A Pepper Grinder Post

What is Faith? – Part 1

What is faith?  It sounds like one of those questions a college professor would ask.  It sounds like a question someone would jump into because they loved talking about philosophy or theology, or the kind of question someone throws out to show that your beliefs aren’t rational.  However, I’m not putting the question out there for those reasons.

You see, I have long felt like a total failure when it came to faith.  I would have had a hard time defining it, but I knew you needed to pray with faith for your prayers to be answered.  The way people talked about it, I had the general idea that faith was being sure (or at least pretty sure) that God would answer (meaning, answer YES to) your prayer.  I felt as though I were trapped in a vicious cycle.  I would ask for things, but not have much confidence that I would get what I asked for.  There were times when God clearly answered my prayers, but lots of the time I would NOT get what I had asked for (naturally, since I hadn’t prayed with “faith”), and this only reinforced my feeling that God would often not grant my requests, which meant that I would have, if anything, even less “faith” the next time I prayed.

I really don’t think this was because I didn’t think God was able to do things.  I have seen God do some things that would be very hard to explain away, and I really do believe the accounts in the Bible and elsewhere of God doing stupendous things.  My problem more seemed to be with having confidence that he would do what I asked.

Not only was my view of faith discouraging, it also really bothered me.  The way some people talked, I got the impression that because they had confident feelings when they prayed, it meant that the God of the Universe had become their cosmic waiter. 

I pictured a conversation like this in heaven:

“Yes, my Lord.”
“Go down to Earth right now and get Tim Johnson a new car.  He wants something like a Jetta with good pickup, and it has to have a moon roof and spoilers.  Oh yes, and make it black.”
“Lord, didn’t you just get him a new car the year before last?”
“Yes, I did, but he is praying with faith, and I promised that if anyone prayed with faith, his request would be granted.”
“OK, you’re the boss.”

The idea that one person could pray for something with selfish motives and get it because he had “faith,” while a mother praying for her two-year-old daughter with leukemia would have to watch her die because she didn’t have enough faith was deeply disturbing to me.  And yet, isn’t this what the Bible teaches?

When Jesus healed people, he often said not, “God has healed you,” or “I have healed you,” but “Your faith has healed you.”  In the Gospel of Matthew we read:

Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done.  If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer." (Matthew 21:21-22 NIV)

This certainly sounds as though there is one factor and one factor only that determines whether or not our prayers are answered: our faith.

And yet,  look at this verse in James:

When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:3 NIV)

It would be hard to say much more clearly than this that prayers offered with wrong motives will NOT be answered.  (This is not the only verse with a similar message; see for some others.)  But what about Tim Johnson, who wants a new black Jetta with a moon roof and spoilers for purely selfish reasons, but is praying with confidence that God will grant his request?  As I see it, there are three options here:

  1. There is a contradiction in the Bible.  This means that the Bible is not truly authoritative, and in cases like this, we can pick the verses we like.  Although I think that few Christians would say it this baldly, many Christians seem to me to have this approach when dealing with some of the difficult issues of the faith.
  2. This is a case where there is a tension.  One set of verses is showing us one side, the other set, the other side.  We have the difficult task of accepting both and choosing a path which goes along with both, without going too far to either side.  I think there are times we have to do this as Christians.  I have used the analogy elsewhere of walking along the ridge of a roof.
  3. Faith means something different than what I thought it meant.

JettaI’m sure you’ve guessed that I’m not going with door #1.  There are some issues where there is no door #3 (or at least, I haven’t seen it) and I have chosen door #2.  Here, though, I want to explore the third door.  If, in fact, my old conception of faith was wrong, then it is possible there is no contradiction at all.

But wait a minute!  Isn’t it obvious what faith is?  What else could it mean?  This is a big topic, and I’m not going to try to deal with it all in one posting.  What I am going to do today is a flyover of the chapter in the Bible many people think of when they hear about faith—Hebrews 11.  Faith is the theme of the entire chapter, and it is basically a whole bunch of examples of how faith was at work in the lives of people in the Old Testament.  By a flyover, I mean that I will be looking at a larger chunk of Scripture in less detail than I usually do.  Today I am just going to look at the examples, but I’ll come back later and look at some of the verses I skip.  The big question I will be trying to answer is whether the black Jetta model of faith (faith is having confidence that you will get what you pray for) fits with what we read in this chapter.

The first thing to look at is what was being talked about BEFORE the chapter.  The whole book of Hebrews is focused on encouraging Jewish believers not to get discouraged and stop following Jesus, and the second half of chapter 10 fits into that theme quite smoothly.  Here is my outline of it:
10:19-25—Keep following Jesus and encouraging each other
10:26-31—If you keep on sinning when you know the truth, you risk judgment
10:32-34—Remember the early days of your faith
10:35-39—Don’t give up now; you’ll be rewarded if you persevere

It would be one thing if the author of Hebrews had been going along saying, “Here’s why your prayers aren’t being answered—you don’t have enough faith!”  But, this is not what he has been talking about.  He has been talking about hanging in there when the going has gotten tough.  This is the first indication to me that the faith being talked about in Hebrews 11 doesn’t fit with the black Jetta type.

I’m going to skip over verses 1 & 2 for now.  Verse 1 sounds like it is giving a definition of faith, and at least in the NIV, it sounds like a fairly good fit with the way I used to see faith.  I want to look at this verse in detail in another post, but for now, I want to jump ahead to the examples given.

By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. (Hebrews 11:3 NIV)

Hmm.  I always thought that faith resulted in answered prayers or salvation.  Here it produces understanding.

By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead. (Hebrews 11:4 NIV)

So the result of this guy’s faith was doing something right, getting killed for it, and leaving behind an example that still speaks to us today. 

By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death; he could not be found, because God had taken him away. For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. (Hebrews 11:5 NIV)

OK.  I certainly think that going straight to heaven without dying is cool, but the passage does not say that Enoch was praying for this.

By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. (Hebrews 11:7 NIV)

Notice the first result of Noah’s faith—building a big boat.  Then through this act of faith, he brought God’s judgment on the world and inherited righteousness.

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.  By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:8-10 NIV)

wildernessBasically, Abraham’s faith caused him to become a rootless nomad.  This seems totally backward.  Our modern thinking says faith should lead to some guy who is sleeping in his car getting a gorgeous house with a swimming pool, not the other way around.

By faith Abraham, even though he was past age--and Sarah herself was barren--was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise.  And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.  (Hebrews 11:11-12 NIV)

Finally, an example that could fit into the black Jetta model of faith!  Abraham and Sarah prayed for a child, and they got him, along with lots and lots of great-great grandkids.  This was definitely an answer to prayer.  On the other hand, I can’t help wondering if Abraham and Sarah were still praying by the time Sarah got pregnant with Isaac. 

Think for a minute of the years and years that Abraham and Sarah must have prayed for a child.  This was a society where a man without a son to be his heir was pitied, and where a barren woman (and they always seemed to assume that if a couple was barren, it was the woman’s fault) was considered cursed.  Think of the years of prayers and tears that got no response.  Think of how Sarah felt as she reached middle age and then menopause.  She had failed, and God hadn’t helped. 

Eventually she came up with plan B: get Abraham to sleep with the maid and have a child through her.  But this just led to pain and jealousy so intense that she beat the pregnant servant.  And then finally, when Sarah was 90 (!) and Abraham was 100 (!), God answered their prayer and gave them one son.  It makes me feel funny to think of being 62 when my youngest child turns 18.  I can’t even imagine the bittersweet irony of having the prayer for a child granted at age 90 or 100.

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.  People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.  If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.  Instead, they were longing for a better country--a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.   (Hebrews 11:13-16 NIV)

Did you see the start of this passage?  It says first that the people talked ofwere still living by faith when they died.  They are the examples for us of how to have faith and live by it.  And then it says:

They did not receive the things promised.

Whoa!  I thought that if we had faith, our prayers would be answered, but here we are explicitly told that these people died without receiving the things they believed God would do.  What’s more, it doesn’t sound like they were necessarily happy, popular people.  I often feel like an alien (even among many Christians, if I am honest), but it doesn’t give me a good feeling that I am living by faith.  It makes me feel like a failure, a misfit.  And yet here are people held up as examples of faith, who didn’t fit in anywhere in this world, and who never saw their prayers answered.

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned."  Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death. (Hebrews 11:17-19 NIV)

night skyFaith here led Abraham not to get something, but to come within a hair’s breadth of killing the child who was the greatest answer to prayer in his and Sarah’s life.

By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.  By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph's sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.  (Hebrews 11:20-21 NIV)

The result of faith here is not an answered prayer, but prophetic blessings made over children and grandchildren.

By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions about his bones. (Hebrews 11:22 NIV)

The result of faith in this verse is a prophecy, and instructions about what to do with Joseph’s bones hundreds of years later.

By faith Moses' parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king's edict. (Hebrews 11:23 NIV)

The faith of Moses’ parents produced defiance of an evil authority.

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh's daughter.  He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time.  He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. (Hebrews 11:24-26 NIV)

Moses’ faith resulted in mistreatment and disgrace. 

I want to think for a minute about a part of Moses’ life that isn’t explicitly mentioned here.  Moses was 40 years old and seems to have felt a sense that he was to be used in the deliverance of Israel from the slavery they lived under in Egypt.  One day, seeing an Israelite being beaten by an Egyptian, he decided the time had come for action, and he killed the Egyptian.  However, the Israelites showed no appreciation for this, and Moses ended up fleeing for his life and then spending the next 40 years living in exile.  Talk about a mid-life crisis!  And yet, he is held up as an example of faith.

By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king's anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible.  By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.  By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.  By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the people had marched around them for seven days.  By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.  (Hebrews 11:27-31 NIV)

This sounds a little more like the traditional idea of faith, though notice that in each example, the first result of faith was people taking actions that, humanly speaking, made little or no sense.  Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, and the Israelites all killed lambs and smeared the blood on their doors.  The Israelites walked through a divided sea.  The Israelites marched around a city for seven days and shouted, instead of attacking it in normal ways.  Rahab betrayed her own people to help a nation of strangers who had come to annihilate her city.  In each case, faith led people to take action, and then God stepped in and acted.

MaryAnd what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again.  (Hebrews 11:32-35a NIV)

This sounds still more like faith that leads to answered prayers (though note, administering justice is also thrown into the list of things done through faith).  Please understand, I am not saying that faith is not closely bound up with prayers being answered.  My point in this post is to show that faith is much more than a way to get what we want from God.  What I came to see was that my conception of faith was much too small and limited.  As if to drive home the point once more that faith is not just a tool to get answered prayers, let’s look at the last verses of Hebrews 11.

Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection.  Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison.  They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.  These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.  God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.  (Hebrews 11:35-40 NIV)

So faith can bring torture, ridicule, beatings, imprisonment, poverty, isolation, and grisly death.  To top it off, God may promise something, but you might never see the fulfillment of the promise.  There is no doubt that God was very pleased with the people written about here, and that they went on to enjoy an eternity of happiness with God that would make their misery on earth seem like the tiniest shadow.

But it is also clear that my old idea that faith means feeling confident that you will get what you pray for, and that praying with this confidence ensures that you will get what you ask for, is deeply flawed.  While there is no doubt that faith can lead to answered prayers, it is also clear that faith can often lead to all sorts of things for which no one in his right mind would pray.

Which brings us back to the question: what is faith?  Tune in and we will take another crack at it.


*Jetta photos from superstreetonline.com