My apologies for not having written anything for a while. Between a trip to Venezuela and my parents visiting for a couple weeks, among other things, I haven´t had a lot of extra time to write lately. Also, fair warning that this post is much longer than I had expected. For those who don’t want to read a mini-book, you can scroll down to the “Summary” at the end of the page to get the short version of what this post addresses.
Although faith is essentially the key element of Christianity (see Paul’s argument in Romans 3-5), it is also one of those slippery concepts that is hard to define and difficult to grasp. It includes concepts such as trust and belief, and is often set up as the opposite of proof and/or certainty (see the second definition according to the Oxford Dictionary).
The results of this confusion can be quite negative. Opponents of Christianity can often reject Christianity because they think they will have to shut off their brains. Christians often beat themselves up for their low level of faith, especially if a particular miracle they were seeking doesn’t occur. Honest inquiries can be shut down because “you just have to have faith.” All told, this concept, which is supposed to be a treasure of the Christian faith, becomes a stumbling block and a source of stress to many. So how can we try to grab hold of this idea of faith in a way that makes sense, but also elevates it back to it’s valued position in our lives?
I don’t claim to have all the answers to this, but hopefully some of these thoughts can help us move in the right direction. Feel free to add your own thoughts below, but in the meantime, here are two concepts to reflect on.
The Foundation of Faith is Knowledge
This sounds counterintuitive at first. We have developed the idea that faith requires a lack of certainty. When we talk about acting in faith or having faith, we tend to think of a lack of knowledge, believing in spite of evidence to the contrary, blind faith, or walking by faith – believing in something that we can’t see. I will agree to some aspects of these ideas, but far too often we turn faith into “wishful thinking” or intense emotions that we try to stir up within ourselves. But I believe that our actions of faith (stepping out into what we cannot see) are only actions of faith if they are firmly based on knowledge and certainty. If not, they are at best flights of fancy, and at worst attempts to manipulate God to do what we want Him to do.
Let’s give a practical example. I have faith in my wife. Specifically, I have faith that my wife will not abandon me for another man or have an affair. That faith allows me to go away for a few days or even weeks without worrying about our relationship or how she will act. But why do I have that faith? Simple – because I have known her for years. After nearly 15 years of marriage, I know her extremely well, and therefore I have faith in her. In fact, over those 15 years, my faith in her has grown steadily, because she has demonstrated to me time and again that she is worthy of that faith. Faith is based on knowledge.
But, some might ask, can’t that faith be shaken? Haven’t many people found out the hard way that their spouse wasn’t worthy of their faith, that they didn’t really know them? The answer is a clear and obvious yes, faith can be shaken! But the key here is not whether my faith was misplaced, but whether my knowledge was faulty. In virtually every case where faith has been shaken, it’s either because the person proved through their actions that they weren’t worthy of faith (therefore strong faith never should have developed in the first place) or because the knowledge of this person was faulty and incomplete. In many of the cases of affairs or other nasty developments in relationships, the person guilty of the offense was hiding things from the other person (or that person simply didn’t care to see the truth). So again, the foundation of faith is knowledge, and faith is shaken by lack of knowledge.
This is true for virtually anything or anyone that we have faith in – I can’t easily think of examples where this would not apply. We have faith that the sun will come up. Why? Because it always does. We have faith that the chair will hold us. Why? Because they virtually always do (and in the few cases where it doesn’t, our knowledge of that chair was incomplete or faulty!) We have faith that certain people or businesses or ventures are trustworthy because of our experience of them or our knowledge about them. Conversely, we have faith that certain people or businesses or ventures are not trustworthy, again because of what we know.
In fact, I would go so far as to argue that “blind faith” is practically non-existent. We are always making our decisions of faith based on something – our impressions, our gut feeling, our trust in an individual, etc. There may be many times where our faith is misinformed, severely lacking in knowledge, or foolish, but it’s virtually never blind. There is always some sort of knowledge that surrounds it and informs it.
So now we apply this to God. The Bible is clear that we are saved by faith; however, this does not mean that we are making a decision based on lack of awareness. At the very least, when a person decides to follow Jesus, they have a knowledge of their sinfulness (or else why are they choosing to follow him?) and who Jesus is. The level of knowledge at the beginning might be very simple, and their decision might even be based on knowing the person telling them about Jesus more than knowing God! But they are taking a step of faith based on knowledge of some sort.
Of course, as with any relationship or venture, the level of knowledge must grow for the faith to grow. In the beginning, many things can shake our faith – unanswered prayer, tough questions, disapproval from people we love and respect, or any number of challenges. And if we never grow in our knowledge of God and our relationship with God, our faith will be very weak and immature. But as we grow in our knowledge of God and in our relationship with him, our faith begins to grow. The more that we know about God and Christianity, the more our faith can grow. This has certainly been true in my life as I have come across many challenges to Christianity. The more I have studied and looked for answers, the more my faith has grown, even though I don’t have all the answers by far. And the more that we know God personally (through our study of the Bible, prayer, listening to His voice and interacting with him), the more our faith grows. Again, as I have seen God answer prayers (sometimes very specific ones in very specific ways) and speak into my life, I have grown in my faith.
Faith at work
This concept of knowledge as the basis of faith is important because faith is always shown through action, and that action usually involves a level of uncertainty.
If we return to my example of having faith in my wife, the action of faith is leaving for a stretch of time. It is certainly true that in my absence something could happen. I cannot objectively prove to someone that I can trust my wife while I’m gone. If I didn’t have faith in her, I would never feel comfortable leaving. But I do have faith in her. I am certain that I can leave for a stretch of time and sleep peacefully at night knowing that she will be faithful to me. My knowledge has led to faith, which allows me to take an action (do something!) based on that faith.
We see this time and time again in the Bible. God spoke to Abraham. Because of this revelation (knowledge) Abraham had faith in God – He had spoken to him! This faith allowed Abraham to leave his home and follow God. Later, because God had spoken to him and shown Himself faithful, Abraham was able to act again in faith by being willing to offer his son as a sacrifice. He knew that God would be faithful. “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:8), and later, “He considered that God was able even to raise him [his son, Isaac] from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Hebrews 11:19). Surely in both these cases trying to explain his actions or “prove” that they were valid would have been difficult. These steps of faith would have looked foolish and must still have been very difficult, but the knowledge-inspired faith allowed Abraham to take action, even without being able to see how it would work out.
We see it again in Matthew 9:20-21 where a woman suffering from bleeding knew that she just needed to touch Jesus to be healed (the text indicates certainty). She knew who Jesus was. That knowledge led to faith, which led to action. In Luke 7:1-10, we find a centurion who knew how authority worked and who Jesus was, so he told Jesus that he only needed to say the word to heal his servant, which Jesus did – and then commended him for his faith. In both these cases, objectively speaking, there was uncertainty. These two could not have proven to anyone that Jesus would do what they asked. But their knowledge gave them faith, and their faith led to action.
On the other side of things, the crowds at Jesus home town “knew” who he was (or thought they did!), and this faulty knowledge prevented Jesus from doing any miracles (Matthew 13:53-58). Although we never state it, we often assume in this passage that Jesus tried to do miracles but couldn’t. I don’t think this is an accurate assumption. Considering their reaction to him, I suspect he only did a few miracles because nobody even bothered asking him. Their lack of faith (based on faulty knowledge) prevented them from even paying attention to him. Or what about Thomas, who refused to believe in Jesus even though he had 10 of his closest friends (the other apostles) and various women telling him that they had seen Jesus, not to mention the empty tomb that he could investigate for himself. He had plenty of knowledge, but was not willing to take a step of faith based on that knowledge. No wonder Jesus chastised him for his lack of faith. Jesus wasn’t promoting blind faith from Thomas or from us, he was just expecting belief in the evidence he was given! (Here we see another reality: faith is based on knowledge, but knowledge does not always lead to faith. We have to make a decision based on the evidence we have.)
But we must be cautious with this idea of faith based on knowledge, because there are two different ways of knowing God, both of which apply faith in different ways. The first is our general knowledge of God and who He is. He is a good, yet righteous, God. He loves us. He will be with us. He is all powerful and able to do all things. We have faith in God and pray and act according to what we know about God in general. These acts include things such as sharing about Jesus with others, praying for them, and trusting God and continuing to obey in difficult times. We do indeed live by faith – our knowledge of God informs how we live and the decisions that we make.
But God is also sovereign. This means that we also need know (or at least seek to know) God’s specific will for specific situations, and what He wants in them. For example, I have had a bad back for years. I have asked for healing from God many times in regards to my back, as well as seeing various chiropractors and health professionals and taking whatever other steps I can to help it. To date, none of those prayers (or other methods) have brought healing. It is easy to ask the question, “Do I not have enough faith?” In fact, one time that someone was praying for me, they asked if I had ever prayed in faith, believing that God would heal me, and when I hesitated in my answer (I’ll get to that in a moment), they said that “this time” we would pray in faith, believing that God would heal me. I didn’t get healed.
The problem with these types of scenarios (often base around seeking miracles, although not always), is that we end up blaming ourselves or others for not having enough faith. We end up approaching faith like a feeling or a sentiment that, if we can just stir up enough of it, will make God do what we want him to do. But this seems utterly unfair and even unbiblical to me. It is true that Jesus chastised the disciples for their lack of faith a few times (see Matthew 17:19-20 and 8:26 and the parallel passages, Mark 4:40 and Luke 8:25), but these occasions seem to be more focused on their absolute lack of faith, not how intense it was on a scale of 1-10. In fact, on two separate occasions, he tells them that they only need faith the size of a mustard seed to cast a mountain or a mulberry bush into the sea (Luke 17:5-6 and Matthew 17:19-20)!
See, if we just approach faith like something we need to “muster up”, then we are forever falling short, even though we only need faith the size of a mustard seed (barely any!) But if we approach it first and foremost as faith based on our knowledge of God in general, and then based on our knowledge of what God wants in this specific situation, we have a very different view of faith. In response to the situation about my back, I pray with absolute faith that Jesus can heal me if he wants. But I have never heard him clearly saying that he wants to and plans to heal my back. In fact, I have received constant encouragement and peace from the passage in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, where Paul pleads with God to remove his “thorn in the flesh” (whatever that was), and God tells him that His grace is sufficient. As I listen to God, it seems that His response to my request for healing is “My grace is sufficient.” I will continue to ask for healing at times, especially when it flares up, because that’s what I want and maybe He will have a different answer later. But I no longer beat myself up for a lack of faith like I used to (and see others do)!
At times a person’s faith in the general character of God may bring about healing, but would it ever overcome His specific will in a specific situation? Or put another way, can a person “work up” enough faith to move a mountain if God doesn’t want the mountain to be moved? The idea is foolish, and yet that is often how we approach faith. “If I just work up enough faith, if I just believe hard enough, then God will do what I want!!” No, He won’t. Jesus only did what the Father willed and showed him (John 4:34, 6:38, 8:28) – which, by the way, included him leaving places where people were still looking for him, and not healing absolutely everyone – so why should we think that we can do whatever we want without knowing whether it is what God wants? The assumption behind God’s promises to answer our prayers or bring healing or move mountains is that we are praying according to His will. If not, well, good luck with that!
All of this leads to a few practical steps in regards to faith.
- Focus on knowing God. Learn about God, learn about the Bible, learn about our faith. But also know God personally. Pray, read Scripture, study God by yourself and with others, learn to listen to His voice, try different spiritual disciplines. The better you know God and the more you experience Him, the more your faith will grow.
- Don’t panic about doubt or things that may shake your faith. They are opportunities to learn about God and to know Him more. Sometimes our knowledge is inadequate, and we need to increase it. Sometimes it is faulty, and we need to alter it. Questions and doubts do not prove a lack of faith, only a lack of knowledge. And you can grow in that!
- Live by faith in what we know. We all have a level of knowledge about Jesus and the Word of God (if we are Christians). Living by faith is nothing more than taking our knowledge of God and acting on it. Most days this is not anything crazy like giving away all of our money or launching on a major adventure. But it shows up in a lot of little things that are still challenging – loving the difficult neighbour, forgiving someone who offends us, sharing the good news of Jesus when it comes up, telling the truth, making ethical business decisions. Each of these (and others) requires us to take what we know and act on it, usually without being able to see what will happen as a result.
- Seek to know God’s specific will in situations. Don’t beat yourself or others up for their lack of faith, especially when you don’t see miracles happen! Seek to know what God wants in a situation (and invite others to help you discern that), then act according to what He reveals. Maybe He will give specific guidance on what He wants in a situation, and then we need to act on that. Maybe He won’t, and then we need to act wisely based on what we know of Him in general and what the situation calls for. But let’s not “wish really hard” for something and call it acting in faith.
Faith is a beautiful reality of life. We all live by faith regularly – faith in institutions, people, ideas, theories. No one is exempt, Christians least of all. But our faith isn’t just wishful thinking or an attempt to manipulate God to do our will. Our faith is firmly based on a knowledge of God – both general and personal. Let us seek to know Him more, so that we might live more and more fully in faith.
The problems that I see with faith (especially in the church) is twofold:
First, faith is seen as believing something without evidence. I think that the Bible clearly shows us that faith is believing something based on what we know. It is true that there might be gaps or we might not have perfect knowledge, but any time we show faith, it is based on what we know. It is not faith to believe something that we have no evidence for – that is wishful thinking or, at times, just plain foolishness.
Second, faith is viewed sometimes as an intense feeling that people use to try to make God do what they want him to do. We do not get what we want by trying harder to believe. Nor do we make God do stuff just by our intensity of belief. If God has revealed something to us, then we can have faith. If he has not revealed His will, then we cannot have faith in a specific action by Him.
To be practical (because this is the most common scenario where we get confused about faith), we know that God sometimes heals and sometimes doesn’t. So we can have faith that God is able to heal, but unless He has specifically showed us that His will is to heal in this specific circumstance, we cannot have faith that He will (guaranteed!) heal us (or whoever needs healing). It’s impossible to have faith in something we don’t know. I have seen countless examples of people trying to force themselves to have faith or make God heal someone by faith when there is no indication that He is willing to heal in that circumstance. The resulting devastation when they don’t receive an answer and, at times, loss of faith in God, is painful to watch and entirely unnecessary.
We grow in faith by knowing God better. The better we know Him, and the more we are able to discern His specific will in a variety of circumstances, the better we are able to stand strong in our faith, because our faith has a solid foundation and a proper perspective.