Thoughts on the nature of Christian faith

What people don’t realise is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.

Flannery O’Connor

In his comments on the song inspired by this quote (video and lyrics below), Steve Taylor wrote,

The cost of discipleship—the ideal of taking up your cross everyday and following Jesus—makes it hard to believe, because Christianity demands things from us that we don’t naturally want to give. In the words of playwright Dennis Potter, “There is, in the end, no such thing as a simple faith.”

This is pure truth, at least as regards Christianity. In the broadest possible sense, believing is easy: everyone believes something, because we have to. We can’t ground our lives on reason alone, because a chain of reasoning requires a starting point; however far back you reason, that starting point recedes still further. We can’t use our reasoning to provide that starting point, because we’d end up with circular reasoning, however great the circle might be. Our reasoning has to begin from ultimate premises which we cannot prove—such as “There is a God,” or “There is no God”—but can only take as faith commitments. Once we’ve done that, we can interrogate those premises, and the conclusions we’ve drawn from them, and see if the whole thing is rationally consistent, if the beliefs we’ve developed are logically coherent with each other and accurately descriptive of the world as we know it; but we cannot remove the necessity of faith undergirding our reasoning. Indeed, even reasoning is in some sense an act of faith—faith in our ability to reason, and in the viability of reason itself. As St. Anselm put it, reason is faith seeking understanding.

That said, while believing something is easy, believing in Christ isn’t. Far from it, in fact. And this isn’t for the reasons atheists and others want to advance, about the problem of evil and the problem of miracles and suchlike; “scientific” objections like the latter are ultimately just assertions (no, science hasn’t disproved miracles, you just want to believe it has), while philosophical and existential objections ultimately tell against atheists just as much as Christians. (If you think evil is a problem for Christians, just stop and consider the problem it poses for atheists. It’s a different kind of problem, but no less real for all that.) I’ve known people whose decision to believe in Christ rested on logical argument, but very few; and I’ve never known anyone who was actually driven to atheism by reason. (Thus the philosopher Edward Tingley, comparing modern atheists unfavorably to Pascal, writes, “Agnostics are not skeptical, half the atheists are not logical, and the rest refuse to go where the evidence is.”)  Rather, in my experience, the main reason people choose not to believe in Christ is because they don’t want to. As Chesterton wryly observed,

The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried.

The reason for this is that the Christian faith isn’t designed to meet our “felt needs”; it isn’t, as so many atheists smugly assume, just a matter of believing what we want to believe. As Flannery O’Connor put it, it isn’t a big warm electric blanket, it’s the cross—and we don’t particularly want the cross. We don’t particularly want a God who calls us to deny ourselves and take up our cross (which, you remember, was an implement designed to torture people to death) and then has the gall to say, “My yoke is well-fitted and my burden is light.” We can’t get to the point where we want that until we realize that our needs go much, much deeper than what we feel on the surface; we can’t get to that point until we realize that the burden of taking up our cross is in fact light compared to the burden of our sin, and that Jesus’ yoke is indeed well-fitted, not to doing what we want to do, but to doing what we need to do. Getting there, however, isn’t easy; it’s far easier to turn aside and believe something else instead.

And before you start to object that the behavior of many Christians is another major reason why people turn away from faith, let me say that that’s just another example of the same problem: many of us in the church don’t want the cross either. Even for many within the church, it’s harder to believe than not to, and so it’s all too easy for us to choose not to. Instead, we find something else to believe in—a structure of behavioral rules, a set of political commitments, a system of how-tos for “the life you’ve always wanted”—and call that Christianity instead. The thing is, that kind of belief can build organizations, even big ones, and it can attract followers, even committed ones, and it can do a lot of things that impress this world—but what it can’t do is raise Christians. It takes a church to raise a Christian, and specifically, it takes a church that’s trying to be the church; and churches that take those kinds of approaches are trying to be something else. They are, essentially, counterfeit churches practicing counterfeit Christianity—and, in the process, stifling people who should be trading in slavery to sin for freedom in Christ, so that they wind up escaping one mold merely to be squeezed into another. Follow that out too far and you wind up with the kind of thing Taylor satirized when he wrote,

So now I see the whole design;
My church is an assembly line.
The parts are there—I’m feeling fine!
I want to be a clone!

You also wind up with the kind of church, and the kind of church member, that turns people away from Christianity, without those people ever realizing that it isn’t really Christianity they’re rejecting.

The bottom line here is that true Christian faith is not just intellectual assent to a series of propositions, nor is it a commitment to pursue what we consider to be good and helpful behaviors (though in some sense, both of those are involved): true Christian faith is a belief in a Person, and a commitment to follow that Person wherever he might lead us. To borrow from the old story about the Great Blondin, it’s not just a matter of agreeing that if we get in the wheelbarrow, he’ll be able to push us safely across his tightrope over Niagara Falls—it’s a matter of actually getting in the wheelbarrow and hanging on. It’s a whole-life commitment, giving everything we have to follow Jesus.

The great offense of the Christian life to us is that it’s not about us at all—it’s not about our goals, our desires, our felt needs, and how to get what we consider to be “our best life now”; it’s not about making us better able to go out and be our best selves, so that we can take the credit for what wonderful people we are. Rather, it’s about setting all that aside and casting ourselves on Jesus, living lives of radical abandonment to the grace of God, letting him have all the glory for what he does in and through us—and letting him decide what exactly that will be, and where, and when, and how. This is the only way to real life, but it isn’t easy; in fact, O’Connor and Taylor are right: it’s harder to believe than not to.

Harder to Believe than Not to

Nothing is colder than the winds of change
Where the chill numbs the dreamer till a shadow remains;
Among the ruins lies your tortured soul—
Was it lost there, or did your will surrender control?

Shivering with doubts that were left unattended,
So you toss away the cloak that you should have mended.
Don’t you know by now why the chosen are few?
It’s harder to believe than not to—
Harder to believe than not to.

It was a confidence that got you by,
When you knew you believed it, but you didn’t know why.
No one imagines it will come to this,
But it gets so hard when people don’t want to listen.


Some stay paralyzed until they succumb;
Others do what they feel, but their senses are numb.
Some get trampled by the pious throng—
Still, they limp along.

Are you sturdy enough to move to the front?
Is it nods of approval or the truth that you want?
And if they call it a crutch, then you walk with pride;
Your accusers have always been afraid to go outside.

They shiver with doubts that were left unattended,
Then they toss away the cloak that they should have mended.
You know by now why the chosen are few:
It’s harder to believe than not to.

I believe.

Words and music: Steve Taylor
© 1987 Soylent Tunes
From the album
 I Predict 1990, by Steve Taylor


Posted in Atheism, Music and art, Poetry and lyrics, Quotes, Religion and theology, Video.


  1. Rob, another terrific post. I am new to the whole linking thing, and may not do it correctly, but I would like to quote you again. I have some readers who are struggling with what real Christianity is, and this would get them thinking.

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