by Charles E. Harrel
Have you ever wondered why the Scriptures seem to tell us everything about faith except for the most important thing: how to believe? This is a question many have faced, among them a Scottish pastor named John McKercher.
Pastor John shepherds a modest parish located northeast of the loch. His church members are scattered throughout the many hills and mint-layered bluffs common to this part of the Scottish Highlands. At the time of this story, which is based on actual events, his closest neighbor, known only as Grandma, lived across from the church on the opposite bluff. The only clue to Grandma’s identity was the plaid design on her tartan bonnet, suggesting kinship within the Farquharson clan. No one seems to recall her age, but she lived in the single-room cottage atop the bluff for at least ninety years.
Grandma was soft spoken, gentle, and friendly enough, yet she had few friends. For one thing, she never learned to read or write, and she had a worsening hearing problem. Conscious of her disability, Grandma carried something resembling an old phonograph speaker that she plugged into her ear. She called it a hearing aid, but it didn’t work too well, especially toward the end.
Grandma didn’t attend church services or get out much, but Pastor John was aware of her failing health, and he was increasingly concerned that she did not have faith in Christ. Both because of his concern and because she grilled the best barley and oat bannocks in the village, Pastor John started his morning rounds each day by dashing across the wood-planked bridge spanning the two bluffs, so he could witness to Grandma about Jesus Christ.
But progress was exceedingly slow, as he attempted to get the salvation message past Grandma’s deafened ears. The best he could hope for was that she understood a few words each day, adding to the previous day’s conversation. After an hour shouting into the hearing aid, he would walk back across the bridge, wondering if his efforts were in vain. However, with each new dawn, refreshed and resolved, he ran back to try again.
Then one morning, a happy surprise awaited the pastor. Grandma understood at last her need for salvation, and wanted to know what she must do. The pastor’s heart began to pound as Grandma eagerly grabbed the hearing aid and put it to her ear. Settling himself with a deep breath he said, “Well, according to Acts 16:31, you must believe to be saved.”
Grandma nodded her head, and asked in her Scottish accent, “Laddie, how do I believe?”
“That’s simple, just put your faith in Jesus Christ.”
Nodding again she said, “Laddie, I know who to believe in, but how do I believe in Him?”
Taking time to speak clearly into her hearing aid the pastor answers, “You believe by having faith.”
“How do you have faith?” she asks.
“That’s easy; you have faith by believ . . .”; ending abruptly, he realized his answers were merely going in circles. Could it be, the pastor wondered, that I really don’t know?
Trudging back across the bridge, he mused: “Thirty years in the ministry and I’ve never been asked that question before; so Lord, how does someone believe?” The more the pastor pondered, the harder the question became. Back home that evening; he grabbed his Bible and headed for the study.
The Bible discloses many things about faith. The Scriptures explain how faith comes, how faith grows, and why everyone has a measure of faith. We see examples of people who do not believe: “And He did not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief” (Matt. 13:58). The Bible tells of people before they believed, such as the story of the eunuch and Phillip in Acts 8:36,37.
The Word declares that we must believe (Heb. 11:6) and reveals the miraculous signs that can follow when we do (Mark 16:17,18). One passage even describes a group of people as they discover their own faith: “Now we believe, not because of what you have said, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world” (John 4:42). Another passage shows an individual in the very act of believing, as in the story of the centurion in Matthew 8:8-10, but the verse does not explain how he believed.
Finally, we encounter Hebrews 11:1, which interprets the very substance of faith, but this is just a definition. Although the Bible explains everything conceivable about faith, it does not tell how someone actually believes. The Bible’s silence on this point, however, is not without reason, as the pastor soon discovered.
The outcome of the next several days was the same for Pastor John, every day crossing the bridge, returning more discouraged than the day before. Grandma’s latest diagnosis from the village doctor didn’t help either, confirming she had less than a week to live. During evening prayers, the pastor prayed for wisdom, asking the divine Author of faith for help.
The next morning as the sun peeked over the hills, the pastor crossed the bridge spanning the canyon to the next bluff where Grandma was waiting. Sadly, this time was no different than all the other times. Leaving her home, he hesitated at the bridge as a powerful gust of wind began to toss the bridge up and down, twisting the support ropes. He considered waiting for the wind to die down, until Grandma called out, “Nalibban the bridge, Laddie.”
Waving a hand in acknowledgment, Pastor John stepped upon the first plank, thinking aloud, “Grandma is right, of course; the bridge will hold fine; it always has.” Halfway across the foot bridge, he pauses for a moment as tears welled up in his eyes. Turning quickly, the pastor ran back across the bridge. Speaking into the hearing aid with all his might, he cried, “Grandma, nalibban Christ and you will be saved.” A final nod of her head and a deep smile, revealed that Grandma finally understood what to do and how to do it.
Pastor John and Grandma both knew that “nalibban” meant to put your full weight upon something, and then have the confidence to cross to the other side. Nalibban, a Scottish phrase of uncertain origin, is probably a combination of the Gaelic words nall (to the other side) and abhainn (river or stream). Therefore, faith is realized when we cross a river, placing our full weight upon the bridge, knowing it will hold until we reach the other side. But it’s not until we experience the same bridge, many times, in various situations, with absolute certainty, that we have learned how to believe. Grandma, although she didn’t realize it at the time, had the answer to her own question about faith through experience.
We understand how to believe, not by learning some definition or memorizing certain Scriptures about faith, but by going through real life experiences with God. As we nalibban our own bridges, every experience teaches us a valuable lesson—we are learning how to believe.