Trusting the Promise
Romans 4.17, 20 So the promise is
good in the sight of God, in whom
Abraham believed ... His faith did not leave him, and he did not doubt
God's promise ...
The Church is no stranger to
scandals. Over the centuries onlookers have often been startled and
distressed by Christian behaviour. From Saint Augustine who
self-righteously got rid of his mistress and child, to the medieval
Pope who kept wife and family from the public gaze, there has been no
shortage of bad behaviour to remark upon.
I suppose, however, that it's not the bad
behaviour as such which has raised eyebrows as much as a
consistent gap between statements of belief and practice . "How can you
preach about a loving Jesus," ask the sceptics, "and then behave so
viciously towards others?"
It's all very well to excuse erring Christians by
remarking that "... they're only human" or that "... salvation is by faith
alone, not deeds." But such special pleadings sound like a cracked bell to
the ears of the world.
Most Christians will witness that being a believer
doesn't guarantee always behaving well. We do our best. We struggle and
often fail. As Paul, our earliest witness, once put it, "I don't do what I
would like to do, but instead I do what I hate" (Romans 7.15). It seems
Christians have been hypocritical for a long time!
Why do I fail, I ask? Perhaps because I don't believe
the right things. Or perhaps I don't believe with enough intensity. Maybe
I don't pray properly or hard enough. Perhaps I should go to church more.
It could be that I belong to the wrong denomination. Perhaps I keep bad
company. Perhaps, perhaps ...
Where lies the problem? Many insist that
something they call "belief" is the kernel of the Christian faith. By
"belief" they seem to mean a mental acceptance of certain Church
doctrines. "If you believe in the resurrection, you'll have life
everlasting," they say. "Only believe and you'll be saved," they assure
us. And so on and on, developing doctrines, making ever higher hurdles for
others to jump over.
Like many others today, I can't accept that we go wrong
because we're somehow contaminated by the primal sin of Adam and Eve. It
makes no sense in terms of today's knowledge to claim that we're born
evil. That's not how genetics works. And it's plain that many people are
so damaged in their upbringing that it's hard or impossible to blame them
for going wrong.
Nevertheless, surely Christianity is reduced to nothing
if its adherents can't demonstrate in their lives the sacrificial love
they claim is fundamental to the good of the world?
Whatever the case may be, Christians think that Jesus
got the answer right. His life and words all point one way. He lived out
his promise that God is loving, not cruel, petty, vengeful or simply
unconcerned about insignificant you and me. Whatever we do, he said,
whatever we believe, whatever we are, each of us is so highly valued we're
worth dying for.
If that's true then what I "believe" is of little or no account. The
Church's emphasis on believing verbal formulas as a condition of salvation
is, I think, entirely mistaken. We should note in passing that the Greek
word usually translated into English as "believe" in the New Testament in
reality refers to expectant trust, not to belief in man-made doctrines.
The idea of expectant trust has its modern counterpart. When I say "I
believe in my wife," or "I believe in my friend Harry" I affirm the
essential nature of the person, proclaiming that I know deep down what
they're really, truly like. I can expect them to behave towards me in
Paul in his letter to the Romans affirms that no matter how much we
fail in life we can "believe" in God in the same way. Just as a man can
believe in his wife, or a woman in her friend, so also can we believe in
God. That is, no matter how far short of our own ideals we fall, no matter
how ruinously we behave, we can trust deep down in God's promise to us -
just as Abraham once risked all in response to God's promise to him.
When we trust in the promise by which Jesus lived and died, we are
liberated to cope with success or failure knowing that love is the solid
ground on which we walk. I suspect that only when we "believe" in this way
does the Christian faith make good sense for today's world. Only then is
the gospel truly good news.
To "believe" is to trust the promise.