I have a friend with whom I have a long-standing disagreement. We have tried every possible way to settle our difference—friends, mediators, wives, counselors…and finally in desperation, lawyers. Frustrated, my friend suggested we forget the lawyers and try to work on our problem through letters, without any intermediaries. I agreed, and in one of my early letters I said the following:
…then there is the issue of faith, which though real for both of us, seems difficult to interpret in the face of the very real differences between us. I have been haunted throughout this painful process by the uncomfortable presence of a Jesus who seems to be constantly looking over my shoulder. Faith is wonderful in the absence of problems, but in the midst of them, it only complicates things. In the long run, I am sure it will turn out to be a good complication, but it doesn’t seem impotent to find a solution to the murky waters of the past few years. It seems as though our mutual faith in Christ ought to make agreement and reconciliation possible.
Why does faith seem so life-changing in other people’s lives and so inconsequential in our own? Why does the healing power of faith seem so potent in theory and impotent in reality? Why does faith seem to make such a difference in testimonies and books and so little difference in the real relationships of my life?
I have begun to understand the answer to those questions. I am starting to realize that I have not expected my faith to make a difference in my relationships, I have expected my faith to make my relationships easy. I haven’t wanted my faith to make me face the issues in my life, I have wanted my faith to help me avoid the issues. I didn’t ask my faith to give me the courage to do what needed to be done, I asked my faith to do what needed to be done for me. I wasn’t asking for courage to do the difficult, I asked, instead, for the removal of the difficult. I didn’t want my faith to make a difference, I wanted it to remove the need for a faith that made a difference. I didn’t want my faith to give me clarity in the midst of a difficult situation, I wanted my friend’s faith to give him the clarity he needed to quit making the situation difficult for me. I didn’t want everything to work together for good, I wanted everything to be fixed. I wanted faith to change everything but me. I wanted faith to change my circumstances quickly, without any discomfort or pain.
I am beginning to understand that faith is not the way around pain, it is the way through pain. Faith doesn’t get rid of the opposition, it invites it over for dinner. Faith doesn’t give you the winning point at the last second, it ties the game and sends you into overtime. Faith doesn’t give you the solution, it forces you to find it. Faith doesn’t teach you at the moment, it teaches in retrospect. Faith doesn’t provide a net to fall into when your fingers are about to give way as you hang suspended over the cliff, faith gives your fingers the strength to hang on just a little longer.
In other words, faith doesn’t do anything when it’s doing something. Faith doesn’t change anything when it’s changing things. Faith doesn’t make a difference when it’s making a difference. Faith makes itself known in life’s difficulties by making the difficult more difficult. Faith doesn’t comfort, it discomforts by forcing us to recognize its unwelcome presence. It is a nuisance, really, an interruption when we don’t want to be interrupted. It gets in our faces and reminds us that it is not irrelevant, even though it seems irrelevant. Faith is the annoying recognition that demands us to take our relationship with Christ seriously, when taking it seriously doesn’t seem to matter. It is God shouting to us in our circumstance, “Faith in Me doesmatter; you figure out how!” It is the persistent, nagging presence that feels like an absence.
The fact that my friend and I were bothered by our faith, even though it seemed impotent to help us deal with our differences, was proof that our faith was, in fact, making a difference. It was bothering us, and that was God saying, “Come on, guys, trust me, find a way to discover where your faith is hiding in the midst of your difficulties. It’s there, it’s real, it’s relevant, so place your differences on the altar of faith and see what happens. Quit waiting for Me to intervene. You make your faith in Me intervene in the midst of your impotence.”
I wish I could say the crisis is over. I wish I could say that now, since we are beginning to understand our faith, all of our differences are resolved. That is not true. What is happening, however, is that the anger, the bitterness, the walls between us are beginning to crumble—one rock at a time, but the crumbling is beginning.
Suddenly, we are both realizing that we have to let go of our anger, our suspicion, and our unwillingness to understand each other so that our faith can function.
The resolution process is beginning, yes, but not because of some mystical movement of God. It is beginning because of a practical willingness on both of our parts to acknowledge that our faith needs to be included in the process instead of excluded from the process. We haven’t spiritualized the issues. The issues are still very real and our differences are still very present, but somehow our faith is reducing the tension, softening the rhetoric, and allowing us to understand the pain we have caused each other. This is not a spectacular miracle of the moment. Instead, it is the spectacular miracle of beginning, and we are both surprised by the changes that are occurring because of a faith that has been there all along.