People of faith find themselves in an odd situation these days. For most of our lives, we have been surrounded by people who believe in God also, so explanations of faith were unnecessary. Yet as our culture more deeply embraces rationalism as the sole arbiter of truth, many wonder why any thoughtful person would believe in God—or even what that means.
What we once took for granted—the meaning of faith—now calls for an explanation, even to ourselves.
So here goes. When I say I believe in God, this is what I mean.
First let me say that this is not an attempt to prove something. It isn’t that I lack evangelistic zeal. I would love to prove the existence of God, but it simply can’t be done.
Proving that God is real is like proving that jazz is cool. People either get that or they don’t. Talking about it doesn’t help all that much.
People do come to have faith, of course, even rational thinkers like Augustine, C. S. Lewis, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Some people learn to appreciate jazz too, but not because they’ve lost an argument.
So when I say I believe in God, I don’t mean that I’ve been forced to accept God as the result of a logical study or that I see God as the only possible explanation for some body of evidence. No one can be compelled to believe, even by reason.
Besides, I’m not that big a fan of logic to begin with. Logic has nothing to do with whether I love my kids or trust my wife. And it certainly isn’t why I believe in God.
Which is not the same as saying that I invented God, or simply choose to believe what I wish were true. I didn’t invent my wife, and I don’t imagine her love for me. She does love me. And I know that. Nobody had to prove it to me, not even she.
Love is not a math problem. It’s a gift. So is faith.
And when I say I believe in God, I am not unmindful of The Big Problem. Everybody knows that life is hard. People die. The world is cruel. People are crueler. All of that seems incompatible with the existence of a benevolent, omnipotent being.
Yet people readily accept that contradictory things can be true at the same time. For example, people forgive adultery far more often than you might think. This is not because they are fools but because they accept that it is possible to love someone and still hurt them, or to respect yourself yet accept a grievous indignity.
I am not suggesting that God is an adulterer. I’m saying that The Big Problem doesn’t bother me all that much. God is real. Life is hard. Both are true. I believe that.
What I do mean when I say I believe in God is that I know there is something more.
When I look in the mirror, I know there is something more to me than flesh and bones. And when I look at the stars or watch the ocean move or see a young couple in love, I don’t wonder if there is more to life than meets the eye. I know it.
When I say I believe in God, I am saying that everything I see is the tip of an enormous iceberg. And the part below the surface is greater, more powerful, and far more important that the tiny bit that is visible to me.
And when I say I believe in God, I am saying that I believe in a person, not a thing.
People talk. They do things. They are sometimes unpredictable, even when you know them well. I would love to believe in a God who does the same thing in the same way every single time.
I’d love to be married to a woman like that too. But Heather, is a person, not a principle that I can deconstruct and gain mastery over. And she certainly isn’t a weak character who exists only to meet my expectations. She is who she is.
Interestingly, that is just the way God describes himself. Though translators have puzzled a bit over this foundational statement in the book of Exodus, a good rendering seems to be that God, when asked to define himself, simply said, “I am who I am.”
That’s the God I believe in. The one who is there, not the one I wish were there. The one who speaks sometimes and is often silent. The one who sometimes does things as I’d like but more often in a way that surprises or even angers me. The one who is beyond everything I can see, greater than my experience, and active in the world.
When I say I believe in God, I mean not that I have intellectually accepted the existence a thing but that I have come to know a person, the One who is there.