A Picture of Faith

by Philip Sudworth.

On my wall at home I have a photograph on canvas of a wild elephant.  It was taken by my wife from a safari jeep just before we made a very smart exit.  It makes an impressive picture. However, because this is a photograph – a snapshot in time – there is no movement; there’s no sound; and there is no smell.  This elephant was an adolescent male, who was in an excitable mood.  He was trumpeting a lot and crashing through bushes.  It was a potentially dangerous situation – our safari guide was taking an inappropriate risk; but in the photograph you get little feel for any of that excitement, that danger, that close encounter with the power of the animal.  The picture is restricted in what it reveals because it is two-dimensional.  It’s frozen in time. 

If we’re not careful, it can be like that with the way we portray our faith – it can appear very two-dimensional with none of the depth and the action and the risks and the excitement. So much attention is paid in churches and in Christian organizations to catechisms and creeds that faith is often equated with a set of religious beliefs. Many Christian organizations define themselves by what they believe and only accept those who sign up to their set of beliefs.  In the creeds there’s no mention of love, of hope or of joy, no thought of actually doing anything, and very little attention is given to any of these in most lists of beliefs.

What a contrast with Jesus’ declaration that everything hangs on the two great commandments. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and “Love your neighbour as yourself.” This doesn’t just ask for an intellectual response; it demands a commitment of the whole person; it requires a radical change in priorities and a new way of life. 

Focusing on beliefs can lead to us playing on Richard Dawkins’ home ground and by his rules, even though he and other new atheists don’t understand what faith is really about. It becomes a matter of intellectual argument; of clashes between scientific discoveries and biblical tradition; of how a loving God relates both to the violence in the Old Testament and to modern day suffering; of what is to be understood literally and what metaphorically and spiritually.  The really important things – the realities, blessings, consolation, the life-changing commitment and the mystery of everyday faith – get lost amidst all the words.  The best evidence for the truth of Christianity has never been intellectual reasoning; it has always been lives that have been transformed by faith.  You don’t find atheists challenging what Jesus had to say about the importance and power of love or questioning the role that faith played in the lives of Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela or the drunk in the gutter who turns his life around, or the despairing woman who finds hope. 

Faith in its full meaning is active; it is about making a loving commitment, trusting and being faithful.  Faith is so much more than an intellectual assent to religious propositions; it is more a spiritual adventure than a state of mind; a vision and a way of life rather than a creed.  Faith is not static. Just as we progress intellectually and emotionally, we develop spiritually.  Jesus’ call was “Follow me!” This must involve movement and action and development. Faith is our personal relationship with God.  Beliefs are our best (but always inadequate) attempts to describe that relationship in words.

To paraphrase St Paul: “I may believe every word in the bible and have a wonderfully thought out theology, but if I don’t have love and compassion, it all counts for nothing.” Faith is about transformed lives. Believing something is empty unless you do something about it, unless your life is different because you believe it.

Lists of beliefs, rituals and worship styles – the things that tend to divide people, which have taken up so much energy in modern Christianity, have caused splits into denominations, and led to disputes and to loss of members – actually aren’t that important. They’re the lid on the box. The truth of a faith isn’t in the picture or the label on the lid – in how people describe their faith; it’s in the contents of the box – in how people live out their faith. [“You will know them by their fruits” (Matt 7:20)]. Faith for our children and grandchildren will be lived out in a very different cultural context from the one we grew up in. They’ll face an age of ambiguities, uncertainties and an accelerating growth in new discoveries. The rock they’ll need amidst the torrent of challenges and changes won’t be a catechism or a creed but a relationship with God that is strong enough to withstand all that life throws at them. They’ll need to understand that faith isn’t about intellectual agreement with religious ideas about God; it’s the heartfelt commitment to a life of love and service which comes from knowledge of God’s love and creative power that one feels from the very centre of one’s being.  That’s what we need to share with them.  If they do develop that confidence through their own commitment, they’ll understand what St Paul meant when he wrote: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Gal 5:6).

16 thoughts on “A Picture of Faith”

  1. Amen! Thank you Philip.

    One of my constant refrains is that belief/faith that does not lead to loving action is like having bread and never eating it!

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  2. A good start to a Monday morning thank you Philip. Creeds and doctrinal statements have their place but I suspect that you’re right – because in them we find things to disagree over, they can consume a disproportionate amount of time, energy and attention. If you ask members of an average congregation what brought them into a personal relationship with God through Jesus, it is the witness of other people living out their faith in practical and attractive ways.

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  3. YESSSS ! Thank you and your memorable elephant for this.

    I have sometimes been told that I’m not a Christian – can’t be, because I don’t hold the same specific ‘beliefs’ as my critic. Richard Dawkins is right on a number of issues, but he too is coming at it from the wrong angle.

    There are many hymns I can’t sing in their entirety, and I have never been able to recite a creed without mental reservations. Nor can I now beseech God to ‘deliver us from temptation’ in the traditional form of the Lord’s Prayer – as though he is just lying in wait to trip us up and needs to be persuaded not to.

    But I do stake my life on FAITH.

    There are still many questions, of course, when the two great commandments are the ones that really matter. If three people in different places ask for your help at the same time, as happened to me once, which is ‘your neighbour’? Which direction do you take? And what if someone is in desperate need of a listening ear or practical help as you are about to set off for a church meeting where you are committed to taking the Minutes? One does not switch off reason when one embraces (or is embraced by) faith.

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  4. What we need to remember, in religion and in politics, is that God gave us a free will. We all have a choice. We can join a non-credal faith community if that suits our needs, but if we join a creedal church then we must accept that this church holds beliefs rooted in Scripture and Tradition. They are not set in stone; they can be and are changed from time to time, albeit slowly (a thousand ages in Thy sight are like an evening gone!)
    There are many outdated misconceptions about creedal churches; when I attend Mass at my local Catholic Church I only ever hear of God’s unconditional love for all people, preached in the homilies, and our need to show the same love to each other.
    Last year I was refused communion in a Catholic Cathedral because I have not yet converted to the Catholic faith. I could have been angry and indignant (how dare you exclude me from the Lord’s table; Jesus would not turn anyone away etc etc, blah, blah, blah.) That might have been my reaction in the past. This time I just felt enormous respect for the Bishop who stuck to the principles of the church he represents, and refused to compromise the sacred tradition for any Tom, Dick, Harry (or Yvonne) who walks in off the streets and expects everyone to conform to their ideologies.
    When I was visiting Syrian families in our town I removed my shoes at the door in respect of their practices.
    If I joined a sports club, a recreational group or any other society or community, I would expect to adhere to their rules and values, so why should it be any different in church?
    Jesus is often portrayed as having no respect for the religious leaders. This isn’t true, although it comes across very strongly that Jesus had no time for hypocrites and the self-righteous. Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi; he must have respected and been obedient to the elders of the faith who instructed him in the Scriptures.
    His first commandment is without question ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart …..’
    How we do this, where we do it, and who we do it with is a matter of choice.

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  5. Thank you for echoing my feelings and commitment. I have printed this and will reflect again, feeling glad that there are others who share my thinking – but accepting the God is beyond full understanding or definition by any of us. We need to respect the positions of those who see things differently from us, though there are fundamental principles we share, not only with other Christians, but from differing faiths. Compassion comes high on the list!
    Ros Murphy

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  6. Sometime in the 1950`s in a BBC TV programme called “Face to Face”, a series of serious interviews, a philosopher was asked, “Do you believe in God”. He replied, “I don`t believe, I know.”
    Some twenty five years later I was eagerly waiting to hear the then Bishop of Stafford preach at our end of Lent Course united service. Once in the pulpit he paused then said, “Be still and know that I am God”. I have no idea what else he said. Those words were for me. I still live by them.

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  7. For me everyday faith is what gets me up in the morning. The faith in the abiding unconditional love of God that forgives me for past mistakes and inadequacies, gives me the courage to face the day and gives hope even when there appears to be none. For me this Grace, a gift from God freely given comes with an obligation or demand that I/we respond to the ethical needs of all we meet. This seems obvious and universal, it is part of being human and, of course, it is the two Great Commandments “written on our hearts”. In my experience to respond to the gift of this faith and the ethical demand it places upon me is to find a totally unexpected meaning and purpose to life. This is the Good News!
    Religion on the other hand often reduces that simple secular faith into a metaphysical belief system that is always in danger of sinking into dialogues of power and piety. This often leads to exclusion and judgementalism and this is the bad news! Of course there are situations where we must judge and exclude others; (violent people and sex offenders come to mind), but even this is still a positive response to the ethical needs of others – in this case the potential victims.
    The word “faith” for me does not come with capital letter and has little to do with belief but everything to do with the spirituality that motivates human behaviour, and, of course – love.
    So I go to church to praise God and be reminded of the gift of faith and the ethical demand it places upon me. To be inspired and motivated. I do not need to hear about anything that excludes or judges me or anyone else. In particular I dislike competitive piety, personal salvation from sin and the bizarre notion of God’s chosen people. Where is the love!
    Here’s an example: Quite often in a communion service I have been inspired by the address of the Minister only to be disillusioned by the divisive, individualistic words I/we have to read in the Service Book.
    Incidentally I keep saying ”I” and “me” because I can only speak for myself, but I am ever mindful of my deep responsibility towards others who do not know the Good News, do not attend church and do not hear of the wonderful love of God.

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    1. Robert, if you struggle with ‘the bizarre notion of God’s chosen people’ perhaps these words might help:
      ‘The Church’s mission is directed to the People of God, and yet part of its task is to remind a nation that there is a common good of humanity which supersedes that of any particular people. The whole is always greater than the parts, and unity must transcend conflict. This is why a Christian will always defend individual rights and freedoms but can never be an individualist. A Christian will love and serve her country with patriotic feeling, but cannot be merely a nationalist.’
      (Let Us Dream, Pope Francis 2020)

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  8. Philip’s words created quite a stir! They certainly got me thinking! Could it be the Methodist Church needs to return to it’s roots in the utter inclusiveness of the primitive Methodist movement – the message that God doesn’t just care for the rich and powerful? Do we actually need the Service Book and the creeds as if we believed that by saying the right words in the right order God will love us? Do we have to tiptoe round the evangelical fundamentalists and biblical inerrantists that, in my experience, know nothing of the unconditional nature of God’s love for us?
    I don’t know the answers but it seems odd that on the one hand we see the evident obvious goodness and ethical concern show by the majority of human beings, living out the two great commandments, but on the other hand we have the issue of declining numbers.

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  9. When we have God’s unconditional love in our hearts, Robert, we don’t need to ‘tiptoe’ around anyone!
    All are included, all are valued, all are beloved of God. I personally treasure the Scriptures and the more formal style of worship, and I am very aware of the unconditional nature of God’s love for all people. I have experienced it in my own life and in the lives of people around me who do not practice any religion or attend any church. There are all kinds of worship offered online these days; if formal worship is not for you, why not just find something more suitable and stop trying to undermine the faith of those with a more traditional taste?

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  10. Thanks for that! Does what you say also apply to Philip Sudworth, Graham Thompson, Rachel Parkinson, Josie Smith, Geoff Hudd, Ros Murphy, and Sue Booth?

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  11. No it doesn’t. The people you mention obviously do not like the Creeds, but they do not belittle the faith of those who do, whereas you say that, in your experience, those for whom the Bible and the Creeds are the bedrock of their faith ‘know nothing of the unconditional nature of God’s love for us.’ How can you possibly know that? It is a very sweeping and judgemental statement, for one so keen on unconditional love!
    I have seen huge changes in the Methodist Church in the past ten years, and for the most part the traditionalists have accepted them with good grace for the sake of progress, but why should those who have
    more traditional beliefs give up everything they hold true just because the progressives have decided it’s old hat? I can respect your right to an opinion even if I don’t agree with it, but why do you need to denigrate ‘the other’ in order to defend your group identity? The love of Christ is Universal; there is a place for us all.

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    1. I was asking questions and will continue to do so because I care deeply that the Methodist Church, and other churches for that matter, survive. The question arises in my mind is – what has gone wrong? A possible answer may be to reflect on the fact that the church is often perceived as exclusive and judgmental, and I feel that the creeds make matters worse. Jesus and the Paul we meet in Corinthians tell of a love that is inclusive and non-judgmental. There is something contradictory about this situation which will not go away unless we address it.

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