The first one dealing with the nature of faith...
My spiritual walk hasn't gone well. I still don't know where I am despite years of bible reading, following the sinners prayer in my heart, asking for forgiveness/salvation from/through Yeshua, asking God/Yeshua to give me a new heart/spirit, or cause me to be (re)born spiritually. I've asked God to let me know if my repentance is satisfactory to Him. I've asked the same about my faith. I've asked for the gift of faith so that I would be able to believe and be saved. I've asked God to work on my heart so I'd be inclined to use that gift of faith to believe what He wants me to. I've asked God to work on my heart so I'll be inclined to seek Him and love Him. I've asked God to give me some sense that as I'm reading the Bible that it's His "Word". That He'd send His Spirit to illuminate the text. That when I'm reading those words in red letters, that God would give me a strong sense of who and what Yeshua really was/is. After all this time, I don't have the answers and I don't see any changes in myself to indicate spiritual (re)birth or even a spiritual repair.
Well, its rather difficult from where I sit, and with such little amount of data (not your fault, of course) to offer much response to this...I have no idea what kind of background you have (other than possibly Jewish, but not sure how you ended up in an AoG meeting), nor who all you might have asked for help in working through this...But the kinds of issues you raise above (although the very Christian vocabulary seems a bit confused to me, personally) are generic ones that all believers work through from time to time, and many Christian counselors and pastoral workers should be able to help (or find an appropriate resource if they cannot). One possible issue that might be a hindrance is the need for 'a sign' or 'subjective, emotional experience', but it is difficult to be sure. Your word choices such as "to let me know" and "to give me some sense" seem to suggest that.
So, I might offer some thoughts on the nature of 'faith', to at least stimulate your self-evaluation in that area perhaps.
Fundamentally, faith is NOT an emotional thing--it is a 'conviction'. And although many people begin their spiritual journey in very different places (some cognitive, some despairing, some emotionally high, some from fear, etc), I would suggest, given your questions below and general approach to some of these issues, the following considerations:
As far as I can tell from Scripture, the situation of 'normal belief' is/progresses as follows (I will explain where I think your case may be different now at the end of the article):
1. "Faith" or "belief" is an attitude of holistic, personal commitment toward the truthfulness of a cognitive position;
2. A "cognitive position" has arguments/evidence for its truthfulness and against its truthfulness.
3. This commitment to the 'position' is based on an simple evaluation of these pro's and con's relative to the position. If the arguments FOR the position "seem" stronger than the arguments AGAINST the position, then one has 'some level of obligation' to make a commitment to the position (i.e., accept it as being true, believing in its factuality). There is a different (in epistemology) between 'adequate evidence' to believe something (which makes it ethical to believe a certain position, but does not obligate one to do so), and 'compelling evidence' (which makes it un-ethical to NOT believe a position).
4. However, this commitment does NOT have to be made in situations where (1) the gap between the pro's and con's is so small that only a few new 'facts' or 'problems' might REVERSE the balance; or (2) the data for the position, although stronger than that against it, is still very weak compared to similar kinds of questions. In either of these two cases, one has 'some level of obligation' to suspend judgment.
5. And, in the case of suspended judgment, if the position under question has rather large-scale implications (e.g. eternal conscious states, relationship with a cosmic deity, promise of life-long personal renewal and transcendence), then one has a built-in vested self-interest in seeking more information, data, witnesses, etc. to get beyond the impasse of 'suspended judgment'.
6. The phrase "seems to be stronger" reflects a personal "mix" of evidential values. Evidence that convinces one person may be completely forceless for another. For example, as regards a position that includes promises of personal transformation, we might expect to find people we trust that have experienced that transformation; their testimony might be enough evidence for some people. Others, perhaps having been misled/deceived by other people in similar religious venues, might require adequate historical and philosophical evidence before the pro's and con's can be assessed. Still others might simply be convinced by the sheer systematic consistency of a position--it simply 'fits together better' than rival hypotheses (like Sire tries to show in "The Universe Next Door"), or as in the case of many 'conversions' to Christianity from other world religions, it may simply be the character and beauty of Jesus that provides the deciding evidence for the claims of the position. These types of evidence typically are used by ALL of us, in differing settings and with different levels of certainty, etc. But the mix is often different for different people.
[I should point out here that fear is NOT "evidence or argument" for the truthfulness of a position. It might be an incentive to evaluate a position (#5), but it might wrongly be used to "manufacture" pseudo-commitment to a position that one actually DOES NOT commit to/believe in the sense I am describing here. Being pressured--by anyone or anything other than what counts as evidence to someone (e.g., data, friends, consistency, simplicity)--to accept a position that one does NOT believe on other grounds, does NOT produce biblical faith. It might start the process, it might accelerate the process, it might demonstrate other issues for consideration--but faith is confidence and conviction, NOT 'wishful thinking' or 'desperate make-believe' or 'dishonesty'.]
7. So far, we have only talked about the method of position 'evaluation', but once we decide that we must accept a position (at the level of confidence afforded by the strength of the evidence, and the size of the pro-con 'gap') then we will have to grapple with the internal content and implications of the position itself.
8. For example, let's say the position is "There is an invisible tree stump in front of where I am standing. It is 4 feet in diameter, and made of quite solid material.". If I become convinced that that position has adequate data to support it, and significantly more data to support it than its contradiction ("There is no invisible tree stump there..."), then I will step around that spot if I have to walk to a position on the other side of it. I will act (or have a tendencyor impulse to) in accordance with the implications of that position. I cannot stress this strongly enough: most positions (all 'religious' and/or 'worldview' positions) have behavioral implications.
9. There are, however, several problems with how we might respond.
These problems can be categorized as problems of volitional integrity,
value-conflicts, levels of confidence/certainty, and accuracy of
understanding the implicates of the position.
Value-conflicts are standard fare in this life. They involve competing claims on our behavior, often from competing cognitive positions (but not always). I really like sitting in my recliner, with my feet up, and reading. That comfort and lack-of-stress is an important value to me. The value of increasing my chances in the upcoming lottery by attempting an armadillo-hunting road trip is a competing value, IF it competes with my rest-seeking value for the same resources (i.e., me, for the next hour). In worldview issues, this very often shows up in life-style issues. For example, the cognitive position may contain statements like "you are NOT the god/master of your life" or "your are NOT as good as you think you are" or "you are not as smart as you think you are". Someone's "arrogance maintenance value" or "self-reliance value" or "righteous self-image value" may be so well-entrenched and so heavily weighted that the original cognitive position cannot either be (1) accepted or (2) acted upon consistently. [This, by the way, is the normal Christian struggle that Paul refers to in Galatians 5.]
Levels of confidence/certainty deals with (1) how 'compelling' the 'adequately compelling' initial data was, and (2) how our subsequent experiences have supported the position or not. If the last three lottery winners (out of the last 25) kissed armadillos on the night before the lottery drawing, then my behavioral response will probably be somehow weaker or less consistent than if the last 25 (out of the last 25) did. The level of confidence in a position (that is committed to anyway) can influence our ability to act (or at least the degree of responsive action) relative to a belief.
Accuracy of understanding the implicates of the position. Some implications of a cognitive position may be quite clear: "kiss armadillos before a Lottery". But sometimes even a clear statement can get less-clear with probing. Is it more important to kiss one armadillo repeatedly, or is it better to kiss as many armadillos one time only as you can? Is it important to kiss 'with feeling' or will a 'dispassionate' kiss work just as well? Are some highways better than others? What about the relative advantages of bigger armadillos, older armadillos, farther-away armadillos? Does it matter how close in time to the lottery drawing that the kissing is done? Can you 'store up' kisses for future lotteries? And the like...Uncertainty over some of these issues MAY retard behavioral actions, but the very thinking about how to apply the position is likewise a behavioral response. In the religious arena, this factor can be seen frequently in people who say "Jesus suffered for my sins (on the Cross) as my substitute" but NEVER seem to draw the obvious relief-giving conclusion: "So I DON'T HAVE TO--I am FREE from that guilt, by God's generous action in history!!!"
So, although each of these four items will affect how much action actually gets done, they each still reveal a commitment change based on the cognitive position. In other words, a struggle relative to if/how to respond to some of the elements in the cognitive position, is in itself a behavioral "result" of "faith". Commitment to a position always manifests itself somewhere. ("Faith" always changes SOMETHING in your life, even if it only begins with the thinking aspects.)
11. The way this "everyday faith" takes on a religious dimension is simply by the content of the position. Worldview and/or religious positions often deal with matters of 'ultimate' values (i.e., the least negotiable values in our lives). The least-negotiable values form the basis of ethical implicates. For example, a least negotiable value of "human life is of intrinsic worth" might produce an ethical implicate of "avoid destroying human life".
12. In theistic worldviews, many of these ultimate values are present because of the agency of an Ultimate Person--God. If the position includes "God is the ultimate knower of values, and God values human life", then our ethical implicate will probably contain "avoid destroying human life".
13. But the Judeo-Christian worldview has an interesting twist in its content--the historical dimension. It says that the Ultimate Agent did something inside our non-ultimate history: that this Agent did something at a historical crucifixion, out of love and compassion for humans, which 'something' opens the way up for a relationship with Him; and that this relationship is desired by the Agent and is very profitable, satisfying, and beneficial for humans.
14. It is precisely here that the faith in the truthfulness of the position is confronted with some of the implicates of the position:
15. It is in this unpacking of these implicates of the original
message of the Christian gospel ("God was in Christ on the Cross, reconciling
the world through His death--be reconciled to God") that the initial conviction
of/commitment to the cognitive position (i.e., the gospel) develops/unfolds
into first a confidence in the work of God in history (i.e., the
Cross and Resurrection and revelation), and then into a relationship
of trust in the Agent who did this in love.
B. As I cognitively explore this cognitive position, I realize that
part of the cognitive position is that God's clearing of the issues--those
that obstructed a peaceful and constructive relationship between God and
myself--was comprehensive and more than adequate for the task, and as a
result I realize that I do not have to 'worry' about such issues anymore.
The position contains the basis for confidence in His work in history.
If I really see this clearly (which may also be affected by how confident
I am of the original cognitive position--the other variable,
remember), then one behavioral result would be a 'sigh of relief'! All
the issues were dealt with at the Cross--I can go forward in freedom, acceptance,
and a fresh start with God. I now have "faith in the finished work of Jesus
Christ" (to use the theological terminology).
C. Finally, since the cognitive position also contained the statement
that this Jesus was still alive (having risen from the dead as a proof
of victory over all the "anti-me" forces of decay and violence in our world)
and was now the Ultimate Authority with whom we have to deal, I soon realize
that this Jesus is 'watching me' as I reflect upon His work on the Cross.
The Jesus who was simply a "noun" in the cognitive position suddenly
is understood as a "Powerful Person" present with me, and is expecting
some interaction with me! [Note that this is STILL a cognitive unpacking
of the Gospel story.] And the second my heart "looks up" and says "Thank
you", my trust has now expanded/unfolded to the Person
(and Work) of Christ. I have started a 'personal relationship' (characterized
by interaction and development) with the Living Lord. I now have "trusted
Christ as my Savior" and "have a personal relationship with Christ" (to
use the common expressions).
D. The last watershed 'unfolding' seems to vary in time for people, and some of them never seem to get there for various reasons. It still is an unfolding or realization of an aspect of the position, but sometimes the implicate is not seen for some time (often depending on how much clarity and understanding accompany the reflection on the cognitive position), if ever. I am referring to realizing the implications of "Jesus as Ultimate Authority" and/or "Jesus as Ultimate Value Model" and/or "Jesus as Ultimate Beneficent Shepherd". The truth in the position has implications for what will be considered "rational"--actions in line with that truth are "rational", those contrary are not. Some people see instantly in this process that the fact that Jesus is Lord of History/the Universe now, means that they must begin to recognize--by attitude and action--that authority. They realize that this recognition of His authority over their lives, choices, values is simply the only rational response to this truth. Some people see instantly in this process that Jesus' life is normative--that it must be emulated. They realize that a commitment to live a life of love and truth is the only rational way to live. Some people see instantly in this process that the fact that Jesus loved us enough to bear the Cross for us, means that His love, intentions, and power can be trusted implicitly for our life on earth as well. They realize that committing their lives to Jesus, to follow His directives and to seek His interests (instead of their own), is the only rational way to insure the best for their own lives. I have now "accepted Christ as Lord" , "given my life to Christ", "made a commitment to Christ" (to use the common expressions).
16. Notice that all of this development is a simple unpacking of the content of the original position. All I did in following it, was to probe the content of what I had initially made a personal commitment to as a truthful position. Christians, for example, often have arrived at a belief in the trustworthiness of Scripture. But since none of us know the full implicate set of that Scripture (an understatement if there ever was one!), 'new truths' we find as we study the Bible are pre-approved and don't require 'separate' acts of faith per se.
17. So, I literally begin the journey with a mixture of confidence and doubt, and this mix fluctuates often (and wildly, depending on a number of circumstances). Our confidence in the cognitive position can grow as we discover new supporting data, and our doubt can grow as we encounter new difficulties in the data. Our confidence in God's existence, benevolence, and intervention in our life will grow as we interact with Him over time--prayer, paying attention to patterns of providence in our lives, interacting in prayer as we read the bible devotionally. Our doubt over His existence, benevolence, and intervention might grow if we do not experience this at any level. Both aspects--confidence and doubt--in both areas of worldview and personal relationship, are always at work.
18. Interestingly, the dual poles of 'person' and 'position' can support one another. In those moments of doubts over God's goodness (say while wrestling with the problem of innocent suffering), I am always mindful of the confidence I have in the 'factual' revelation of His love for us, and His commitment against evil, at the Cross. I have no 'adequately compelling' reasons to overthrow my confidence in the truthfulness of the bible, and this helps me give Him the "benefit of the doubt" as I wallow around in the emotional problem of theodicy. Conversely, when I come across passages that 'disturb' me somewhat, my confidence in His reality, goodness, and involvement in my life, encourages me to 'trust Him' that I will eventually make sense out of the passage, and that it all will fit. So the twin poles of confidence in His disclosure and confidence from our relationship work together (as they do in most personal relationships, by the way!)
19. Of course, over time, I will develop a third basis for confidence--the trend-lines of answers. When I now run across a passage that disturbs me, I have a historical pattern of previous 'disturbing' passages that got resolved, so that I have warrant for confidence of a satisfactory "solution" from this trend line alone. Likewise in the relational realm, when God seems to be ignoring me, or testing me, I have a historical pattern of previous crises that got resolved (or crises that I survived 'constructively'), so that I have warrant for confidence in His presence, from this trend line alone.
20. But the reality is that confidence and doubt seem to coexist in a changing mix throughout this lifetime. We are not to expect otherwise (the struggle is real, but not grounds for despair), nor doubt ourselves, our God, or our honesty of commitment to the cognitive position. Remember, if you have 99 reasons to believe a position, and only ONE against it, then to use the ONE to deny the position means you now have 99 contrary data-points to explain! It is the relative weight difference between the two sides that often makes additional data points less significant than they might appear.
21. Finally, it must be remembered that God seems to work on a 'use it or lose it' basis and a 'walk by faith, not by sight' basis. When the apostles asked Jesus to increase their faith (so they could move mountains!), His response was simply that they should focus on serving God in their current situation (i.e., faith grows only when it is used in service, not by asking, seeking, begging, etc.). Likewise, if we do not use what little faith we have (in other words, acting on the basis of what we believe is true), even that will disappear. The parable of the Talents shows this as a general principle (Matt 25.14ff). And finally, we are supposed to live life in light of the implicates of the position ('walk by faith'), instead of trusting our own assessments of what it should be like. If the cognitive position which we have come to believe is true (as per the above discussion), says that something has changed in our deepest soul, then we are obligated to believe that--in spite of our feelings, observations to the contrary, etc. In matters such as these, there are too many variables that could invalidate our perceptions--that is part of why we trust Someone Who has a superior epistemic position to begin with! He knows better about what is going on than we do. (Remember, God always tends to work slowly, quietly, and thoroughly. This means that visible harvest of some of His early planting might not show up for a while. We presume too much to know what timetable God must operate on.) [On a personal note, there are some changes to my character that took years and some are taking decades.]
Now, if this understanding of biblical faith is correct, then the initial statements you made in summary fashion indicate (perhaps) a problem. [I am using your statements for illustrative purposes to only; I am sure they do not represent all of your experience, but they will serve to illustrate the points above.]
I still don't know where I am despite years of bible reading,
One comment: one must do more than read it; they must make a decision about it--is the evidence for its revelatory and truthful character greater than that against it (or for alternative explanations)?
following the sinners prayer in my heart,
I know people who have prayed this prayer without any faith whatsoever. Remember, the issue is confidence in the reality of the message of the good news. The issue is: can you commit to the truthfulness of that 'alleged' event ("God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself"...) Again, remember that I am using this for illustrative purposes--I am not 'judging your case' whatsoever!
asking for forgiveness/salvation from/through Yeshua,
From a technical theological position, one actually 'accepts or acknowledges the gift of forgiveness' from God, rather than 'asks for it'. My distinction is a bit picky--I admit--but my point is still legitimate. One must have confidence (faith) that God grants this to those who trusts His disclosure about the work of His Son on the Cross. "Righteousness" is granted immediately upon this decision to commit to the truth of what is announced in the gospel. Forgiveness (the BIG kind, at salvation) is granted immediately. [There are later experiences in the life of God's children when they ARE supposed to ask for forgiveness, but this is the forgiveness for existing family members, not the forgiveness that adopts you into that family--they are theologically different aspects of our relationship and interaction with God. The distinction between these can be seen most vividly in John 13.9-10.]
asking God/Yeshua to give me a new heart/spirit,
Again, this is not something one does to START a relationship with God (this is something He does, upon our trusting His message and work). This is promised to occur at the first moment--but the evidence of the new birth may take a long time to manifest itself (Jesus used the example of a 'tree' bearing fruit). In a more general sense, though, His children can pray this (as the believer David did in his Psalm of confession 51.10, but there it is more a pray for restoration instead of re-birth--he is already in a covenant relation with YHWH.]
or cause me to be (re)born spiritually.
Ditto here--not something for you to pray about. That is His job to do, when you have done what you are specifically urged to do: on the basis of His message to you in history, accept the Person and Work of His Son (John 1.14) for what they truthfully are.
I've asked God to let me know if my repentance is satisfactory to Him.
Again, all you have to do is have the tiniest faith--the 'little children' level that Jesus spoke of. This is not a 'works campaign' as in "you have to be THIS pure for me to heal your life"! This is not a heavy burden thing (Matt 11.28-30)...This is not YOU doing anything 'satisfactory'; this is about His Son's work on the Cross as "the perfect satisfaction of the just demands of outraged holiness" (L.S. Chafer). And just for the record, "repentance" (biblical) is NOT some anguish or reversal-of-life; it is a 'change of mind' relative to God and the implications of His disclosure...And the Gospel of John, which is specifically written to incite us to belie, NEVER MENTIONS IT...The issue is belief...Initial "faith" IS a 'change of mind' in itself, and it starts a process that you will NEVER complete this side of death (cf. Rom 12.1-2--we have to do this DAILY!)
I've asked the same about my faith.
This is similar to the above, but it looks like (on the basis of my limited data) you are seeking a 'sign' here--how is God supposed to 'let you know'? The NORMAL way He lets you know is by confirming experiences as you 'use' your faith...Don't wait on some emotional authentication or miraculous sign--He wants us to use whatever faith we have, BEFORE He gives us more and more. As you use your faith (in walking according to the guidelines given by the Spirit in the Word, in your conscience, and in godly believers in Christian community), you will see the 'fruit of the Spirit'...But fruit takes time to grow...don't expect it the second the seed germinates.
I've asked for the gift of faith so that I would be able to believe and be saved.
I have already pointed out that this is inappropriate (or at least, inaccurate). You are supposed to consider the message and make a decision--being honest to all the evidence you know, weighted fairly and non-emotionally--about its truthfulness. This is the initial faith that YOU are responsible for. This faith grows out of the historical process of interacting with the message, the evidence, witness of others, your then-current notions of God, bad experiences with Christians, etc. And again, this looks a little like another 'sign/sight' issue.
But even more problematic is the image of what I THINK you meant. If you were asking for God to bypass your intellect and decision making abilities and simply "surgically implant" a confident acceptance of the gospel INTO you (whatever that could mean), then it really wouldn't be YOU who believed, now would it? It has to be YOU that believe; not some "bionic" hybrid. The 'you' who believes, has to be the 'you' who was lost, for there to be a 'you' who is saved, if you get my meaning; there has to be some level of personal continuity for 'forgiveness', 'salvation', even 're-birth' to be meaningful semantic notions.
I've asked God to work on my heart so I'd be inclined to use that gift of faith to believe what He wants me to.
Again, this is not your responsibility, nor your obligation; nor is it even theologically correct. You won't find this kind of prayer in Scripture, concerning salvation, anywhere (and only 'parts' of it concerning spiritual growth). Once you have a thriving relationship with God, and you have faith that is growing by use and practice, He will do this automatically (cf. Heb 5.14). Focus back on what God expects of you--at the very point of beginning.
I've asked God to work on my heart so I'll be inclined to seek Him and love Him.
Same here. God 'commands you' to seek Him and love Him. He doesn't command you to 'wait on some subjective experience before you start obeying'...Dig into His word to discover His character, begin following His example of love, start making decisions that emphasize HIS value set and not simply ours. All of these can be started without an emotional state or subjective experience or numinous event...God expects us to honor Him when we have bad, bad colds, friend...
I've asked God to give me some sense that as I'm reading the Bible that it's His "Word".
Now this issue could be considerably different, but is much more complex as well. I won't be able to even comment on this, other than to point out the obvious question as to how you arrived at a belief in God? Was the bible not part of that somehow? (Again, this issue is quite different that the other aspects of your prayer, which I am attempting to relate to my understanding of the biblical notion of 'faith'. So, it is a bit out-of-scope for this piece.) But the issue of 'subjective experience' is probably present here as well.
That He'd send His Spirit to illuminate the text.
That when I'm reading those words in red letters, that God would give me a strong sense of who and what Yeshua really was/is.
Ditto here. "Strong sense" normally is a 'growing sense' after one has responded to 'weaker senses'. Much of my response here would depend on what the current confidence/doubt mix was relative to Jesus at the time you asked this prayer. Don't depend upon the subjective realm; evaluate the same kind of data that Jesus gave in His answer to John:
After all this time, I don't have the answers and I don't see any changes in myself to indicate spiritual (re)birth or even a spiritual repair.
Well, its not my place or competency to judge your particular case, but I certainly have known people that have gone through the motions/prayers described above--almost like a magical incantation--without having a particle of the faith that even children can have. They were almost trying to 'earn' God's approval by begging, by using Christian terminology, by trying to act humble and debased. If you might have had that same initial approach, then it might not be surprising that you haven't seen any indications of change; you would not have even 'gotten off the ground'. Remember, its much simpler than all that thrashing around--God wants us to stand up straight, look at the story of His Son and the Cross, and make an honest decision.
As I mentioned earlier, it is quite impossible for me to make an assessment and give you advice on what to do, simply because I have NO IDEA where you 'really are' in your spiritual journey. I can only make guess-timates based on your honest disclosures of struggle and doubts, and on the intensity of the questions below. I can only encourage you to seek competent Christian workers and/or counselors to help you sort the real issues out.
I will try to de-fuse the issues you raise below, but I suspect they are only a couple in the backlog of challenges. However, if I am able to show you that a more positive and confident attitude toward these difficulties WOULD HAVE BEEN reasonable, then perhaps you can apply that confidence to OTHER, unresolved issues in backlog, and begin growing your faith more aggressively.
So, let's dive into your questions...