Personal Faith

Personal Faith

Christian Faith is nothing if not personal. 80% of humanity believe in God but not all have a personal faith. Like everything else in life, personal faith is not equally distributed or evenly found. You may know some devout Christians for example and you may know some Church goers. You may know people who walk with God in their lives and others who do not. No-one in the Bible sailed through life with God easily or without times of trial and testing. Even Jesus suffered. You might say 'Especially Jesus suffered'. Moses had doubts about God's grand project and he had even more doubts about his own suitability to lead it.

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”

Moses answered, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’?”… Moses said to the Lord, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” The Lord said to him, “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” But Moses said, “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.” Then the Lord’s anger burned against Moses and he said, “What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and he will be glad to see you. You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do. He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him".

King David had a strong relationship with God all his life but he did not have an easy time. It is true that he contributed to his own misfortunes from time to time but he also had enemies who hated him just for who he was. That is the background to some of the Psalms. He wrote Psalm 3 when he was fleeing from an attempted coup by his own son Absalom.

'Lord, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! Many are saying of me,
“God will not deliver him.” But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high. I call out to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy mountain. I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me. I will not fear though tens of thousands assail me on every side. Arise, Lord! Deliver me, my God! Strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked. From the Lord comes deliverance'.

The prophet Jeremiah had lots of doubts about his calling not the least of which was his youth.

The word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” “Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord. Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”

St Paul seems to always have been confident in his personal faith but he also had his reality checks. In Philippians 3 he writes:

'But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus'.

Martin Luther struggled with his personal faith.

'I am Baptised!' The great 16th figure of The Reformation used to take great comfort from these words. When it seemed to him that the whole church had left the precepts of the Gospel, when he was under scrutiny from Church officials as to the truth of his beliefs, when his life was under threat and when he suffered self doubt he would boldly claim, 'I am baptised'. Those words belong not only to the Martin Luthers of this world but to each and every baptised person. To each of us who have had water poured over us in the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit. Let those words sink in this evening: 'I am Baptised!'

John Wesley the founder of the Methodist Church was not a complete Christian until he had a profound personal experience of God. It’s a question most every Christian has asked: “Am I saved?” The challenge of adversity, the temptation to sin — any low point in a spiritual walk may lead a person to doubt their identity as a child of God. Sometimes it may even be the imposing standards of a legalistic community that leads you to question your standing with God, or it may simply be moments of fleeting doubt. Whatever the cause, doubting your personal salvation is not a unique experience. Before his Aldersgate experience in 1738, John Wesley writes that having an assurance of his identity as a son of God was missing. According to his own interpretation of his spiritual journey, it is very likely that before this evangelical conversion Wesley was not yet a Christian. He writes about that very personal Aldersgate experience: “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

In the 20th century doubting God and lacking personal faith became an academic industry. You needed to have little faith to get a theology professorship in most European universities. The Anglican bishop John Robinson published his book Honest to God in 1963 in which he dismissed the claims of Christianity as stated in the New Testament. The Churches have never recovered from this indulgence. After him came David Jenkins another doubter of the Bible. His selection as Bishop of Durham was controversial. Three days after his consecration as bishop on 6 July 1984, York Minster was struck by lightning, resulting in a disastrous fire which some interpreted as a sign of divine wrath at Jenkins' appointment.

The Church of Scotland has a recent history of some of its ministers struggling to have any personal faith. Even the great Professor William Barclay interpreted Jesus' miracles at a human level. Jesus did not, he said, miraculously multiply bread and fish to feed 5000. What happened was that everyone had brought a packed lunch with them and under Jesus' loving influence they all shared with each other. Barclay's interpretation of Jesus walking on the water noted that the phrase 'on the sea' can also be translated 'by the sea' and he preferred to think of Jesus wading through the surf to the disciples' boat. Rev James Weatherhead was made Moderator in 1993. He embarked on a public controversy by denying the truth of the virgin conception of Jesus. This offended evangelicals in the Church and he found when he went to the highlands to speak and preach that he was barred from a number of pulpits and made unwelcome in several presbyteries.

Today Church leaders in this land do not speak with any great conviction about their personal faith in God, about their personal relationship with God, about their assurance of salvation. They prefer comments about social issues and politics. But many people in all of the Churches witness to personal faith. I do here this evening. I continue in the ministry inspired by personal faith in God and in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Saviour of the word.

Robert Anderson 2017

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