BARE MINIMUM BELIEF 1/31/2001
Have you ever run into folks who want to play “who believes the most” with you? They leave you with the feeling that the measure of your religion must be a matter of all the things you are certain about and all the things that a person is right about. And so ensues endless tiresome arguments about which one has it all right.
In reality, I am not so sure the number of the things you believe is a good indicator of your spiritual health. Frankly, I am uneasy about believers who have worked out all the answers and for whom God is totally predictable.
In the Bible faith is often exhibited in people who have a bare minimum of beliefs. These are the people who do not declare they understand all things. Like Paul they can say humbly “now we know in part.” but are willing to do the best they know how to do with what little they can say they believe. This is because faith never was a matter of having all the answers.
Abraham took a chance on God before he could be sure how it would all turn out. He went to look for a land he had never seen and ended up never having a deed to more than a cemetery plot. He waited a lifetime for the first child of a promised innumerable progeny. How any of God’s extravagant promises would ever come to pass was more than he ever guess. Yet he kept taking chances on God. What he knew about God or what God was up to was pretty minimal when you get down to it.
I think of Job. He ended up with bare minimum faith. Whatever pat theology he ever had was blown to pieces by the tragedies of his life. He couldn’t stomach the easy answers of his pious friends. His faith in a mechanical Divine justice had been dealt a fatal blow. Yet he did not stop talking to God. Even though his speech sometimes became brash and provocative, God indicated he preferred Job’s backtalk to the windy theological excuses his friends had used to protect God’s reputation. In the end Job could only admit much of what he had said or thought about God must be flawed. But still he had had faith.
Or consider Ecclesiastes. Of all the scripture writers this one is least likely to exaggerate the claims of religion. He does not expect or ask for anything beyond this life. And he is certain that most of the things people spend their short lives pursuing is a waste of time. Pleasure, knowledge, power, fame–none of it will satisfy, none of it lasts. But he refuses to give up on life entirely. The bare minimum of his faith was to enjoy food and drink, work and family as God’s temporary gifts (3.13). He suggests we think about the Creator responsible for what good there is in life, before we get too old to think of anything but our disabilities (12 1). And he advises, “Have respect for who God is and keep his commandments–what else is human life for.”(12.13) For the writer of Ecclesiastes life can only be lived in the retail, not wholesale. But still he is a voice of faith.
Thomas is another example of bare minimum of belief. He refused to be swept up by the enthusiastic reports of the disciples that the crucified Jesus was alive again. There was no place in his theories of how the world operated to give credit to their testimony. “Only if I can see and touch the evidence will I believe.” Jesus did not seem to mind. When he encountered Thomas he wasn’t critical. After all he had known what Thomas was like when he called him . Thomas had always been the one to expect the worst, to believe the least. Jesus had said he was going to see the family of Lazarus, who was already dead. Thomas was realist enough to know that it would put them all in danger, but even though it looked foolish, he gave the gloomy encouragement: “Let’s go and die with him.”
God can do a lot with bare minimum belief. In fact it may leave room for the truest kind of faith there is.
The psalmist had this minimum faith who wrote, “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have quieted my soul like a child quieted at its mother’s breast…O Israel, hope in the Lord (Ps. 131). He says I do not have all the answers and I do not demand to have everything explained.. I don’t claim to have a complete theological system. But I have learned to trust the Lord.
My grandmother was a newly wed when she received the word that five of her young brothers and sister had been burned to death in their home. Her widowed father had assumed the housekeeper was staying the night. The housekeeper assumed he would be back from his trip. But nobody was there that night when a man whom my great-grandfather had fired got drunk and came to get even with his old boss. Only he killed his children instead. My grandmother remembered how they gathered together at her uncle’s house, all that were left, and how her father led them in prayer as he always did at night. But all she ever heard of his prayer that nighy were the first words, “O Lord, I would not ask you why.” It wasn’t that he did not have questions, but right then he needed, not explanations, but God.
In C. S. Lewis’s Narnian tale The Silver Chair, two children are summoned from this world to rescue an enchanted prince. Their companion from that world was a marsh-wiggle named Puddleglum. The pathetic creature seemed almost to enjoy predicting the most disastrous outcomes and expecting the worst. But for all that he accepted the job given to him and kept going. In the end when the children were half enchanted themselves and had all but given up the rescue as pure fantasy, Puddleglum broke the spell. Stomping his webby foot onto the enchantresse’s smoking incense, Puddleglum declares that although their memory of a world of freedom and light might be a delusion, he would keep acting as if it were the truth, because it was certainly a lot better than this mess of a world the enchantress was in charge of.
Bare minimum faith does the right thing even when it is not sure it will work. It will act on what assurance it does have, even when it cannot produce a complete proof of everything else. It will not wait till everything is certain to dare the journey. It will not demand wings to fly or athletic exuberance to run. It will be content if all it gets is the bare minimum strength to walk and not give up.
Of course we look for the day when faith becomes sight. But for the time being most days what is necessary to get us through is not what we know for certain, but bare minimum faith in God.
“O Israel, trust in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.”