Belief Isn’t The Problem… Practice Is!

While at university, I was challenged by one of my lecturers, “What I can’t understand is why someone of obvious intellect can believe in this stuff?” He was talking about my faith, and I have to admit he did not receive a suitable response, as I was somewhat chuffed about being called intellectual (it hadn’t happened before and it hasn’t happened since!)

Belief is a challenge, there is no doubt about that. Many find that their faith is taken aback by the things we see around us and the circumstances of life. Often the most earnest question asked of Christians is, ‘how does a good God allow such suffering?’. Having an answer to questions like this can seem tough. However, the real difficulty is not the beliefs, doctrines or theology of faith, it is the practice of faith—to me, beliefs are not real unless they are lived out.

Let’s take forgiveness. The wiki definition is pretty easy to understand: ‘Forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offence, lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness, with an increased ability to wish the offender well.’ Pretty much all faiths speak of forgiveness: it’s a central belief.

It’s easy, right? Give up, give in, let go… but is it? The idea is wonderfully clear, even beautiful, but try putting it into action when you are hurt. When someone you care deeply about—like your own child or spouse—has been deliberately or unjustly hurt. It’s not so easy then. The practice is the hard bit.

At FaithAction, we have a real interest in the ‘action’ of faith. How people’s beliefs cause them to act. It’s all very well talking and believing—that’s very important—but it’s the doing that’s hard. I find it really humbling and delightful to see the good which is done in the name of faith. Often what draws people of faith together is the common belief that we have a duty to the ‘widow and the orphan’. How we interpret these duties leads to much innovation, and sometimes diverging and colliding approaches. This is not vague believism, but instead, costly action.

When you are faced with the opportunity to ‘forgive your enemies’, ‘prefer your neighbour’ or ‘consider it pure joy when you face trials’, it does not seem like faith is a crutch. It might seem more that faith is like a stick with which to beat the believer. In fact, the genuine faithful need little external persecution, as we are often beating ourselves up.

So the issue of forgiveness serves as an example of applying belief to action as an individual, but when it comes to raising children the challenges of belief and practice become three-way. Firstly, we are competing for attention, both in approach and message. How we explain the tenets of faith is tricky: like any teacher, we are trying to get attention, dragging it away from all manner of personalised devices. As a parent, I talk of faith in terms of interdependent relationships while trying to drag my children’s attention away from iPhones and iPads (symbolic isn’t it!). Of course we can be more snazzy in the way we communicate, but the message itself is in opposition to the rest of their experience. ‘Please yourself!’ bellow the TV adverts, chocolate commercials, while my wife and I meekly suggest ‘prefer others… let your sister/brother have a go’

Secondly, there is natural rebellion. Whoever wanted to do what their parents said? We certainly don’t want to admit they are right about something, or could have anything relevant to say about the world we inhabit. The kids of faithful parents are of course no different—they don’t want to hear it from their parents either. I often marvel at how I could control, interact with, teach and occasionally inspire a class of 30 15 and 16-year-olds from inner city London, yet cannot get three middle class kids from the suburbs—my own kids—to get ready in time for us to spill out of the house and arrive at our church meeting on a Sunday morning with any sense of decorum and peace.

Thirdly, there is always a degree to which beliefs are caught not taught. As someone once said, ‘Don’t worry so much that children are not listening—be more afraid that they are always watching!’ This is back to the practice being more difficult than believing. When stuff is tough at home, one or other of the kids is playing up, I wonder, ‘How did they get their mother’s good looks and my poor character?’ I find myself listing the things they have done wrong, while realising that maybe this exercise should be done with no other audience than the mirror.

Parenting can assist a walk of faith, by providing opportunities to put belief into action: there will always be plenty of opportunities to practice humility and forgiveness!

This blog was also posted on the Huffington Post.