An Illustration of Faith as Grace, Not a Good Work
In his book The Mystery of Christ, a series of fictionalized pastoral counseling sessions (based on actual events), the Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon shares a number of helpful ways of understanding the nature of God’s salvation, including this helpful parable of how faith is a grace, not a [good] work:
Suppose I were to tell you that I had already buried, under a flat rock on a piece of property you own, $ 1,000,000 in crisp, new $1,000 bills. And suppose I were also to tell you that I have no intention of ever taking this money back: it’s there, and that’s that. On one level, I have given you a piece of sensationally good news: you are the possessor of a million bucks, no conditions attached, no danger of my reneging on the gift.
And if you trust me — that is, if you go to your property and start turning over flat rocks—you will sooner or later actually be able to relate to the million I so kindly gave you. But note something crucial. Your faith (your trust) does not earn you the money, nor does it con me into giving it to you: the money was yours all along just because I was crazy enough to bury it in your backyard. Your faith, you see, is in no way the cause of the gift; the only thing it can possibly have any causal connection with is your own enjoyment of the gift.
The Bishop and the Three Fisherman
When the Bishop’s ship stopped at a remote island for a day, and he determined to use the time as profitably as possible. He strolled along the seashore and came across three fishermen mending their nets. In pidgin English they explained to him that centuries before they had been Christianized by missionaries. “We are Christians!” they said, proudly pointing to one another.
The bishop was impressed. Did they know the Lord’s Prayer? They had never heard of it. The bishop was shocked.
“What do you say, then, when you pray?”
“We lift eyes to heaven. We pray, ‘We are three, you are three, have mercy on us.’” The bishop was appalled at the primitive, the downright heretical nature of their prayer. So he spent the whole day teaching them the Lord’s Prayer. The fishermen were poor learners; but they gave it all they had, and before the bishop sailed away next day he had the satisfaction of hearing them go through the whole formula without a fault.
Months later the bishop’s ship happened to pass by those islands again and the bishop, as he paced the deck saying his evening prayers, recalled with pleasure the three men on that distant island who were now able to pray, thanks to his patient efforts. While he was lost in the thought he happened to look up and notice a spot of light in the east. The light kept approaching the ship and, as the bishop gazed in wonder, he saw three figures walking on the water. The captain stopped the boat and everyone leaned over the rails to see this sight.
When they were within speaking distance, the bishop recognized his three friends, the fishermen. “Bishop!” they exclaimed. “We hear your boat go past island and come hurry hurry to meet you.”
“What is it you want,” asked the awe-stricken bishop.
“Bishop,” they said, we so, so sorry. We forget lovely prayer. We say, ‘Our Father in heaven, holy be your name, your kingdom come. . .’ then we forget. Please tell us prayer again.”
The bishop felt humbled. “Go back to your homes, my friends, he said, “and each time you pray, say, ‘We are three, you are three, have mercy on us!’”
The Blue Pill or the Red Pill
There is an iconic scene in the cult classic The Matrix that makes for a great metaphor. Morpheus gives Neo a choice between two pills:
You can take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake up in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and you stay in wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.
The red pill is what if. Its the rabbit hole of faith.
Can Anyone Hear Me?
When I think of the way God allows His servants to suffer, I can’t help but remember the classic story of poor Jack, who was out jogging. As he passed a cliff, he got a little too close to the edge, and suddenly found himself falling. On the way down, he managed to grab a branch, nearly yanking it out of the cliff. When he caught his breath, he realized what a terrible jam he was in. He couldn’t get up, and letting go certainly seemed to be a poor option. He began to scream, “Hello up there! Can anyone hear me?”
In a moment, a voice returned.
“Jack, Can you hear me?”
“Yes, Yes, I can hear you I’m down here.”
“I can see you, Jack, are you alright?”
“Yes, but, who are you, and where are you?”
“I am the Lord Jack, I am everywhere.”
“The Lord? You mean God?”
“God, help me, I promise that if you get me down from here, I’ll stop sinning. I’ll be a really good person and serve you for the rest of my life.”
“Easy on the promises, Jack. First let’s get you down, then we can discuss those.”
“I’ll do anything, Lord, just tell me what to do, okay?”
“Okay, let go of the branch.”
“I said, let go of the branch. Just trust me, let go.”
There was a long pause, as Jack thought of the offer.
In a moment, however, Jack let out a loud yell. “Hello, Hello – is there anybody else up there?!”
Certainty vs. Vulnerability
In this excerpt from his book Faith in the Shadows, pastor and author Austin Fischer shares a surprising truth about the need to be vulnerable with our own faith if we are likely to have a positive impact on unbelievers:
As a personal anecdote, I’ve always found that unbelievers are much less offended by the hypocrisy of our morality than they are the hypocrisy of our certainty. Every human, believer or unbeliever knows what it’s like to fail to live up to one’s beliefs, to fail to embody one’s moral ideals. Moral hypocrisy is a universal experience, so unbelievers can be remarkably understanding of our moral fragility because they know it too.
What unbelievers fail to understand is how we can pretend to be certain of things we obviously cannot be certain of…I once spoke with an atheist who told me he would love to hear me explain the coherence of Christian faith, but not until I admitted that, while a believer, I was also uncertain about my beliefs.
I asked why and he curtly responded, because I haven’t any time to waste talking about something this important with someone who lacks the decency to admit we are two uncertain human beings trying to make sense of mysteries. I know that I am an uncertain human. Do you?” Sadly, at the time I did not, so our conversation floundered on the shoals of my unacknowledged uncertain (or humanity).
Faith is not the absence of doubt. Faith is the presence of love.
Taken from Faith in the Shadows: Finding Christ in the Midst of Doubt by Austin Fischer. Copyright (c) 2018 by Austin Fischer. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Dawkins View of Faith (For Contrast)
Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence…. Faith, being belief that isn’t based on evidence, is the principal vice of any religion.
A Deeper Faith
In his introduction to Scott Sauls’ Book, Irresistable Faith, Bob Goff tells a story about a summer adventure hitchhiking across New England, which would ultimately lead to staying with a hermit in Maine for about a month:
It was getting late, we were still driving, and Don invited me to stay at his house that night. In a moment of brilliant foolishness, I agreed. The house Don lived in was far from everyone. It had no electricity and no plumbing, just a tank of propane and a small oven. He drew his water from a well behind the house and bartered with his neighbors for everything he needed in his life. Despite that, it would be a hermit whom God would use to teach me the importance of living in community with him. I didn’t spend just a night with Don; I spent a month with him.
Each morning Don and I made candlesticks and dropped them off at different people’s houses. The afternoons were spent in these same people’s gardens, picking vegetables for dinner. From an unusually large patch of rhubarb, we picked the stalks, took them home, and made rhubarb pies we would drop off the next morning as we bartered for what we needed. In short, we used what we knew how to do to get whatever else we needed. I think most of us want our faith to be more real. The problem is, we don’t use what we’ve already got to get what we need. We think we can trade good conduct for God’s grace, but we can’t; and when we try to, we look like orphans.
We all want our faith to look like it’s working, too, but we overlook the beauty that can be found only within the authenticity of letting the people around us know when we’re lost and hurting. Instead of admitting to the pain and isolation we’ve experienced in our lives, we distract ourselves with things that won’t last and, in the process, forget our absolute need for a savior. The reminder Scott gives us in this book is that God has not left us alone: he’s given us each other, he’s given us communities of faith to go deeper with, and he’s given us his Son. In other words, we don’t need to live like hermits anymore.
Bob Goff, taken from Scott Sauls, Irresistible Faith, Thomas Nelson.
Doubt over Faith?
Have you ever noticed that the phrases in our culture favor doubt over faith? The famed missionary and theologian Lesslie Newbigin pointed this out when we speak of “Honest doubts” and “blind faith”. Can’t faith and doubt be honest or blind? Belief is often spoken of as inferior to “science” or “objective truth.
But the reality is, as Newbigin points out, “one does not learn anything except by believing something, and — conversely — if one doubts everything one learns nothing. On the other hand, believing everything uncritically is the road to disaster. The faculty of doubt is essential. But as I have argued, rational doubt always rests on faith and not vice versa. The relationship between the two cannot be reversed. ”
Stuart Strachan, quoting from Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship, Eerdmans.
Faith in the Mediator
In Christianity faith in the Mediator is not something optional, not something about which, in the last resort, it is possible to hold different opinions, if we are only united on the ‘main point’. For faith in the Mediator – in the event which took place once for all, a revealed atonement – is the Christian religion itself; it is the ‘main point’; it is not something alongside of the centre; it is the substance and kernel, not the husk.
This is so true that we may even say: in distinction from all other forms of religion, the Christian religion is faith in the one Mediator…And there is no other possibility of being a Christian than through faith in that which took place once for all, revelation and atonement through the Mediator
Faith Like a Journey
While global flights and online booking have made travel easier in many ways, other aspects, often related to safety and security, still create challenges. As often as I fly, I could tell you plenty of stories about missed connections, canceled flights, wayward baggage, and unexpected layovers. No matter how advanced our technology, we still face challenges from changing weather patterns, new government policies, and human errors anytime we attempt to travel from point A to point B. The same is true in our spiritual lives.
The metaphor of our faith being like a journey may seem like a cliché, but it nonetheless inspires us with new insight as we seek to follow Jesus in our daily lives. No one lived out a journey of faith that was both literal and symbolic quite like the apostle Paul. Called by God to share the good news to all people, not just the Jewish nation, Paul traveled on foot, on donkey, on horseback, and by ship.
And as recorded in the New Testament, he faced about every obstacle imaginable—and some beyond what anyone could imagine! Paul overcame storms, shipwrecks, snakebites, jail cells, angry mobs, and Roman trials, and his example continues to encourage each of us to persevere wherever we may be in our journey of faith or whatever we may be facing. And it’s a given that we will encounter obstacles, conflicts, problems, and storms along the way. In fact, most of us at one time or another will lose our way and will discover, only by the grace of God, the courage to blaze new paths and reach the divine destinations for which he created us.
A Firm Conviction
The foundation of faith is a firm conviction regarding three things about God—his perfect love, wisdom and power. Like a three-legged stool, no combination of two will do. There must be all three for faith to stand. A strong faith believes that God wills only what is best for us (his love), that he knows what is best for us (his wisdom), and that he is able to do what is best for us (his power).
Interview with Singer Michael Card
Again and again in China I talked to people who had never heard of Christianity, never heard of Jesus, never heard a single word from the Bible. Yet through nature and their God-given conscience, many believed in God. Not only did they believe God existed, they had derived some understanding about His loving character because he provided food, water, and a beautiful world. One old woman told me, “I’ve known him for years. I just didn’t know his name.”
Is Faith Blind?
In his book, A Peculiar Glory, John Piper provides an illustration of the kind of faith we are called to. This is no “blind faith,” in which we are supposed to simply believe without using our minds. Rather, it is a faith build on persuasive evidence that God Himself does exist. Piper explains:
Suppose you meet a man on the street whom you do not recognize, and he gives you a bag with $50,000 in cash and asks you to deposit it in the bank for him. He says that his account number is in the bag. You are surprised because you do not know him at all. You ask, “Why do you trust me with this?” Suppose he says, “No reason; I’m just taking a risk.” What is the effect of that faith in you? Does it honor you? No, it does not. It shows the man is a fool.
But suppose he said, “I know that you don’t know me, but I work in the same building you do, and I have watched you for the last year. I have seen your integrity in a dozen ways. I have spoken to people who know you. The reason I am trusting you with this money is that I have good reason to believe you are honest and reliable.” Now, what is the effect of that faith? It truly honors you. Why? Because it is based on real evidence that you are honorable. The fruit of such faith is not folly. The fruit of such faith is wisdom, and that faith and wisdom honor the person who is trusted.
Faith Requires Thought
Faith according to our Lord’s teaching in this paragraph is primarily thinking; and the whole trouble with a man of little faith is that he does not think. He allows circumstances to bludgeon him. . . . We must spend more time in studying our Lord’s lessons in observation and deduction. The Bible is full of logic, and we must never think of faith as something purely mystical. We do not just sit down in an armchair and expect marvelous things to happen to us. That is not Christian faith. Christian faith is essentially thinking. Look at the birds, think about them, and draw your deductions.
Look at the grass, look at the lilies of the field, consider them. . . . Faith, if you like, can be defined like this: It is a man insisting upon thinking when everything seems determined to bludgeon and knock him down in an intellectual sense. The trouble with the person of little faith is that, instead of controlling his own thought, his thought is being controlled by something else [circumstances, for example], and, as we put it, he goes round and round in circles. That is the essence of worry. . . . That is not thought; that is the absence of thought, a failure to think.
Jumping Without a Parachute
In April 1988 the evening news reported on a photographer who was a skydiver. He had jumped from a plane along with numerous other skydivers and filmed the group as they fell and opened their parachutes. On the film shown on the telecast, as the final skydiver opened his chute, the picture went berserk.
The announcer reported that the cameraman had fallen to his death, having jumped out of the plane without his parachute. It wasn’t until he reached for the absent ripcord that he realized he was free-falling without a parachute. Until that point, the jump probably seemed exciting and fun. But tragically, he had acted with thoughtless haste and deadly foolishness. Nothing could save him, for his faith was in a parachute never buckled on. Faith in anything but an all-sufficient God can be just as tragic spiritually. Only with faith in Jesus Christ dare we step into the dangerous excitement of life.
Let us Trust Our Own Moments of Vision
I remember once near Interlaken waiting for days to see the Jungfrau which was hidden in mists. People told me it was there, and I should have been a fool to doubt their word, for those who told me lived there and they knew. Then one day the mists were gone, and the whole mountain stood revealed. Next day the mists were back, but now I had seen, and knew myself that It was true…Let us trust our own moments of vision: what matter if there are days when the mists come down and the face of God is hidden? We have seen, and we know for ever that this is real, so real that by it we can live and die.
James S. Stewart, “Beyond Disillusionment to Faith,” in Best Sermons, 1962, ed. G. Paul Butler (Princeton, NJ: D. Van Nostrand Co., 1962), 24.
The Lion and Its Prey
It is a Masai elder who tells the story. It comes from the book, Christianity Rediscovered, in which the Roman Catholic missionary, Vincent Donovan, shares his discoveries as he worked among Masai people in Tanzania, just south of Kenya. Donovan had been working among the various communities of the Masai for many months. It was difficult work, and at times, his faith faltered.
At one point, Donovan spoke with a Masai elder about the agony of belief and unbelief. In their conversation, the Masai elder pointed out that the word Donovan had been using in Swahili to convey the word “faith” was not a very good word in their language. The word they were using for “faith” meant literally, “to agree to.”
Donovan acknowledged that he knew the word was not a good one to translate the word “faith.” The Masai elder said that to believe like that was similar to a white hunter shooting an animal from a great distance. Only his eyes and his finger got into it. The Masai elder then said that for one to really believe is more like a lion going after its prey. The lion’s nose and ears sense the prey. He sniffs the air and locates it. Then he crouches, and slithers along the ground virtually invisible.
A lion thinks it becomes invisible as it stalks the prey. The lion gets into position, and when everything is optimum, the lion pounces. All the power of his body is involved and as the animal goes down, the lion envelopes it in his arms, pulls it to himself, and makes it a part of himself. This, said the elder, is the way one believes, making faith a part of oneself! Donovan nodded in complete agreement, almost overcome with the elder’s wisdom. But the elder was not done yet.
The old Masai became thoughtful. Then he said to Donovan: “We did not search you out, Padri. We did not even want you to come to us. You searched us out. You told us of the High God. You told us we must search for the High God. But we have not done this. Instead, the High God has searched us out and found us! All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God!”
From a sermon by Norm Lawson, Central Protestant Church
Losing Faith but Missing Jesus
Charles Templeton was a close friend and preaching associate of Billy Graham in the 1940s. He effectively preached the gospel to large crowds in major arenas. However, intellectual doubts began to nag at him. He questioned the truth of Scripture and other core Christian beliefs. He finally abandoned his faith and made an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Billy to do the same. He felt sorry for Billy, saying, “He committed intellectual suicide by closing his mind.” Templeton resigned from the ministry and became a novelist and news commentator. He also wrote a critique of the Christian faith titled Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith.
Interviewed when he was eighty-three and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Templeton talked about some of the reasons he left the faith: “I started considering the plagues that sweep across parts of the planet and indiscriminately kill — more often than not, painfully — all kinds of people, the ordinary, the decent, and the rotten. And it just became crystal clear to me that it is not possible for an intelligent person to believe that there is a deity who loves.”
When asked what he thought of Jesus Christ, Templeton would not acknowledge him as God. Rather, he responded: “He was the greatest human being who has ever lived. He was a moral genius. His ethical sense was unique. He was the intrinsically wisest person that I’ve ever encountered in my life or in my readings. He’s the most important thing in my life. I know it may sound strange, but I have to say I adore him! Everything good I know, everything decent I know, everything pure I know, I learned from Jesus. He is the most important human being who has ever existed. And if I may put it this way, I miss him.”
Templeton’s eyes filled with tears and he wept freely. He refused to say more.
A Nice Theory
Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than receive.” “Well,” you say “that is a nice theory—but is it really true?” There is really only one way to find out: Give! Give generously and consistently, and before long you will begin to experience the blessings of being a great giver. And when that happens, you can say, “Hey, I know that that is true!”
Sharon found out firsthand that the lifestyle of faith fits. A few years ago Sharon’s faith was on hold. She felt she should contribute more to God’s work, but she didn’t really feel like it. Besides she really didn’t think she had anything important to give—or that anyone would want her “gift.” Sharon did want more faith however. So she committed to teach a fourth-grade Sunday school class.
But there’s a little more to this story. Sharon has multiple sclerosis and lives in a wheelchair. Just getting around is a chore in itself. She knew the hassle of transporting her teaching materials to and from her house, car, and classroom could overwhelm her but Sharon wanted to do what faith would do.
That was several years ago! Today Sharon is a valued member of a strong teaching team. Her kids adore her—and they have learned a lot about handicaps too–Sharon has found that doing what faith would do “fits.” New feelings of self-worth and trust in God’s care have blessed her with a vastly improved quality of life.
Lynn Anderson, If l Really Believe, Why Do I Have These Doubts? (West Monroe, La. Howard, 2000), p. 166.
The Result of Four Heart-Attacks
One year, in the small cul-de-sac where my family lived in Illinois, three husbands in the four houses around us had heart attacks while still in their forties. This was Illinois, where the state bird is sausage. There were two immediate consequences. One was that my wife wanted to know the details of our life insurance policy. The other was that everybody wanted to know what lies on the other side when the heart stops beating. Questions about God and heaven and death ceased to be academic.
Ted Turner Losing His Religion
Ted Turner. He is 71 years old (written in 2014), and still in the news. With a net worth estimated around $2.3 billion, Turner has made an impact on cable television, news reporting, and major league baseball. He has given $1 billion to United Nations causes, and was once married to Jane Fonda. Through it all, Turner was never boring. Outspoken at every turn, Turner’s few missteps have included harsh statements about Christianity.
“Christianity is a religion for losers,” he said in 1990. On another occasion, he joked that the Pope should step on a land mine. He once asked some of his CNN employees who were wearing ashes on their forehead on Ash Wednesday, “What are you, a bunch of Jesus freaks?” Turner even blamed his divorce from Fonda on her decision to become a practicing Christian.
Interestingly, Turner grew up in a Christian Home, and at 17, planned on being a missionary! “I was very religious when I was young,” Turner told Michael Eisner. “I was a born-again Christian. In fact, I was born again seven times including once by Billy Graham. I mean, I know it inside and out.”
Bur Turner lost his faith when he watched his sister die from a rare form of lupus, at the age of 20. For five years, turner said, “I prayed 30 minutes every day for God to save her, and he didn’t. A kind and loving God wouldn’t let my sister suffer so much. I said, ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with you.'” (Sources: “Conversations with Michael Eisner,” CNBC.com, Fortune magazine article, May 26, 2003.)
Three Dollars Worth of God
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk, or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Walking by Faith, Not by Sight
Bill Irwin was not the first person ever to walk the Appalachian Trail. He was not the only individual to begin in Springer Mountain, Georgia, and conclude on Mount Katahdin, Maine. Other adventuresome souls have hiked the twenty-one hundred miles, endured the snow and heat and rain, slept on the ground, forded the streams, and shivered in the cold. Bill Irwin was not the first to accomplish this feat. But he was the first in this respect: he was blind when he did it.
He was fifty years old when, in 1990, he set out on the hike. A recovering alcoholic and committed Christian, he memorized 2 Corinthians 5:7 and made it his mantra: “For we walk by faith, not by sight.”
And that is what he did. He did not use maps, GPS, or a compass. It was just Irwin, his German shepherd, and the rugged terrain of the mountains. He estimated that he fell five thousand times, which translates into an average of twenty times a day for eight months. He battled hypothermia, cracked his ribs, and skinned his hands and knees more times than he could count. But he made it. He made the long walk by faith and not by sight. You are doing the same. Probably not on the trails of the Appalachians, but in the trials of life. …No, you are walking on a road even steeper and longer—the path between offered prayer and answered prayer. Between
- supplication and celebration
- bent knees and lifted hands
- tears of fear and tears of joy
- “Help me, Lord” and “Thank you, Lord”
Without an Outlet
Just as our bodies need exercise to be strong physically, our faith needs exercise if we are to be strong spiritually. It has often been noted that several rivers flow into the Dead Sea, but no river flows from it.
That’s why its water has become so saturated with minerals over the centuries that nothing is able to live in it. Without any outlet it indeed has become a “dead” sea. The same is true with us. If we keep faith to ourselves, if we never allow it to flow through us to enrich others, and if it has no outlet, then we will find ourselves like the Dead Sea—lifeless and spiritually dead.
Writing out our Faith
We all desire to learn from our role models, but some take this ambition to the next level. The writer Hunter S. Thompson was so obsessed with the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and specifically his book, The Great Gatsby, that he began typing out the entire book, just for himself, in order to learn its secrets. His hope was to experience what it was like to write a masterpiece, word for word. What might we learn from Thompson and his dedication to his task?
Might we consider writing, for ourselves, the greatest masterpiece of all time? Might we attempt to experience what it was like for the Holy Spirit to guide the writing of the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) or the gospels, Paul’s letters, or the book of revelation? What might we experience if we took the time to manually write out the great books of Holy Scripture? How might we emulate those great saints who came before us, who showed us what it was like to be inspired by God?
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Faith. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!