“Love is like playing the piano. First you must learn to play by the rules, then you must forget the rules and play from your heart”
Of late, I’ve been (trying) to keep up with a discourse on the voluntary/involuntary nature of faith.There has been an intellectual interplay of arguments, thoughts, and propositions, all aimed to answer whether faith is voluntary or involuntary. I suppose one could accuse me of taking a cop out and choosing to evade the question, though I wonder if the question is the correct question to ask in the first place.
A couple days ago, I tried to clear through some boxes filled with snippets of high school. During my shuffles down memory lane, I came across a sheet of paper from summer 2008. On such a page, there was a quote that particularly struck a chord with me. It relates love to playing the piano (I remember getting the guys who were piano minors at camp that year to agree to have this cheesy quote on our shirts–see above for quote).
In light of the ruminations that take place in one’s time of solitude, such as the summer, I think it’s worth applying this quotation to our faith. In many ways, playing the piano does demand playing by the rules; the correct notes, the correct rhythm, the correct balance, the correct tempo, endless hours of practice, memorization, performance, repetition, and, all too often, it takes only a couple of careless lapses of time for the finesse to slacken. Yet, it is within the confines of these “rules,” that the performer reaches a place to truly flourish and play music. Oddly enough, the rules enable the freedom.
Similarly, rigorously engaging with one’s beliefs is important. Reading the Bible is important. Standing on solid theology is important. Thinking about how to live one’s life as a “light and salt” is important. In a similar, but different way, facts are important, and reason has its place in the world. However, I have noticed within myself a wearing. I can only take certain abstract and often verbose thought trains for so long, before I grow simply exhausted.
Because the truth is, the rules will never get you there. Only Christ will get you there. This may sound even more abstract, but I think that’s the beauty of the Christian faith. There is so precious little that we as humans are capable of before our Creator.
There is a passage in Mark that often resonates with me:
And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.
-Mark 9:24 (KJV)
Personally, I feel that asking whether faith is voluntary or involuntary seriously misses the point. The question itself implies a non-existence of God; that is, it implies that God is not involved in the faith of a man. I see the question as peripheral, because the answer to the question provides only minimal advancement, and serious detour. If faith is voluntary, it seems to follow that man is in perfect control, whereas very few ever feel completely in control of anything. If faith is involuntary, it seems that something else exercises control over, and I struggle to answer what this “something else” could be. I consider it a detour, because I feel that it strays from the root of the issue: that is, “Does God exist?” After all, what is the fundamental difference between voluntary/involuntary belief? If belief is voluntary, well, voluntary belief is based on something, since belief is very rarely based on nothing. If this belief is involuntary, this “involuntary belief” is still the result of something, namely that which might be the influences in one’s life. Which also comes down to be a sort of voluntary belief, since such influences and their reliability is questionable and inconsistent at best, and at some point there is a leap of faith (not in the religious sense, but even in a practical sense. e.g. a lot of things can go wrong when I choose to sit on a chair that looks sturdy. It may be a mirage, it may be rotten, it may be broken, it may be a number of things–but at some point, I will probably just choose to get over my thoughts and sit in it. One could say that my belief that most chairs that appear to be sturdy are sturdy is “involuntary,” but it seems to me that it is oddly voluntary, just as “voluntary” belief is oddly involuntary) …and the cycle seems to go ’round and ’round…
Returning to the passage from Mark, Charles Spurgeon has interesting insight into this passage:
“What was his discovery? Why his discovery was that he did not believe—and that is where the real difficulty lay. When did the man make this discovery? When he began to believe! Is it not a very singular thing that as soon as ever he had a little faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, he discovered the great abyss of his unbelief? “Lord,” he said, “I believe, but, oh, I do also disbelieve so much that my unbelief seems to swallow up my belief!” Until a man receives faith, he may think that he has it—but when he has real faith in Jesus Christ, then he shudders as he thinks how long he has lived in unbelief—and realizes how much of unbelief is still mixed with his belief! …While men have no faith—I repeat what I said just now—while men have no faith, they are unconscious of their unbelief, but as soon as they get a little faith, then they begin to be conscious of the greatness of their unbelief! When the blind man gets a little light into his eyes, he perceives something of the blackness of the darkness in which he has been living—and so you must be able to say from your heart, “Lord, I believe,” or else you will never be able to pray, as this man did, “help my unbelief.” Even a small measure of faith is necessary to discover the great measure of the unbelief.”
So at the end of the day, sometimes I have to forget the rules and tune out the arguments. I have to humble myself and come before the Lord. And ask…and believe. And I can do this, not because I’m actually “forgetting the rules” or “choosing to forego reason, logic, and intellect,” but because all of those faculties that God has given me frees me to come before him and just believe.