Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
[…] Do not be wise in your own eyes (Proverbs 3:5-7, NRSV)
As I write this, I’m in the middle of a severe and difficult depressive episode, with some paranoid delusion thrown in for good measure. These episodes in my life, when I am thrown into a mental state impossible to deal with, are the times when I most need God, yet feel most abandoned by the love, care and guidance of the Almighty. I know, on an intellectual level, that God hasn’t upped sticks and left me to struggle alone. Being a good little Anglican, I can draw on scripture, reason, tradition and experience to come to the sure conclusion that God is most certainly not partial to abandoning or neglecting anyone, especially not in their times of greatest need. This conclusion is all well and good, but right now it simply doesn’t feel true. I believe in an all-loving God who guides and cares for me, but what use is that belief when my life is broken and fragmented, when God feels absent, when I have no faith in what I believe?
The words ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ are often used interchangeably, but there is a vast gap between believing something to be true and having faith in its ability to effect a difference in the world. It’s often assumed that, if not synonymous, the two at least go hand in hand, inevitably following on from one another, but it seems like faith tends to follow rather reluctantly behind belief, if indeed it deigns to follow at all. I felt almost defeated when I first came to believe in God, a reaction not dissimilar to that described by CS Lewis in Surprised by Joy:
In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. […] The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?
Far from being a solution to all the world’s ills, belief in God can bring with it any number of negative responses. We can easily believe in God while still trusting ourselves a great deal more than we trust that belief – one only has to look to Satan to see a model of perfect belief entirely unsupported by faith. For us, our inability to place faith in our belief is rarely quite so willful, but a fundamental tenet of Christianity is the inevitable doubt that comes from a frequent disconnect between what one believes to be true and what one feels worthy of placing faith in.
Belief comes from our will to assent to something we have carefully considered and found to be true beyond reasonable doubt. Belief is nice and neat, and our desire to often cast off faith in the unknowable in favour of concrete and sound fact betrays one of the downsides of living in a post-enlightenment society where empiricism is exalted to almost fetishistic levels. The Proverbs quote at the beginning of this post is often rolled out as incontrovertible proof that Christianity is a religion of anti-intellectualism, of encouragement in acceptance without question – this isn’t helped by the fact that the word ‘insight’, a word relating much more to wisdom, to capital T Truth, than to clinical facts, is historically translated as ‘understanding’. The passage, however, categorically does not encourage us to eschew education or intellectual enquiry, both of which are necessary and invaluable; on the contrary, it asks us simply to accept that these things can only offer us so much.
Faith requires that we put to one side our confidence in being able to calculate what is fact and what is fiction. It instead asking us to put our trust in something which we may not be able to see or feel – something which we may believe, but into which we have no insight. It asks this of us even when we feel shaken, ruined, and in a dark place where utter nihilism looks increasingly appealing. It’s times like this when we most need to put any theoretical and carefully sculpted belief on the back burner, to stop trying to work our life events into a narrative which supports our intricately structured theology, and surrender ourselves to the mystery of faith. God asks us to trust that, even if we don’t feel it, the Holy Spirit is working in our lives. By accepting this, we build up our relationship with God and increase our love and care towards the entirety of His creation. It is the love which flows from faith, not the arrogance of belief, which will lead us to the living Kingdom of God.