Faith In Action, In Character, In Me, or In God?

We’ve been looking at stories of faith in the Bible characters mentioned in Hebrews 11. We’ve been seeking a working definition of faith. Central to our discussion has been the question of the relationship between the senses and faith. It has been proposed that faith can only operate when the senses are inactive—that if something is verifiable by the senses, then it is not faith, that faith is trust in God when circumstances are not verifiable.

Verifiable events can be from God (think Gideon, for instance) but they are not faith, they are something else. Call it belief, call it evidence, call it confirmation. But verifiable events cannot be called faith. (These are proposals for discussion, not categorical statements.)

So verifiable events can be from God but they are not faith. They are not, as Hebrews 1:1 says, evidence of things not seen. Verifiable sensory events are evidence of things seen. Evidence, according to the dictionary is an available body of facts or information that can verify a belief or a proposition and state whether it is valid or true.

Not seen, the definition of faith in Hebrews 1, appears to exclude the senses. Thus, it seems that there are two evidence levels: Evidence which is seen, which is verifiable belief; and evidence which is not seen, which we call faith. Can it be said that each of the faith characters we’ve talked about have an experience that is both evidence seen as well as an experience which is evidence not seen? That is, verifiable and unverifiable evidence?

Abraham has many sensory experiences. God shows him the stars, the sands of the sea, he promises him an heir. The event with Isaac on the mountain is an entirely sensory experience. But yet he looks for a better city, whose builder and maker is God—evidence unseen. Moses has innumerable sensory experiences: The burning bush, the Red Sea experiences, water from the rock, manna in the desert…. All of these are sensory experiences, all of this is evidence for his belief. But what he could not see was the Promised Land: That, he had to see by faith. Gideon has a series of accents of sensory experiences, but only sees a victory over the Midianites by faith.

Faith not seen is not verifiable. That is, it’s not verifiable to ourselves; and faith not seen is not verifiable in others. This means that we cannot pass judgment on the faith of others. Maybe there may be verifiable events. Belief with facts could be called faith with a little “f” whereas faith that’s not seen could be called faith with a capital “F.”

Paul said:

Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we also have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we celebrate in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also celebrate in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)

There is apparently a faith that justifies and a faith that introduces us to grace. To justify is to prove or to show something is right, or is reasonable. Justification is a sensory experience. It’s verifiable. It is, I believe, evidence seen. But faith that introduces us to grace is unseen evidence. Grace, as we’ve said before, is like oxygen, it is everywhere. It is abundant, it is invisible, it is vital to life, it is free. There’s enough for everyone. Did I mention that it’s not seen?

But there seems to be another aspect of faith that comes from these stories as well. Faith with either a capital F or faith with a small f (if such a thing exists) requires it to be seen. It is actionable faith. It is something to say that faith requires some kind of action. Faith is not just something to hold on to. It is something that needs to be deployed to be faith in a true sense. Abraham sets out for an unknown land, Moses sets out from Egypt to the Promised Land. Jacob begins the trip back home. Noah builds an Ark Gideon fights the battle. Rahab hangs out the scarlet rope. These are all evidences of actionable faith.

The other thing that we see about these stories of faith is that faith seems unrelated to character, and this may be one of the most troubling aspects of faith. We’ve always assumed that faith should somehow refine our character. Men and women of faith ought to demonstrate faithfulness in their lives. Abraham is a pretty good guy, but he lies about his wife not once, but twice. He doesn’t trust God’s promises of a son. He has a weird experience with sacrificing his son on Mount Mariah. Overall, though, you’d have to say Abraham is not a bad guy.

Moses is a murderer. He doubts God. He demands evidence, relies on his brother,… is so flawed that God’s anger (it says in Genesis) is kindled against him. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want God’s anger kindled against me. Gideon pesters God for evidence of all the people in the faith chapter. He’s the most doubting of all. Rahab is a liar, a self serving bargainer, and a prostitute. But she is also a woman of faith.

What is the relationship between faith and character? Is faith also defined in a lifetime? Or is faith defined in a moment? Some of the remaining characters that we’ve not yet studied (but we will) are on the list: Barak and Samson, David, Samuel, Japheth…. These are people who are seriously character-flawed, yet they have a defining moment in their lives and are considered people of faith.

Finally (for today, at least): Is faith more about God, or is faith more about us? We’ve always looked at faith as something that has to do with “me.” It’s “my” faith. It’s my strong faith. It’s my weak faith. It’s my growing faith. It’s my evolving faith. Should my faith say something more about me, or should it say something more about God? And if it should say more about God, how and why and what does my faith say about God?

So we’re talking about faith with a capital F. We’re talking about faith with a small f. We’re talking about evidence seen—faith which demands verification. We’re talking about evidence not seen—faith that trusts God when we can’t see our way through to the facts. We’re talking about faith that justifies, a sensory type of faith. We’re talking about faith which introduces us to grace. We’re talking about faith and character. Does faith require refinement of character? Or can faith be allowed to flourish in a flawed character? We’re talking about faith of a lifetime. We’re talking about faith of a moment; faith that says something about me or faith that says something about God. Here in our lengthy study of faith, we’re pausing to look at some of the concepts that we’ve been wrestling with and developing.

David: It seems to me that the faith Rahab exhibits is not evidenced by her hanging of a scarlet rope out of the window. That is not the demonstration of her faith. To me, the reason why she’s in the hall of faith is simply, as it says in the passage, that she believed in God, the God that the Israelites were bringing to Jericho. It was this fundamental belief that gave her a place in the hall of faith. Yes, she trusted the spies who told her to hang the cord out the window, but that was just trust in two guys. That wasn’t faith in God.

I don’t think we can claim there is any kind of a physical sensory component to faith. The sensory component is purely spiritual.

Donald: I really believe there are some wonderful people out there who live and die believing in God but don’t really question it. Their personality does not drive them to seek. I just wonder where good comes from in different personalities.

David: I think that’s critical, because it begs the question: Faith in what? Faith in God as a concept or in God as a “being” who is male and looks like us, and so on. I think all God “wants” us to have is faith in Goodness. To me, “Goodness” is the definition of God. That’s what Jesus wanted, it seems to me from reading his words in scripture.

In the Beatitudes, there is no mention of faith whatsoever. People are not blessed because of their faith. They’re blessed for many other things, and one of them is being good to one another. If there’s any message that Jesus hammered home more than anything else, it is to be good to your neighbor. Just be good, or, in other words, be faithful to Goodness. That’s enough. I think that answers Donald’s question about people who don’t worship a deity, a “being”; who don’t worship, period, but believe in Goodness. They do good. They are good. It’s as simple as that, in my opinion.

Don: If it’s as simple as that, then what is the use of faith? What does it do?

Jay: I’ll stand up for faith. I think that the faith I’ve been talking about during the course of these last couple of weeks has the ability to bring to human beings comfort and peace. Notice that I don’t say it’s going to bring you prosperity, or good health, or an easy life; but what faith does have the power to do is to bring a sense of peace and comfort. If faith is an acknowledgment of “God is goodness, love, and grace, and is in control of everything,” that should bring to us a level of peace and understanding.

The Bible is replete with examples of people who don’t want to acknowledge that God is in control. They even include some of the people in the hall of faith. But in the end, I think there is some acknowledgement that God is God, God does as God does, God is in control, and if I have faith, God is a God of Goodness, love, grace, mercy, forgiveness and all of these things. Who better to be in control than that?

Jeff: I agree with Jason in that regard. Faith functions essentially as an endorsement of the concept that ultimately Good will win over Evil. It’s an endorsement of Goodness, essentially; that our own acknowledgment that God’s supreme nature of Goodness and love is all-controlling and ultimately out of our own hands. I agree too that there is something very rewarding and reassuring to us as humans, especially when you’re starting from the point that that we have no control.

Donald: We’re in harmony with the idea of a greater being of goodness and mercy and so on. But someone outside our group might say “You’re just putting this all together to have a sense of peace. You put a story together, and it’s good for you, but it’s not good for me.” (I’m just playing Devil’s advocate here.) “If it’s necessary for you to put this whole thing together, and it makes your life better, go for it. But it’s not for me.” My concern is that, if we are too broad with this brush, we may feel good about life because we’ve got it figured out for ourselves, but I’m not sure feeling good about life is the point.

Jay: I think the only brush we have is actually an extraordinarily broad brush, such that when we try to make a very fine point or very detailed brush stroke we inject self into the situation. In preparation for my sermon today the verse that I’m using to start the sermon is 1 Thessalonians 5:16, which says to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and in everything, give thanks. That word, “everything,” is troubling. It doesn’t say give thanks for the good things that are happening in your life. During this time of year, we make lists of all the good and wonderful things we should be thankful for. But the verse doesn’t say to just be thankful for the good things; it says to be thankful for everything, which must mean “Be thankful for the things that you perceive as bad.”

Kyra: When you think about faith, you have to ask the question: What is faith to you? The Bible says that not every outcome in our lives will be good, but it’s all for good (Romans). I think you have to have faith that when things go wrong, God is in control and that it is for the good, it is for your future.

David: I absolutely agree. And that takes us back to Matthew 5 and the Beatitudes and below it, where Jesus talks about turning the other cheek and being good to your enemies. Jesus points out very specifically that God shines his light on both the wicked and the good. God does not differentiate between things. And that is the “being” in which we’re expected to have faith, even though things may not be going our way.

Rahab’s spies may or may not have kept their word and protected her. It may have been just pure luck that they did so and that her family was spared. But the important point in the story was that she had faith. She believed in God. But that takes us back to the question of the nature of the “being” of God, and as Jason said, we get into trouble when we start trying to define that being. And yet, we’ve got massive tomes of Scripture—not just the Bible, but the Qur’an and others, all written and assembled precisely for that purpose: To hone in on the nature of God, to describe and define it.

And one of the problems is language. We talk about being “a being” which to me connotes possession of a shape; when really “being”–without the indefinite article—simply means “existence”—that there is an entity that has an existence. To me, that entity is goodness, and that’s enough. It needs no further definition. This is what I put my faith in.

Goodness shines upon both the wicked and the good. Goodness doesn’t care. Goodness will always be good, no matter what: It’s as simple as that. It doesn’t matter how bad you are, goodness will be good to you. It seems to me really easy to have faith if you treat the “being” as Goodness. But if we start to dig too deeply and assign human attributes to it, we get into trouble. Stories such as Rahab’s encourage us to dig deeper than I think is healthy in trying to understand God and understand faith.

Carolyn: Even when we do good, if we put it in the vernacular of saying “Thy will be done” and we are giving the praise to God, no matter where we stand, God’s will will be done.

Don: Let me make it fairly simple. We don’t want a faith that doesn’t have some kind of ability to control God. We want a faith that can move a mountain. We all have a lot of mountains we would like to move. Many things come up in life that we would like to move or remove. So if we can’t move a mountain, it means one of two things: Either we don’t have enough faith, or that’s not what faith is for. It’s very troubling. We would like faith to be something that we have control over and we’d like to control God through our faith. If only we would pray enough, be devoted enough, read enough, meditate enough….

There’s something that links an outcome to our exhibiting faith with what we’ve done, and that seems to me to be the crux of the problem. Can we have a faith that moves mountains? What does it mean to have a faith that moves mountains?

Jay: That verse about moving a mountain is still the problem, the sticking point. What we tend to miss in that verse is what Carolyn just raised: The will of God. We think that if we have enough faith, then we could move a mountain. But if faith is all about saying: “God, you’re in control of everything, you’re gonna do what you’re gonna want to do,” the only way that that mountain is going to be moved is because God wants to move that mountain, through us. So the idea of faith as the acknowledgement that God is in control and the desire to sacrifice our will, to abandon our will and try and let God’s will be done will move mountains.

But the caveat is “…if God wants the mountain to be moved.” But what we take away from that verse is that we can move a mountain because we want to move it and because we believe in God. But when we want to do something, that is already little or even no faith. When you want to do something, when you want to be in control, when you want something to happen, that is an example of lack of faith, of no faith.

Don: So we don’t have a mustard seed of faith.

Jay: Yes, because one of the most impossible things to ask of a fallen human being is to give up control, to completely surrender, to let someone else drive the car.

Adaure: I agree with that. But I also sometimes wonder if, when we think about moving a mountain, we think of it as more than it really is. I think of other common phrases that seem pretty extreme (not from the Bible, but just in general) like when someone says that they feel like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders. That’s a pretty extreme thing to say. And sometimes all it takes is to sit down and pray and feel a sense of relief, of peace and comfort in at least trying to give up control. And while as humans we can accomplish that completely, something as simple as falling asleep at night can feel like having moved a mountain sometimes.

Michael: It’s a very interesting idea if you take it seriously. But I think that’s not the premise. If it’s the will of God, it’s not our will. What we’re giving up is the idea that we have any control. And it’s very interesting if you take it seriously because in many ways we don’t have control of our lives, in many ways our actions are not the result of our free will. They are the result of events and experiences that have created us that are beyond our control. “Who am I? Where did I come from? Why do I think like that? Why do I behave like that?” Giving up the idea of my own free will is very hard and it does seem wrong if you really take it seriously and objectively. But it has been easier to live, believing that whatever happens happens.

I think the idea of faith as belief in God, which is what the majority of religious people would say, is a very simplistic understanding of faith and very exclusive and divisive. I don’t see how that would be a God thing to say, how God could agree that if I believe in Jesus Christ I’m much better off than my neighbor who doesn’t.

Donald: I don’t find it difficult to say: “Thy will be done.” It’s pretty arrogant to think that my will is going to be done anyway. But surrendering is the important thing; putting myself in the place where I belong instead of trying to stay in front of the line. But there are times in which we we ask God for protection. There are times in which we’re hoping that we can ask God, by acknowledging him, that his will be our will. That’s a very personal relationship with God.

But we all then take it one step further and go back to the analogy of the brush. Whether it be a small one or a wide one, once we stand up and walk to the denomination of our choice, we are narrowing what that brush would look like. And it’s good for us. But then when we evangelize, that’s a different thing. So goodness is a wonderful thing. Selfishness is a terrible thing. surrendering is a good thing.

Don: What good is faith for me? That’s really what I want to know. What good does it do? If it doesn’t influence God, if it’s just a matter of me giving up my own will, what good is faith?

Carolyn: The question goes kind of together with “What good is prayer?” I realize that’s a whole new issue, but faith and prayer are so close together, to me, that my prayer is the spoken faith. Therefore, my communication with Christ is so necessary to stay connected. Praying allows me to let the Lord know the goodness in my heart and how I project it to other people, and what my desires are for them and for myself.

Don: The thing I don’t like about you guys’ definition of faith is that it leaves me without any power.

Carolyn: That’s very true. We have his power.

Don: He has his power but I don’t have his power, and what I want my faith to do is to harness God’s power.

Carolyn: That’s where his grace comes in.

Reinhard: Character and faith are related. I believe faith forces our character to grow in God. As time passes, our faith keeps building to handle all these mountains, the obstacles that we encounter. I think God allows some mountains to remain standing in front of us. That means maybe we cannot go forward, then we can say: “Thy will be done”. But there are some mountains God may move for us, to make a problem easy for us to overcome. This is the process in our life. Character is forced by faith to know God, to know what he wants in our life. I think we grow more mature in believing God, and things we cannot do we put in God’s hands, saying “Thy will be done.”

David: When we talk about God, we think of a being like us who can move mountains. Well, in the grand scheme of the universe, a mountain is the tiniest of pinpricks. A mountain is nothing. It’s no big deal to move a mountain, in the universal context. If, on the other hand, God is Goodness, an amorphous entity, not a “being” like us, but a cloud of Goodness, then what is the will of Goodness? All Goodness can will is for there to be more goodness, for there to be goodness everywhere. And that is the supreme power. That’s what I believe, and I think Scripture teaches (and my personal experience is) that Good overcomes Evil; that Good is more powerful than Evil.

So when it comes to moving a mountain, Good is the only entity that can move that mountain—the mountain being Evil. But we once we anthropomorphize and think of God as a being who thinks like us and does things like us, then we’re down to believing we have not got a job, or we got cancer, because we’re not praying hard enough or because it’s God’s will.

If bad things are happening to you, I do not for one minute believe that can be God’s will at all. It’s the result either of human will or sheer bad luck. God/Goodness wants only Goodness for you and he wants us to support him: If we are good, then we are contributing to the sum total of Goodness. We are helping God to Be, and to Become.

Jeff: We are told to give up all control, all will to God. But our infinite human struggle is that we feel that God owes us something, and to completely make it so that God has nothing that he owes us—that we can’t know anything about him, we can’t control him—I think that ultimately is where we struggle. We have the whole book of the Bible, which details, essentially, the relationship—almost an implied contract—between humanity and what God’s role is and what our role is.

And yet my concept of faith is trying to sever that and say “God owes me nothing, owes you nothing, owes nobody anything.” God is God and we’re all subject to his whims and wills (hopefully being Goodness and love). But where the rubber meets the road is where it breaks down.

Donald: Does our behavior exhibit the evidence of our faith? So independent of what it is, it’s what we believe, and how we respond to that is evidence of how sincere we are about what we believe.

Janelin: I agree there’s a strong relationship between faith and prayer. In personally communicating with God, I have faith that he’ll guide me in my actions. So whether the end product might not be God’s will, as we communicate we need to understand there’s action involved—we do something or do not do something. We can’t just sit back. I like sugar but I hope I have willpower to not eat it. But I still pray for help or guidance in making the right decision. So we want God’s will but it’s not like sitting back and doing nothing. It’s a relationship involving my faith that he’ll help me reach the right decision. There’s action, there’s character building, there’s a lot of thoughts going on, but I think there’s a strong relationship to prayer for sure.

Don: We’ve commoditized faith. We make it something like currency that can be ported, amplified, grown, enriched, employed, used, made actionable at certain times. This concept of faith as a commodity is I think central to what we have traditionally thought faith is. Maybe we have a completely erroneous concept of faith. Maybe faith has little or nothing to do with us. Maybe faith has something or everything to do with God. If so, what is it? And how would we redefine faith to make it more actionable and operational and useful in terms of our thinking?

Jay: I don’t have any issue with faith being a commodity, with it being actionable, with however you want to define it, or with whatever you want to do with it. That doesn’t bother me as much as what we think that end result is going to be, if we store up enough, if we strengthen it enough, if we do something enough with it, then the end result will be this. That’s where I think the issue arises.

If I have faith that I will get (for lack of a better word) power, or what I want, then I don’t really have faith. I’m not storing it up, I’m not strengthening it, as a lot of us think we are. We want to have faith so we can get what we want. And if your faith is about getting what you want, I would argue you have no faith; that faith with an end result of getting what you want is not faith; it’s selfishness. Faith with an end result of God in control—whether it’s good or bad by my definition (which we know is not our prerogative and we tend to mess up anyway) is true faith.

Faith that puts God in control can be strengthened and utilized to bring peace. When you watch people pass away peacefully, believing that they are taken care of, that’s a really powerful testament that I don’t understand but it seems to happen. People accept whatever it is that there is and die with assurance, in peace, comforted. That to me is a really, really powerful thing. Is that what faith can do for us?

Reinhard: Taking faith as a commodity takes us back to the parable of the talents. God is the source of everything. Everything is based on God, God is the main source of everything in our life. So we must be thankful for what God gives us. Whatever faith we have, I think we have to use it to strengthen our relationship with God and act in our life according to his will. After all, everything goes back to God. The meaning of faith in our life is that we have to do according to his will in faith and with the help of the Holy Spirit.

We are only a created being. We cannot give orders to God to do something thing for us. Instead, we have to listen to what’s best for us. Of course, God knows what we want. When God decided that it was time for Hezekiah, the king of Israel, to die, Hezekiah prayed and God changed his mind. God knows what’s best for us. Total surrender to God will get us through difficult times in our lives.

Jeff: Even the examples of persons of faith in the Bible are presented as a commodity, they’re presented as though their faith is something that results in God’s favor.

Kyra: I think you can have faith that God can do something that you want him to do. But I think that you should not have faith that he will do what you want him to do. He certainly can do it. But if it is not his will, then I don’t think that you should always use your faith to get what you want.

Donald: This is about the Bible, and about God. It’s not about us. And I don’t want it to come down to packaging this whole thing together in my mind so that I can have assurance, peace and comfort. It may provide that, but the point of this is not about me, the point of it is about him. And so my faith in him is what this is about

Jeff: When the Bible, in multiple places, describes God’s faithfulness, is that different than our faith?

David: I think that’s a really important question: God’s faithfulness to us versus our faith in God is well worth looking into.

Don: Think about a theology of faith centered around who and what God is rather than what my faith can do for me. Think about what kind of new theology of faith, new understanding about faith and faithfulness, can arise.

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