What is faith? Is it a feeling? Hope against hope? Belief without evidence?
Jen Michel says faith is a habit. It’s not against evidence but careful consideration of evidence. It’s trust in the story that makes sense of the world. It’s curiosity. It’s where the habits of humility take us. “Try practicing your way into faith,” Michel writes in her new book, A Habit Called Faith: 40 Days in the Bible to Find and Follow Jesus (Baker). “Go to church, follow the liturgy, act the part. Let habit take you by the hand and lead you to God.”
Michel says that faith pushes back against the technological advances that convey the illusion that exertion is our enemy. In this book designed to help introduce the Bible to anyone curious about faith, Michel guides readers on a 40-day journey through the wilderness of doubts to the promised land of hope in the promises of God. She writes:
We can feel small in this world and frightened by our smallness. The invitation of faith isn’t to pretend that there aren’t big, bad scary wolves; that life can’t wreck with a sudden change of weather; that we don’t feel angry or sad or disappointed—even occasionally abandoned. But it is to say that we keep at the habit of believing the improbable; we’re not left or forsaken; God is with us.
Michel joined me on Gospelbound to discuss the terrifying and comforting Bible, happiness on God’s terms, and the freedom of submitting to Jesus, among other topics.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Collin Hansen: What is faith? Is it a feeling? Is it hope against hope? Belief without evidence? Jen Michel says, faith is a habit. It’s not against evidence, but careful consideration of evidence. It’s trust in the story that makes sense of the world. It’s curiosity. It’s where the habits of humility take us. Try practicing your way into faith. That’s what Jen Michel writes in her new book. A Habit Called Faith: 40 Days in the Bible to Find and Follow Jesus published by Baker. Go to church, she says, follow the liturgy. Act the part. Let habit take you by the hand and lead you to God. Michel says that faith pushes back against the technological advances that convey of the illusion that exertion is our enemy.
Collin Hansen: And this book is designed to help introduce the Bible to anyone curious about faith. Michel guides readers on a 40 day journey through the wilderness of doubt, to the promised land of hope in the promises of God. She writes this. We can feel small in this world and frightened by our smallness, but the invitation of faith isn’t to pretend that there aren’t big, bad, scary wolves that life can’t wreck with a sudden change of weather that we don’t feel angry or sad or disappointed, even occasionally abandoned. But it is to say that we keep that the habit of believing the improbable. We’re not left or forsaken. God is with us.
Collin Hansen: Jen Michel joins me on Gospelbound to discuss the terrifying and comforting Bible happiness on God’s terms and the freedom of submitting to Jesus among other topics. Jen, thank you for joining me on Gospelbound.
Jen Michel: Yeah. Thanks so much, Collin.
Collin Hansen: Jen, what led you to see faith as a habit?
Jen Michel: It’s a good question. I mean, I think I’m a good borrower. So I was really interested in Blaise Pascal’s idea that, he essentially had this idea that habit could be the thing, not just to sustain faith, but the thing to seed faith. And I ran across that quote years ago and I thought, gosh, that’s such a great way to think about it. Truthfully, it wasn’t a way that I had normally thought about it, but I thought about it as something so helpful to people. Because as you said in your introduction, if you think about faith as a feeling, then you sometimes wonder if you don’t have faith when you don’t feel it or maybe you think that you could never have faith because you couldn’t generate that feeling. And so I think the category of habit is a really hopeful one because it feels kind of practical. It feels sort of doable.
Collin Hansen: What about you, the habit of writing this book? How did it change you? How did it shape you?
Jen Michel: I think one of the interesting things was just to start in the book of Deuteronomy, which is not a book that I was actually that familiar with and I had the project set before me. Really, it came out of a study of John. I was preparing a speaking engagement on the farewell discourse and that’s when I started digging into the research, seeing the connections between the Gospel of John, specifically the farewell discourse and the book of Deuteronomy. So I thought, oh, this would make a really, really interesting project, especially because there are these five verb themes that are connected between the two, but truthfully I didn’t have a lot of familiarity with Deuteronomy other than just hitting it every year when I read the Bible through in the year. And so I think that the revelation for me in this project was how beautiful Deuteronomy is as a book and actually how relevant Deuteronomy is as a book.
Jen Michel: One of the themes of Deuteronomy is just this idea of faith being a means to life, being a means to the blessing. A lot of people actually would say that Deuteronomy sort of fits in terms of wisdom literature, the two ways. The way of wisdom, the way of the wise, the way of the fool, the way of blessing, the way of curse. And I was surprised to find that and actually so comforted. To see Moses, to hear Moses preach to the people and say, “Here are the words of God, heed them, and they will be for your life.”
Collin Hansen: Well, speaking of blessings and curses there from Deuteronomy, you described the Bible as terrifying and comforting. What do you mean by that?
Jen Michel: Well, you get into a book like Deuteronomy and you hear God talk about taking the land. And that is going to mean ridding the land of the pagan idolatrous people in their practices. So automatically you’re confronted with something that feels very anathema to the contemporary reader. These are the kinds of arguments that people bring against the Bible. Well, the Bible supports violence. It supports genocide and Deuteronomy kind of brings you right immediately into that question. It brings you to the moment where Moses prays to God, “God, just have mercy on me and let me get into the promised land,” please, please, please, please. And God says, “Absolutely not. No, I’m not changing my mind on this.” And I write in A Habit Called Faith that that’s a moment that I really don’t understand God.
Jen Michel: I really sort of feel like Moses needs a little bit more mercy. I kind of think if you were to take Moses and compare him to the Israelites and you were to just measure their faithfulness, you would say, gosh, doesn’t Moses get a bigger pass. How come the Israelites get to get into the land he doesn’t. And so the Bible is just this book where to read it with an open mind, with real curiosity and a real willingness to hear what it says, it doesn’t confirm everything you want it to say. It absolutely doesn’t. And that’s what I mean by terrifying.
Collin Hansen: I recommended your book recently to a friend who said that he’s taken the last three months, read the Bible already all the way through for the first time. And he said that he was very disturbed and I said, “Oh good. That means you actually read it.” I mean, I don’t know how you could read the Bible and not be disturbed-
Jen Michel: Absolutely.
Collin Hansen: … by a lot that’s in there. And then we got into a conversation where he was saying, “Well, I like the New Testament God a lot better than I liked the Old Testament God.” And I said, “Okay, let’s talk further about that.” And he said it was a good book on Deuteronomy called A Habit Called Faith and that might help you to think through some of this. But yeah, I think a lot of times, if we don’t see the Bible as terrifying, it probably means that we’re just cherry picking some verses.
Jen Michel: Yeah. A little bit of Psalms, like really comforting ones. Definitely not Psalms-
Collin Hansen: I was just going to say not most of the Psalms.
Jen Michel: Not the Psalms of lament, maybe not the imprecatory Psalms, you know. The Lord is my shepherd.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. But even there, Ye though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death-
Jen Michel: Yeah that’s true.
Collin Hansen: … I mean, even that is-
Jen Michel: That’s true.
Collin Hansen: … comforting and there’s always this juxtaposition of judgment and grace-
Jen Michel: Yeah. Absolutely.
Collin Hansen: … throughout the whole scriptures. I mean, let’s keep on that theme. One of the points you make and have a call to faith is that we can’t have happiness on our terms, but the question is why not? Because that certainly seems to be how just about everybody wants it.
Jen Michel: Yeah. Well, I mean, you and I have done our homework a little bit on Charles Taylor and I think to just remove God from the picture means that the only person you really have to obey is yourself. I get to do the things that make me happy, the things that I want and you throw off anything, any constraint to your own kind of individual authentic desire. And this is just not the picture that we have in scripture. It’s not the picture and that’s not just the old Testament. This is the New Testament. This is following Jesus who said, if you would have life, if you want real life, you’ll have to lose your version of what life is. If you want to follow me, you’ll have to take up a cross. And I think wrestling with this is kind of the journey of faith, which is really a journey of surrender.
Jen Michel: It’s a surrendering of our own version of good. I think that’s really what we see even in the garden. I mean the very earliest story of human rebellion against God is the story of humanity wanting to reinterpret good on their own terms. Well, God had forbidden this fruit. Eve cast that second look and says, “It actually doesn’t look all that bad. It actually looks to be good for wisdom. Good too it’s beautiful. And you know, I bet it’s going to taste good too so why don’t I try some.” That temptation is old and enduring to reinterpret good. And I think that one of the things that happens as we read the Bible is that it actually begins to reshape our interpretation of what’s good. And I think that’s super exciting. I think that it reshapes, our loves our loyalties, our whole kind of vision of the good life.
Collin Hansen: When you’re talking with people who are skeptical about religion, what have you found as a way of helping them to understand that happiness doesn’t come from just looking further within that, that there’s actually a problem with happiness on our own terms, because it’s clearly discordant with the scriptures. That’s clear as much as people want to manipulate the scriptures to get rid of that. That’s not a faithful interpretation, but given that somebody might not even trust the scripture as an authority, what have you found is a way of saying, I don’t think you actually want that, or I don’t think that’s actually going to work for you?
Jen Michel: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, I think in some ways it’s as easy as saying, how’s that going for you? How’s that? I mean, really. And really, and that’s not to be snarky because I think I could say it to myself too. It’s not as if I don’t sometimes fall under the delusion of my life will be good if I have material security and comfort, my life will be good so long as my kids are successful and happy and well-situated. But the truth is, I think it’s like what C.S. Lewis said that it’s not the problem of life being dissatisfying when our circumstances are bad. It’s the fact that life is actually dissatisfying when circumstances are good. We were left longing for more, even when life can be good to us. And so sometimes it’s just a matter of talking about that, asking people. I think Jesus models for us, the kind of approach we should have with people who are curious about faith, is just to ask them questions.
Jen Michel: First of all, I never want to assume that I understand where someone is coming from or what they think or believe or hold to be true or value. And so sometimes it’s just a question it’s always about questions. Gosh. So I hear you saying that your children are your… Just you’re putting a lot of your value in that. I don’t. Do you ever feel that to be disappointing or do you ever feel that to be a fragile kind of hope? I know for me, so this would be like turning the conversation, reflecting back my own experience of truthfully life’s disappointments of where I’ve cast my hope on something and it hasn’t been strong enough to hold. And a lot of times actually also that looks like sharing stories of grief. I’ve been recently in my Bible reading in second Corinthians and I was just marveling again at this whole connection that when we suffer, we experience God’s comfort.
Jen Michel: And when we’re comforted, we are equipped to comfort others. And I think honestly, that is a beautiful gift that we have to give to the world. Whether or not people are always apt to initially admit it, I think as you are in relationship with people, they are able to say, gosh, it’s my dreams aren’t living up to being everything that I hoped they would be. And then you get to talk to them in the place of that longing, that disappointment and to talk about Taylor again here, that hope for the transcendent.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. I was going to mention Taylor. We’ve already gotten him out a couple of times in the podcast, but I think that’s one of the challenges that we face that it’s not so much that people come in consciously thinking, I can either look outside myself or inside myself and I need to pick which of those paths I’m going to take. It’s that people, even as they’re dissatisfied with the self-help concepts, just keep pursuing more self-help concepts. It doesn’t appear that they really doubt the premises-
Jen Michel: Exactly.
Collin Hansen:… they might doubt the outcomes, but it takes something else. And in my experience, it’s often suffering that brings it back to say that just it’s not going to work these mantras, these incantations, these resolutions can’t really deliver you from the body of sin and death.
Jen Michel: And there’s just more and more burden of responsibility on the self. The self can never be at rest. It’s interesting. I was talking to a friend recently, who’s not a Christian and she is a physician and recently just had something happen at work that she just couldn’t let go of. She was bearing some guilt over that and just kicking her self feeling like I could’ve made a better decision. Maybe there would have been a different outcome and that’s a moment and I did.
Jen Michel: I said it over texts. We weren’t actually having a conversation, but in texts and so this is one thing that I really appreciate about being a Christian, that there’s actually a framework for forgiveness, because if all you have is the self, the self is judge and jury and it’s everything. All the burden is entirely on the self to do better, to improve and to absolve even and to be a Christian. And to believe that actually my greatest moral debt is not to myself. It is to my creator and the paradox really is that that’s so great a debt could be forgiven.
Collin Hansen: Well, Christianity, nothing if not a story, a true story. One of the things you write in A Habit Called Faith is that we live by the stories we tell. Expand on that idea a little bit. How does that fit into your project here?
Jen Michel: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I love, I actually pulled this book down and I think that it’s worth just a mention here, Telling a Better Story, Joshua Chatraw. I really appreciate this particular perspective, especially on evangelism and apologetics that we need to turn toward the idea just that Christianity is a story. It’s not just this body of knowledge. It’s not just this bulleted list of facts, but it really is a story and stories captivate people. I mean it’s why Jr, our token. It’s why everybody is so excited about this new Amazon show and why his storytelling, his world-building is just, it captures us because that’s the kind of beings that we are. We’re storytelling creatures. And so I think story exists. It touches us on a deeper level than the rational. And I think that is such an important piece that I am trying to do in A Habit Called Faith.
Jen Michel: And honestly, even in my conversations with skeptics and curious people is to touch on the longings, on the desires and how the Christian story is actually speaking into that, that it’s not just this historical record of what happened through Jesus’ life, although that is absolutely true, but it’s also, I mean to think about the explanatory power of the gospel, that it tells us something about why we’re so anguished over the world being so broken and C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, it touches on that. Why should we expect anything other than a broken world? If this is all we’ve ever had, this longing for a better world, where does that come from? And so I think it’s at this level of desire and intuition about what the world should be like and who we should be and how we should treat one another. The Christian story, it answers that. It has so much explanatory power. It has way more explanatory power than we could say the Darwinian story, for example.
Collin Hansen: It seems like the two options that people prefer today are either to say that I can’t really control everything that’s happening in the world, but I can improve myself. So whether it’s fitness or what I’m eating, or my mindfulness, or my anxiety seeking medications, treatments, all those sorts of things. Seems like that’s the option or the other option you have is the activist option. And these two things by the way, they can work with each other. They can work at the same time. So the activist option is, okay, the problem is we’re just the wrong people, or is it bad people out there? And we just need to replace the bad people with the good people, no matter what. And clearly the Christian story is very different in those ways. I’m kind of setting you up here on my own premise, but how would you see the Christian story through Deuteronomy, through John, how do you see that as being… What kind of contrast does it offer to those solutions or answers?
Jen Michel: Deuteronomy is such a wonderful book because you do see the brokenness of the human condition. So what Deuteronomy is basically repeating over and over again, just all these sermons from Moses, hear the words of God, heed them in them you’ll find your life and guess what? Israel throughout her history has had these moments of yes, yes, we will. We’ll renew the covenant and we’ll make all of these promises to God that we fully intend to keep. And the book of Deuteronomy is like, Nope, Nope, that’s never going to work. And actually one of my favorite verses from the Robert Alter translation, and nobody gets us excited about this as I do, because it feels so pessimistic, but you get to the end of Deuteronomy and this is how Robert Alter translates it. Did he act ruinously?
Jen Michel: Speaking of God, speaking of like how everything’s going to fall apart, Israel’s going to lose the land that they’ve been promised because they won’t obey God. So did God act ruinously when everything falls apart? No. His son’s the fault. And that’s how he translates that. And I think it’s so poetic and so vivid. His son’s the fault. Where does the fault for the broken world exist? It’s like not in other people alone, but in myself. Let’s be honest. I mean, even if I try to repair the world, well, there are lots of days I feel actually kind of contradicted about that, where if we’re really honest about what we want, we want for our own comfort and security. Goodness, I could talk recently. I mean, there’s been a really interesting expose about people who in the 1960s in New York City wanted for integrated schools, but when it came for actually sending their children to those schools, they opted not to.
Jen Michel: So his son’s the fault. His daughter’s the fault that the truth is is that I want a more just world. And I also want a world that’s comfortable and convenient and the same is true for self-improvement. That there are days that I wake up and I feel very resolved, for example. And as I think most people, there are days we wake up and we feel very resolved to do better, to keep all of our good intentions. And then there are days that we wake up and we binge watch Netflix. Why? Again, it’s sort of this like broken, fragile thing that are we going to put all of our hopes and our own individual efforts or even in our own collective efforts? No, I think that’s a very fragile hope.
Collin Hansen: Another concept that’s very misunderstood, I think and I know you would agree is just the concept of love. One of the things you write and have a called faith is that love can sometimes seem or feel severe. And yeah, we’ve already talked about a lot of evidence of that from the book of Deuteronomy. Explain how we’re supposed to understand a concept of love that includes severity when I think more or less we have in Western culture, turned love into a synonym for affirmation.
Jen Michel: Yeah. 100%. This goes back to what we were talking about. That if there are real objective moral goods in the world, if they’re actually objectively is a better life than another, which is what the Bible posits and Deuteronomy is all about. That that if you follow, if you hear and heed the words of God and then you’ll find your life and if you don’t, it will be for your ill. You will lose good things. You will suffer if you choose to rebel against God. So this affronts this contemporary idea that we have of love that I love you, Collin when I just… You do you. I affirm what you want as a good, not for any objective reason, but simply because you want it. And I think that’s a really dangerous thing, because if you want something, that’s actually not a moral good.
Jen Michel: That it goes against the moral grain of the universe as God has made it, then for me to say, “That’s great for you,” when I know it’s actually going to lead you off a cliff. That’s not loving for me at all to say to you. Now of course, how I say that to you in the context of relationship is a really, really important thing. And one of the things that I think again is the beauty of Christianity that it’s never well, I’m morally superior to you. We’ll call in if you would only want the things that I want. If you would only choose the things that I choose, no, we are together morally corrupt.
Jen Michel: We stand to be judged by a Holy God who, because of his mercy, his being rich in mercy has chosen to love us and to forgive us and to set us on the path of moral righteousness. I think that’s a really important part of the gospel that the gospel doesn’t just stop at you’ve been spared the punishment you deserve for your moral corruption, but you actually are remade. You are baptized now into the death of Christ and raised to walk in newness of life. And that includes new habits of being, new moral habits of being, new patterns of loving your neighbor well. So, yeah.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. Well, Let’s bring this toward the end. I mean, I wonder if is there a point that I’m kind of setting you up here? Is there a point where we no longer need faith? We get all the evidence that we need, all our questions are answered. I do think a lot of Christians have that attitude, or perhaps that’s even in my friend who said, I thought I’d read the Bible and then all of a sudden I’d see everything clearly. Now I’ve got all the evidence. Now I don’t really need… I just understand everything. Now just what’s the ongoing role of faith in this habit as you describe it?
Jen Michel: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think that’s such an important question. I actually have a child who currently is in a real vital, I think, important stage of questioning. And I think that this particular child thinks that if I read all of the right books, somehow I’m going to satisfy all of my intellectual questions. And I keep saying to this child, though, you’re never going to be exempt from that leap. I mean, to be entirely cliche, leap of faith, because faith is not just intellectual. It is a believing trust. I’ve appreciated readings in people recently who are trying to grapple with this word, this Greek word that is hard and I don’t want to get into all of those debates because I’m not a Greek scholar, but I think what they’re grappling with is this idea that faith encompasses trust.
Jen Michel: It encompasses surrender. And so if you think that you can just satisfy intellectual questions and be there, you can’t be. You need a vision of the resurrected Jesus. I really do believe that. I think you need to be called to him and for this child and for other people in my life who do not believe, I just pray for them as if they were Saul on the road to Damascus. Lord Jesus Christ, reveal yourself to this person. Let them have a vision of you. And I think that there is something, I’m going to say, experiential about that, and that’s not to eliminate everything we’ve already talked about, that faith is more than a feeling. And I think it’s more than an experience, but I think it’s also true to say that faith isn’t just, well, I’ve intellectually grappled with all of the questions and so I have faith. No, you’re going to have to leap into trusting Jesus to be the ruler of your life, the king of your life.
Collin Hansen: Would it be appropriate Jen, to describe what you’re talking about in this 40 day journey as encouraging people to put themselves in the way of grace?
Jen Michel: 100%. Yes. I mean, habit, again, it can’t be the thing to lead you. It can’t alone lead you to God, but it can be a means of grace. The paradox of grace is that it can meet us as we’re walking in the way. We can choose to walk in the way we, can choose to take up some of these habits. The habit of reading scripture, I think being very, very primary, but then we are entirely dependent upon the holy spirit to kind of pull back the veil and to allow us to see the glory of the risen Christ. That is a work that God must do in our hearts, but we can certainly. I’ve sort of said it this way sometimes. If grace is like a rain shower, you can get yourself outside. Just get yourself outside and ask God for the good weather of grace.
Collin Hansen: I like that. I like that a lot. I’m going to do a final three here, Jen. We’ve been talking with Jen Michel author of the new book. A Habit Called Faith: 40 Days in the Bible to Find and Follow Jesus, from Baker. Final three here with Jen. Jen, how do you find calm in the storm?
Jen Michel: Oh, goodness. Well, we can talk about the storm of the pandemic. I think the storm of the pandemic really turned over the boat. It swamped the boat for me and I had a lot of anxiety and you know what I did? Is I just was like, I got to think about what habits are really important in this season, habits to continue, but also habits to begin. And the habit of fixed hour prayer has become a really important habit for me during the pandemic. Something that I’ve done by myself, something that I’ve done with my family and also with our small group at church. We had a season of just meeting over Zoom for morning prayer. Just so small, so ordinary, but so life sustaining and anchoring just a new habit of prayer for me has been really helpful during this storm.
Collin Hansen: Second question. Where do you find good news today?
Jen Michel: Oh, good news. Besides the gospel?
Collin Hansen: Yeah.
Jen Michel: I mean, I do. I don’t want to be so cliche, but I do just find that I keep reminding myself about what is true in the world even to think about what’s true against the horrors of what’s happening in Afghanistan. I think about this drone strike. I think about these children that have died. I think about people who couldn’t get on planes that might’ve wanted to. And I really do say to the Lord how long, oh Lord. And the good news of the gospel tells me not forever, not forever.
Collin Hansen: That is good news. That is good news. Last question, Jen, what’s the last great book you’ve read.
Jen Michel: So I just looked at my bookshelf.
Collin Hansen: This is what I have my good reads for. I mean the point is to like what first comes to mind. I’m not looking for your impressive answer.
Jen Michel: I know exactly.
Collin Hansen: I’m looking for your first answer.
Jen Michel: Well, okay. I’ll talk about a novel that I just read.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. Let’s do it.
Jen Michel: I read a novel called Wayward by Dana Spiotta, I think and this is the first novel that I’ve ever read by her. I was introduced to it in an interview that Pamela Paul did on the New York times Book Review Podcast, not a Christian book and actually a super interesting book, especially with some of the work that I’ve done on place. The woman who’s the protagonist of that novel people have actually called it a menopausal novel. So I’ll just say that it may have been resonant for me for certain reasons, because I’m 47 middle aged, but the woman decides that she’s going to change her life. And she’s going to change herself by moving into a different house. And well, it actually means also leaving her husband and leaving her daughter. I think those kinds of things are super interesting to read as a Christian, because again, it’s a story and you kind of see it doesn’t work out super well for her. So that is the novel that I’ve most recently read.
Collin Hansen: It’s why I asked the question. I mean, the guests I have on Gospelbound they’re writers, but every writer I know, especially if they’re successful at all at their craft, they’re readers. And so they always give some interesting answers there. Jen Pollock Michel has been my guest on Gospelbound. Check out her new book. A Habit Called Faith: 40 Days in the Bible to Find and Follow Jesus. Jen as always, you’re one of my favorite guests. Thank you for joining me on Gospelbound.
Jen Michel: Thank you, Collin. This was fun.