Can We Get a Grown-Up View of Faith?

(A Lection Reflection on Hebrews 11)

Years ago, I read a book that immediately went onto my “key books” bookshelf: Good to Great by Jim Collins. The author and his team of researchers looked at pairs of companies in the same industries that at one time had been fairly similar, but where one company had gone from “good to great” while the other had been left behind. The goal, of course, was to try to isolate those principles or practices that made the difference.

One of those principles came to be known as the Stockdale Paradox. It was named for Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. Collins had interviewed Stockdale at one time and asked him how he was able to live through such a horrible experience, while others seemingly younger and more fit wound up dying in the prison. Stockdale noted that the prisoners who were either complete optimists or complete pessimists had the most trouble surviving. It was the ones like himself that combined realism with a long view that finally made it out.

In his book, Collins notes that great companies approach their world in a way that is very similar to how Stockdale approached being a POW. Collins names the principle the Stockdale Paradox, and outlines it thusly:

You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.

AND at the same time…

You must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

I have used that principle with many groups and in many situations, and I could talk about it for a while … but I’m not going to, because I want to use it as a jumping-off point for this week’s lections. Here’s the question:

If we substitute “God will prevail in the end” in the first part, can we then use this as a starting point for an adult view of faith?

I need to be careful here, because I could easily go on a mini-rant about the distortions and bad theology surrounding faith. We’ve all heard the faith-healer stories, the name-it-and-claim-it train wrecks, the all-it-takes-is-faith cheesy-easy preachers. I actually heard a preacher on the car radio tell people to put their hands on the speaker in the dashboard so the power of God could flow through the sound of his voice and heal them while they were on their way to the store.

So then, what do the rest of us do? We recoil at such nonsense, and like most good human beings, we swerve headlong off the other side of the road. We leave out the question of faith, we turn it into some sort of intellectual agreement, we just try to get people to play nice and be good to each other. And we surely don’t challenge each other to act as if God might still be, you know, DOING anything.

Go back to the Stockdale Paradox outlined above. Re-read it with the change I suggested, that God is going to prevail in the end. Now ask yourself, if I really believe that God and God’s ways win in the end, what does it mean for me today? Should it affect my thinking, or my actions? Should it change the decisions I make?

I am convinced that we miss the central truth of Hebrews 11. Most of us read it and think of it as a list of great deeds by great people. (Which lets us off the hook for applying it to our own lives.)

But what if the real point is that all these people shared one important attribute — they all believed that God is going to prevail in the end, AND that such a conviction should inform the decisions they make and the actions they take.

Let’s take it a step further. Let’s frame up some situations using the second part of the Stockdale Paradox, and see what faith says.

“My workplace is full of back-biting and fights to get ahead” — but God will prevail — and I am connected to God — so I will love even the back-biters and find my security in God.

“My city is going bankrupt” — but God will prevail — and I find my ultimate security in God — so I will speak out for just use of the finances that remain, and be a voice for reason instead of despair.

“My family is falling apart” — but God will prevail — and I am called to bring the love of God into my family — so I will neither gloss over the issues, nor give up on the possibility of re-birth, but will be a constant source of love, openness, and honesty.


Frankly, reading back over this reflection, I’m not sure I have been able to say what is in my heart, so let me take one more crack at it —

An adult version of faith combines a central, core belief in the existence and ultimate triumph of God and God’s ways, with a realistic appraisal of the world today. It then acts in accordance with God’s ways, even when it seems counter-intuitive, in order to affect the current reality and move it toward God’s reality.

It is not something we have to have “enough of” in order to do things, or change things, or be this or that. It is not some sort of magic potion, or some mental fake-out. It is, instead, a quiet, firm conviction that in spite of whatever evidence our current reality tries to throw at us … there is a God, that God is loving and good, and that loving and good God is both the Ground of All Being and the Ultimate Winning Reality.

And when I think of faith like this, the overwhelming image I have is of a substance, almost a solid, right in the center of my body, that is both unchanging and energy-giving. It may ebb and flow, but it still continues to be there, grounding each of my points in time to the eternal.

Admiral Stockdale woke up every morning to three thoughts:

  • I’m still in this horrible place.
  • Someday, though, I’m going to get out.
  • If that’s so, what should I do and how should I act today?

May each of us do the same, as we consider what the reality of God means for each of our days.

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