To believe or not to believe, that is a vexing question for so many today. Is there a God? If so, how can we know or experience that God? If so, what kind of God is there? Which has to come first, faith or knowledge? Possibly for the majority of “modern” persons, raised on science as much or more than religion, belief is most difficult without sufficient “proof.” Of course, the question then arises, “What is proof?” And how much proof do you need before you can say, with real conviction, “I believe in God”?
We have real difficulty taking the risk of believing before there is sufficient proof of the existence of God, and even more so, of the truth about Jesus Christ, and all that comes with belief in a “divine-human” Man who came to save us. I am not sure what “sufficient proof” would look like. Does it mean that there must be some kind of decisive “public demonstration” dramatically visual enough to silence the doubters and skeptics?
Now here is the problem, which fewer and fewer of us can accept anymore: risking faith precedes gaining knowledge of God. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard had it right: you have to begin by taking a “leap of faith.” That would be rather like stepping out on a reported bridge over a serious chasm between two ledges, the one being doubt and the other faith. But there is just one problem: you cannot see whether the bridge is really there until and unless you step out on to it! You will find out once you put your foot forward far enough that if the bridge does not exist you are going to fall who knows how far toward possible death, spiritually speaking. This is a real dilemma, not merely an imaginary one. God is who God is, and God demands what God demands. God is not going to change about this; it is we who must submit to God’s relational rules, and not the other way around.
Let me tell you a story: As a local pastor, I took a group of men from my parish on a forty-eight hour prayer retreat for twelve consecutive years, the first weekend in October, from 1997 through 2008. We would always go to New Melleray Monastery, a quiet place of prayer nestled in wooded farm country a few miles outside Dubuque, Iowa. We would arrive by lunch time on Friday, and leave after lunch on Sunday. The food was usually good enough to want to begin and end the retreat with New Melleray treats.
During those forty-eight hours, I would spend much time in prayer, both alone and with the men. This particular retreat took place October 5-7, 2001. I went there with a felt need and high expectations of “dialoguing with Christ.” That was my plan and hope, and it wasn’t long after I started praying in the silence of my room on Friday afternoon that, feeling very alone, I began asking the Lord, “Please, make Yourself known.”
As I later realized, I was really trying to direct God, to summon Christ to come to me on my terms and timing. Well, Christ did not show up; nothing seemed to happen. Since I had come a long way and had looked forward to this exchange for months, I earnestly asked the Lord, “Where are You? I’m waiting. Please, come and speak to me.” I kept on waiting, and after a while, I began to wonder whether Christ would show Himself after all, whether He would have dialogue with the likes of pushy me. Nothing happened that first day on retreat. Silence only. And muted frustration.
No change on Saturday, until late afternoon. In prayer, the Lord finally spoke to me, with what has been called the “voiceless echo.” God’s address comes out of left or right field, when you are not expecting it, so there are no barriers to overcome, and so you cannot say you brought it about. It is always and only God who is sovereign and in charge. Christ gently said, “To see Me, you must first believe I am with you…. Those who look for me in order to believe, will not see Me. I show Myself only to the eyes of faith…. When you believe I am with You, I will authenticate your belief.”
Christ dialogued with me, all right, only not about a subject of my choosing, but rather a subject of His. He doubtless told me what I needed to hear at that moment; He granted me a simple yet profound message which contained God’s law as well as grace, judgment as well as promise. Christ is always with us, but for Him to reveal Himself to us, we must risk believing that He is already with us. It’s like writing a check on an account someone promises he has opened for you, and waiting to see if the check will clear. Is the money there, or will the check bounce, and you face trouble?
In sum, as I wrote immediately after these words of the Lord, “Faith grants sight; unbelief grants only blindness.” As has been often said, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” I remember the words of St. Anselm: “Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this too I believe, that unless I first believe, I shall not understand.”