The other day I watched a YouTube video where internet philosopher Stefan Molyneux described why he rejected Christianity. Evidently, when he was younger he prayed a prayer of the form, “Lord if you exist then help me out of this jam and I will believe in you.” The prayer was not answered and he concluded that Christianity was not true using simple empiricist reasoning. “I tried it and it did not work therefore it is not true.” As I thought about it, I realized that I had heard similar stories from a number of other atheists. Why didn’t these prayers work for these people? I prayed prayers that sound superficially similar when I was a younger Christian and I believe that God answered those prayers. Why did God answer my prayers yet not answer the prayers of these others?
As I have thought this over, it seems to me that there is a seemingly minor difference in the sequence in the wording of the prayer that is actually extremely significant in terms of its effectiveness. When I prayed my early prayers as a Christian, I effectively prayed a prayer out of the New Testament. “Lord I believe! Help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:25) Stefan Molyneux and those who have their prayers rejected by God pray, “If you do X, Y and Z then I will believe.” This might seem like a minor difference, but there is all the difference in the world.
When I prayed my early prayers, my attitude was ‘I am going to believe, I am going to step out in faith and I am going to be obedient as best I can and I will see if God is real.” The alternative formulation puts the ball in God’s court saying “if God does this, then I will do this”. In the first case, faith precedes God’s action and in the second case “faith” is to be the result of God’s action. Why is there such a huge difference between these two seemingly similar situations? The answer has to do with the reason that God requires faith and its importance in Heaven. Why is faith so important to God?
Christopher Hitchens used to argue that faith was not a virtue. His reasoning was that human reason was the only thing that separated mankind from the animals and that putting anything above reason puts humanity at risk of brutality and savagery. I believe that Christopher Hitchens was exactly wrong in this analysis. Why? Let us think it over.
Let us imagine that you are stranded on a desert island with 1 other person and you have been stranded for a week. Food is running low and you are beginning to get weak. Your reason tells you that if you don’t eat something in the next few hours, you are going to be too weak to signal for help if you should spot a plane or a passing ship. Should you kill and eat your fellow survivor? Faith tells you that God will send you a rescue plane or, in the ultimate extreme, that dying of starvation will be better in eternity than being guilty of murder. Reason tells you that you have a much better chance of survival if you kill the other person and dispose of the evidence so that nobody will ever be the wiser. Which way do you choose? What if, unbeknownst to you, the rescue planes know of this island and are scheduled to search it the next day?
Now this is, of course, an extreme example, but it illustrates an important point. If reason is king, then it presents a hard cap on how good a person you can be. If a superior course of action exists that you do not understand, then you will never take that action because you don’t understand it and reason is king. On the other hand, faith in a being of superior love and reason allows you to transcend your limitations as a human being and become more than you could be on your own. Faith in a being of superior knowledge and love is the highest virtue because by it you can exhibit virtues that would otherwise be beyond your grasp.
Ironically, Christopher Hitchens was an excellent illustration of the reason that faith is a virtue. He used to argue in his many book signings, some of which are available on YouTube, that the Christian commands to “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek” were evil commands. As I pointed out in another essay, the reason that he felt that way was because he did not understand how turning the other cheek or taking a non-violent approach could be better than using violence. Because reason was king in his life and he had no faith, he could never be better than what he understood using his own impressive, though limited, intellect.
And this is the reason that God answers prayers that have the “I believe now please help me” sequence but not those that have the “Do this and I will believe” sequence. In demanding that God prove Himself through a miraculous intervention before belief, a person is denying the transformative power of faith and making faith valueless. Faith is a virtue to the extent that it demonstrates a belief in that which is not fully understood nor completely controlled. A “faith” that demands divine obedience as a precursor to belief is not a submission to the mysterious divine will that allows the power of God to change our lives but little more than an act of extortion. “Do this or this person that you love (me) is going to get it.” This is not an act of faith that God can honour with a miraculous intervention but a sin that God must generously forgive through the cross of Jesus Christ.
As I was sitting in Easter service this morning, it occurred to me that some people might ask, “How can Thomas have been saved by faith when he said that he would not believe until he saw the scars in Jesus’ feet and in his side?” The answer to this question is that Thomas had had a great deal of faith to follow Jesus as His disciple for three years. After his hopes were brutally crushed by seeing Jesus tortured to death by the Romans, he had some doubts. It is because Thomas had demonstrated great faith by leaving everything to follow Jesus that he was privileged to see the risen Lord. Seeing the Lord was not an answer to his doubts.