Faith & Spirituality

Of Faith and Falterings

Overall, I think I took the news rather well. But I will admit to feeling some slight uneasiness when my accountant informed me that there would be no tax refund this year. Thanks to a slight bookkeeping oddity in my company’s payroll department, I actually owed taxes for a change — to the tune of about $1,200.

There’s never a good time for news like that, but especially not after a downturn at work and an unexpected transmission failure in my gently-used, low-mileage car. (Still haven’t figured that one out.)

Surprisingly, the first thought that came to my mind (after oh shoot, where am I going to come up with that kind of money) was a Bible story, the story of Jesus helping Peter meet one of his financial obligations via a fish with a coin in its mouth. Oh God, I said on my way out of the accountant’s office, I can’t wait to see the size of the fish you come up with that will hold enough coins to help me pay this off!

Needless to say, I hadn’t counted on my “fish” arriving in the wake of a pandemic. I can’t say I would ever have wished it to be so. Nevertheless, I’m informed by reliable sources that the same government who so cheerfully collects my hard-earned money will shortly be sending me a check for, oh, about $1,200 or so.

How about that! All’s well that ends well there — at least for that problem.

I have a few more I’m working on, though. And despite all my best efforts, I don’t see a solution forthcoming for any of them.

But I’m not to worry, I hear at every turn. (Mostly from sermons and Facebook posts and those ever-present emails I told you about.) Times are uncertain, and even when we’re out of work and not sure where the money’s coming from, God will be faithful to provide. He may not provide everything we want, but He will certainly provide everything we need.

I was talking with my dad about this a few nights ago. I told him I found the idea troubling, precisely because I knew that what Jesus promised His followers all too often didn’t match up with the actual lived experience of many of them. Every night, all around the world, there are people going to bed hungry, I reasoned. I couldn’t believe that all of them were faithless unbelievers who had no right to claim the promise of the provision of basic sustenance.

“Hmmm,” my dad said. “Have you ever personally known any of God’s children that He didn’t provide for?”

No, I had to admit I didn’t.

That didn’t mean they didn’t exist, of course. I recalled a story I’d been told by one of my intercultural studies professors of some missionaries in China in the previous century. During a time of particularly great political upheaval, they’d been driven out of their city and up into the mountains in the dead of winter. All of them lost their lives; the ones who didn’t immediately die of exposure died of starvation and thirst.

I have to think that, in their remaining days and hours, at least a few of them must have called to mind that promise of God that He would clothe His children like the lilies and feed them like the sparrows. I have to think that at least a few of them thought to say, “Give us this day our daily bread…” before they perished from hunger.

If God didn’t see fit to provide for them, who’s to say He’d always provide for me? Or for anybody?

It’s a rather disturbing takeaway: God will provide for your life’s basic needs, unless it’s your time to die, and your cause of death just happens to be a lack of provision for life’s basic needs.

God will provide for you — unless He doesn’t.

I know all this makes me sound like an ungrateful heretic. I’m not, I promise — though I’m not so sure anymore that I’d still pass those systematic theology courses I breezed through so easily in college. I’ve become relentlessly obsessive intellectually honest. Blind faith and I don’t get along too well right now. Our future together isn’t looking so hopeful, either.

My father proposed that I might find it helpful to make a distinction between faith and trust. It never occurred to me to do that; I’d always taken those words to be synonyms. Not so, he said. We have faith in words that are spoken, in promises that are made, whereas we place our trust in a person. The first depends, to some extent, on our correct understanding of the words and promises; the latter depends on the object of our trust and on his or her character. If faith fails us, we can fall back on trust. We can give someone who’s trustworthy the benefit of the doubt without having to explain the “why” behind everything they say or do or don’t do.

I remain open to arguments that the faith/trust distinction isn’t entirely valid. For now, though, I’m willing to stand by it in the absence of a more satisfactory explanation.

Perhaps it’s because — for me personally, at least — the appeal of being allowed to give up on having to figure out all the words is real. Overanalysis really, really gets me, the way a Venus flytrap gets flies: I wander into a sticky-looking issue, the trap snaps shut, and I’m hopelessly, helplessly stuck. Am I getting this right? Do I have enough faith? Is this faith or is it presumption? Is this verse meant only for Israel? Am I misunderstanding this context?

Truth be told, I still have all these questions (and more) about most of the so-called “promises of God” in Scripture, and no solid answers. I do have some hunches, though. Although I can’t prove any of them, I’ll share them with you for whatever it’s worth: First, that in all our perils and predicaments, what’s really suffering from a want of good sense and coherence isn’t God Himself but rather our attempts to explain Him — how He works, and why. Second, that if there is any goodness in this world and in human experience, it’s of Him and from Him and through Him; if there is any badness, it isn’t. Third, that in some future time and place our trust will be vindicated — someday, somehow. I suppose you could say it’s the bigger, cosmic version of “You’ll understand when you’re older.”

None of this is how a person of great faith would reason, I know. I hope someday to have better, more satisfying answers than these. For now, though, this is all I got. But stay tuned. I’m sure there’s more to come.

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