Living by Faith

By Merle Harton, Jr.

"We live by faith, not by sight" [2 Cor. 5:7]. Paul could certainly turn a nice phrase, but this is perhaps the most pregnant of his words, for it seems to capture poetically the essence of the Christian life to which each of us is called.

It is even richer in meaning, I think, than Kierkegaard's judgment that "Faith is the highest passion in man" [Fear and Trembling, Epil.]. Not merely does it outline and provide a context for the existential decision that the Danish theologian was alluding to in his complex declaration, but it does more than anything else to distinguish us from the people of this earth, those who live by sight alone.

But what is it to "live by sight"? Understanding what it is to live in this state can give us an appreciation of what stands in opposition to it—what it is to live by faith. Of course, it is all too easy to grasp what it is to "live by sight." We all participate in it, for it is nothing more than living by means of human factual knowledge. Living by sight is living according to probabilistic beliefs, the very basis by which we make inferences and predictions about the future. It is also the root of science and scientific inference. To live by sight is to live as we must live. There is no escape from living by sight, so long as we are human.

To live by sight is to reason inductively. It is to use the same reasoning that enables us to conclude that the sun will rise tomorrow, as that water will boil at 100 degrees Centigrade at sea level. On the basis of past experience, we can with high probability affirm something about tomorrow and can make good scientific predictions about an event's happening under pretty clear circumstances. This is the very type of reasoning that we ascribe to "common sense." All people have it (even, well, if some display better signs of it than others).

To live by sight is to live a life of great comfort in the certainty of the predictability of everything we can survey by language and experience. The sun rises and sets, the tides are raised and lowered, we follow the seasons—we can even find pertinent regularities in human conduct, yielding substantive results in the many social sciences, although not with the rigorous assurance that we have found in the physical sciences. All of this is made possible by the fruits of experience. Through experience we find regularities, and under inspection we can formulate laws of nature, and from this we can advance theories and test them again through the same alembic of experience. The complex process that gives us the tested prophecies of science gives us also the foundations of ignorance and wisdom alike. So comfortable are we with the laws of nature, that we can be lulled into thinking that they will continue forever, even if we do not.

To live by sight, however, is to live a life of great anxiety. While it is comforting to see the world go by us with such wonderful regularity, we are daily tormented by the great uncertainties in our own lives: Loss of job or friends or family, wrecked cars, broken bones, poverty, disease, public scandal—the list of things that can go wrong is so long as to be endless. And yet it is not the length of the list that deserves our attention, but rather the potential suddenness of the entries as they should happen to make their appearance in our lives. While I may be certain that the sun will rise tomorrow (in that strong probabilistic sense of 'certainty'), I nevertheless cannot be as certain that I will even wake up in the morning.

But what is it about living by sight that should give us such worry? Because people die. Indeed, that is the great anxiety of living by sight: That we might die. Putting aside the occasional medium and psychic, the remarks of those with repressed memories of past lives, the haunting beliefs about recycled souls, ghouls, goblins, and ghosts—aside from these strange things, there is abundant factual evidence that death just might be a permanent thing. People perish, they decay, they are buried or burned, and they do not come back to us. Not for nothing did Paul use the term "earthly tent" to describe the human body, for daily we face the prospect that at death we will no longer be covered by this "tent" [2 Cor. 5:4]; daily we face the possibility that we will be naked, exposed, unprotected, and without shelter.

Again, so long as we are human, there is no escape from our living by sight. We cannot function in the world without reliance on the evidence of empirical knowledge. Without the assurance of its evidence, I could not even take a step forward in the morning, for otherwise I could just as easily drop into a deep abyss as land my foot on the floor. Human factual knowledge gives us both comfort and reliability, and eliminates for us many of the possibilities that imagination can conjure up. By the same token, it also stands opposed to our hope for the continuance of our individual lives. Just as we find comfort in the ongoing cycle of life—whether it is the cycle of human life, animal life, vegetable life—we are also tormented by that part of the cycle which does not give us a suggestion of personal continuance. Flowers wilt and die, and grow again, but this red carnation does not—it decays and is gone. Cats are born, they frolic, they die, and still there are cats; but my pet Siamese, once dead, does not return to me. Every generation has mothers and fathers, but Mom and Dad, once they are gone, do not come back to us. It is an uneasy balance, this assurance given to us by sight; it satisfies our expectations for permanence and regularity, but at the same time it utterly destroys expectations about our own durability.

To live by sight, then, is to live a life of great uncertainty, and thus anxiety. While we are certain of permanence in the world, we are given no such certainty as it concerns us individually. By sight, for that matter, we have abundant reason to think that we are individually thoroughly perishable, although this is a conclusion we hesitate to embrace with much satisfaction.

The Christian does not have this anxiety, nor this uncertainty, for we live not by sight, but by faith. It is Christ Jesus who "has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" [2 Tim. 1:10]. It is by this faith we live, enabling us to look beyond the short life we have by sight. And faith, as the author of Hebrews says, "is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" [Hebr. 11:1].

Alas, living by faith is every moment threatened by the very process that makes possible our living by sight. So captured are we by sense experience, the tested prophecies of science, and the smooth regularities of the known universe, that we can be moved to believe that the laws of nature are thoroughly pervasive; just as every individual being disappears within the larger scheme of the world, so too do you and I. At death, we are gone. And with this belief comes a cornucopia of doctrines—many of them historic, all of them inevitably practical—that do not pretend to make sense of human purpose, for their aim is merely to help us fashion a social culture within a world that is inherently without any meaning beyond itself.

And thus we live our lives: On one side is death, which is strongly recommended to us by the trusted tool of sight; on the other side is life, which has been revealed to us and which we hold to by faith.

And always, in matters of our faith, we have to contend with Bonhoeffer's paradox, with having to face the fact that "the step of obedience must be taken before faith can be possible" [Cost of Discipleship, Ch. I.2]. In Matthew 14 we see this difficult idea. Just as Peter could not join Jesus as he walked on the water until Christ first summoned him from the boat [Matt. 14:28-29], so too we must first obey the call to righteousness before we can join those who live by faith [Rom. 1:17; Hab. 2:4]. Like Peter, we must first heed the call and step forward, even though, if we were to trust our sight, we should believe that by doing so we will only sink.

Once we take the step and begin walking by faith, we face also the continued allure of living by sight. When we live by sight, the future is always what past experience promises—and these promises are many, including those that please the body. So while we are confident that we have ahead of us "a building from God, an eternal house in heaven" to replace the earthly tent we now live in [2 Cor. 5:1], the life by sight gives promises that impede our ever reaching home.

Being Christian by its very nature requires that we live out our obligations as humans and social creatures. Always, therefore, the choice is before us: To live by sight, the life into which we were first born, or to live by faith, seeking the goal of a new existence and fixing our eyes "not on what is seen, but on what is unseen" [2 Cor. 4:18]. From this it would follow that living by faith requires an ongoing reinterpretation of every element of that life of sight, for otherwise, like the creatures of habit that we are, we can suddenly find ourselves living by sight. Like a man who is driving home, but never gets there because he is too busy taking side roads, we too can lose track of the goal.

"Living by Faith"
Copyright © 1998 Merle Harton, Jr.  All rights reserved