By Elton HiggsOne day at lunch, my wife asked me, “Why do you have faith?”— meaning, of course, “Why do you have faith that the Christian message is true, and that you should continue to follow it?” Peter instructs us to be ready to give an answer to that kind of question, but I had to pause a few seconds to come up with a concise, focused reply: “Because I need to.” However, that conciseness conceals a great deal that lies behind it. One can identify a variety of contributing elements that can flow into that core, short answer. One is cultural influence. Those who grow up in a theistic culture will usually have a predisposition for some kind of faith, and those who are nurtured from birth in a Christian family are more likely to be Christian believers. Another element is temperament. Some people are led to faith by an emotional experience, and they continue to live in faith because it supports them emotionally. For others, it might have been a path of weighing the arguments of the Christian message, and they continue to find intellectual fulfillment in studying the Word of God. A third element is the experiences of a believer after an initial commitment to walking with Christ. Has the person grown through challenges to his or her faith? This last line of response is the most important, I think, for the question is not addressed merely to the present state of one’s faith, but is also an inquiry as to how the person got to the faith he now holds. A full answer to the question requires some attention to the person’s “journey of faith.” By what stages has one arrived at the kind of faith that he now holds?
My own journey of faith began as I grew up in a devout Christian household. My father was a lay elder, and nightly prayer was faithfully observed (the “family altar” it was called) with all on their knees. I was a Bible reader from at least the age of 8, and I made a profession of faith and was baptized when I was 9. I went to church 3 or 4 times a week, including youth group. In my teen and early college years, I seriously considered being a preacher or a youth worker, but I finally settled on majoring in English, thinking to teach in high school so I could be a self-supported missionary. As I approached my last two years in college, my English professors encouraged me to go to graduate school. When I graduated with my B.A., my wife and I went off to begin my graduate work at the University of Washington, where I encountered for the first time the kind of secular thinking I had been protected from at Abilene Christian College. I went through a couple of years of angst, trying to accommodate my belief in the God of the Bible to the rationalism and materialism assumed by the faculty and many of my fellow students. This experience marked my transition from childhood faith to one forced to deal with the intellectual complexity of believing.
When I finished my graduate work in 1965, I took a position on the faculty of the newly established University of Michigan-Dearborn, at the age of 28. For approximately the first half of my 36 year career there, I was able to tap into the needs of a growing campus, contributing administratively to the creation of new structures to accommodate the expansion from an institution of fewer than a thousand students to an eventual 6,000 or more. During this period my Christian convictions were a sort of curiosity to most of my colleagues, but not a source of any great difficulty. The faculty and staff were fairly close-knit until the academic units began to multiply and we were pulled apart by growth. Eventually, academic and political factions were the rule, and when these factors merged with social changes growing out of the restless ‘60s, particularly the militancy of homosexuals, I increasingly became a target for my publicly stated conservative religious convictions. To these disruptions of professional relationships were added ruptures in church relationships, the two kinds unrelated to each other but both contributing to the painful recognition that my best intentions in interacting with others were not sufficient to prevent those relationships being broken. In the same time period I also had to accept that my professional ambitions were not going to be realized to the extent I had envisioned. In addition to all of this, our church life became unstable, and for the first time Laquita and I considered churches outside the denomination in which we had grown up. Out of this perfect storm of challenges and changes, we began a period of redefining who we were as members of the Body of Christ, and I had to consider a faith that not only went beyond generally accepted intellectual boundaries, but one that transcended the insecurities of friendship and got past conflict within the church.
The resolution of these experiential challenges to my faith came through a deeper understanding of the church as family and of my personal relationship with God. I had to realize that the definition of who I am doesn’t depend on the impression I make on others, but on discovering God’s definition of who I am. I suppose it boiled down to God undermining my self-created security so that I was forced toward humility. When I was in my childhood and young adult faith, I saw myself as a sterling example of a “good boy,” conforming to and exceeding the expectations of both my natural and my spiritual families. In my graduate and early professional years, I had an image of myself as one bravely standing up for my faith in spite of the opposition of my colleagues. But when long-cherished friendships crumbled in both academic and church settings, I had to face the possibility that somewhere along the line, I might have made some really bad choices. The faith that emerged out of that struggle was based on the grace of God, not my own attempts at perfection. My sense of self-worth had to be reestablished through confidence (faith) that I have value because God loves me.
The final stage of my faith development was also born out of difficult personal circumstances, but this time of a sort that brought Laquita and me face to face with an evil that had to be endured more than explained. We had two adopted daughters (mother and daughter biologically) who both developed a genetically transmitted malady called Huntington’s Disease, which is irreversible and fatal, progressing through ten to fifteen years of steady deterioration in mind and body. God called us to be direct caregivers to both of these beautiful daughters over a period of years, beginning when the older daughter was 25 and we were in our mid-fifties. Because the older daughter (Cynthia) was already symptomatic when the younger one (Rachel) was born, we were the newborn’s parents from the beginning of her life. But we knew God had called us to this complex task before it became complex. At first it was agreeing to adopt a child (Cynthia) whose possible “handicap” seemed relatively remote and theoretical when we brought her home. Years later, when she was diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease, it helped enormously to remember that taking care of her was a task assigned to us by the Lord. That confidence was confirmed over the years of our care for her, during which both our need and His faithfulness were beyond what we could have imagined at the time.
Now, nearly 50 years since we adopted Cynthia, God has brought us through not only Cynthia’s illness (she died at age 42), but He has enabled and blessed us to raise Rachel and to be her direct caregivers during the first years of her own illness. (She was diagnosed with the juvenile form of Huntington’s Disease four years ago, when she was only 18; she has just recently been placed in an adult foster care facility, after it became clear that we were no longer able to give her the 24-hour a day attention that she needs.)
From this last stage of experience, we have learned a level of faith that has been absolutely necessary to our survival as care-givers. We understand better now why God waited until Abraham’s old age to give him the supreme challenge to his faith, the order to sacrifice his only son. We are told that, although Abraham knew God could even raise his child from the dead, he did not know how God would actually make this preposterous demand come right. Abraham knew only that God had been absolutely faithful up to that point, and he was willing to trust that although he didn’t see how, God was at work in this situation, and in His sovereign power and provision, He would bring it to His glory and honor. In the same way, Laquita and I have been so faithfully sustained in all that God has called us to do that we can look beyond the mystery of the moment and be assured that as God has been the Perfect Provider in the past, He will continue to be so, to His glory, in the present and future.
This is the journey that explains how my short answer to Laquita’s question about the foundation of my faith was, “Because I need to—because I have to.”