This is the first in a series of brief Advent reflections.
I was once conversing with a Ph. D. candidate at Cal Tech (CIT). I had become good friends with his roommate, a fellow ultimate player and hiker, who had also developed an interest in spiritual questions. My friend was genuinely seeking and we talked for hours while hiking about philosophy, theology, psychology, and nature. The roommate, who had just met me, was taking the lay of the land with me, trying to grasp what level of religious nut he was addressing:
“Do you believe in the virgin birth?”
“Yes,” I said. He nodded his head, not in affirmation, but clearly having successfully categorized me.
I found that fascinating, because a woman who had not become impregnated by a man but somehow conceived and gave birth to a child strikes me as no more implausible than that this child would be the incarnate God or that after dying this same now-grown child would return to life after being dead and stay alive. Permanently. He would leave everyone he knew during his life and, with eyewitnesses, depart by going up into the sky until he was out of sight.
Naturally, biologically, none of these things happen. They are either supernatural or not at all. I’m not sure why he picked out one as being so incredible and far-fetched, so inconceivable, that my believing it made me one of those people. Personally, I would consider resurrection harder to believe than virgin birth, and certainly more central to my faith in Jesus as God.
But if a young woman came to you now and told you that she was pregnant but had never been with a man, you wouldn’t believe her. At best, you would try to get her help for her mental health issues.
We talk about “what strong faith” those living in poverty have. If tomorrow morning you woke up and discovered that your place in life had been switched with one of our Nicaraguan neighbors and you now had their home and resources and what they have to live on, would you thank God?
Faith, we learn from the Bible, means believing something you know to be true more strongly than you believe the evidence your eyes can see. Sometimes it means believing in spite of what the physical evidence seems to indicate.
Why do you believe that in a certain city, on a particular day, one young woman came to be with child in a way different than any of the other times that has happened in human history? Why would you disbelieve a girl who told you that now but believe it about that individual?
I believe in Mary’s pregnancy and giving birth without her having intercourse, because I believe in Jesus’ resurrection. I believe in Jesus’ resurrection because I’ve experienced its power, God’s power, in my own life. I know how hate-filled my heart was and I know I became able to forgive people, including myself, when I asked God to help me. Actually, it was more like I became a Christian and God said, “Now you need to forgive;” he both told me what I needed and made it possible where it had been impossible before.
I suspect that much of what people call “faith” is something very different from biblical faith. For many years, I thought I had a sound faith in God, but in retrospect I think I had developed my own bargain with God about what I would do and what I would get in return. God didn’t sign that contract, but I thought we had an understanding. I wouldn’t have described it that way, of course. But I came to believe in grace after our son died and what I had called my faith shattered. Faith is not a bargain with God.
The New Testament compares faith with metals tried by fire. Any part that isn’t the true, pure material gets melted away. The shocking thing about faith is what must happen in our lives most of the time for our faith to strengthen. I don’t think God tears the crap out of us because we pray for more faith and he says, “Okay, you asked for it.” I do think that when our faith is untested and complacent, it’s often very weak or might not be faith at all. That’s how the Scriptures describe it. Until it enters the really hot fire, we can’t tell which part is the genuine metal and which part is the dross. If you just say you have faith and there is nothing backing it up, no action or testing or trials, it’s…what’s the word?
Oh, yeah. Dead. Faith without works–accompanying action–is dead, i.e. is no faith at all.
Now if you’re saying, “Hey, I thought this was going to be a warm, fuzzy Advent reflection! Challenging, introspective reflections are supposed to happen for Lent,” a)uh, sorry, and b)I think we’re right in that thick of that crazy dance we do with God in which he gives us what we need but has us take part in receiving it. Put another way, faith in God comes from God, but God won’t do it without us. When Jesus healed people–and to be clear, I fully believe the man Jesus walked around with his disciples and did supernatural acts that we call miracles–he frequently said, “You’re faith has made you well.”
“No, Jesus, you made me well. I was there, I experienced it, this is not a detail I would miss.”
Both are true. Of course Jesus healed them. Jesus said their faith healed them. Jesus tells the truth.
This means Jesus makes us part of the process of our own healing through giving us faith and leaving it to us to act on it–again, faith is only faith if it involves action, “faithing;” if it’s not a verb, it’s meaningless.
Going back, then, when I say I believe in the virgin birth, I mean that I believe in Christmas. I have faith that Jesus came incarnate to earth, to Bethlehem, to Nazareth and Jerusalem, and I am faithing that he is–not was, is–who he said. He is who the Bible says he is.
I need God to give me faith. I also need God to show me the parts of my faith that are not real. Faith is a big deal. We are saved through our faith in God; that’s the medium through which God saves us.
“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
As Jesus followers, we live by faith in Jesus the Son of God. Our faith is in who Jesus is, his love for us, and what he’s done for us. Advent means Jesus coming to us. The Advent season leading up to Christmas is a time to reflect on where–or in whom–we have put our faith. In what things do I trust for my well-being? What do I believe will give me life? Looking at the world around me, looking at all that my physical eye can see, do I have faith in what the world, the culture, the politicians tell me is true, or in what Jesus says is true? When these come into conflict, which do I choose?
And what are the daily expressions, the outward manifestations of my faith? If we have only platitudes, this season is a very good time to make some changes. Biblically, living by faith does not mean having a list of truths to which I give mental confirmation. My friend’s roomie was asking, “Is this actually something you’re able to think, to convince yourself something that obviously can’t be true is true?”
But what I was trying to say, and what I think I can say more accurately now than I could then, is “Yes, I Iive my life by faith that God is real and Jesus is God. And, somehow, that faith is healing me.”