A Thought about Faith-promoting Stories

Every faith-promoting story is also a faith-destroying story. I don’t mean just stories that are passed off as faith promoting but that are more about something else (like over-controlling parents) or stories that turn out to have been embellished. I mean all of them. A faith-promoting story has a conflict to it–someone is stuck in some difficult situation–and that conflict is resolved miraculously. The level of drama involved in the miracle varies a lot, of course. Some miracles are definitely showier than others. Some are quieter, perhaps boiling down to the person realizing that what they thought was a conflict actually wasn’t when they approached it a different way. The reason that faith-promoting stories are also faith-destroying is that for any particular conflict a person faces in such a story, multitudes of other people have faced the same conflict and have not gotten the same miraculous resolution. (It’s the fact that most people don’t get the miracle that makes it a miracle; if it were commonplace, it wouldn’t be miraculous.) This raises the obvious question of why the miracle comes to the one person and not to the others. And there typically isn’t a good answer to this question. God can seem awfully fickle when doling out miracles.

I can’t believe in a God who intervenes in everyday life. I feel like I’m giving God the benefit of the doubt here. It’s not just that people with the same conflict don’t get the miraculous help reported in faith-promoting stories, it’s that people facing way worse conflicts don’t get miraculous help. It is far more comforting for me to think that there is no divine intervention at all than that it is focused on such small–often relatively trivial–matters while ignoring gigantic atrocities.

I’m not usually one who appreciates much poetry, but I love the closing stanza of Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach,” because it expresses so well how I feel like the world really is.

for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

To me, this feels like a bracing dose of cold reality that’s a great antidote to all the faith-promoting stories that the Church is awash in. The world might seem good at some moments, but the reality is that we have been left to our own devices, and we typically end up doing nothing better than finding new ways to hurt each other. God isn’t going to intervene to find our lost keys, as he certainly doesn’t seem to be intervening to stop human trafficking or torture or child abuse. There’s just us, humanity, blundering into each other, harming one another intentionally or ignorantly, perpetuating long-past vendettas or fearful of each other because of our worries about our own vulnerabilities or attacking each other for reasons we’re not even conscious of.

I don’t always feel quite this hopeless. Even though I can’t believe in a God who intervenes in human affairs, I have high hopes for there being a God and an afterlife. There are relationships I want to continue. And there are beautiful things that I want to continue appreciating. Faith-promoting stories don’t help me with that hope, though. To me, they just portray an arbitrary and capricious God. Instead of listening to them, I return again and again to this poem, turning its words over and over in my head. I feel like it helps center me on the reality that I can see, that I experience, before I reach out to consider other, better things that I might hope for.

10 comments / Add your comment below

  1. “I can’t believe in a God who intervenes in everyday life.”
    I can, kind of.
    It seems obvious that Heavenly Father and Christ can only intervene a set amount in the affairs of man. The law of free will constrains them as much as it empowers us. And no matter how infinate He is, its just all too much.
    And yet: “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father… Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:29,31)
    He might not intervene in every circumstance but he knows and he has concourses of angels to assist. They are there to sweat the small stuff. We are told that “Angels are ministering spirits” (JST, Hebrews 1:6-7). From this I infer they are also people, and like people they can be more or less stalward in their duties. Perhaps, sometimes, God’s messengers fail to help someone their keys or push that police officer gently in the direction of the trafficker.




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  2. Ziff, thanks for this. For similar reasoning, I have given up belief that God is omnipotent. But I find myself hoping that he wants to help. I was in NYC on September 11. So many stories sounded like, “I just felt I needed to take the day off” or “I decided to work from home” or there’s my story. Due to a mechanical issue, my usual train was delayed about 20 minutes. Had it been on time, I would likely have been in the tower basement when the first plan hit. (I likely would have been ok, but who knows for sure.) I believe God was working overtime that day to try and keep people away from the towers. And I get why this is, as you call it, a faith-destroying story; I know many people who lost loved ones who felt anger or despair at my belief in God saving some, but not all, of his children. Reconciling the fact that I was spared that day with the fact that so much life was lost I’m stuck believing in a God who always wants to help us, but (due to limitations I don’t understand) can’t always help.




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  3. Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
    Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
    Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
    Epicurus




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  4. The world might seem good at some moments, but the reality is that we have been left to our own devices, and we typically end up doing nothing better than finding new ways to hurt each other. God isn’t going to intervene to find our lost keys, as he certainly doesn’t seem to be intervening to stop human trafficking or torture or child abuse. There’s just us, humanity, blundering into each other, harming one another intentionally or ignorantly, perpetuating long-past vendettas or fearful of each other because of our worries about our own vulnerabilities or attacking each other for reasons we’re not even conscious of.

    There are two things that strike me about this paragraph:

    1) Excusing the lines about a non-interventionist God, the other lines are really at the core of a lot of religious thinking about the fallen secular world.

    2) I wonder what you would think about those who claim that on a lot of objective measures, the world has objectively gotten a lot better in the last couple of centuries. (I’m not saying there isn’t room to be pessimistic. Like, I wouldn’t be so pollyanna-ish to assume that the world is on an inevitable path of improvement. There’s reason to fear that progress can get rolled back or threatened…and obviously, we still all experience personal and interpersonal setbacks and tragedies. Life isn’t completely rainbows, even for the most privileged folks.)

    Even as I write that second point, I have to note that it’s difficult to say, “Well, God is clearly the reason for life getting better.” I don’t want to sound like a new atheist or whatever, but there’s definitely a lot to be said that the objective metrics of progress in the world have coincidentally corresponded to decreasing religiosity over the same time frame (although maybe that’s just us reaching the zenith of the pride cycle…) It seems that a thoughtful theistic Mormon rejoinder should be to say: God works through and with people, so progress isn’t about a sedentary hope but about whether we will choose to put our shoulders to the wheel.




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  5. Daniel, I wish I could believe as you do, but I just can’t. Thanks for commenting.

    MTodd, thanks! That’s another good solution–to figure God isn’t omnipotent rather than totally non-intervening. And wow, what a close call for you on September 11th! I’m glad you were delayed.

    Varja, thanks for the pointer. It’s clear my concerns aren’t new! 🙂

    Andrew, that’s an excellent response. I guess I like your own comment on your second point. The people who are sharing the stories of God finding lost keys that I find so exasperating aren’t thinking that the world is getting better because God is working through people. They’re more likely to say that the world is getting worse. So I like the idea; certainly the evidence is there. But I would still want to drop the faith-promoting stories. Maybe I would rather hear stories about people making the world better or saving each other from difficult circumstances. Stuff like this, perhaps.




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  6. I pray to a Heavenly Father who acts daily in my life, & I note those daily interactions in my journal. I ask for His help, His grace if you will, & I also ask Him to help me to see His hand in my life. For the most part, I consider my experiences quite private, not something to share with others over the pulpit. I can see where listening to others go on about their daily interactions with Deity would be quite discouraging if one were not having the same experience, & I do not believe that the Lord gives me “my” experiences for others. They are for me, to increase my faith.

    I agree with Andrew that part of this life is to see if we will put our shoulder to the wheel or not. For me, the “test” is not so much whether I am “receiving revelation” as it is whether I am doing what the Lord tells me privately to do. Receiving revelation is not my strong suit, but with decades of practice & lots of mistakes, I am getting better at recognizing when the Lord is trying to tell me something. As one of my friends said a while back, after referencing a challenge in her life, she didn’t need to know what the plan was, she just needed to know there WAS a plan, & she had received assurance that there was.

    For me, choosing to have faith is just that – a choice. I do not know why, for instance, I had more miscarriages than children, & we shed many tears during those years, but I choose to trust that the Lord had a purpose. I don’t know what that purpose is/ was, & I may never know. I still choose to exercise faith. My choice.




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  7. “For the most part, I consider my experiences quite private, not something to share with others over the pulpit. I can see where listening to others go on about their daily interactions with Deity would be quite discouraging if one were not having the same experience, & I do not believe that the Lord gives me “my” experiences for others. They are for me, to increase my faith.”

    Thanks, Marivene, that’s exactly it.

    Thanks, Wally.




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  8. I reached that conclusion, too, Ziff, one time when I was trying to find a parking spot on a rough day and a spot right near my building opened up as I drove by. It hadnt been that many days prior that I was feeling overwhelmed by unanswered prayers and the “knowledge” that my lack of faith was keeping me from getting answers. I pulled into the parking spot, automatically saying a quick thank you, and it struck me. Why does God get all the credit and I get all the blame? Suddenly religion felt like a no-win situation for me. I could no longer believe that God steps in because of what it implied all the times god didn’t.




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  9. Thanks, great point Enna. When we believe in an intervening God, it’s easy to attribute good stuff to that God and bad stuff to ourselves, but (to me, anyway) it makes a lot more sense to just attribute it all to me and other people and circumstances in the world.




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