What is Faith?
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen!
A question parishioners often ask me is, do I have enough faith? This question points to a troubling understanding of what Christian faith is all about. It reveals a trap we often fall into regarding our faith. We mistakenly think faith is a special power or faculty we have, or worse, ought to have. We think it’s a natural talent like being good at math or gardening. Therefore, we easily get frustrated when we think we don’t have enough faith often comparing ourselves with others who apparently have more faith than we do!
The real problem is not do I have enough faith but what is the starting place for our faith? The starting place for faith is not how I feel but the object of our faith. Faith is not primarily a power or capacity in me. It’s about an attitude I adopt, not something I do (although what we do should change as a result of one’s faith in Christ). In fact, what’s most important is not faith itself but the object towards which faith is directed.
Ok, so what is the object of faith? Hebrews 11.1 tells us that it’s things hoped for and things not seen. But what Heb. 11.1 tells us leaves us frustrated because it reminds us that the object of faith is absent and invisible. Faith’s object – God – is not something we can handle or manage, as we would do with a piece of wood, because He cannot be seen or known directly. There is always a certain hiddenness or intangibility about Him because although Christ is present in the Spirit, He is not present to us as is our next-door neighbor.
That is why we sometimes question placing our faith in God and why many others place it elsewhere altogether. Frustrated by God’s intangibility, we’re quick to adopt an array of tangible substitutes for God. These substitutes come in many forms. It may be our theological ideas and arguments (sometime I have to be particularly aware of as a theologian), or look to experiences that will give us a direct route to Jesus that will short cut all the ambiguities and hesitations of the life of faith.
The problem with these substitutes is they spurn God and refuse to let Christ come to us in his own terms. An example of this is when we place God into a certain liturgical box (modern versus traditional music or the Book of Common Prayer versus the Book of Alternative Services). There is nothing wrong with having a preference for one style of music over another or one liturgy over another as long as we realize that Jesus is not a BCP or a BAS God. He’s not even an Anglican per se (Fortunately He’s not also a Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist etc. either!). The Father is the Father. Jesus is Jesus and the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we can’t handle or put God in a box. That is the basis of our faith and anything else is a loss of faith.
So what is true faith? How can we measure it? First let’s always remember that faith is grounded in God’s promises. Hebrews 11 gives us a long list of Old Testament heroes. Why? It gives us this list because they lived and acted out their lives on the basis of God’s promises. Each of them took God at his word and abandoned their desire for tangible certainty. But why did they trust in God’s promises. Because these promises are God’s promises! One promise of God is worth more than all the proofs in this world.
Second, grounded in God’s promises, faith is fueled by hope. Christian hope is not blind hope. Although God does not avail Himself to us in a straightforward way, He is the object and basis of our hope. As the object and basis of our hope, God does address Himself to us in the person of the risen Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit in the promises given to us in our worship and in the hearing, reading and study of Scripture. Therefore, faith is a matter of taking God at his word when his promises are proclaimed and heard. As it tells us in Hebrews 11.8, Abraham showed faith because hearing God’s Word and having been called by Him he obeyed God’s Word.
So how do we practically respond to what I’ve just said about faith? We have only two choices. We can either rail against it or accept it. If you choose to accept it you need first to learn to live with feeling uprooted. This is hard to do because we have a deep need for roots or for a sense of place where we feel at home. But this is exactly what we must avoid. Why? Because when we’re content to rest with the way things are in our lives, at church, and in the world, we inevitably turn Jesus into a servant of our lives, our church, and this world. And when we do that, our faith is no longer focused on its true object.
Second, we need to keep our eyes fixed in our life of exile here on this earth on the better country, that is, a heavenly one … that God has prepared for us (Heb. 11.16). And we do that when we come together to worship every Sunday morning, hear, read and study Scripture, and show the world through our words and deeds a glimpse of what the better country will look like and can look like t to a degree here and now. If you keep your heart, soul and mind focus there, your faith will never let you down.