May 4, 2016

Why Try to Believe?

One of the often-unspoken realities of our lives is that all of us are making it up as we go. We haven’t done this before, and for all the commonalities, overlaps, and received wisdom, each of our circumstances and stories is unique. No map traces our specific and individual paths.

And it seems the more important the role, the less instruction we receive. Yes, there are resources around, but most often no one teaches us how to be part of a family, or how to get by despite our family; how to be single, or how to be married; how to be a parent, or whether to be a parent; how to be a friend in ways that matter; what we should work for or against in a complicated world.

When it comes to life and living it well, how do we make the big decisions, or even how do we work out what the most important decisions are?

The bigger the decision the less the preparation, or so it seems. When it comes to life and living it well, how do we make the big decisions, or even how do we work out what the most important decisions are? So many voices offer advice, urge their agendas, or try to sell us their answer or product, which only adds to our sense of bewilderment.

I’m not sure if this awareness gets better or worse with age and maturity. When we’re young, we might excuse such ignorance. As we get older, we do gain experience and some insight, but we tend to lose some of our energy and endeavor. We might also notice that nagging sense that we should have more of it figured out by now; that everyone else seems to have life more together than we do.

In so many ways, I think we all still feel like kids playing at being grown up. This should keep us humble, this should keep us learning; but this also keeps us up at night. We fear being exposed as the imposters we are. We fear we might suddenly snap back to size from the amount we have overstretched our true maturity, capabilities, and understanding.

But we also have to live, to make decisions and choices every day, to prioritize our time, attention, energy, and resources. And we want to somehow live well, in a way that matters and means something. So we keep trying, all the while beset by wordless questions and doubts that only rarely find honest expression among even our closest friends.


And, of course, among these uncertainties—this making it up as we go—are the perpetual questions of faith. There is something within us—a seed of “eternity [planted] in the human heart” (Eccl. 3:11)—that seeks purpose, meaning, and hope amid the busyness, distractions, and disappointments of our lives. We also believe that these questions and impulses prompt us toward a relationship with our Creator, although we are not sure what that might mean, even as we use that language to describe what we try to believe.

A few years ago, when I had been invited to speak at a church in Brisbane, the advertising of the series title—“Why I Try to Believe”—was enough to spark a little social-media conversation. Of course, that’s the idea: catch attention, create interest, provoke response. But I was surprised by a number of responses that saw my title as negative and inappropriate for a Christian speaker.

Expressing ideas of faith and belief are one way to work out and affirm what and how we believe.

Maybe I’m simply not the right guy to speak publicly on such topics. But honestly, “trying” is sometimes the best I can do when it comes to faith. Faith is one aspect of life that I am trying to work out on the run. And, to be candid again, this is one of the reasons I write and speak about it. Expressing ideas of faith and belief are one way to work out and affirm what and how we believe. This is one reason religious traditions encourage expression, often repetitively, of statements and practices of faith. Expressing and enacting belief affirms it.

But I strongly suspect that most—if not all of us—have our quiet moments, those persistent questions and dark nights. And that these are legitimate and even necessary parts of a lived and living faith.

In It’s Really All About God, my friend, Samir Selmanovic, recounts a conversation with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner about Jewish faith and atheism, concluding with the rabbi’s declaration that “If you are not doubting the existence of God every two weeks, you are theologically comatose!”[1]

If not a conscious doubting, the most intentional believer would confess occasional, practical atheism, living life as if God does not exist or matter to our choices or priorities. This is part of the confession contained in “trying.” But even these moments can serve to “try” out belief, in terms of questioning and experimenting with faith. At its best, atheism—even if occasional—offers important critiques of faith. Authentic faith must not be un-interrogated.

So “trying” is an expression of healthy honesty. Even the “founder” of Christianity seemed to appreciate this kind of confession. A father bringing his son to Jesus for healing was confronted by Jesus’ bold statement, “Anything is possible if a person believes” (Mark 9:23[2]), which could be interpreted as a call for an unequivocal, unambiguous assertion of faith. And why wouldn’t the anxious father offer such an avowal when desperately seeking healing for his son?

But it seems that honesty was more important than certainty, perhaps particularly better than contrived certainty.

The father was more circumspect. And his response fits well with this idea of trying to believe. “The father instantly cried out, ‘I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief’” (Mark 9:24).

I imagine Jesus smiling at this answer, as He proceeded to heal the boy amid the gathering crowd, and affirmed the father’s enthusiastic but awkward confession in doing so.

It seems that trying to believe was enough in Jesus’ eyes. And that’s encouraging.

The Nature of Faith

In another sense, “trying to believe” acknowledges the incompleteness of even our best formulations of faith, another aspect of an honest and sustainable belief. We don’t have this thing nailed. Our believing is never finished while our lives, experience, knowledge, and understanding are incomplete.

This concept is not foreign to many of the great voices of faith, among them one of Paul’s most famous statements: “Now we see things imperfectly as in a cloudy mirror. . . . All that I know now is partial and incomplete” (1 Cor. 13:2, 13). While he looked forward to perfect—or complete—vision and knowledge, that in itself was a statement of faith.

This is the very nature of faith. “By faith we understand” (Heb. 11:13), to take a small but profound statement a little out of context. If we have unbeatable arguments, absolute proof, or full understanding, we are no longer talking about faith. Trying to believe takes place in the space found in the much-misquoted statement of the need for faith: “We are given too much evidence to ignore, too little to be certain,” or as Pascal actually wrote it in relation to the possibility of faith in God, “But seeing too much to deny Him, and too little to assure me, I am in a pitiful state.”[3]

So “trying to believe” is also an expression of humility. We have admitted that there is so much we don’t know about life and beyond it. Yet we have to live in workable and sustainable ways and try to find meaning in our existence. In this sense, living itself becomes an act—or succession of acts—of faith. Humility allows us to believe, and humility should shape our trying.

Humility allows us to believe, and humility should shape our trying.

This confession is one reason believers often gather, why
they read and write, preach and sing: to share in each other’s faith, both in present community and in the historical traditions of faith. As theologian Fritz Guy suggests: “It would be just arrogant to disregard completely the thinking of others, supposing that we have nothing to learn from anyone else past or present. Given the immensity of the challenge and the meagerness of our own intellectual resources, we need all the help we can get, wherever we can find it.”[4]

As such, trying to believe always happens in a context. We do not come to belief from nowhere, and neither does our faith come without context. It is a complex interplay: life shapes faith and faith shapes life in various ways and to varying degrees. Yet faith is most important when called on to transcend our circumstances and uncertainties.

Meet Puddleglum

One of my favorite story characters is Puddleglum from C. S. Lewis’ “Narnia” story, The Silver Chair. Puddleglum is a practical and pragmatic character, probably something of a stoic by disposition. In his words, he’s “a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it.”

The quest in which he is engaged leads him and his travelling companions into a dark and decaying underground kingdom, in which they confront its tyrannical but beguiling queen. Using her skills of enchantment, she seeks to convince Puddleglum and his companions that their memories of the sunlit “Overland” above were nothing but wishful thinking or the stuff of their dreams, that the darkness in which they were immersed was the only reality.

Seeking to break the enchantment, the usually dour Puddleglum makes a remarkably rousing speech:

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself [the creator and ruler of their world]. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t an Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So . . . we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland.Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.[5]


It’s a bold statement about why trying to believe is important. It’s not blind hope, but it is a stubborn kind of hope.

At different times in our lives, trying to believe is about choosing to believe that what is most important is not always what we can see or “prove.” Part of having freedom to choose is recognizing that the most important is not always the loudest or the most obvious. We are given glimpses, hunches, and hopes about what is good, right, and important in our lives, and we choose whether to pursue and prioritize these echoes of another world and invitations to another way of living.

Authentic faith must not be un-interrogated.

Trying Belief

However we might come to recognize the potential importance of belief, it cannot remain just a set of ideas, good though they may be. It must take some form in our lives. Writer Robert Wuthnow argues that “the quest to know God may arise from existential yearnings, from illness and loneliness, or from moments of wonder about the ultimate mysteries of life. But these vague yearnings and experiences have to take shape. They have to find carriers, vehicles of expression to help people make sense of their feelings.”[6]

The most common vehicles for belief are found in religion in its various forms. As already mentioned, religious community, spiritual practices, and mentoring from more experienced believers help us form our vague yearnings into living response. In this sense, and at its best, religion pools our common belief, helping each of us grow our piece of “eternity” and providing a foundation to move beyond a faith based merely in our respective and changeable circumstances and seasons. As a believer, I must recognize the value in such aggregations of belief.

As a Christian believer, I believe God is the source and goal of our impulse for belief. I believe He planted eternity in us, and “His purpose in all of this was that the nations should seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and exist” (Acts 17:27, 28). Though usually invisible, I believe He is active and present in our world and our lives, wanting to build a partnership with anyone who—responding to the echoes of eternity—chooses to make the kingdom of God a life priority (see Matt. 6:33).

This is both the why and what I try to believe. Of course, most days we are busy living and do not necessarily spend hours in deep reflection and philosophizing. But it is also life that throws the questions back at us in the form of our sorrows and joys, grief and triumphs, disappointments and hopes.

That seed of eternity prompts us to ask what these experiences mean, and even why the questions matter. Trying to put together, make up, or work toward a response is trying to believe.

All of us “set out in the dark,” which is why John’s Gospel’s foundational metaphors of Jesus as a Word speaking into the silence and shining a light are so powerful and important. Part of making it up as we go is choosing to live as citizens of the kingdom of God—even as some might argue that this kingdom might not exist—believing that we are guided by “the light [that] shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it” (John 1:5). That’s a belief worth trying.

Nathan Brown is book editor at Signs Publishing in Warburton, Victoria, Australia. This article is adapted from his book Why I Try to Believe: An Experiment in Life, Faith, and Stubborn Hope (2015), published by Signs Publishing.

[1] Samir Selmanovic, It’s Really All About God, Josey-Bass, 2009, p. 184.

[2] All Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation.

[3] Blaise Pascal, Pensees, #229.

[4] Fritz Guy, Thinking Theologically, Andrews University Press, 1999, p. 221.

[5] C. S. Lewis (1953), The Silver Chair, Fontana Lions, 1980, pp. 56, 57.

[6] Robert Wuthnow, All In Sync: How Music and Art Are Revitalizing American Religion, University of California Press, 2003, p. 16.