Definitions of Faith

Don: We’re talking about faith in the context of the statement by Jesus that faith is one of the “weightier matters” of the law. Justice and mercy were the other two weighty matters.

Last week we began to look at the faith of Moses by looking at the faith of his parents and asking ourselves the question: Can faith be passed on from one person to another and from one generation to another? Ahmed has suggested that we need a better definition of faith so that we know what it is we may or may not be “passing along”; that we need to make a clear distinction between passing along a faith that is God centered and one that is culturally centered; and that the reason some people change their faith or their religion even late in life is a result of receiving something that has been passed along,

It might take us a couple of weeks or even more to go through various aspects of the faith of Moses, because we have a lot of stories about him that demonstrate a lot of them. And we’re still looking for a useful working definition of faith that encompass all of these faith aspects. Today I want to look at one aspect of Moses’ faith. Here is the story of the infancy of Moses:

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was beautiful, she hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer, she got him a wicker basket and covered it over with tar and pitch. Then she put the child into it and set it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. His sister stood at a distance to find out what would happen to him. The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the Nile, with her maidens walking alongside the Nile; and she saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid, and she brought it to her. When she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the boy was crying. And she had pity on him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call a nurse for you from the Hebrew women that she may nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go ahead.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Then Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child away and nurse him for me and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him. The child grew, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. And she named him Moses, and said, “Because I drew him out of the water.” (Exodus 2:1:10)

We see an aspect of faith here that seems unexpected. It is active faith. It is faith activated and actuated by effort, by a plan. What is the relationship between faith and effort? Here we have faith augmented by a plan, by a purpose, by an effort, strategically finding a basket, covering it with tar and pitch, strategically placing it into the Nile, right where the women come to bathe, then strategically putting the sister close by with a pre-planned offering of a wet nurse who just happens to be the child’s mother.

What aspect of faith needs our help? This is faith that is foreign to our thinking. Shouldn’t real faith just leave things in God’s hands? “I’m leaving it up to God. If it’s in his plan, he will open the door.” Or is it that I’m working on a plan with God? And if it’s not in his plan and his providence, will he close the door? Does faith wait for God to open the door, or does faith wait for God to close the door?

Living a life of faith seems to be somewhat complicated. Is our faith to be active or passive? You recall the story of Moses and the Israelites at the Red Sea: They have left Egypt and are on their way to the Promised Land. They come up against the Red Sea and discover that Pharaoh and his armies are right behind them:

Then the Egyptians chased after them with all the horses and chariots of Pharaoh, his horsemen and his army, and they overtook them camping by the sea, beside Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon.  As Pharaoh drew near, the sons of Israel looked, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they became very frightened; so the sons of Israel cried out to the Lord. Then they said to Moses, “Is it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you dealt with us in this way, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the word that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”  But Moses said to the people, “Do not fear! Stand by and see the salvation of the Lord which He will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you have seen today, you will never see them again forever. The Lord will fight for you while you keep silent.”  Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to Me? Tell the sons of Israel to go forward. (Exodus 14:9-15)

Living a life of faith, whether it’s an active or a passive faith, seems confusing. How many decisions of life actually involve faith? Maybe not what you’re going to eat for dinner (McDonald’s? Or Burger King?) but so many of life’s decisions do involve faith. “What should I do? What schooling should I take? What profession should I follow? Who should I date and who should I marry? Where should I live and where should I work? When should I move? What about a major purchase? In many affairs of life, should I resist or should I surrender?” Is faith to be used in that way at all? Maybe faith should be compartmentalized to my religion and only be used to explain things concerning God. But isn’t almost everything in my life about God anyway?

By faith, the parents of Moses see that their child is beautiful. That’s what the scripture says. Really? Does it really take faith, must you see through the lens of faith, to see that your child is beautiful? If so, there must be a lot of faith around—I’ve never heard a parent say “My kid is ugly.” The implication is that faith colors everything around us. It colors almost everything in our lives, even how we see our children.

So the question today is how does faith inform how we live? Must faith actuate us? Or does faith make us rest? Should we pray? Or do we wait? Should we cry out? Or must we be silent? How many of us have had stresses in life and not known where to turn? How does faith help us then? If a mustard seed of faith can move a mountain (as Jesus said) and the mountains in our lives are not being moved, can we conclude that we don’t have enough faith? Must our faith be active? Does God help those who help ourselves (as Ben Franklin, not the Bible, said)? Or should we do as the scriptures say:

Wait for the Lord; Be strong and let your heart take courage; Yes, wait for the Lord. (Psalms 27:14)

… those who wait for the Lord Will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary. (Isaiah 40:31)

It is good that he waits silently For the salvation of the Lord. (Lamentations 3:26)

There are three stories that I’d quickly like to reference, one of which we’ve already made reference to in the book of Exodus—the story of the midwives. It illustrates active and passive faith. The midwives had been instructed to kill all the newborn boys, but…

… the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them, but let the boys live. So the king of Egypt called for the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this thing, and let the boys live?” (Exodus 1:17-18)

They lied, saying it was because the Hebrew women were not like Egyptian women—they were vigorous and gave birth before the midwife could get to them. So what was the response?:

So God was good to the midwives, and the people multiplied, and became very mighty. Because the midwives feared God, He established households for them. (Exodus 1:20-21)

Here we see active prevarication, lying to the to the Pharaoh in order that faith might be demonstrated.

You recall the puzzling story of Daniel. Why would Daniel do what he what he did? He served in the court of Darius, the king, and the other courtiers were jealous of him. They plotted to get rid of Daniel by prohibiting him from praying and got the king to sign a decree that anyone caught praying to anyone other than the kingdom would be put to death, knowing that Daniel would ignore the decree:

Now when Daniel knew that the document [the decree] was signed [by the king], he entered his house (now in his roof chamber he had windows open toward Jerusalem); and he continued kneeling on his knees three times a day, praying and giving thanks before his God, as he had been doing previously. (Daniel 6:10)

They catch him in this public prayer, arrest him, and throw him in the lion’s den, but the lions leave him alone. We see here a very passive approach: “God will protect me. I will continue to demonstrate my faith, but God will protect me. He will not require me to close my windows to do my prayers in secret, to do my prayers in private.” This is an evidence of passive faith.

Then there is Samuel, whom God instructed to go and anoint David to be the new king of Israel. Samuel replied:

“How can I go? When Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ You shall invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for Me the one whom I designate to you.” (1 Samuel 16:2-3)

Here is God, telling Samuel to lie.

What is it that we should wait quietly for? What is it that we should be active about? Is faith a call to action? Or is it a call to silence? Is it a call for waiting? And how do we know which of these aspects of faith we should live if we want to live a life of faith?

Donald: I don’t know that anybody, independent of their religious affiliation, would not want God’s direction in their life. If you truly knew that God wanted you to proceed in a particular way, it would take a lot (at least for me) to say, “No, I’m going to go my own way.” Probably often we take my plan and try to make it our plan. The challenge, it seems to me, is that we really don’t know what God’s direction is in our life. We can almost see it much more clearly in the rearview mirror than we can as we’re moving through the steps and direction in our lives. But in the rear view mirror, we go, “Well, this is where God played a role, and I’m grateful for this and I’m grateful for that.”

I would concur that we’re using the word faith in so many different ways that it’s difficult for us to have a conversation that we’re all going to feel good about, knowing that I’m thinking about faith in terms of my spirituality, I’m thinking about faith in terms of my direction and God in my life. I’m thinking about the God that I serve. My faith is my culture, and so we export both. So what’s God’s direction for my life? Do you all feel like you clearly know that? Or can you think about that from the idea of “Okay, in the last 10 years, this is where God has had a hand in my life”? Going forward, we ask for God’s will to be done, but do we really know what God’s will is for our lives?

David: It’s interesting that Moses had God’s direction in his life while the rest of the Israelites evidently did not. They only had Moses to guide them. They had faith in Moses, and Moses had faith in God.

Don: Is that passing on the faith?

David: I’m not sure that it is. Unless the Israelites felt and heard God inside them as Moses did, then they were mere automatons. I don’t think that’s genuine faith.

Jeff: Yes, but Moses wrote the book, so it’s the author describing his own position. He’s not taking what the other people around him think.

Donald: There are people we allow to be influential in our lives, for a variety of reasons. But if we come to learn that they’ve done something inappropriate in the past, then we lose our faith in them. Rather than having faith in God, I have faith in my church, which represents God.

Kiran: After I became a Christian I wanted to come to the United States to do my PhD, but 9/11 intervened. It pretty much shut down the foreign student program. It was generally thought that you had to be able to show a net worth of about $80,000 unless you could get a scholarship or a teaching or research assistantship. A guy in our village offered to inflate the official value of our home, for a fee, so I could show sufficient net worth, but I happened to read this:

“A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven.” (John 3:27)

The passage was part of a devotional that also said some people step away from God in order to gain some temporary benefit, thinking that once they secure the benefit they can go back to God and ask for forgiveness. But, the devotional pointed out, it is God who gives you everything, so just trust in him. It felt like someone was talking to me personally, directly. I had no evidence that God would provide me with a scholarship. I had no evidence that someone would come and rescue me. But the guy tempting me with his offer to inflate my home value cited plenty of evidence to show that his ruses had worked for other students. So, in prayer, I said that even if it meant foregoing the opportunity to go to America and do the PhD, I would not go along with that guy. A few weeks later, I received a $39,999 scholarship!

I was passive in not accepting help from the guy, but I was active in resisting my desire to accept it. It was very clear to me that God led me at that time. I made a decision that, come what may, I was not going down that guy’s path. That was an active decision for me, but the passive one was to let God decide what to do with me.

Ahmed: I want to thank you for telling us this, because for me it reveals the core of what I believe is faith. We are challenged every day, and this is the whole purpose of life. It is about things and decisions that we have to make. We always should try to make the right decision, even if the odds suggest we should decide otherwise. Doing the right thing from your faith’s perspective is the core of faith, even when everything around seems to shout “You shouldn’t do this” and presents other ways that look much easier. You have to think again, because it’s not about the goal that you’re trying to reach: It’s about the journey and about the way that you achieve these goals.

A professor once gave me this very nice explanation of life: “You’re going through life and thinking about goals that you want to achieve. It’s like climbing a mountain. You think your journey is over when you reach the summit and see the beautiful panorama, but in it you see another mountain, another summit you want to climb.” He said it’s not about reaching the summit, it’s about the journey and the way that you get there.

For me, faith can be passed. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have been passed on to different parts of the world. So you can pass faith, or at least you can try, because at the end of the day, whatever means you employ and whatever efforts you make, it’s something very personal. Whether someone will embrace what you are trying to convey is something else, but you can pass it on, and it has happened.

My personal belief is that we should always be active. What struck me in the scriptural passages quoted today (which are very similar to the stories in the Qur’an) is that the mother of Moses decided to put him in harm’s way in the Nile. Yes, she did everything she could to protect Moses and keep him safe, but it was a moment of faith inspired by God. And when Moses reached the Red Sea and his people were afraid Pharaoh’s army would catch them, he had faith. He knew that he was doing the right thing. And then the miracle happened and they were able to cross the sea and Pharaoh and his army drowned. So miracles happen to those who do the right thing and follow their faith.

Robin: That is passive faith. It is where we start. The active phase is the next step. In the stories of the Old Testament, God often has people go into battle and so on. I wonder if human beings then need to be reined back in? They start thinking that since they’ve won battles they give themselves the credit. And then God says: “Be still and see the salvation of the Lord” to remind them. Samson got pretty conceited and stopped relying on God, or maybe stopped even recognizing that it was God who was moving, even though he had an action that he was to do.

David: We’ve heard several testimonies, in this class, of successful or apparently successful faith in a good outcome. But I’d like to point out that for every Daniel who walks from a lion’s den without a scratch, and for every Hebrew worthy who walks alive out of a fiery furnace, there are a thousand Jobs who do not reach a summit in life but rather fall into the depths of a crevice, where they suffer.

But all of them kept their faith. It wasn’t the summit or the crevice that mattered to them; as Ahmed said, it was the journey that mattered. Where they ended up in this life was irrelevant to them. But like Job’s friends, we don’t want to accept a bad outcome in life because it damages our faith. So I have to question whether our faith is misplaced, whether we’re placing faith not in God but in God’s being good to us and helping us out when we need it. Maybe God doesn’t want that kind of faith at all.

Ahmed: In the Qur’an (and perhaps it’s told in the Bible also) Moses was instructed to meet a man who would know things about the future that Moses did not know. So Moses met the man three times, during which the man did seemingly cruel things to people who didn’t deserve it. Eventually Moses got furious, whereupon the man said: “You cannot follow me anymore. But I will reveal to you why I did these things.” It turned out that the things that seemed cruel and negative had a purpose that was, in the end, very positive.

This is one of the issues that really reveals our faith when we’re facing very difficult times; reveals what our reaction will be and how we will retain our faith, and shows that whatever happens to us was meant to happen and there is always a reason behind it. You can always try to see the positive side and how it can help you. And if every one of us would look back at our lives we will remember times when we felt sad or annoyed because of things we believed to be negative, but which, after time passes, we discover were not bad, and in fact were in our interest.

Jeff: It strikes me that in hindsight—and it’s almost universal—we’re able to shape our own narrative. We look at what’s happened, whether it be bad or good, and then ascribe faith or a role for faith within that. I’m wondering whether faith really is the acknowledgement of our position within the universe, and that we really have no control and not even a role. So whether it’s active or passive, we’re able to look back, or to try to look back, and place ourselves within our own narrative and within the concept of God’s will (it was God’s will that this bad thing happened, therefore, something else happened). As opposed to saying: “My faith is that God is,” that I don’t have control. My position within this is human and I just have to believe that outside of that, it’s okay.

Jay: I would echo those thoughts and add that I want faith to be in that God is in control, that in the end I really can do little to change the course of the river. But the God who’s in control is a God of goodness, love and grace, and that’s the God I want in control, and that is what faith is. The problem is the scriptural passage that says your faith can move mountains. This is the monkey wrench in the whole business. It’s really easy to have faith when in your own narrative things are going well. Even when they’re a little rocky, we’re still willing to say a loving God is in control and he will make sure that all turns out well in the end.

But we throw in the monkey wrench that if we had the faith of a mustard seed—that is, barely any faith at all—we could move mountains. Not God will move mountains for us, not God will make it work out for us. We’ve taken that verse and used it as a leverage point to say, “Hey, maybe I am in control of something here, maybe what I do can move a mountain, can make a difference.”

Jeff: That is certainly our way of viewing it and it’s what we try to apply in everything we do. It’s that proscriptive “Hey, I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna step out in faith.” But the interesting thing about that is, if you look back on it, if you could step out in faith, and then the road goes maybe a different way than you wanted or were expecting, and then looking back, we find it very easy to say, “Oh, well, that was God saying to do this, and therefore look, this is the path he wanted, so we were stepping out in faith, and it worked out the way it was supposed to.”

Well, if its all going to work out the way it’s supposed to, then I’m back to that concept of faith in my insignificance within the universe, essentially. We use that example of Moses and his mother, but that’s the way it worked out. If God wanted Moses to lead the children out of Israel, I’m sure they could have worked it out in any way. I don’t know that it had to go down the road painted in scripture. I think it was his mother scrambling, trying to figure out, “Hey, this is kind of a great idea, or this is my only idea—let me do it.” And it plays out okay.

Kiran: In both the example of Moses’ mother and the testimony that I gave, it was actually a moment of defeat. In my case, I accepted the idea that I’m not able to do anything, so I’m going to accept defeat. But I’m not going to do this other thing, following the crooked path to get whatever I want. In the case of Moses’ mother, she did everything she could do for three months to hide the baby. And then she had no other way to save it. The only thing she thought was “If I put the baby in here, the Nile will take him out of Egypt and someone will rescue him.” But she accepted the defeat that she can’t save the kid. She might not be the only one that would have sent the kid. Why did she get the idea to put all that stuff to make it waterproof? Other people might have done it too.

So I guess faith is not like some muscle that you exercise to make God do whatever you want to do. It’s just accepting the fact that “I’m human, I have no control over this, but I choose not to go through a path that God in his scriptures tells us not to go, whether I get any benefit or not.” I think that’s what Job did. He knew the path of the Lord, and even though everything in his life was going crazy, and even though his friends were telling him to take the other path, he didn’t. Whether the outcome is positive or negative is up to God, but we have to accept our inability to change it and be okay with whatever God does.

Jay: So the question is, in these in these verses of “by faith,” what does that mean? What does “by faith” mean? On the surface it feels as if the person saying it is using it like a lever: ”By this faith that I exercise, this happens.” It seems like a quid pro quo: “If I could use this muscle enough, if I had just enough muscle, then by faith I could make this happen.” Potentially, “by faith” might mean something different—something along the lines of “’By faith’ is my acknowledgment of ‘I have zero control over this situation’, these things happen.” Is that what faith is?

Donald: Our conversation this morning has focused on a personal example of faith. But when you take a faith community, when you broaden this out and say, “Okay, this is a faith group, a church, a grouping,” then things get to be really complicated. We all know that if we read in the news that some community had declared: ”God told us to get together early in this COVID business, we didn’t need to wear masks, God will protect us,” we would all think they’re stepping out way too much faith, they’re not using good logic.

It’s hard enough to get your head around this when it’s personal. But when you put it in a group, and then try to let that group manage this thing, and say, “This is the way we should move forward,” it doesn’t take many people—two or three—and all of a sudden you’ve got a disagreement as to what God has told us.

David: That’s because you’re putting faith on a continuum. I maintain that it’s binary. It seems to me we are barking up the wrong tree entirely in our definition of faith. Our faith rests in God’s intervention in our worldly lives, but I don’t think that’s what God is about. God is about intervention in our spiritual life, in something that will get us eventually to the real Promised Land, which is the life promised after death.

Ahmed: There are things that are beyond our control, that we are, we cannot choose. You cannot choose where you were born, or your color, or your gender. But there are decisions in life that are put in front of you to test your faith, to test what you will do. Will you do the right thing? Or will you do the other thing? There are some things that you can try to change—that always you have a choice to make. This is the whole idea of this life.

My own personal belief is that we are not entitled to a good outcome every time. We just have to do the right thing. I sometimes ask my students: What’s the value of your success if it comes at the expense of cheating, at the expense of someone trying to help you, getting favors? Do you really feel that you have succeeded, compared to someone who really struggled hard, did everything he could, and felt good about himself even if he was not able to succeed?

The idea that human beings are always entitled to a good outcome just because we have faith is wrong. Sometimes a bad outcome is a test of your faith. Cancer is something you cannot control. It can mean the end of your mortal life, but how you handle it matters more than that. That’s the whole idea.

Jeff: Yet we have Christ Himself, telling the woman “Your faith has made you well.”

Ahmed: Sometimes having a good outcome is also a test of your faith. How will you respond?

David: I maintain that Jesus meant her faith made her well spiritually.

Jeff: Well, that’s certainly not the picture the Bible writer represents.

Anonymous: “God will provide” is the basis of faith. As long as we’re following the laws of God and doing right, Doing right and believing in God’s providence may for a great faith. We have to believe that he will provide and that we have to do right. Other than that, there is no “right” or “true” faith. I used to think there was a downside to every test of faith, a trial. So when we decide to walk on in faith, there’s always hindrances, trials. And here comes the active faith, whether you want to stick to the right, or you go around it like Kiran, who couldn’t use that man’s crooked ways. The act of faith is your decision to follow God and believe with all your heart that he will provide. Or else go your own way.

As Ahmed said, faith is a personal, not communal, property. Whether I can pass it on to next generations or not, I believe that how I live my life is the preaching, is the passing, is the teaching of other people who are watching and seeing and living with me and coming in contact with me. How you live demonstrates whether you have faith or not. We teach by our example, without saying a word. That’s why I think twice before I go out and preach or proselytize. Anyway, I don’t see a good way of telling people about the rules, about the laws, about right and wrong, about what the Bible says. Just live it, live it out. That’s how you pass your faith to other generations.

Reinhard: Maybe we cannot change the outcome but God can. We see examples such as when Nineveh was about to be destroyed, the king humbled himself, and when people grow humble God changes the outcome for them. It doesn’t mean it’s always going to be like that, but our future depends on our faith in God and walking closely with him. I think that’s important because our faith is very dynamic, It depends on the environment, on how we manage our life, and on how we find God in everyday life, I think it’s important that we walk with God no matter what religion we come from.

Don: Next week I want to talk about faith and doubt. We see, in the early stages of Moses, tremendous doubt about his ability and about what God will lead him to say about faith and doubt.

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