On Faith and Faithfulness: Or, Why Faith is Overrated

Faith, I believe, is overrated. In Christianity, most especially Protestant Christianity, we talk a lot about faith: we mark the date we first came to have faith; we exhort ourselves and others to have more faith, to ‘just have faith’; we worry over faith and when people begin to lose their faith.This isn’t to suggest that cognitive, conscious belief is unimportant to the Christian life, that only practice matters and that right action—just action—needs neither credal confessions nor conscious subscription to be right and just worship. Indeed, faith is necessarily at the center of the Christian life, from our first willingness to imagine a world of new realities and unlikely hopes, an unkingly King and life gained through losing it. It is the requisite ground from which our obedience to the impossible kingdom must be built. Yet faith is not at the center alone. And in believing that it is, we can obsess over the tenuousness of belief, hovering over it like it were a candle about to flicker out, anxious that should belief ever vanish our religion will too.

For the better part of my Christian life, and until the last few years especially, I saw my faith as the delicate flame of a candle under my sole and insufficient care. I expect that it would surprise most people that know me that I have always found faith difficult. To be sure, belief in orthodox propositions—the existence of Gød, the divinity of Jesus, the bodily nature of the Resurrection—have long been to me as everyday principles of the universe. But presence of Gød in my life, the love of Gød for me, the hope I have for becoming more like Jesus, these I have probably doubted more than I have believed. Often I have prayed to the Triune Gød of my unassailable convictions with great uncertainty, not entirely convinced that I am praying though convinced of the rightness of prayer. So sometimes I prayed, sometimes I didn’t. Most always I loved Gød, sometimes I didn’t.

A couple of months ago I stood closer to the edge of my faith than I ever have. Events had aligned remarkably such that I ended up feeling deeply betrayed by Gød and brutishly wounded in areas I had only just opened up to the Father. Frankly, I continue to tell the story that it was all ‘too perfect,’ and too perfectly damaging not to have had divine intentions behind it, calculating the maximal effect. Reeling, I contemplated (as I regrettably do in relationships when I feel myself wronged) the time away from Gød I would take in order to catch my breath and of course to punish Him, the distance I could create, but as I obsessed over my profound feelings of betrayal and chewed on my anger, I found I could not locate mixed into these emotions any of the love for Gød that had accompanied so many other tiffs. I felt nothing except hurt, anger, indifference. I realized I was ‘done.’ Done with faith, done with prayer, done with relationships with Gød. I had nothing left to put into it, nothing left with which to believe. Thus began my two weeks of not loving Gød.

I did not love Gød, yet I read Scripture as a sacred text; I attended worship and participated in small groups; I continued to plan my involvement in the movement behind Jesus’ Messiahship—all while not believing that Yhwh was loving or worthy to be loved, only that Yhwh is a just and fitting King for the world and worthy to be served. I gave this a great deal of thought for such a short time. I planned how I would abandon the vocation I was pursuing and spend my life as a Christian materialist, perhaps use my disqualifications for pastoral ministry as an excuse to get my PhD and teach Christian ethics (as a materialist). I imagined how I would continue to participate in the discourse and action of the Church despite my extremely ill-regard for two of its three central Persons. And I found no contradiction here; I still don’t. I still knew that divinity existed in three persons, that Jesus was Resurrected and that a kingdom built around powerlessness would alone overcome the powerful, so of course I wanted to continue to be around those who were aimed toward the same goal, even if we felt differently, even if we believed differently about the realities of prayer and the character of Gød. I let other Christians believe; I let myself simply stand with them.

Now, how I came to the end of this time is uninteresting. It certainly began from the cold, when my anger smoldered but had largely subsided, when I was almost chilled by how little I felt, how little I missed Gød and how much of a shell I felt. The coming back around was gradual—in fact, I believe that the Father and I are still in a process of repair—and I strongly suspect that it had nothing whatever to do with me as much as it had to do with the Holy Spirit’s love for the Father, which I could not possibly suppress.

Of course, nothing about what I have experienced with and without faith (and by degrees) suggests to me that it is insignificant in the Christian life, but it is overrated, because it is not the only thing. There is also faithfulness. And not nearly enough talk about it. I could easily detail my faithlessness; there are my failures to maintain faith, my failures to act rightly, my failures to stand firm. Yet there is the simple faithfulness of standing, merely standing, of abiding and nothing else. There is a great tree large enough in which we can abide, which is itself full of life to sustain the branch, and a branch unless it cuts itself off cannot otherwise than abide. There is a great big boat large enough that you can stand upon its deck and wonder whether there’s water underneath, and we’ll sing our songs and liturgies, and you can just listen and not have to join in to be a part. In this there is the grace of Gød’s faithfulness working, and in this there is a modest human virtue that might save us in an hour of trial. Faithfulness is to abide faithfully even when faith is absent. For when we cease to believe, Gød does not go away, though whether we do is a separate decision.

Photo cred: https://flic.kr/p/6gfQoc


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