The Personalist Project

"Truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from hence to yonder place,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you."

Matt. 17:20

Wait, what? What is this thing, faith, that comes in such concentrated doses, and how do I get ahold of some?

If you were raised on Disney movies, or you've fallen under the sway of spiritual-but-not-religious types, you might believe that faith means trying really, really hard to believe that Event X is going to happen. As in:

I believe I'll win the lottery! I believe I'll ace the interview! I believe the biopsy will come back negative!

Strangely enough, there's something to this (not much, but something. More on that in a minute.).

But a theological virtue isn't a magic trick. Faith is something more personal, something more closely entangled with trust and loyalty. (The connection is clearer in some languages than it is in English, but you can hear it in expressions like "keep faith with me" or "fiduciary duty."

How is it personal? Well, first of all, I need to believe that God has the power to do something about any request of mine. That's simply a judgment, based on evidence, not a personal interaction--but even so, it's trust in the power of a Person, not just free-floating "positive energies." That's why even Please gimme prayers count as an expression of faith.

Second, I need to trust that He has my good at heart. Not only that He can hear my prayer, but that He wants to. Again, not just a generic belief that the desired event will transpire, or that the Almighty has enough firepower to get the job done. Instead, it's trust in the heart of a Person. 

So what about just focusing your energies, your belief, your expectancy, on a desired event? Is there any power in that?

Actually, there can be. There is such a thing as the power of positive thinking, though it will only take you so far. If you focus all your efforts on studying for a biology test and foster a strong feeling of confidence in yourself and your ability to learn about cell structure, you're more likely to get an A. There's evidence, too, that a positive mindset helps fight disease--but, nota bene, a positive attitude is no substitute for a well-times course of chemotherapy, and there's no excuse for blaming a sick man's problems on insufficient cheeriness.

The power of negative thinking is real, too--and maybe even more powerful. Jacques Philippe and others speak of "limiting beliefs": self-fulfilling prophecies of failure we lug around with us, like "This isn't the kind of thing I'm good at," or, "Yeah, right, how many times have you made that resolution before?"

Sometimes limiting beliefs arise from childhood experience. Maybe someone labeled you the problem child, or your sister (and only her) the artistic one. Or maybe it was some past experience of genuine failure. Either way, the power of self-talk is real, for good or ill: it makes a dramatic difference whether we go around muttering, "I'm an idiot! I can't get anything right!" or silently proclaiming, "OK, here we go, nothing I can't handle."

 It's immensely useful to recognize the games our minds play on us, and the patterns of self-sabotage we fall into.

But psychological techniques have their limits! Yes, grace builds on nature, but the theological virtue of faith is something richer than even the most encouraging self-talk. Until we trust God, we can't accept His help, and without his help, we're left to solve problems of love and hate, life and death, good and evil, with faulty, fallen equipment.

Tapping into positive energy, real or imagined, is no substitute for union with a really trustworthy Person.

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