Following closely on the heels of the question of how to pray, people often ask me where faith comes from, and where they can get more of it.
The best response to that question, usually, is, “Why do you want more faith?”
Unfortunately, a lot of times our motivation for wanting more faith is wrong. Jesus said that anyone who has the faith of a mustard seed can tell a mountain to go jump in a lake and it really will do it.
The result is we often see faith as a way for us to get what we want. If we believe enough, then we can move a mountain. So if we can move a mountain, then surely we can get something more worthwhile than that, like that promotion we’ve been wanting, or… Hey, we’ve all got a long list. I don’t need to recite mine. You already know what I’m talking about because I’m sure you’ve got one too.
The problem is that we focus on faith. And somewhere, I’m sure, there’s a fallen angel howling with delight. Faith is like a baseball bat. Nobody stands in the batter’s box with a pitch coming at them and stares at the bat. The bat’s there. You can feel it. You don’t have to think about it. But the bat is worthless without a ball to hit. So a batter watches the ball. Carl Yastrzemski used to grind his chin into his right shoulder as he stood at the plate, to the point that he wore out the shoulder on his jerseys. It made it hard for him to move his head while he was hitting, so he knew he’d always have his eye on the ball. His reward for keeping his eye on the ball? He played 23 years and hit 452 home runs and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989.
Faith is important–we can’t please God without it–but it’s not where the power is. The power is in the object of our faith. It’s not the faith of a mustard seed that moves the mountain. It’s God that moves the mountain.
Faith doesn’t make God’s will change to fit our changing needs. It does the opposite–it helps us to understand God, and to understand what He’s up to. Then His desires become our desires. It’s not that the faith of the mustard seed makes God willing to move a mountain. The faith of the mustard seed is sufficient for us to know when to ask God to move the mountain. And when God wants to move the mountain, and we know God wants to move the mountain and we ask God to move the mountain, then the mountain jumps in the lake.
God’s a lot more interested in people than He is in mountains, which is why you don’t hear about Pike’s Peak moving around all that much.
Pastor John Schmidtke, the pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in North St. Louis, puts it this way: Sometimes God changes your situation, and sometimes God changes you to handle your situation.
Truth be told, asking God for more faith is a lot like asking for more patience. Both virtues are built up mostly by circumstances, and God gives us however much we need to get through the situation we’re in at the moment.
A couple of years ago, I had a career-threatening injury. My wrists were hurting constantly, but I was under contract to write a book that promised to be a blockbuster and I was having trouble meeting the deadlines because originally I was going to write half of it, but then circumstances changed and I was the sole author. The problem was the very ergonomically incorrect desks at work, and the $4 keyboards we got with our PCs (which were a ripoff even at that price, because they were mushier than oatmeal). But trying to get what you needed was like Milton and his stapler in Office Space, so I didn’t say much. Then, one Saturday, I went to unload my dishwasher. I couldn’t do it. Gripping a dish was too painful, not that it mattered. My wrist was so weak I couldn’t pick the thing up either.
For two months, I had doctors pointing fingers. My boss essentially told me I got what I deserved. Nobody was interested in helping me. Well, the elders at my church were. They prayed for me and annointed me with oil. At least I was worth something to them. That felt good, since I was a disposable commodity to my employer and publisher, and a bother to my doctors. (Well, my chiropractor is a saint, but what he could do was limited.)
Then, one day, out of the blue, one of my readers (Curtis Horn maybe?) e-mailed me and suggested I get a book about vitamins. A lot of people think Robert Atkins is a quack, he warned me, but Atkins’ vitamin book helped him, he told me. I ran out that night and bought it. I read it in an evening. The whole thing. Yeah, I was desperate. The next morning, I went to the store with a shopping list, and filled my cupboard with supplements. He had stuff to help everything that was wrong with me. And some of the things had common elements, I noticed. So I blew about 50 bucks on vitamins. Hey, it was the same as three doctor’s appointments cost me, and those weren’t doing me any good.
The improvement was sudden and dramatic. The pain went away after a couple of days. My ability to do everyday tasks started to improve. And eventually I was able to type again too.
Meanwhile, my publisher had fallen behind in its advance payments. Rather than pay for the chapters I’d delivered, they cancelled the book. My agent advised me to just let it drop.
So I didn’t become a big-shot author. I wrote a few magazine articles here and there, and did the negotiating myself. It hurt. I’ve thought of myself as a writer all my life, or at least as long as I could remember. I was reading soon after I was walking. Honest. And now no one wanted to have anything to do with me. All because of a $4 keyboard and a lack of a keyboard drawer.
God took care of me. He turned me into a video editor. Ironic, seeing as I haven’t watched TV with any regularity since 1993 because it’s mindless, adolescent entertainment and I hate it. The only reason I have a TV is because when I moved out of the house, Mom told me I was taking our 17-year-old console TV with me. My stereo sits on top of it. And in October, I use it to watch the World Series.
But people like TV, and I like to tell stories, and God keeps giving me stories that need to be told and nobody wants to read them. So I make a couple of videos a year.
More people thanked me for the Christmas Eve video I made last year than for the book I published in 1999. And my name wasn’t even on it, so it was strictly by word of mouth that people found out I was responsible for it. I’m pretty sure that video made a bigger difference in the world than that book did too.
The result of that ordeal? I don’t even think about my livelihood or career very much anymore. God saw me through that mess, and when He took something away, He gave me back something a whole lot better. And that something, if I’d seen it in 1999, it would have repulsed me.
The inkling to write another book comes back every once in a while. And when it does, I do what one of my newswriting profs said to do when the urge to use a word like unctious or deleterious or tyro comes upon me: Lay down until it goes away. It usually takes about five minutes.
Not that I’m any kind of a great example. I cite that because it’s familiar. But I admit, I don’t trust God with everything. Food and shelter and clothing and livelihood? Absolutely. Friends? You bet. Girls? Not on your life.
He’s been working on me for five years on that one. I trust Him with other people’s relationships just fine. A good friend from college e-mailed me about four years ago. She was in pieces. She and her boyfriend–another classmate of mine, and a really good guy–were having big problems. I don’t remember the specifics anymore. The world was ending and she didn’t want it to end and he didn’t want it to end but neither of them had any idea what to do about it. I didn’t either. I wrote back. “God’s working here,” I said. “I’m rooting for Mark. But God’s very obviously setting you up for something wonderful. I don’t know what it is, but it’s going to blow away anything you’ve experienced recently.” Something like that. The e-mail is long lost.
She called me, long-distance from Florida, to thank me. She trusted me. I have no idea why, seeing as my whole world was smashed to bits all around me, thanks to a girl, and at the time I had absolutely no interest in picking it up and putting something together. I think it was the object of her faith. Her faith wasn’t in me. Something about what I said made God look like a hanging curveball, belt-high and right down the middle. It didn’t matter that the words were coming from a screw-up.
She’s married now.
One day my day will come, when I reach the end of my rope and God’s finally finished getting me ready for, as I put it years ago, something wonderful. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know if I’ll know it when I see it. I’ve read what you’re supposed to look for. God spelled it out pretty plainly in Proverbs. Unfortunately, it takes years for some of it to show up. So I’ve asked God to lead me to her. Part of me believes He will.
And then I’ll trust God. Finally. And then you know what? Then there’ll be something else. There always is.
Well, eventually we learn. Abraham did. Everyone remembers him. God told Abraham to sacrifice his son, his only son by his wife Sarah, born to him at age 100, and Abraham trusted God enough to do it. God stopped him as Abraham was raising his knife. So we remember Abraham as the superhero of faith.
But Abraham traveled a long and sometimes rocky road to get there. He once feared for his life, so he told Sarah to tell everyone she was his sister, so they wouldn’t kill him in order to marry her. But God had promised he would turn Abraham into a great nation, and Sarah wasn’t pregnant yet. Abraham was invincible, but he didn’t know it. So he lied, and the king Abraham was afraid of took Sarah and put her in his harem, and then God intervened, to prevent Sarah and the king from sinning. Nobody was happy with the result.
And then what? Abraham did it again!
A few years later, Abraham was 87 and Sarah was 77 and there was still no son, so they came up with this idea: Abraham would sleep with Sarah’s maidservant. Maybe God needed some help to make Abraham into a great nation, after all. Well, she got pregnant. And Sarah was anything but relieved. Her relationship with her maidservant became like the relationship between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
It was fitting. The son she bore, Ishmael, gave rise to what are today the Arab nations. Sarah’s son, born 13 years later, gave rise to Israel. Who knew a one-night stand could change the course of history?
But God was patient with Abraham, and obviously Abraham learned from his mistakes, because after Isaac was born, Abraham did anything God asked him, and didn’t ask any questions. And that’s why Abraham is remembered the way he is.
I hope I can learn like that. And I hope it doesn’t take quite so long. Things might change tomorrow. And then again they might not.
At least in the meantime, I’ve got this great relationship with Him, and with a whole bunch of His people. And that’s what it’s supposed to be all about.
I really want to know you
I want to make each day
A different way
That I can show you how
I really want to love you
Be patient with my doubt
I’m just trying to figure out
And I really want to know you still.