Whatever we think of the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson, many of us will identify with the description he gave of his faith: “I suppose my own faith, you know, it’s like a bit like trying to get Virgin Radio when you’re driving through the Chilterns. It sort of comes and goes. I mean sometimes the signal is strong, and then sometimes I’m afraid it just vanishes. And then it comes back again.”
This is true of most of us, even if few will admit it. The main question is, what do we do with this wavering faith, with this poor connection? We can ignore it and let it be. This is a common reaction, especially since we all lead busy lives and live in a world where the word faith is used casually and flippantly. In my experience, this doesn't help. The signals will just become fainter, causing either discouragement or indifference.
Or we can despair, thinking there is something seriously wrong with us, and that's obviously not the answer either. Instead, it’s important to recognize that our wavering faith is a common condition in our present earthly state where Christians – as Martin Luther used to say – are simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously righteous and sinful). Like Paul, we can end our cries of frustration or despair (“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Rom. 7:24) with an expression of thanks to the only true Answer (“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Rom. 7:25).
Faith is a Gift
Like Paul, we can move from frustration to praise by the simple act of remembering. We can remember that God is the Giver. Christian faith is a gift that cannot be mustered up. It can only be received. And the Bible tells us that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
This is particularly true of the preached word. “How are they to hear without someone preaching?”, said Paul (Rom. 10:14). And that’s not just because of the scarcity of written Scriptures. Hearing God’s word from another, especially one who has been given authority to proclaim it, helps us to leave our Gollum’s cave of inner mumblings to receive a counter-intuitive announcement. Remembering these simple biblical truths helps us to be constant in our attendance to the means of grace – the preached word and sacraments – which are meant to foster and strengthen our faith.
The Proper Object of Faith
We should also remember that the Christian faith has a specific object: Christ. This might seem obvious, but it’s often easy to fall prey to the platitudes we hear all around us. Many tell us to have faith, with or without a specific object. They might tell us to have faith in ourselves, or, as an online article puts it, “faith in any potential outcome in our lives.” For the author of that article, faith is “the knowledge, deep down inside, that things will get better.”
The problem is, digging deep down inside can instead uncover a swirling cauldron of fear and confusion. We can never find true faith by looking inside of ourselves, nor can we strengthen our faith by keeping tabs on it. When the famous preacher Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-1898) was lying in excruciating pain after a protracted illness and a series of possibly more damaging treatments, his lifetime friend Clement Read Vaughan (1827-1911) hasted to uphold his wavering faith.
“You want more faith,” he said. “Do you remember, in the stress of your trial, how faith comes? Let me remind you, although you know it. You know we are sanctified through the truth. Sanctification is just the growth of the particular graces of the spirit, of which faith is one. Just here is where Christians make a great mistake. When they want more faith or want to know whether the faith, they have is the right sort of faith, instead of looking at the things to be believed, they turn their eyes inward and scrutinize their faith.”
To prove the absurdity of this habit, Vaughan gave Dabney the example of a bridge.
Now, suppose a traveler comes to a bridge,” he continued, “and he is in doubt about trusting himself to it. What does he do to breed confidence in the bridge? He looks at the bridge; he gets down and examines it. He doesn't stand at the bridge-head and turn his thoughts curiously in on his own mind to see if he has confidence in the bridge. If his examination of the bridge gives him a certain amount of confidence, and yet he wants more, how does he make his faith grow? Why, in the same way; he still continues to examine the bridge. Now, my dear old man, let your faith take care of itself for a while, and you just think of what you are allowed to trust in. Think of the Master’s power, think of his love; think how he is interested in the soul that searches for him, and will not be comforted until he finds him. Think of what he has done, his work. That blood of his is mightier than all the sins of all the sinners that ever lived. Don't you think it will master yours?
The Guarantee of Our Faith
This is the same reminder the author of the Book of Hebrews provides. After giving a definition of faith and a long list of biblical examples in chapter 11 (many of whom also wavered and failed), he reminds us that Jesus is “the founder and perfecter of our faith,” and exhorts us to look to him, remembering who he is and what he has done and continues to do (Heb. 12:2).
As our intercessor in Heaven, Jesus is still saying to us what he said to Simon Peter, “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” (Lk. 22:31). We can be sure of this: Christ’s prayers will never return void, and “he who began a good work in [us] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ,” even if our feelings tell us otherwise (Philippians 1:6)