The Value of Unbelief
Faith has a backside. Faith actually needs unbelief to back it up and reinforce it. But not unbelief in the same thing that faith believes.
We usually think of unbelief as something bad, a condition to be avoided. And that is always true when it comes to our attitude toward God's goodness and love and power and His desire to save us. This is the area where we tend to struggle to find faith. And that is largely because it is blocked by our faith in the very opposites.
You see, whenever we demonstrate unbelief in something or someone what we are actually seeing is the backside of real faith in the opposite. To not believe something is a negative way of saying that we really believe something else that contradicts that.
So when I find myself struggling to embrace some promise of God that I find in the Word and feel all sorts of emotions that draw me intensely to doubt that this promise is really for me or that God really intends to bless me, what is hiding in the background in every case is actually a deep-rooted faith based on previous interpretations of experiences in life that my real trust must be placed somewhere else. My unbelief is simply a symptom of my faith and where it is really attached.
Maybe what I really have faith in is my own ability to figure things out for myself based on past experience. For many this is a solid basis for their faith even though it may not be consciously obvious. They have spent years honing their skills and racking up educational achievements in order to bolster their abilities to take care of themselves, to provide for their families and to in essence be a more capable god for their lives. Of course they would never think about it in this way openly, but if they could catch a glimpse of their mindset for even a moment the way heaven sees it they would see that in reality they direct their faith toward their own ability and experience above whatever trust they have in this invisible God that seems so unreliable and unpredictable at times.
Often the God of heaven does not seem to be really that dependable from our point of view. Too often it seems that when we feel we need Him the most that He fails to show up. From our perspective anyone who wants us to believe that they really care for us would never treat us that way. When we ask for help or guidance they would always be right there answering our questions or providing for our needs in just the way we want them to. From our perspective that is the kind of God that can be depended on and that we could trust.
But this God of the Bible very seldom if ever fits that kind of description. Oh, we sing songs with lyrics to that effect which only complicates the situation and we hear people give eloquent testimonies about the constant faithfulness of God who always comes through for them whenever they need Him. But that only intensifies the frustration in a person who's faith is is attached to some other base. It seems quite clear to them that if God does show up clearly to relate His will to them that it is too seldom or out of timing with their schedule and they cannot rely on Him to do so consistently.
Other people do not have so much faith in their own abilities. These are usually people who have been deeply wounded and damaged by others in their life, especially by those who are supposed to represent the authority of God in their early life. These people have been conditioned to find someone more reliable, more experienced, some dominant personality who offers to take over all the important decisions of their life and convinces them either through deception or fear that this person needs to put their faith in them and allow them to dominate their life.
This faith may be motivated by fears based on previous traumas in the life. This faith may be rooted in a strong belief that I am worthless and helpless and could never be in a condition where I would be capable of making my own decisions or providing for myself. This kind of person usually remains stuck in a very early maturity stage and feels that they must live life dependent on others who are smarter and more powerful to run their life even though they may deeply resent it. And although this arrangement usually means that they are exploited time and again and have to surrender their dignity and self-respect for someone else's pleasure, they feel that they have no choice. They are making other people their gods in whom they put their faith and there is no shortage of people waiting in line to fill that role for them.
But in each of these situations there is always two sides of this belief firmly in place. For the person who trusts in their own abilities to run their life and has worked hard all their life to gain the skills and wisdom necessary to pull this off efficiently, the flip side of that faith would be unbelief in every other option. They will look with scorn or pious pity on others who live dependent on abusers, weak and timid and always afraid to trust their own abilities.
Likewise, the person who is full of self-doubt and feelings of worthlessness will also exercise strong faith in someone else to come in and run their life while maintaining strong feelings of unbelief in both their own capabilities and in God's goodness and desire to care for them and grow them up. Of course they may find themselves going through one god after another as they get tired of being exploited by the previous ones, but still they are cultivating faith in a certain expectation, a certain shape or composite image of the kind of god they believe is needed to keep them alive and feeling good at least once in awhile.
It may seem very odd at first to think of unbelief toward God and His stated desires for us as really an expression of faith in something or someone else. But maybe this is why we find it so difficult to come into genuine faith toward God – because we do not perceive that our faith is still firmly attached somewhere else. And one thing is very certain in the area of faith – you cannot serve two masters at the same time; you cannot focus your heartfelt faith in different sources that are incompatible with each other. We try to do it all the time but the way we were created and designed it will always lead to instability and eventually even insanity.
Another problem we have in grasping this most important concept is that we have so perverted the true definition of what faith actually is in our psyche. We have 'religified' our idea of what constitutes faith to the point that it means something quite different in our thinking than what it actually means from the Bible's point of view. Although we use the Bible to talk about faith we fail to allow the Bible to effectively expose our false assumptions about it and often end up with only partial understandings of what it really is at best.
I have come to realize that true faith is not something a person can work up. It is not the elimination of all thoughts that contradicts what I am trying to believe. It is not attempting to 'believe' some fact so intently that I am finally rewarded by it happening for me. Genuine faith is not something that I work up but is something that springs up spontaneously in my heart in response to encountering someone who is worthy of my trust. And to the degree that I sense they are trustworthy and care about me, to that same degree I will have faith in them.
But much of our faith is more along the line of belief in sources that promise to bring us good things, that appear to have potential to make us feel good and increase our pleasure in some area of our life. We choose to invest trust in that source whether it be a person, a system or society or some habit or activity as the primary place from which to draw life for ourselves. We become disappointed time and again as these sources prove to be deceptive and exploitative of us but we continue to look for more promising sources that might finally be the one that gives us what we crave. We reject the last one with our unbelief and skepticism and move on to the next with our faith until it proves insufficient to satisfy our ever deepening hunger and thirst.
If I begin to take note and consciously pay attention to do some careful self-examination of my own hidden motives whenever I find myself struggling with trying to trust God in some given situation, I believe that sooner or later I am going to discover that my faith is secretly still attached to some other source – which is why I am experiencing the symptoms of unbelief toward God. And when I begin to see unbelief as simply the flip side of my faith instead of something separate from or antagonistic to it, then I might find it a bit easier to begin to see the hidden roots of my real faith and discover to my chagrin that in reality my real faith is misplaced no matter how much I have convinced myself cognitively that my professed faith is in God.
It is usually during a crisis that the wool can be pulled away from our eyes and we begin to see more clearly just where the roots and focus of our true faith is attached. Self-deception is extremely powerful and tenacious and difficult to unmask. As Christians many of us have spent years training ourselves to believe that through religious exercises or self-discipline and intellectual training that we really are followers of God and have our faith directed toward Him. But He knows better and sees clearly what is our true condition even when our own view is seriously blocked by our superficial assumptions about faith.
The good news is that God really is faithful to not allow us to remain in this self-deceived condition without giving us many opportunities to see our true condition and accept the gift of repentance – a change of perspective and direction regarding our true condition. But these often don't appear like positive opportunities to us because of the actual placement of our real but hidden faith. When our faith is firmly rooted in ourselves or in someone else around us these reality checks appear to be threats or events producing feelings of condemnation. That is because sin always makes God out to be the bad guy in life, the spoil sport, the one who wants to make life less exciting and who uses bait and switch techniques to get people to follow Him. Again, we can't admit those kind of sentiments because it sounds too irreligious, but in our hearts we often feel that way secretly.
If we can dispassionately look at ourselves and learn to detect the clues that can reveal where our faith actually lies, it may become easier to then acknowledge that the convictions from the Holy Spirit are indeed correct and we can begin to see more clearly why we experience so much unbelief when it comes to God. If we find a high level of resistance to God's leading in our lives or His directions seem abrasive to us, that is likely a clear indicator that our faith is still attached more firmly somewhere else rather than in a personal revelation of the heart of God and His unconditional love for us.
What I am saying is that everyone has faith. It is a natural part of our very makeup. People would not be human if they could not experience and exercise faith. Each of us has something we might call an arm of faith with a hand that can hang onto something or someone or some idea or system of beliefs. The enemy of souls has produced myriads of appealing alternatives that promise to be valid sources of life to us apart from placing our faith only in God. Because of the sinful bent of our hearts these alternatives always seem more appealing that trusting in an invisible Creator whose words and requirements seem so repulsive at times to our feelings. We have been conditioned to trust our feelings and intuition more than the objective statements of God, at least at the heart level. So it is natural for us to fasten our faith to something that feels more secure than this nebulous God who is so far outside of our manipulation or comprehension.
Yet we are constantly assaulted by the Spirit of God that this faith arrangement in the end will prove deadly for us. He refuses to leave our hearts alone about our choices of where we have placed our faith. He exposes our unbelief of God's heart for us repeatedly which is simply the exposure of symptoms revealing that our faith is somewhere it doesn't belong. He is ever seeking to convince us one way or another that our only real hope is in changing the attachments of our faith to the only reliable Source of life that can be found anywhere.
But we find it hard many times to keep our faith attached to God. We keep finding that our faith reverts so easily back to ourselves or to others that we have trusted in the past. Why does this happen so easily and so quickly?
I believe that part of that answer is that we have not changed the other half of faith. And what do I mean by that?
Unbelief is the flip side of faith. It is like the defensive side, the rejecting aspect in our relationship to our chosen source of life. Therefore, it will not be enough to just move our faith over to a different connection point if we fail to also move our unbelief to the opposite side at the same time. Unbelief may be closely related to what we sometimes refer to as renouncing. When people use the traditional marriage vows part of those vows include renouncing all others for the sake of the new spouse. In essence, a person is choosing to place their undivided affections and trust in their spouse while actively choosing to withdraw their affections at that level from every other person that might look like a good source of pleasure or intimate companionship for them.
You see, when our faith is mainly focused on ourself and our own capabilities and wisdom, then our unbelief will be firmly in place toward other people and God. When our faith is firmly attached by fear to depending on other's to control and run our lives, our unbelief is directed at both ourselves and at God. This reinforces the ability of faith to function more effectively and helps us feel more balanced.
Unbelief is the defensive side of faith. As such, unbelief actually may be seen to be a very valid part of our thinking that we need to pay more attention to instead of trying to obliterate and exterminate it altogether. The problem is not so much that we have unbelief but that, like our faith, it is aimed in the wrong direction.
The real problem arises when our unbelief is directed too close to the same object that our faith is trying to attach to. Unbelief is sort of like defensive artillery that is always ready to blast away at what we feel deep in our heart is an unreliable source of life and hope for us. Unbelief is the resistance of the heart against anything that contradicts what our true faith believes is best for us. This heart-level belief may be completely opposite to what our conscious mind thinks we believe; but it is what our heart believes that really controls the direction of our life ultimately. When our unbelief guns are aimed at the same place that we are trying to fasten our faith, it obviously creates a great deal of tension and even confusion and reveals a condition of deception in our own minds. We are actually trying to believe two opposite things at the same time and that is a recipe for instability – which is exactly what the book of James has been telling us for centuries.
I am starting to see that it may not be enough to just practice faith toward God and His Word. It may be necessary to also deliberately exercise unbelief in a very intentional way toward every other option if I am to stabilize my faith.
If the offensive and defensive parts of an army or of a football team do not coordinate their strategies with each other, that team will find itself in disarray and will easily be defeated time and again. Likewise, if we do not become aware of the focus of the legitimate defensive part of our heart called unbelief and take notice of what it is trying to defend us against, we may discover that we are attempting to both attach and attack the same place at the same time. That doesn't work in warfare, it doesn't work in sports and it certainly is a recipe for disaster in life as well.
So, instead of trying to eliminate our defensive team, dismantle our unbelief corps and take away their weapons and ammunition and disband them altogether, we may actually need to have God teach us how to reorganize these troops and aim their weapons in a different direction under the influence of a different general. Maybe if we learn to unleash all the power of our unbelief toward the things we used to believe in, the attachment points of people or things or habits that our faith used to rely on so firmly, then we might find it much easier to rest in God and increase our faith in Him far more effectively.
Double-mindedness is when we are attempting to both believe and disbelieve the same thing at the same time. At first this may appear to be something we are not doing, but upon closer examination and light from the Spirit of God in our hearts we will often discover that we do it far more than we ever suspected. But instead of throwing up our hands and getting upset about it, it may be more helpful to ask God to show us both were our faith is really focused and also where the sights of our unbelief weapons are aimed. As we begin to perceive the directions that our heart is focused as well as the shallowness of many of the professions of our religious intellect, we may then be much better situated to cooperate with God in retraining our sights, both of our faith and of our unbelief.
It seems to me that if we began to deliberately choose to exercise unbelief toward all other sources other than God as our only hope that it may do much to protect and reinforce our decisions to exercise faith toward God. We also need to discover how we may be still using our defensive weapons of unbelief toward God and learn to turn our weapons away from Him, but not in order to dismantle them but to train them against the forces that previously were using them against God. When we allow God to take over command of our defensive troops of unbelief and turn their sights against all that opposes God's authority in our life we may find that our faith will be far more protected and free to deepen its roots into the heart of our Savior. We will discover a level of peace and joy and growth that previously was constantly hampered by the confusion of misplaced unbelief.