READ : John 3:16
What exactly is faith? The Bible says that faith is a conviction, a persuadedness about the reality of a certain category of things, namely, those that are invisible. It functions like the eyes of the mind. Just as our eyesight convinces us of the reality of what can be seen, so faith convinces us of the truth of what cannot be seen.
The Bible says plainly that some will be saved while others will be lost eternally. That’s a hard and sobering truth. But in fact, the person who spoke the most about hell and judgment was Jesus himself. According to scripture, the difference between people who are saved and people who are lost is faith. While Jesus’ death is certainly sufficient to merit the forgiveness of sins for everyone who has ever lived, it actually obtains forgiveness only for those who belong to him because they have committed their lives to him in faith. If you and I want the benefits of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice to apply to us, we must believe in him. As one of the best-known statements in the Bible declares: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Notice, not anyone or everyone, but “whoever believes in Christ.”
So faith is crucial. But what is it exactly? What does it mean to believe – to really believe – in the only Son of God? That’s a pretty important question. In one famous statement the Bible says that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1), which is a wonderful definition; although perhaps it’s not so much a formal definition as it is a description of how faith works. Faith means having the assurance that the things we’re hoping for – things like coming to God in Christ, things like salvation and heaven, and eternal life. Those things are real and will be ours some day. Faith is being sure that things we can’t see or touch or prove through our senses are nevertheless genuine.
The Bible says that faith is a conviction, a persuadedness about the reality of a certain category of things, namely, those that are invisible. That includes not only “spiritual” things like the existence of God or of our souls or life after death, but also basic presuppositions about life and the nature of the universe. All the really big questions have to do with invisible things, like, “Where do we come from? What are we here for? Where are we going?” Faith is the only way to answer those questions. It functions like the eyes of the mind. Just as our eyesight convinces us of the reality of what can be seen, so faith convinces us of the truth of what cannot be seen.
But now I want to be completely honest with you. As a preacher, I have often called upon people to have faith, to put their trust in Christ. In countless sermons I’ve talked about how crucial faith is, and the need to believe. It’s what we preachers do, after all. But I’m afraid that sometimes we may make it sound too simple. We talk about faith as if there’s nothing much to it, as if anyone and everyone could believe in God almost without trying. Well, in one sense faith is simple, but it isn’t easy. For many people, including many Christians, believing in God is a continual struggle. Today I want to talk about a subject one doesn’t always hear discussed openly in Christian circles. I want to talk about the things that make faith hard. I’d like to explore some of those issues and elements in life, in the world, that make it difficult to believe in a God who is loving and just, and all-powerful, who knows and cares about us as his dear children.
Recently I read a very fine book by a Christian philosopher named Kelly Clark. The book is called When Faith Is Not Enough. I invited Professor Clark to join me for a conversation on the subject of faith – specifically, on how to believe in the goodness and love of the Lord when faith doesn’t come easy.
INTERVIEW WITH KELLY CLARK
David Bast: It strikes me, Kelly, that faith isn’t quite as easy as Christians sometimes make it out to be, that it’s a much more complex and difficult subject. It’s not as easy to believe as we sometimes urge people to think.
Kelly Clark: I think people do take faith to be easier than it is, and it kind of shocks me sometimes now that I’ve reflected on it and talked to enough people because what people will tell you in a room with the door closed is different than what they’ll tell you in church on Sunday mornings, and what you’ll find out about faith is what you find out about the rest of their life and that is that it’s not perfect.
I often ask my students in class if they’re certain that there is a God and that Jesus is his Son, and all of their hands go up. Almost 100% in every case. And then I ask them, “How many of you are morally perfect?” and no hands go up. “Now,” I said, “in the first case, you’re telling me that your belief is perfect and the second case, none of you would say that your practice is perfect, that you’re morally perfect.” And I think I’m getting the catechism answer. “What is our only comfort in life and death?” you know, some sort of certainty, and I try to get people to see that that’s the goal.
David Bast: You’re getting the martyr’s answer. “I could cheerfully die, confessing faith in Christ if the Romans only tied me to a stake,” but life isn’t lived that way, and there are dark nights when we all have questions. What you’re suggesting, really, is that our faith doesn’t have to be rock solid or always completely sure, that there can be a mixture of doubt in what is still real faith.
Kelly Clark: Yes, I think that is exactly right. If you look at any person in Scripture who is a so-called man of faith (usually man, every once in a while a woman sneaks in), you’ll see if you look over their lives that their lives have lots of highs and lows and in many cases, mostly lows, yet they’re singled out as people of faith. And people think that where they need to be all the time is where those faith heroes were at their peaks, but they weren’t at their peaks all the time. They weren’t at their peaks very much of the time, and we’re not at our peaks very much of the time. I ask students, “Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night, it’s dark, you’re alone, you’re alone with your beliefs and your thoughts and you sit back and think, “Let’s see, there’s a Creator of the universe who loves me so much that in spite of this chaos he’s come down to redeem us in the form of a human being and he’s died and risen from dead and if I would but believe in him, I’d get eternal bliss. Do you ever just sit back and think, ‘Ah, could it really all be true?’” And part of it, I want students to see how odd this belief is, and part of it, I want them to admit in the light what they sometimes feel in the dark and that is: I haven’t got it all figured out yet.
David Bast: I think that’s a very basic point. One of the things I’ve learned is never to try to evaluate my life or my faith at night. There’s something about daylight that helps. Joy comes in the morning, the psalmist says, and faith kind of comes in the morning too, and tends to go away in the dark literally.
Kelly Clark: I think our dark side comes out a little when the light goes out. That’s unquestionable.
David Bast: I’m a preacher and I’ve probably been as guilty of this as most preachers, sort of calling people to faith and making it sound pretty straightforward and pretty simple. All you have to do is give your life to Christ and believe in Jesus and everything . . . and I remember, in particular, one guy, I’ll call him Jim, who still has stayed with me for probably 15 years, the memory of a conversation I had with him once after church. In talking to him, he said he had been raised in the church all his life and went to church every Sunday. He was going to get married and so as I was counseling with this couple as I always did, I talked about their faith and their spiritual life, and he said to me, “Well, I don’t believe.” And I said, “You don’t believe? I mean, you’ve been part of the church . . . .” He said, “I can’t believe. I can’t believe.” And I had very little to say in response to him. What would you have said to him with that kind of a problem?
Kelly Clark: I probably would have asked him why, what is it that bugs him. And I think generally you will find out there are a couple of things that bug people. One is they just think there’s not enough evidence. They haven’t had a religious experience like many people say that they have. It seems foreign to them. It’s distant. They just don’t see God and Scripture has people that are like that.“Truly thou art a hidden God” is written in Scripture and that’s an anguished cry from someone who wants to see God, and I think if you read a lot of the lament psalms, what you’ll find are people that committed themselves to Yahweh but I think they’re a little unsure if Yahweh’s really there, and they’re trying to cajole God. If you read a lot of the prayers, I don’t think they’re praising God. I think they’re trying to remind God and at the same time saying, “Are you slumbering? Wake up!” Or they’re trying to talk God into getting down here and getting to work for them and they’re a little worried that the God the Hebrews have committed themselves to isn’t up to fighting Baal or the wicked Philistines that are closing in on their ranks and are winning.
David Bast: There’s a lot of “God, if you’re real, why don’t I see you? Why don’t you show up? Why don’t you make a difference in my life?”
Kelly Clark: You made these promises to us and we fulfilled the promises and you’re not here and we’re getting creamed by our enemies. Come on down, help us.
David Bast: And that’s just as true today obviously as it was three thousand years ago in the times of the psalms.
Kelly Clark: Yeah. We’re not getting the manna from heaven as often, and it doesn’t surprise me that people find it hard to believe. I find a lot of pastors who sit up there and they just tell them to believe as if it were easy, and people find it hard and people in the Bible found it hard. It wasn’t any easier to believe back then. A lot of people think, If I could have just gone back, it was easier to believe. But most people didn’t believe in Jesus and they saw what he did and they said, “Look, we know who this is. He’s not God. He’s the carpenter’s son. We saw him pound nails. We saw him cry. We saw him soil his diaper.”
David Bast: So the absence of God, or the seeming absence of God or the silence of God, that’s one of the major factors that makes faith hard. Another thing you talk about in this wonderful book (“When Faith Is Not Enough,” by Kelly James Clark, published by Eerdman’s), I made the mistake of reading it recently while I was traveling in India and I wouldn’t recommend that to anybody. It’s depressing enough at times to read about some of these issues and problems without being surrounded by all this poverty and suffering. But that is, in fact, maybe the biggest single obstacle to faith, the suffering that fills life, the problem of evil, it fills the animal world. You had this wonderful gripping passage in the book where you talk about the suffering just in the world of nature, “nature red in tooth and claw.” Doesn’t God care that he would stop that, let alone the suffering of innocent humans, of babies and children? That’s really problem number one, isn’t it, for people who claim that there is a loving God?
Kelly Clark: Yeah. I spent a lot of time on the book, and I want to disabuse that it’s a depressing book, period. I say at the beginning, it’s like a roller coaster ride, it has highs and lows which I think the journey of faith has, and I’ve tried to organize the chapters that way because I think faith comes in seasons and it’s not all spring. And what causes winter is death and destruction and it’s cold, and it is hard to read this sort of thing, and think about this sort of thing in India, and we’re kind of insulated in America from evil in a lot of ways. And every once in a while things happen to us that shock us into realizing that we live in a world where it’s hard to see God and where it’s easier to see evil. It’s not hard in a place like India to see that day after day after day, and what I try to do in my book is try to make people feel, not just think about, but feel the pressure of evil and the fact that it’s a serious problem. I’m not doing this to talk people out of belief. I don’t think there’s any single topic talked about more in the Bible than the problem of suffering. It’s there in the Bible from beginning to end. Why do righteous people suffer? It’s the only topic that has a whole book of the Bible devoted to it, the book of Job is devoted to the problem of human suffering. It’s an ancient problem. It’s a huge problem. It’s not an easy problem.
David Bast: There are no glib answers. There are no simplistic formulae that solve that problem, including in the book of Job. As you point out, in one sense Job does eventually in this book exactly what his wife challenged him to do at the beginning. He curses God. He really does hurl a challenge at God and finally God responds but he responds in what is admittedly a rather odd way, doesn’t he?
Kelly Clark: God’s response is very unsatisfying, I think. Part of the discussion of Job is to disabuse us of the kind of standard reading that Job was patient and faithful to the end because he wasn’t. Job was a blasphemer and that’s what Satan said would happen. He said, “If you take all this away, he will blaspheme you.” And he does. And what Job does – this is the blasphemy – is he wants to take God to court and he believes firmly if he takes God to court he will prove that God was bad. That’s what he’s going to prove. And he’s afraid to take God to court because God’s omnipotent and he keeps telling God, “Just lay aside your omnipotence and meet me man to man here in court and I’m going to win. I’m going to make my case against you.”
David Bast: It’s like he wants to climb into the ring with God, to change the analogy a little bit, but he wants God to . . . as if he wanted to challenge Superman to a fight. You got to let me use cryptonite gloves or something so I have a chance.
Kelly Clark: Exactly. “Let’s fight fair! And I know you won’t fight fair,” that’s what he’s saying to God. “You’re not going to fight fair!” And I think the great thing about it is, I don’t think the divine answer is intellectually very satisfying at the end of the book. Job challenges God, but God comes to him.
David Bast: But what God says, in effect, is, “You’re puny and I’m big.” That’s almost all that he says.
Kelly Clark: What some people want to focus on is he says lots of nice things, like, “I’m in charge when the doe gives birth to the fawn.” And there’s sort of a providential theme in there, and then there’s this other theme that people almost always ignore, and that is where he talks about predators and how they eat their prey and there are birds that eat the eggs of other birds and there’s a bird that steps on the egg of its bird. I can’t remember exactly what goes on. And so there’s this predator and prey theme and God says, “Look, I’m part of this whole thing too. I’m in charge of the whole thing.”
David Bast: I was reminded of a remark I read once of Charles Williams. He said, “When you consider the answer God makes to Job, which is, ‘Look at the hippopotamus,’ that’s not exactly a satisfying response to these anguished questions of suffering and “Why?” and, “What’s going on, God, and is the universe a fair place?”
Kelly Clark: I have a turn of phrase in there where people want to read the end of Job as if it shows God as only good and merciful and it shows God’s goodness isn’t in every way like ours. There are some things we would call good in the way that human beings might and then there are these other things and a lot of people get to the end and you want to sing triumphantly, “there’s a wideness in God’s mercy,” and I switch it in there and I say, “There’s a wildness in God’s mercy.” God is not tamed. Actually, I think part of what God is saying is: “These things are so great you can’t understand. You don’t know what all I deal with.” I think that’s part of the answer.
David Bast: So what’s the bottom line, though, with respect to Job and faith? The fact that God at least speaks to him, the fact that God embraces him?
Kelly Clark: That’s how I take the bottom line. The bottom line is this: Job’s defenders in the end were all the ones that defended God’s goodness in ways people do in our church these days, and they’re all rebuked. They are the most pious people and Job is the blasphemer. And he says, “Only Job has spoken truly about me.” And I think basically what he’s saying is, “Look, Job has spoken honestly about me. He’s come as a broken person with his whole experience. He’s not hiding behind some theology or piety. He’s just come to me broken and brought everything that he is to me. And I’m going to honor that. I’m coming down to him.” And Job meets God face to face. He gets what he really wanted. He doesn’t get his question answered but he wanted to see God face to face, and for Job it was good enough.
David Bast:: So cut through the clich?s and cut through some of the piety that can turn sort of sentimental and saccharine and have a real encounter with God. That’s what it’s really about. That’s ultimately what faith is about, isn’t it?
Kelly Clark: Yes.
A BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE
Faith in God must be preceded by desire for God. In order to believe in God, you must be willing to come to him and draw near to him. If you would like to have faith, you first have to want to know God. Jesus urged people to ask, seek and knock, and he promised an answer, “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.” I think he was speaking primarily not about asking for things from God, but about asking and seeking for God himself. The promise is that those who truly desire to know God will not be disappointed. Those who seek God will surely find him.
But I think the opposite is equally true. No one is going to find God who doesn’t care to seek. If you are one of those people who say they wish they could believe in God but they just can’t seem to manage to have faith, the question you must face is whether or not you really want to meet God. Do you desire God? Would you really like to know him? If you honestly would, he will enable you to believe. You will find faith. I am absolutely sure of that! Faith.