When shopping for clothes, nothing gets me quite as excited as getting something I like at a great deal. So when an email from the retailer American Eagle showed up in my inbox stating that the long sleeve flex thermals I like were now in clearance and 60% off, my bargain-hunting brain did a little happy dance.
As is my usual custom, I went to the physical store and tried one on to find out exactly what size fits me well, and then went home to buy all the ones I wanted online since the physical store usually only has one or two colors I like (in this case they only had a rather revolting earwax-looking color). Once I got home, I went to their website and found 6 different colors I like in the size that fits me (medium) and proceeded to checkout.
However, something odd happened at checkout and the website said “these items are no longer available”.
This seemed utterly ridiculous to me – why would it let me add the items to my cart in the first place if they weren’t available? Since I don’t give up easily on things like this, I tried removing and adding the items again, logging out and logging back in, and every IT trick I know about. However, it was all to no avail.
As I sat stewing in annoyance that my plans for clearance clothing were thwarted, I realized that there was another option: I could actually go to the physical stores in the triangle and check their clearance sections.
A quick google search revealed that besides the store near my house at Southpoint mall, there were 3 other locations: Cary Towne Center, Crabtree Valley Mall, and Triangle Town Center in northeast Raleigh.
The next day, I was already in the Cary/Raleigh area for church, so I went over to Cary Towne Center since it was nearby. I found four of the flex thermals in the colors I wanted, but the two colors I had wanted most, white and cobalt blue, eluded me.
However, at that moment a verse came back to mind that I have been chewing on, (and that the sermon just so happened to reference that morning) Hebrews 11:1 which says “Now faith is being sure we will get what we hope for. It is being sure of what we cannot see.” (NLV)
Now I know that sounds pretty radical – to be sure we will get what we hope for. However, I think that the reason Paul stated it this way is because being sure shows confidence in God’s goodness. After all, Jesus did say in Matthew 17:20 “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move.” So at that moment, I made a decision that I was going to put my faith into practice in a very real tangible way by believing that God had a white and cobalt blue medium flex thermal for me at the clearance price.
So my prayer looked something like this “God I believe that you’re a good dad and you love getting your children good gifts. I believe that you have a white and cobalt blue flex thermal in size medium at the clearance price for me. I believe that you’re just that good.”
I kept saying that out loud in the car as I drove to Crabtree Valley Mall. However, I did not find these two items there but I didn’t let that deter me. There was still one more American Eagle in the triangle area, in northeast Raleigh. All during that drive I kept speaking out loud that God has these for me and I found it causing joy and excitement to rise up in me.
Once I got to the store, I looked through the entire clearance rack but didn’t see anything.
I then checked the clearance areas on the wall, but still nothing.
Then I checked the clearance items on the shelves. Nada as well.
Something in me still did not want to let go of the belief that God had this for me, so I decided to look through the clearance jeans as well.
After flipping through a couple pairs of jeans, something caught my eye – a white long sleeved item tucked in with the jeans. What’s more, beside it was a cobalt blue long sleeved item as well. My heart began to race as I went over to them to check what size they were.
As I turned the tags over, both of them revealed the magic size: medium.
The exact items I wanted, in the exact colors I wanted, in the exact size that fits me, on clearance at 60% off, and here they were tucked away beside each other like they were being saved especially for me.
Now I know this is the point where some people jump to making some rather audacious claims like “If you just have faith, God will always give you what you believe him for.” and then we end up with some wacky theology that basically turns God into a vending machine and neglects difficult scenarios that don’t easily fit into that paradigm.
However, I don’t want to do that. I think there is a lot more nuance going on with this whole idea of “having faith” for something and an analogy would be helpful.
Suppose there are two baseball players. Whenever the first baseball player goes up to bat, he always believes that he will hit a home run at this time at bat. He vividly imagines himself swinging at just the right time, with great batting mechanics, such that the bat makes flush contact with the ball, and it goes rocketing out over left field before landing in the stands. Every time this player steps up to bat, he does this exercise; he believes that he will hit a home run, and vividly imagines what every aspect of hitting that home run would look like. Even though he will fail many times, he simply shakes off those failures, and then focuses on the next time at bat and believing that he will hit a home run then.
Whenever the second player goes up to bat, he is constantly says things like “I hardly ever seem to get a hit” or “I never get home runs” or “people shouldn’t bet on me, odds are I’m not going to get on base this time”. Whenever he strikes out, he points out how his negative predictions were accurate and he is simply “being a realist”.
Now of those two players, who do you think is going to have the higher batting average?
My money would be on the first player.
In addition, we wouldn’t call the first player “foolish” for believing that he will hit a home run every time he is at bat even though undoubtedly there will be many times he will strike out. Instead, we would understand that him believing that he is going to hit a home run every time at bat is not some guarantee that he will always hit a home run while at bat, but rather, is something that will increase his success rate when at bat.
I think faith works much in the same way; having faith such that we are sure of what we hope for in a particular instance does not guarantee that we will always get what we hope for in that exact case, but it does increase our success rate when at bat.
Furthermore, the first player’s ability to put his previous failures behind him and focus on his next time at bat with a positive attitude and belief that he will hit a home run at this time at bat, we would likely call maturity. Yet oftentimes, it seems that we’re so afraid of striking out, we’re not willing to even step up to the plate to exercise our faith for anything. Or if we have believed God for some things but didn’t get them, we are so crushed by those failures that we either blame God (“I had faith for this but it didn’t happen so God doesn’t listen to me, isn’t good, or doesn’t love me”) or we give up having faith for things altogether. If a baseball player said “I’ve struck out the last several times at bat, so I’m just not going to go up to bat at all”, we wouldn’t call that wisdom, we would call that immaturity!
What if then this is what a mature ability to have faith looks like:
A willingness to risk believing God for things with confident assurance in what we hope for, yet, at the same time acknowledging that nobody hits a home run every time at bat and hence, paradoxically, embracing failure as part of the process.
We tend to like for things to work in formulas where things always happen a certain way every time so that we can predict and control them. However, I don’t think faith works like that. There is an element of mystery going on here with it, yet at the same time, it seems very clear that faith can and does have a significant impact on things in the real world.
What’s more, the ability of faith and belief to have a tangible impact on the real world is a scientifically documented fact through something called the “placebo effect”. According to Wikipedia, the placebo effect is defined as “The tendency of any medication or treatment, even an inert or ineffective one, to exhibit results simply because the recipient believes that it will work.” Did you catch that last part? The reason there is a change isn’t because the medication is effective, it is because the recipient believes it will work. In other words, simply because patients believe they are getting better, they actually do get better with measurable effects on the outcome of their health!!
What if what the scientific community has documented in the placebo effect is simply them tapping into this mysterious spiritual reality of faith? What if what we believe really does matter and can have tangible impact on the world, though perhaps not in a simplistic formulaic way?
I think faith is like a muscle: the more we exercise it, the stronger it gets and the more often we see success at the “exercises” we utilize that muscle for.
Am I going to hit a home run every time I’m at bat? Of course not.
However, does believing that I will help my batting average? I think there are two articles of clothing hanging in my closet right now that indicate that it will.