Word-y Gifts for Christian Faith & Life

What does it really take to believe?

I asked myself this question recently as I was reading (again) the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible’s story of the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai. Most people would say if God existed and showed Himself more or in more obvious ways, believing would be easier. It’s a reasonable response, but if the grueling tale of the wanderings is a fair portrayal of human nature (as experience inclines me to believe it is) the answer may not be so simple. Moreover, there is a spectrum of belief that complicates the question. (We’ll discuss whether believing is a good idea at all another time.) That spectrum may begin with an acknowledgment of a nebulous presence in the world and end with an awareness of a knowable, reachable, and active divine being who is not only involved in all aspects of human life, but also has distinct attributes such as goodness, power, wisdom, and so on. The Israelites swung back and forth, from extreme left to extreme right, depending on their circumstances, with real consequences for themselves and their descendants.

The story, told mainly in the books of Exodus and Numbers and partially in Deuteronomy, is a historical-theological narrative. However, because its primary goal is to explain the relationship between God and His people, it must be understood first as a story of faith. (For critical approaches, start here and here.) God had just delivered the Israelites from Egypt in dramatic fashion and, as they made their way to the promised land through the wilderness, he continued to reveal Himself to them in obvious and unmistakable ways. He wanted them to know Him (as in extreme right end of the believing spectrum). He provided fresh food, which simply appeared on the ground daily ready for them to gather; appeared in visible forms, such as a cloud and a pillar of fire; sometimes caused mountains to tremble when He showed up; destroyed a formidable enemy; and even provided water from a rock in the middle of a desert! You’d think, for the Israelites, the question of God’s existence and involvement in human life had been settled, but it hadn’t. Instead, when they came upon hard times and periods of waiting, they grumbled and questioned God’s commitment to them as they had during the hardship of slavery in Egypt. The new phase of God’s presence and demonstrated commitment did not change their attitude. Their cynicism and unbelief was so great that at one point, despite witnessing incredible miracles, they made themselves a golden calf, called it their god, and worshipped it.

The sobering story demonstrates that the ability to believe is not determined by how much one sees or experiences, but by the condition of the heart. Hard and cynical hearts tend to remain at the extreme left end of the believing spectrum and they also, sadly, lead to stunted lives. An entire generation of wandering Israelites died in the wilderness; they never made it to their promised land.

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