We sometimes treat “faith” as though it involved nothing more than assenting intellectually to a list of propositions without evidence. Then, our faith is challenged; we’re not sure we “believe” any more. Does God really exist?
Thinking this way makes it seem as though talk about God is like talk about ghosts or UFOs. Do they exist, or not? And if so, what difference would it make? Even if ghosts exist, what do they do except make strange noises and move stuff around in your house. Your own children do that. Whether ghosts exist or not will not change my life.
Faith – Christian faith – is something different.
Consider the following thought experiment. Let’s say you’re back in high school – as painful a thought as that might be – and you have been afflicted by one of those teachers, the kind that clearly hates you. You say it to yourself all the time: “She hates me.”
Now, let’s say that a good friend comes and tells you that he overheard a conversation between the principal and several teachers during which the teacher who supposedly hates you was defending you and arguing vigorously on your behalf against all the others that you should not be expelled from school. (This thought experiment is based on an actual event, by the way.)
Consider the possible responses. Your first reaction might be to say: “I don’t believe it.” That is to say, “I don’t believe it happened; I don’t believe she did that; you must have mis-heard.” “No,” says your friend, “I saw it through the door; it was her.”
Depending upon your faith in your beliefs about this teacher, your next reaction might be even more extreme: “No, it didn’t happen; you’re lying.”
But let’s say that this is a good friend who has never lied to you, who has in fact seen you through quite a few bad scrapes, and who, quite frankly, has no reason to lie. What would “believing” his story entail?
Well first of all, not having been there yourself, to believe that his story was true, you would first have to believe in your friend enough to believe that this particular historical event had actually happened. But that would only be the beginning, would it not?
Because even if you believed that the event happened as described, it’s still possible to deny that the teacher did what she did “on your behalf.” That is to say, even if you accepted that she defended you, you might still insist she did it out of spite: “She just wants to keep me here so she can keep torturing me,” or something along those lines.
Thus along with believing in your friend enough to believe that the event actually happened, you’d also have to believe in your friend enough to accept his particular interpretation of the event: that the teacher did what she did out of concern for you, and not just to jerk you around.
Thus “believing” involves not just an acceptance of the truth of the historical event, it entails as well an acceptance of the meaning or significance of that event. If you actually were able to entertain the notion that this teacher, whom you thought hated you, had not only defended you, but had done so out of actual concern for your well-being, you might then in fact be forced to think back over everything this teacher had done to you in the past and re-interpret those actions in a new light.
It’s a grim realization: “Oh no! Don’t tell me this woman is actually on my side – that she’s been trying to help me? This is going to force me to re-evaluate everything!” When you’ve based a good part of your waking hours on hating someone you think hates you, discovering that the other person doesn’t share that hatred can be extremely unsettling. It’s like kicking out the crutch on which you’ve been leaning.
But let’s say that, in the end, the explanation “She just wants to keep me here to torture me” appears pretty unlikely even to you, forcing you to entertain the thought that she actually does care about your well-being. Here’s the rub: it’s still possible for you to say: “Okay, I admit (A) that she did it, and (B) that (maybe) she did it out of love, but the truth is (C) I just don’t care. The woman is a sap, and I don’t want to live her way.”
That’s still possible, isn’t it? You aren’t forced to respond with gratitude or love. You could respond with contempt. Plenty of people do. What you’ve got is a free invitation. You can say “yes” to it and be changed, or you can say “no” to it and harden your heart.
“Faith” in the fullest sense means being changed by God’s love in such a way that we respond in kind with love. Unless and until faith is given birth by love and bears fruit in love, it will remain empty. Like believing in ghosts. You can walk around all day talking about ghosts or talking about God, but that won’t make a bit of difference if what you believe doesn’t touch both your mind and your heart and force you to make fundamental changes in your life.
The first question, then, isn’t whether you believe in God; the first question is whether you believe in love. Because if you can’t or won’t believe in love, then you’ll never be able to accept the good news about Christ, any more than you’d be able to accept the good news about the teacher you thought hated you.
It’s much easier to hold on to the conviction that it just can’t be true. Believing in God isn’t hard. People believe in all sorts of things they’ve never seen: ghosts, UFOs, quarks. Giving up childish convictions, changing your view about the world, and reforming your life: that’s what’s hard.