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Sunday Reflections: Is Faith Real?

A Forest Hills pastor explores this question.

By Pastor Susan Schwartz of in

This question reminds me of a story. A man fell off a cliff, but managed to grab a tree limb on the way down. The following conversation ensued.

"Is anyone up there?"
"I am here. I am the Lord. Do you believe me?"
"Yes, Lord, I believe. I really believe, but I can't hang on much longer."
"That's all right, if you really believe you have nothing to worry about. I will save you. Just let go of the branch."
A moment of pause, then: "Is anyone else up there?" 

Is faith real?

I think the story is funny on several levels. In our own gut we understand that the man wasn’t satisfied with the words from “the Lord”. That man would “believe” anyone who would really get him off that tree limb, but what if it was really two pranksters up on the top?  And we know that the words “save you” could have several different meanings. The man wanted to set his feet back on hard ground, that’s how he wanted to be saved, but what did “the Lord” mean by “saving him”? Like this humorous story, this question, “Is faith real?” also has several different meanings.

While I am tempted to respond here as if the person is asking “Is God real?” that is really not the question. Certainly God is the focus of our faith, but the question is not about the reality of God, but rather the reality of faith. Is faith rational? Well, I don’t think so, almost by definition faith goes beyond rational. Is faith irrational?  No. Certainly there are situations in which a faith can be irrational. We sometimes see that in mental illness, but in healthy individuals, faith is not irrational. Is faith part of the human experience? Yes, I think it is. But let’s unpack this a bit more.

If we think of faith as trust, then we have faith all the time. Parents take their children to daycare trusting, having faith, that the providers will take good care of their children that day. We seek the opinion of a particular physician because, for whatever reason, we have faith in the physician’s ability. You wouldn’t have faith in my ability to perform a heart transplant, nor would I trust yours. And every time we get into an airplane we have faith that the captain didn’t have too many martinis and that the plane is in good condition. Without trust, without faith, we couldn’t manage life. Every day we live by faith.

Sometimes faith is accepting as real that which cannot be proved. Faith is accepting that which, at this point in time, we humans cannot prove or disprove. Science just isn’t there now and, well, maybe our human science won’t ever be able to prove it. Is it not real because we can’t prove it?  No. Our accepting it as real without proof is faith. If we could prove it we might consider it rational, but because we cannot prove it does not make it irrational. We just cannot prove it. As Christians we believe that God exists. Now that might not be rational, but it is not irrational. It is faith.

God does not expect us to submit our faith to him without reason, but the very limits of our reason make faith a necessity.  Augustine.

Does faith impact reality? In the 90s American physician Larry Dossey studied the effect of prayer on healing and his books Prayer Is Good Medicine: How to Reap the Healing Benefits of Prayer (1996) and Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine (1993) popularized the idea that there is scientific evidence that prayer does work. Another physician, Randolph C. Byrd, conducted a celebrated study that he believes supports the conclusion that "intercessory prayer to the Judeo-Christian God has a beneficial therapeutic effect" in the population he studied. So did God do something here, was it divine interaction, or did the act of praying, an expression of faith, shift reality.

I believe that God can and does change things, but faith shifts reality, too. Faith is a very powerful reality within us, a gift from God if you will, but the power of human faith is not the same as the direct power of God. I believe that, in the end, the studies seem to point more definitively to the power of our faith than the power of God.  

So, is faith real? Absolutely.  But in the end, for us, that really is not the most important question. 

One night a house caught fire and a young boy was forced to flee to the roof. The father stood on the ground below with outstretched arms, calling to his son, "Jump! I'll catch you." He knew the boy had to jump to save his life. All the boy could see, however, was flame, smoke, and blackness. As can be imagined, he was afraid to leave the roof. His father kept yelling: "Jump! I will catch you." But the boy protested, "Daddy, I can't see you." The father replied, "But I can see you and that's all that matters."

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