In the first post I made the case that the faith that many people are struggling with or even walking away from is not actually the faith that is described in the Bible. Instead, it tends to be a shallow, superficial version of faith that they picked up somewhere along the way.
There are many forms of faith that get presented that, even when meaning well, set people up for a future fall. It’s like a house of cards – it can balance ok under the right conditions, but topples quickly when it meets any real resistance.
A third form of superficial faith is the one I will explore here. This may not be the exact right way to describe it, but its how I’ve personally experienced it: it’s when we talk about faith as it if it were a magic formula to get God to do what we want/need.
In many circles this is referred to as the “health and wealth” gospel (though I’m not sure that those who get taught this necessarily use that label). The idea is that God is ready and willing to bless us in miraculous ways when we hit financial or health hardships. The missing ingredient is typically presented as faith – we need to be able to boldly come to God to ask for the miraculous delivery that we long for.
Let me first say that of all the forms of “superficial” faith that I am describing, this is by far the one I feel most conflicted about. There seems to be an unquestionable theme throughout the Bible that God is indeed a generous God who wants us to bring our concerns and needs to him with boldness and expectation.
When teaching the disciples about prayer Jesus said this: “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; those who seek find; and to those who knock, the door will be opened. “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11.9-13)
And James, brother of Jesus, said that anyone who is sick should come to ask for healing prayer: “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.” (James 5.14)
This creates tension even in my own faith – how do I on one hand avoid seeing faith as a magic formula to get God to do my bidding, while at the same time remain open, hopeful and expectant that God is like the father described by Jesus?
So while confessing my own struggle with this, and even longing to have the kind of faith that hopes from great things from God, I still feel a deep conviction that it is a set up for failure to portray faith as a way that we can control God’s bidding.
I read an analogy recently that helped me put words to the danger of a view of faith that can easily distort our expectations when we come to God with a need. I haven’t actually read Greg Boyd’s Benefit of the Doubt yet, but I read a helpful review of it on Scot McNight’s blog. Describing this particular faith dysfunction, Boyd compares the way we talk about faith to the image of the mallet slammed down at the county fair onto a device that tosses a ball up a pole — and if you hit it hard enough the bell will ring. Some think of faith this way: if you have enough of it, the bell of certainty and success rings (I like this analogy).
But what about when things aren’t going right? This view of faith has only one way to describe the perceived lack of intervention from God. If something is not happening right — like a healing — the problem is weak faith. To keep using the same image, the only choice is to pound the mallet harder hoping to drive the faith ball higher.
But can that possibly be a healthy way to view faith?
As Scot McKnight asks on his blog, “If this is the case, there is no one with enough faith to bring peace to the Middle East, an end to AIDS or healing to someone for whom you and others are praying.” I think that’s well said.
This becomes one of the real challenges for a Jesus-follower who is trying to grow a deep, substantive, robust faith. On one hand, how do we grow in our ability to trust the heart of God, and come boldly to God in prayer with our requests and needs? And yet, on the other hand, how do we grow in our ability to trust the heart of God that, even in the midst of trial and tribulation, we can remain connected and reliant on God… even when the trial or tribulation is not removed?
This seemed to be one of the dynamics that the disciples really wrestled with. In John 9 they were traveling together and came upon a man who had been blind since birth. In V2 the disciples ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
That pretty well summarizes the danger of this third version of superficial faith. Many of us have been taught a bad version of faith that says struggle/suffering must be a result of someone either doing something wrong or having too little faith.
Jesus’ response must have really challenged their view of faith, as it does mine: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
That’s a challenging answer, and gives a really nuanced view of faith. This man’s suffering was the result of neither sin nor lack of faith. Instead, his suffering was an opportunity for the works of God to be displayed in him.
Now that takes real faith to believe.
Of course, the tension gets pushed even further in that text. After making the point that the man’s suffering is due to neither sin nor lack of faith, Jesus then goes ahead and heals him. Of course he does!
Here’s what’s crazy though. The miraculous healing that occurs is not a result of some great form of faith exhibited by this man. In fact, it would be hard to find anything in the interaction that even looked like faith. The man never even asks for healing. He doesn’t pray some amazing prayer. It’s not even clear he understood who Jesus was. When asked who healed him, all he could reply was, “The man they call Jesus…” This doesn’t sound like epic faith – it sounds like someone who was touched by the grace of God.
Much more could be said about the tension of this topic, but let me bring it back to the original point I was trying to make. When it comes to the formation and deepening of faith, we want to avoid superficial and shallow forms of viewing that faith. When we root our faith in something shallow the ultimate outcome is already assured. That faith will inevitably be challenged, and if it is not a deeply rooted faith it will be easily shaken.
This is one of the forms of shallow faith. If we believe that faith is like a mallet that we must slam down hard enough to make the bell ring we will eventually end up in serious faith trouble. The Bible is uncomfortably clear that struggle, suffering, and pain are part of the human experience. Faith does not change that reality. Faith does not guarantee that we will get out of suffering as fast or as clean as we would humanly desire.
Instead, faith gives us the ability to connect deeply to God in the midst of that struggle and sorrow. Faith gives us the ability to trust the heart of God even when everything around us seems to be crumbling. Faith gives us the ability to look to a future without that pain and struggle. Faith give us the ability to come to God with big and bold requests, while also giving us the ability to hang on when those requests don’t get answered the way we would like.
The bottom line for me is this. What if “great” faith has nothing to do with being able to make God do what we want God to do? What if instead, “great” faith is about being able to trust God in the midst of difficult times even when we can’t see the whole picture?