In Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful novel, Jack, the main character, who the book is named after, poses a striking dilemma during a conversation with a pastor named Hutchins. As a pastor’s son, Jack has a deep knowledge of the Christian faith, but he wrestles with the relationship between grace and punishment and good and evil. When discussing those issues with Pastor Hutchins, Jack says, “I’ve never even understood the difference between faith and presumption. Never.”[i]
Hutchins replies that he has a meeting in three minutes, so he’ll have to answer the question next week if Jack returns to church. Jack promises to think on it. He does return to the church and has several more conversations with the pastor throughout the novel, but they never address this dilemma of faith and presumption. It’s a question that each of us should ponder. Do I have genuine faith, or am I wrongly presuming that my faith is genuine? Bottom line, how do we answer Jack’s question? What is the difference between faith and presumption?
Presumption and Self-Deception
To live presumptuously is to take something for granted, to assume a reality that doesn’t exist. Amazingly, as the presumptuous man lives in a fantasy world of his making, he often lives with boldness and unshakeable confidence. He knows what he knows, and no one can convince him otherwise. In biblical terms, we would call this self-deception.
Jesus addresses those whose lives are marked by presumption and self-deception at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. In one of the most sobering texts in the entire Bible He warns, “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name? And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness (Matthew 7:22-23).’”
There’s a reason John MacArthur began his pulpit ministry at Grace Community Church by reading this text. Those who are self-deceived, by definition, are not aware of their status. In verse 22 the self-deceived argue with God, explaining that they should be granted access to the kingdom because of their works. Jesus warns that the judgment seat will be a place where presumption is exposed, where the blinders of self-deception will be ripped away so the penetrating light of truth can illuminate the true character of one’s life and works.
Beyond these words in Matthew 7, the Bible is filled with warnings against self-deception, which is perhaps the most prominent result of presumption. In Hebrews 3:12-13 we are told to “take care” to avoid an evil and unbelieving heart. According to verse 13, the heart grows corrupt because of the deceitfulness of sin. Sin distorts reality and our corrupt hearts grow accustomed to the misperception.
Though it may begin small, over time the accumulation of sin adds layer after layer of self-deception and builds a fortress of presumption.
It’s not surprising that Jack struggles to understand the difference between faith and presumption. There’s plenty of semantic overlap between these two words. Faith and presumption both involve belief. They both “feel” a certain way because there’s an element of trust in someone or something else. Both faith and presumption take a particular view of reality and live out of that perception. They are conceptual cousins with some of the same family traits.
Yet, it’s crucial that we know the difference between these two.
Faith looks outward to God and relies on Him. Presumption, on the other hand, turns inward and finds confidence and assurance in self.
Of course, there are levels of presumption. One can be presumptuous about one’s spiritual state before the Lord. There will be those who, on the last day, stand before the Lord, convinced that they are His, only to have their presumption exposed when they hear those awful words, “Depart from me for I never knew you.” Beyond that sort of core level presumption, the reality is that many (all) of us operate presumptuously in some area of life. It may be over something as significant as a doctrinal position or as practical as how we choose to educate our children.
We live in a time when our presumptions can be easily reinforced by social media addicts. It’s easy to find “my tribe” and feel confident about my position because other people operating in virtual space are also sure they are right. There’s always an “expert” or two who can be marshaled to the cause to make me feel better about what I already think. Presumption and self-deception rule the day and it’s increasingly difficult to avoid them.
Faith or Presumption?
Since faith and presumption have similar qualities and self-deception is notoriously hard to recognize, how can we know if we’re living with genuine faith instead of presumption? We can find trustworthy guidance in Matthew 7, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, right before the dire warning of verses 21-23. Jesus’ warning that many will show up at the judgment, having lived a life of presumption is part of the middle “pair” illustration that Jesus uses to conclude the Sermon. In verses 13-14, He describes a pair of paths, one broad and one narrow, that are before his listeners. One path leads to life and one to destruction. Next, in the middle “pair” in verses 15-23, he warns those listening to beware of false prophets who appear to be sheep but “inwardly are ravenous wolves.” How will we be able to tell the difference in others, and most importantly for our dilemma, how can we know if we are ravenous wolves?
It’s a matter of fruit (v. 16), either good or bad. What sort of good fruit will we find in our lives if we are living out of faith in God, not self-centered presumption?
Good fruit looks like understanding and implementing the teaching of the entire Sermon on the Mount. But more specifically, Jesus is referring to the fruit of the virtues laid out in the beatitudes of Matthew 5:3-12. At the top of that list is the virtue of humility: poor in spirit.
Nothing more effectively cuts through the fog of self-deception and presumption than the virtue of humility.
Faith and humility go hand in hand. Faith turns outward to God and trusts Him. Faith forgets self and humbly fixes its gaze on Christ. The humble man doesn’t need to build a platform or following. He doesn’t care because he’s not presuming his own wisdom and importance. Humility injects distrust of one’s perceptions or opinions, which is why it is the anti-venom for presumption and self-deception.
I would have loved for Marilynne Robinson to include an extended discussion about faith and presumption in her novel. However, by posing the predicament and never resolving it, she has likely done us readers a greater service than we may first realize. The sinister and terrifying reality of self-deception, fueled by presumption, is a present danger for all of us in these polarized days. Maybe she has helped us take the first step to humility and faith by drawing our attention to this dilemma and the possibility that we may be living a life of presumption.
[i] Robinson, Marilynne. Jack. New York, Farrar, Straus And Giroux, 2020. p, 167.
Image: Illustration by Dorothy Leung