Why do I believe in God while other, equally (or more) intelligent people from a similar background and education do not? Why does faith stick to some people and slide off others? Why do some people have faith while others do not?
Sociology, psychology and theology have all offered explanations, but those explanations exist as part of a larger worldview. People who look through the lens of one worldview will find its explanations convincing, but those who look at the world through a different lens do not.
For my part, I find faith’s presence a mystery. But it is no mystery that faith can waver, even in the true believer. It waxes and wanes, grows and diminishes. Some experiences seem to build faith while others tear it down.
But perhaps it is misleading to say that experiences build or tear down faith, since people can go through very similar experiences (say, the death of a child) with very different results. One turns to God, another turns from him. Having seen this happen many times, it seems to me that the particular experience is not as consequential to faith as is the way one handles it.
Over the years I’ve become aware of certain faith-busters in life. Whether things are going well or life is coming apart at the seams, the presence of certain attitudes or mindsets can have an adverse effect on faith.
For example, faith is difficult, perhaps even impossible, when a person is trying to manage his or her own image. Faith is outward looking by its very nature, so when a person is looking inward, faith suffers. When one’s goal is to win the praise of others, the very possibility of faith disappears. This is what Jesus had in mind when he asked, “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?”
Faith is also weakened by resentment toward other people. The biblical writers generally, and St. John in particular, see a connection between faith and love. When we are relating to others in a loving way, “we have confidence before God.” But when relationships with others are governed by selfishness or antipathy, faith erodes.
The DIY approach to religion is also a faith-buster. The person who sets out to merit God’s approval (or be pious or religious, however you want to put it) by doing everything right will find it hard to trust God. Self-confidence can exist and even thrive in the rich soil of faith in God, but faith in God withers in the barren soil of self-reliance.
When St. Paul recognized this particular faith-buster among his former church members in Galatia, he vehemently exclaimed, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” He went on to ask, “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” Their DIY approach to religion was pulling the rug out from under their own faith.
Staring at one’s problems, obsessing over them, focusing on them to the exclusion of everything else is yet another faith-buster. When our problems fill our vision, there is no room left for God. The bigger our problems get, the smaller our faith grows.
One sees this in the ancient story of Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land. Most of the men who explored Canaan came back with reports of a beautiful land that was “flowing with milk and honey.” But instead of focusing on the benefits this new land offered, they concentrated on the challenges it presented. As they magnified the challenges, their abilities (and God’s) were minimized. Before long they were saying, “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes.”
The power of positive thinking is not a fix for this faith-buster. Trying to exclude problems from one’s thoughts is not the answer, but including God in one’s thoughts is. One will either see God in the light of one’s problems or see one’s problems in the light of God, and that’s the difference between night and day.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/30/2015