When faith in God deletes the options

Abraham looking at the stars (Byzantine manuscript, 6th Century)

“Where are we going up?”
-Deuteronomy 1:28

“And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”
-Matthew 8:19

“Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart. Audacious longing, burning songs, daring thoughts, an impulse overwhelming the heart, usurping the mind — these are all a drive towards serving Him who rings our hearts like a bell. It is as if He were waiting to enter our empty, perishing lives.”
-Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion

ne feature of predominant Old Testament figures is their complete ignorance of their own future. I think it begins with Abraham. He left his home country “not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8) and went to the land to which God would show him (Genesis 12:1). The keyword there is “would.” But also Moses. His mission was simply to tell Pharaoh to let the people go “to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” near some tribes that Moses had maybe heard of, but the main task was to simply get the people “out of Egypt” (a phrase repeated in Exodus 3:7–12).

I guess I could also tell you also about the Acts of the Apostles, who were given perhaps the most vague instructions of going “into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15) They were told to begin in Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria — yes, right, got it — but after that? “The ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Perhaps the only way to make that command more vague would be to tell them to disciple “the universe.” For God’s infinite knowledge, he seems to lack specificity when he makes large demands on our life and future.

“Faith” is the constricting trust that grounds our relationship with God. Without it, we are told, we cannot please God (Hebrews 11:6). Biblical faith is not “blind” by any means, but it is limiting. To have faith is to not possess any options outside of obedience to God. One becomes limited to only what God has said. You can’t do anything else because the relationship you have with God is so congealed into your very personhood that your decision-making is not really yours at all — it’s his, just like the rest your life. You can’t not follow. You simply cannot deny that God exists or that he cares or that he knows enough “because you are so deep into relationship with God,” writes Ellen Davis, “that to deny all that would be to deny your own heart and soul and mind. To deny God any meaningful place in your life would be to deny your own existence. And so you are stuck with your pain and your incomprehension, and the only way to move at all is to move toward God, to move more deeply into this relationship that we call faith” (Preaching the Luminous Word, pg. 7). Because you cannot imagine the option of disobeying God’s voice, you do what you are called to do without knowing what is next. Worse than an unknown future is a known disobedience to the One who is God.

Not many of us live this way. Abraham, Moses, and the Apostles show us that it is actually possible. And Christ, of course, is our supreme example and substitute as he sweat drops of blood in a garden the night before his death. He put language to this kind of faith I’m talking about in the most succinct way possible: “not my will, but yours be done” (Matthew 26:39). In this one prayer, Jesus is not making a kind of consolation, as C.S. Lewis notes. The Son of God is not tagging this line on the end as a kind of “catch all” to the rest of the prayer — an addendum to the real request of asking to be remitted from the suffering. No, this is Christ’s true prayer: God, I pray that your will becomes mine, because I am living as if it is until that is actually accomplished, even if it means my death. Because, once again, an unknown and chaotic future is better than a known disobedience.

I do not live this way. I live, instead, painfully working out ways in which I can see the next stage of the plan — or even making a plan all by myself. I can make things happen! Except that those things are mostly useless and quite often self-serving. In decision-making, it is usually between several options, all of which I am assessing how much they might benefit me and be good for my life. The person who has faith — lovely, painful, life-producing faith — is a person who is, in a good way, single-minded. The more you know God, the more the options become limited. To love God with all of who you are and to love your neighbor as yourself leaves you with little else to do.

We may think that the limiting nature of faith produces a prison, but in fact it produces the opposite. Love anything other than God and you’re tricked into a kind of boring polytheism, Pope Francis argues. “Idolatry…is always polytheism,” he writes, “an aimless passing from one lord to another. Idolatry does not offer a journey but rather a plethora of paths leading nowhere and forming a vast labyrinth…Faith consists in the willingness to let ourselves be constantly transformed and renewed by God’s [initial] call” (Lumen Fidei, 13).

Faith deletes your options but in the most freeing way. You choose to subject yourself to one perfect, merciful Lord than to a thousand imitators. This is why following Jesus Christ constantly feels so painful and so freeing at the exact same time. You see the options, but you know somewhere deep in your soul they do not matter and offer less than a fraction of what God Almighty holds. Liberated from our idols, we become constrained to the One who made us, and thereafter we will only do as he says by his power.

What might it be like to live within such a limitation? To allow the secret place you have with God destroy your opinions about your future and your options within it? To know God is better than to know the future.

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Chris Nye

Living in Portland, Oregon with my wife and son. Doctoral candidate at Duke University. Author of a few books: chrisnye.co/books