A spot shows up on our X-Ray. Our business goes bankrupt. Someone we love gets sick and dies. Someone breaks into our house. Suddenly, we become acutely aware that the world with all its possibilities for beauty and happiness and meaning is also fraught with unexpected shocks, temptations and difficulties.
That is where faith comes in. It seems to me that faith is not primarily belief but trust. Faith is the recognition that we are not in control of our lives, and we can not foresee all the places where our journey will go, but we trust God to lead us and to be with us wherever it goes.
So faith is not self-reliance (that American idol) but God-reliance. It is trusting that the journey has meaning and purpose even when we can not see what it might be. Kierkegaard rightly wrote that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
Faith, then, is not a possession or a quality we have in and of ourselves. Faith is a trusting relationship we have with the one who does control our lives and who knows where our journey will lead. Barbara Brown Taylor says that faith is “a dangling modifier.” It needs an object to complete it. Faith is always in something or somebody.
So faith looks to God in trust. Abraham is a model for such faith, because he left his comfortable home and went where God led him. He followed the promise even when he couldn’t see the outcome. He trusted the promise-maker to be a promise-keeper. His journey in faith led to him being the father of a great nation, and the one from whose family the redeemer of the world would someday be born. Abraham couldn’t know this, of course, couldn’t see ahead into the future, but still he followed. He trusted God to lead and he would follow.
Likewise the followers of Jesus didn’t know where their lives’ journeys would take them, only that it would take them with him. And when it led to his cross they could see no future, but later came to know that his future and theirs were on the other side of the cross, against all expectations.
So faith follows. We come to God in need with empty hands. The great theologians of the Reformation saw clearly that we are not saved by our virtue or our good works, not by any righteousness we may have, but only by faith. “Faith is the humility of obedience,” says Karl Barth. Faith knows that we are not in control, that we do not know where we are going, that by ourselves we are lost and afraid. When my children were small and we were in a crowded place, they would instinctively reach for my hand. They knew I could be trusted to lead them and keep them safe
So faith trusts God to lead us, not necessarily to comfort and to happiness, for the life of faith is not insulated from life’s pains. On the contrary, we may be led to suffering we might otherwise avoid. But to follow in faith is the only true way to find life’s path, and reach journey’s end as we are meant to do.
Barbara Brown Taylor employs the image of a rope bridge to speak about the journey of faith (I imagine it as one of those scary ones from the Indiana Jones‘ movies):
“Faith is not a well–fluffed nest, or a well-defended castle high on a hill. It is more like a rope bridge over a scenic gorge, sturdy but swinging back and forth, with plenty of light and plenty of air but precious little to hang on to except the stories you have heard: that it is the best and only way across, that it is possible, that it will bear your weight. All you have to do is believe in the bridge more than you believe in the gorge, but fortunately you do not have to believe all by yourself. There are others to believe it with you, and even some to believe it for you when your own belief wears thin. They have crossed the bridge ahead of you and are waiting on the other side. You can talk to them if you like, as you step into the air, putting one foot ahead of the other.” (The Preaching Life, p. 94)
I take comfort that we don’t take that walk alone over the gorge. Abraham is undoubtedly there on the other side. And Sarah, and Peter and James and John, and Mary Magdalene, and St. Francis and Julian of Norwich. I picture Calvin and Luther and Pope John XXIII, Dorothy Day and Mother Theresa. And many others, some of whom I have known myself, that history will never recall. They weren’t perfect, just ordinary men and women who trusted in God and followed him into their future together.
“It takes a lot of courage to be a human being, but if Jesus was who he said he was, the bridge will hold. Believing in him will not put us in charge, or get us what we want or even save us from all harm, but believing in him, we may gradually lose our fear of our lives.” (Taylor, p. 94)
We will no longer fear, even though we know we are not in control of our lives, even though our journey is going to unknown, unseen places. Because he can be trusted with our lives we needn’t fear, only follow.