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31 October 2017

The Glass Footpath of Faith

By J. E.


A personal reflection that draws on lessons from the Bible on how Christians can be strengthened in their Christian journey that is like walking on a suspended glass footpath which is scary for those who walk by sight.

Glass footpath of faith

A little while ago, the university which I attend arranged an excursion to a mountain near Beijing. The weather was beautiful. We went up the mountain by cable car, and when we reached the top, walked along a glass walkway bolted onto the side of the cliff. We had the cliff on our left as a wall, a glass floor beneath our feet, and a glass wall on our right. Stepping out onto it was really quite scary. Much of the way, we didn’t want to look down at all.

Perhaps the experience of walking on that glass footpath suspended above emptiness is a bit like the Christian journey of faith. Were we completely certain that the walkway would support us? Perhaps not. With the rational part of our minds, we knew it would, of course. But another part of our minds was saying clearly that we were doing something foolish and that anything could go wrong. We certainly didn’t feel 100% certain that we were safe. But, in fact, the walkway did support us.

Likewise, spiritually speaking, our new nature trusts in Scripture as God’s word, rests upon Christ for justification and sanctification, and trusts in God to work all things for our good; yet our old nature—which is also “us” even as it dies—continues to question and rebel against all of that and welcomes any and all objections to the path we have chosen. It doesn’t want to acknowledge God or believe in Christ for anything at all, and, in fact, never will be persuaded to do so. Thus the church confesses that it is the object of our faith (Christ), not the strength or purity of our faith that will save us. The old nature in us will continue in its unbelief until we die.

This highlights the importance of the work of follow-up with those who have recently come to faith, who need a realistic (that is, a biblical) view of Christian experience, lest they become discouraged and give up. They need to know that by committing ourselves to following Christ, we have all begun a spiritual journey which does not begin with a mind completely free from inner conflict and doubt, but proceeds in the direction of the end goal towards which Christ is drawing us.

The writer of Hebrews refers to the generation of Israelites who left Egypt but failed to complete their journey to an earthly rest (Heb 3:7–11; 4:1–6). The writer, of course, expressed confidence that his Christian audience would not suffer a parallel failure to enter God’s heavenly rest. Nevertheless, even as the Israelites were “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea,” but later perished in the wilderness (1 Cor 10:1–5), many who publicly begin the Christian journey also appear to get lost somewhere along the way.

Those Israelites who failed to enter into God’s earthly rest faced difficulties and distractions not totally different from those which new Christian believers encounter in normal life today: weariness, monotony after initial excitement, and apparently insuperable obstacles which cause them to question the whole idea of having left Egypt in the first place. The Israelites experienced the powerful presence of God at the Red Sea and later at Sinai, but normal daily life was a rather boring diet of manna and quail, which was indeed sufficient for their needs, but by which they seem to have been worn down in the end.

While acknowledging that the Israelites had “good news” preached to them as we do (Heb 4:2), we must also not forget that believers today, and those to whom we collectively seek to minister, have spiritual resources made available to us which were not so obviously available to the Israelites in their wilderness wanderings (Heb 11:39–40). As a nation they were accompanied by Christ—perhaps as the Lord’s Angel promised to Moses (Exod 23:20–21) and also in the “Rock” referred to by Paul (1 Cor 10:4)—whereas we are joined with Christ in a more personal way (Col 2:11–12). Nevertheless, even the presence of Christ and the accompanying richer spiritual blessings of the New Testament are not ordinarily given to us in isolation but are mediated to us as we are branches of the vine bearing fruit in the community of disciples (John 15:1–17). This explains the exhortation in Hebrews not to forsake our meeting together as a congregation (Heb 10:25). This is where we hear the word read and preached in community, where we feed on Christ by faith together at his table, and where we pray together as one in the congregational intercessions. In this context, ministry to meet the needs of the poor and the sick is also practiced (Acts 2:41–47). Objectively, Christ gives himself to us through the congregational ministry of the word, sacraments, prayer, and works of service, and thereby strengthens us for the ongoing journey in a way which is independent of our feelings about the terrain, whether we are excited, fearful, or just bored with a diet of doing daily the things we know we ought to do. All New Testament teaching about the ordinary sustaining and sanctifying work of the Spirit of Christ in believers has concrete local churches as its context.

Returning, in conclusion, to our encounter with the glass walkway: as our group approached that unusual path, we were helped onto it, and were helped to continue on it, by the fact that we were part of a group. By ourselves, we perhaps would have turned back, but the presence of others around us continuing along the path encouraged us to do the same. In the Christian journey, however, the church is much more than a morale-boosting circle of friends—helpful as that sort of thing can be. Remember, the Israelites also had the mutual support of being in a community and yet they fell away. Much more than a mere social network, for us and those to whom we aspire to minister, the church is God’s dwelling place through the Spirit, the normal setting for his supernatural work in us, within which our inner man is being renewed day by day, and we are conformed increasingly to the image of Christ, as God works out his higher purpose through us to build a true house of prayer both of and for all nations. This is something that all believers can reflect on, regardless of how far we have walked along the glass footpath of faith, since we will continue to encounter doubts, difficulties, and obstacles along the way.