On my last post, I left my introduction to the way we use the word “faith” as:
1) a “faith statement” (i.e. a declaration of some kind that indicates, not simply that one is a Christian, but that one has proper understanding about what it means to be a Christian)
(e.g. “Jesus is Lord;” “I believe that Jesus died for my sins.”)
2) as an attitude that Christians are called to have in the midst of difficult circumstances, or when they want or need some event to occur on their behalf.
(e.g. “Don’t worry… you just gotta have faith.”)
Keep in mind that what I’m examining here are not the definitions of theologians or experts… These are two primary ways that I see the word “faith” used in the everyday life and theology of many Christian communities. There are other ways the word is used, of course.
But are these satisfactory definitions? Or, perhaps I should ask: Are these satisfying definitions? Perhaps this might be what we often mean by “faith,” but is it all we intend to mean by “faith”?
As you chew on that, here are some thoughts:
1) “Faith” is synonymous with TRUST.
We often forget what the actual definition of “faith” really is—not as a technical or theological term, but its originally intended. The Greek word pistis in the Bible is about a wholehearted trust.
We might typically consider “faith” as synonymous with “belief”– and in fact, some translations of the scriptures do translate pistis as “belief,” especially when it is in verb-form (“believe”). Belief and trust are certainly related terms, but I think that we tend to think of “belief” as our “beliefs,” that is, our faith-statements (see above) about God.
In other words, sometimes we assume that having faith is about having the right theology…to demonstrate our faith is to be able to say or claim certain things (which often means that we are not allowed to question our beliefs, either, for that would indicate a lack of faith!)
Theology is critically important, but it’s not really what’s in mind, I don’t think, when Jesus talks about faith/belief. He’s talking about a wholehearted trust in Him, in His ability to heal, lead, guide, forgive, renew.
And does questioning our own beliefs about God really signify a lack of faith, or does it possibly point to someone’s desire to deepen their trust, their commitment? Does not trust require humility—which may include, the humility to admit that there is much we don’t understand about God, that may be diminished by or left out of my hard and fast “faith statements”? Must I not trust God Himself, more than my own theology?
I once went bungee-jumping, when I was travelling with some friends in Africa. We were at Victoria Falls and they had a jump there that was as high as the falls itself, dropping from the middle of a bridge over the Zambezi River. Some might call me crazy (and my travelling companions did, at first!) But after speaking with the men in charge, who explained to me the procedures and precautions, I was convinced that I would be safe. Now, I didn’t go and perform any tests on the rope myself, although admittedly I did watch a few others go before me. I didn’t ask for data to be presented to me in a spreadsheet to show me how safe the bungee jump was. No matter how many people I could have let go before me, I ultimately had to decide to trust the men in charge that they would keep me safe, remember every procedure, and properly execute each.
The point is, my faith in these bungee operators wasn’t demonstrated by my stated belief to my friends “Hey guys, it’s okay. This is completely safe!” But neither was it negated by my questions or concerns voiced ahead of time, nor by the twinge of doubt or fear that I might have experienced as I neared the ledge, hopping with my legs tied together until my toes peeked over the edge of the bridge.
At some point, I had to trust the operators, and go. I had to trust that what they told me was true, although I had no way to prove it. I placed myself in their care and provision. I had to wholeheartedly trust them… in PEOPLE, not in concepts or proofs.
“If we were given the scriptures, it was not given so we could be right about everything. (The scriptures were given) to humble us to realizing that God is right, and the rest of us is just guessing.”
-Rich Mullins at concert in Lufkin, Texas
during his last concert tour in 1997
This takes us to a second thought:
2) REAL trust (faith) involves ACTION.
I grew up in church hearing the definition of faith as it is given in Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (NRSV) These go right along with the idea of trust, of course. And they show the connection between the concept of belief and trust in that powerful word “conviction.”
But when I learned that definition, rarely did our lessons go on to read the rest of chapter 11 of Hebrews, which explains this definition! And what I am struck by now, every time that I read this chapter, is how faith, our conviction, is so indivisibly connected to action.
BY FAITH Noah built an ark… (v.7)
BY FAITH Abraham left his homeland, although he had no clue where he was going… (v.8)
BY FAITH Abraham offered Isaac, the child of promise (v.17)
BY FAITH Joseph
BY FAITH Moses
BY FAITH Rahab
Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets…
all of the faithful actions of these people, much like one observing a bungee-jumper, looked potentially out-of-their-minds crazy, and elicited a myriad of responses from observers.
Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated– They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
Jesus’ mentioning of faith typically surrounded open, public opportunities for people to demonstrate their trust in Him by their actions: Reaching out and touching His cloak in the hopes that it would bring healing. Lowering a paralytic through a ceiling. Approaching Jesus in desperation and abandonment. The lack of trust shown by Peter when he began to sink after stepping out onto the water after Jesus.
But look even further, beyond just the mentioning of the specific word pistis—What was it that Jesus demanded of others? What was it that He called people to “repent” to (i.e., to “turn towards”?) Three passages from the Gospels, I think, need to be ingrained into the minds of EVERYONE who claims to have faith in Christ:
The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) –This passage is taught in every Sunday School in every church. But read it again for yourself when you get the chance, and tell me if we truly take what Jesus says here seriously. The lawyer gives the “right” answer; he demonstrates to Jesus his strong doctrinal standing by rattling off the two proper answers (that every self-respecting Jew knew like the back of their hands) and that Jesus himself affirms. But notice His response…”You have given the right answer. (As if to say, NOW,) DO this, and you will live.” Knowing the answer wasn’t real trust. He had to actually DO something with the knowledge that he had; he had to actually love God and others with his actions, for that knowledge to matter at all. Note also what the DOING involves— nothing fancy, just being in the moment, being truly available and open to another, willing to love and serve without regard.
Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. (Matthew 7:21)—This verse, along with the entire Sermon on the Mount, is a pretty direct challenge to those who might say that a “sinner’s prayer” is all one requires to be right with God. To be sure, such people in their best intentions wish to ensure that coming to faith is available to all freely, and that we are saved by grace. Indeed, that’s true. But nowhere do the scriptures say that faith is EASY, or INSTANTANEOUS! Faith, trust, must be lived out in concrete action… doing the will of God. Grace and trust go hand-in-hand, and are not meant to be separated.
The Sheep and the Goats Parable (Matthew 25:31-46)—This is potentially the most challenging passage of the Bible, for those of us who claim to be Christ-followers, and live in relative comfort and wealth. It is also a direct challenge to the assumption that knowing God, or knowing about him, is enough to save, or that actions are somehow of a “second-order” importance to us, or to our relationship with God. The “goats” call the Son of Man “Lord” (just like Matthew 7:21 says), and yet they are cast aside, and why? Because they did not show love, in demonstrable, concrete ways, to those around them in need. I get the sense here that, just as God called Moses and Abraham and David to demonstrate their trust in Him through their specific callings, Jesus now calls ALL of us who claim to be His followers, to demonstrate our trust by our love… do you?
There will be nuances to how each of us reads these stories—how do these passages challenge, strengthen, or color your notion of “faith”?
If “faith” (trust) begins with a call (“Follow me,”) what are we being called to?
As you consider that, allow me to go back to my example of “faith” from 120 meters over the Zambezi river: My faith didn’t become real faith, until I took that swan dive over the edge.
But what if, instead of explaining to me the safety procedures and showing me the proper protocol, the bungee instructor didn’t say a word to me? What if, instead, he simply looked at me, began strapping himself into the double harness, hooked himself in with carabiners and hopped over to the edge until his toes dangled over the side, and then turned around to me, pointed to a second harness system and said “Follow me,” and then SWOOSH… jumped?
Any chance in the WORLD that I would have followed?
Yeah, not so much.
In the Christian story, faith, trust, is all about following. That’s what being a “disciple” means. That’s REAL faith. That’s living in assurance of things hoped for and conviction of things not seen; we cannot see Jesus, but we no less are following Him than the disciples in the Gospels did. Faith is ALLEGIANCE to our Lord who walked, and walks, before us.
Which means—we don’t have to know or understand everything. We are free from our need for assurance in anything other than Jesus Himself… and our assurance in that regard coming only from this mysterious phenomenon we call faith.
(I anticipate some questions, and so I hope to start a new topic in my next post that will nevertheless address some possible questions from this one. So please comment with what you’re thinking! I’ll be trying to post weekly, or as close to weekly as I can, in the future. )