I have sometimes taken the risk and asked people, “Why do you attend worship.?” One of the top five answers is always something like, “I need to get my spiritual batteries recharged.” The week has taken it out of me, and my onboard supply of faith is running low.
I wonder how much that metaphor has been enhanced by our experience with cell phones. Right now, my phone is telling me that my battery may run out soon. If I don’t plug it back in to the power source in the next half hour or so, my phone will “die.” Fortunately, I’m right next to a recharging cable. I’m letting the phone run down as part of my periodic battery maintenance.
It’s an interesting metaphor in connection with our text. When it comes to my phone or laptop, I can unplug from the power source. I can go off on my own for a while, separate from the thing that provides the energy. I can usually return to that power source when I need to, but in between recharges, I don’t really have to be connected. I don’t have to think about the power source until I really need it.
I’m not sure that’s a helpful image for our relationship with Jesus if we are his disciples. When it comes to my phone or laptop, unplugging from the charger is a source of freedom. One of the prime selling points for many electronic devices is the amount of time I can be free from the tether of that charging cable. But I don’t think that’s the case with “faith,” at least not as Jesus means it in our text.
The “power source” metaphor indicates that I can unplug from Jesus and have life on my own. That makes “faith” a commodity that can be expended and replenished. But what if faith isn’t a commodity? What if the question isn’t about the “amount” of faith I have or don’t have at the present moment? What if “faith” is not about a quantity I possess but rather the quality of a relationship of trust?
In his workingpreacher.org commentary, Francisco J. Garcia notes that “Jesus’ loaded response to the disciple’s request for more faith—telling them that all they required was the faith of a tiny mustard seed to do the impossible—tells us that they are asking for the wrong thing. But,” Garcia wonders, “what’s wrong with wanting just a little more faith to meet the urgent call of their fearless leader?”
Garcia observes that faith can’t be quantified and plotted on a line graph. Or as Rolf Jacobson puts it in one of the “Sermon Brainwave” podcasts, it’s not that we have a battery icon on our hearts to indicate the amount of faith we have and when we might be running low. “Faith does not increase like magic,” Garcia writes, “It is felt and known through lived experience. This can only come through practice,” he continues, “in those challenging moments when faith is put to the test.”
Garcia notes that this “test” is not like a school exam where we can pass or fail. Rather, the test he describes is the act of trusting in the one in whom we have faith. Faith is experienced and built as we live in a trusting relationship. It’s not a commodity to be stored for future need. He suggests that faith is a “praxis,” a practice that shapes how we live – “an ongoing spiral-like process of reflection, action, and grace that only ‘increases’ as the process itself unfolds and expands in breadth and depth.”
If “faith” is not the juice that recharges, our spiritual batteries, then what is it? Another cultural metaphor that people know is the “leap of faith.” I am betraying my age here, but I can’t help but think of a scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Joy J. Moore reminded me of this scene during a “Sermon Brainwave” podcast. Here’s a YouTube clip of the scene.
It’s a desperate moment. Without the help of the Holy Grail, Indiana’s father will die in minutes. Yet, it seems that there’s no path forward. Indiana has to step out in “blind” faith, trusting that the path will appear. The bridge was there all along, although it was invisible except to “the eyes of faith.” I think that many of our folks understand faith as of necessity “blind” in this sense.
It’s a compelling scene. But it’s all about what’s happening “inside of” Indiana Jones. The question is whether he can muster up the courage to step out blindly. Once he has done so, his daring is rewarded. It’s really all about Indiana and has little to do with whatever person or force might have actually provided the sturdy bridge to the future. Faith may not be a commodity in this scene. Instead, it’s a personal accomplishment. And because of his heroic effort and risk, no one else has to take the leap like Indiana.
The notion of the “leap” of faith comes most clearly from the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. I would recommend to you the brief article by Olivia Goldhill in this regard on Quartz. She notes that Joe Biden has found solace in the words of Kierkegaard. The words that have sustained him most were given to him by Jill Biden, taped to his mirror. “Faith sees best,” Kierkegaard wrote in Gospel of Sufferings, “in the dark.”
Goldhill provides the larger context for that quote. Since it is Kierkegaard, the thought is far more complex than we might hope. Kierkegaard criticized the easy and “rational” faith of the European Christians of his time. Following Jesus, according to the consensus of that moment, was simple, reasonable, and asked little of decent, middle-class people. But that view of faith, Kierkegaard knew, leaves us in the lurch when we face the real darkness of human existence.
When faith makes perfect sense, Kierkegaard says, we can no longer see God. Kierkegaard calls that perspective human “sagacity.” God is hidden by the bright light of human wisdom. That bright light obscures everything in the false notion that life is good, and faith is simple. It is only, he continues, “when in the dark night of suffering sagacity cannot see a handbreadth ahead of it, then faith can see God, since faith sees best in the dark.”
What is the difference between Indiana Jones and Soren Kierkegaard, besides the hat and the bullwhip? For Indiana Jones, it’s about the quantity of his faith. It’s really about Indiana Jones and no one else. The question is whether he will take the necessary step or not. That makes perfect sense in the movie. Jones is the hero, after all. I’d like to be the hero of my own dramatic adventures. But it usually doesn’t work out that way. If this is about the quantity of my faith, then, most of the time, I’m screwed.
For Kierkegaard (and for Martin Luther, and for Jesus), the question isn’t the quantity of my faith. The question is the faithfulness of the One in whom I trust. Indiana Jones had no reason to believe that the stone bridge would appear. He had no previous experience, no tradition, no earlier witnesses that would testify to the existence of that bridge in spite of the evidence of his senses. Jones stepped out in desperation as much as he did in faith.
Jesus followers claim to know something about this Jesus in whom we put our trust. We claim to know that he was faithful to and through death, even death on a cross. We claim to know that God raised him from the tomb and lifted him to lordship over all of Creation. We claim to know that we have the record of Jesus’ character in the gospel accounts. We claim to know that trust in Jesus as our Lord is not “blind” faith. Rather it is rooted in knowing through Jesus what God is like.
God’s character is “grace.” When we know that, then we can stake our lives on that fact. That’s why, in his Commentary on Romans, Martin Luther gives this description of faith. “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and knowledge of it makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all His (sic) creatures.” My confidence is in God’s character, not in the quantity of my “faith.”
This faith does not see best in the dark because of anything about me or my character. My experience of this faith in the midst of suffering is like seeing the stars come out at night. The stars are always there, but sunlight renders them invisible. It’s only when the sun goes down that the stars appear. I may have to wait for the bright light of my own resources to fade before I can see what has always been there – God’s love for me in Jesus.
Some nights are cloudy, and the stars remain invisible. But I trust that they are still there. After a week of overcast nights, I might begin to wonder if the stars will shine again, but they always do. I don’t think God sends us suffering to make sure we can see God in faith. Instead, suffering and trials come all on their own. Yet, it is in the midst of the darkness that I have most often seen the light of Christ – and seen that light most clearly.
On this basis, we Christians confess that even faith itself is a gift from God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, it is a gift that calls forth action and response. More on that in the next post.