Christmas was always a big deal in my home when I was growing up. All of the family from two sides would meet at our home. Every Christmas Eve one of the neighbors would dress up as Santa and visit our home just prior to us going to bed. When my mom tried to tell me there was no such thing as Santa I tried to evangelize her. I was afraid that if I had questioned some of the things or had any doubts about Christmas I might lose out.
Many Christians approach Christianity and faith in the same way I did Santa Claus. They have a “Santa Claus” type faith. They have doubts about much but are afraid to express them or to explore the truth of what they believe. Somehow we have come to see doubt as a threat to faith rather than something to drive us towards faith.
In Romans 4:16-25 Paul argues that it was by faith that Abraham was justified. Not by circumcision, not by obeying the law, but by simply obeying God. For some of Paul’s readers this was a paradigm shift in their understanding of how they related to God. Paul is not arguing against circumcision and obeying the law. But he is arguing against it as a way to define their relationship with God. Paul is arguing that ultimately, ones relationship with God is based on believing what God has said. For Judaism and Paul, Abraham became a paradigm of faith. He was the ultimate example of what it meant to turn and believe in God.
But holding up Abraham as a paradigm of faith is problematical even for the Apostle Paul, read Romans 4:19-21. While I agree with Paul I also have to say that this is a rather rosy view of Abraham’s life; Abraham had doubts! So did Sarah, which is why Isaac received his name and Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. The fact is Abraham and Sarah are eternal examples of people who had reservations about God’s promise, made mistakes in conjunction with that promise, and yet are held up by Judaism and Christianity as the paradigm of faith. Read through Abraham’s story in Genesis 12-24 and you will realize how much of Abraham’s life exhibits doubt and unbelief! In Genesis 17:17 Abraham laughed at God’s promise! However, Paul understood that Abraham did not have a ‘Santa Claus like faith’ but a faith that decided to trust God in spite of Abraham’s doubts and the very real obstacles to fulfilling the promise.
Why did Abraham not waver in unbelief but instead grow in faith (Rom 4:20)? Because he had no choice! The more impossible the promise seemed to him the more he had to trust that God could do what he said he would do. That is faith; trusting God in spite of the impossible, the unexplainable, and even the unacceptable. It is my hope that I can, in some small way, attain to the faith of Abraham. Believing that God is able to do what He said in spite of all the obstacles to my faith in Him.
I think the most dangerous thing about ‘Santa Claus faith’ is that it ultimately leads its adherents into a life in which obedience is predicated on what one can get from God. The dangerous part is that disappointment with God often occurs and leaves the individual wondering about the relationship between the unexplainable and faith.
In John Irving’s book ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ there is a faithless congregational pastor who declares that ‘doubt is the essence of faith’. This is true because often the world we live in causes us to doubt so much, it is only at that point that authentic faith can arise. There are times when I look at the world and I have to question if there really is a god? The way things are in the world makes me wonder sometimes. But I also cannot escape the fact that creation itself shouts to me that there is a God who created all of this and somehow is holding it together. It is in those times that I need Abraham like faith. It is when I realize that there is nothing I can do. But that is where faith has to begin. Not in a way where I can see how God can do something. Only when I am at a complete loss do I really have the ability to choose faith. It is then that I have to decide whether I am going to trust God and his ability to do the things he said was going to do. That is faith; trusting God in spite of the impossible, the unexplainable, and even the unacceptable. At times I have to be like the man in Mark 9:24 who when Jesus asked “do you believe?” he replied: Lord, I believe, help me in my unbelief.
This is why Abraham becomes such a great paradigm of faith for us. Not because he simply believed but because he did doubt at times but he also decided that when the situation around him looked impossible, unexplainable, even unacceptable, he decided to trust that God would be able to do the things he promised he would do.