A Guide to Examining the Way We Believe So That What We Believe Will be Secure
I have never heard God’s voice. I don’t know what he smells like. I have not seen him with my eyes and my hands have never held his. I have never seen anyone brought back from the dead. I have never seen anyone healed of any disease. I have never seen a blind man see or a deaf man hear. If my convictions about God were limited to things such as these, I doubt I would have much faith.
I remember when I was twelve-years-old, God peeked out of the shroud of experiential darkness. This is going to sound silly to a lot of you, but it was special to me nevertheless. I was at the Quail Creek Elementary School Carnival. All the kids went back to it after “graduating” elementary school for years (to show how cool the “post-grads” were). Each year they had a cake-walk. You know . . . where you walked around a circle of 36 numbers while music played. When the music stopped, you stopped. If you were on the number that they called, you won a cake. At that point in my life, I had never won anything that I can remember, but I really wanted to win this cake. So I did what any twelve-year-old Christian would do: I prayed. “Dear God, if you are listening, please show me by allowing me to win this cake. Amen.” The music played. I walked. The music stopped. I stopped. They called out “32.” I looked down. I was on 32. Wow! It was something special. God made me win the cake-walk. He really did care! He was really there. The next year, same time, same place, same prayer. And you know what? I won again. It was unbelievable to this now 13 year-old-kid. It was a miracle! God was indeed on my side.
The next year, I went again. I felt like I was going to meet God at our special place. It was like a date with God. I was so excited. It was a great conformation to my faith for him to take the time to peer out from behind the clouds. Two years before, you could have asked me, “Why do you believe in God Michael?” I might have said, “Because my mom says he is real.” But now you could ask the same question and I would say, “Because he gets me a cake each year. How else do you explain my victories?” There I was, nervous and giddy. The music started playing and I started praying. The music stopped. I stopped. “Number 12,” the lady called out. There must be some mistake, I thought to myself. I am on 20. I decided to try again, this time tagging the ol’ faithful “In Jesus’ name” to the end of my prayer. “Number 5,” she announced. I was on 8. Something had gone seriously wrong. Maybe God was not going to show up. Maybe the other two times were just coincidences. I went home with my head hanging low, not sure how to believe.
Have you ever heard the phrase “Its a ‘God thing’.” “God things” are those experiences that we cannot explain outside of God’s direct intervention. When we meet someone by “chance” and this encounter turns out to be something that changes our lives, it’s a “God thing.” When we forget our cell phone at home and have to go back only to find out that we left the stove on, it’s a “God thing.” One of my favorite movies of all time is Signs with Mel Gibson. It is all about “God things.” There was one part where Mel Gibson, a priest who has lost his faith, asks his brother if he believes that God works miracles or if the things we cannot explain are just coincidences. His brother tells a story about when he was at a party sitting next to a girl leaning in to kiss her. He then realized that he had gum in his mouth. He turns to take it out and by the time he turned back around, she was throwing up all over the place. He said, “I could have been kissing her when she thew up. I’m a miracle man.” To him, that was a “God thing.”
Personal experience is an important part of our conviction. We want to have “God things” in our lives that confirm our beliefs. To have God speak to us from heaven, to have been around when Christ walked the earth, to have seen the Red Sea part, there would have been no denying “God things.” And if there are “God things,” then there is a God. It’s a simple two step deduction.
To be truthful, I don’t know of many things in my life that I can conclusively say were “God things.” Don’t get me wrong. I believe that I have experienced many “God things.” But, when push comes to shove, someone could argue that these things, were just coincidences. Because of this, I don’t rest too heavily on my particular interpretation of life’s events, basing my faith in God exclusively on such things.
My real life conviction meter often looks like this:
Notice that while I believe I have a lot of “forensic” conviction for Christianity, my first-hand experience meter is wanting a great deal. This is why my overall real life meter is not as high as I would like it.
Making the Two-Dimensional, Three-Dimensional
We are talking about the anatomy of belief. First-hand experiences, while they should not be the hinge of our faith, do provide one screw to the hinge. And they are nice to have. I often say that experiences make that which would otherwise be two-dimensional, three-dimensional.
In the anatomy of the body, while the basic components are shared by all people, those components can vary with regard to their strengths and weaknesses. I have a good friend who is about my age who has been plagued with heart problems for years. Sometimes it keeps him in bed for days. My heart, as far as I know, is perfectly healthy. I don’t know why he suffers from this problem while I don’t. I, on the other hand, have weak joints and a terribly bad back. Those of you who have bad backs know how debilitating this can be. Others never have a joint or a back problem one.
It is not so different when it comes to our faith. People’s faith will be strong in some areas and weak in others. Some people seem to experience God in ways that make me drool. They are the ones who have all the answered prayers, see the miracles, and win all the cake-walks! I often lean on their experiences and drink their water in the area of my faith that often seems to be in perpetual drought.
A Man Who Died and Found His Conviction
The power of personal experience is undeniable. Lives are often dramatically changed by just one experience. They can often jump-start our faith and move us in the right direction.
I talked to a man the other day who told me the story of his life. He had been a believer growing up, but had left the faith as he got into the world of academics. While he was a professor at a college he remained a Christian in name only. He had come to reject just about everything he had been taught as a child, believing it to be nonsense. Late in his life, when he was about sixty he had a heart attack and died. According to his testimony, he left his body and went to heaven. While there, he experienced the reality of the presence of God. He was brought back to life a changed man.
Now, I am a hopeless skeptic about these types of things, but I would like to believe it. The problem is that when I hear these stories, they often don’t add up. Many times the heaven that they describe is an unbibical portrait of the afterlife. Other times, the people who die and go to heaven are not even believers! So while I don’t doubt the sincerity of such stories, I don’t really know how to assimilate them into my belief either. However (and this is the main point), this man’s experience became a bedrock of his faith. Since being brought back to life, he has followed the Lord with great passion. His conviction was supported by what he believed happened (and maybe it did, I don’t know). The academic problems that he had (represented by the forensic meter) were no match for his near-death experience. In fact, those academic problems were simply resubmitted to his mind being filtered by his experience of heaven. After this, what had seemed intellectually unlikely before became probable.
Here is what I imagine his conviction meter looked like immediately after his experience.
Notice that his forensic meter is still low. Remember, he lost his faith in academics. However, his first-hand meter is high due to his near-death experience. The overall real life conviction meter is up, but not too high.
After some time of processing this event, this gentleman probably reassessed his previous beliefs being encouraged and confirmed by his experience. After about six months of reflection and further studies, I imagine this is how his conviction meter looked.
Now his forensic meter is on the rise and with it the over-all real life meter. His experience jump-started his faith in this area and effected everything. Again, if you remember, the “Real Life” conviction meter is only one of the three meters that make up our overall conviction. The other two, “Rational” and “Referred” are not in the picture here. However, the way the anatomy of faith works, one sub-meter will eventually affect all the others. I imagine that, based on this experience, he reassessed his rational and referred conviction as well.
This represents the power (not necessarily validity) that these type of experiences can have on our life. In Christianity, we often call them “Damascus Road” experiences for that is where Paul met with Christ and changed his beliefs (Acts 9:1-8).
The Bible and First Hand Conviction
While wonderful and powerful, we need to be very careful about mongering for first-hand experiences to fuel our conviction. They are the most volatile of all. They are readily misinterpreted and easy to forget. They can also become like a drug that we become addicted to. In short, they need to be supported by all the other areas of our faith and not be the sole catalyst for our trust.
For Christians, God’s silence—often called God’s “hiddenness”—should not come as any surprise. Yes, I might do things differently. Were I on God’s board of directors, I might give him some gentle encouragement to be a little more open to showing himself, especially to his own children. But the fact is that we should not expect to win every cake-walk. While we will experience God in many ways, I do not believe that we will see him, hear him, or touch him in the way we often desire. In fact, if we did, I believe the Christian worldview would be compromised. Why? Because the Scripture tells us we should not expect to have our faith confirmed through such empirical means.
Notice here what Peter says:
1 Pet. 1:8-9
And though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.
You see, Peter here assumes that we have not seen Christ (or God or the Holy Spirit for that matter). That is, we have not seen him visually. Peter’s point would be moot if he did not mean to include all other forms of experiencing God empirically. Think about it. Peter was not saying, “And though you have not seen him , you love him. (But many of you will hear, touch, and smell him).” The point is that we should not expect to have that type of confirmation of his reality. The fact is that when Christ ascended into heaven, that was the last most of us have seen or heard from him in such a way. Please note (and please bear with me as a belabor this point): I did not say “That was the last time he was active in an evident way”. There is a big difference. The point is that we should not expect to directly experience God through our eyes, ears, or hands until Christ returns. Whether we like it or not, there is a certain degree of silence that is his M.O. for now.
Remember when Thomas demanded to see Christ risen before he would believe?
Then He said to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” 28 Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”
Blessed are those who did not see and believed. Christ knew that the majority of the world following his ascension would have their conviction based on things other than first-hand experiences. In other words, belief—strong belief—is possible without them. There is much more to the anatomy of our faith than these type of experiences.
Seeing the Angels
I am reminded of the story when the prophet Elisha was being hunted by the king of Aram. The king’s army surrounded the city that Elisha and is his servant were resting in. Elisha’s servant went into a panic while Elisha remained calm. There was something happening that his servant was unable to experience. Something Elisha saw that stabilized his faith. Elisha prayed for his servant’s eyes to be opened.
2 Kings 6:17
Then Elisha prayed and said, “O LORD, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.” And the LORD opened the servant’s eyes and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
While I have given some warnings about seeking to build your faith on first-hand experience, I do believe that it is something that we should not be afraid to seek. I believe that it is very godly and important for us to pray that we recognize the “God things.” They are all around us, even if they can often suffer alternative explanations. For most of us, it is the other aspects of our faith which cause us to see the “angels”. Oftentimes we just need to have our eyes opened. But for the most part it is not going to be our sight that brings conviction to our faith, but our conviction that brings reality to our sight. I think that that is the most important thing I have said here so I will repeat it: For the most part it is not going to be our sight that brings conviction to our faith, but our conviction that brings reality to our sight.
Some people’s first-hand experience of God will make us jealous. We will wonder why God is not so “conversational” with us. Many will see “angels” everywhere they turn. They will be at no loss for cakes. “God things” will be in abundance their whole life.
Many times it is just a matter of perspective. We need to open our eyes in faith. For many of us, God, for some mysterious reason, goes into hiding in this area. This can be frustrating, I know. “Just let me win one more darn cake-walk. How hard is that!” But first-hand experience is only one aspect of our faith. We take what we can get, but our faith does not need to suffer because of a lack of these things.
If your first-hand experience meter is low and it does not look like it is going to change, join the crowd of many strong believers throughout history who have complained about God’s hiddenness. The first-hand meter will never be at full-throttle until we stand before God. Once that happens, I suspect all the other meters will not matter. Until then, seek to have your eyes opened, but don’t lean too heavily on these things. There is so much more that stabilizes our faith than this. As well, be encouraged (not jealous) of others who God does seem to have an experiential open line with. God may have placed them in your life to provide what is lacking in your faith.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminar (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]