What does it actually mean to have faith?
Does it mean to have a bulletproof, unqualified certainty? That no matter what situation or confusion may come up, I never have even a passing doubt? Because if that’s what it is, then I guess I don’t have it. Is it even faith at that point? I feel like faith requires a certain level of uncertainty. Faith can’t be as simple as just “belief with out doubt.” Is that really what God demands or expects?
Maybe it would be better to think of faith as a functional certainty; to believe enough to act.
In the Bible, Abraham is lifted up as one of many examples of faith. Abraham’s faith is not described as unshakable certainty, limited only to his head/heart, but rather it’s described through his actions. Now, I would never say that we work for our salvation, because we don’t and we can’t. But, I think that a perspective of faith that’s limited to belief is insufficient. To define faith only with terms related to belief, doubt, etc. makes it dead after all (James 2:14-26). It is the function of faith that demonstrates its reality. Faith without works is dead because faith and works are mutually dependent, if not even more intricately connected, as two parts of one whole. If my faith is in God and His Gospel then my faith cannot be without some action in line with the content of that faith.
To have faith without doubt, then, might be a great goal and a worthy pursuit, but to demand or expect it gives a poor outlook. However, an expectation of action is not only more realistic, but is a necessity because without it, one must assume that the faith is not there.
So how much faith do I need? Do I need to have all of it? Just a mustard seed’s amount? As someone who hasn’t seen Jesus in the flesh, should I expect a struggle with doubt and unbelief? “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” I don’t have an unshakable faith. I am consistently confronted by the reality that I do not possess an unqualified certainty.
Hebrews 11:1 says “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” It seems, then, that throughout the Bible faith is defined by a lacking. “Hoped for” as in “not yet” and not seen. Faith is a confidence in something that isn’t empirically verifiable. Otherwise we would just call it knowledge. Faith is a walking confidence despite the lack of indisputable certainty. Knowledge of God is only available as I look backward. Faith is all I have going forward.
Maybe the reason we require so much certainty is because we’ve weaseled our way out of the actions of faith (i.e. sacrifice, service, mission, etc.). Faith, if only defined according to belief, would rightly feel empty and lacking. So, maybe we don’t need more “belief” per se. Maybe we need a restored function to our faith. Maybe our faith has atrophied in our refusal to put it to work.
In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship, this is discussed a lot and it didn’t seem to make as much sense then as it does now. The basic idea is that belief/confidence/faith grow reciprocally with obedience. When we separate faith and works into independent components, it’s easy to make one the exclusive mover of the other: faith will produce works, not the other way around. But, I think what Bonhoeffer was trying to do was show that belief and action are two parts of one whole: faith. So, not only will the belief spur the action forward, the obedient actions will produce a more certain belief.
But it’s this counter-intuitive, un-“natural” nuance of faith that makes it hard AND makes it something God must give. To muster up my own radical, legitimate faith would be impossible because the natural man does not want to function in this type of faith. And if the natural man does act in such a manner, it’s due either lunacy or delusion. So, true saving, acting faith must, then, be a gift from God.
Mark 9:24 “…I do believe; help my unbelief.”
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