Chapter 6 – A Tested Faith is Not an Absence of Faith
“Take a deep breath!”
The stranger’s advice wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, but it was what I needed. My parents had given me permission to rent a rowboat on McDonald Lake behind a lodge in Montana. The surface was placid when I pushed off from shore, but by the time I returned the wind had increased and menacing waves rocked my little craft.
I was not a novice on the water, but the strangeness of the lake combined with the unwise decision to boat alone left me in a crisis. I jerked hard on the oars and they jumped out of their mounts. Each time I replaced them they jumped out again and I grew more anxious.
An older couple spotted my dilemma from the shoreline and the husband cried out. “It’s alright. You’re not that far away! Take a deep breath!”
“Now, put the oars back in the mounts and row slowly. You don’t have to hurry. You are so close. Just row slowly. Take your time!”
In fact, I was not that far from shore and in a few moments the bow of my boat plowed into the beach. I stepped out, handed my life jacket to the rental manager and walked over to my rescuer to shake his hand.
“You’re welcome. It’s easy to get in trouble out there.”
He was being gracious since I wasn’t really that far “out there”. But it was far enough to leave me shaken and thoroughly embarrassed.
Embarrassment seems to go hand-in-hand with the testing of our faith. The same Peter who cut off a servant’s ear to protect Jesus also let Him down. Jesus had predicted his denial and warned him Satan was out to get him. Peter refused to believe Him, but in the courtyard his pride came unraveled. “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times. And he went outside and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:61-62).
After his resurrection Jesus appeared on a shore and yelled out, “Friends, have you any fish?” (John 21:5).
“No!” came the answer.
“Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some!” They did, and their net was so full of fish they were unable to haul it in.
John turned to Peter. “It’s the Lord.”
With wounded heart Peter swam to shore where Jesus met him and restored him with an undeserved, reckless love. Peter’s faith was tested, but it wasn’t lost. He was thoroughly humbled and his spirit nearly crushed. Yet he believed. A test of faith is not the same as a lack of faith.
When I walk through dark valleys with others, I often find them more distressed over their apparent lack of faith than their trials. People accept physical pain and personal loss as a part of the human experience, but they agonize over the thought they have failed to meet God’s expectations. When they pray and God doesn’t give them a sudden clear sign of His presence, they panic, just as I panicked on McDonald Lake and Peter panicked in the courtyard.
This is why I have continued to use my #2 Pencil Faith illustration when I counsel. While I am all too aware our relationship with God cannot be confined to a neatly framed metaphor, the notion that trials warp our spiritual perspective seems to connect with people. If nothing else, the illustration gives them a template to help manage their thoughts and emotions.
Could this be why Jesus spoke through parables and used His human encounters as teachable moments? The word pictures and experiences His followers committed to memory helped them organize eternal truths in their minds.
Consider the methods Jesus used to increase the faith of His disciples. He said those of “little faith” should remember the grass of the field which God uses to clothe the ground. If He cares so about something that is eventually thrown in a fire, won’t He care more for us? (Matthew 6:30). When the disciples were perishing in a storm on the sea Jesus rebuked them for their “little faith” then spoke to the waves and the storm ceased (Matthew 8:26). After Peter’s nearly fatal walk on water Jesus questioned him as he stood wringing wet in the boat, “You of little faith. Why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31). When the disciples were worried about finding bread Jesus reminded them of His miraculous feeding of the five thousand and confronted them for their “little faith” (Matthew 16:8). Jesus also used the example of a growing mustard seed in contrast to “little faith” (Matthew 17:20).
Was Jesus suggesting His disciples were non-believers? Absolutely not! But their faith was underdeveloped. They had not learned the complexities of God’s providence and the possibilities of His divine option. Their fears and doubts unsettled the certainties of their faith. The sliding pencil in their #2 Pencil Faith was tossed about by the wind and waves. They were often unstable in their faith, but not without.
No, a test of faith is not the same as the absence of faith. Instead, it is an opportunity to grow in faith. Satan might use our circumstances to destroy us, but God can use them to strengthen us. For this reason, instead of despairing when we face an onslaught of spiritual quandaries, we should rejoice. As James, the brother of Jesus wrote, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance” (James 1:2-3).
You may not be ready to rejoice in the testing of your faith, but perhaps you can take comfort in the knowledge your feelings are normal. You should also know you are not that far from shore. So take a deep breath and row slow.