Faith: Continuing the Definition

What is faith? Where does it come from? What does it do? Can it be quantified—is there great faith and little faith? How much faith do you need for it to be effective? What is “effective” faith anyway? Is faith qualifiable as good, bad, ineffective, useful, etc.? Is your faith the same as my faith? Is faith individual or communal? Simple or complex? Is faith a commodity? A destination or a journey? Are there stages of faith? Does faith have an opportunity to grow? If so, how does it grow? Who’s in charge of it?… You? God? The Holy Spirit? What’s the opposite of faith? How does it relate to doubt? To belief? To religion? To science?

Near the end of the Democratic National Convention last week a lot was said about Joe Biden’s faith and all the loss he’s suffered in life, including his wife and a very young daughter in an auto accident years ago, and recently his son Beau to brain cancer. It was told over and over how his faith carried him through. What does that mean? What should you expect from your faith in troubled times?

A relative told me he doesn’t wear a face mask in the COVID pandemic because: “I have faith in God. God will protect me,” he said. He may have been thinking of Ephesians 6:16: “…in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.”

It seems ironic that if we have an effective shield of faith, we shouldn’t need faith to get us through tough times, because we won’t have any tough times. We have in our mind the proportionality of our faith with the distress of our lives. If we have enough faith in God, God will be faithful to us. If we’re having trouble in our lives, we should reassess our standing with God. Maybe we don’t have the right standing with God.

Some of you have heard my story concerning Elizabeth, a patient who came to me with pancreatic cancer. She was only in her early 30s and her cancer was advanced. She underwent chemotherapy and had what appeared to be a dramatic improvement in her condition—so much so that we decided to do a pancreatic resection. To her surprise, and even to mine, there was a complete pathologic response. What that means is that there were no cancer cells found in the specimen after we removed it. The chemotherapy completely melted the cancer away.

Elizabeth was a very devout evangelical. She went to a special healing service and had been prayed for, had been slain in the spirit and had undergone revival and healing. It was considered a demonstration of her faith and she made a beautiful testimony to the faithfulness of God to her and her healing. SHe recorded her testimony on tape and gave a copy to me on one of her hospital visits. She was delighted and deeply, deeply grateful to God for His healing.

Her health lasted for about 15 months. She developed a recurrence. I can’t tell you the the amount of distress this caused her personally, and also her community of faith, which linked her healing with her relationship to God. To them, the recurrence of her tumor was a demonstration that she had been unfaithful to God. They demanded that she repent and confess what was keeping her from being completely healed. But she couldn’t think of anything. She was stressed beyond belief, and died after six weeks, broken in spirit, wondering what had happened to her shield of faith.

Hebrews 11, which we read last week, summarizes a number of case studies, illustrations, and stories about faith contained in the Old Testament. It provides a ready-made curriculum for studying the various elements of faith. Two of the stories are about Abel and Enoch, respectively. They illustrate something about faith which we will discuss.

It was faith that made Abel offer to God a better sacrifice than Cain’s. Through his faith he won God’s approval as a righteous man, because God himself approved of his gifts. By means of his faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.  It was faith that kept Enoch from dying. Instead, he was taken up to God, and nobody could find him, because God had taken him up. The scripture says that before Enoch was taken up, he had pleased God. No one can please God without faith, for whoever comes to God must have faith that God exists and rewards those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:4-6)

Here we have two illustrations of faith. Abel’s offering to God is an offering of a lamb. Abel had nothing to do with the creation of this lamb, the birth of this lamb, or, in any way, the wellbeing of the lamb. This was all taken care of by the natural creative power of God. Cain’s offering on the other hand was something he himself planted and cultivated and tilled and fertilized, and brought to God as the fruit of his labor. The contrast of the two sacrifices could not be more clear: What pleased God was that Abel brought something with which he had no will to make. Cain’s offering, on the other hand, was something made by his hand.

In Enoch we see a completely different story. Because Enoch pleased God, God did not allow him to die. So we see two men of faith. We see Abel’s faith, which cost him his life, because Cain became so angry, and he died. Enoch’s faith gave him eternal life. On the one hand, faith caused death, and on the other hand, faith caused life. You might argue that, by his faith, Cain still speaks even though he is dead. That’s what the scripture says. If you take these two stories and put them together, one of death and one of life, both as a result of faith, both as a result of pleasing God, what does the teach us about faith?

Abel won God’s approval with the acknowledgement that he had nothing to offer God. His offering was in fact supplied by God Himself. This is a concept of a different kind of faith. Enoch was taken up after pleasing God by his faith. They are different outcomes, with one common element: It was by their faith that they pleased God, and won God’s approval.

What does it mean to please God with your faith? And how does faith make it possible to please God? Where was the shield of faith for Abel? Why didn’t God protect Abel from death, from Cain? It was his faith that resulted in his death. In what way does Abel’s faith still give him a voice, even though he’s dead? What do these two stories teach us about faith? What does it mean to please God by faith?

There are dozens of references in the scriptures to pleasing God, which is an interesting concept. Here is just one of them:

 For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light. (Colossians 1:9-12)

How does your faith enable you to please God? How is it that your faith can make you pleasing to God? What are your thoughts today about faith, about faithfulness, and about the concept of pleasing God and what your faith should do for you and your relationship with God?

Clinton: I usually try to start at first principles. God is unchanging and there can be no increment to his virtue. He has it all. God is a constant. Our pleasing God has to do not with our bodies, not with the things we do, but more so with the way we think. It’s attitude. We please God, I believe, by the attitude that we have towards God and towards people. So, to say that Enoch got a better reward, or to suggest or imply that because he got his life, he got a better reward than others, I’m not too sure speaks to God. Because God is constant.

That God rewards one because he has faith and the other one because he has faith but their rewards are different, to me doesn’t make a whole lot of sense about God. So it has to be attitude and I think in the case of Cain and Abel, it was an attitudinal response. Cain’s attitude and Abel’s attitude were different. Cain’s, Abel’s, and Enoch’s attitude were the same. Their personalities may be different, but I would equate their attitudes.

What God does to each of them is God’s business. He could have rewarded Abel with life, too. But it is God’s province. I think we have to come to the conclusion that we don’t understand what God does. And to try to say or to suggest that Abel got a lesser reward than Enoch, I think can get us into questioning who God is, which I am scared to do.

Beverley: This morning I was doing a devotional based on John 11—the story of Martha and Mary and Lazarus’ death. Jesus had been told that Lazarus was sick and he took two days to get there. He actually waited until Lazarus had died. This is what the person wrote:

“God will always care for us, even when what is happening, what is hurting us in his plan, even when he knows we are hurting. God will always care for us, even when what is hurting us is in his plan, even when he knows we are hurting. But he will be with us in that hurting, leading us to the new life he has for us beyond it. So in other words, a nice precis of that is: God promises to be with us even though he allows hurting, because the hurting is in his plan for us. He promises us that he’ll be with us. He didn’t promise us that we won’t hurt. But he has promised that he will be with us in hurting, and through the hurting, he will lead us where he wants us to be.”

I copied that and pasted it in a place where I keep little sayings. Because there are times when things happen and in our human nature we ask God: Why, why? And I think the same thing happened to Job. He asked Why? He never ever got an answer. But God was with him in the hurting. And so for some of us, the plan may be that we will die. For others it may be something else. A reward after the hurting or a return of prosperity or whatever. He chooses the plan for us, and we just have to be willing to submit, and to believe that through it all, he’s there.

David: I said last week that Hebrews 11 is very, very dangerous. The story of Enoch alone was enough to give Elizabeth’s congregation all the ammunition they needed to shoot her down, which they did. So I just cannot believe that any reward that is earthly in nature is a promise from God. I don’t believe God makes promises about earthly life.

The Hebrew Worthies had a shield of faith, but it was not a shield against earthly woes. What happened to them on Earth was totally irrelevant to them. Now that was faith. Someone who won’t wear a mask on the basis of faith might be right! Our wearing of masks is indeed a sign of a lack of faith in God. Faith does not at all mean that God will protect us from dying. Whatever happens to us, the Hebrew Worthies said, is something that God intended and we will continue to believe in that God. That, to me, is faith.

Michael: I see Elizabeth’s case a little differently. What her congregation did seems to me similar to Job’s friends who were telling him that he was a sinner, and that’s why he incurred God’s wrath. In the end, they really were executing what they thought was God’s judgment, but as Job’s story shows, they were completely deluded. God reprimanded them.

Beverley: I don’t think faith gives us license to be reckless. Faith is depending that God will be with us and do for us what’s in our best interest. But he’s also given us a brain. And it’s definitely not intended for just having something to put a hat on. We are expected to use all the gifts he has given us. For that matter, I should be able to just jump off the roof of a house and believe that God will protect me. That’s reckless and presumptive. And that’s one of the temptations that Jesus had.

So faith is an attitude of dependence on God and trust that whatever the circumstances, he is working everything out for our good and we should trust in him anyhow, whether it looks bad, as it did for Job, or it looks good. It’s not how you or I see it. It’s the way that he has chosen to lead you, and me, and we must trust him anyhow.

Donald: So it seems there are several aspects to faith, including the idea of a faith meter to be able to measure one’s faith. Whether we think our faith is strong or weak at any particular moment, it’s not necessarily the case that once it’s strong it remains strong. There are things that happen in our life that cause it to fluctuate, to wax and wane. If your faith is strong, that’s a relationship between you and God that has little to do, in my estimation, with how my life has worked out. That’s a different topic. So that means if my faith is strong, then my life should work out and if my faith is weak, my life is in pieces. I’m not sure that there’s a correlation there.

But there is something to be said for a foxhole experience—your faith goes up when your capacity of responding is weak, and you reach out. It’s unfortunate, because it seems to me that the relationship to God is really what we should be talking about, and not how it then in turn affects our lives, how it unfolds in our own personal lives. When we start correlating those two, I think we can get into a fair amount of trouble. And that’s what happened to this dear soul who died of cancer. There was a direct correlation between her capacity of living her life completely in trusting God and not.

There’s a part of us that feels like “I’m close to God now” or “I’m seeking God because I’m a little bit lost in this journey.” It doesn’t mean that you’ve disconnected—it just means that it’s not what it once was. How can that be built? Am I going to find myself separated from God because my meter happened to be a little bit low at the point in which I left this earth, or is it just a matter of trusting, believing in, and accepting God?

Faith goes beyond that. How strong that is! A minimal faith can be sufficient, as was evidenced on the cross, it seems to me. It wasn’t a life well lived by the person adjacent to Christ. So I think that fits into this. We’re putting lots of pieces together with this faith conversation, and I think we need to be careful,

Clinton: How do we relate the concept of faith, the concept of certainty, and the concept of doubt? As I look at these three elements, I see faith as (I can’t find a better word, but let’s call it) God-centric. I see certainty and doubt as human-centric, so we can’t put them on the same scale. That’s why God said your faith could be as small as a mustard seed and still get you over the mountain. So faith is God-centric. It is our response to God.

Doubt and certainty are responses to God but I can have faith in God and yet be uncertain about God. Because our faith says God has the ultimate answer. My uncertainty says: I don’t know which answer he will take for me. My doubt says: I am human and not sure how this thing will turn out. I think certainty and doubt go on that scale. I think doubt takes me closer to faith. It’s not actually accepting that the ultimate outcome is God’s doing, which takes me back to the issue of faith.

I think we shouldn’t confuse doubt and certainty or uncertainty as God-centric. Only faith is God-centric. And so, as human beings, we function in this sphere of doubt and uncertainty and certainty and so forth. In the sphere of God, in our relationship with God, faith is an element that is God’s definition. He will heal you when you have little faith. He will heal you when you have a lot of faith. Because it is his faith in himself that heals us.

Beverley: Think about the difference between joy and happiness while one is in trouble. Faith does not guarantee happiness. It does not guarantee wellness. It doesn’t guarantee certainty. It doesn’t guarantee much of anything. It guarantees one thing: That God is, is able, can, and will, depending on his plan. And what he does is right and best and it’s hard for us to divest ourselves of our desires and will for ourselves and for our loved ones.

But we reach the point in a relationship with him where we just let go of our own desires and our wishes. And we say, Lord, Your will be done and find peace there. It doesn’t mean that the circumstance is going to get better but we can find peace and joy—joy, not happiness—in the circumstance because we place our will in God, we trust in him.

Dewan: Why should I have faith in God? Because he is a creator or because he is a savior?

Clinton: I’d say because he’s God.

Beverley: He’s creator and savior. They are inseparable. We have faith in God who gives us salvation. I don’t think you really have faith for salvation. You have faith in God who dispenses salvation. It is faith in God that accomplishes, but it is not your faith in God to do something. It is your faith in God, I believe, that is in the prerogative of God to determine how it will turn out. So my faith in God doesn’t say I am going to be healed from my illness, or I will not be healed from a illness.

Michael: What’s the purpose of faith? What does it accomplish? I think that was the question.

Clinton: Faith in God is a condition for the way we live and interact with people and God. Faith is like a passport to God’s wealth of love, caring, gentleness, generosity, compassion. That is what our faith does. It allows God to lavish on us, because we are wholly dependent on him. We become part of his… I hate to say being… but we become part of God, in the sense that he now dispenses to us or gives us the abundance of himself through what we understand to be the Holy Spirit. So I don’t think we have faith for salvation or faith for healing. We have faith in God who lavishly dispenses as he pleases. It’s hard to understand; I never will understand it!

Dewan: There are so many gods on Earth. People worship so many idol gods. But I believe in Jesus Christ only for salvation. Because he is the savior. That’s why I believe in Jesus Christ for salvation.

Don: But who wants a faith that can’t serve as a shield?

Beverley: The shield of faith protects you in terms of how you are able to maneuver the circumstances in which you find yourself. You will find two people on their deathbeds and one is singing praises to God and the other one is bitter and miserable. One has faith in God—that is, believes that everything in their experience and life is determined by him, and he has them in his hand and will take care of them eternally in it. And the other person is just bitter and blaming and uncertain, and thinks that everything is terrible, no hope. So that’s what faith does. That’s the shield.

Donald: I think we’re going back to the concept that if my faith is strong, then God will shield or protect me. When you go on a trip, you may pray for God’s protection. I don’t know if that means God wouldn’t protect you if you didn’t pray, but I find comfort in knowing that I can go to God and ask him for protection. That probably changes me, but it doesn’t change the circumstance.

Beverley: That’s exactly it. It’s not how much faith. It’s not the quantity. I can’t quantify faith so I won’t even try. It’s how the shield impacts you. What it does for you. How you approach.

Donald: I find comfort in navigating life in the context of my faith. We haven’t talked about religion. Some people find great faith based upon their religion. And faith is embedded within that religion. So that’s another conversation that we probably need to have: What’s the relationship between faith and my religion? Because if if I disobey my religion, does that mean that I’ve disobeyed God? Or does that mean I’ve disobeyed my religion?

Beverley: What is your religion?

Donald: I see religion is an organized group of common beliefs.

Clinton: That’s community.

Beverley: That is just community. So if I disagree with my community, it has nothing to do with my relationship with God.

Donald: There are multiple communities of faith. It’s interesting that our language seems to have evolved over the last 10 years or so, At Andrews, we now say it is a faith based institution. For decades, we described it as a Seventh Day Adventist institution and I think we still would, but I think we have changed the language for some reason. I’m not absolutely sure what that reason is. I know enrollment could be a reason why you would soften who can attend, whether it’s Seventh Day Adventist or faith-based people. Okay, if you go to Andrews, you follow these behavioral patterns based upon being a Seventh Day Adventist. I’m not sure that drinking a beer is going to make it or break it with your relationship with Christ.

Beverley: If you join a club, you follow the rules.

Donald: Religion is just a club?

Beverley: For some people, that’s exactly what it is. I’d like to think that I am a member of the Seventh Day Adventist church because it is a group, a community that mostly believes similarly to me. And I say “mostly” because I know for a fact that not everybody believes the same way I do.

Rheinhard: Our faith is the acceptance that we are as Christians. That’s the essential part of our spiritual life. And of course we translate it into our daily activities. I think we determine our steps, our life, our agenda in everyday activities, based on our faith. Maybe we have control about how strong our faith is. Maybe there’s a barometer of faith to measure our conviction, our relationship with God as determined by how strong our faith is.

In our daily activities in our life here on earth we are always looking for something. We have goals but there are times we miss them. That doesn’t mean God has no plan for us. But most of the time, from my life experience I would say when we put our goals in God’s hands, we accomplish some of them. Maybe not all. There are also punishments that we suffer if we leave God. We didn’t use God as our soul for our goal. We have some internal control, but some is external. If we have a strong relationship with God like the psalmist in Psalm 23, although we walk in the shadow of the valley of death we will fear no evil because God is with us.

So, there are times that faith is the asset which is going to determine our life. There are things we will try to control and things we cannot control. Faith is the determining factor. At the same time faith is the goal that our relationship with God will someday, somehow lead us to the kingdom of heaven. I think that’s the faith we need to have.

Don: Do you think faith is a commodity? Is it something that we need more of?

Kiran: I think of faith as a relationship.

Adaure: In a relationship, faith would be something that grows as well.

Kiran: A little child, say a 5-year-old, does not know a lot of rules and customs of his little society. His parents may tolerate an infraction once but the second time they will say: “No. You can’t do that.” The complexity of this world is so difficult. But the 5-year old tries to figure out the mind of his parents. And as their relationship continues, the child learns and grows to be a good, responsible citizen. So the child can’t use his parents’ love as a weapon or as a commodity to get what he wants, though he will try sometimes.

The ideal relationship is to be dependent on God. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get everything you want, but one thing that for sure it guarantees is that in the context of eternity you will be okay. That doesn’t mean you’re not going to go through suffering, but in the context of eternity, God will take care of you. It’s a journey.

Dewan: God said: “Don’t forget me. Remember me.” So we remember God. That’s why we are keeping the Sabbath. Remember, he is the creator, but most other denominations believe in Jesus Christ because He is the Savior. So we believe in both Jesus Christ, our Savior and God is creator. That’s why we are keeping Sabbath. That’s why we are called Adventist.

Clinton: I think faith has to do with attitude. It has to do with perspective. It has to do with a worldview, it has to do with a relationship, and all of those qualities and attributes and facility or characteristics are dispensed by God. And so when we read: “Your faith has made you whole” or “You are healed by your faith” I think what it is saying is that you have narrowed down your perspective, you have narrowed down your relationship, you have narrowed down your attitude, and you’ve narrowed down your worldview, and God is superimposed over all of this. He’s like the totality of all of those things wrapped up.

We’ll never understand the details. That’s why we’re human beings. Hopefully when we get somewhere else we will understand how it works. But I think if we can recognize it is our attitude, the way we think, the way we see God and the way God allows us to see people, I think that is the bedrock of faith.

And so whatever happens, whoever does, makes no difference in the total, complete sense. Yes, I want to love people. I want people to love me. Yes, I want people to be generous to me. I want to be generous to them. I want to be kind, empathetic, but all of these things are pale in so far as it is God who dispenses all of this by my attitude towards him.

Beverley: The Bible teaches us, as I understand it anyway, that there is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It’s one God, three manifestations. So the triune God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—are all involved in creation and salvation. And, finally, in redemption. One God.

David: I’m going to be the voice of dissent. I cannot agree with with this whole notion of faith as being a journey or as a relationship that takes time to develop. The people in the Beatitudes were not blessed for their faith. They were blessed for their suffering. Faith is not a journey, there is no meter of faith. There is belief in God or unbelief in God. There is no in-between.

The Hebrew Worthies had it. Faith has nothing to do with our lives on Earth, except insofar as it may give us spiritual strength to endure whatever the world throws at us, which is how the people in the Beatitudes were blessed. But that’s it. There is no room for doubt in this version of faith, It’s binary. You either have faith or you don’t have faith. There is no journey to it. It’s there or it isn’t. To me, the Lord’s Prayer is important, fundamentally, simply as a statement of belief in God.

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