The (Ab)use of Faith
Faith is one of the most critical aspects of the Christian life, because it is the means by which we receive all that God has secured for us; yet the nature of faith is one of the most misunderstood concepts of Christianity. Some conceptualize faith as some mental state that one must reach before they are able to "tap into" Godís "resources." This is nothing short of the new-age power-of- the-mind teaching baptized into Christianity. Others view faith as some sort of incorporeal substance that is "out there" for which we must reach. This turns the simple child-like faith that Jesus spoke of into quantum physics. Still others view faith in purely intellectual terms, i.e. faith is only what you believe. All of these concepts of faith are deficient, if not heretical, and yet all of them are found in the church.
Although the above concepts of faith are dangerous and anti-Christian, there is yet another conception of faith that is much more subtle, and probably more subversive to Christianity.. Some peopleís conception of faith is nothing short of wishful thinkingóthat when faith is applied to our desire, and we attach the magical phrase, "in Jesusí name" to the end of our prayer, God must answer us. This outlook has taken twenty-first century Western materialism and selfishness, baptized it in the name of faith, and sold it to the church under the guise of a few misinterpreted Scriptures. When such a view of faith is propagated, is it any wonder that peopleís faith often drown in the waters of disappointment? Why? Because such a concept of faith is diametrically opposed to the Scripture. The Biblical view of faith is that of trusting God to lead us in the direction He would have us to go, but many have turned faith into Godís trusting of them to lead Him. Have we been guilty of dethroning God as the Creator and King of the universe, and turning Him into a genie in a bottle?
The necessary outcome of transforming faith into wishful thinking is denial. It is perceived by some that true faith is that which denies reality, because reality can be deceitful and from the Devil. The eye of faith, it is said, does not look at the things which are seen. Faith is often viewed as being in opposition to facts, logic, and reason. Faith is something superior to these "carnal things." Various Scriptures are then used illegitimately to support this conclusion.
The Biblical Concept of Faith
The Biblical concept of faith is trust in God with corresponding works. We do not tell God what we want and then believe hard enough in order to get it. Faith is believing in Godís Word, and in Godís will, and in all things trusting that He will do that which is right. We are to trust in the Lord with all our heart, not leaning on our own understanding, but acknowledging the Lord in all our ways and allowing Him to direct our paths (Proverbs 3:5-6). We do not tell God which paths we want to walk down, but by faith we trust Him to lead us down the path we need to go down.
Of all the great heroes of faith named in the Bible, notice how many trusted in Godís ability to perform what He said He would do. They trusted and acted upon Godís Word. Faith is simply taking God for His Word. Noah did not build an ark by faith and then pray for a flood. Moses did not pray to deliver Godís people and then look for those people, but responded to Godís Word which said that He would be the one to deliver Godís people. Abraham did not leave the land of Ur and then believe that God would give him a land and a seed. His faith was not in some mere wish, but was obedience to the expressed will and Word of God. The Biblical portrayal of faith is most often a response to God, not an initiative of man.
Faith is Not a Denial of Reality
Some believe faith is what the Christian resorts to when all reason is against them. It is viewed as a blind-leap against all evidence and against all odds. Too often this brand of faith mixes true Biblical faith with self-willed hope. It is conceived that people of faith believe in the impossible, believe in that which is contrary to the evidence, and believe for the impossible. In essence, however, what these "people of faith" tend to do is deny reality. Although it is true that nothing is impossible with God, the fact of the matter remains that God, in His sovereignty, does not always choose to do the impossible.
Not too long after my conversion, I remember the words of one particular brother who objected to my comment of having a bad cold. His response was, "Brother, donít confess sickness. By faith you are not sick, but healed in Jesusí name!" As a new Christian I thought this was a true person of faith and bought into this type of "faith" myself for a few years (a faith which is highly connected to the word-of-faith theology). The fundamental problem with this kind of faith is that it is based on delusion, not truth. Faith is not denying reality, it is understanding that God can change reality. One who has just been in a car accident and has had their leg smashed into pieces can confess all day long that it is not broken, but the fact of the matter remains that it is severely injured. Yes, of course God can do the impossible and restore the leg, but this is faith in Godís ability to change reality. Faith may confess Godís ability to do whatever we hope for, but faith is not the denial of the reality of our circumstances. There are several instances in the Bible where sickness was openly confessed, and at times even cherished (II Corinthians 12:10; I Timothy 5:23; II Timothy 4:20). If faith simply asserts the opposite of reality, what are we to make of such passages?
Part of the reason for this type of thinking is that Christians are told to ignore their circumstances and the way things appear to be. After all, people of faith are supposed to believe that God can do the impossible. The advice of "have faith in God" is valid in such cases when having faith in God means trusting in Him to work things out for the good. Having faith means that we do not get overwhelmed or discouraged because of our circumstances. God is bigger than our circumstances. This does not mean, however, that faith must be a suppression or denial of the facts. Faith is God-focussed, understanding His sovereign ability to change our circumstances.
The fundamental error behind my brotherís view of faith is that faith is opposed to the facts. It is thought that in order to truly believe we must look to that which is unseenóthat which goes against reason. Some people are of the opinion that if we try to find evidence for our faith we are somehow detracting from the true nature of faith. After all, didnít Jesus say that those who would believe on Him without having seen Him in His resurrected body would be blessed (John 20:19)? Somehow it is believed that genuine faith is desecrated when confirmed by knowledge and evidence. How is it that we have made it a virtue to believe against the evidence? Jesusí blessing was not on the denial of reality, but on those who would believe in the reality of the resurrection apart from any tangible evidence. If Christian faith is only genuine when it is contrary to the facts and evidence, then our faith would be all the more strengthened if Jesusí bones were found buried in a cave in Israel somewhere. Our faith would be more noble if it was proven scientifically that there cannot be a God, or that the Bible is not inspired.
This idea is absolutely ludicrous, yet many saintsí view of faith, if applied consistently, would lead to such a conclusion. That faith does rely on, and is consistent with knowledge and evidence is demonstrated in I Corinthians 15. Here Paul argued for the reality of the resurrection of Christ, noting that if Christ had not truly risen from the dead, the Corinthiansí faith was useless (I Corinthians 15:12-14, 17). Such an empty faith would leave them in a miserable condition (v. 19). Their faith was not based on wishful thinking, however, but on an objective reality which happened in history. We believe in Jesus because of the evidence that He rose from the dead. The gospel accounts are filled with details surrounding the resurrection of the dead. Why? So that they could verify the historical veracity of such an event, because all Christian faith hinges upon this reality. Is the evidence so compelling that everyone must believe in the resurrection of Christ? Of course not. There is always an element of our faith which is not contingent upon the evidence, yet is based on some amount of evidence.
Hebrews 11:1 is often cited to show that faith is believing in something without having any real evidence that what you're believing for will come to pass. This is a gross misinterpretation of the passage. The author said, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." The hope in view here is not a wish, but an earnest expectation of an unrevealed reality. Not only does faith consist of hoping, but it also consists of having an assurance that our hope is based on an objective reality. We hope for the resurrection from the dead because we have assurance that Jesus has raised from the dead and will also raise up our mortal bodies to be like His (Romans 8:9-11; Philippians 3:21; I John 3:2). Our faith in the resurrection is not some blind faith that only hopes, but is a faith based on the reality of the resurrection of Christ. There is evidence and reasons for our faith. We do not merely wish for God's promises to come true, but rather we await the fulfillment of the same. Faith is no mere wishful thinking, but is a conviction of the heart based on the knowledge of God imparted to the believer. Abraham had strong faith in God, but that faith was rooted in God's Word to Him; not in some self-purposed, imagined hope (Romans 4:17-21).
Let me demonstrate the distinction between hope and assurance. If you play a game, you hope that you will win, but do you know that you will win? No. You cannot guarantee the results. This is the nature of hope. Many Christians mistake this one element of faith for the totality of faithís essence. Faith, then becomes hoping for something and praying hard enough and long enough until God gives us what we desire. This is nothing short of occultismówe say the right thing, and do the right dance, and prestoÖGod gives us what we want. But God is not some big slot machine in the sky that we can put in our quarter, pull the handle, and out comes our jackpot! God is God, and God can do whatsoever He desires. He is not bound to our personal hopes which are not in accordance with His Word, will, and purposes (I John 5:14).
The other side of faith is the assurance that the thing we are hoping for will come to pass because God has willed it to be so. Getting back to the game analogy, if you rigged the game before it began, you could have the confidence that you would win the game. Apart from the moral issue in the example just stated, it demonstrates the true nature of faith. Faith is not just hoping for something, but being convinced that that something will come to pass because it has been promised by God, or because He has declared His will to us on the matter in question. The only way we can have this confidence, however, is if our hope is based on the promises and Word of God. If we have not received assurance from Him in His written Word, or by His spoken Word, then our faith may only be wishful thinking. Many Christians have had their faith weakened or shipwrecked because they thought faith was telling God what they wanted, and that if they prayed for it hard enough and long enough, God would give them the desires of their heart. When God did not do what they wanted Him to do, either they doubt Godís existence, or concluded that their faith was inadequate. Both conclusions are rooted in a false conception of the nature of faith. We should hope for things in faith, but we must also understand that if that hope is not rooted in God's will, we will not receive the answer we are expecting (I John 5:14-15). We are to pray that God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven, not in heaven as it is on earth (Matthew 6:10)!
We do not need some great faith to please God or to receive God's promises for us. While many are scrambling around reading book after book on how to get faith, the fact of the matter is that they already have faith. According to Hebrews 11:1, faithís essential nature is believing in the reality of that which is unseen. Anybody who believes in the existence of God, the Devil, angels, demons, heaven, and hell is a person of faith. The fact of the matter is that it only takes faith the size of a grain of a mustard seed to please God, and to move mountains (Matthew 17:20; Luke 17:6). If we have faith in Jesus Christ, we do have great faith.
Faith is Congruent With Reason
That faith is not blind, and contrary to evidence, reason, and facts is evidenced in every aspect of the Christian life. Reason and evidence are logical necessities to true faith. Even though one cannot reason to belief in God, he can find reasons for it. Faith is prior to reason logically speaking. Obviously non-Christians would not offer proofs for Godís existence, yet reason is prior to faith personally, for one does not believe in God or His alleged Word if he has no evidence that God exists and His Word is true. Reason precedes faith as a method of knowing the existence of God and His power. One cannot believe in a God in whom they have no knowledge of, and cannot truly know something without reasoning about that which is to be known. A certain amount of knowledge of God and the gospel must be known if one is to have saving or experiential faith. I have never yet seen a person converted without first hearing the content of the gospel (evidence and fact). The subjective side of faith that we are so familiar with only arises from an objective faith in God and His gospel. One may have knowledge without faith, but one cannot have faith without knowledge. Reason, evidence, facts, and faith all work together. God bestows faith simultaneously with our understanding. We do not have to crucify our intellect in order to believe. Faith may sometimes go beyond our ability to know something or understand it to the fullest extent, but faith is not illogical, and does not deny reality.
Some people never seem to have enough faith because they have turned faith into mental gymnastics wherein their will is imposed on God by "faith." Their lack of faith is not due to the fact that they are not spiritual enough, but because they have not yet given up the reigns of their life to God for Him to guide them and do what is best. What makes faith so difficult is that it demands that we relinquish all confidence in self, which includes our will, and rely solely on God. It demands that we quit trying to "make it happen" and trust God "to make it happen" in His way and in His time.
This distorted concept of faith which I have been speaking of preaches so well because it reinforces the idea we all naturally desireówe can control every turn of our lives. Such a view, however, is not Biblical and fosters all sorts of spiritual ills in the body of Christ. When we are weak, bewildered, battered, beaten, and yet we can still look to Jesus and somehow believe that all things will work together for the good, we have discovered the essence of true Biblical faith. God does not play the game of Simon-Says. True faith in God does not result in our insistence that He execute our bidding, but that we execute His, trusting in His Word and will, and acting accordingly. Our faith toward God should mimic that of Jesus who openly confessed, "I can do nothing on my own initiative. ÖI do not seek my own will, but the will of the one who sent me" (John 5:30; NET Bible)
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