FAITH – WHAT IS IT?
A small boy was on a bus returning home from a church. The day was very warm, so the bus windows were open. The boy had received a memory verse written on a card, “Have faith in God.” (Mk 11:22) As the wind swept through the bus, his card went flying out the window. He started to shout, “Stop the bus! My faith in God just went out of window!”
Faith, if genuine, does not go out the window. Is it still possible to believe in 21st century? Isn’t faith some rudiment from less enlightened times, which has no place in contemporary sophisticated society? What it is actually?
Believers generally, but Christians especially, talk about faith a great deal. But what do we mean when we say, “Have faith”, “I do not have enough faith”, “We are saved by faith”? In spite of all the information available to us today, many people have very distorted concepts of faith.
1) Wrong concepts of faith
- a) Faith is not just an opinion or an idea
Many people say today: “I do believe there must be someone somewhere in the universe. It did not all start by chance.” But that’s not faith, that’s an opinion, a viewpoint, a worldview.
Biblical faith is much more than just an opinion. The Bible warns us that even demons have such a “faith” have, yet they are scared (Jas 2:19). In God’s eyes such faith has no value.
- b) Faith is not just a conviction
Perhaps the most notorious definition of faith was given by a small school boy who said, “Faith is believin’ what you know ain’t so!”
Many people think that if you are prepared to believe what you know isn’t true, that is real faith! Would we say that faith is believing something for which you have insufficient evidence? Because if you had sufficient evidence, you wouldn’t say, “I believe”, you would say, “I know”. Strange that we use the word “believe” to actually express doubt!
Many people believe that if they are really convinced of something, “truly believe”, then it will happen. But is it true, that if I am truly convinced about something then it will become reality?
That might suggest that having faith in something makes it so. Does that mean that if you have “faith” that there is a man on the moon, or an elephant in the next room, that makes it so? Yet many Christians object: if you truly believed, the elephant would be there. And if it is not there, that is just a proof of your little faith.
But that’s not faith. That’s mind manipulation. Faith is not a magic wand by which God has to do what you ask him to do. The value of faith depends on how trustworthy the object of your faith is, not how strongly you believe something.
We need to distinguish between faith and superstition. Superstition is based on unproved connections between the events (phenomena), or silly human inventions (black cat, Friday 13th). Faith is always based on solid foundations. The fact that I am strongly convinced of something does not yet mean that it is faith. It could easily be a superstition.
- c) Faith is not just a creed or churchmanship
Sometimes nowadays people say: “What faith do you belong to?” “Is s/he of the Christian/Jewish/Muslim/Buddhist faith?” “They were persecuted for their faith.” (= belonging to a particular church or religion) “We live in a multi‑faith society.” (= where different churches or religions are tolerated)
It is true that in some religions a mental assent with a body of doctrines is enough to be considered a believer. Faith thus is embracing a certain credo (=Latin for: “I believe”), a body of doctrines. But the doctrines are not going to save anyone (Luke 13:25-27).
Biblical faith is much more than just an intellectual assent with a creed (body of doctrines) or belonging to a certain church. Surely, doctrines are significant in Christianity as in other religions. But the main emphasis in Christianity is to find the right relationship to the person of Jesus Christ.
- d) Faith and knowledge are not inversely proportional
Under communism, I was been taught at school that faith is for those, who do not use their brain. The wiser the person, I was taught, the less faith he/she needs. And if you are truly wise, you do not need faith at all. Faith is for old people who do not know much, are afraid of death, so they need some crutches to help them through. But the reality of life proved to be more complex than the theories of communism. Faith survived, communism collapsed.
Yet there are still many people, and not only in the former communist countries, who think that faith and knowledge are actually inversely proportional – the greater the knowledge, the smaller the faith and vice versa. In this model, to believe /to have faith means to turn off logic, thinking and sound judgment.
Some might object, but have people not lost their faith because they asked too many questions? It’s true that to think about what you believe can be risky. Many who set out on this journey discovered that what they believed was illogical, irrational, not based on adequate, solid evidence. There is no guarantee that your faith will not change once you start thinking about it.
However, the solution is not to stop or avoid thinking about your faith. The solution is to continue thinking, searching, until you find answers to your questions. Typically, people who become disillusioned with their faith are people who have not thought enough about it. Unexamined faith gives us a false sense of security and makes us intolerant of people whose views differ from ours.
According to the Bible, faith and knowledge are directly proportionate. The better you know the person, the more you trust them. (Of course that presupposes, that they are trustworthy people. There are some people, who the better you know them, the less you trust them. But that’s a different story.)
Both the Hebrew (emun) and the Greek (pistis) words for faith express more the idea of reliability and trustworthiness than that of some abstract opinion, conviction, or an article of theological faith.
2) Biblical understanding of faith
- a) Faith is a capacity that everyone has
The capacity to trust is innate to all of us, we are born with it and we use it every day. Sure, our early childhood and relationships in our family of origin have a lot to do with how we experience trust.
But generally speaking all people have the capacity to trust. When I board a train to London, I do not expect to end up in Manchester. When you get a medication at a pharmacist, you do not perform a chemical analysis at home to make sure you did not get rat poison. We could not exist in this world if we did not have the capacity to trust.
We learnt from experience that train drivers, pharmacists, etc. can be trusted. Surely, there are some exceptions but normally we have no problem to process those. This capacity to trust on the basis of facts, evidence end experience is given to us by God. Because in relation to him, to the Bible, God does not expect anything else from us, other than to take an honest look at everything He has to offer, based on evidence and our own experience.
Because trust cannot be commanded, in a free universe, we are free to believe or not to believe.
But many people refuse what God has to offer, without honestly and/or thoroughly investigating the evidence first. If you do not have enough information about what God has to offer, then it is not very prudent to reject what you do not know.
However, many people say that they cannot have faith even though they want to. That is not precise. The question is not whether you believe, but whom you believe. Everyone has a capacity to believe. The Bible says that “God gives every person coming to this world, a measure of faith” (Rom 12:3). If God gave the capacity to believe only to some, then it would not be fair to expect that all people can believe and be saved by faith.
If all of us have the capacity to believe, then the question is: How do I use it? Who do I trust? In biblical understanding it is not so much to believe in something, as it is to believe in somebody. Biblical faith, saving faith is always connected with a person.
Actually the quality of faith does not depend on how much I believe, but on the trustworthiness of person that is the object of faith. In other words, it is the object of faith that determines the outcome of my faith. If I choose to trust an unworthy person, my faith will be disappointed. The object of faith determines the quality of faith, not my quantity of it. The Bible tells us that God is 100% trustworthy. But I need to find that out in my own experience.
- b) Faith is a relationship into which you enter on a basis of knowledge
There is a famous text in Heb. 11:1 that is often quoted as a definition of faith: In the well-known words of KJV (NKJV): “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” This is not a bad translation, but unfortunately it can be easily misleading.
Let’s look at two words in this text. The first word is “substance”. The Greek word is hypostasis. It means literally “that which stands under”.
At the beginning of 20th century when archaeologists in Egypt were digging up ancient sites, they found many written documents. Many of these documents were records of business transactions, of properties being bought and sold. The headings of these documents, which served as title deeds, were Hypostasis.
Thus scholars came to better understand the meaning of this word and recognize that, what the Apostle was probably saying was that faith is a covenant, an agreement, or a business deal between us and God. God has many things to offer us. But first we must come to trust Him. So He presents Himself so that we can find Him worthy of our trust. If that happens, He has many things He would like to do for us and with us. He wants to have an agreement (covenant) or understanding with us.
The other word “evidence” is translated from the Greek word elengkos which is the word often used for the work of the Holy Spirit. It means “to convince” or “conviction”.
The meaning of the verse is that if I have an experience with God, if I learnt to trust him, then I am willing to hope even for things which I do not see now. Then I can be convinced that one day, I am going to get the things promised and see them with my very eyes. The Bible calls this day-by-day working relationship of trust between us and God “faith”.
God did various things in order to reveal Himself to us, to introduce Himself so that we know Him (John 17:3). From Hosea 6:6-7 we learn that to love (chesed means “covenant love”) God means to know Him and to know Him means to love Him. In Biblical understanding “to know” someone means to have a close, intimate relationship of love, trust and friendship (Gen 4:1; Mat 7:23).
- c) Faith is saying Yes to the God of the Bible
Now the question is, how do you develop such a relationship of intimate friendship, love and trust? We already said that God gave each one of us some kind of “starting faith”. Now it is up to us to develop it further.
However, there are different, often contradictory concepts of God. What is He like? That’s why God reveals Himself, so that we can get to know Him better, learn to trust Him. Where does our faith or trust come from? God revealed himself to us in the Bible and in the person and work of His Son Jesus Christ.
“So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Rom 10:17 RSV) or “the word of God” (KJV). In those days people could not afford to have copies of the Bible themselves. They had to go and listen while someone else read the evidence to them. In this way many were won to confidence and repentance.
So the primary purpose of the Bible is not so much to tell me the story of Moses, Samson, David or Nicodemus, or how they behaved or reacted in certain situations. The primary purpose of the Bible is to reveal to us the truth about God: Who God is, what is he like? The most important thing for my life today is to learn: How did God treat these people in different situations of life? (Not so much what they did, how they reacted, because sometimes they acted wrongly.) On the basis of this we can create and reframe a new understanding of God and thus find basis for our own decision whether or not we want to trust him and have a growing relationship with Him.
That’s how the “starting faith” that God gave everyone, changes into “saving faith”. If we do not know God as he reveals to us in the Bible, our relationship with him will be more of a superstition than faith. “The point is: Before you trust, you have to listen. But unless Christ’s Word is preached, there’s nothing to listen to” (Rom 10:17, The Message).
So the Word of God plays an irreplaceable role in the process of building our faith. It will be necessary to put forth some effort to come to a proper understanding of God, his relationship towards us. Some parts of the Bible can be misunderstood. We are challenged to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
This dynamic needs to be kept in balance: if I have saving faith, I do not have any merit in it, as faith is God’s gift. On the other hand, if I do not have saving faith, I am responsible for that, as I did not contend for faith in reading and trying to understand God’s Word with the starting faith that I received from Him.
Faith is a word the Bible uses to describe a relationship with God as with a Person that can be known. The better we know Him, the better the relationship may be. This relationship is based on what we learn about him from God’s Word, the Bible, and we need to contend to understand it properly in order for our relationship with him to deepen and to grow. Thus we will experience true joy in our life.
- d) Faith is the solution of the fundamental problem of our universe
We could ask, if God desires that all people are saved, why doesn’t he give the saving faith to everyone?
We already mentioned that “faith” describes such a relationship with God that is based on knowing him. To really know someone in the Biblical sense is to love him, trust him, admire him, and be his friend. The word “to know” is even used for the intimate relationship between a husband and a wife. In the same way, God is asking us to really know Him, to love Him, to trust Him, and admire Him.
But trust, love, friendship cannot be commanded. It does not work that way. So why are the trust and love so critically important?
Because the Bible tells us that there is a breach of trust in the universe. A rebellion against God took place which started in heaven, and today even our planet is caught in its aftermath. The Bible tells us that one of God’s created beings, named Lucifer, masterminded this rebellion against God, accusing him of being a cruel, unloving, arbitrary tyrant who uses his power to enforce conformity (Ez 28:13-17; Iz 14:12-15). Satan (Hebrew for “the enemy”) knows too well that he could not succeed by using a direct attack against God. So he uses lies, twists the facts, manipulates the evidence. He succeeded in breaking down the relationship of trust even in other of God’s children. This problem went so far, that a war started in heaven (Rev 12:7).
Sin, as we call the problem in religious jargon, is a break down of relationship of trust, love and admiration towards God.
The only way how to solve this problem is to re-establish trust and trustworthiness again. God knows there is no point in simply denying the charges of Satan. Assertions will not settle anything. So God started a long process of self-revelation, explanation, so that he could prove, over a long period of time on basis of evidence that he is not what Satan made him out to be. The Bible tells us that when Jesus died on the cross the confidence and loyalty of heavenly beings was/has been established for the rest of eternity (John 12:31-32; Rev 12:7-11). Only here, on our planet, people are still continuing with the rebellion against God.
God gives us plenty of time to find out, on the basis of evidence, what he is like. He knows that if we get to know him, we will love him, our relationship with him will be changed from defiance and we will start to trust and to love him. That’s why faith is so important. Faith will not save us, God only saves. But He will save only those, who trust Him.
Like a celestial Physician, God is ready to heal all the damage that sin caused. But if we do not come to him, don’t learn to trust him, aren’t willing to listen to him, collaborate with him in the process, then there is not much He can do for us. Just as doctors cannot help patients that do not want to come to them. For healing to take place, mutual trust needs to be established.
Where there is no trust and genuine love for others, everything disintegrates. Analogically, if only we trusted God, he could solve all the problems of this universe. That’s why faith is the only solution for the basic problem in our universe.
This helps to understand the story in Acts 16 where Paul is speaking to the Philippian jailer in the midst of the rubble that followed the earthquake. The jailer before added his share to Paul and Silas’ misery. Now when it dawned on him that they did not run away (thus saving his life), he realized they have something he did not have. Coming to Paul and Silas he said, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul answered: If I need to summarize it succinctly in this emergency situation, then I compress the whole of Christianity into one sentence: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:31)
All God asks is faith. Nothing more, nothing less. That means we need to define and understand properly what faith is. We have seen the wrong understanding of faith; we have seen the biblical understanding of faith.
You can have an attitude toward God which is an attitude of love, trust and deepest admiration if you get to know him. Such people will be willing to believe whatever He says, to accept whatever He offers, and to do without reservation whatever He wishes us to do, now and for the whole of eternity. And anyone who has such faith, will be saved, because God will save all who trust him. This is why faith is the only requirement for heaven and belongs to the foundations of Christianity. “Have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, too.” Experience that joy!