How to Keep the Faith When You Don’t Think You Have Any

“Keep the faith.”

When I sometimes say that at the end of a counseling session, I get a lot of funny looks. I should probably explain what I mean.

People are apt to be confused if they don’t think they have a faith. They’re likely to misunderstand if they think I mean they should keep going to church or believe some dogma or recite some creed. People don’t expect to be proselytized or exhorted on religious issues by their shrinks.

While I sometimes think a person might benefit from some kind of religious activity like prayer, worship, singing, serving soup to the poor, or attending potluck dinners; that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying refers to something far deeper than that. When I urge a person to keep the faith, I do so because I saw something in the client that could help him. I saw faith.

Faith is often confused with belief, belonging, or trust; but I think the theologian, Paul Tillich said it best: “Faith is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern.”

Never mind, he didn’t say it best. Tillich said it succinctly; but to say it well, he should have said it in a way that could be readily understood. Let me give it a shot.

Faith is when you’re stubborn about something that really matters.

We all know what stubbornness is. Identifying what really matters is the hard part. When my kids were little, they’d get stubborn about not eating their peas. I’d say, you’re not leaving this table till you eat your peas. I’m capable of being stubborn, too. Is this an example of being stubborn about what really matters? I think not.

If I was super stubborn, I would have tied them to chairs for weeks and given them nothing to eat but peas. If they as were stubborn as I, they would have starved to death. I wanted them to eat their peas because it would be good for their health; but if I took it that far, I’d be undermining their health. They refused to eat their peas because they wanted to preserve their autonomy; but how much autonomy do you have when you’re starved to death? It’s clear that eating or not eating peas should never matter that much. A thing that really matters, a worthy ultimate concern, is a thing best kept indeterminate; something my kids could pursue by not eating peas one minute and eating them the next, and by me by insisting on the peas one minute and giving them to the dog the next.

Tillich had a term for when you’re stubborn about something which is not an ultimate concern: he called it demonic faith. If I had put so much faith in peas to starve my kids to death, that would have been demonic, indeed. To use another Tillichian term, I would have made peas into an idol. Idolatry is thinking something really matters when it doesn’t.

It’s easy to spot demonic faith and idolatry in things like addictions, violence, abuse, compulsions, racism, nationalism, and an enraged couple who are so intent on proving a point to each other that they destroy their love. It’s harder to spot it when you’re in its grip. That’s why it’s important to never lose sight of your true values.

You might say what really matters is to always be looking for what really matters and be stubborn about finding it. That’s actually something that matters more than keeping it when you think you’ve found it. Being completely stubborn about keeping something you think really matters will get you in as much trouble as I might have gotten in with the peas. It’s better to be always looking for something that matters and never being sure you’ve found it. The moment you’re completely stubborn about keeping anything, is the moment you are no longer stubborn about finding what really matters.

In other words, the way to keep the faith when you don’t think you have any is to be always looking for something deserving of your faith.

Or, as Tillich said, keeping the faith is to be ultimately concerned.

So, keep the faith.

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