If you know the secret of the universe, “you will come to know how you can have, be, or do anything you want.” You will be healed of chronic pain, depression, disease, or injury and will accumulate large sums of money. You can have the perfect home, life partner, car, and job. You will even recover from a deathbed.
At least that’s what Rhonda Byrne promised in her book The Secret. It seems a logical extension of the principle of the power of positive thinking that Norman Vincent Peale made popular in the mid twentieth. Believe in something firmly enough, concentrate all your spiritual and psychic energy on your desire in the right way, and you can have whatever you want. The universe will bend to your wishes.
It sounds good and so very American, almost right – but not quite. Something’s missing. It doesn’t account for those paragons of faith mentioned in the letter to the Hebrews, everyone who “died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them” (Heb. 11:13a). Did they simply not understand the secret? Was their faith too weak, their concentration too compromised?
Or is the life God promises – abundant life, life in all its fullness, more and better life than you ever dreamed of – is that life found in a faith Rhonda Byrne didn’t get? Is that life more than she ever dreamed of? Here’s what I think.
First, the kind faith our long tradition is about is living toward what we hope for, even if we never receive the promises but only see them from a distance. In modern research, study after study shows that whenever we decide to do something to achieve our greatest hopes, particularly when it’s a big decision like getting married or changing careers or making some other life-changing commitment, we work the results of that decision into our life story and our understanding of who we are. It’s how we create meaning in our lives.
It doesn’t matter if we encounter obstacles and have to adjust our expectations and redirect our efforts along the way. It doesn’t even matter if we never actually get what we hope for. By living toward the fulfillment of our deepest hopes, by living as if our best hopes for tomorrow are real today, they become real today. They just come to us in a different way. Faith is living toward what we hope for, even if we don’t see it. Which leads me to another aspect of faith.
Faith is a process of gradual, graceful disillusionment, in which we are stripped of our illusions about life – the illusions that pass for reality and that we try to impose on life – so we can begin to perceive and experience what is truly real. Jesus said the kingdom of God is spread upon the earth, and we don’t see it (Gosp. Thomas 113). We don’t see it, the Talmud says, because we don’t see the world as it is; we see the world as we are. And our illusions about what our hopes will look like tomorrow keep us from seeing the way our hopes are made real today.
For example, I once had illusions about having a big family, one that looked a lot like the big family I remembered as a child – thirteen aunts and uncles and dozens of cousins at those big family reunions we had in the summer. And I was trying hard to find that kind of family. As I became an adult, I became more aware of how dysfunctional that big family of mine is and how blessed I have been not to have found more of it.
Instead, I’ve been given another kind of family, one I came to appreciate only later in life. It’s the kind of true family Jesus discovered he had, not his mother and brothers but the family of those who do God’s will (Mark 3:31-35). And it’s a huge family, the size of a congregation, the size of many congregations, of people who embody God’s will and help nurture my growth to maturity, to what Paul described as “the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-13). Faith is a process of graceful disillusionment by which we come to see the world as it is, as God sees it, the world God is still creating and at the end of each day still calls good.
When we gather at the Lord’s Table, we remember the last meal Jesus had with his disciples, and we anticipate a final victory and a great heavenly banquet with all the saints. As we grow in faith, as we yearn toward what this meal represents and surrender our illusions about it, we may be allowed a glimpse beyond the curtain to see the reign of God that even now is spread upon the earth. ▪