Monday, February 26, 2018

The Theological Virtues: Faith

The scriptures referred to are Romans 4:13-25 and Mark 8:31-38.

If temperance was the first in the list of the cardinal virtues, which were generally recognized by both believers and non-believers, faith is the first of the theological virtues. And by theological, we means virtues that have to do our relationship with God. Moderation has to do with living a life so that neither we nor others are injured by excessive speech or behavior. It doesn't, technically speaking, require God. Faith has to do with living a life that takes God into account. And that's why a lot of people have trouble with seeing faith as a virtue.

Ironically, faith is part of practically all human endeavors. Faith simply means trust and as social animals, trust plays a large role in our lives. If we don't learn trust from our parents and family, our ability to get along with any other human being is severely damaged. All relationships are built on trust, including commercial transactions. For that matter, the thing some people pit against faith, science, is also based on trust. You have to trust that the science you are relying on was done properly, recorded accurately, and interpreted correctly. One way to check on that is to reproduce the results of any study or experiment. And currently that is a problem. It turns out that 80% of mouse studies don't work in humans; out of 100 famous psychology studies, the results of 60% could not be reproduced; of 67 major drug studies revisited, 75% ended up with different results; and one research team looked at 53 recent cancer studies, only to find they couldn't reproduce 47 of them. That's 88%! Done properly science should give us some degree of certainty. Obviously we are falling behind in doing science right. Those who try to build on previous findings need to be able to trust that the team that did the initial research had a large enough sample, ruled out any additional variables, astutely interpreted what the study actually showed and, sad to say, did not cherry-pick or make up the data to please the funding source or to get famous. Science, like all human endeavors, is based on faith.

Christianity is upfront about its reliance on faith. The difference is we put our faith in God. We put out trust in what is revealed about God in his written Word, the Bible; we rely on what is revealed about God in his living Word, Jesus Christ; and we step out on faith as we put into practice what we have learned about how to relate to God and to other people.

What Biblical faith is not is simply mentally checking off a series of ideas about God. I believe the earth revolves around the sun but it doesn't make any impact on how I live my daily life. And if it somehow turned out I was wrong, it still wouldn't change much for me or for billions of people around the world, at least for those not involved in science.

Biblical faith is more like believing in gravity. It makes a difference if I acknowledge and live by the fact that gravity exists. I could deny it but I still won't be able to levitate. And if I were wrong about gravity existing, it would affect my life immediately and everyone else's as well.

The problem is that we take gravity, like God, for granted. Which means we are usually made aware of it after we have been thoughtless or careless about it. Every year, 2.8 million people go to the ER because of a fall. 95% of all hip fractures are caused by a fall, usually sideways. Falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injuries. Falls are the leading cause of accidental injury deaths. That's why elderly people, especially those who have had a bad fall, tend to walk carefully. They believe in gravity.

Of course, gravity is what keeps us on the surface of a planet spinning at 25,000 miles an hour. It's what allows us to walk, build houses, drive cars, use the potty, or put something on the table and expect it to stay there. It also allows us to fly an airplane and then land as opposed to rocket into space when we just wanted to go to Cleveland. Gravity is good, provided you remember it's the law.

Sadly, like gravity, most people only think about God when something goes wrong and we suffer the consequences. Sometimes it's because we have ignored his moral laws, like those against murder, theft, lying or adultery. Sometimes it's because we have ignored the physical laws of the world he created, by taking foolish and unnecessary risks, like base jumping, or ingesting drugs for fun, or having unprotected sex with multiple partners. The great thing is that, unlike gravity, God is forgiving. The moral damage done can be healed and we can be redeemed.

But sometimes it's someone else who did something wrong, like an accident caused by a drunk driver or an injury caused by a school shooter. And other times we don't know that anyone did anything wrong, such as when someone suffers from an hereditary disease or community is struck by an earthquake. That makes our misfortune harder to understand and it can make it more difficult for us to trust God.

Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved is a memoir by Kate Bowler, an assistant professor at Duke University who teaches the history of religion in America. At 35, she felt blessed. Married to her high school sweetheart, she just had a baby boy. And then she got diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. And what is especially ironic is the fact that she had written a book on the "prosperity gospel," the idea that God blesses the faithful with wealth and health. The obverse is that if you don't have wealth and health, you must not have enough faith. Kate didn't buy into that, but she did lose the certainty that she was the architect of her life; that she could overcome anything through good behavior, pluck and prayer. Kate didn't lose her faith but she had to rethink it and try to make sense of a world where bad things do happen to good people. Of course, the Bible acknowledges this, especially in the book of Job, but a lot of Christians shy away from the idea. And because they don't think about it, don't want to think about it and don't want to discuss it with those who are suffering, when calamity hits them or someone they love, it can knock Christians completely off their feet.

The fact is we need to trust God the most just when it it hardest to do so. That's part of what makes something a virtue. The time to be brave is when you are most likely to react with fear. The time to be forgiving is when you least feel like it. It is what psychologists call mood-independent behavior. It's doing what ought to be done when you really don't want to. There is no virtue in only doing things when you feel like it.

So we trust God even when we don't understand the reasons why we are going through an ordeal, the way a child trusts his or her parents when they take them to the doctor for shots or other medical treatments. The child assumes that the parents have a good reason. We trust that God has a good reason even when it is beyond our current ability to see it. And often we only see it in retrospect. We look back and see where we were and connect the dots with where we are now and see how God has been shaping our lives.

Which is why it is never good to tell someone who is suffering what YOU think is the reason for it or the meaning of it. Kate Bowler realizes such people mean well but wishes they would stop either minimizing what she is dealing with (“Well, at least you found a good doctor” or “at least, you discovered a new treatment”), or explaining that it is a teachable moment for her (“God let you get this disease so you would write this book and help others”), or peppering her with their solutions or prescriptions for how she should feel (“Try this thing I read about” or “A positive attitude will help you heal”). I myself have learned that people need to find their own meaning for their suffering. I cannot spoonfeed it to them. For one thing, I don't know everything about them and their life and I certainly have not received a specific revelation from God of what his will for their life is. My job is to be there for them and to listen to them and to love them.

There is another side of this virtue. Trust should be a two-way street. God not only wants us to trust him but he wants to be able to trust us. He wants us to become trustworthy, to become faithful followers of him. And if we truly believe that he is the God he says he is and will do what he says, then the logical response to act on that. Abram believed what God said and moved from the cradle of civilization to the land of Canaan, a seemingly god-forsaken rocky place where God said he would make Abram into a nation. Jesus trusted his Father enough to give up his right to a normal life and take up his cross to save us. Jesus expects us to do the same.

The world sees it when we do not really trust the God we say we have faith in. It sees it when the church hedges its bets, placing its trust in money or popularity or political power rather than in God. It sees it when the church is not faithful to its ideals, such as when it covers up wrongdoing or collaborates with the corrupt. The world sees it when we don't really trust the way of Jesus by our timidity to take risks or to speak the truth to power or to overthrow the tables of those who have turned God's temple into a den of thieves.

As we have said, no virtue can stand alone for long. Faith requires courage, the courage of our convictions that God is good, that God is powerful, and that God is trustworthy. It is the courage to take the proverbial leap of faith, trusting that underneath are the everlasting arms of God's love. It is the courage to stand up to injustice, to endure pain, to step out into the unknown, trusting that God knows all and that he knows how to turn even the worst this world can do into a great good. After all, that is what he did with the death of his son.

Faith in anybody is strengthened by our history with them. Sometimes our lack of faith comes from not really having much experience relying on God. We haven't given to everyone who asked and seen if God will support us. (Matthew 5:42) We haven't stopped worrying about what we are going to eat, drink or wear, seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and seen if all these things were given to us as well. (Matthew 6:31-33) We haven't turned the other cheek and seen what happened. (Matthew 5:39) We haven't renounced ourselves, taken up our cross and followed in Jesus' steps. Our faith is theoretical and therefore not quite real to us.

As a nurse I have seen the benefits of trust and the downside of distrust. I have seen patients who complied with doctor's orders and changed their lifestyle, gave up things that were bad for them, did painful therapy and who got better. And I have seen patients who second-guessed medical professionals, didn't take their meds, clung to bad habits they loved, refused to push themselves beyond their comfort zone, and who either didn't improve or got worse. A doctor can't do much for a person who doesn't trust them. Jesus couldn't heal people who didn't trust him. (Mark 6:4-6)

It's not the trust that heals; it's not the faith that saves. Faith is the channel that God uses to bestow his grace and gifts upon us. And as we've said, the times we need that grace the most are precisely those times when it is hardest to maintain our trust that God is in control and wants what is best for us. And that's why faith is a virtue. And ultimately it comes from having a relationship with God and from building up a personal history of trusting God.

Of course, at the beginning of any relationship you don't have that experience yet. Which means you need to start by getting to know that person. You interact with them, observe them, find out how they act with others. A person who cheats on their current lover will not likely be faithful to you. A person who treats well people who can't do them much good will probably treat most people well. In the Bible we have a record of God's dealings with others. In Jesus we see how much God loves us and how far he's willing to go for us. That should give us something to start with in our journey of faith in him.

Establishing trust is the just first step in a relationship. It allows you to open up to the other person and them to open up to you. After trust comes growing knowledge about them. Knowledge of them leads to things you can do together. As you do more together and learn more about the person in that context, you will hopefully find reasons to love them. So too we begin by trusting God, then by gaining knowledge about him, working with him in whatever endeavor we feel led to, and finally growing to love him.

Remember: what the Bible says about God is true, but it is not exhaustive. (John 21:25) We don't know everything there is to know about creation; how can anyone think they know all there is to know about the Creator? What we do know is that we can trust him to work for good, in the world and in our lives. When things don't look too good, we need to lean into that trust. And remember that God works through us acting faithfully, even in the worst of circumstances. When their father Jacob died, Joseph's brothers thought their now powerful sibling would at last get revenge on them for throwing him in a pit and selling him into slavery. But Joseph now knew that if he hadn't been enslaved he never would have entered Egypt or been sold into the service of Potiphar, captain of the Pharaoh's guard. And if Potiphar's wife hadn't falsely accused him of rape, he never would have been thrown into that prison. And if he hadn't been in that prison, he never would have met and helped Pharaoh's cupbearer. And if he hadn't met and helped that cupbearer, his name would not have come to Pharaoh, he never would have heard and properly interpreted Pharaoh's dreams or been appointed to take care of the 7 years' food surplus and distribute it during the 7 years of famine. Joseph says to his distrusting brothers, “Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:19-20)

God is operating on a long-term strategy to redeem the world. That means at any one point things can look bad. We need to take the long view and trust God in the present. That takes, among other things, wisdom. Which we will look at next week.   

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