Faith is necessary, because we can’t always see. Faith is possible, because we have seen.
“Faith” is a word that has many meanings. As a Christian, I would mean different things by it at different times. For example, I might “have faith” that God will answer a particular prayer. This is like the faith that Jesus spoke of (“faith that can move mountains”). But most of the time, when I would refer to “my faith,” I was referring to my belief system. How strongly do I believe X, Y, and Z about God? How sure am I that those beliefs are true? So my “faith” equated to my belief system, and to strengthen that faith was to hold to those beliefs more confidently or assuredly—to have greater certainty that those beliefs were true. Conversely, to be less certain was to have a weaker faith. After all, Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (emphasis added)
When my beliefs were challenged and I began to seriously question whether they account for the whole story of Reality, it felt like my faith was being threatened. And of course it was, because whatever I meant by faith, even if it was a general trust in God, that God is good, or that Life is good, it was inextricably linked to my belief system. If what I believed about God turned out not to be true, then I would be facing hell itself. Life would be meaningless, and I would be hopeless and lost.
The thing is, that’s not actually true. The truth is deeper than that. The truth is not so easily codified into a belief system. The truth transcends belief systems and thus survives their demise. I had been believing this: If I am wrong about reality, then that means life is meaningless, and I am hopeless and lost. Yikes! That is a huge burden to put on one’s belief system. You’d better get it right! But what if life isn’t meaningless, even if I’m wrong about who God is? What if I still have hope and a home, even if I lose God as I’ve known Him? In other words, what if the image I’ve made of God is false, but God, and hope, and meaning, and purpose, will always survive even if my beliefs turn out to be wrong?
I can hear the objections already. Are you saying it doesn’t matter what I believe? Well, yes and no. What you believe is not intrinsically important, even though, extrinsically, it can be incredibly important. In other words, what you think about the nature of reality is not important in and of itself. After all, you could think one thing one day and another thing another day, but if you don’t speak it or share it or act on it, then it hardly matters what you believe. What you believe doesn’t make any more difference than the thousands of random thoughts that pass through your head each day. But how do your beliefs impact how you live? How do they shape your actions? That’s where beliefs start to matter.
If we are resistant to this idea, then it’s because we have been making an idol of our minds. This is part of the human condition. We feel an intense need to be in control, and one of the ways that we can feel most in control is by substituting reality with our conceptions of it. But if right thinking serves no other purpose than right thinking, it also serves no other god than itself.
Does this mean truth doesn’t matter? That you may as well throw in the towel instead of trying to find truth? That’s what your mind would have you think. It wants to be the arbiter of truth. “If I can’t be certain, nobody can!” But that’s just a tantrum, and it’s not true. You can know truth, even and especially if it doesn’t fit neatly into your mind.
There is a kind of knowing which does not depend on an external delivery of the truth, which you then must carefully evaluate. No, it is contact with the truth inside yourself. In a sense, you become the truth, which is then validated in manifold ways by the wisdom of the ages, the Scriptures of your tradition, and even the science of today. Jesus oriented to truth in this way when he said “I am…the truth.” (John 14:6, emphasis added) When God awakens inside you, even if only for a moment, your very own spiritual eyes are opened. This is what makes faith possible, and not merely “blind faith.” Very often we are told that following Jesus is not “blind faith,” because we also have reasons and rational arguments we can point to for doing so. But what really makes faith possible is not arguments. What really makes faith possible is spiritual sight. The Apostle Paul describes this kind of seeing in his second letter to the Corinthians:
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.
—2 Corinthians 4:6, NIV
This kind of seeing does not come from rational deduction or rightly interpreting the Bible. No, it comes from direct revelation. There is a light that shines on our very hearts, the center of our being. Moreover, Paul tells us, it is “the light of…knowledge.”
Okay, so faith is made possible by spiritual seeing. But if we can see and know, why is faith even necessary? Ah, that has an easy answer. We don’t always see. In fact, we rarely do. That’s why Paul says shortly thereafter,
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
—2 Corinthians 4:18
In this case, “what is seen” is what we see with our unenlightened physical eyes. Paul himself was struck down with a vision of the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus. He had a profoundly life-changing mystical experience in which the eyes of his heart were opened to eternal dimensions of reality that we don’t see every day. But eventually he did return to everyday life, where he did not see as clearly as he did on that road. At that point he had a choice. Shall I “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7, KJV), willing myself to live in alignment with the truth that I’ve seen? Or shall I pretend it was a hallucination and go back to living the way I lived before?
When you are in the midst of a spiritual awakening, and you clearly see “God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ,” in the face of Creation, in the face of other people, then you can’t help but live in alignment with it, at least during those moments where you see it clearly. There is a sort of “choicelessness” that happens. You hardly need to exercise your will, because you are caught up in the love of God and you can’t help but become one with that love. You have absolutely no reason for doing otherwise, and it wouldn’t even occur to you to do so. Moreover, you think there’s no way you could ever forget this. You assume that your life has now changed for good.
But then life goes on and the glow begins to fade. You’re confronted once again with your old, habitual ways of behaving and seeing the world. Life takes on its normal dreary complexion again. You think, “What happened?” You weren’t expecting this. You seem to have forgotten what you saw when on the mountaintop. It’s dark here in the valley, and you begin to wonder whether you ever actually saw anything.
Enter faith. What a gift this is! You have a choice. To “walk by faith” is an act of the will. This is incredibly good news. You want to know why? Because it means you don’t have to wait for anything! You have the power to live the truth of what you have seen, starting right this very moment. As wonderful as the gifts of spiritual sight are, you can’t control when you will be given them. But you can control what you will do about it now. Here’s what I think the real role of faith is: transformation. Again, faith is an act of the will. “I will live in alignment with the truth that I have seen.” In so doing, your life will be transformed.
SPOILER ALERT. If that weren’t great enough news (you can be transformed, and therefore you can transform the world), wait until you see what tends to happen next: your eyes are opened again to newer and deeper truths! When you surrender to life being the way it is, and commit wholeheartedly to living the truth whatever happens and no matter how you feel, something magical happens. You increase your capacity to receive new spiritual experiences, insights, and awakenings. You may still not be in control of when these occur, but now you are in the position of a humble servant on whom Life is eager to bestow more blessings.
I don’t really know why this is the case, but it has been the experience of people throughout the ages. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8) One possibility is that, until our hearts are proportionately purified, we won’t be able to handle the revelation of God. It will be wasted on us. We’ll see the imminent dissolution of our identity as we’ve known it, and we’ll be too afraid. We’ll turn back. But if we have been “work[ing] out [our] salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), actively and deliberately dissolving our self in how we now relate to the world, we’ll gain confidence that it’s a trustworthy path to let go even more. It is safe to take up our cross. It is safe to die, one attachment at a time. When we have seen for ourselves that life keeps going on, even after we have let go of major parts of our self-image, we will be ready to see even more of the truth. Put another way, we’ll be blown away a little bit at a time.
So, what do you know about God? I don’t mean what have you heard about God? What do you know? What deepest truths have you directly known and experienced? Think back to the deepest spiritual experiences you have had, or if you don’t think of them as “spiritual,” just think back to the deepest knowing you have had. When did life seem most meaningful, or good, or beautiful? What truth lay behind that experience? What did you see?
Once you’ve gotten a glimpse of what it is, don’t stop there. We tend to wistfully pine for the experience we once had, the communion we once felt, and leave it at that. No, ask yourself some more questions. What would it mean to live in alignment with that truth? How am I failing to do that now? What needs to change? This is your opportunity to say “YES” to the truth of your experience, to take a stand for what you have once known and clearly seen. Few people are willing to do this. Few people are willing to take this kind of responsibility, assuming the power they already have to transform their lives by faith in action. Are you willing to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Eph. 4:1)? Are you ready to grow up and “no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves” (Eph. 4:14) of your shifting feelings and desires?
Because you have seen, will you now walk by faith, not by sight?
[Many thanks to Craig Hamilton, whose teaching has unlocked within me a greater appreciation of the role of faith, and a greater commitment to living the truth regardless of how I am feeling. I know the ideas in this article aren’t ultimately his or any one of ours, but he has been the one who has challenged me the most recently and successfully. The questions I ask at the end of this article are closely related to the model of transformation that he teaches.]