Mustard Seed Faith

Mustard Seed Faith1

What reasons do you have to be sure of your beliefs about God?

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Confirmation bias is a psychological phenomenon which describes our tendency to seek out information that confirms our opinions and beliefs while avoiding information that contradicts what we believe. I take a lot more time on each page when I’m reading C.S. Lewis compared to Richard Dawkins.

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Christians: Have you ever argued an atheist to belief in God? Atheists, have you ever convinced a Christian of the illogicality of their beliefs? How much time have you spent on this? Full disclosure: I’ve been successful about two times out of a hundred.

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I like reading the Bible a lot more when the stuff I’m reading fits into the neat theological painting that I’ve drawn. I don’t think I’m alone on this. I’ve heard my brothers and sisters quote 1 John 4:82 a whole lot more than Romans 9:223.

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When I’m having a good week – doesn’t matter how many times I’ve prayed, or sought God’s presence, or read the Bible, or served others, or loved my enemies – I tend to be much more certain about God’s existence and love for me than when I’m having a crappy week. That is to say, I forget Matthew 5:3-44, Matthew 5:455, James 1:2- 36, 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 … I could go on.

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When one’s identity is intertwined with one’s beliefs (as is often the case with religious belief), doesn’t it mean that to alter one’s beliefs is, in some sense, to sacrifice a part of oneself?

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Jesus has this strong aversion to signs, to demonstrations of his divinity through alterations of reality. There’s this one scene in Matthew 12 where the Pharisees (members of the Jewish elite) wish to see a sign from Jesus. Now, perhaps they don’t have the purest of intentions when they make this request of Jesus, but still, you would think that since Jesus’ ministry is largely about demonstrating that he is who he says he is, he would seize this opportunity for all that it might be worth. Consider his response to the Pharisees: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah8.” (The Jonah allusion refers to the story about Jonah who was in the belly of a whale for three days; likewise, Jesus will be in the belly of the earth for three days before he conquers death and rises again.)

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People frequently tell me that they would believe in God if only he made himself more evident. Like: if only God would write his name in the stars, then I would believe. Or I’ve heard people wonder why God seemingly makes it so hard for us to believe in him if our faith and love is his foremost desire. Give us a sign, for heaven’s sake, we say. But in response I submit, 1) If you did see God proclaim his existence in the stars, are you so certain that this would lead to a lifetime of belief? God has blessed me with his love, his presence, his Word; he has authored miracles, kept promises; never once has he let me down. And still I can tell you that a couple of times within the next month I’m going to put my head on the pillow at night and wonder if he’s really real. 2) What kind of God would that be (one who demonstrated His existence through magic tricks)? What conception of God would we form in our minds? What would it mean to be a disciple of this God? 3) What about the Incarnation and the Crucifixion and the Resurrection? What more could you ask for?

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It reminds me of a story author Brennan Manning tells about how he got the name ‘Brennan.’ While growing up, his best friend was Ray. The two of them did everything together: bought a car together as teenagers, double-dated together, went to school together and so forth. They even enlisted in the Army together, went to boot camp together and fought on the frontlines together. One night while sitting in a foxhole, Brennan was reminiscing about the old days in Brooklyn while Ray listened and ate a chocolate bar. Suddenly a live grenade came into the foxhole. Ray looked at Brennan, smiled, dropped his chocolate bar and threw himself on the live grenade. It exploded, killing Ray, but Brennan’s life was spared. When Brennan became a priest he was instructed to take on the name of a saint. He thought of his friend, Ray Brennan. So he took on the name ‘Brennan.’ Years later he went to visit Ray’s mother in Brooklyn. They sat up late one night having tea when Brennan asked her, “Do you think Ray loved me?” Mrs. Brennan got up off the couch, shook her finger in front of Brennan’s face and shouted, “What more could he have done for you?” Brennan said that at that moment he experienced an epiphany. He imagined himself standing before the cross of Jesus wondering, Does God really love me? And Jesus’ mother Mary pointing to her son, saying, “What more could he have done for you?”

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I’d say that my cognitive belief in God, as in my certainty as to whether or not he exists, fluctuates on a day to- day basis. But I find that if I judge how much faith I have in terms of how I am living my life – in other words, to what extent my life reflects my belief in God, or how foolish I would look and how utterly misguided my decisions would seem if God did not exist – this changes very slowly, perhaps on a year-to-year basis. I would say that compared to myself five years ago, I am less certain about whether or not God exists as a mental idea but am much more devoted to him in my daily life.

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Psychologists note that when your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger. No small wonder that when I took a Winter Study course on atheism in my sophomore year (class makeup: 1 Christian, 12 atheists), no one changed sides.

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The German (agnostic) philosopher Wittgenstein: “What inclines even me to believe in Christ’s resurrection? I play as it were with the thought.–If he did not rise from the dead, then he decomposed in the grave like every human being. He is dead & decomposed. In that case he is a teacher, like any other & can no longer help; & we are once more orphaned & alone. And have to make do with wisdom & speculation. It is as though we are in a hell, where we can only dream & are shut out from heaven, roofed in as it were. But if I am to be REALLY redeemed,– I need certainty–not wisdom, dreams, speculation–and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what my heart, my soul, needs, not my speculative intellect. For my soul, with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, must be redeemed, not my abstract mind. Perhaps one may say: Only love can believe the Resurrection. Or: it is love that believes the Resurrection9.”

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A lot of people have told me that I’m only a Christian because my parents are Christians. To which I would reply 1) my sister and I went to church before our mom did 2) then aren’t you just agnostic/atheist because your parents/ friends are? 3) If this were true, I’m pretty sure I would have walked away from the faith soon after the going got real tough. On second thought, all of that sounds a bit harsh. What I mean to say is this: my journey seeking God has been exciting, demanding, heart-wrenching, peaceful, scary, blessed, and challenging all at once. I’ve had to do a lot of ‘growing up’, as it were. It hurts me just a bit when you chalk the whole thing up to something like genetics, as if a relationship with God were like unattached earlobes.

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I recently completed a thesis on deconstruction and theology. I’ll save you the burden of having to read it: language and our beliefs are inextricably intertwined, deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida say. Because the relationship between words and the objects to which they refer is arbitrary (the signifier and the signified don’t match up; there is no necessary connection between the word ‘tree’ and an actual tree) nothing guarantees that what we say meaningfully refers to an event in the external world. Instead, words only achieve meaning in relation to other words (a tree is not a bush, it is taller and tree is phonetically dissimilar to ‘tee’). Which means that our understanding of what God means is dependent on our understanding of what ‘human’, ‘good’, ‘evil’, ‘reality’, etc. mean. Words don’t stand alone. Also, our comprehension of a word is dependent on how we’ve heard it used in the past. We form our understanding of God based upon how we’ve heard others employ the term. No wonder people tend to inherit the beliefs of their parents. Further, a term requires a series of repeated events to come into existence; we must observe a uniform phenomenon over time before we would think to ascribe a word to it. But we must simultaneously be able to differentiate between external objects and events, and this requires language. Language requires events, events require language. It’s a chicken or egg sort of thing. Okay, so maybe you do need to read the thesis…

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But that’s not the point. What I’m trying to say with all these words is this: I don’t think faith is about mental acquiescence to the idea of a God whom we cannot see. It doesn’t make sense to me to describe it as the act of weighing the relative likelihood of two mutually exclusive possibilities (God exists/God does not exist) and then choosing the more probable. It must be different than that, more than that. What, then?

Jesus talks a lot about this idea of bearing fruit. In one moment, he’s talking to his disciples and he says, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing10.” A little later Jesus urges his disciples, “Remain in my love.”

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Faith seems to be a daily decision, a daily act of my will to remain in Jesus’s love. It is to passionately seize hold of a certain way of life. My ability to willfully follow Jesus is not encumbered by a passing cloud of doubt or a string of unfortunate circumstances. Jesus’s life beckons to me, invites me to try to stick with him through thick and thin.

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Just about everyone has heard the notion that God loves you at some point or another. But there is a fundamental difference in knowing about God’s love for you and knowing God’s love for you. As long as God’s love for me stays lodged in my brain as an idea, it is of no importance. I cannot reasonably assess it as either true or false. It is not until I experience it, feel it, and try to shape my live around it that it begins to acquire any real definition, any real truth. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life11.” He did not say, “I am here to teach you about the truth,” or “Truth is believing these doctrinal propositions.” His life was the truth. There is more truth in a hug from Jesus than there is in a hundred propositional statements about God’s nature. There is more truth in a human being loving another human being than there could ever be in an encyclopedia. Jesus is the truth and we move closer and closer to the truth, not as we know more facts about Jesus but as we become more like him. Kierkegaard: “Thus Christ is the truth in the sense that to be the truth is the only true explanation of what truth is. Therefore one can ask an apostle, one can ask a Christian, ‘What is truth?’ and in answer to the question the apostle and this Christian will point to Christ and say; Look at him, learn from him, he was the truth12.”

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To the Christian wading through a merciless sea of doubt: keep wading, keep following, keep seeking! Intellectual certainty will come and go but faith is a decision that can be renewed with every day. To those of you who are frustrated that you cannot find it within yourself to believe this incredible story that many others have, that it just does not seem logical or correct, to those of you who honestly desire to be a Christian but do not feel it right because you cannot take hold of what you deem to be the proper and responsible degree of intellectual assurance: Take hope! Willfully try to remain in the love of God and see what happens. Cry out to God the paradoxical words of the father hoping for Jesus to heal his son: “I believe, help me with my unbelief13.”

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We are with every passing moment painting a picture of our own truth, placing our faith in something seen or not seen, stated or kept silent. Look, I dare you, at the life of Jesus. Look at his love, his joy, his peace, his patience, his kindness, his goodness, his faithfulness, his gentleness, and his self-control. See if you would not like your painting to look like his. See if you would not want to know him, not as an idea but as a friend.

1[Jesus] said to them… “For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” Matthew 17:20 (ESV).
2Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love (ESV).
3What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction… (ESV)
4Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted (ESV).
5For [God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (ESV).
6Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be
perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (ESV).
7Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God (ESV).
8Matthew 12:39 (ESV).
9Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value trans. Peter Finch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 33e.
10John 15:4-5 (NLT).
11John 14:6 (ESV).
12Soren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 205.
13Mark 9:24 (ESV).

Andy Morgosh ’12 is from San Diego, Calif. His post-grad plans include road-trippin’, mountain climbin’, hammer swingin’, and, most importantly, loving on his family.

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