I Need You
Christian Century magazine publisher, Peter Marty, always writes an opening column in the Century. The one for the current issue is titled, “Where Faith Begins.”
Marty had heard from a woman named, Jean, concerned about a 49-year-old son, critically ill with COVID. Jean says something I too have heard from people my age and older, “Pastor, I don’t know what we did wrong. None of our kids have any interest in faith or the church. They have no idea what it could mean in a time like this and how it would help ground their lives.”
At least part of the explanation is that people my age and older were raised in a time and society where being part of a church or faith community was more often the norm. That’s no longer true — not by a long shot. What might once have been termed conventional — church-going and faith, even if nominal — have become unconventional. Which is kind of cool.
And which raises the question Marty explores in his column, “Where (or how) does faith begin?” He offers several thoughts. I was particularly intrigued by this one.
“. . . for many people who dance around the edges of faith, I often sense they spend more energy trying to please God or be good for God than acknowledging their need for God.”
Indeed. It is a moralistic understanding of what faith is. “Trying to please God or be good for God.” I call it, “trying to get on God’s good side (or show that you are on God’s side).” That type of faith is mostly about what we are to do (or not do), think or feel. It is heavy on the “shoulds.” Not so much about God and what God has done, is doing. Not much grace.
Marty goes on to quote Thomas Merton who wrote, “We can’t find God unless we know we need God.” Or as Jesus put it in Beatitudes, “How blest are those who know their need of God.” How blest, we might paraphrase, are those who don’t have it all together. Or as St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”
This rings true for me. Faith isn’t about all that we do to show that we’re on God’s side or to get on God’s good side. It is more naked, more embarrassing. Remember how often in the gospels all sorts of people came to Jesus in ways that embarrass themselves, that defy the crowd, even the disciples, in their raw, desperate need. Needing God.
“I’m more convinced than ever that a desire for God is the beginning of faith. We think a relationship with God is the beginning of faith. We think a relationship with God is everything, but I wonder if the desire for that relationship isn’t as sweet as the relationship itself. As I think back on my experience of falling in love, the desire was a beautiful as the relationship itself.”
Ironically, admitting a need for God is not always encouraged, even allowed, in church — at the least the mainline churches of my experience.
I have quoted before in this space the words of Jim Forbes, one of my seminary professors and African-American preacher of great renown. When I asked Jim to explain to me the why predominantly white and predominately black churches felt so different he said. “In predominately white congregations, people think God needs them; in predominately black congregations, people understand they need God.”
The experience of needing God is not only a shout-out for help when a person is in trouble — although it can be that. It’s deeper. It’s a longing — a deep hunger, a soul thirst — for God. For God’s holy presence, power, assurance, mystery and grace. As the psalmist writes in Psalm 63, “My soul thirsts for thee, O God, my hearts faints for thee.”
I don’t know that I think that’s how faith begins for everyone, or in all circumstances. But I am pretty sure that the experience of needing God, in a raw and unashamed — and embarrassing — way, is at the heart of faith.
Lately, I’ve been enjoying the music of a group called “We The Kingdom.” Their song, Holy Water, is all about needing God. The lyrics begin, “Well, God I’m on my knees again/ God I’m begging you please again/ God I need you, O God, I need you . . .” Give it a listen — unless you are averse to contemporary Christian music.
And in the meantime, don’t be ashamed to say to God, “I need you. My heart longs for you.” As Peter Marty says, “the desire for this relationship may be as sweet as the relationship itself.”