Advent 2018: Faith on Track, The Polar Express


A train appears out of the snow on your street––and it’s not just any train. It’s a train to the North Pole, filled with other kids, hot chocolate, and Tom Hanks, all in eager anticipation to see the king, a.k.a. Santa. And of course there’s only one thing to do when presented with such an adventure: you climb aboard the Polar Express.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve watched this movie every Christmas season (and insisted that hot chocolate was available during the hot chocolate dance). One nice thing about revisiting such children’s movies is that the messages are fun and simple. It’s more than a movie about adventure. It’s ultimately a movie about belief, and as I’d like to argue, faith.

Perhaps you also remember the final scene of the movie (spoilers!): Our unnamed main character is surrounded by his friends and millions of short, skinny elves who are all absolutely astounded by the sight of Santa Claus—all except our boy, who is (very understandably) questioning the reality of the magic train and the mythical Christmas man. He can’t see Santa. Or hear the reindeer bells. And so in a desperate effort to believe, he gives up his doubts and whispers to a fallen, silent bell, “I believe, I believe.” And the bell rings, and Santa singles him out for the first gift of Christmas.

But I’d like to take issue with this lovely scene: Is faith really that simple?

The last scene is a little like feeling left out during a worship service. You’re in church and everyone else seems to be feeling the worship more than you. For some reason, you feel disconnected, or God feels distant. And maybe for a moment, or more than a moment, you doubt the whole thing. You want to believe and experience that same joy that everyone else seems to be experiencing, but the proof has yet to appear to you.

How do you know it’s true? How does someone have faith?

These are certainly abstract questions, but there are still plenty of places to turn for answers.

One is evident in the film itself: the importance of a child-like faith. Sometimes this phrasing rubs people the wrong way, because it sounds like faith is meant to be naïve. Child-like faith is mentioned by Jesus multiple times in the gospels; “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”1 But does this mean to question less and blindly believe?

This verse makes some more sense if we think about other characteristics of children. Our Polar Express kids are pretty helpless. They continually lose tickets, or somehow get stuck on the top of the train, or get lost in the North Pole. They need caring adults to get them back “on track.” So maybe this is how we can understand the verse: we must first understand that we are like children, in the sense that we need God’s care, help, and love.

Our boy understands something about humbling himself in faith. But what about those words? Is faith just an uttering of the magic words, “I believe”?

Well, it’s not just the words. The confession of faith is a confirmation of something that has already occurred inside of you. We choose to accept that there are certain things that we will never know, because there are some things that are out of our control. The words don’t make the faith; the faith makes the words.

The bell continues to ring for our boy as a constant reminder of his faith. If only there were always such clear rings in the Christian life! Unfortunately, our faith cannot be perfect. There will be times when we feel distant, or we doubt.

And of course, Jesus knows this. In one biblical story, a father is desperate to have his son healed by Jesus. Jesus tells him, “All things are possible for one who believes,” to which the father responds, “I believe; help my unbelief!”2 It amazes me that this man admits his unbelief is still there yet still asks for help—an example we can follow.

Ultimately, faith will not always make sense. But movies like the Polar Express this advent season can remind us that we must approach faith with humility, with understanding of our imperfections, and with trust in God’s word and promises. We must believe without seeing for now, but someday, our train will arrive.

1 Luke 18:17 ESV
2 Mark 9: 14-29 ESV

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