|A Blind Man's Faith
"We walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7).
Today I am beginning a four-part series I have wanted to prepare and preach for several years. I plan to present a simple, condensed argument for the truth and legitimacy of the Christian faith - belief in a personal God, the inspiration of Scripture, and the deity of Christ. The unique thing about the way I am going to approach it is that everything will focus on the historical Jesus. Today, just to get clear about the nature of faith, let me pick up a story I introduced last Sunday.
Erik Weihenmayer did an extraordinary thing on May 25, 2001. He became the first blind person to climb to the summit of Mount Everest. This 32-year-old man from Colorado has been blind since age 13, the victim of a rare hereditary disease of the retina. Yet he stood atop the 29,035-foot peak of the world's highest mountain as one member of a team of nineteen hardy, determined souls.
This man who is married and whose daughter, Emma, had her first birthday just days after her daddy's scaling of Mount Everest is more than an inspiration to people with disabilities. For me, his phenomenal exploit is a perfect illustration of the nature of faith. When I read Paul's statement that Christians are people who walk by faith rather than sight, I think I will always picture Erik in my mind.
Contrary to the opinion of some, I don't buy the idea that "faith is blind" or that choosing to be a Christian is a "blind leap of faith." Only yesterday a man said to me, "I suppose when you are a really committed Christian you 'just believe' that stuff, right?" As someone who teaches formal courses in logic and critical thinking, I could not be a Christian if it required gullibility and na´vetÚ. Christianity not only allows but in a very important sense requires its adherents to examine the facts and to draw only the conclusions they support. Where did we get the notion that Christians "just believe" - pulling faith out of thin air?
On my view of the matter, faith cannot be choosing to believe whatever you wish regardless of the facts. Instead, it is the search for truth and a willingness to follow the truth - wherever it leads. Ancient and modern martyrs were not creating their version of the truth by means of fanatical dedication. They were willing to die because they were convinced they had discovered and embraced the truth. Both it and its author were worth dying for. In my case, my faith-world is not separate from my rational-world. The same common sense and analytical powers that get human beings through every other important issue in life must function in this arena too.
So how is Erik Weihenmayer's exploit an ideal metaphor for my own understanding of faith? What is there about the experience of a blind man that rings true for my experience as a believer?
Time magazine did a cover story on Erik's climb and plastered the words "Blind Faith" over a picture of Erik in mid-climb. I would have suggested either "Blind Man's Faith Overcomes Mountain" or "Faith Conquers Blindness" as more appropriate captions. The last thing he did was to strike out in blind faith. He didn't simply will himself to the top of the world's highest mountain or create a private truth about conquering its challenges. He calculated the risks very carefully, consulted experts in mountain climbing, tested himself on lesser peaks, and trained hard for the assault on Mount Everest. Then he put his feet on the arduous path up the mountain and persevered against hardships those of us who have never been there can hardly imagine.
Just try to picture in your mind's eye what would have happened to him if he had decided to climb Everest, made his way to the base of the mountain, filled a knapsack with beef jerky and two-liter Pepsis, and started climbing. Suppose he had made it to a precipice on the mountain or a crevasse in the ice and decided just to leap and hope for a good outcome. Why, he would have died! Although Erik Weihenmayer was a blind man, he was not a foolish man. He put his faith in what had been learned from previous climbs, in excellent climbing gear chosen for his task, and in other people who wanted to reach the same summit. Specifically, he put his trust in sighted people such as Eric Alexander, Luis Benitez, Jeff Evans, and other experienced climbers.
That much of Erik's experience certainly parallels my own. I admit to being afflicted with spiritual blindness. I have neither the sight nor the insight to discover for myself the deep mysteries of the cosmos. I don't even know my own heart's motives at times. I have done right things for wrong reasons, and wrong things with good intentions! All this traces to a spiritual problem with what the Bible calls my "flesh" (KJV, NRSV) or my "sinful nature" (NIV) - the part of me that tends to self-reliance, self-will, and self-indulgence. My blindness in spiritual matters is so profound that not only can I not find my own way but can learn only a limited amount from the experiences and efforts of others like me.
Ultimately, I need a sighted leader who knows the path ahead, who has already proved he is strong enough to negotiate it successfully himself, and who is willing to lead me along the trail he knows. That is the role of Jesus in my faith. His flawless character and spiritual strength get my attention. His supernatural deeds convince me that he is more than I am - no mere mortal but someone with authentic spiritual insight. Then I hear him saying, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him" (John 14:6-7).
So I deny having "blind faith" in Jesus. I didn't shut down my brain or act on a wild, irrational impulse. I learned enough about Jesus to reason that he knew about things that were beyond me. Then, just as I was beginning to sense that about him, he reinforced my budding faith with fantastic claims about himself that had to be either lunacy or divine revelation. "The Father and I are one" (John 10:30). "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die" (John 11:25-26). "No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 16:6b). These are bold claims. They are extraordinary claims. Yet he did not ask for blind, uncritical commitments from would-be followers. He repeatedly said things like "The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me" (John 10:25; cf. 5:36) or "Believe me because of the works" he had performed (John 14:11).
The final and greatest proof in support of Jesus' otherwise outrageous claims was the ability to conquer death. If he really did rise from the dead, then every claim he ever made for himself is authenticated. He is divine. He knows the way to heaven. And he is able to lead spiritually blind people like me to the very summit of grace, healing, and life. The evidence that supports these claims will be looked at in more detail in lessons two and three of this short series. For my purpose right now, I am simply trying to make it clear that biblical faith is not a risky leap into the unknown with no good reason for attempting it. It is more correctly understood as the response of a handicapped soul to a fit, strong spiritual leader who inspires and deserves our confidence.
Following the Leader
So how do we follow Jesus? I'd suggest we use the same technique Erik used in following his sighted guides: Listen to him. "My sheep hear my voice," Jesus said. "I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand" (John 10:27-28). In order to climb Everest, Erik and his team used bells. The bell might be tied onto the leader's pack on one section of the trail or attached to his pick on another. The sound allowed Erik to hear where the climbers ahead of him were stepping. When they had to put on oxygen masks near the top of the mountain, they switched to sophisticated microphones that wrap around the throat. They picked up the sound vibrations from the guide's throat and transmitted them as speech that Erik could hear through a small earpiece. Again, blind faith would have been fatal; he had to pay close attention to his guide. In the very same way, I dare not trust my feelings to choose my own path. "There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death" (Prov.14:12). "So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ" (Rom.10:17).
Remember too that Erik's climb was done as a member of a larger group - a community of nineteen veteran mountain climbers. That is one of the hard lessons for Christ's followers to learn and hold in memory. Blind, fallen, sinful human beings are so filled with pride and self-reliance that we tend to balk at needing one another. So we are inclined to discount the community of faith called the church and would prefer to follow Jesus one-on-one and privately. That's a bad idea on a high mountain, for people get hurt and need help. They have to huddle against the cold. They share provisions. They have to give and get a helping hand at various times. The same thing is true of this spiritual adventure called salvation. Believers need each other.
In a CNN interview with Carol Lin, Erik talked by phone from the base of Mount Everest on the afternoon of his success. He spoke of the "team accomplishment" of nineteen people. He talked about sponsors, people who were actually with him on the mountain, and people not there who had prayed for him. "I felt like, when I got to the top, I was on the shoulders of lots and lots of people," he said. "It wasn't just me standing there."
Believers are part of a community of faith that crosses centuries, geographical boundaries, and language barriers. It isn't just the people who help us and encourage us and pray for us whom we know. It is that larger community of God's people from centuries past. We draw encouragement from those who have trekked this taxing path before us. So we tell the stories of Abraham, Sarah, Joseph, and Rahab. We read of Job's suffering, Hosea's sad family life, and the nation of Israel in crisis times. We know about Mary and Joseph. We are challenged by Peter and Paul. When we gain some ground in our spiritual lives, we know we are "on the shoulders of lots and lots of people" - God's saints across the ages.
"Ah, but we're back where we started!" says someone. "I can't 'please God' without faith, but my version of faith isn't as strong as Moses' or Peter's. I try to hear and follow Jesus, but I still have my times of frustration and doubt. And doubt and faith surely cancel out one another." Really? Are you sure?
There are four camps on the trail to the summit of Mount Everest. Each serves both as a rest station and launching pad for the next segment of the climb. Before Erik and his group had even reached Camp 1, he slipped into a crevasse. As Luis Benitez scrambled to catch him, his climbing pole smacked Eric across the nose and chin. Some of the climbers began to have doubts about the wisdom of going on, and so did Eric. "I was scared all the time!" he told the CNN interviewer. Even on summit day, as he left Camp 4 for the final ascent, he was fighting his doubts. "When I left, I just kept telling myself: 'Be focused. Be full of energy. Keep relaxed. Don't let all those distractions - the fear and the doubt - creep into your brain, because that's what ruins you up there.' " That language sounds familiar to believers!
Abraham and Sarah laughed at God's promise of a child in their old age. Moses grew impatient with the Israelites he was leading in the desert. David had an affair and killed a man. Peter failed Jesus when the one he had confessed as the Son of God was on trial for his life. Fear, doubt, and failure don't mean you can't believe or don't believe. They simply underscore the need for teammates and a solid support group. They also keep you humble enough to stay cautious and modest in your occasional victories along the way.
The Jesus Factor
Jesus is the ultimate proof that God exists and that he rewards those who seek him (Heb.11:6). In spite of the failure of churches and individuals who have claimed to be his followers and interpreters, I still see the Jesus of history as a trustworthy leader to people who are spiritually blind. To the degree that I am willing to see the world through his eyes, things are clearer and life is more promising in ethical terms. The practical agenda for living is both anchored in something solid and yields a more satisfying outcome. I can distinguish right from wrong. I have a means for correction when I get off course. And I find both forgiveness in my failures and God-given strength in my determination to do better.
Jesus is also the intellectual grounding for faith. At the end of a well-formulated theistic argument, one has a maximally powerful, wise, and purposeful deity who has acted to bring into being everything that exists other than himself. That much of an argument validates faith over unbelief, a theistic worldview over an atheistic roadmap of reality. But which deity? If Jesus of Nazareth is who he claims to be, then not only does God exist but we are sure of his identity and will for our lives.
If Jesus is "God among us," the question of the existence of God has been addressed. If God has come to Planet Earth and lived in human form, we have a spiritual and ethical model to follow - a guide to those of us who are spiritually blind. If God has come here and modeled holiness for us, everything that he has said or endorsed to us must be received as true and authoritative for our desire to follow him. If God has come here, lived among us, and instructed us, any promises he has made to his followers can be trusted fully and without reservation. And that is precisely the nature of faith!
A blind man can't find his own way through rugged, forbidding terrain. That is why Erik Weihenmayer didn't try to climb Mount Everest alone. He tested the idea, found people who knew about mountain climbing, and selected good equipment. He trained in company with people he trusted. Then he set out - with fear, doubt, and challenge dogging him all the way to the top. But he reached the summit in triumph. He walked by faith, not by sight - all the way from the base of the mountain to its pinnacle.
In one sense, we could say that Erik had to see everything along his path through the eyes of another. His eyes don't work. So he had to trust the eyesight of his guides. His confidence that they were competent, able to make the climb, and willing to give him good directions was faith. We are in the same situation with our spiritual lives and our prospects for eternity. "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Heb.11:1). Faith - our willingness to see things through the eyes of Jesus - conquers spiritual blindness. It allows us to overcome obstacles. It takes us where otherwise we could never go.
Believers get from the doubt, confusion, and sin of our lives here all the way to heaven at the end in a way that is remarkably similar to Erik Weihenmayer's conquest of Mount Everest. Choosing the right guide is the key. Then you follow him - walking by faith in him instead of your own sight, seeing through his eyes instead of your own.
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