for every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God. — Hebrews 3:4
Rebuilding a house is an exercise in faith and grace, hammers and nails. And screwguns, and table saws, and paintbrushes, and caulking guns, and… The list of tools that reside in our basement and the still unfinished rooms goes on and on.
It’s been eight years since we’ve begun the work on our Apple Hill Cottage. God’s presence has been everywhere — from the very way we acquired the place, to now, as we continue to work on it while we live here, working and living out our faith with fear and trembling.
I don’t think it is a stretch to write about this old cottage and the metaphors of God that sometimes my mind manages to unscramble. Scripture is full of metaphors, parables, and figures of speech. Jesus himself was accused of not speaking plainly by his disciples in John chapter 16 when they said, “…Now you are speaking clearly and without figures of speech.”– John 16:29. This was just before they agreed that he knew all things and came from God.
Scripture also compares physical houses with spiritual houses. The most famous scene that comes to mind is the parable in Luke 6:48-49 about the foolish builders who built their house on sand versus the wise builders who built their house on the rock of Christ. But there is also the story in Mark 13 when Jesus tells us about the man who leaves his house and puts his servants in charge at the door to keep watch. The servants do not know when the master of the house will return and some fall asleep. For we do not know when the owner of the house will return; and we don’t want him to find us sleeping. Jesus is really telling us that our spiritual house must not be in disarray when we meet him–we don’t want him to find us at the door, nodding off.
Paul also compares buildings and spiritual houses in Ephesians when he tells the Ephesians that they are members of God’s household, which is “…built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone. In Him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.” (Ephesians 2:20-21) And then he says, we too are being built together to become a dwelling where God lives by His spirit.
Comparisons of physical and spiritual buildings aren’t just in the New Testament: Isaiah says, “You counted the buildings in Jerusalem and tore down houses to strengthen the wall. You built a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the Old Pool, but you did not look to the One who made it, or have regard for One who planned it long ago.”(Isaiah 22:11) Our buildings, our houses, our walls — the physical accoutrements of our lives — must be accounted for and approved by God who ordained from long ago the way we are to live now.
And Psalm 127:1 says, “Unless the Lord build the house, the builders labor in vain.” I wrote that several times on various unpainted, rough plastered walls throughout the cottage. Unless our spiritual house–our faith–gives glory to the Lord, our works (or fruits) are empty and useless in God’s eyes.
FAITH IS THE HAMMER
Faith is one of those slippery words. It’s hard to hold on to; hard to explain; hard to wrap our brains around. When I was a young teenager asking my mother hard questions about God, her answer was “You just have to have faith.”
I wish I had been told, way back then, that it was okay to have doubts; that the doubts precede and make stronger one’s faith; that doubts are just a part of faith: a stumbling block that one trips over, but Jesus is there to grab your hand to keep you from falling. Alas, I was a young skeptic — and where does faith live when the house is empty of belief? Or if Jesus is not there to keep you from falling? As a teenager I had no foundation to my house of beliefs, so when they were challenged, it was easy to open the front door and wave goodbye. Carefree, I didn’t have to think about those troubling stumbles any longer. I was free to run.
But I wasn’t free. I was chained instead to the world and its culture of self. Even though it worked for awhile, when the self realized that it was fallible and not such a good self as originally thought, the house nearly collapsed because it was built on the sand that shifts with high tides and storms.
I’ve spent a lot of time wondering and thinking about faith: where it comes from; why it appears, and then becomes as if it has always been. When faith shows up, it becomes the rock and all the previous wonderings and doubts become less important. But that rock of faith is shaped by our own knowledge and insight; all faith is prejudiced. Someone who has faith believes based on their own personal experience. God has made himself real and that awareness of God — the Holy Spirit — is foolishness to those who’ve never experienced it–unlike reason, which demands impersonal evidence and proof. (Strobel, Lee. The Case for Faith. Zondervan, c2000, p. 33)
Madeleine L’Engle says that “Faith is for that which lies on the other side of reason.” (L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water. Waterbrook Press, c2001, p. 15) Notice what she did not say–she did not say that faith is the opposite of reason, or that faith is contradictory to reason, or that reason is real and faith is illusory. Faith is for the events or ideas, the tragedies or joys that we cannot understand. When reason fails us, faith can sustain us.
Hebrews 11:1 emphasizes this paradox of faith by actually using the word evidence in the description of faith — Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Another translation, the ESV, writes it this way: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. The strong concrete words that describe faith –Evidence; Substance; Assurance; Conviction–are the same strong hammers that build our houses of faith, belief, hope.
Jesus reassured us in Matthew 17:20 that if we have a small faith — the size of a mustard seed, we will be able to move mountains and nothing will be impossible. What glorious words to fall back on when our fears and insecurities and doubts threaten to overwhelm us. It is just one more paradox of faith — that we don’t have to have it all figured out, that indeed, if we just have a tiny seed of faith, it can be used by God for seemingly impossible things.
William Lane Craig said, “You don’t have to have all your doubts answered to come to faith.”(Craig, William Lane. Found on www.reasonablefaith.org) An even more affirming thought on doubt comes from Francis Bacon: “If we begin with certainties we will end in doubt, but if we begin with doubts and bear them patiently we may end in certainty.”(Bacon, Francis. De Augmentis found in L’Engle’s Walking on Water, p. 135.) May we all journey through doubt, disbelief, hesitation, and end in certainty.
GRACE IS THE NAIL
The hammer of faith has to strike over and over — our faith can be challenged daily by the world, our jobs, our acquaintances, our families, our circumstances. But the grace of the nail is this: it holds; it bonds; it joins unequal things together; it supports and grasps and keeps from falling. Without seeming to work, the nail connects to something larger. It pierces with a hole and then fills the hole with itself, a secure fastener.
Read that paragraph again and use Christ instead of the word nail. I think of the title of Max Lucado’s book– He Chose the Nails. Christ himself was pierced with those nails on the cross, but in His case it wasn’t the physical nails that held him to the cross. It was His love. For us. Those nails were love; those nails were grace. For us. “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8
Belief in God, or faith, begins with the realization that you, me, we are not those good people we thought we were. That our selves are prideful, envious, selfish, lustful, lazy, greedy, gossipy, murderous even. But grace… Grace is admitting you have a hole and asking God, Christ, to fill that hole. But we have to ask. We have to say, Yes, God, I am a sinner and I need you in my life.
God and His grace are everywhere —in a newly built house, clean and sparkling and ready; in a humble cottage, bursting at the seams with children, love, strife, emotions; in the cold mansion on the hill, where it seems nothing will grow; in the tumbling-down shack in the country; in a crowded apartment in the city…. We all grow at different times and hear the word in different ways, but through grace, God is always available to us. Yet He will never force us to believe. His love though? His love is with everyone — those who scoff, those who question, those who seek, those who have faith, those who love Him. All we need to do is hear and respond. And I am thankful that, after a long time in the desert, He gave me ears to hear, eyes to see, and a heart that is open to Him. A heart that used to have a hole in it, but now is filled. I pray that everyone comes to know this faith. “Righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Romans 3:22-24
Entire books have been written about grace and faith; I cannot possibly do them justice in this small introductory essay, but when I opened my bible to make sure that I had the exact wording of the Ephesians 2:19-22 text above — God’s household is built on the chief cornerstone of Jesus Christ — I discovered these defining words in the margin: Grace is the pure, undeserved goodness of God. All that is needed of us is our willingness to accept that grace through faith. Yet, that faith, is given to us through grace. When faith increases, so does grace; it is God’s circle of life.
William Lane Craig said, “You don’t need to have all your questions answered to come to faith.” I wish someone had told me that earlier. But maybe someone did. Maybe someone planted that seed that just took a long time to grow.
Fifty years have passed since that first conversation about faith; I never did get hit with a lightning bolt, but life itself — the Spirit of grace — eventually brought me to belief. To hope. To faith. Later than many would have hoped. I read. I studied. I looked at sunsets, and flowers, and all of nature which reflects God. And eventually I prayed. And God made himself known.
I whined. God, why didn’t you make yourself known to me earlier? Then I could have raised my kids in faith — in your love… I would have lived for you longer, better, more effectively. But God is outside of time; he operates simultaneously in the past, the present, and the future, so all of God’s actions within time happen at just at the right time. He is never too early or too late. (Wilkin, Jen. None Like Him, Crossway, 2016, p. 71.) It is only our own perceptions of time that put boundaries on God. He is God Himself, who is eternal, everlasting, endless. He will redeem our time, grant us grace, but rarely on our ephemeral human time lines.
If we go back to Ephesians, Chapter 2, you will find the major passage in the New Testament for understanding grace. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast…” (Ephesians 2:8-9) So, God reveals His gift of grace to all of us at just the right time. May these small house stories — metaphors of faith and grace — either be a seed for you, or add to the hope of your own faith story. And may they be at just the right time.
Books read while writing these essays:
- Everywhere God, Alicia Brummeler
- Scribbling in the Sand, Michael Card
- Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle
- Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis
- He Chose the Nails, Max Lucado
- In the Grip of Grace, Max Lucado
- Grace Transforming, Philip Ryken;
- The Case for Faith, Lee Strobel
- Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas
- None Like Him, Jen Wilkin
- Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, N.D. Wilson
- Somewhere More Holy, Tony Woodlief
- Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright
- What’s So Amazing about Grace? Philip Yancey
Blogs read while writing these essays: The River Walk, Desiring God, Informing the Reforming, The Housewife Theologian, Reasonable Faith.
All Bible quotations use the 1984 NIV translation unless noted otherwise.
Note: In some ways this introduction is the hard theological part of the chapters that come next. The essays that follow are generally concerned with just one aspect of life or faith, while this introduction is more of a broad discussion on the basic and overarching doctrinal principles of faith and grace–two big fuzzy words that often get thrown around without delving deeply into what they mean. Let’s be less concerned with what the ‘theologians’ say about them, and concern ourselves with the personal: What does Faith mean to you? What does Grace mean to you? And what are your most personal and favorite Bible verses about Faith? Grace?