Tuesday, June 10, 2014


I must begin what I have to say about the intertwining of faith, love, and grief by sharing very briefly my own internal faith journey. I can never remember a time when I did not believe in God. My faith in Jesus Christ came much later. It was an intellectual struggle, as I wrestled with the paradoxical nature of faith. On the one hand, there are many texts in the New Testament that would lead one to conclude that faith is our responsibility, that we can make ourselves believe. Jesus often commended people for their faith, or rebuked them for their lack of it.
There are, on the other hand, an equally impressive array of texts that suggest that faith is a gift of God, that it is not something we can make ourselves have, but something we find ourselves with. Jesus said, for example, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me” (John 6:44, NRSV).
We can see the paradoxical relationship between grace (God’s gift) and faith (our struggle) in such texts as Ephesians 2:8, where the Apostle Paul writes “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (NRSV); and Romans 8:28, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love (God), who are called according to (God’s) purpose” (RSV).
We think it's all up to us.
After a prolonged wrestling match with what I now view as a pseudo-paradox, I came to realize that ultimately faith has to be a gift of God. We depend upon the God we believe in to give us the faith to keep on believing. That is an unavoidable tautology. All of our “reasons” for believing are at root tautological. They are all faith statements, and faith statements are not self-evidently true. If they were, we could prove the existence of God and every reasonable person would be a believer. If my faith in God depended totally upon my ability to prove God, I could no longer believe in God.
While we are struggling to believe, we think it is all up to us. But the moment we find ourselves believing, we realize that our faith is a gift, that God was there before we ever started to believe, and that our Christian faith was the work of the Holy Spirit prompting us to accept what God was offering us in Christ. That, by the way, is exactly how Jesus said it would happen.
However one may come to it, the decision to accept Jesus Christ as one’s personal Lord and Savior is the freest decision one can ever make. No one else can make it for us, or force us to make it. If we can’t make ourselves believe something we can’t believe, we certainly can’t make someone else believe. A decision of faith cannot be coerced.

Once you take seriously the “givenness” of faith, it changes the way you bear witness, the way you make the case from the pulpit or in someone’s living room, the way you answer the question, “Why do you believe?” You have to begin by confessing that your faith is an assumption. You can’t prove it to someone who does not share that assumption. Having confessed your assumption, you can then point to all the confirming evidence that supports your assumption.
Your personal experience of God in Christ is not a valid basis for making normative truth claims about God or Christ, but it is the legitimate basis of your personal conviction. If you have no experience of God, you have nothing to talk about. Apart from shared personal experiences, all conversation about God and Christ is reduced to theoretical abstractions. philosophical ideas, and discussions if not arguments about the meaning of biblical texts and other people’s ideas.
I have often said that though the promises of Christ are not provable, any seeker after truth would certainly want them to be true. Where else is there any hope for some form of existence or person-hood beyond the grave? Even if I can’t get my mind around the idea of “the resurrection to eternal life,” I would certainly want it to be true. To one who has lost a loved one, how comforting it is to hear Jesus say, “. . . I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am there you may be also” (John 14:2-3).
Where and what is heaven?
How many times I have quoted those words at the funerals and memorial services I have conducted over the years. Now I face the challenge of believing what I preach. I ask myself if I should be grieving the loss of my wife so much, if I really believe Jesus’ words. Oh for the simple faith of Mabel, an elderly saint I can still hear joyfully saying, “I just can’t wait to get to glory land and see my beloved again!”
I want with all my heart to believe the promises of Christ, but my earthly grief keeps getting in the way. Not that believing in heaven should nullify one’s grief over the loss of a loved one. But I long for the confidence that Margie and I will be together again somehow. Not that I expect to be able to conceive what form our reunion in heaven may take or what heaven itself is like. Heaven is not something I can picture, nor do I find it helpful to try to imagine what heaven will be like. But the Holy Spirit has put a heavenly dream in the hearts of believers, just an inkling that cannot be envisioned, only felt. “‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’ —these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (I Corinthians 2:10).
(to be continued in Part 2 of FAITH, LOVE, AND GRIEF)

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