How Can We Believe God’s Purposes are Working Out?

How Can We Believe God’s Purposes are Working Out?

Photo Credit: “Meadow on Eagles Nest Wilderness Lily Pad

The Story of a Garden

Three friends are walking together in the forest.  Deep in the woods they come upon a rough clearing.  One of the hikers thoughtfully surveys the overgrown meadow and declares,  “There was a garden here once upon a time.”

The second hiker looks at the brush and tree saplings shooting up here and there, and says, “I don’t think this space has ever been disturbed by a human.  There’s been no garden way out here.

The two hikers talk for a long time, each making a case for his opinion.  The one could make out the vestiges of rows and a faint orderliness in the vegetation that he believed had grown up long after garden vegetables had died off.   The skeptical hiker pointed to the haphazard non-arrangement of bushes and rubble.  Based on the evidence at hand, it was impossible to determine whether the clearing had ever been anything other than a clearing.

The third hiker, listening to the debate, clears his throat.  “There has been a garden here.  I know that to be true because the man who tilled this plot and planted rows here many years ago is my neighbor.  He simply told me about what he’d done out here.”

What it Means to have Faith

I heard this story years ago.  The story of the garden has been used by philosophers as a parable about how believers in God arrive a such a belief.   In the original garden story, the only characters are the first two hikers—the one who “sees” evidence for a garden and the one who “sees” evidence for a natural clearing undisturbed by a gardener.  Transferred to believing in God: some people “see” an active god.  Some don’t.

I’ve added the third hiker.   The third hiker knows with confidence that a garden existed because he talks with the gardener.  Transferred to believing in God, the third hiker represents an entirely new way of knowing about God because he has a friendship with God.

This little story shines a light on what it means to have faith.   People of faith aren’t the ones who have sorted out all the evidence and arrived inductively at a probable conclusion.  People of faith cultivate a pre-existing relationship with God.  They talk with God.  They dedicate themselves to God’s cause.  And, growing out of this friendship, they come to deeper and deeper settled convictions about life and the world around.

How Faith Arises in the Bible

There are several, sometimes obscure stories, in the Bible that reveal faith as a kind of knowing that grows through a relationship with God.  For example, in John’s Gospel, none of Jesus’ first followers recognize him as God in the flesh.  They haven’t a clue that this seemingly ordinary guy is the Word that existed from the beginning of Creation—to use the gospel writer’s soaring rhetoric.

I discovered a powerful principle in my childhood, something that continues to be true today.  When Christmas or birthdays come around, I find myself dutifully busy buying a gift for a family member.   Investing myself in the chore of walking through stores, picking a gift, wrapping it and presenting it in a timely way nurtures my care and affection for my loved one.  Activity goes before feeling.

We can see this principle at work in the gospels.  What persuades the disciples to check out Jesus is the report about him from friends and relatives.  One by one Jesus’ would-be followers approach him and spend a little time with him.  Even before the tentative disciples have an inkling who they have befriended, they find themselves at a wedding reception where Jesus famously changes water to wine.  Witnessing this event gives Jesus’ new friends a tantalizing glimpse of just who they’re hanging out with.  The last line in the water to wine story is revealing:

Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. –John 2:11

We assume that when someone’s conviction reaches a certain threshold that Jesus is very special that he or she then decides to follow him.  In short, relationship follows belief.  It’s closer to the truth that the people who follow Jesus for various reasons come to believe more and more wonderful things about him.  In short, belief follows relationship.

Much later in Jesus’ ministry on earth, following his crucifixion, he rises from the dead.  I’m talking about the Easter Story.  The gospels’ way of telling this story makes it clear that those who believe in Jesus’ return from the tomb are the insiders in his little community of supporters.  The men and women who had invested themselves in a friendship with Jesus and who mourned his death were the ones who came to confidence that he had returned from the dead.

The basis of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection was their companionship with him before he died

The basis of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection was their companionship with him before he died.  This is not to say that the resurrection didn’t happen.  I believe that it did.  We can assume that clues littered the landscape as a result of Jesus coming out of the tomb.   A stone was moved.  Grave clothes were left behind.  But here’s the point.  None of these clues would be sufficient to make a scientific case that Jesus lived after he had been executed.  Once again…belief follows relationship.

How We Can Believe in a Chaotic World

If we’re correct about companionship with God as the basis for a new way of knowing, then it is clear what must be done.  We cultivate a friendship with God.  Just has having an occasional cup of coffee with an old friend or a “heart-to-heart” talk with a lover nourishes the relationship, so also do we nourish the relationship with God by talking with God.  And we are probably better at this than we think.  I say this because the capacity to have a relationship is just part of the way human beings are put together.  Prayer is the start of seeing life in a new way.

There are other ways.  And they’re all familiar.  Getting acquainted with the story of how God has dealt with our forebears as it comes through tradition and the world of the Bible is a “getting to know you” activity.   In fact, almost all of the practices of the church—worship, sacraments, mission and so on—are designed to cultivate a relationship with God.

A lot of people—even people who believe something about God or a Higher Power–don’t feel like praying or being enthusiastic about Christianity because they don’t see a lot of evidence of God’s work.  Why bother with a congregation?   Why engage in seemingly antiquated practices of religion?

Appreciating this skepticism of thoughtful people puts us in a position to see the power of what we’re thinking about in this essay.  Cultivating that flicker of a relationship, which we already have with God,  opens a new vista, which permits us to perceive the events around and our own inner world much more optimistically.

Divine Providence

The next several blog posts will explore the idea of providence.   Providence is the often-forgotten idea that God’s purposes are always moving forward.  God’s providence is God’s creative hand making even disastrous happenings serve God’s ultimate intention.   In the stained glass rhetoric of the old Heidelberg Catechism, providence is the confidence that

[God] will care for my every need of body and soul, and turn to good all the evil that He may send me in this vale of woe.

What a refreshing outlook in the chaos of current events!  Wouldn’t it help to see evidences of order and an overall purposefulness arising out of even the disorder of our times?  To see a garden instead of undergrowth?   Well, there is a garden there.  But to see it you need to talk with the gardener.

Photo Credit: “Garden”, © 2012 Jennifer C., Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio


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