Such examples share a certain resonance with Peter who stands before his Master in cocksure ignorance, convinced that he has himself, life and faith all figured out. He stands before his Lord, claiming, ‘Everybody else may desert you, but not me. You can doubt every one else’s sincerity, but not mine. I’m firm. I’m constant. I am certain of myself and my faith.’ Peter considers himself a paragon of integrity, publicly distinguishing himself from his peers by his declaration of courage, completely oblivious to the fact that the pinnacle on which he stands is a slippery rock from which he is about to take a terrible fall!
Jesus tries to warn him: ‘My friend, you think you are so strong in your faith. But you are about to experience radical doubt. You think you will stand by me in the coming crisis, but you are about to go forth and deny that you even know me three times. You are about to go from one extreme to the other!’ Cocksure Peter cannot hear this wise counsel, cannot imagine those words are true. It will take tumbling onto the hard rocks of failure, will take an event of bruising disaster and devastating despair for him to realize how easy it is in real life to move from one extreme to the other. It will take life harshly drawing back the curtain of his certitude and revealing his courage as an inglorious brag for him to see with clarity that at the moment he was most sure of his faith he was paradoxically closest to a crisis of absolute disbelief!
On the other hand, look at the other great New Testament pillar. Paul is closest to faith when he thinks himself most inimical to faith. When Paul thinks himself most closed to the Gospel, when there is murder in his eyes and righteous indignation in his heart, when he deems the cause of Christ false and considers Christ’s followers as idolaters who must be exterminated, he is in fact most ripe to receive Christ’s revelation! When he sees himself most as the enemy of Christ, he is the most open to hearing the voice of Christ. When he thinks himself most clear-sighted, he is ready to be struck blind, and only in his blindness will he see the Light. The truth of Christ, which he has regarded as a lie, suddenly becomes the beacon that grants him clarity of understanding. With every step toward Damascus, Paul thought he was traveling to suppress the cause of Christ, when in fact his every step was drawing him near to Christ’s redemptive love, moving from one extreme to the other!
You may say that these ironic reversals from one extreme to the other only really happen in the Bible. You know in your heart that is not true. Real life is characterized by amazing oddities that make existence unpredictable, strange, and even bizarre. You can pick up a newspaper (if you still pick up a newspaper) and read of a respected accountant absconding with the funds from a business that he has selflessly served for years. You can read of a woman who has been a paradigm of virtue and fidelity suddenly running off with a traveling con man who involves her in a scam. You can behold the story of an upstanding stalwart family man in the community who inexplicably turns violent, killing his family and himself. Our first reaction is one of disbelief. No, human beings can’t swing so dramatically from one extreme to the other. But they do! In real life honesty is not that far removed from larceny, and fidelity can turn to treachery, and absolute love can mutate into absolute hatred. We are very capable of moving from one extreme to the other.
‘Ah, Dr. Kremer,’ you say, ‘such radical transformations of faith like Peter’s and Paul’s are rare.’ Perhaps — but not as rare as you might think. Some years ago I came across the testimony of an accomplished French journalist named Andre Froussard. He was the son of a prominent atheist, a French communist politician, prior to the Second World War. This young man had been raised all his life to scorn religious beliefs and considered the question of God’s reality as not even an issue intelligent people could consider. But then he found himself sitting in the car of a Christian friend with whom he was going to dinner, and the friend had stopped for a moment to go into a small church so he could attend confession. The young journalist got bored waiting for his friend to come back out from his quaint religious practice, so he decided to go into the little sanctuary and wait. He described his situation in that moment through these words: “To sum up, I feel absolutely no curiosity whatsoever about anything to do with religion, all of which is simply out of date. It is ten minutes past five. In two minutes I shall be a Christian.”
What happened in those two minutes? This young atheist walked into the doors of the sanctuary and found his vision inexplicably riveted upon a burning candle. In that instant he heard the very voice of Christ who spoke to Saul now speaking into his ears two searing words, “Spiritual life.” Spiritual life! Just as suddenly the reality of God came flooding into this man like a river. He felt the presence of a light flowing into him, a light so luminous he confessed that had it been only a bit brighter he felt it might have destroyed him. This man who had no religious upbringing, no conscious spiritual inclination, no conscious concept of God, walked into a church as an absolute atheist and walked out a giddy believer. In a blink of an eye he was transformed from an atheist into Christ’s servant with an electric sense of God’s reality. In time, this gifted journalist, to the consternation of his prominent atheistic, family, found himself writing a piercing, poetic little book entitled, God Exists . . . I Have Met Him.
Do not think that we can always choose the angle in which we will experience God. Do not think that God will be satisfied to stay within whatever narrow boundaries we allow the Divine. Do not think that because we choose to push God’s call away from us that God will be content to stay alienated. God cannot be so controlled. God reserves the right to take the initiative and rewrite the script of our lives. Moreover, do not think that just because we are presently active in God’s service that we could not opt to reject God’s deeper call to commitment in the future. My first paying church job was as janitor number two at a church in Louisville, Kentucky. From that vantage point I watched two close friends work hand in glove together, a minister of education and a Sunday School director, both creative, competent, passionate spiritual people, who did so much good together, right up until the moment when they didn’t. Some disagreement split them, some rift estranged them, and the Sunday School director resigned not only his church post, but his participation in the congregation as well, taking his wife and two lovely young daughters with him. I had already worked in churches long enough to know that that sort of divisive realignment takes place occasionally in churches, unfortunately. But what I thought would happen didn’t happen. This beautiful, talented spiritual family didn’t leave one church to become an integral member of another. Instead, they took up bicycling, and as we would walk out of church on Sunday they would come riding by on their new bikes. That is when I learned that the antonym of faith is not doubt. Doubt is an integral part of any healthy faith that seeks understanding. No, the antonym of faith is pride, pride that leads to spiritual apathy. I wondered, as a young minister in training, how could someone go from absolute engagement to absolute apathy and disengagement? I wondered, did that talented spiritual family ever come to a point where they realized that bike riding was an inadequate sublimated substitute for committed engagement in Christ’s community? I never found the answer.
I do know that our Scriptures teach us clearly that pride in our certitude is a dangerous state of being. Peter is certain that he will not fail Jesus in a crisis moment. Peter is a fool ready for a fall. The rich young ruler who has kept all the commandments from his youth is sure that he has merited eternal life. He is a fool ripe for a fall. The successful businessman who builds bigger barns to store his great harvest and then sits back in self-satisfied stupor saying, “Now I can eat, drink, and make merry with my bounty, and take my ease” – Jesus calls that man a fool ripe for a fall! Pride and certitude generally signal not faith but oblivious ignorance. Pride and certitude usually signal a great fear. That is what makes fundamentalism such a dangerous threat in our world, for it tries to simplify realities that cannot be simplified, tries to silence dialogue on issues that cry out for conversation. And though we often link “fundamentalism” with conservative elements of society, in truth, fundamentalism is not a matter of ideology but a matter of approach to life that closes one’s mind to any point of view save one’s own. Fundamentalism can be found in any movement eager to close off discussion, exploration and inquiry. The eminently progressive preacher and writer Will Campbell once noted that in our spiritual pilgrimage we will meet both fundamentalist liberals as well as fundamentalist conservatives, for fundamentalism is not tied to a particular ideology. Rather, fundamentalism is a style, a closed-minded certitude that says ‘I already have life and faith figured out. I don’t need further input.’ Such pride and certitude makes one ripe for a fall. That is exactly why Jesus said to the Pharisees, “If you only could sense your blindness, you might be on the verge of seeing. But because you say, ‘We see,’ you remain blind to all that is coming.”
But if it is true that moments of pride and certitude can lead to the extreme of absolute desperation, dejection and despair, it is also true that moments of desperation, dejection and despair can be catalysts to revelation, regeneration and renewal. There is a certain truth in the old axiom, life is often darkest before the dawn. Sure, terrible period of darkness afflict every life, and every pilgrimage experiences moments when hopelessness threatens to overwhelm us, when the world seems empty, our resources shallow, our prospects dim, and every door we try to open seems to slam shut. It is natural in such moments to think that we have no way out of the distress in which we find ourselves. But just when we are sure that we are beyond hope and fear and that we are even beyond faith, God’s Spirit has a way of slipping into the crevices of our lives and bringing joy, love, peace and liberation. What may appear to you to be the end of a meaningful existence may just be the beginning of a new life. You may give up on your capacity for love only to walk into a room and suddenly see the person with whom you will spend the rest of your life. You may fail at some venture and think your career doomed, only the next day to receive the best opportunity you’ve ever had. You may think that you have failed in such a way that life holds no promise for you, only to find that your present darkness is preparing your spirit to receive the greatest grace imaginable. You may think your soul is dead and that you are through with God, only to find that God is just beginning with you. The story of our faith, both in the Scripture and in history, is full of people whom God has brought from one extreme to the other, from darkness to life, from hopelessness to health.
You might be thinking, ‘These extremes and ironies Dr. Kremer is talking about are not applicable to me. The structure of my life is fixed. The structure of my beliefs are fixed. I know how my life is going to play out. I have everything scripted. What I believe, I have always believed – and I always will.’ All I can say to you is, ‘Don’t be too sure.’ Peter was sure that he would never deny he even knew Jesus. Saul was sure he would always be opposing Christ. Andre Froussard was sure he would go through life as an atheist. All of them were wrong. You may have scripted your life, but God doesn’t always follow the script that we have written for our lives. Sometimes, God writes God’s own script for us. And we must have faith enough to let God change us. If we don’t think God’s Spirit can radically change us, then we don’t have a Biblical faith. For a Biblical faith empowers us to say to our God, ‘Alright, Lord, have thine own way with us. Have thine own way.’