What no person has a right to is to delude others into the belief that faith is something of no great significance, or that it is an easy matter, wheras it is the greatest and most difficult of all things ~Soren Kierkegaard
Running across this quote a few weeks ago caused a moment for me. My thoughts have turned ever since to the polarized routes towards faith I see within myself. On one hand I see a laziness that wishes to experience life without effort and thought. On this side, I wish for faith to be measured according to what I have experienced so far. I want, in the words of Kierkegaard, to have a faith “of no great significance” in that I wish for my faith to be found sufficient as it is. Miracles, interventions and evidence of God’s present Person are distractions that threaten this sort of unmeasured walk through life.
But then there are also the moments of idealism. Maybe I have listened to some great visionary, an evangelist has traveled through my subconscious, and I have been awakened to a need for more. I move into a seasonal burst of energized work seeking to capitalize on my temporarily heightened standards. I sprint towards a goal line that I imagine is just over the next period in my life if I can just eke out enough spirituality.
But Kierkegaard’s words point to a different path than these two well-worn routes. Kierkegaard knew that our faith is the most essential component of our lives. But he also knew that it is something that does not come easy in the world of today: faith is difficult and those who say otherwise are to be doubted. It takes work, effort, labor and consistency to see the effects of God in our lives. What we give defines what we experience.
I suspect the average reason for our attendance at church is our own self-misgivings. We look at ourselves and wonder what we have missed, hoping for a greater experience. For most of us, church is something we do in the polar extreme of idealism. We attend because we want to believe something new is possible within ourselves. We imagine that such an enormous conceptual being as “God” (who is apparently to be found in church) must show evidence of himself and that correspondingly we will be changed by his presence. So we come to church to seek an altered version of who we are. Definitely an idealistic hope.
I am one of those Christians who believe in healing. Not that I gravitate towards the large venues where healings are performed but in the quiet calmness of the local church, elders, friends and family gathered, I have witnessed things that are beyond my explaining. Chronic pain, a broken bone, cancer conquering in its march across a body’s cellular infrastructure… I have seen all of these reversed inexplicably. And yet I have seen those once healed, praise still ringing from their lips, head out the door to try some new experience that they hope will fulfill them. I am astounded that the great miracles that I see God still performing are yet not enough to retain us.
In my own soul, looking across a lifetime of evidence that God is truly able and present, I must confess I am not always amazed at what He is doing in the present. I have seasons where the miracles of last month, no matter how great, seem to fade in my memory to levels that no longer require the loyalty I once thought would be endless. My heart wanders again seeking for a better version of myself.
Remarkably, physical healing seems somewhat easy for God compared to the slow work of soul transformation. Those who have lined up at the church’s door (myself included) have wished for our emptiness to be changed as quickly as our cancer. We wish for our souls to be altered as completely as God provides financial assistance. But again and again, the effort required to be a soulful believer, someone who is altered from the inside out, is vastly greater than someone who merely experiences the effects of a miracle. In the words of Eugene Peterson, it requires a long obedience in the same direction.
Gone are the once dearly held lines of grace versus law. We hopefully know now that earning grace is beyond the possible. But experiencing it without consistent effort is truly misguided. Our change comes when we enter parts of ourselves that see no added benefit due to our entrance. When we give financially, regardless of the moment, when we worship methodically, not waiting for the Spirit but coming ourselves to pray and sing, then we offer ourselves rather than looking for Someone to be offered to us.
It may be a crime of the modern church that we expect God to perform. We see him as the Divine Empowerer who can do abundantly more and so we expect him to. But our faith, essential in its value, requires something beyond God’s miracle-in-the-moment power. It requires our personal entrance, our agreement that we are part of the plan ourselves. Our money has real value. Our prayer is listened to and actively engaged. Our service makes a difference. Robert Frost famously, in the Gift Outright penned these words:
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
We are looking for more, waiting for the something that we all apparently know we are missing. Faith, so essential, is a relationship that requires more than a short burst of pious idealism and yet cannot be measured lazily by the short distance our souls have traveled so far. It must be entered into, like an open-ended covenant, in which we bring all of ourselves and expect that God will do the same.