Monday, April 22, 2019

Anonymous Asks (36)

“How can we make our faith stronger?”

On its own, the word “faith” has no real content. It simply means “belief”. People believe all kinds of things, some of them very strongly indeed, but the intensity of their belief does not make those beliefs true.

Thus it is necessary to ask the question, “Faith in what exactly?”

You Gotta Have Faith!

A young autistic woman hoping to successfully hold a job for the first time writes, “You’ve got to have faith in yourself.” She means you have to believe you can do it. An educator writes, “You’ve got to have faith to be a great teacher.” She means you have to believe what you are teaching is worth learning. A fan of baseball’s New York Mets says, “If you love your team you’ve got to have faith.” He means you have to believe your team will win, or else you’ll be depressed all the time.

These beliefs are not without a certain limited usefulness. Belief that you can do a job may keep you coming to work long enough to absorb the required skills. “Fake it ’til you make it,” as they say. Belief that your area of expertise has value for life will keep you from becoming lazy and cynical in your teaching, attitudes which you cannot help but transmit to your students. Belief that the Mets will win it all this year will keep you spending your hard-earned money on baseball tickets, I suppose. Perhaps that benefits the economy generally. It certainly benefits the Mets. Who knows, maybe it even makes you feel happier about life too.

The Upper Limit

But there is an upper limit to what that sort of belief can accomplish for us. The job you are trying to succeed at may simply be beyond your skill level or IQ. No amount of faith can surmount that obstacle. The course you are teaching may actually be frivolous rubbish. No amount of faith will magically transform it into valuable information. And the Mets? Well, the year Paul Lo Duca said, “You’ve got to have faith” about them was the year of one of the biggest collapses in baseball history. The Mets lost a seven game lead in the NL East with only 17 to play.

That’s almost impossible. But the fans were told to have faith.

Faith in yourself, your work, blind luck or the occurrence of a particular set of circumstances will eventually let you down. So we come back to “Faith in what?” Even better, “Faith in whom?”

Strong Faith

There is only a single reference to “strong” faith in the whole Bible, and we find it in the book of Romans. It has to do with the patriarch Abraham, who believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness. So there was at least a grain of faith in Abraham from the very beginning of his walk with God. The promise in question was that God would make Abraham — a childless old man with a wife almost as old — the father of many nations, and that his children would be as innumerable as the stars of heaven.

Over time, Abraham’s faith got stronger, and here’s how. Abraham “grew strong in his faith,” the apostle Paul tells us, “as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”

So the strengthening of Abraham’s faith was a process. It happened over time; 25 years, to be precise. Several things may have contributed to that.

Things That Strengthen Faith

One is that God repeated his promises to Abraham on several different occasions. Once should be enough for us, but sometimes repetition helps. For the Christian, finding a promise restated in several places in scripture gives us greater confidence to claim it.

Another thing that strengthened Abraham’s faith was his attempt, along with his wife Sarah, to produce an heir on their own. The birth of Ishmael created more problems than it solved. When my schemes fail, I have the option of doubling down on my own efforts, or of trusting God to accomplish the things he wants done in my life. I have found the latter way works better. So did Abraham.

A third thing that strengthened Abraham’s faith is explicitly stated in Romans: “He gave glory to God.” Meditating on God’s person and power have the effect of strengthening one’s faith in a way that believing intensely that something is going to happen will not. The key to Abraham’s growing faith was that he believed God was able.

God is Able

That’s a pretty safe place to take our stand. It’s the starting point for anything good in the Christian life. Hebrews says something similar about the occasion on which Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac to God: “He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead.” The fact that God is able does not mean he will do what we want him to do at the moment we ask for it, or in exactly the way we would like it done. It simply means we acknowledge that he can if he chooses to. There can be no question of that.

If we don’t believe God is able, there’s really no point in asking him for anything, is there? His willingness to help us or to keep his promises is not enough. He has to be sufficiently competent and powerful to deliver on them.

And he is, abundantly so.

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