How Should You “Cultivate Faith”?

I’ve noted elsewhere on this site (see especially “Why I Am a Christian (and You Should Be, Too), in 600 Words”) my take on Pascal’s Wager as pressing Christians to cultivate the faith they choose to declare.  That is, one doesn’t just say, okay, I believe, and then forget about it; one must act accordingly and strengthen one’s belief.

But how does one do that latter thing, precisely?  Just writing it over and over again on the chalkboard won’t do the trick.

It seems to me that there is certainly an intellectual side to cultivating one’s faith, and there is also a spiritual (one might call it mystical or emotional, but I think that’s not exactly right) side as well.

The intellectual side prominently includes becoming familiar or more familiar with Christian apologetics, and reading them with an open and welcoming mind; conversely, one doesn’t spend all one’s time reading anti-faith works, though one does need to know what the Other Side is up to.

Often sinful acts will separate one from God and undermine faith in Him, so they should be avoided, duh.  (Avoiding sin likewise has an intellectual part (you have to know what sin is) and a spiritual part (it helps to ask for God’s help).)  Conversely, adopting the rituals of faith and otherwise walking the walk can only help.

One also should be on the lookout for evidence of God.  This has both intellectual and spiritual aspects.  Your mind has to be on the lookout, but your heart has to be open as well, to see God’s hand in things.

And, on the more purely spiritual side, there is prayer.  To say that prayer can be emotional and mystical is not to say it is anti-intellectual.  The heart can have reasons that are beyond the brain’s comprehension.  Some French guy said something like that.

Postscript:  Perhaps it might be useful to set a timer to go off once or twice an hour, to remind you/me to think of God rather than to go through the day ignoring Him — to be thankful for the good in what’s happening or not happening in your day, to ask for His help and his forgiveness with it all, and just generally to recognize His presence.

Second, better postscript:  I should note what the great man himself, Blaise Pascal, had to say on the subject in the course of his “wager” discussion.  Here it is:

“I confess it, I admit it, but even so … Is there no way of seeing underneath the cards?”  “Yes, Scripture and the rest, etc.”  “Yes, but my hands are tied and I cannot speak a word.  I am being forced to wager and I am not free, they will not let me go.  And I am made in such a way that I cannot believe.  So what do you want me to do?”  “That is true.  But at least realize that your inability to believe, since reason urges you to do so and yet you cannot, arises from your passions.  So concentrate not on convincing yourself by increasing the number of proofs of God but on diminishing your passions.  You want to find faith and you do not know the way?  You want to cure yourself of unbelief and you ask for the remedies?  Learn from those who have been bound like you, and who now wager all they have.  They are people who know the road you want to follow and have been cured of the affliction of which you want to be cured.  Follow the way by which they began:  by behaving just as if they believed, taking holy water, having masses said, etc.  That will make you believe quite naturally, and according to your animal reactions.”  “But that is what I am afraid of.”  “Why?  What do you have to lose?  In order to show you that this is where it leads, it is because it diminishes the passions, which are your great stumbling-blocks, etc.”

Third postscript, also better:  And here’s what that other great man, C.S. Lewis, had to say on the subject (Mere Christianity, pages 123-24):

Now Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of changing moods. …  Consequently one must train the habit of Faith.

The first step is to recognize the fact that your moods change.  The next is to make sure that, if you have once accepted Christianity, then some of its main doctrines shall be deliberately held before your mind for some time every day.  That is why daily prayers and religious readings and churchgoing are necessary parts of the Christian life.  We have to be continually reminded of what we believe.  Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind.  It must be fed.  And as a matter of fact, if you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have reasoned out of it by honest argument?  Do not most people simply drift away?

To be sure, Mr. Lewis is talking about cultivating faith that is already extant, rather than cultivating it anew.  But one would think that there is some overlap in the techniques used at the two stages, and indeed in the stages themselves.

Fourth postscript — gee, the postscripts are a lot longer than the original post, but then if I’m quoting Pascal, Lewis, and Flannery O’Connor, perhaps they should be.  This quotation from the latter are excerpts from a wonderful letter (too long to quote in its entirety here) that she wrote to Alfred Korn (then a college freshman) on May 30, 1962, and that is included in the excellent book The Habit of Being, collecting her correspondence:

I think that this experience you are having of losing your faith, or as you think, of having lost it, is an experience that in the long run belongs to faith; or at least it can belong to faith if faith is still valuable to you, and it must be or you would not have written me about this.

I don’t know how the kind of faith required of a Christian living in the 20th century can be at all if it is not grounded in this experience that you are having right now of unbelief.  This may be the case always and not just in the 20th century.  Peter said, “Lord, I believe.  Help my unbelief.”  It is the most natural and most human and most agonizing prayer in the gospels, and I think it is the foundation prayer of faith.


… Bridges once wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins and asked him to tell him how he, Bridges, could believe.  He must have expected from Hopkins a long philosophical answer.  Hopkins wrote back, “Give alms.”  He was trying to say to Bridges that God is to be experienced in Charity (in the sense of love for the divine image in human beings).  Don’t get so entangled with intellectual difficulties that you fail to look for God in this way.


If you want your faith, you have to work for it.  It is a gift, but for very few is it a gift given without any demand for equal time devoted to its cultivation.  For every book you read that is anti-Christian, make it your business to read one that presents the other side of the picture; if one isn’t satisfactory read others.  Don’t think you have to abandon reason to be a Christian. …. To find out about faith, you have to go to the people who have it and you have to go to the most intelligent ones if you are going to stand up intellectually to agnostics and the general run of pagans that you are going to find in the majority of people around you. ….

Even in the life of a Christian, faith rises and falls like the tides of an invisible sea.  It’s there, even when he can’t see it or feel it, if he wants it to be there. ….