By Lutheran pastor C. Jack Eichhrost (Fall 1987 LBI newsletter)
Most of us have thought that believing too little might be a spiritual flaw, but believing too much can also be a problem. How so? Shouldn’t we have faith — and if a little faith is good, why not a lot more; in fact why not more and more and more?
Actually, believing too little and believing too much may both be forms of unbelief. Believing too little is the habit of the secularist, the one who lives without relating daily life to God’s action. The secularist is inclined to live within a closed world of nature; he is content to give natural explanations for almost everything and does not believe in supernatural interventions. For him, God does not do miracles, because in this world view, miracles are impossible.
If the secularist is an example of believing too little, what would it look like to see someone believing too much? Such a person is overly fascinated with miracles and the supernatural. In the Bible God did indeed perform miracles; he did extraordinary signs and wonders. But God also acted through ordinary ways. Because miracles are possible does not mean they are God’s standard operating procedure.
When God fed the Israelites with manna and quail he gave them a supernatural sign; yet he fed them other ways as well. Was the food of other times any less a gift from God? For a time, God fed Elijah in a miraculous way by having birds bring him bread and meat every morning and evening (I Kings 17:6). But when Elijah had food on a daily basis by other means through the rest of his life, that too was a gift of God and should be seen as such by the eyes of faith.
Those people who expect God to perform special miracles for them as God did for Elijah are guilty of over-belief. It sounds like faith, but it is unbelief. Such people want God acting in spectacular ways just for them. To say such extraordinary action is impossible or that God used to act that way but now does not, would be wrong. But to expect God to do miracles for you, is to ask for signs God does not guarantee. Such an expectation is not what faith should be, because it is not according to what God has made known to us. Over-belief is living and acting according to our designs for God. It sounds spiritual, faith-filled, and good. But it is a wrong belief.
Under-believing and over-believing feed each other. Over-believing people are always talking about God’s miracles, giving the impression that God always works that way for people who really believe. Under-believing people react and are turned off. They do not want to sound like that or make any claims about God lest they appear to be the same. Over-believing people thus are encouraged all the more to talk about God in exaggerated ways because their counter-parts do not talk about God at all. Thus, one reaction feeds the other.
The early church struggled in a world of unbelief, but it also had to cope with over-belief. When it was deciding what scriptures were true (for it did have to decide that question) it rejected stories which were falsely filled with the supernatural. It rejected the story of Jesus stretching a board that his carpenter father had sawed too short. It rejected the story of how he made birds of mud and then commanded his birds to fly away while his playmates settled for just mud. Those were stories of unbelief and not of faith because they showed a people that believed too much, and kept adding to the story as it was retold. But the church did include the feeding of five thousand and the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Jesus did perform miracles as signs of the Kingdom of God breaking in.
Never yet have I been fed by ravens who carried food to my table, like Elijah. But always I give thanks for food prepared by loving hands, first by my mother during those years of childhood and in these years by my wife. That food I receive as coming through an order of nature, but is still from the hand of God.
Believing too much about God can get us into problems as severe as believing too little. Those who have believed too much and think they have God in their control, often become cynical when some great jolt shakes the foundations. Then they crumble. Those who believe too little are in danger of a God who is only the divine emergency squad to get them out of tight scrapes.
Blessed are those who struggle to keep true faith, who see God’s hand in all that is good, who have hearts open to all miracles, but who believe in God only as he has made himself known.
Mark 8:11-12 — The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.”
John 20:29 — Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Lord, do with us as seems best in your own eyes; only give us, we ask, a humble and a patient spirit to wait expectantly for you. Make our service acceptable to you while we live, and ourselves ready for you when we die; for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.
—Lutheran Book of Worship/Occasional Services (#467)