Forget everything you think you know about faith

Legend had it that their ancestors had spoken with God.

Why should they not believe it when this relatively small community of people continued to survive while all around them nations fell? Once the nation divided, and one half prospered while the other collapsed, why should that half not believe that its royal line had God's blessing? And once that royal line had reached an ignominious end, and the nation had been taken into captivity and so faced certain obliteration, how could they not have a renewed zeal and a bright hope for the future when eventually their captors were conquered and their new masters granted them freedom? Wasn't it obvious then that God had forgiven their transgressions?

Time and again it was demonstrated to them that the legend was true - God had communed with man, and he had indeed bestowed his favour upon this seemingly insignificant nation of Israel.

Several hundred years later, this way of interpreting events was continued by the first century Christians. Once the Roman armies had ransacked Jerusalem and razed the temple to the ground in what became known as the Jewish Wars, it was only natural for the small community of Christian Jews to assume that God's favour had in no uncertain terms shifted from the nation of Israel to those who accepted that Jesus was the Messiah. It gave impetus to gospel accounts that promoted the miraculous workings of this Christ, and wrapped him in the same guise as Moses. This was the way God was working now.

"Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven."
(Mark 10:21)
What they failed to appreciate, however, is that faith runs the risk of being a fragile construct when it is based on believing that God's favour really was with that small nation or with the Christian community that came after.

Jesus saw through the threadbare fabric of Israelite faith. He unravelled the whole thing, to the consternation of those around him. He summed up faith in one encounter when he told a man of wealth, "Go, and sell everything you own and give to the poor." The man thought he was spiritually rich, that he was accomplishing all that was asked of him. Jesus' request pulled the rug out from under the man. It stunned those who observed the exchange. It was completely unexpected. In other words, Jesus was saying, "Nothing is as you think it is."

Faith is being able to grasp the concept "Nothing is the way you think it is," without a shred of anxiety. It can take thousands of years of Israelite and Christian existence and say, "God was never behind it after all," and still continue to maintain an unwavering confidence in God.

Paul laid his finger on an idea when he said about the Jews, "They have been entrusted with the very words of God." We can find a whisper of truth in his observation. It was an Israelite who had understood the deeper things to begin with. The astute and insightful interpretation of events passed down through myths and legends had led to one of the writers of Genesis receiving a spectacular revelation: Man's troubled condition was rooted in his determination to be inward-looking. His broken relationship with God was a result of his being self-centred. If only he would stop hiding from God and honestly face his own damaged existence, he could close the gap and become one with God. From the chaos we are left with in Genesis chapter 11, the writer lifts out one man as an example of unity with God. He makes the claim that it is in connection with this man, Abraham, that all nations have the potential for being blessed by God.

Abraham's relationship with God is a potent image. It is faith in its original form. God spoke, Abraham acted, often unquestioningly. He could also converse and argue. The original theologian makes no attempt to analyse Abraham's thought processes - he simply presents him as a man at one with God. Take the account of the sacrifice of Isaac. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews makes an interpretation of Abraham's inner deliberation, suggesting that he had confidence that God could raise his only-begotten from the dead. In the original account, however, no details are given. It leaves us only with the raw image of man and his intimate relationship with God.

"You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."
(Genesis 50:20)
Toward the end of Genesis a subtle change begins to take place. The concluding story - the account of Joseph, and his being sold into slavery to the Egyptians, only to rise to the very heights of power and eventually act as a source of salvation to his errant brothers - quietly introduces a new concept: Faith by proxy. It cleverly sets the stage for Moses and everything that would follow.

From that moment on, faith in God is demonstrated by faith in God's spokesman: The prophets, the priests, or the Levites. Man demanded this condition. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and "the people saw the thunder and lightening and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, 'Speak to us yourself, and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.'" It was further undeniable evidence of man's shattered relationship with God. It is also a system open to abuse. Along with such faith there comes law, rulership, oppression, subjugation. Man lording it over others to his own hurt.

Jesus clearly understood the destructive nature of faith by proxy and worked hard to encourage each individual to cultivate his own faith in God. His ministry was an attempt to return to the faith demonstrated by Abraham. "Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day," he said. At last, here was someone who could experience the glory of a united relationship with God, with the way open for many more to do the same. His reference to being "born again," to being like little children, to finding family among those who heard and accepted his word, was an appeal to return to the beginning, to Genesis, back to having a faith like that of Abraham - man at one with God. Man in dialogue with God, with nobody else in between.

Several thousand years of faith by proxy, however, was a system too ingrained to change. In some ways Paul demonstrated that he had an understanding of this radical new way of thinking: He, too, made open reference to Abraham's faith. He also stated boldly, "Let God be true, though every man a liar." But in his letters he indicated otherwise, rigorously setting up rules of conduct for individuals and communities alike, and encouraging all to abide by them for the unity of the church.

We encounter this inability to shake off the legacy of faith by proxy in Christianity's need to put Jesus in prime position. He is a prophet like Moses, a priest like Melchizedek. Perhaps it was tension over the need to demonstrate faith like that of Abraham in contrast with the need for a Messiah that fuelled belief that Jesus was God himself. It is not possible to encourage a faith like that of Abraham while at the same time demanding faith by proxy. The answer is to turn the object of faith by proxy into the object of faith. "I and the Father are one," becomes a veiled declaration of Jesus being the manifestation of God himself. Jesus wanted it to be a claim all men could make. Instead, what was briefly attainable became quickly unattainable as Jesus was lifted to a position far beyond the reach of mortal man.

Jesus was a man who grasped the truth, who saw clearly what was presented back in Genesis: Man's relationship with God was broken. He was on the run. If only man would turn back to God, that relationship could be healed. Having healed his own relationship with God, Jesus was eager for others to do the same. The reason that he was able to see so clearly was because he recognised that he had been blind. He had to let go of all his preconceptions, forget everything he thought he knew. Once he accepted this, the truth broke in. By encouraging men to have a faith like that of Abraham, Jesus was effectively putting a line through two thousand years of Israelite theocracy. Nothing is the way you think it is.

"Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose and the wind blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock."
(Matthew 7:24, 25)
If our faith is in a man, a system, an organisation, or words on a page, we become like a man who has built his house upon the sand. The moment there is a change, everything on which we have put our trust can potentially be washed away. This was highlighted in the recent news story about John Schneider, the professor of theology who had left his position at Calvin College in Michigan after "writing articles suggesting science 'raised questions' about a literal understanding of the bible." According to The Times, Ken Ham, a co-founder of Answers In Genesis, said about scholars such as Professor Schneider, "They are undermining the gospel. If Adam and Eve aren't literal, Christianity is totally meaningless. You might as well throw the Bible away." This narrow worldview is one of the symptoms of faith by proxy. It allows no room for adjustment, no vision to be able to say, "Nothing is the way I thought it was," without putting severe stress on our whole belief system.

Faith in God has a degree of flexibility. We are free to speculate, to follow certain paths. But if it becomes apparent that those paths lead nowhere, and God is in a different direction, we snap back to him with no anxiety at all.

Faith in God is firm. While all around us changing knowledge makes liars of all men, God remains true. Above all, faith in God is faith in God alone, and that means freedom. Freedom from sin; freedom from the Law; freedom from the constraints of the written word. It means freedom from fear, and anxiety, and concern about the unknown. And in its ultimate form - whatever that might be - it means a freedom to love and live as we were truly meant to be.