Man is a creature who hardly knows himself. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Even as a Christian with a new heart, I continue to discover within myself new contradictions, fresh perplexities, strange paradoxes. Take, for example, the cohabitation of a desire for a sturdier faith in Jesus Christ, with a quiet and competing preference for a scrawny faith.
On the one hand, I grimace as I watch Jesus routinely chide the disciples for their “little faith” (Matthew 8:26). Lord, I am too much like them. Fix my eyes firmly on my King. Strong faith, even when unpossessed, is not undesired.
But then I discover an Achan in the camp, a Judas among the twelve with his hand in the moneybag. A skulking and smiling and sinister wish that sabotages progress in the faith. C.S. Lewis first warned me of his presence.
I’m not sure, after all, whether one of the causes of our weak faith is not a secret wish that our faith should not be very strong. Is there some reservation in our minds? Some fear of what it might be like if our religion became quite real? I hope not. God help us all, and forgive us. (Essay Collection & Other Short Stories, 137)
At first, it seemed absurd. Who wouldn’t want to move mountains? Who wouldn’t want to bludgeon unbelief? I tried to move on. I tried throwing my conscience a different bone. But it wouldn’t budge.
“Some fear of what it might be like if our religion became quite real” — that sentence drew the blood. Did I not want all of this to become more real? Was I afraid of what it might be like farther off from the shore? Are you?
Afraid of True Religion
What might Lewis mean by this dread of strong faith, of a religion too real and near?
He means that some of us suspect, deep down, that if we meet the real thing more often, if we galloped too forcefully toward eternal realities, they would unhorse us. And what would follow? If our faith were too solid, we might lose much in this world. We might become the oddities we wish to avoid. They might shackle us and carry us off we know not where, and pressure us to risk more than we would mind losing.
Our relationships would change. Our priorities would change. This world would start to fill with devils, with immortal souls, with warfare. Nature would kneel before supernature.
“The richness and depth of our world comes from the relationship between ordinary pleasures and transcendent beauty.”
God would grow. Death would stare. We might hear Satan laugh. Would the weight of it all crush our finitude? It could certainly stampede some dreams. If Christianity became entirely real, which of our Isaacs are safe? What sacrifice would be too great, or trial too burdensome, to endure for his glory? If the roots went all the way to the bottom, then my life really is not my own, is it?
Hell — how could we conceive of it? Heaven — how could we live for less? Gospel — how could we ever withhold it? Time — how could we ever waste it? Christ — how could he be less than all in all?
Such unbending realness, we can now begin to see, might secretly wish to be kept at bay. Jurassic Park is pleasant until the electric fences go out. We have done a fine job today creating our theme park and barriers where forces from the next world might be seen from time to time grazing safely on the other side of our passions and amusements. Yet, for all of that, we fail to realize that the electricity was never on.
High and Perilous
Strong faith knocks powerfully as an intrusive and demanding visitor. Is he not the great culprit in Hebrews 11, sending those saints forth to be swept off to otherwise unpleasant, inconvenient, and sometimes fatal adventures?
This faith is like pesky Gandalf to our hobbit holes. Austin Freeman comments,
Gandalf intercedes in the culture of the Shire because the hobbits had begun to forget their own stories of daring and danger and therefore their sense of the world’s greatness. They needed to renew their memory of the high and the perilous. The hobbits must be reminded of an element of danger in order to appreciate what they have. (Tolkien Dogmatics, 80)
Haven’t many of us lost much of what we once had? Haven’t we also grown stale, forgetting the greatness of the world — the greatness of this Story that God is writing around us? Too often, we have edited out the high and perilous, the epic and the eternal, the glorious and the numinous. Or at least we relocate dangers to chapters before and after our own page. Not in our doctrinal statements, perhaps, but in our daily sense of what is most ultimate, most urgent.
Freeman goes on to depict how the unpredictability and hazard of such faith actually becomes invaluable to our soul’s happiness.
The good things that make hobbit society valuable, such as freedom and peace and pleasure in ordinary life, require a greater and more dangerous world outside their borders in order that they not grow stale. The richness and depth of our world come from the relationship between the ordinary pleasures, such as food, drink, and family on the one hand, and the longing for transcendent beauty, quests, and noble sacrifice on the other hand. (80)
“Our secret wish for little faith, should we indulge it any longer, will only rob us in the end.”
Domesticity must dance with dragons. The richness and depth of our world comes from the relationship between ordinary pleasures and transcendent beauty. Reality, without consulting us, sings a duet: the ordinary with the extraordinary. This world lodges firmly in the shadow of the next. Yet, the transcendent is often gone — not from our Bibles or from our actual world — only drained from our bloodstream.
Befriend and Obey Reality
Weak faith contents itself to have it so. Weak faith minds the times and stands no taller than is necessary. Weak faith knows that a host of awkward conversations, probable persecutions, and unquenchable sorrows are restrained on the other side of the dam.
Yet without such a torrent, we live half-lives (if that). Again, “The richness and depth of our world come from the relationship between the ordinary pleasures, such as food, drink, and family on the one hand, and the longing for transcendent beauty, quests, and noble sacrifice on the other hand.” Reality will have her vengeance. Remove the spiritual, the beautiful, the sacrificial, and you flush all the wonder and meaning from the superbly ordinary.
But should we dress in the whole armor of God and war against spiritual powers, when we savor our food and glorify God as we drink, when we raise families and care for neighbors and serve a local church full of normal saints, when we sacrifice and suffer and wait and worship — bowed smilingly beneath the lordship and love of God our Father and our Savior Jesus Christ — we live, really live.
Our secret wish for little faith, should we indulge it any longer, will only rob us in the end. Reality, to the Christian, is a best friend to be fully embraced, a captain to be dutifully obeyed. The unseen is more real than we think. Christ is more worthy than makes us comfortable. Death is nearer, hell is hotter, heaven more heavenly, sin more sinister, the church more dear, the gospel more atomic, the Father more holy, compassionate, and just than little faith wants to imagine. The real thing is the only reality that is, the only reality that will be, and the only reality that Christians will ever truly wish to be.