In order to arrive at what you are not you must go through the way in which you are not.
~T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
As a form of truth in advertising, I feel obligated to explore how faith works in actual daily practice, not just in theory. My own life of faith has included many surprises that no one warned me about. Of course, if the journey did not include a few potholes, dark stretches, and unexpected detours, we would hardly need faith.
I used to think that everything important in my life—marriage, work, close friends, relationship with God—needed to be in order. One malfunctioning area, like one malfunctioning Windows program on my computer, would cause the entire system to crash. I have since learned to pursue God and lean heavily on his grace even when, especially when, one of the other areas is plummeting toward disaster.
As one who writes and speaks publicly about my faith, I have also learned to accept that I am a "clay vessel" whom God may use at a time when I feel unworthy or hypocritical. I can give a speech or preach a sermon that was authentic and alive to me when I composed it, even though as I deliver it, my mind is replaying an argument I just had or nursing an injury I received from a friend. I can write what I believe to be true, even while painfully aware of my own inability to attain what I urge others toward.
Exercising faith in the present means trusting God to work through the encounter before me despite the background clutter of the rest of my life. As the recovery movement has taught us, our very helplessness drives us to God. An addicted person may discover his or her weakness to be a gift disguised, for that is what presses him daily toward grace—whereas the rest of us try vainly to deny our need. Anne Lamott, who writes openly about her alcoholism, says she has two favorite prayers:
"Thanks, thanks, thanks!" and "Help! Help! Help!"
I have visited William Cowper's home in the tiny stone village of Olney, England. Cowper wrote some of the church's most popular hymns—"O For a Closer Walk with God," "God Moves in a Mysterious Way His Wonders to Perform," "There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood"—and for a time shared a house with John Newton, the converted slave-trader and author of "Amazing Grace." As I toured the sites where Cowper lived, however, I realized how little grace he actually experienced. Tormented by fears that he had committed the unpardonable sin, hounded by rumors of an illicit affair, Cowper suffered a nervous breakdown, attempted suicide several times, and was kept straightjacketed in an insane asylum for his own protection. The last quarter of his life, he avoided church entirely.
In the idealism of youth, I would have pounced upon Cowper as a typical Christian hypocrite, one who wrote about what he could not put into practice. Now, though, as I reflect on the grand words the poet left behind, I see his hymns as perhaps the only marks of clarity in a sadly troubled life. "Redeeming love has been my theme, And shall be till I die," wrote Cowper. Though he felt little of it personally, he left lasting proof of redeeming love in his treasury of hymns.
God's grace may work that transformation in any of us, using the failures of the present as the very tools to shape us in God's image. As Cowper expressed it:
Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord who rises
With healing in His wings;
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again;
A season of clear shining,
To cheer it after rain.
"My teaching is not my own," Jesus said. "It comes from him who sent me. If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own."
Note the sequence: Choose to do God's will, and the confidence will later follow. Jesus presents the journey of faith as a personal pilgrimage begun in uncertainty and trust.
Some psychologists practice a school of behavior therapy that encourages the client to "act as if" a state is true, no matter how unreasonable it seems. We change behavior, says this school, not by delving into the past or by trying to align motives with actions but rather by "acting as if" the change should happen. It's much easier to act your way into feelings than to feel your way into actions.
If you want to preserve your marriage but are not sure you really love your husband, start acting as if you love him: surprise him, show affection, give gifts, be attentive. You may find that feelings of love materialize as you act out the behavior. If you want to forgive your father but find yourself unable, act as if he is forgiven. Say the words, "I forgive you," or "I love you," even though you are not entirely convinced you mean them. Often the change in behavior in the one party brings about a remarkable change in the other.
Something similar works in my relationship with God. I wish all obedience sprang from an instinctive desire to please God—alas, it does not. For me, the life of faith sometimes consists in acting as if the whole thing is true. I assume that God loves me infinitely, that good will conquer evil, that I can triumph in any adversity—though I have no sure confirmation and only rare epiphanies to spur me along the way. I act as if God is a loving Father; I treat my neighbors as if they truly bear God's image; I forgive those who wrong me as if God has forgiven me first.
I must rely on this technique because of the inherent difference between relating to another human and relating to God. I go to the grocery store and run into a neighbor I have not seen for months. Judy just went through a divorce, I think to myself, remembering we have not heard from her lately. Seeing Judy prods me to act. I ask about her life, check on her children, maybe invite her to church. "We must get together with Judy and the kids," I say to my wife later that day, recalling the grocery-store encounter.
With God, the sequence reverses. I never "see" God. I seldom run into visual clues that remind me of God unless I am looking. The act of looking, the pursuit itself, makes possible the encounter. For this reason, Christianity has always insisted that trust and obedience come first, and knowledge follows.
Because of that difference, I persevere at spiritual disciplines no matter how I feel. I do this for one main goal, the goal of all spiritual discipline: I want to know God more fully. And in pursuing a relationship with God, we must come on God's terms, not our own. The famed spiritual director Fénelon ad vised his students that in difficult times, "Prayer may be less easy, the presence of God less evident and less comforting, outward duties may be harder and less acceptable, but the faithfulness which accompanies them is greater, and that is enough for God." We obey first, Jesus said, and then find the source of his teaching.
Old Testament prophets were quite blunt as they set out the preconditions for knowing God, as in this verse from Micah: "And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (6:8, NIV). Along the same line, the New Testament epistles repeatedly tell us that love for God, which means acting in loving ways toward God, nurtures the relationship and leads toward growth. I do not get to know God, then do his will; I get to know him more deeply by doing his will. I enter into an active relationship, which means spending time with God, caring about the people he cares about, and following his commands—whether I spontaneously feel like it or not.
"How shall we begin to know You Who are if we do not begin ourselves to be something of what You are?" prayed Thomas Merton. He adds, We receive enlightenment only in proportion as we give ourselves more and more completely to God by humble submission and love. We do not first see, then act: we act, then see. … And that is why the man who waits to see clearly, before he will believe, never starts on the journey.
How can we obey without certainty, when plagued by doubts? I have concluded that faith requires obedience without full knowledge. Like Job, like Abraham, I accept that much lies be yond my finite grasp, and yet I choose to trust God anyhow, humbly accepting my position as a creature whose worth and very life depend upon God's mercy.
The Obedience Habit
Most of us face a lesser trial than what Job and Abraham confronted, but a trial nonetheless. Faith also gets tested when a sense of God's presence fades or when the very ordinariness of life makes us question whether our responses even matter. We wonder, "What can one person do? What difference will my small effort make?"
I once watched a series on public television based on interviews with survivors from World War II. The soldiers recalled how they spent a particular day. One sat in a foxhole all day; once or twice, a German tank drove by, and he shot at it. Others played cards and frittered away the time. A few got involved in furious firefights. Mostly, the day passed like any other day for an infantryman on the front. Later, they learned they had just participated in one of the largest, most decisive engagements of the war, the Battle of the Bulge. It did not feel decisive to any of them at the time, because none had the big picture of what was happening elsewhere.
Great victories are won when ordinary people execute their assigned tasks, and a faithful person does not debate each day whether he or she is in the mood to follow the sergeant's orders or go to work at a boring job. We exercise faith by responding to the task that lies before us, for we have control only over our actions in the present moment. I sometimes wish the Gospel writers had included details about Jesus' life before he turned to ministry. For most of his adult life, he worked as a village carpenter. Did he ever question the value of the time he was spending on planing wood or fixing a broken chair?
Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, found that nearly all of his followers went through periods of futility. Their faith began to waver; they questioned their worth; they felt useless. Ignatius set down a series of tests to help identify the cause of spiritual despair. In every case, regardless of cause, Ignatius prescribed the same cure: "In times of desolation, we must never make a change but stand firm and constant in the resolutions and determination in which we were the day before the desolation or in the time of the preceding consolation." He advised fighting spiritual battles with the very weapons hardest to wield at that particular time: more prayer and meditation, more self-examination, more repentance. Obedience, and only obedience, offers a way out.
A person reared in a Christian home, who absorbs the faith along with other family values from trusted parents, will one day face a crisis that puts loyalty to the test. She may have had religious experiences, may have felt something of the closeness of God. Without warning, that sense vanishes. She feels nothing, except doubts over all that has gone before. Faith loses all support of feeling, and she wonders if she has been living under an illusion. At such a moment, it may feel very foolish to hold on to faith regardless. Yet, as Ignatius counsels, now is the time to "stand firm." Faith can survive periods of darkness, but only if we cling to it in the midst of the darkness.
More often than I would care to admit, doubts gnaw away at me. I wonder about apparent conflicts in the Bible, about suffering and injustice, about the huge gap between the ideals and reality of the Christian life. At such times, I plod on, "acting as if" it is true, relying on the habit of belief, praying for the assurance that eventually comes yet never shields me against the doubts' return.
Truth in the Extremes
As Andrew Greeley said, "If one wishes to eliminate uncertainty, tension, confusion, and disorder from one's life, there is no point in getting mixed up either with Yahweh or with Jesus of Nazareth." I grew up expecting the opposite: that a relationship with God would bring order, certainty, and a calm rationality to life. Instead, I have discovered that living in faith involves much dynamic tension.
Throughout church history, Christian leaders have shown an impulse to pin everything down, to reduce behavior and doctrine to absolutes that could be answered on a True/False test. Strangely, I do not find this tendency in the Bible. Far from it. I find instead the mystery and uncertainty that characterize any relationship, especially a relationship be tween a perfect God and fallible human beings.
In a memorable phrase that became the virtual cornerstone of his theology, G. K. Chesterton said, "Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites by keeping them both and keeping them both furious." Most heresies come from espousing one opposite at the expense of the other.
Uncomfortable with paradox, Christians tend to tilt in one direction or the other, usually with disastrous consequences. Read the theologians of the first few centuries as they try to fathom Jesus, the center of our faith, who was somehow fully God and fully man. Read the theologians of the Reformation as they discover the majestic implications of God's sovereignty, then strive to keep their followers from settling into a resigned fatalism. Read the theologians of today as they debate the intricacies of written revelation: a Bible that expresses God's words to us that is nonetheless au thored by individuals of widely varying intelligence, personality, and writing style.
The first shall be last; find your life by losing it; work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you; he who stoops lowest climbs highest; where sin abounds grace abounds more—all these profound principles of life appear in the New Testament and none easily reduces to logical consistency. "Truth is not in the middle, and not in one extreme, but in both extremes," 19th-century British pastor Charles Simeon remarked. With some reluctance, I have come to agree.
Inside every person on earth, we believe, the image of God can be found. Yet inside each person there lives also a beast. Any religious or political system that does not account for both extremes—furious opposites, in Chesterton's phrase—will sorely fail (surprisingly, the utopians' failures bring down more catastrophe than the cynics'). As a rabbi put it, "A man should carry two stones in his pocket. On one should be inscribed, 'I am but dust and ashes.' On the other, 'For my sake was the world created.' And he should use each stone as he needs it."
Life Really Is Difficult
The dynamic tension inside each one of us works itself out in daily life, exposing what truly lies inside our hearts. Scott Peck's book The Road Less Traveled spent more time on The New York Times bestseller list than any book in history, and I believe the secret of its success unfolds from the very first sentence: "Life is difficult." Peck raised a thoughtful protest against the how-to, problem-solving books that normally occupy such lists—and especially occupy the Christian bestseller lists.
When a woman gives birth to a profoundly retarded child, no how-to book will remove the pain. Poverty and injustice do not go away, de spite our best programs. Kids in the most affluent suburbs shoot their classmates at school. Marriage problems don't get solved. Death snares us all eventually. And any faith that does not account for complexities such as these cannot last. Quite simply, being human is hazardous to health. Unlike angels, human beings get cancer, lose their jobs, and go hungry. We need a faith that somehow allows the possibility of joy in the midst of suffering and realism in the midst of praise.
I used to believe that Christianity solved problems and made life easier. Increasingly, I believe that my faith complicates life, in ways it should be complicated. As a Christian, I cannot not care about the environment, about homelessness and poverty, about racism and religious persecution, about injustice and violence. God does not give me that option.
The late Quaker philosopher Elton Trueblood recognized this. He wrote, "In many areas, the gos pel, instead of taking away people's burdens, actually adds to them." He cited John Woolman, a successful Quaker merchant who lived a comfortable life until God convicted him of the offense of slavery. Woolman gave up his prosperous business, used his money to purchase slaves' freedom, wore undyed suits to avoid using dye produced by slave labor, traveled on foot because slaves were not permitted to ride in carriages, and refused to eat sugar, rum, molasses, and other products tainted by slave labor. Largely because of this "quiet revolutionary," by 1787 not a single American Quaker owned a slave. Trueblood continued:
Occasionally we talk of our Christianity as something that solves problems, and there is a sense in which it does. Long before it does so, however, it increases both the number and the intensity of the problems. Even our intellectual questions are increased by the acceptance of a strong religious faith. … If a man wishes to avoid the disturbing effect of paradoxes, the best advice is for him to leave the Christian faith alone.
At the heart of the gospel lies the paradox of the yoke. Jesus offers us comfort—"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest"—but the comfort consists in taking on a new burden, his own burden. "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:29–30).
Jesus offers a peace that involves new turmoil, a rest that involves new tasks. The "peace of God, which transcends all understanding" promised in the New Testament is a peace in the midst of warfare, a calmness in the midst of fear, a confidence in the midst of doubt. Living as resident aliens in a strange land, citizens of a secret kingdom, what other kind of peace should we expect? In this world, restlessness, and not contentment, is a sign of health. The Bible uses the word "pondering" to describe how a person carries this kind of tension. When Jesus' mother Mary encountered things she could not rationally resolve, she held them inside her soul, "pondering" them, carrying the tension rather than trying to eliminate it.
My father-in-law, a lifelong Bible teacher with strong Calvinist roots, found his faith troubled in his final years. A degenerative nerve disease confined him to bed, impeding him from most of the activities that gave him pleasure. His 39-year-old daughter battled a severe form of diabetes. Financial pressures mounted. During the most severe crisis, he composed a Christmas letter and mailed it to others in the family. Many things that he had once taught he now felt uneasy about. What could he believe with certainty? He came up with these three things: "Life is difficult. God is merciful. Heaven is sure." These things he could count on. When his daughter died of diabetic complications the very next week, he clung to those truths ever more fiercely.
Mr. Hopeful's Advice
Paul mentions three Christian virtues—faith, hope, love—at the end of 1 Corinthians 13, his great chapter on love, and each one expresses a paradox.
Love involves caring about people most of us would prefer not to care about. In Paul's words, love is patient, does not envy, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs; it always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Such a program may seem reasonable on another planet run by different rules, but not on our planet, where people act with injustice, meanness, and vengeance. By nature we keep records, right wrongs, and demand our rights; love does not.
Hope gives us the power to look beyond circumstances that otherwise appear hopeless. Hope keeps hostages alive when they have no rational proof that anyone cares about their plight; it entices farmers to plant seeds in spring after three straight years of drought. "Hope that is seen is no hope at all," Paul told the Romans. He mentions some of the good things that might come out of difficulties: "Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope" (5:3–5). He lists hope at the end, instead of where I would normally expect it, at the beginning, as the fuel that keeps a person going. But no, hope emerges from the struggle, a byproduct of faithfulness.
As for faith, it will always mean believing in what cannot be proven, committing to that of which we can never be sure. A person who lives in faith must proceed on incomplete evidence, trusting in advance what will only make sense in re verse. As Dennis Covington has written, "Mystery is not the absence of meaning, but the presence of more meaning than we can comprehend."
For several centuries, The Pilgrim's Progress sold more copies annually than any book except the Bible. Rereading it recently, I was struck by how John Bunyan's version of the Christian life differs from what I read in most Christian books today. Every few pages, the pilgrim makes some stupid mistake and nearly loses his life. He takes wrong turns and detours. His only companion sinks in the Slough of Despond. The pilgrim yields to worldly temptations. He flirts with suicide and decides again and again to abandon the quest. At one such moment, Mr. Hopeful assures him, "Be of good cheer, my brother, for I feel the bot tom, and it is sound." Acting in courageous faith, the pilgrim continues his journey and in the end arrives at his destination, the Celestial City.
The Pilgrim's Progress proved a reliable guidebook for millions of Christians over the years. Cheery, problem-solving books offer a much more attractive road map today, but I cannot help wondering what we have lost along the way.
Read the sidebar about G.K. Chesterton that accompanies this story, " Paradoxical Orthodoxy ."
Other excerpts from Reaching for the Invisible God are available from Zondervan , and Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture, which ran a two-part article, "Seeing the Invisible God" ( Part 1 appeared in the May/June 2000 issue, Part 2 is in the July/August issue.)
G.K. Chesterton's writings are available on the web, including his religious essays, fiction, and poems.
Read a biography of William Cowper , the 18th century poet and hymn writer.
The entirety of Ignatius of Loyola's spiritual exercises are available online.
Reaching for the Invisible God is available from the Christianity Online bookstore, as are Philip Yancey's What's So Amazing About Grace?, and Disappointment With God and M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled .
Link to Philip Yancey's most recent column for Christianity Today, or select a column from the past few years:
Lessons from Rock Bottom
(July 11, 2000)
Chess Master (May 15, 2000)
My To-Be List (Apr. 4, 2000)
Would Jesus Worship Here? (Feb. 7, 2000)
Doctor's Orders (Dec. 2, 1999)
Getting to Know Me (Oct. 25, 1999)
The Encyclopedia of Theological Ignorance (Sept. 6, 1999)
Writing the Trinity (July 12, 1999)
Can Good Come Out of This Evil? (June 14, 1999)
The Last Deist (Apr. 5, 1999)
Why I Can Feel Your Pain (Feb. 8, 1999)
What The Prince of Egypt Won't Tell You (Dec. 7, 1998)
What's a Heaven For? (Oct. 26, 1998)
The Fox and the Writer (Sept. 7, 1998)
Fear and Faith in the Middle East (July 13, 1998)
And the Word Was … Debatable (May 18, 1998)
A Cure for Spiritual Deafness (Apr. 6, 1998)
Jesus' Unanswered Prayers (Feb. 9, 1998)
More Philip Yancey archives
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