I was recently reading a book which pointed out something which I have long been aware of. The book was talking about the much quoted principle in certain circles that a Christian must always be ready to give an account of what he or she believes. The author pointed out how difficult in practice it is to have a rounded articulated faith to be drawn on for the purpose of witnessing to others. The only way that it is possible to put forward a coherent set of beliefs is when you have appropriated a stock system of doctrine from the community you belong to. To put it another way, much so-called Christian witnessing has the hall-mark of repeating a formula which has been rote-learned from elsewhere. In this way it is a product, not of the individual mind, but rather of a community. Having heard such rote-learned statements of belief many times, I note that the intellect of the individual repeating these beliefs seems to have been often bypassed. Also, in their anxiety to repeat the correct belief statements, the individual within this culture feels they cannot deviate from the set pattern of the words. Some of these witnessing statements cry out to be interpreted, for example the ones concerning Jesus’ death on the cross. One statement of belief which has to be signed up by members of university Christian Unions states thus:
Sinful human beings are redeemed from the guilt, penalty and power of sin only through the sacrificial death once and for all time of their representative and substitute, Jesus Christ, the only mediator between them and God.
I personally have a problem with exactly what this statement is supposed to mean and I find it difficult to suppose that those who sign up to it are, in most cases, doing more than give their assent to it as part of the price of belonging. Assenting to something is quite distinct from believing it. To believe something is fully to engage mind and intellect in the process of understanding before possessing it as your own. In view of the complex nature of the above statement, it is surprising that it is not the topic of much explanation and interpretation in Christian Union circles. Something as important as this statement, which is hard to understand, should, surely, provoke lively discussion and debate. As far as I know the statement is normally just accepted as part of the price of membership and little more is said.
Statements of belief thus frequently tell us far more about the groups that people belong to than individual convictions. Actual convictions about what is real and what is not real in Christian truth claims have to be worked out by each person. While we cannot generalise, it would surely be true to say that the real beliefs of most Christian people, i.e. what they have worked out for themselves, are extremely untidy. Even when we admit that the vast majority of Christians from every background see their belief as a project in construction rather than a finished building, there still exists something we call personal faith. When I speak here of faith, I am not of course speaking of beliefs but something as simple as an act of trust in God. This may have no words. An individual may reach out to God, sometimes in joy, sometimes in despair. This reaching out will normally little by way of intellectual content. Yet this action is what Jesus commended and calls faith. When he himself called out to God from the cross with the words, ‘My God my God why have you forsaken me’, he was not making an articulate confession of belief. He was simply reaching out to his father from a place of utter desolation.
Reaching out to God in this way, which we describe as an act of faith, is likely to have little in the way of words. Many people who reach out to God with this kind of faith may have very contact with a formal belief system and certainly most would not be able to articulate what they believe. And yet the Bible has plenty of space for such people, the inarticulate, the despairing and those at the end of hope. There is one particular psalm in the Bible, Psalm 88, which expresses a despairing longing for and a crying out to God and where there is apparently no response from him. In a Christian world which wants to promote confident smiling Christians, secure in their knowledge of salvation and in what they believe, such despair and inarticulate groaning will have little place. The psalmist shows signs of complete despair without any confidence that God is going to answer him but his prayer is not written out of Scripture. We can say that the Bible wants us to recognise that the voice of utter despair is a voice which needs to be heard. No happy ending concludes the psalm. The writer is left totally isolated in his despair.
Psalm 88 suggests to us that we have to take seriously the existence of apparent spiritual failure. But we still recognise it as a psalm of faith. The bleakness of the psalm, sometimes referred to as a Psalm of Lament, is a sober reminder that the Christian faith is or should be relevant not just to happy successful people, but to people in every stage and experience of life. The psalmist certainly had not got things sorted, as we would say, and probably he would not have made a good ‘witness’ or been able to articulate a convincing confession of belief.
If we want to see how different faith is from belief, we only have to read these words of Psalm 88. All that the psalmist knew was that God had plunged him into the lowest abyss. Even a belief that God would eventually come to his rescue was denied him. Every vestige of a belief system seems to have been taken away. And yet, in spite of feeling that God was not on his side in any way, having become like a man beyond help, he still reaches out to God daily in an act of imploring faith. We can imagine that this psalmist would not be a comfortable person to have sitting in the pews of any of our churches. Some Christians might try to provide him with comforting scriptural texts but these, no doubt, would be rejected with a great deal of passion. Our psalmist was a broken man who probably had little worked out in terms of what he really believed. But we commend him for his faith and trust that continued, even if there was apparently absolutely nothing to give him comfort or hope.