Sometimes I get confused by churchy things. Namely, why have I always heard the candle for the Second Sunday in Advent named as the Peace candle, but sometimes it’s called the Faith candle? At my own church this past Sunday, the theme of the candle, the lessons, and the sermon were all faith. So I sat there in the pew getting bogged down in seasonal minutiae and thinking, “Well, which is it? Is it faith or peace?”
The answer that came to me in the middle of a gentle, shepherding sermon that made me cry was “Yes.” Yes faith. Yes peace. Maybe the candle can mean either one because both are true. Perhaps peace comes from faith. Faith builds peace.
One thing that has always struck me as odd about American evangelical Christianity (the only form of which I have any intimate familiarity) is how it takes faith, a gift of the Spirit, and turns it into a to-do item on the Christianity checklist. It becomes mere mental assent or worse, something in par with willpower. “If I/you/we just have enough faith!” people sigh. “Things would work out then.”
Well, as it was pointed out to me in Sunday’s sermon, faith does not mean wishing really, really hard for our magical sky fairy to grant all our wishes. Faith is not bearing down and funneling all our strength into force of will. Faith, as Hebrews 11:1 tells us, “is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen” (CSB). It is not the same as hope (1 Corinthians 13 tells us this by listing faith and hope as two separate virtues) and is definitely not wishful thinking. Yet for all these definitions, faith is such a hard concept to grasp.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I find it easier to cling to faith as a sense of “Well, if I just believe hard enough.” It’s easier because it’s something that I myself can do. If I can fix my own problems, then I will know they are fixed because I did the work with my own hands. You see this in a lot of Christian-ish self-help material. “You have problems and you worry because you don’t have faith!” these things chirp. “This is all your fault! You could fix all your problems if you just have faith!”
You see the problem further illustrated when faith becomes synonymous with religion. “He/she is a person of faith,” we say. The federal government sponsors faith-based initiatives for community development. This further conflates the biblical concept of faith with the societal expectations of religion, which, again, puts the onus back on you to fix your own life by doing and saying the right things and just believing enough. And if something terrible befalls you, you get people on Facebook tut-tutting “You just didn’t have enough faith.” You didn’t, you don’t, you haven’t, you, you, you.
Oof. When did faith become a baseball bat with which to hit suffering people over the head? Even when the Bible talks about not worrying and instead having faith, it’s not meant like a baseball bat, and it certainly isn’t meant the way I have always taken it to mean, involving exhausting levels of personal effort. This is where understanding it the way it is meant to be understood becomes more and more difficult.
It’s difficult because it would be so much easier to say “Well, if I just believe hard enough, then X will happen.” It would. And it would be easier for us as finite mortals if it worked that way. Faith becomes difficult because it forces us to rely on someone we cannot physically see to handle issues that, for us, are immediate and pressing. So because I can’t get instant results, I stop asking. Then I wonder why my reliance on God falters and why I become jaded.
If faith is the reality of what is hoped for, then I assume faith begins with hope. Hope is that tiny voice that says “Things will be better someday maybe.” Faith builds on this, grows it, by saying “[A]ll things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28, CSB). Even when it sucks. Even when there are no immediate results. Even when things go sideways and everything hurts and the world is upside down and oh God where are you? Hope says “Maybe things will get better.” Faith says “Even if they don’t, God is good and kind and he loves me, and this is working together for my eternal good.”
This is where I get tripped up most often. I have zero problems believing that God is good and kind–to other people. I see it in their lives and rejoice in it. Miraculous healing? Thanks be to God. Specific provision at the exact moment of need? Thanks be to God! Absolutely! Where it becomes tricky is thinking “God is good and kind to me.”
Sorry, what? Who am I that he should be mindful of me? He sent Christ to die for one speck of mortal existence whose time on this planet is but a blip on the timeline of all history. I’m not worth that. I’m an Enneagram Four; I am literally first in line to tell you that I am flawed and worthless, don’t bother with me, it’s not worth it–I’m not worth it.
But God’s kindness and goodness do not rely on my strength of will, my emotional fortitude, my good character, or my best behavior. God is kind and good because… he is kind and good. This is what faith, a gift given by his Spirit, helps us see. Even in our mortal suffering, God remains kind and good because that is his nature. Even when I feel inherently flawed, he continues to take my weak humanity and remake it to follow the pattern Christ made. I am flawed on my own, but Christ has given me immeasurable worth and given me his flawless nature. I know that I am invaluable to God, not because of anything I can offer but because of all that Christ has offered me. Even when it’s hard to believe it, to have an emotional connection or response to this truth, I still know it is true.
If hope forms faith, then this is how faith forms peace. It is in learning how to rely on God to be kind and good, to expect him to dispense his grace freely in all scenarios and seasons so that you will grow as a disciple of Christ, that peace arrives. I am constantly praying “Lord, help my unbelief,” and bit by bit, peace comes. Little by little, I learn that he will look after me. If he notices the wildflowers, which Christ tells us he does, then he notices me. Even if things don’t work out the way I want or I don’t get something I think I should have, I can be assured that he has seen and heard and is already on the move. He hears me sob the words of Psalm 70 and is on the way before the words leave my lips.
O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us.
I make it a point here to say that faith, unlike what prosperity preachers will tell you, does not mean you or I will have a pain-free life of wealth and comfort. Christ himself tells us not to expect this. In John 16, he tells his disciples what to expect of a life of following him. He promises several things: the Holy Spirit will be our comforter and guide; we will weep and lament while the world rejoices; our sorrow will turn to joy; we can ask the Father for anything; we will be scattered; we will have tribulation. But, he says, “take heart; I have overcome the world” (16:33). He also commands us to ask for what we need in his name, and we can expect that a Father who gives good gifts to his children will always give us exactly what we need, with some unmerited goodies besides.
If we pray for faith, he will grow our faith.
If we pray for peace, he will grow our peace.
If we pray for our daily bread, he will meet our needs.
This stuff is complicated and difficult, and I don’t profess to have any expertise in it, but he is faithful in all things, even when we don’t see the result immediately or it turns out differently from how we expected. We–I–can trust he sees the whole picture and always operates with the end in mind, which is the formation of us into mini Christs, sanctified and holy, glorifying him.
May we always respond with gratitude to our kind and good God, who gives us faith and peace, in Advent and always.
Per aspera ad astra,