The assurance of faith is often talked about in terms of feeling. We feel assured, we feel a conviction in our hears, we feel confident of a belief or hoped-for outcome. And there is no doubt an aspect of assurance that involves feelings. The difficulty however is that feelings are fleeting. They come and go. We may feel assurance about something, but days or weeks or months later, no longer feel that assurance. And then after a time, we once again feel that assurance. If that’s assurance, that’s not very sure.
Part of the dilemma is that we normally associate conviction with knowledge. If we know a thing to be true, we are convinced of it. But if we are uncertain about something, then we normally assume we don’t have enough knowledge about the thing. Or, worse, we assume that we lack faith. Because if we have faith about a matter, we believe we also will have strong feelings about it. We separate out faith and knowledge. And, tragically, since we tie faith and feeling so closely together, we lose a vital aspect of faith, which is to bring assurance to our hearts. Or, to say it another way, assurance is the expression of trust. We are certain of a matter, because we trust that it is true or will come to be true. Assurance is the exercise of faith itself.
Let’s correct some misconceptions. Faith is not simply about feeling. Though it is undoubtedly closely intertwined with feeling, because it involves askeses of the heart, it is much more than that. The Scriptures give a picture of the heart that is full and robust, involving reasoning and thinking, will and desire, action and intention. The heart is not just a pretty symbol in a hallmark card, but is, in fact, the wellspring of our life and one which we must guard carefully. The heart is both the physical organ and the center of who we are as human beings. Physiologically, the heart has, as it were, it’s own “brain” as recent medical research is showing. It is also the place where we live out our lives. The heart is also the locus of our contact with God. God dwells in the heart of the believer. Faith, then, is primarily about the heart.
At its core, faith is a relationship of trust. We use “faith” in this way all the time. We say things like “I believe you,” or “I have faith in you.” When we say these things we do not mean “I have a certain amount of cognitive knowledge about you,” or “I have empirical data which has been warranted concerning you.” What we mean is “I trust you,” or “My experience of our relationship is such that I accept the truth of who you are and what you are saying.” Certain Christian groups will try to make of faith an exercise of discursive reason: an intellectual act which must of certain specific elements. And so they will not baptize infants and small children because these have not yet attained the ability to use their reason discursively or to understand concepts analytically. But this is not faith. Faith is trust. Faith is, indeed, “the evidence of things not seen,” because of our relationship with the God who is himself not seen. When we are absent from our loved ones we yet “believe” in them, because we have a history of relationship, of a covenant with them. This is faith.
And as such, this faith, this trust, requires certain actions and disciplines (askeses) of will and thought and deed. Christians fast, not because the material world is evil, or they need to lose some weight. They fast because they are intentionally awakening the body to a non-cognitive awareness of the desire for God and the trust in his providence, and by awakening the body, they communicate such to the physical heart, which is part of the body, and via the physical heart to the metaphysical heart which is the center of personal existence. From this experience, the cognitive mind may or may not gather data for analytical reflection or discursive processing. But it is nonetheless knowledge, it is part of that reasoning which we may call intuitive or perhaps ethical (pragmatic) as well.
There are other askeses one practices for faith beside physical fasting. Prayer and conversation with God, both personal and communal engages the heart in relationship with God. Acts of mercy practiced for our fellow human beings. The reading and meditating on Scripture where Scripture is not so much analyzed for content, even ethical content, but is, instead, simply held in the thoughts of the heart. Just like when we hear our beloved’s “I love you” and simply remember again and again and again those words in our heart.
By practicing these disciplines, we build our capacity for trust, for faith. And then by expressing that faith, we gain assurance.
But let’s be clear about the origin of that assurance. It is not because we have or do not have certain feelings. We have assurance, because the object of our trust is trustworthy. God has never failed us. Therefore, we can trust in his love and goodness, and by expressing that trust, we gain assurance, certainty of his goodness and love. If we claim to trust our beloved, but then always entertain doubts and suspicions of their trustworthiness, we will never have assurance, no conviction, no certainty about the relationship. But if we do exercise trust, we will find that our certainty increases and then increases our trust.
But what about assurance in terms of specific requests we make of God or in terms of his guiding us in specific items of his will for our lives? How do we gain assurance? Do we simply wait for our feelings of conviction to reach a certain threshold? If we feel conviction to a level 7 or above, we’ll exercise trust? Or do we take a blind leap outward and risk potentially catastrophic consequences?
If we are seeking God’s will about a particular matter, or making a request of him, I think we may take the admittedly unique experience of Abraham.
We do not know much of Abraham’s encounters with God prior to leaving Ur. What we know is that he suddenly appears on the scene because God tells him to leave everything and with his family to go to a specific region. We know nothing of his wrestling with this, if he wrestled with it at all. We know only of the call and that he obeyed. We do know from Scripture that Abraham wasn’t above a little doubt about God’s protection and invented some schemes (at what we would think is the expense of his wife, Sarah) to save his own skin. And yet even in these failures, we see God remaining faithful to Abraham. Then God promises Abraham a son—and there is no rational basis to believe that it would come true. No basis, that is, except for the fact of an accumulation of years of experience trusting God. Does Abraham have some doubts? It would appear his giving in to Sarah’s scheme to impregnate Hagar shows that. And yet he still trusts God, and God makes good on his promise.
Fast forward now to God’s call to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham has had decades of trusting God and has come to know some things. And yet this call goes against everything God has ever showed him, completely contradicts God’s promise to him about Isaac. If ever there were an occasion for Abraham to lack any assurance about God’s direction, now would be it. And yet somehow Abraham knew, from decades of intimate encounter with God, that this was indeed God’s voice speaking to him. And he somehow also knew that God would deliver on his promises about Isaac.
There’s an gap here, absolutely unbridgeable by human reason. Certainty and conviction based on logic and discursive thought are impossible. Abraham must believe two contradictory thins at once: God will fulfill his promises in Isaac and Abraham must kill his own son. Abraham must base his assurance on something other than his feelings of certainty. He must base his assurance on something other than his knowledge of facts and events. In short, Abraham could only base his assurance on the person and character of God and his experiences of God over the course of the previous decades. That is to say, the expression of trust gave birth to the assurance. Abraham did not, by way of knowledge, know how to reconcile two seemingly contradictory things. Perhaps, he thought, God would Isaac from the dead. In telling Isaac God would provide the ram for the sacrifice, he was expressing a faith that was assured that God would work this out somehow, no matter what his rational mind could work out.
We are no different. The same assurance Abraham had, that assurance we seek to be certain of God’s will for us, is not found in human reason or found in the strength of feeling. It is found in the character of God and in our experience of how he has guided us during our life. Are we contemplating a decision and want to know God’s will? We will obviously use reason and memory to go back over what God has said to us, in Scripture and godly counsel and in our own hearts, what God has done for us, the prayers he has answered, and the way he has loved us in our particular states. And there we may have in our hearts a certain pathway revealed to us, or the blessing of the godly desire in our heart to go in a certain way. If we seek to base our conviction and certainty on feeling or logic, we will be doomed to a fluctuating lack of conviction. But if we trust God, if we take the risk of the unknown—not a blind leap because we are taking such a “leap” based on our experience of God and the knowledge we already have of him—we will, by exercising faith, gain the assurance we seek.
We often fail to move forward on ways in which God is guiding us because we are afraid. Our lack of assurance is not so much a sign that God is not leading us in the way we think he might, but, rather, we let fear weaken our faith. What if we’re wrong? What if God isn’t leading us in this way? What if we fail? What if—? It is totally legitimate to test a sense of God’s leading and guidance. Faith is not the better for the blind leap that doesn’t consider any aspect of the leading we feel we are receiving from God. Indeed, we are to test the spirits to see if they are of God. But there’s trying to discern if a leading is from God, and then there’s fear. Fear is not faith. Fear is the opposite of faith. It is saying to God, I’m afraid I’m wrong or that bad things will happen if I do this or make this decision, so I’m not going to go forward. That’s different than examining something we think God wants us to do to ensure we’re not just simply following our own desires or foolish notions. Fear is not faith. And if we lose assurance about a matter we once felt strongly and consistently God had been leading us toward, it is possible that instead of having been wrong in the first place it is likely we have succumbed to fear. Because if we examine a leading, especially if we receive godly counsel and test it through our experience, and we feel assured of going forward, God will not abandon or forsake us if difficulties arise. Indeed, challenges and difficulties may in fact be a measure of further assurance that we have indeed chosen God’s will, as Satan will always oppose that which God wants
In short, we gain assurance and conviction by faith, not by sight. We exercise our faith daily and regularly, and thus gain a strength of relationship with God. And then with careful reflection and prayer, we go forward in matters that he guides us trusting him for the means and for the outcome.