Faith versus Formulas (or, scary versus safe)

Introducing our September book, Good News for Anxious Christians: Ten Practical Things You Don't Have To Do by Phillip Cary.


“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion."
"Ooh" said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion."
"Safe?" said Mr Beaver, "Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.”

Upon reading the first two chapters of Cary’s book it was abundantly clear that the book is a reaction to a very specific problem in current US culture and theology, making it a little tricky to engage with initially. However on reflection, I came to realise that the problem he has identified is a universal one: the anxiety that comes from not being in control, of not knowing if God is speaking, (or even if He exists sometimes!), of never knowing ‘for sure’.

I believe that this is an anxiety that God’s people have been struggling with since the Exodus, even if the culture or the practices are different: ever since Aaron and the people of Israel made a golden calf to worship while Moses was up the mountain. The culture they had been living in for hundreds of years was a culture that made offerings and sacrifices to visible gods – the sun god, the god of rain, etc. This was a culture that depended on formulas in order to feel some kind of control, some kind of safety: if it didn’t rain, they knew they had done something wrong. Thus, the Israelites, in their anxiety to find answers and comfort about an ‘invisible’ God (the only one of its kind in that culture), incorporated into their worship what the culture used to ease their fears, and try to make their God and faith feel safe in the same way. As we know, God had to teach them many times that he was not to be approached this way – He taught them another way, that he was to be approached by faith. By the time of the New Testament, the writer to the Hebrews tells us the stories of those who acted by faith:

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.

This then makes sense of what Cary is talking about in his culture – the anxiety of not being able to discern God’s ‘voice’; of not being able to plug in a formula and receive the relief of immediate feedback. I actually think this anxiety is normal, because faith is scary. There’s no ‘proof’, no formula. Just stories, poems, sermons, letters, songs handed down to us from generation to generation for us to trust. For Cary’s culture, their attempt to ease their anxiety, to make their calf, means they’re placing dependence on ‘hearing a voice’; but all it does in the end is become burdensome and develops an unhealthy preoccupation with oneself. It made me wonder what the equivalent ‘golden calf’ formula is within evangelical Sydney. What is the solution that is causing people undue burden here?"

My humble suggestion for reflection and discussion is that we have the almost polar opposite problem: our culture is that we’re preoccupied with doctrine, with ‘getting the passage right,’ with trying to make God sit within our limited definitions as our way of easing our anxiety about ‘not knowing.’ That way, He is never surprising, too powerful, or mysterious. Cary talks about how churches in the US discuss someone’s ‘problem’ of not being able to hear God speak directly to them; I often hear people discuss the problem of someone ‘not understanding scripture properly.’ Cary is attacking the under-intellectualisation and lack of critical thinking in the churches; my suggestion is that we over-intellectualise our faith, and place too much emphasis on what we can know and analyse in order to minimise our anxiety about faith in God – something that can’t be seen, or measured, or formulised.

I quoted that classic passage in C.S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because reading this book has reminded me that God is not to be controlled by formulas, but is trustworthy if we have faith in the person and work of Jesus, the Christ!