August 27, 2009
by Patrick Lafferty
Do not fear or be dismayed.
Remember in middle school how your physical science teacher taught you to distinguish between stalagmites and stalactites? It was that simple mnemonic device: “Stalactites hang tight to the ceiling while stalagmites might one day reach the ceiling.” If you’ve been to Carlsbad or Natural Bridge Caverns, inevitably you’ve beheld cave after cave of towering columns, each of which began with a single drip of mineralized water falling from the ceiling. Stalagmite in fact literally means “drip.”
The life of faith bears striking resemblance to those ubiquitous rock formations. It starts out as a rather delicate thing—real, alive, but fragile and malleable. Wherever it forms, it’s intended to grow into something solid and sturdy; only by shutting off the source of its growth or from some other external impairment will it cease to form. Faith is by design intended to mature.
Stalactites and stalagmites grow with that steady, often imperceptible process of calcite deposition through innumerable drips of water. They therefore bear one more resemblance to the structure of faith: the growth is slow—often beyond our powers of discernment—and it requires a steady deposition of substance.
With Deuteronomy and Joshua as his guide, Mark reminded us last Sunday that between a promise of God to us and its possession by us there is inevitably a wait. The wait may vary in time and tenor, but rarely does one of God’s people not have to exercise faith in that wait. That’s why both Moses and the Lord intone, “Be strong and courageous” four times in just the few verses we heard Sunday. In between the promise and possession, Israel had to lean in to the struggle, take their blows and press on, withstand the temptation to buckle, and prepare themselves for even more formidable obstacles as their journey to the Promised Land continued. In their wait for possession, their capacity for steadfastness had to calcify into something sturdier than it was presently. Thus, for every instance of waiting there was opportunity for growing.
How, practically, does fledgling faith grow into a strong column of courageous strength born of trust in the Lord? Here are three ways.
It grows by rehearsing the promises of God. Every command to be strong and courageous rests on a premise of God’s promise. The Lord doesn’t ask our faith to be groundless or blind, but rather informed by what He has told us. So just as the Lord recounted to Moses the reasons for him and Israel to trust, so Moses recounted those to Joshua. Courageous strength matures as we continually review what the Lord has told us about Himself, His plan, and our place in it. Have you lost sight of His promises? It may be time for a little review.
Faith grows by the relinquishing of fears. Those in Canaan would be a fearsome lot, but not as fearsome as the Lord who would go before Israel. Israel therefore had to set what threatened them in the context of their greater hope and strength. Remember last week’s example of John Chrysostom staring down every threat with the sturdier treasure in Christ that could not be taken? Though we do not simply repress fear, fear dissipates when we choose to see it in a fuller context. The second contribution to growth is therefore contingent upon the first: we relinquish fears by rehearsing His promises. Have you allowed what threatens you to obscure the larger reality of His promises? It’s time to relinquish fear.
Robust faith also grows by the requesting the Spirit for strength. The whole work of rehearsing and relinquishing is a spiritual act. For the Lord to say He would be with them and would be their God was not just to communicate some objective reality, but to impress upon their hearts an enduring peace. Not a contrived, conjured, or concocted peace, but a bestowed peace—one they asked for. “May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” (Num. 6:26) Have you taken upon yourself too much responsibility to summon the courageous and peaceful strength the Lord urges? It’s time to go back to Him and ask.
You can no more will your faith to grow than a stalagmite can. That is why the continuity of God’s message across time, generations—even across the sins of His people—found its culmination in Christ. In Him are God’s promises fulfilled (2 Cor. 1:20). In Him are our greatest fears lifted (Heb. 2:15). In Him is the peace of the Spirit granted. (Rom. 15:13)
Though schoolchildren quickly learn the difference between stalactites and stalagmites, we never quite graduate from the lesson on how faith grows in us. We never escape the need to rehearse the promises of God, relinquish our fears on the basis of those promises, or request strength to believe from the Spirit. That is also why Jesus makes the bold promise, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20)