4 Faith Cliches that Fail
Created to Comprehend - Appendix 2
To expand on problems in the ditch of mystery, here are:
4 Faith Cliches that FAIL
"You just have to have faith."
In 1996 I lost a close friend to cancer and I was suffering greatly. I was desperate to know if the Christian God could be believed in light of such pointless suffering and evil. My questions seemed very basic to me and I thought that any self-respecting religion would have good answers for them. This was not the case, though. What I found from the leaders that I questioned was compassionate listening, followed by cliche answers, and ultimately their climactic response, “Dan, you just have to have faith.”
Jessica and I in about 1994
An Arbitrary Faith. But is faith something that you can “just have?” The just-do-it-ness of the phrase bothered me. There I was struggling and seeking God in the most crucial of times and this phrase just seemed to suggest that I should shrug off all of my silly doubts and just believe. Sort of “grab that faith out of the air and put it in your heart.”
But this does not work. Faith must be justified, or else it becomes arbitrary. If faith was something that I “just do,” then why not “just have faith” in Buddhism? Or “just have faith” in Charlie Sheen? Or Scientology? If faith is something that I just choose to do, then there really is no way to distinguish between these beliefs. I can “just have faith” in whatever fits my preference and lifestyle. Of course, this fits in lovely with our modern consumeristic society, but it is incompatible with authentic, life changing “belief.”
Such Faith is NOT Faith in God. The dangerous misunderstanding of “just have faith” is that it is NOT faith in God. Imagine, as Dallas Willard proposes (The Divine Conspiracy, p.91), a losing football team behind by 48 points with only :05 seconds left in the game. Now imagine the coach turning to his dejected team and shouting, “Come’on guys! Don’t quit now! You just have to have faith!” Obviously, such a faith would not be faith in anything real. In the same way, to “just have faith” in God is not faith in anything real. It is, as Willard calls it, “faith in faith,” not faith in God.
How God Responds to Doubt. The ditch of mystery tends to glorify doubt, and looks unfavorably on those who seek real answers to their doubts. But many times God takes the doubts of seekers seriously and is eager to offer answers. Let me share three such incidents from the Bible. The first is found in Exodus 3 - 4:17. Here Moses meets the Lord and the Lord designates Moses as God’s messenger to the Israelites. Moses was chosen by God to be God’s mouthpiece to the Israelites. Moses asks the Lord: “What if they don’t believe it was you?” (3:13). God responds by giving Moses a genealogy (historical evidence) that it really was God (3:15-16). Moses replies “What if they still doubt? (4:1).”
This is when things get interesting. God does NOT say “tell them to just have faith.” God takes doubt seriously. He gives Moses several miracles to perform to convince them that it really was God who Moses spoke with. It was important to God that the Israelites really believed.
The second incident is found in the NT. After conquering death, Jesus is with some of the disciples. Thomas hears about this miraculous act of the Lord but does not really believe it. He tells the disciples that he can not “just believe," but that he needs some sort of proof. Then Thomas is greeted by Jesus, who learns of Thomas’ doubt. Jesus does NOT say “just have faith.” Jesus extends his wounded hands and invites Thomas to dig his finger into the wound. Thomas inserts his fingers into the wound, falls to his knees, and utters “My Lord and my God.” Thomas really believed. The transition from his hope to his belief changed the entire orientation of his life in ways that “just have faith” could never do.
Yet another incident from the NT is found in the book of Acts. The event occurs shortly after Jesus’ resurrection and is found in Acts 1:3. Here it is recorded that Jesus offered “many convincing proofs that he was alive.” Perhaps the fact that he had to give “many” convincing proofs was in light of “many” perplexing doubts. We might speculate on this, but what is clear is that it was important to Jesus that his followers were genuinely “convinced” about him. If God takes our doubts so seriously, why shouldn’t we? If God works so hard on our REAL belief, why should we “just have faith?”
"We can't put God in our little boxes."
The important truth to this statement is that conceptions of God are NOT God. God is who he is no matter what our conceptions of him are. He is “the I am who I am,” independent of what humans think. Long before I was old enough to formulate a thought of what God might be like God had existed the way he really is. As my mental constructs of God develop and grow, and shift and change, God’s eternal character has been eternally unchanged. The pontifications of my little brain have no impact on the eternal reality of what and who God is.
Even though I accept all of this, it does not mean that our conceptions of God fail to capture anything about who God is. In fact, conceiving of God as “the I am who I am” and the God that is “independent of human conception” are themselves conceptions of God. Over 50 times we are called to seek God; That is, we are called to develop conceptions of God. The important reality is that those conceptions can be correct because they accurately line up with who God happens to be. But the opposite is not true: God is NOT who he is because of our conceptions.
Which is the Smaller Box? Captured in the spirit of the statement “we can’t put God in our little boxes” is the reality that God is a dynamic living being who exists in a supernaturally profound way that somehow seems insulted when we try to convey it all with little letters formed into little words. There is a sense in which “words” can not communicate enough. Words, then, are like boxes that are too small to carry what we are attempting to carry.
There are a couple problems, though, if we give up on “boxes.” First, as implied above, boxes are inevitable. Even to say “God exists” is to put God into a box. Namely, God exists and is therefore not “non-existent.” I doubt, though, anybody would say that the statement “God exists” in any way “limits God.” But also:
The Bible is a Book of Boxes for God! The Bible is nothing less than a complicated testimony of God’s “boxes.” The Bible portrays God as being “slow to anger.” This is a box! God is “abounding in steadfast love.” [BOX!] God is forgiving. [BOX!] God is merciful. [BOX!] Everything about God in the Bible is a “box” that God embodies. The Bible is replete with boxes for God. Yet nowhere is it suggested that having God in these boxes is in any way inhibiting to his divine splendor and incomparable, transcendent holiness.
Boxes are inevitable, but not necessarily inhibiting. In fact, the only box that might be inhibiting to God is to say that God can’t be put into our boxes. That would be the smallest box we could put God in, for then we would not be able to acknowledge his love, mercy, compassion, steadfastness, etc. That would be a small God.
"God is so BIG and we are so small."
I doubt anybody means this statement literally. That is, size is not a factor in what we can know. We know just as much about elephants as we do about prairie mice. We know all sorts of stuff about the sun, and the sun is enormous. So I hope nobody means we can not comprehend God because God is some sort of cosmological giant. Rather, I think the truth in the statement is that God is greater than us in every way and we must be cautious of the statements we make. Our limited minds and our limited reason offer faint glimpses into the marvels of God, so we have to be careful not to have too high of a view of human reason.
If that is all the statement implied, I do not think the statement would be bothersome to me. But I suspect a much darker, more destructive motivation. Many times when the statement is made I get the sense that the person really believes that those of us trying to comprehend God are actually trying to “pull God down to our level.” But “God is too big to pull down to our level,” and “Who do we think we are?”
Which is the Higher View of Reason? The irony of this cliche is, I believe, that it represents the higher view of reason. That is, even though I believe we can genuinely know things about God, in NO way do I believe that such knowledge “pulls God down to my level.” On the contrary, the moment I came to believe the truth that Christ had the power to raise himself from the dead I realized just how “other” Christ was. Knowledge exalted God!
The idea that knowing something about God would in any way reduce or limit God is simply a misunderstanding of the nature of knowledge. Knowledge will be discussed more later. For now let it be said that knowledge is passive. Knowledge about an object does nothing to the object. Knowing, for instance, about poisonous spiders does nothing to the Brown Recluse crawling in my boot. Knowing all about cancer cells does nothing to the tumor growing in my brain. Knowing that “God is love” does nothing to the eternally holy savior who is the beginning and end of the universe. Knowledge of him does not make him bigger or smaller or weaker or stronger. It does nothing to him (It can, however, do wonderful things for us).
Any idea that reason “pulls God down” is a very inaccurate understanding of reason. A more accurate and humble view of reason is that it is a marvelous gift of God given to us so that we can, among many other things, join in eternal fellowship with him. It is a way for us to connect with God; a way to recognize holiness; a tool to help us distinguish what is godly from what is not.
Flattery Will Get You Nowhere. I can’t help but think that many Christians are intent on complimenting God when they say “God is too big to comprehend.” Two problems with this: First, which is more complimentary of God: that we can comprehend him or that we can't comprehend him? It seems to be FAR more praiseworthy towards God to acknowledge how marvelous he is even to the extent that he was able to create creatures that can comprehend him. Now that is a big God! Furthermore, who wants to say that God couldn’t create humans with the capacity to comprehend him? Any such belief would be an assault on God’s omnipotence and greatness.
The second potential problem is that compliments are not glorifying if they are not true. If someone says, “Dan you have such nice hair,” I will not feel glorified if I know that I’m just wearing a wig. And if I write a fantastic poem about how awesome God’s quadrine nature is, it is not complimentary of God because God is not a quadrinity. God is a trinity. Thus, if what is said is not true, then it is not glorifying. God is big and great. He is so big and great, in fact, that he has even created us fragile little humans with the ability to comprehend him. Suggesting anything to the contrary does not glorify God.
"Finite creatures cannot comprehend an Infinite God."
The final cliché that I will consider is like the others in that it embraces the truth that God and humans are very different. It goes on to say that because of this difference humans can not have knowledge of God. God’s “different-ness” makes him immune to the human mind, so to speak. This cliché utilizes a distinction between finitude and infinity. Infinity and finitude are very complicated concepts that can quickly derail the intent of this project. Let me just make a couple of points, though, that are worth noting for a God we can comprehend.
A Finite Mind CAN Comprehend an Infinite Subject! Take numbers, for instance. Numbers increase and decrease infinitely. If I lived forever and ever and ever, I could perpetually count and never reach the end of numbers. In fact, even between any two numbers there is an infinite amount of fractions that can be theoretically stated. Despite all of this, though, my mind can still comprehend the truth that 2 + 2 = 4. My little, finite mind can really comprehend this true aspect of infinite numbers!
Although it is true that God is infinite, what we need to know about God is finite. God may be infinite, but agape love is a finite aspect of God. Agape love (the love of God) is a self-sacrificial, other-oriented, commitment-based love. There are infinite manifestations of agape love, but the concept of agape love itself is a very tangible, real, finite reality that we can understand. This love is so finite, in fact, that we finite humans are called to manifest it in our own lives.
Another important point is that God chose to become one of us. Jesus was so human, in fact, that he had to acquire wisdom and had to learn right and wrong (mk 2:52). Yet Jesus claimed to know the father and called us into that same knowledge.
Furthermore, as a finite creature, Jesus claimed to reveal God (John 14:9). This is profound! God can be revealed in a finite vessel! Obviously, as a human, Jesus was not revealing incomprehensible, infinite things. In Jesus was revealed the finite, real, and knowable wonders of God’s character. Again, Jesus only reveals as much as we can comprehend – if we can not comprehend it, it is not revealed.
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