About five years ago my pastor and I sat down to dinner with a young man who had questions about the Christian faith. I had been conversing with the man via e-mail, so my pastor decided to join us for a face-to-face chat. Our curious conversation partner was extremely bright and had a lot of great questions, but after an hour or two of talking we eventually reached an impasse.
The discussion hit a wall when my pastor explained the idea that no human being can believe the gospel apart from the grace of God. Even with all the best arguments and evidence in the world, we are helpless and blind without the enlightening vision of the Holy Spirit. Belief in Christ is actually a sign of grace.
This, of course, sounds like a circular argument to anyone outside the church. It seems awfully convenient that non-Christians don’t believe in Jesus “because God hasn’t allowed them to.” As far as apologetic strategies go, this isn’t exactly a popular one. However, the significance of belief as a sign of grace is an essential principle of Christianity, especially at a time in the church’s history when “feeling” or “sensing” God is so closely equated with spiritual vibrancy.
For many of us, faith can be a real drag when we don’t feel God’s presence. I have experienced extended periods of time during which I could not feel God at all. During those periods, I felt condemned to wander a real spiritual wilderness. For some Christians, the inability to feel God’s presence or experience God leads to larger doubts about the validity of their salvation or the existence of God. It is a serious thing.
Conversely, encounters with God provide a real boost to one’s faith. No one can take away something I have experienced personally. It makes faith more real and sure. That is the power of experience.
Experiencing God is undoubtedly blessed, but should one’s spiritual confidence rest in God’s felt presence? No it should not, and there are several reasons why. The first reason is that experience is subjective. Christianity is not the only religion that claims to have a connection with God, which means Christians are not alone in their claims of experiencing God.
As mentioned before, experience is tough to argue with. Once someone believes they have experienced God, it is difficult to take that away from them regardless of reality. Even within Christianity, a worship service might manipulate a Christian into experiencing emotion that feels like God but is not, in fact, Him. It is a very gray area that is troublesome to navigate.
“Feeling” as evidence of God is therefore a slippery slope. That is not to say that our experiences of God are illusions or that we shouldn’t hope to feel God’s presence–we should!–but we should be careful about basing the substance of our faith on a feeling, especially when feeling comes and goes so unpredictably.
The second reason experiencing God is not a good spiritual foundation is that it is not Biblical. Notice how frequently individuals in the Bible signify their salvation by believing, not feeling:
John 2:20–After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
John 4:53–Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and his whole household believed.
John 12:37–Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. (This is an example of people who experienced the miraculous power of God, but still did not believe).
Acts 4:4–But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand.
Acts 8:14–Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.
Acts 9:42–This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord.
Acts 11:24–The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
Acts 13:12–When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.
This list could go on and on. The word “believe” appears in some form over 260 times in the New Testament. 84 of those appearances are in the book of John, and 62 are in the book of Acts. Belief–not experience or feeling or a strange warm sensation in your heart–is repeatedly described as the key sign of faith. It may not be glamorous or exciting, but the simple recognition that Jesus died for your sins and delivered you from a helpless and broken state, that is a work of the Holy Spirit.
Today I want to remind you of that truth for a couple reasons. The first two I have already named. By founding your faith on belief instead of feeling, you avoid some dangerous slippery slopes and you adhere to a more Scriptural understanding of faith.
But there is a third reason this message is important. To all of you who find yourselves in that wilderness, not having felt God for some time, take heart. Experiencing God and feeling His presence is indeed inspiring and beautiful, but it is not the most basic foundation of the Christian life. It is not a sign of salvation or God’s nearness to you. Instead, the very existence of your belief is a sign of God’s intervention in your life. The simple affirmation of Christ as Lord may seem small and insignificant at times, but it is not. Not everyone in the world believes the gospel; the fact that you do is literally a miracle.
And finally, on those days when you struggle to believe, the following prayer from Scripture is a helpful one:
“I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” -Mark 9:24
The paradoxical nature of this prayer is a wonderful summary of the Christian life. Each one of us is on a journey toward greater faith. Apart from the grace of God, we would have no belief at all. We could not know Him. Our doubt is a reflection of the finite and inadequate condition of our souls, vessels unable to grasp the infinite and perfect Lord of Creation. But God meets us in our doubts and draws us to Himself. The very act of that prayer is a sign of grace.
So be encouraged! Your belief in God is a tremendous mercy not to be underestimated. Whether you feel God’s presence today or not (and I pray you do!) rejoice in the knowledge that you know Him. Your belief is a gift.