Extracts from the final chapter of The Sanity of Belief – Why Faith makes sense by Simon Edwards
According to a recent article in Time Magazine, animals often possess an amazing ability to find their back home from places sometimes hundreds and hundreds of miles far away. Seabirds are believed to steer mostly by the sun and stars. The same is true of the humble dung beetle. Sea turtles as well as cats navigate via magnetism. Dogs are very big on scent.
According to the Bible, God “has put eternity” in the hearts of men and women. A sort of soul-deep longing that can be squashed or distracted, but never wholly diverted, by romance, wealth, fame, pleasure, or success. We might think of it as an internal homing beacon, faint but persistent, easily drowned out by competing noises, but always there, in the background, waiting for us to listen, calling us home.
One sees this dimension of the human condition brilliantly illuminated in one of the great works of literature, Augustine’s “Confessions”, the first autobiography in recorded history. In it we learn of the precocious young Augustine’s journey from a belief in the God of the Bible, to a rejection of his childhood faith and a search for satisfaction in pleasure and success; from a place of adult success and accomplishment, to a philosophical search for answers to life’s deepest questions; and from a place of profound philosophical questioning, to Christian faith again – but this time a faith now tested in the crucible of reason and experience.
In his most famous line from that book, Augustine memorably illustrates the human predicament as follows:
“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless, until they rest in you.”
Restlessness, that sense of never quite being at home in the world, is a theme that almost every person on the planet can relate to; particularly in the West where our life is often characterised by busyness, instability, and change.
The journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, who late in life came to Christian faith, writes:
“The first thing I remember about the world – and I pray it may be the last – is that I was a stranger in it. The feeling which everyone has to some degree, and which is at once the glory and desolation of homo sapiens, provides the only thread of consistency that I can see in my life.”
G.K. Chesterton, in expression of the same sentiment or feeling, writes: “For men are homesick in their own homes, and strangers under the sun”. But like Augustine and Muggeridge, the feeling does not lead Chesterton to despair, for he recognises that there is a home for the human soul, though not one found in any particular place per se.
As the rest of his poem reads:
For men are homesick in their own homes,
And strangers under the sun.
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the Yule tale was begun
A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost – how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.
To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, left his home in heaven in order to draw us home to himself. Augustine asks, “could God have done anything kinder or more generous than for the real, eternal, unchanging wisdom of God itself…to condescend to take on human form?”
He was born in a dirty stable to a Hebrew peasant girl. He was brought up in an obscure village on the eastern fringe of the Roman Empire. He sweated at a carpenter’s bench to support his mother and younger siblings. Eventually he began his ministry of teaching, healing, and proclaiming the good news that life in the kingdom of God was available for all. He had few possessions and no home – no place on which to rest his head. He travelled on foot, ministering from village to village. Those who followed him were plain and earthy folk, mainly fishermen and the like. He made friends with prostitutes and publicans, and laid hands on lepers and outcasts.
He scandalised the religious leaders of the day by dining with sinners and pronouncing forgiveness of sin. So, they tested him and misrepresented him and tried earnestly to discredit him. Almost all those in power saw him as a nuisance and a threat. Still some, risking their reputations, put their hope and trust in him.
But eventually he was arrested, and all his followers fled. He was tried as a criminal, and though the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate recognised that he was an innocent man, he was sentenced to be flogged and nailed to a cross to die.
But he didn’t protest, nor curse, as they spit in his face, and pulled out his beard, and lacerated his back, and crowned his head with thorns. As the cruel nails were driven into his hands and his feet, and as they lifted the cross to the sky; he cried, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
And yet, his death was not a tragedy. But a victory. It was not the frustration of his mission, but the accomplishment of it. For, having assumed our nature, as a human being, on the cross he also assumed all our guilt and shame, and the penalty they deserved therein.
And when it was all done – all paid for – Jesus cried out, “It is finished”. And died.
At the heart of Christian faith is not a set of beliefs per se, but an event – the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. An historical event, with cosmic repercussions. An unthinkable event, in light of our pretensions to self-sufficiency, yet one that speaks to our deepest hungers and fears. An event that calls us back to humility and with it, hope.
The Bible says that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him, will not perish, but will have eternal life.”
Isn’t it wonderful to think that God loves the world that much?
That he loves you that much.
God loves you. The Bible is one hundred percent clear about the fact that he sent his Son Jesus Christ into the world to rescue broken people. Including me. Including you. And that he invites us to be reconciled to him, in our heart of hearts. To return to him.
To come home.
In one way, coming home to God is the most difficult thing in the world to do. But in another way, it is the easiest thing in the world to do.
It’s the hardest thing to do, because you have to surrender, everything, to Jesus; and trust him that he knows best. But, it’s the easiest thing to do, because all you have to do is surrender. Let go. Allow Christ to be the one who directs and manages your life.
C.S. Lewis writes:
“The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self – all your wishes and precautions – to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call “ourselves,” to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be “good.” We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way – centred on money or pleasure or ambition – and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly.
And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs. If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and re-sown.”
Letting go of your own little kingdom, where you call the shots; and stepping into God’s kingdom, where he calls the shots, sounds scary. But it’s worth it. And that’s because knowing Jesus is the best thing in the world; and that’s because he is the best thing in the world: The source and centre of all that is good, and beautiful and true.
He is your heart’s true home.