Tuesday, September 04, 2007
Why Faith?
Last week I taped another episode of Ask God for TLN, a Christian TV station based in Aurora, IL. The show is a panel discussion with professors and pastors on theological questions posed by "man-on-the-street" style interviews. The topic for my episode was "Why Faith?" Here are some of the questions that were posed and a few of the answers I prepared in response. Please note that these responses are not comprehensive and are not fully developed arguments at all. They are just the quick answers I jotted down as I was thinking through the questions:


Question: "What is faith?"

Answer: There are different kinds of faith:

1) Relational Sense: faith in the Bible most often means “trust” in the sense that you’d “have faith” in another person. (e.g. I have faith in my wife.) “Belief in” rather than “belief that”.

2) Philosophical/Rational Sense: Faith also means choosing to believe something for which you don’t have absolute proof or certainty - i.e. taking a leap of faith. Belief in God's existence is like that. Note however, that this doesn't mean making a choice in the complete absence of evidence or in the face of contrary evidence. There are often reasons for belief, just not absolutely conclusive reasons. Faith is what you use when the evidence is insufficient and yet you still have to make a choice. Of course, this situation is not limited to religious beliefs. We use this kind of faith all the time, both with significant beliefs and with ordinary everyday choices. We almost never have perfect certainty about anything, and so we make these little leaps all the time. We couldn't function without faith.

The classic biblical definition of faith is found in Hebrews 11:1, "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." This definition, I think, speaks to both senses. It is trust in the goodness and promises of God, but also, implicitly, his existence as well. However, I think the main point of this passage (as demonstrated in the chapter that follows) is that the object of our faith - that which we hope for and do not see - is the full realization of the kingdom of God, the fulfillment of God's covenant promises to Israel and to the world.

That's why I would say that having faith in a truly biblical sense means holding to a relational covenant (like a marriage covenant): upholding your end of the bargain and trusting the other person to do the same. So having faith in God means entering into a relationship with God - trusting that he will fulfill his promises to establish his kingdom in the world, and therefore doing our best to live for him and his kingdom with our own lives.


Question: "Why do we need faith? Why doesn't God just show himself?"

Answer: I think God does show himself, but perhaps not in the ways we are accustomed to looking for. The problem might actually be that God reveals too much of himself. There are two ways to be blinded after all: one is when there is an absence light, the other is when there is too much light and it overwhelms us… Part of the difficulty is not that God does not show himself, but that he is always showing himself to us. Everything comes from God, therefore everything we experience is an experience of God. We are overwhelmed – too much information.


Question: "Would God revealing himself directly make everyone have faith/believe?"

Answer: Maybe, but the question is, what would we be believing in? That experience – the voice, the vision, the miracle, etc.? Whatever means God uses to reveal himself, it is imperative for us to realize that the means, the revelation, is not God himself. It is only a medium (after all, we can’t experience God directly - how could the finite comprehend the infinite?), and this medium can quick become an idol. We have to understand that if God is God, then it is simply impossible for us to know him exactly as he is, and any way that he reveals himself must necessarily be limited and partial or else it becomes an idol.


Question: "Why doesn't God just give us a "love potion" to make us have perfect faith?"

Answer: If God simply wanted servants who had no choice but to follow him, then he could do that. He could reveal himself in an undeniable show of power and glory and we’d have no choice but to kneel in awe and submission. But God desires more than just servants, he wants a relationship with us, he desires our freely given love; and as many of us have experienced in life, love and power are too often incompatible. So God humbles himself, holds himself back (e.g. Philippians 2:1-11) so that we can freely choose to love him, so we can relate to him as children, friends, and lovers, not as subjects and mere servants.


Question: "What if I lose faith, or don't believe?"

Answer: 2 Timothy 2:12-13 says
“If we disown him,
he will also disown us;
if we are faithless,
he will remain faithful,

for he cannot disown himself.”

If we are faithless, he will remain faithful. God understands our struggles. Doubt is natural, faith is hard. We shouldn’t think of faith as a meritorious work we have to do to earn God’s favor. In the gospels we have a story of a man who cries out to Jesus “Lord I want to believe! Help my unbelief!” That is a totally appropriate prayer to prayer. If we have a desire to believe in God but still struggle, God honors that desire – not perfect, unquestioning faith.. In fact the Psalms are full of examples of people doubting God, and yet they still bring their doubt and struggle to God. If you doubt God, then tell him that, even if sometimes it feels like you’re praying to the wall.

In fact, struggle is good. It means you’re growing. Be open to new possibilities and bring all your questions and doubts to God. Don’t be afraid that any question or doubt is too big for him to handle or that you could ever fall out of his love. He’s not going to punish you for asking the wrong question.

The Jewish tradition has preserved this value on questioning better than most Christians have I think. The ancient rabbis said that asking good questions was often more important than having all the answers. The whole Passover Seder meal, upon which the Christian Eucharist is based, is about questions; and during the Seder the rabbis tell a story of four sons and their questions. The good son asked all the right questions, the wicked son asked subversive questions, the simple son asked stupid questions, but the fourth son, the apathetic son, didn't care enough to ask any questions at all. And the rabbi's said that it is the fourth son who is in the most spiritual danger, for the person who doesn't bother to question cannot grow.


Question: What difference does faith and faithfulness make to individual Christians and to communities? How do we see faith in action?

Answer: Faith is a lifestyle. If God’s promises are true then they require action. We participate in God’s redemption of the world. Faith means believing that God is at work in the world and that we can have a part in that – it means trusting that our lives and our actions are not meaningless. It means following Christ's way of love and compassion, even if we don't have perfect certainty or all the answers to our questions right at the moment.

After all, If God was primarily concerned with us having all the right answers and perfect doctrine, then he could have made things a lot more clear and a lot easier to believe. The fact that he didn’t indicates that God is more concerned with the shaping of our souls, of helping us become the kind of people that can pursue the way of love and kindness in this world. If we had all the answers and didn’t need faith we might become arrogant, puffed-up, even violent (we’ve had enough of that already in Christianity!) As Paul said in Corinthians “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” The point of faith then is not information but transformation.

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