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The Formula of Faith

I’ve been thinking a lot about carrots, sticks, and formulaic faith over the last little while. I spent a good chunk of last week wrestling with the well-known (and often abused) “pray and you will be healed” passage from James. Among the questions I explored were, Is there a one to one correspondence between (the correct kind of) prayer and the experience of healing/blessing? Is faith a kind of formula where the input of leads to the output of y? And, of course, lurking behind these questions are even bigger ones: What is the motivation for our faith? Do we follow Jesus because of what we can get out of the deal? Is our faith contingent upon the experience of blessing/goodness?

The book of Job looms large in conversations like these. And, as it happens, the book of Job is on the menu for October’s lectionary readings. Many interpret the book of Job as a book about the question of theodicy. If God is supremely good and powerful—if he has both the desire and the ability to prevent evil—what is suffering doing in the world? This question certainly hangs over the text—especially for modern rationalistic readers downstream of the Enlightenment (i.e., people like me!). But I’m not convinced this is the main question the book raises. Job is not a proto-philosophy of religion text meant to lay bare the ontology of the divine. It is an ancient story meant to provoke reflection upon the age-old question of how best to live. The longer I read this book the more I am convinced that Job has at least as much to do with the nature of human beings as it does with the nature of God.

The main question has to do with why we cast our lot with God? The story of Job lays this out in the starkest terms imaginable. Job loses everything—health, wealth, family and anything else the anonymous narrator of the story can think of—as a result of a wager between God and the accuser. Over the bulk of the 30-odd chapters of  tortured dialogue between Job and his three “friends” the reader is left wondering: will Job give in? Will he “curse God and die!” as his wife cheerily recommends? Will he quit his complaining and yield to the superior rationality of his friends who understand how blessing and suffering work in the world? Will he confess his sins thus rendering obvious the source of his pain? Will he endure to the end and get his explanation from God? Will he ever be shown what’s really going on behind the scenes?

It’s a fascinating book. In the end, rather than an answer, Job gets an exhaustive divine tour of creation, some fairly stern reminders that he was responsible for bringing precisely none of this into existence, and a rather loud “shut up and know your place!” Not exactly the happy ending we were hoping for. Not exactly the nice logical solution to the problem of evil and suffering we would prefer.

Indeed, not only do we not get an answer for the problem of evil, we don’t even get much help in thinking about the question of whether or not worship and obedience of God ought to be done primarily for the benefits they can secure. In fact, the ending positively complicates things for us. Job gets his stuff back—he gets his livestock and his wealth back, even some new kids to replace the ones he lost (!)—thus suggesting that he is getting his prize for faith after all. Perhaps most confusing of all, God says that Job, with all of his groaning and complaining and lamenting, all of his insistence upon his own righteousness, had spoken rightly of God, while the three friends who insisted upon a one-to-one correspondence between virtue→reward and sin→suffering, had not.

It’s a rather bewildering picture. Both Job and his three friends expected life with God to work like a formula. Job was complaining because the formula didn’t seem to be working, his friends were insisting that it was working just fine thank you, and the sooner you, Job, realize that you’re on the wrong end of it, the better. Both Job and his three friends are rebuked at the end, but for very different reasons—Job for his presumption, his friends for their… well, for their what? For their lack of compassion? For their expectation that God worked like a formula?

But wait—doesn’t the Bible contain a lot of formula language around life with God? Like, say, almost the whole book of Deuteronomy. You know, “You shall worship and obey the Lord your God that it may go well with you in the land,” and all that? Sounds like a formula to me. Obedience = blessing and security; disobedience = exile. Doesn’t sound very complicated. Of course, things were never that straightforward, even for Israel. The Psalms frequently resound with some version of, “why do the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper?” And the New Testament often presents suffering as the inevitable “reward” for faithfulness to God. It’s never been easy to understand, this relationship between human belief/behaviour and rewards and punishment.

So, why do we cast our lot with this God? If we can’t count on faith and obedience to produce goodies for us in this life, what about the next one? That is, after all, the ultimate carrot. Even if we throw up our hands and despair of figuring out any connection between virtue and reward in this life, we can always look to eternity for our prize, right? Well, yes, actually. Eternal life is described throughout Scripture as a kind of “reward” at the end of the race well run, as compensation for sufferings endured, as the fulfillment of hopes left unfulfilled. We may never experience a consistent connection between virtue and reward on the micro level, but the Christian hope is that the macro story is one where our intuitive longing for this connection will be finally validated.

Of course, many will ridicule this. It’s an intellectual cop-out, an easy answer. It just pushes the “explanation” beyond any parameters within which we might evaluate it! It’s a little too convenient to just say that heaven will heal the wounds of earthly existence. At its worst, it keeps those who are suffering compliant and submissive, content to accept their plight because they have eternity to look forward to. Etc, etc. I feel the force of these criticisms, I really do. It does sound too easy. It isn’t as intellectually satisfying as I would prefer (although neither are any other explanations of suffering I’ve come across). I agree.

But perhaps at the absolute rock bottom level, the question we are faced with is this. Is there goodness and meaning behind this story of the cosmos and humanity within it, or isn’t there? If our answer is no, then we ought to be content to abandon our expectation that there be any connection between virtue and reward, and we should stop criticizing God (or his followers) because the world doesn’t work this way. But if our answer is  yes—if we do believe that whatever our present experience, our story was birthed in and is being guided by meaning and goodness—then we perhaps ought not to be too ashamed to expect, to hope for, even to demand that these same things show up at the end as well.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jacob Froese #

    Very thoughtful blog Ryan. Kind of brings to mind several ‘know-it-alls’ I also know who might be humbled (along w/ me and you?) to realize that meaning and goodness is credible not only in the END but each day. In my mind God is ever do available to help us experience that larger meaning each and every day – and of course will be still there even at point of exit and usher confidently into the mysterious future.

    October 4, 2012
    • Thank you, Jacob. Well said.

      October 5, 2012
  2. Paul Johnston #

    Ryan you say…”Is there a one to one correspondence between (the correct kind of) prayer and the experience of healing/blessing?”…I’ve been giving this idea some thought and this is what I feel/hear. The answer I get is that there is a prayer but it is not so much a correct prayer as it is a true prayer. It is the prayer beautiful. It is the prayer that places it’s entirety on God. God as the author of our prayer. God as the author of our outcomes. Us as both willing advocate and willing recipient. Us the trusting children. This prayer is always beautiful and true. This prayer is always answered.

    October 23, 2012
    • So, in light of James 5:14-15, would you say that “true prayer” or “beautiful prayer” is answered in the way described (i.e, “healing”)?

      October 23, 2012
      • Paul Johnston #

        Always. That being said, God defines the “healing”. This process can at times seem abhorrent. Does Job recognize his “healing” process as such, while he sits defiantly in squalor? Does the redemption, the “healing” won by our Lord on the cross, seem like a healing experience for the man Jesus? Doesn’t even the man Jesus feel abandoned?

        You say it often yourself, it ultimately comes down to what we believe is the
        “last word”.

        October 24, 2012
      • Yes, I agree—was just curious to hear how you would approach the passage in James. I wrestled with that text a few weeks back for a sermon. On a surface reading, he seems to be advocating a formulaic approach to prayer, but on closer examination this cannot be the case. Even in the passage immediately before this one, he counsels perseverance and patient endurance in suffering—hardly the words you would expect from someone who believes that the right kind of prayer always leads to physical healing :).

        I also like your words about healing and Jesus. How very true. And how very easily we forget that the students should not expect different from the teacher.

        October 24, 2012
  3. Jeff Marc #

    There is a formula that defines relative faith just as their is a formula for the theory of relativity for the physical world.
    If you examine all the great works of faith, past and present, the many true life stories of people who have experienced being restored from a place of no faith, then it is easy to see that faith is relative.
    When I was a child, i prayed for God to help me find my toys, my homework, asked him to please let my Mom say yes to my friend staying the night and pillow fights.
    I believed he answered my prayers many times.
    As I got older my fear that he might not slowly gave me reason to justify only asking for something out of desperation!
    As my fears multiplied , my hope had to grow to conquer my fears , but that required a little faith to start the process, a mustard’s seed in fact.

    April 8, 2014
    • I’m not quite sure I understand what you mean by “relative faith,” Jeff. I would rather speak of faith changing or growing or being modified. Perhaps these are all different ways of saying what you seem to be gesturing toward here…

      Thank you for your comment.

      April 9, 2014

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