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Faith: What it is, what it isn't

When I grew up I believed “having faith” meant believing Jesus was God who died for my sins. I knew of no evidence at the time to affirm the claim, nor did I even know how to start looking. It was an idea in my head, and I believed to be true. I also grew up in a culture where the word “faith” was used in a particular way in everyday language. I remember leading a team, and we were down miserably on the scoreboard, but I told my teammates, "You’ve got to have faith. You’ve got to have faith we can pull this off.” I also heard the word come up in conversation with families of sick patients in the ICU. They told me “We have faith that she’ll make it through this”. Medically speaking, I knew those chances were slim, but I saw how strongly they believed.

Mix everyday language with a weak and incorrect understanding of “faith” to begin with and you have a recipe for disaster. You get the popular view of faith we all know too well. Apologist, Greg Koukl describes it. “Faith is believing the unbelievable, clinging to your convictions when all of the evidence is against you. Faith is a leap— a blind, desperate lunge in the darkness. When doubts or troubles beset us, we’re told to “just have faith” as if we could squeeze out spiritual hope by intense acts of sheer will.”

I’m not surprised people shake their heads and walk away when they ask How can I trust the Bible? or How can I know Christianity is the only way to God?, and the only response the Christian can muster is “You’ve got to have faith”. Sadly, for many religious people, including Christians, blind faith can be a liberating feeling. It means no explanation is really required for what you believe, and you can believe in anything you want to believe— doesn't matter whether it’s true or not. So, it makes sense to me that those who are not "people of faith"seem to prefer reason over “blind belief”, over “blind faith”. 

For the longest time I too, a Christian of many years, believed faith to be just that believing what you want to believe, yet cannot prove… and believing it strong. Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, states "faith is belief without evidence or reason; coincidentally that's also the definition of delusion."

This is a gross mis-step of what faith actually is and it's a gross misunderstanding of how the Bible defines faith. Apologist, John Lennox in response to Dawkins states, "The more I have opened up my beliefs to criticism and debate, the more I've discovered that there is a resilience in the Christian faith that is utterly unique. Faith is a response to evidence, not a rejoicing in the absence of evidence."Biblical faith begins with reason, and is completed with faithful action: obedience.

The clearest definition comes from the writer of Hebrews, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” When faith is spoken about positively in scripture it translates in the greek, as pistis which neither means “wishing” nor "hoping" but rather means “actively trusting”. Trust is not something that's conjured up from nothing like a wish or a hope. You'll know in any relationship trust is always something that’s earned. You know this. I know this. Surely God knows this better than any of us.

There are countless instances in the scriptures. I visit a few.

In the book of Exodus we realize that Moses was actually quite reluctant to be the deliverer of God’s chosen people. He thought, why would the most powerful man in the world, Pharaoh, submit to a renegade Hebrew like himself? Why would two million Hebrew slaves choose to follow him, when they know him as a murderer and a defector of his own people. At the scene of the burning bush Moses says to the Lord, “They will never believe me or listen to me!”, they will say “The Lord didn’t appear to you.”

God then showed Moses several signs by turning his staff into a serpent, and a making his hand leprous by placing it in his cloak. God would also send plagues: the river of blood, frogs, locusts, boils, darkness, and finally the angel of death which sprung the Passover celebration that so many Jews around the world acknowledge to this day. 

God didn’t ask the Hebrews, or Moses for mindless, blind faith. Rather God demonstrated his power, giving them good reason to believe. These miracles were signs which brought out belief, which then allowed faith to flourish, and provided a reason for action: to flee Egypt and trust in God's commandments.

Fast forward to the New Testament. Why did Jesus perform signs and miracles? He wasn’t just healing for the sake of healing.  It was to point to the truth of who he was. Here’s one example in Mark's gospel. We see Jesus speaking to a group of people in a crowded home. There were so many people there that four men dug a hole in the roof and lowered a paralyzed man down to Jesus. Jesus was impressed by their faith, He said to the paralyzed man, "Son, your sins are forgiven.” 

His words offended some of the teachers of the law. "Who can forgive sins but God alone?” they grumbled among themselves. 

Jesus, aware of their complaint, returns a question at them, “Which is easier to say to the paralytic “your sins are forgiven, or arise, take up your mat and walk”. 

Jesus knew it looked like he was taking the easy way out, which is why he added, “But in order you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins"... he said to the man, "I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” The man got up took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. Everyone was amazed. 

How would you respond in this scenario? Would it be easier to claim to forgive sins, or claim to heal paralysis? Clearly it’s always easier to claim something that no one can really check up on than to claim to have supernatural powers and risk failing the test. Jesus proves something that can’t be seen, his power to forgive sins, with evidence that can be seen, the healing of the paralytic. Concrete evidence allows skeptics to know the truth so they can then trust in the forgiveness that Christ gives. Jesus understands that belief does not come from nothing. Biblical faith is not simply hope, it's not wishful thinking, and it's certainly not blind leaps into darkness.

Christians have an extremely good reason for believing what they do. Jesus was a man who existed on the stage of history. There's testimony from hundreds of people about his life, death, and resurrection.

This is why the apostle Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament, could write to the church in Corinth, hundreds of miles away from Jerusalem, stating there were more than 500 hundred people who saw Jesus alive, many whom are still alive today. (1 Corinthians 15:6). Paul appeals to reason and eye witness testimony, as if to say "Go and see them" verify for yourself!

The resurrection is the assurance of the hope we believe in. It’s a verifiable event in space and time that changed the entire trajectory of history. It’s the anchor on which Christians believe. You see, if you can discount the resurrection you have discounted the entire faith. Paul says so himself. "If Christ had not been raised, your faith if futile, you are still in your sins... We are of all people most to be pitied" 1 Corinthians 15: 17-19

My encouragement to you is to poke and prod your belief. Don't take a step forward until you've moved towards your questions in a serious way. Look at the the resurrection from an unbiased perspective and decide for yourself. Was Jesus really who he said he was?

Suppose you are Christian living by blind faith alone and you have a tough decision before you. You know what you must do, but you must decide whether to walk in obedience or not. How will you transfer your trust into action? I urge you too, look into the evidence for why you believe what you believe. Wrestling with these questions leads to growth because it leads to stronger conviction and results in committed action. That's what it does for me.

I leave you with one scene. The disciple Thomas was absent the first time Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples. He's often called the doubter because he didn’t believe the others who had already saw him. He wanted to see for himself. When Jesus finally appears to him he even says "Stop doubting and believe." Jesus would then give him the opportunity to place his own fingers where the nails were and put his hand in the side where Jesus was pierced. The history books tell us Thomas would go on to take the gospel all the way to India in AD 52, performing miracles and signs to point toward the truth. He would later be martyred for his faith.

Why would Thomas do this? What would make him go from a fleeing, doubting disciple to take the gospel to the far corners of the world? Was it just blind faith or wishful thinking? Thomas's faith was trust based in knowing. It was sure confidence grounded in evidence. It was a faith that resulted in action. Now the other faith that much of the world has come to know, that "blind faith", that’s what keeps you just hoping... hanging on to dear life the God might show up in your life. That faith is just an idea that you rarely do anything about.

God loves you too much to leave you without evidence. The entire gospel of John was written, "so that you may believe" and has been preserved throughout the centuries to this day. Although Jesus told Thomas, “stop doubting and believe,” he never left him hanging. God certainly will not leave you hanging either. Seek and you shall find. Knock and the door will be opened for you. In the end, you will realize all this time, God has been on your trail chasing after you.



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