By Faith, Not By Sight. But How?

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Included in the lectionary I read today is this short verse:

For we walk by faith, not by sight. (II Corinthians 5:7)

The context here is St. Paul’s larger discussion in II Corinthians 5 of our hope of the resurrection, but this verse often gets taken out of this context to be given as a general rule for spiritual life. Taking things out of context and reapplying them is not necessarily always bad, as it’s something that the apostles sometimes do when, for instance, quoting the Old Testament. So let’s go ahead and take this verse out of context for a moment, since that’s how it so often gets quoted.

Let’s be honest—isn’t this one of the hardest things about being Christian? And isn’t this one of the things that gets used by those who are against religion, that we’re “blindly” following religion?

There are a lot of sincere Christians who feel exhausted by trying to “walk by faith, not by sight.” Couldn’t we just have a little sight, Lord? Show me something. Give me a sign that You’re really out there. Let me know that You still really care. Let me know that this isn’t all just a big joke. Because sometimes it feels like it’s all just a big joke.

I don’t think there are any easy answers to this problem. And anyone who tells you in answer to this just to believe what the Bible says or what the Church says, etc., is just begging the question and not giving an answer.

Yes, of course, there are various proofs. There is good reason to believe the apostles who all (except one) went to their deaths insisting that they had seen Jesus alive after His death. There is good reason to believe the many saints who attested to the truth of their experience of God.

But in the end, even if God really did choose to give me a little bit of “sight” to walk by, some kind of sign or miracle, etc., I could still surround it with doubt. Did I really see that? How do I know it wasn’t a delusion? How do I know that it was the Holy Trinity talking to me and not some other, real deity? How can I really be sure?

The thing is—I can’t.

But here’s another thing—that applies to almost everything in life. We walk by faith and not by sight all the time. We don’t launch an investigation into everything we think we perceive. We mostly function on the basis of a combination of trust, experience, interpretation and reason. That doesn’t amount to an argument for faith, much less, Christian faith, but it certainly does mean that a wholly empirical life based on material reason is actually impossible to live.

So what is the solution here? How are we supposed to walk by faith, not by sight? Does it really have to be so hard sometimes?

I’m not going to offer an argument for faith nor for the existence of God. Other people have done that far better than I. And as I said above, even if someone is given some kind of empirical evidence or sound argument, the interpretation that follows and the living-into-it that also must follow can still derail someone from Christian faith. Some things simply aren’t plausible, but it’s not our supposed dedication to hard reason that makes that so. After all, arguments have been mounted even against reason itself.

But the problem I want to address is something else. It’s how a Christian (that is, a convinced believer who is trying to believe) walks by faith and not by sight. That’s my context here, not where this usually goes, i.e., trying to find a good reason to believe and then trying to believe. So I’m speaking here to those who are converted to Jesus Christ, not to those who think that this is all bunk or who haven’t made the commitment yet.

One of the authors I’ve been reading over the past couple of years, Edwin Friedman, often writes that change cannot be willed. Further, it’s our attempts to will change that result in much of our anxiety, which then, in Christian terms, often results in sinful addictions. And that is, I believe, what the “by faith, not by sight” problem usually consists of. We are trying to will a change in ourselves—and faith is indeed about change.

But change can only be acted, not willed. So we can make choices, of course, but the choices have to be sealed to actions.

So if we want to walk by faith rather than sight—and this does not mean throwing sight away, by the way, but rather using faith as our guide—then we have to do something. In the Orthodox Christian context, the things we have to do are fairly clear: repent of our sins, receive the sacraments, pray, give of our possessions and time, self-sacrifice and so on. If we turn our attention to these actions, we will find that our thoughts and our feelings will follow. But if we try to push our thoughts and feelings around without actions being primary, then we are really just playing psychological and emotional games with ourselves.

The same holds true for forgiveness, by the way—whether you feel forgiveness or not, you must act as though you have forgiven someone. Feelings are quite likely to change as a result.

I think when I first learned this basic truth, it came to me as a huge relief. I don’t have to try to think or feel something. That doesn’t mean I turn off my brain or my heart (so to speak), but it does mean that following Christ is actually simpler than we often make it out to be. That doesn’t make it easy, of course, but it is simpler.

Thoughts and feelings are predicated on so many things that are out of my direct control—how I feel today, what I ate for breakfast, whether someone was nasty to me recently, whether I think I’m getting what I deserve, etc. But my actions are something I can directly control, and I can control them right now.

I can decide to go into my room to pray. I can decide to go to church and pray and sing and be touched by God in the sacraments. I can decide to spend my money primarily on what is good rather than primarily on what is comfortable. I can decide to take my kids to the park even though I would rather sit inside and fall into an Internet daze. I can decide to do the dishes when my wife is hurting from being on her feet all day.

And that’s how you walk by faith and not by sight. What I see is that I want to do what makes me feel good rather than what is actually good. But what faith shows me instead is that I have real, practical, immediate actions I can take that are indeed the actions of a faithful person.

So let’s think of this as walking by faithfulness rather than as walking by pushing myself into some kind of feeling or mental certainty.

And now I really am going to take my kids to the park.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks Andrew!
    I respectfully disagree with most of your article.

    Surely Christianity is about God’s spirit completely and authentically re-making us. So we actually dont want to waste time on the internet. So that I dont have to decide to help my wife – it is a spontaneous, joyful act.
    If I have to fight to do these things – then these are fairly empty offerings and works – good indicators that I am somewhat less than “God-filled”.

    [But I might be totally wrong – and happy to say so.]

    Faith comes first. Then sight. It is very rare that you meet someone who lives by this spiritual order! If you live by faith in Christ – then you genuinely forgive. Not because you want to feel better – but simply because Jesus said to do it. And what’s more, the truth and efficacy of his command is then borne out by what happens next….which we get to see (sight).

    1. It’s both unrealistic and dogmatically problematic to expect that people will just automatically do God’s will because they’re “God-filled.” Faith is about faithfulness, which means actual struggle. Struggle is especially discussed by St. Paul, such as where he said that he did the things he didn’t want to do and failed to do what he wanted to do (Rom. 7:19). He had to struggle. It wasn’t a magical fruit of “faith.”

      Yes, making those choices and acting on them again and again does indeed remake our desires with God’s grace. But sitting back and expecting God’s grace to do something without actually taking any actions is monergistic nonsense. Christ wouldn’t have commanded us over and over again to keep His commandments if that was an easy thing to do.

      You don’t mention how one gets “God-filled” or how one is “completely and authentically” remade by the Holy Spirit. The point of this sermon is to describe how that happens, which is about working out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). In your model, what would that even mean? Wouldn’t “working out” and “fear and trembling” be contrary to whatever it is you’re proposing? Why would Paul have to subdue his flesh and fight against his passions if those are just “empty offerings and works”? Was he not actually “God-filled”?

      If you have to fight to be faithful, that means you’re actually doing what God told you to do. If there is no struggle, that strongly suggests not that one is God-filled but rather that one has surrendered to one’s sinful passions and imagines oneself holy. The Christian life, on the contrary, is about fighting the good fight, about keeping the faith, about enduring to the end. Without that, we cannot be saved by grace.

      That said, I don’t really think you understand here what I’m saying about faith and sight, and “Faith comes first. Then sight” is also simply contrary to what II Cor. 5:7 says. The point is to walk by faith. My sense is that you’re saying we don’t even have to walk, that God will just sort of slide you along if you’re “God-filled” (whatever that means here).

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