My friend works as a physician at a local hospital and describes herself as someone more committed to science than faith. Raised in a mainline Protestant church, she married a Jewish man and raises her children with hybrid religious commitments and identity.
When I’ve spoken to her about matters of faith, my friend has mostly avowed disinterest. She expresses suspicion about hypocrisy in the church. She worries about the bigotry of Christian belief. She doubts the helpfulness of applying an ancient book to contemporary life. Like many outsiders to evangelicalism, she feels antipathy for any politically opportunistic version of faith.
Despite all these reservations, though, she recently said something far more hopeful: “I don’t consider myself spiritually interested. But why shouldn’t I be?”
My friend represents the average secular person described by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age. She pursues a meaningful, purposeful life—apart from any notions that such meaning and purpose should be defined by God or found in the life of faith. She’s spiritually agnostic but hasn’t yet, in Taylor’s words, “conquered the nostalgia for something transcendent.”
As she’s told me, “I don’t believe we’re just atoms. I do believe that there is something else. There just has to be.”
Power of Habit
In the 10 years I’ve lived in Toronto, one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, I’m always surprised by how few people here enjoy even a cursory understanding of the life of Christian faith. Many assume faith is more genetic than learned. Some people have it; most don’t. They think it a kind of extraordinary capacity distributed at birth—and they imagine they must have been standing in the wrong line.
I grow more curious about how to persuasively share my faith with friends and neighbors here, especially as I’ve realized how few ask questions about the truth of faith. Instead, they seem more often to want to know about the goodness of faith or the workability of faith.
My neighbor across the street was raised in communist Russia before immigrating to Canada in her 20s. Now she enjoys a stable marriage, two healthy children, and enough money to afford a comfortable life. She asked me with a shrug, “What do I need faith for?”
I’ve begun to see how some take up the habits of faith—like reading the Bible or attending church—before they take up faith.
My neighbor enjoys a stable marriage, two healthy children, and enough money to afford a comfortable life. She asked me with a shrug, ‘What do I need faith for?’
Mathematician Blaise Pascal understood the power of habit for seeding faith, not simply sustaining it. Pascal converted to Christ in his early 20s, and in Pensées he suggested people go through faith’s motions to find its reality:
You want to be cured of unbelief and you ask for the remedy: learn from those who were once bound like you and now wager all they have. . . . They behaved just as if they did believe, taking holy water, having masses said, and so on. That will make you believe quite naturally.
Pascal understood habit as a kind of back door into faith. Though the habits he prescribes, as a Roman Catholic, aren’t those I practice today, his belief in the power of habit is relevant and important.
We often think of spiritual habits as something to be developed after conversion. You pray—after you’ve been convinced of the reality of God. You read the Scriptures regularly—after you’ve been convinced of their value and veracity. Perhaps we might also imagine spiritual habits as something to provide entrance into faith.
Testimony of Habit
I’ve been watching my friend, Esther, grow in faith this past year. It is marvelous—and relatively unmysterious. She visited our downtown church one morning, despairing over the death of a friend.
Perhaps we might also imagine spiritual habits as something to provide entrance into faith.
Raised in Spain, Esther remembered icons of Jesus hanging from a cross, but had no understanding of what his death meant. That first morning at church, she cried through confession, and cried again when a friendly man and his wife prayed with her after the service. I was introduced to her months later.
I watched as she took up the habits of faith before taking up faith. She immersed herself in the Bible, meeting with me and two other women as we took her to the most unlikely book: Deuteronomy. She continued attending church weekly, lingering long after the service to ask questions. Week after week she came to our study, delving into the text, unafraid to raise objections. Within months, her faith was growing effortlessly—a mustard seed becoming a mighty tree.
This past fall, Esther’s husband followed her to small group. On the first night, he introduced himself by saying, “I’m here because I see the change in her.” Last week, Esther made her profession of faith at a membership induction. I cried the whole way through. “I am 50 years old, and all my life my heart has been longing for more—whether it was from life, from my family, or from my friends—until I was finally able to rest my heart in God. This is enough for me.”
We often feel unequipped to share our faith with people in our life who don’t know Jesus. We imagine they’ll ask us impossible questions we won’t know how to answer. That may indeed happen. But there are other ways into the life of faith than satisfying doubts.
Sometimes the habits of faith lead us straight into the arms of Jesus.