What you want is an unpractical man. That is what people always want in the last resort and the worst conditions.
— G. K. Chesterton, The Poet and the Lunatics
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Does “faith” have practical benefits?
We’ve all heard this claim many times before. In the past, it emanated primarily from the “religious” community, where it appeared under the guise of “positive thinking,” “possibility thinking,” and “the health and wealth gospel.” More recently it’s been championed in less likely quarters: among sociologists, psychologists, and even medical doctors.
“Results from several studies,” reports the University of Maryland Medical Center, “indicate that people with strong religious and spiritual beliefs heal faster from surgery, are less anxious and depressed, have lower blood pressure, and cope better with chronic illnesses such as arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and spinal cord injury.”[i]
Jonathan Ewald, writing in Life + Health, assures us that “faith” has a far-reaching, deep impact upon more than our spiritual condition: “It also affects our physical, mental, and social well-being.” Ewald even goes so far as to say that “being part of a faith-based community is an important piece of the longevity puzzle.” The moral of the story? “If you have never done so before, consider submitting your life to God. By exercising faith, our lives can be more fulfilled, balanced, and peaceful than before.”[ii]
This is not the Pilgrim perspective.
The Pilgrim is not accustomed to speak in terms of possessing “a faith.” He is not interested in becoming part of a “faith-based community” as a way of securing prosperity or longevity, nor does he submit his life to God with an eye to what he can get out of it. For him, “faith” is simply a question of total allegiance to a Person. It’s all about attaching himself to and following the Master of his soul. And this, he knows, is often an extremely impractical thing to do. As history clearly demonstrates, this kind of “faith” does not always bring balance, peace, wealth, or temporal fulfillment. Sometimes it leads to misunderstanding, rejection, defeat, and death. In the eyes of the practical men of this world, it can look very much like an unforgiveable piece of pure folly.
There are several different words in the Old Testament that get translated into modern English as “faith,” “confidence,” or “hope.” One of them is chislah, a noun is derived from a verbal root that means “to be foolish.” In Psalm 78:7, the Hebrew poet wants the Children of Israel to “set their hope (chislah) in God;” but a few Psalms later (85:8 – verse 9 in the Hebrew text), the same word is used to express the idea that the Lord will “not let His people turn back to folly.” Similarly, in Job 4:6, Eliphaz the Temanite accuses Job of placing false confidence (chislah) in his own integrity.
What’s the connection here? Simply this: there is a fine line – or perhaps no line at all – between faith and folly. Indeed, in the eyes of the kosmos the two are frequently indistinguishable. To pick up one’s cross and follow the Lord of Pilgrims wherever He may lead is not necessarily the best way to “get things done,” to “come out on top,” or to “make America great again.” Just ask those heroes of “the faith” who were mocked, scorned, tortured, imprisoned, stoned, sawn in half, and slain with the sword for their troubles.
All this is just another way of saying that the Pilgrim life can be extremely impractical. It’s not about doing what works (a good definition of politics). On the contrary, it’s about doing what’s good and right – even if it doesn’t turn out so well for you in the end.
[i] “Spirituality,” University of Maryland Medical Center.