George gets up early every morning to spend time alone with God, praying and meditating on the Scriptures. Off and on it's been his habit for decades, since he first began to follow Christ in college.
But George has discovered another way to spend his time recently, which means he has a decision to make as he settles down at his desk today. Should he open up his Bible or that page of pornography on the Internet? He's alone, where no one can catch him at it. He could go either way.
He prays an honest prayer: "God, I come here in two minds: I want to be with you, but at the same time, honestly, I’m feeling drawn toward the wrong thing right now." A quiet moment passes as he waits on God, who brings to his mind a strong, deep sense of His goodness. And George decides, "Yes, that other junk has a kind of attraction, but what I find with God is richer, better, and ultimately far more satisfying. I'll stay with Him this morning."
George has just passed a test of faith.
But faith itself is being put to the test these days. I'm not speaking here of attacks on the faith, such as persecution of Christians in India or incursions against religious freedom in the West. I mean the word “faith” is being challenged. Influential skeptics deride it as irrational, mindless, even mentally debilitating.
This is hardly a new thing. Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913?), the American satirist and short-story writer, definedfaith as“Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.” Mark Twain, in “Following the Equator: A Journey around the World,” was pithier: "Faith is believing what you know ain't so."
The New Atheists have picked up the same sentiment and taken it further. Christopher Hitchens lampooned believers like you and me, explaining that, “‘I am a person of faith’ . . . means ‘I am a person who will believe practically anything on no evidence at all.’” It makes us sound idiotic, doesn’t it?
Another best-selling New Atheist author, Sam Harris, summarized what that means in practice: “People who harbor strong convictions without evidence belong at the margins of our societies, not in our halls of power.” He backed that up with a New York Times op-ed opposing Francis Collins’s nomination to head up the National Institutes of Health—for no other reason than Collins’s faith in God. By his faith, says Harris, Collins has committed intellectual suicide. And we wouldn’t want a brain-dead man directing our NIH, would we—even one who had previously headed up the Human Genome Project?
Harboring “strong convictions without evidence”—is that what biblical faith is all about?
The Bible’s nearest thing to a definition for faith is found in Hebrews 11. Skeptics latch on to verse one, which reads in the KJV, "Now, faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." They mock it, saying,
If faith is evidence, then where's the evidence for faith? There couldn’t be any, if faith is the evidence—it’s circular thinking! Not only that, but if faith is some hoped-for thing, again, where's the real evidence? I could hope my team wins the Super Bowl next year: is that faith? See—even the Bible teaches that faith is believing what you don’t have any good reason to believe!
But “hope” in this context isn’t like that. It’s an attitude of positive expectancy toward a sure outcome. It’s the confidence that sustains a person through difficulties on the way to a good end. It’s less like the hope that our team will win, than it is like the winning team’s hope in the middle of the fourth quarter that the final whistle will blow before long, and there will be a trophy celebration to follow—even though getting there remains a grueling, injury-producing process.
As for “evidence of things not seen,” we must bear in mind that the writer went on to tell of believers whose faith was built on things they had seen: Abraham with the birth of Isaac, Joseph with God’s revealing himself through His great providence and through the interpretation of dreams, Moses with the burning bush and the many other miraculous signs he saw, the Israelites with the parting of the Red Sea, and on and on.
What faith added to these visible evidences was a conviction of something beyond them. That is the sense in which faith is evidence of something not seen. Through God’s actions, by faith, we have evidence of God Himself. Through His demonstrated faithfulness, we have evidence that in the unseen future His promises will yet be fulfilled.
So the skeptics’ distortion of verse one is just that: a twisting of its meaning.
Further, Hebrews 11:6 says of the faith that is essential to pleasing God, that “whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him.” (ESV)
Such was the faith that George practiced when he chose to meet with God. He believed God was there, and that there was reward in meeting with Him.
Amazingly enough, skeptics even find this objectionable. They say this talk of “reward” indicates moral weakness. Sam Harris puts it this way:
In most cases, it seems that religion gives people bad reasons to behave well, when good reasons are actually available. Ask yourself, which is more moral, helping the poor out of concern for their suffering, or doing so because you think the creator of the universe wants you to do it, will reward you for doing it or will punish you for not doing it?
Consider how mixed up this is, though. First, Christians do help the poor out of concern for their suffering. Second, what ethical error could there be in (a) recognizing that God is good, (b) participating with God’s goodness by doing good ourselves, and (c) being confident at the same time that God, being good supremely good Himself, supports and encourages us in our acts of goodness? How could any good deed be good without that? To deny it is to deny the goodness of God Himself!
Which leads me to my final comments on faith. Faith in God is good because it’s true: it aligns our minds with what is real. It’s also good because it’s personal. As in the (a), (b), and (c) just mentioned, it’s oriented toward a living connection with God in all His goodness and glory.
For faith involves seeking Him: searching for Him desperately, pursuing Him personally, drawing ever closer to Him in confidence, in hope, with knowledge, and in truth.
I have spoken here of two tests of faith. One is the skeptics’ challenge. Faith in Christ, understood rightly, will stand up to that every time. The other is the kind of test George faced. Faith in Christ, as we pursue Him honestly, deeply, and passionately, will stand up to that, too.
Image copyright Eurweb.
Tom Gilson is a writer, ministry strategist, and speaker, and author/host of the Thinking Christian blog. He’s closely involved in developing curriculum for global discipleship use through Campus Crusade for Christ, and in co-founding a new Life Leader Institute at King’s Domain near Cincinnati.
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