What in the World is Faith Anyway?

Defining the word "Faith" seems to be one of the most baffling things in the world for most of us. Every day you'll hear people say stuff like "You just gotta have faith..." and then not finish the sentence. They will assure us in a time of crisis "Just believe. Your faith will make you strong." But when we ask the $64,000 question, "Just believe what?" many are not exactly snappy in their response.

In the past believers knew what "have faith" usually meant. It usually meant something like "God is good and will cause things to work for good." However, in our prodigal culture it is no longer a sure bet that people mean this. Often those who urge us to have "faith" nowadays really don't have the foggiest idea what they mean. They may mean something that covers a whole spectrum of sentiments from "May the Force be with you" to "Things are bound to turn out fine" to just plain "Buck up."

Now however admirable these thoughts may be as expressions of support, they are to the Christian understanding of Faith what a cartoon is to the Mona Lisa. They give you something of the shape, but they leave a lot out too.

So what is the Christian understanding of Faith anyway? Perhaps the best way to explain it is to hold the cartoons and the Mona Lisa side by side and see how they compare.

Superstition vs. Supernatural Fact

For many, faith is indistinguishable from superstition. It is summed up for such people in the "definition" formulated by that crusty old atheist H.L. Mencken as "an irrational belief in the impossible." A mindset like this usually contents itself with pointing to Jim Jones or some other huckster and saying "There! You see! Faith in action. His followers had faith in spades. Fat lot of good it did them." And, of course, who can deny that people with faith have done any number of things ranging from the knuckleheaded to the monstrous.

Yet somehow this doesn't seem to cover all the bases. For, of course, it is also faith which motivates a Martin Luther King, Jr. and a Mother Teresa. It was faith which pushed the English Evangelicals to stamp out the slave trade 200 years ago. It was faith that made Father Damien live among (and eventually become one of) the lepers of Molokai. Faith has filled whole oceans of human need with living water.

Moreover, anyone with the teensy-weensiest amount of critical savvy has to ask how on earth Mr. Mencken knows just what is and is not "impossible". True, there is any amount of noodlebrained "faith" in everything from tea leaves to fortune cookies. But that's a bit different from, say, the apostolic witness to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Peter, Paul, James, John and the gang did not spend their lives holed up in a bunker hyping themselves into a paranoid religious fever. They spent them down in the trenches, largely cut off from each other as they jostled all over an extremely hostile world preaching one thing: A man named Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and rose from the dead for the sins of the world and we saw it happen with our own eyes. To be sure, they often got the response you'd expect if you told someone a dead man you knew had come back to life. They were, in the Apostle Paul's words, "a spectacle to the universe"--the scum of the earth throughout their lives. And the retirement benefits? Paul: Beheaded. Peter: Crucified upside down. James: Beheaded. Etc. Yet not one of them ever cracked and declared under pressure that the Resurrection was a lie. Compare this with the Watergate conspirators (who were all scrambling for lawyers the moment the heat was on). This looks less and less like an "an irrational belief in the impossible" (unless, of course, we suffer from the irrational prejudice that resurrection is impossible.) As for these guys, they not only believed it possible but spent their lives (and tortured deaths) under the distinct impression that they (and 500 others) had seen the thing happen.

Christian faith then, is distinct from superstition in this minor respect: it has a basis in fact--the fact of the Risen Christ. And since the Risen Christ claimed quite plainly to be God (that is, after all, why he was crucified), those who knew him came to the conclusion (quite rationally) that this claim was the very Truth of things. And if that was true, when he said stuff like "He who believes in me will have eternal life" or "I am with you always" or "I will send the Holy Spirit to be with you and give you power to share my life, joy and strength" he could be believed--if we have the moxie to believe him. That is, if we have faith.

Faith vs. Positive Thinking

Faith then has something to do with the will. We have to choose to trust this Jesus--or not. But this can often lead to the next cartoon of faith: "Positive Thinking."

Positive Thinking knows that faith is an act of the will. But that's all it knows. In its more benign forms, Positive Thinking amounts to little more than a cheery optimism that the Mariners might take the pennant this year. Yet without grounding in reality Positive Thinking can sometimes fly off into the ozone and "will" any number of peculiar things: as that all evil is imaginary, or that my abusive boyfriend will magically stop beating me if I only think good thoughts or that this stabbing pain can be ignored out of existence.

Now this is not to deny that God performs miracles or intervenes in our lives. He does. But he does not encourage willful stupidity. That is why, in contrast to mere Positive Thinking, Christian faith commends the virtue of Prudence. Such faith says, trust God by all means. Believe that he raised Jesus from the dead, that he forgives your sins and will give you the power of the Holy Spirit to live a supernatural life of love. Obey his commands even when it is hard. Look to him to care for you in every detail of your life and to raise you one day from the dead and renew the Heavens and the Earth. But also look both ways before you cross the street.

Christian faith then, is not just Pie in the Sky when you die by and by. It has a shrewd quality of horse sense about it. It tells us to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, to trust that God gave you the sense he gave a goose. It says you must "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12).

But this can lead us into yet another cartoon of faith.

Believing in Yourself vs. Believing in God

I wish a had a nickel for every time I heard someone say "If you need something to believe in, believe in yourself." Now insofar as they mean "God made you and God don't make junk" they are right. But usually they mean something a lot more like "The answer lies within" or "God helps those who help themselves" or "You are the captain of your destiny." "Believing in yourself" is at the heart of the Gospel of the American Way of Life.

Unfortunately, it's also profoundly untrue.

"But what about moxie and 'working out salvation' and all that. Don't you think people should work hard and get ahead?" Sure! Work as hard as you please and succeed with God's blessing. That's one half of faith. But work humbly and with gratitude, "for it is God who works in you both to will and to do his good pleasure." (Philippians 2:13). In short, all is gift, including the desire and ability to work. That's the other half of faith. It's called "grace". Split the two halves apart and just grab one... presto! you're in Toon Town. For the fact is, had we not a loving God who wants to lavish us with his gifts, we wouldn't even exist to have this nice chat about the value of work. But we do have such a God. And because of it we have a shot, not only at getting some work accomplished in our little corner of his world, but at getting to know him as well. Which brings us to our last cartoon.

Concept vs. Relationship

The ultimate difference between the cartoon faith and Mona Lisa faith is this: cartoon faith (at its very best) gets as far as saying "I believe in a God." That's a great thing as far as it goes. Far better to believe in a God than in (God shield us from it) Ourselves. But in comparison to what faith could be, it's like drinking near-beer when we could have Napoleon brandy.

What I mean is this. Christian faith says that God is deeply, passionately in love with you and me. It says that the burning love you see between two people on their wedding day is a sort of dim shadow of how God loves us. Now imagine the bride on her wedding day expressing the depth of her feeling for the groom in the words, "I believe in a groom. I think he exists." Kinda lacks something, don't it?

That's the bottom line difference between Christian faith and the cartoons. It stands or falls with this: God so loved us he chose to become one of us, to join his life to ours in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And he did it so that nothing, not even our nastiest and sleaziest faults would separate us from him. He pursued us like a lover, and like many lovers, he died for his beloved. But such was his power that he didn't stay dead. He rose again to give us, not just faith in "a God" but a living breathing relationship with this God--the One who busts into "real life" and offers us Real Life.

So what in the world is faith? A gift from beyond the world. It is not blind belief nor positive thinking nor self confidence. It is a "yes" to a God who has come down out of the lala land of concepts (where we seem to wish he would stay) and has actually broken into our world. It is a willingness to obey, follow and, with his help, (gulp!) imitate this God who not only gave blessings but endured crucifixion. It is the choice to stick with this God until the moment when we too shall share in what he won for us, an empty grave and an indestructible life.

Copyright 2001 - Mark P. Shea