Early in his pilgrimage, the literary monk Thomas Merton wrote, “Very soon we get to the point where we simply say, ‘I believe’ or ‘I refuse to believe.’” Faith runs hot and cold over time, offering up reasons both to believe and disbelieve.
It did not surprise Jesus in the least that some would disbelieve him, regardless of evidence. He had predicted as much: “they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” It does not surprise me either that some disbelieve the reality of an unseen world, especially in an age which excels at mastering the visible world. For many, God cannot possibly exist unless he makes himself visible or tangible—and God does not perform on our terms.
Why do I believe? I ask myself. Why do I, like Merton, continue to make that defiant leap of faith?
I could point to a conversion experience during college days, a transforming moment that bisected my life into two parts, an age of unbelief and an age of belief. Yet I know that a skeptic, hearing that story, could propose alternate explanations.
I could point to shafts of light that have (rarely, I admit) pierced the veil between the visible and invisible worlds. These, too, the skeptic would dismiss, forcing me to fall back on what the philosopher William James called “the convincingness of unreasoned experience.”
In my own days of skepticism, I wanted a dramatic interruption from above. I wanted proof of an unseen reality, one that could somehow be verified. In my days of faith, such supernatural irruptions seem far less important, in part because I find the materialistic explanations of life inadequate to explain reality. I have learned to attend to fainter contacts between the seen and unseen worlds. I sense in romantic love something insufficiently explained by mere biochemical attraction. I sense in beauty and in nature the marks of a genius creator for which the appropriate response is worship. Like Jacob, I have at times awoken from a dream to realize, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”
I sense in desire, including sexual desire, marks of a holy yearning for connection. I sense in pain and suffering a terrible disruption that omnipotent love surely cannot abide forever. I sense in compassion, generosity, justice, and forgiveness a quality of grace that speaks to me of another world, especially when I visit places marred by their absence. I sense in Jesus a person who lived those qualities so consistently that the world could not tolerate him, and so silenced and disposed of him.
I believe not so much because the invisible world impinges on this one, but because the visible world hints, in the ways that move me most, at a lack of completion.
I once heard a woman give a remarkable account of achievement. An early feminist, she gained renown in the male-dominated field of endocrinology. She brushes shoulders with Nobel laureates and world leaders, and has lived as full and rich a life as any I have known. At the end of her story she said simply, “As I look back, this is what matters. I have loved and been loved, and all the rest is just background music.”
Love, too, is why I believe. At the end of life, what else matters? “Love never fails,” Paul wrote. “It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” He could only be describing God’s love, for no human love meets that standard of perfection. What I have tasted of love on this earth convinces me that a perfect love will not be satisfied with the sad tale of this planet, will not rest until evil is conquered and good reigns, will not allow its objects to pass from existence. Perfect love perseveres until it perfects.
Jesus’ disciple John brought the two worlds together, in a unity forged through love: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son… For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Love deems this world worth rescuing.
(Adapted from A Skeptic’s Guide to Faith)
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If your god is real, he knows exactly what I need to see / hear in order to believe. So why does he remain silent and aloof? I’ve asked him to manifest for decades and still nothing.
Two possible conclusions:
1. He doesn’t exist
2. He’s a piece of shit
Pick one, Phil.
to Sheryll James : Interestingly enough, in one of my favorite French translation of the Bible John 3.16 renderes “πιστεύων” as “… that whoever places his trust in Him will escape/avoid perdition and have everlasting/eternal life.”
What is the real reason that most Christians believe?
I have found that very few Christians first believed in the the central truth claim of Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus, due to historical evidence. Rather, we believed due to emotional experiences or perceived miraculous events—and often at a very young age (under 12). It was only after our emotional decision to believe this fantastical claim that we decided, often years later, to obtain historical evidence to back up that emotional decision.
Is that rational?
If one is going to believe that a first century corpse came back to life, ate a fish meal with his friends, and later lifted off the ground and disappeared into the clouds, wouldn’t it be prudent to thoroughly investigate this claim first, researching both the pro and the con arguments, before making a decision to believe it? Wouldn’t most modern, educated people do this type of research for any other fantastical claim?
I didn’t have any real doubts until I was told I might have cancer and then started taking a medication that prevents cancer from occurring.
I’m not having doubts now but when I first received the diagnosis, and was told I need an operation to remove the mass that they were questioning, suddenly I wondered. I couldn’t stop myself from wondering no matter how much I wanted to so I let the questions and doubts come until they were gone.
It’s been an awful 12 weeks trying to get through not knowing if I had malignant cancer and then not being sure, not 100 percent, if the medication will stop the cancer from coming.
I’m just glad I’m not feeling plagued with doubts anymore.
This speaks to my soul. I have been a Jewish believer for 34 years. I love apologetics.
This piece somehow has found the point where the visible and the invisible meet in beautiful unity. It is rational as well as instinctual. If it touches one non-believers heart it is worth the effort it took to compose, I believe, filled to the brim with the Holy Spirit.
In response to Chris Spurlock: You’re absolutely right to say that God does not live in a relationless vacuum. After being a Christian for many years, I had one of those aha moments when reading a book about God. (I don’t remember the title or author, but have to wonder if it might have been Philip Yancey!) The writer pointed out that God is a trinity. Therefore, for all eternity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have lived in perfect intimate relationship with each other. We weren’t created out of God’s need for relationship, but out of His joy in creating and relating to His creatures.
A few months after being saved, I went through a period of intense doubt. Then I stumbled across Psalm 22 and I had to ask, how could David, writing many centuries before Jesus was born, describe in one Psalm so many aspects of the day we call Good Friday? It’s not humanly possible. (If anyone wants to read more details of my experience, you can find it in my blog at https://thosewhoweep.blogspot.com/2019/04/the-crucifixion.html.)
Philip, I love the way you describe your reasons for believing. American culture places so much emphasis on the left-brain, logical reasons for belief (my dominant side), that many of us resort to a form of apologetics that bows to this demand. But it seems to me that that approach leaves out some important factors that you include here. Thank you.
Dear Fred, I’m sure Philip can answer you much better than i but I came from that skeptical place that you describe. After a Luis Palau rally, I decided, quite consciously, to take the step of faith and to follow Jesus’ teachings. It was radically transforming. My values and priorities were turned upside down and I learned the joy of finding the truth about how to live on this earth, even amid the ongoing noise and pain. With trust in God, I can go on. Trying to live out His teachings by actively loving those around me gives meaning and purpose to life. I have an anchor that does not stop bad things happening but prevents me from being blown over by the storm. I am now a lay preacher and, by the way, Jesus was the corpse who rose from the dead. May God bless you.
Again Philip, thanks for your eloquent and engaging honesty. Your trademark.
All life is faith… faith that the sun will rise, faith that the road won’t give way, faith that the lights will work. Faith in God simply looks a little further.
You say, ” I find the materialistic explanations of life inadequate to explain reality. ” It is my experience that the opposite is true. I find the religious explanations of life inadequate to explain reality. Also, there seems to be an assumption that people connect with the idea of life revealing love; for many, life experiences demonstrate, not love, but a wonton, wreckless, indifferent world. And I dare say, if a corpse were to rise, I would surely believe. In my experience, corpses do not, so the Biblical accusation is…convenient. I mention these observations in an attempt to better understand, beyond narrated responses about just having enough faith. I did read What’s So Amazing About Grace. Interesting, but not convinced. I hope your fans don’t attack. I desire to resolve some ongoing questions, and you seem, at least based on your book, somewhat open to questioning.
I believe that God must have someone to hope and trust in. God does not live in a relationless vacuum. That is why He created you and me. I do not believe God is self-sufficient anymore than any of us are self-sufficient. Is this theological anthropomorphism? If so, so be it. We were, after all, created in God’s image. Who does God hope and trust in, if it is not us, who he created, suffered for and reconciled to himself. This is expressly why God still suffers. In the case of those who reject God or fail him, His love, suffering, hope and trust, go painfully unrequited . Therefore God’s suffering is multiplied and continues. When we feel that we, as humans, are alone in our suffering, then we need to remember that God suffers, horribly, still, as he longs and hopes for all we humans to come home. If you want to see a photograph of God all you need do is gaze upon the one hanging on the cross 2000 years ago. The resurrection of Christ did not erase God’s suffering, It erased sin and death. God suffers, also, because he must stand by and watch us suffer physically, spiritually and in every other way, like Christ did after he received the news that his friend Lazarus was mortally ill. God has always been faced with an unavoidable and bitter choice. He can either become our vending machine, stopping our pain and suffering instantly upon request or he can become our father. We can have a fellowship with our father but we cannot have a fellowship with a vending machine. Having a relationship and fellowship with others, of necessity, incorporates pain and suffering, whether it be pain for God or for us. Without the ability to experience relationship, fellowship, and love, God would cease to exist , just like we would. Life without love is impossible and life without pain would be life without love. Christ said he came to give us life and life to the full. In that fullness of life, which Christ himself experienced, comes both love and pain.
Every day is a Mark 9:24 day for me. Every day. Maybe it’s because I believed too casually well into my adulthood.
Catastrophe can rearrange your way of thinking. Several years ago, in the midst of gutting angst, I screamed, “You’d better be real, God!”
And the reality is, if it turns out there is nothing after this earthly life, I will still have had a better existence believing that there was a “love that sought me, a blood that bought me, and a Grace that brought me to the fold of God.”
As always, Philip, thank you for helping me listen for God’s voice through your writing.
You have just described my own experience. Ultimately, I simply chose to believe, because ‘no belief’ is a frightening place to be. That choice has been followed by so many experiences in my life, of a loving, compassionate, guiding power bringing blessings to myself and others, that it is no longer possible to disbelieve. For many years I have loved your books.
Having been a believer for more than 80 years, there were many years when there was absolutely no question that God existed. I still don’t– I can’t. Like you I live near the Colorado mountains and am reminded every day that God loves me enough to create such beauty for me to enjoy.
Now a widow for more than ten years, I sometimes find myself longing so much for my sweetheart whom I met back in Wheaton College, that I wonder if that surpasses my longing for God.? But then I realize that very love was God’s way of showing me that in Him there is an even greater lo, and He will one day satisfy all my longings.
I started reading Thomas Merton a couple of years ago, which has led me down to a deeper place. I cannot begin to explain it because of the limited use of language. Currently, I am reading a book by Peter Enns called “The Sin of Certainty”. He suggests replacing the word “belief” with the word “trust”. I must trust and surrender into God fully. For me, that is the beginning of Love…losing the illusion of our “certain” self, and rest in the mystery of not knowing. Thank you for being one of the many loving and gentle mentors on my path.
Could you please reply – in whom or what does God eternally hope or trust? I guess Himself.
I think the classical answer would be that God is self-sufficient, and secure, and doesn’t really need to “hope or trust.” At the same time, the Bible presents God as deeply passionate, and affected by our responses. We bring God pleasure–which satisfies something in God, not out of need but out of desire.
It has always been heartily and mentally involving when I read Philip Yancey’s words. Every single time I read a new book by yancey, I had a newer experience in my heart and mind that drew me closer to God. Your questions on faith and desire to pursue them, is a blessing to many of us
Thanks for your testimony! In many ways reflect mine. An aditional and personal way, in my own history, is that I know that my entire existence, all I have and love only have sense with God. No ever I seen marks of His existence or no all the times I open His word I hear His voice. But still being the Invisible in fact the major part of the time, is still more real (and make my world more real too) that any else or any thing in all the Universe.
My spirit is crying yes yes yes!!
I too remember an encounter with God that has divided my life between before I knew God and after!
I too have learned that God so loved the world (which includes those just like me before my encounter) and I am required to do just as he did!
I can’t strive for perfection… it’s too exhausting! Nor should I seek it in others!
Love is so simple!
Recently I was having a conversation in a noisy bar with a man that was intrigued by my encounter with God … it was so loud I was yelling as I relayed my story!! I thought … this is where this man feels safe and it costs me so little to put up with the environment to share my story … I knew Jesus could relate😊😊… this is the love that I love 💕💕
as usual stimulating reading! I often wish that you had come into my ken so many years earlier than you did! Just finished re-reading Reaching out for the Invisible God. How I wish I had read it many years ago (I’m now 90) Anyhow thank you – better late than never.
Philip, in addition to your reasons I believe because I want to believe and the idea of not believing is the most frightening thing I can imagine.
“Perfect love perseveres until it perfects.”
These words sing the triumphant song of my life.
Amen, the amazing grace God and the work of the Holy Spirit. I concur.
Philip, I would answer the question of why I believe in a similar manner. However, I would add one more reason – God’s grace. I believe that my faith is not so much a result of my choices or experiences, as much as it is the work of the Holy Spirit in my life.