes believing little more than a trip to DisneyLand where imaginary things occur with dazzling frequency and life is little more than a temporary fairytale to prepare you for the really big HeavenlyLand just above the sky.
I don’t want that kind of faith. That kind of eternity.
I don’t want that kind of shallow existence here, either.
Many must want this, however, because I have become an enemy to them. Because I raise questions, express my doubts, try to be honest with myself and the world and, stranger than all, because I’m open to all people…to all faiths…to truth wherever I may find it, they are offended, afraid, and so attack me. Or, worse, they just disappear and have nothing to do with me at all.
I’m not complaining, mind you. I knew this would happen. It was inevitable, albeit regrettable. It is what it is. But I would be dishonest to pretend it doesn’t hurt a little. Sometimes, a lot.
But I go on and I write on, even as I do today. I write for those of you who are still reading this. I write for you who, like me, find faith to be a problem. You cannot live with it; you cannot, however, live without it. You want to believe, not as in “I believe in the virgin birth” or “I believe in the plenary verbal inspiration of the Bible,” kind of believing. But the kind of trust instead that takes you fully into your doubts, questions, fears, worries and tests itself right there in the midst of real life…your real life.
How might you strengthen your faith? Do you ever ask that? If you’re truly trying to live by faith, you have. Here are three suggestions I have for you today. I cannot promise they’ll work for you but they seem to be working for me. Too damn slowly, however. Nonetheless, I am making progress. Some, anyway. Maybe you will, too.
1. Practice your faith. Practice believing…trusting…resting upon in complete freedom from fear. Yes, just make this a regular practice.
Faith isn’t about reciting propositions. It isn’t about content. It’s about conduct. It’s about how you live. The way you live.
No, I’m not talking about a checklist of things you can say you don’t do and so, as a consequence, you are this perfect little child of faith. I’m talking about living from a place of absolute trust in and complete reliance on something you cannot see, touch, smell, taste or even feel all the time.
That’s right. Sometimes, I feel God or, maybe it’s just a surge of dopamine from the pre-frontal cortex. Hell, I don’t know what it is I’m feeling. I call it God. But I really don’t know. What I know, and all I know, is that there are times I feel really close to what I conclude is God. But that’s about all I can say. Those days are precious.
There are other days, however, I’d have more luck finding a needle in the proverbial haystack than I could ever have finding that feeling for God. I feel lousy instead and not the kind of lousy I feel when I’ve got the flu.
No, it’s actually worse than that. It’s a lousy kind of feeling…the feeling of lostness, as if I am wandering…as if I’m not succeeding at whatever it is I’m doing…as if life is unfair…as if I’m worrying excessively about how to pay bills, or be happy, or stay healthy, or figure out who the hell I am and where I’m going.
On such days, I’m scared of dying and…well…if you’re in touch, even slightly, with your own humanity, you know what I’m talking about. It’s the “existential angst” I’m feeling on those days, I guess, the kind Soren Kierkegaard talked about, as well as Friedrich Nietzsche and Rollo May (“Impressed by my infinite knowledge, are you?” – it’s bull, my friend. I actually know so very little). What is this that I’m experiencing?
It’s faith that’s hard won. I’m feeling what it means to be human. And, that’s not such a bad thing either. We talk about being human as if something were wrong with it.
That’s what church theology has done for us. But, with God, it ain’t so. Humanity is so good God came in Jesus, born just like the rest of us, as a human being. Yes, Jesus had a real mother, too. You can give up the fairytale of a virgin giving birth and still be a Christian. In our world, virgins don’t make babies, not without artificial insemination, anyway.
Practice your faith and cherish those days when you feel close to God. And, on those days you don’t?
Well…that’s the second suggestion for strengthening your faith.
2. Stop Feeling Bad When You Fail at Faith, or Faithfulness.
You are going to fail. You are going to doubt. There will be days that you are overwhelmed with fear and anxiety.
If you don’t get this, you simply cannot understand what Jesus was either doing or experiencing, either in the wilderness before his public ministry began (Matthew 4:1-12) or in the Garden on the eve of his death (Matthew 26:36-56). In both places, an eternal struggle ensued. And, he failed. Which explains why he kept saying the same prayer over and over again in the Garden.
He knew the right words to say, “Not my will but yours be done!” He just didn’t have the feelings to accompany the words.
I know that kind of Jesus. I know how to live by faith. I just have the hardest time doing it. So, lately, I’ve been learning how to forgive myself and to just keep returning to the Garden with the same prayer.
If he did, so will I.
3. And, that’s the third suggestion for strengthening your faith. Practice. Practice. Practice. It’s all about expanding your consciousness, training your mind in awareness…in trust…in unity…in surrender…and, as you do, you are set free.
The Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, puts it like this, in his wonderful book, Living Buddha, Living Christ,
“If farmers use farming tools to cultivate their land, practitioners use prayer and meditation to cultivate their consciousness. The fruits and flowers of the practice spring forth from the soil of the mind.”
If Jesus needed forty days in the wilderness…
Well…there’s a pretty good chance, you’ll need some wilderness practice, too.
Unless you’re content with a childish faith.