Abba! Father!

A girl leaning onto her father - Photo by Arleen wiese on Unsplash

By Stephen Chester

Apr 13, 2020

In the last few weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has introduced a new and deep anxiety and uncertainty into our lives. All kind of features of our daily lives that we formerly could rely upon have been radically altered and we have no idea about what the future holds.

In reality, of course, those last two sentences are total nonsense.

As very serious as it is, and as devastating and heartbreaking are some of its consequences, the coronavirus pandemic has not introduced previously unknown uncertainty into our otherwise secure lives. The reality is that human life is always insecure, fragile, and unpredictable, and we never truly have any idea of what lies ahead. Our brothers and sisters in less affluent parts of the world know this very well as part of daily life, but in western societies we have developed unprecedented ways of insulating ourselves from the reality of human insecurity. Whether it is through economic prosperity or medical technology or educational achievement, or even just through cultural distancing from the experience and rituals of death, the illusion that we have things under control, or at least that we ought to do so, is pervasive and powerful. Each one of us comes to certain points and crises in our lives when the illusion falls away but, even then, our sense is often that there must be something wrong with us—and our unwarranted anxiety—that is not wrong with other people.

What the pandemic has done is to put us all in one of those moments of crisis simultaneously.

Varying circumstances will mean that the direct consequences can be very different from person to person. Sadly, some of us will suffer much more directly because of this crisis than others, but all of us together have been brought face to face with our human vulnerability and the insecurity of our lives.

For those of us who are Christians, this confrontation with our human vulnerability and the insecurity of life will also bring us face to face with the question of our trust in God. Are we driven to recognize that our only true hope is in the Lord and the Lord’s promises to us? Or does God’s permitting of the pandemic serve instead to corrode our faith? Have we turned God into the heavenly guarantor of our illusion of security so that when the illusion is dispelled our faith begins to vanish along with it? These are timeless questions of faith and doubt and, when we are confronted by them, we often fall into the trap of addressing them primarily at the level of our feelings. Do we feel close to God and comforted by God’s Word or do we feel overwhelmed by the circumstances around us and experience God as distant? It is very easy to equate faith exclusively with positive feelings about our relationship with God and to equate doubt exclusively with negative feelings that challenge that relationship. 

Yet faith is not, ultimately, about how we feel.

For when we trust someone the reality of that trust is most clearly demonstrated not when all is going well but in continuing to trust even when circumstances point in a different direction. It is a question not so much of whether we feel good about the relationship but of whether, when trouble comes, we remain within it or walk away. The apostle Paul speaks of the nature of this trust in some texts that have often been misunderstood or misinterpreted. He says that “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Galatians 4:6, NRSV) and that “when we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:15-16, NRSV). These are texts that speak of our intimacy with God the Father through Christ and it is therefore easy to associate them exclusively with feeling close to God and to incorporate them into a picture of God as the guarantor of our earthly security. Yet, especially in Romans, Paul speaks in the immediate context of suffering with Christ (Romans 8:17), so that it is in the midst of “the sufferings of this present time” (Romans 8:18) that the Spirit bears witness that God is truly our Father and we are truly God’s children. It is not in our confidence and invincibility that the Spirit helps us to pray, but in our weakness (Romans 8:26-27). The trust in God of which Paul speaks is one that continues even when circumstances challenge that trust and even when we feel less and less sure that God loves and cherishes us like a true and devoted parent.

The nature of this trust is captured well by Martin Luther in his comments on Galatians 4:6.

Luther simply expects that believers will experience a struggle between faith and doubt and, he says, “We must not on any account decide this matter on the basis of our feeling or the cry of the Law, sin, and the devil.” In this struggle, the cry of the Spirit in the heart of the believer will be perceived by the believer as a barely audible sigh, “so far indeed that we hardly understand that it is even a sigh.” But this perception is false and is not what the believer is to rely upon. The reality of the cry of the Spirit in the heart of the believer is “that in the ears of God this sigh is a mighty cry that fills all of heaven and earth.” Ultimately, the Spirit shouts louder than the devil, even though this is not apparent to the believer. Therefore, the very last thing that anyone doubting salvation should do, according to Luther, is to trust their own feelings and experiences. Instead, it is crucial that they should look not inwards but outwards: “This is the reason why our theology is certain: it snatches us away from ourselves and places us outside ourselves, so that we do not depend on our own strength, conscience, experience, person, or works but depend on that which is outside ourselves, that is, on the promise and truth of God, which cannot deceive.”

Faith, therefore, is not fundamentally about what we feel but about what we do.

If we feel that God and God’s love are far away, will we cease to call God Father and to cry out to him in prayer? Or will we continue to call upon God as our Father even when we are so perplexed and hard-pressed that we do not feel like we are God’s children and our prayer is like a barely audible sigh? Will we trust that, despite our feelings and our circumstances, such sighs of the Spirit in our hearts resound deafeningly before God? God’s promise for us in Christ Jesus is that, however difficult and tragic the times, and whatever else we might lose or suffer, everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.

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Stephen Chester is Lord and Lady Coggan Professor of New Testament at Wycliffe College.