To be a pastor is to regularly encounter people who find faith difficult. (It’s also to regularly encounter people who you suspect might find faith too easy, but that’s another post). There are all kinds of people in the post-Christian West whose faith kind of hangs by a thread. It retains a bit of nostalgic affection for Christian ethics, perhaps, and it craves the community embodied and offered, however imperfectly, by the church. It might even have an appreciation for mystery and a dim recognition that this life can’t be all there is. But it can often seem like not much more than a kind of half-hearted and undemanding openness to possibility. It’s a long way from deep conviction and bold faith in the great creeds of orthodox Christian faith. All that talk of virgin births and resurrection from the dead and judgment is too much to stomach. And so, faith often coasts along on the fumes of memory and vague longing, coughing and sputtering until it stalls on the side of the road.
I’ve been reading Tomáš Halík’s Night of the Confessor over the past week or so. Halík is a Roman Catholic priest in the Czech Republic, one of the most secular countries in Europe. His is a voice that I have come to appreciate when thinking of those for whom faith remains difficult, or for when faith feels difficult myself. Here are a few passages from this chapter that I found memorable and worthy of further reflection.
In the context of a mountain top conversation with a long-time Christian friend who announced that he simply couldn’t believe in life after death any more:
In a sense, belief in “last things” is a kind of touchstone for the authenticity of our belief in God in general. If we restrict ourselves to the playing field of this life then maybe all we need of Christianity is what remained of it after the post-Enlightenment selling off of transcendence—a smidgen of moral principles and humanitarian kindness, a slightly updated version of existentialism, and a poetic sense of the mysterious. But when the curtain is about to fall on the stage of our earthly life, all of a sudden we are dreadfully alone in the auditorium—the god of such a humanitarian religion has disappeared through the trapdoor because he was too feeble to confront death.
On how to deal pastorally with those for whom faith is hard:
If people’s potential for trust and hope has been exhausted because of the pain they have suffered, it is up to us, their neighbors, not to assail their doubts with apologetic arguments, but instead to give them close support and encouragement to regain the courage to trust, to take that step of faith that says “and yet,” “once more.”
On the “nervous laughter of skepticism” from those too old for great expectations:
Only when we truly fall silent will we be able to hear once more the voice that says to us: Fear not. I have conquered the world. I am the resurrection and the life. I am with you always until the end of the age.
Fine words, but empty promises? From behind the tent awning—and from deep within ourselves—comes Sarah’s skeptical laugh. How could that be possible, seeing that we are not only adult already, but also too old for great expectations?
“Why did Sarah laugh?” Doesn’t she realize that there is “nothing too marvelous” for the Lord to accomplish? And Sarah lies, because she is afraid. Her laughter was also an expression of her fear of trusting. “Yes, you did laugh,” the Lord insisted.
You did laugh, the Lord tells us. But maybe He’ll treat us the He did our mother Sarah. Maybe our nervous laughter of skepticism and mistrust will be transformed into the happy laughter of those who have lived to see the fulfillment of His promises.