Faith: Toward a Definition

Don: We are still covering the woes to the Pharisees, found in Matthew 23. Specifically, we’ve studied two “weightier matters of the law”—justice and mercy, and today we’re moving on to faith. Some people call it faithfulness. Or as it’s translated in Titus 2:10 (in some translations) fidelity, which is an interesting concept and something we’ll talk more about in future.

Over the next few weeks we will discuss: What is faith? Where does it come from? How do we get it? How quantifiable is faith? (Jesus said to the disciples, “Oh ye of little faith”; he said to the centurion, “I haven’t seen such great faith in all of Israel.” There seems to be a quantitative aspect to faith.)

What is faith good for anyway? Can faith grow? Can faith shrink? Is faith something for the individual only? Or can faith be communal faith as well? Is faith a gift? Or do we have a role in somehow acquiring faith? Do we have to find our own faith? In other words, who is responsible for faith?

What does faith do anyway? What happens when we have plenty of it? What happens when we run out of it? And what is the relationship between faith and religion? Are they related? Are they the same thing? What identifying characteristics are seen in a person of faith?

I’d like also to look at the future of faith. Is faith at all bound up by culture? By time or by circumstances? Does mankind create faith in its own image? A Google search showing a steep upward trend in searches on the topic of God and a less steep but opposite—downward—trend in searches on the topic of religion suggests a separation of church and God, and raises the question: What is the future of faith? What’s the future of formal faith? What’s the future of personal faith? What is the future of communal faith (if there is such a thing)? Can religion survive an onslaught of faith? Are religion and faith friends, or are they foes?

I propose to begin our study of faith as it is presented through individual examples given in Hebrews 11. The examples constitute a “Faith Hall of Fame” and are as compelling as they are varied. They are in many cases as shocking as they are reassuring. It reads almost like a soap opera about faith. I’m tempted to study all the stories in order not to miss any key element. There are 16 characters mentioned by name as being faithful. At least one more, Joshua, is directly implied as a man of faith because Hebrews asserts that the walls of Jericho come down by faith. There are also veiled allusions to Daniel and to the three Hebrew worthies as men of faith.

Here is the 11th chapter of the book of Hebrews in the Good News translation of the Bible, which I think may be the best translation for our purposes today. As you read it, think about two things specifically for today. The first is: Is there a definition of faith in the stories that are that are recounted here? The second is: Is there a common theme in the stories that might suggest some kind of unifying concept of faith?

To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see. It was by their faith that people of ancient times won God’s approval.

It is by faith that we understand that the universe was created by God’s word, so that what can be seen was made out of what cannot be seen.

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.

It was faith that made Noah hear God’s warnings about things in the future that he could not see. He obeyed God and built a boat in which he and his family were saved. As a result, the world was condemned, and Noah received from God the righteousness that comes by faith.

It was faith that made Abraham obey when God called him to go out to a country which God had promised to give him. He left his own country without knowing where he was going. By faith he lived as a foreigner in the country that God had promised him. He lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who received the same promise from God. For Abraham was waiting for the city which God has designed and built, the city with permanent foundations.

It was faith that made Abraham able to become a father, even though he was too old and Sarah herself could not have children. He trusted God to keep his promise. Though Abraham was practically dead, from this one man came as many descendants as there are stars in the sky, as many as the numberless grains of sand on the seashore.

It was in faith that all these persons died. They did not receive the things God had promised, but from a long way off they saw them and welcomed them, and admitted openly that they were foreigners and refugees on earth. Those who say such things make it clear that they are looking for a country of their own. They did not keep thinking about the country they had left; if they had, they would have had the chance to return. Instead, it was a better country they longed for, the heavenly country. And so God is not ashamed for them to call him their God, because he has prepared a city for them.

It was faith that made Abraham offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice when God put Abraham to the test. Abraham was the one to whom God had made the promise, yet he was ready to offer his only son as a sacrifice. God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that you will have the descendants I promised.” Abraham reckoned that God was able to raise Isaac from death—and, so to speak, Abraham did receive Isaac back from death.

It was faith that made Isaac promise blessings for the future to Jacob and Esau.

It was faith that made Jacob bless each of the sons of Joseph just before he died. He leaned on the top of his walking stick and worshiped God.

It was faith that made Joseph, when he was about to die, speak of the departure of the Israelites from Egypt, and leave instructions about what should be done with his body.

It was faith that made the parents of Moses hide him for three months after he was born. They saw that he was a beautiful child, and they were not afraid to disobey the king’s order.

It was faith that made Moses, when he had grown up, refuse to be called the son of the king’s daughter. He preferred to suffer with God’s people rather than to enjoy sin for a little while. He reckoned that to suffer scorn for the Messiah was worth far more than all the treasures of Egypt, for he kept his eyes on the future reward.

It was faith that made Moses leave Egypt without being afraid of the king’s anger. As though he saw the invisible God, he refused to turn back.

It was faith that made him establish the Passover and order the blood to be sprinkled on the doors, so that the Angel of Death would not kill the first-born sons of the Israelites.

It was faith that made the Israelites able to cross the Red Sea as if on dry land; when the Egyptians tried to do it, the water swallowed them up.

It was faith that made the walls of Jericho fall down after the Israelites had marched around them for seven days.

It was faith that kept the prostitute Rahab from being killed with those who disobeyed God, for she gave the Israelite spies a friendly welcome.

Should I go on? There isn’t enough time for me to speak of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets. Through faith they fought whole countries and won. They did what was right and received what God had promised. They shut the mouths of lions, put out fierce fires, escaped being killed by the sword. They were weak, but became strong; they were mighty in battle and defeated the armies of foreigners. Through faith women received their dead relatives raised back to life.

Others, refusing to accept freedom, died under torture in order to be raised to a better life. Some were mocked and whipped, and others were put in chains and taken off to prison. They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they were killed by the sword. They went around clothed in skins of sheep or goats—poor, persecuted, and mistreated. The world was not good enough for them! They wandered like refugees in the deserts and hills, living in caves and holes in the ground.

What a record all of these have won by their faith! Yet they did not receive what God had promised, because God had decided on an even better plan for us. His purpose was that only in company with us would they be made perfect. (Hebrews 11 — Good News Translation)

So that’s the story of the faithful, as recounted in Hebrews chapter 11. What is a working definition of faith that you think could be derived from a quick reading of it, and what (if any) common theme runs through these stories that might help us to begin our discussion on the subject of faith today?

Donald: To me, the word faith is fascinating. It’s enduring. It’s something that you find security in. But you can use the word faith in so many different ways. We need to clarify our uses of it. Because some phraseology that we use is real important, such as “common faith.” When we get together on Sabbath morning, we share a common set of principles by which we operate our conversation. Our “common faith” just means we’re a group of people who tend to think about things in the same way.

God is faithful. To me, that’s a totally different twist on the conversation, with God being the one that is faithful. I find great strength in that. My favorite hymn is “Great is Thy faithfulness.” He’s faithful, and because He’s faithful then I can have faith in him.

It’s odd. When I step on a surface I have faith that it will hold me. I think that faith is the proper term. I have confidence that the floor will hold me. There’s no reason to believe that it will or it won’t. But based upon what I see, and I put all the the the stimuli together, I think “This should hold me.” That thought takes us from faith to science. Certainly, right now in the COVID era, they come up with a vaccine, and then they have to test it over and over. So I don’t know if it becomes a fact but it’s certainly pretty reliable. The flip side of that is faith versus science: Faith is pretty much for you to set the parameters because it hasn’t been tested.

If I told you that because of my faith “This, this, this, and this,” you should have the same faith. If I eat right, and I don’t do this, and I don’t do that, then your health condition is predictable. I have a level of faith that if you wear a mask I probably won’t come down with COVID.

We used to say that we are a Seventh Day Adventist university. Today, that would be the backup phrase to “We are a faith-based university.” Why did we make that change? Do we want to have a bigger net? So I just think the word is fascinating.

Rheinhard: [Severely garbled audio.]

Don: I think Rheinhard is pointing out that the people in Hebrews 11, the Faith Hall of Fame, were not pure by any means; that they had many character flaws, some pretty egregious.

Carolyn: Could I assume that the opposite of faith is fear?

Don: That’s a good question.

Adaure: Doubt, maybe?

Donald: When Abraham took Isaac up on the mountain to sacrifice him, there was no logic there. It was just a matter of stepping out in faith. There was no rationale for it. So is great faith actually stepping out? If you stepped out into the water and expected it to part for you we would call that stupidity. We wouldn’t call it faith. Is the greatest faith actually relying on something that’s totally ludicrous, yet you believe it?

David: It strikes me that this entire chapter is extremely dangerous. It is the answer to a prosperity gospel preacher’s prayer: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for.” You get what you hope for. You don’t even have to ask for it, you just hope for it and if you have enough faith, you’ll get it. Hebrews presents a whole list of people who hoped for something and got it. They hoped for freedom, so the Red Sea was parted for them, and so on.

I wonder, again, if somewhere in translation the meaning has been lost in the statement that faith is the assurance of things hoped for. That’s the NASB translation. The Good News translation is that to have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for and to be certain of the things we cannot see. But many of the examples given are things that would have been quite tangible to the people.

At the very end of the chapter, in verse 39, it says “all of these have won by the faith, yet they did not receive what God promised.” Who were “they”? Does it refer to the people who were stoned and sawn in two and so on because of their faith? They did not receive what God promised (at the beginning of the chapter). It’s very confusing, It’s very dangerous in implying that if you if you have enough faith you can walk on water.

Donald: Is faith the same thing as hope? If I hope for something do I have faith in it? I hope they’re not the same! But I’d be interested in exploring the idea of fear as the opposite of faith.

Adaure: I think of doubt as the opposite of faith.

Donald: Doubt is probably just as important a thing to talk about as the word faith.

David: In the last book Don wrote—Feeling God About Yourself—he arrived at exactly that conclusion—that the opposite of faith is indeed fear.

Adaure: How would communal faith differ from religion? Or are they just synonyms?

Donald: The answer to that question has been revealed in the establishment of community churches (as opposed to highly organized structured churches) by groups of people who think alike and get together locally to celebrate what they believe in.

Rheinhard: Communal faith may apply to members of a congregation who have a common interest or common goal, who worship together, who serve other people in the community, who maintain a relationship with God and support their fellow members to do so also.

Faith is also close to belief. When Peter was trying to walk on water and started sinking he became afraid. So maybe there are certain expressions of faith of which the opposite is fear, but if we can substitute belief for faith then disbelief is the opposite.

When Paul talked about being saved by faith not by works, that’s another bigger picture of the word faith. Our ultimate goal as people of God is to end up in the kingdom of God. That’s what being saved by faith means. So when we talk about faith based on our action, or our plan, our goal, maybe we can have faith in that reward for our those actions and goals.

In other words there are several perspectives or applications of the word faith.

David: I would be cautious of using faith and belief synonymously. I think, for example, of the Catholic credo—”I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church” etc. These are the things that they believe in. I don’t think that’s the same as having faith. Beliefs, it seems to me, are more of an institutional construct whereas faith is absolutely personal; it is for the religion to have beliefs, but it is for the individual to have faith. Maybe the term “faith-based institution” is a misnomer. Perhaps “belief-based institution” would be more accurate.

Rheinhard: Abraham believed in God—he even sacrificed his son, because he had faith in God. So in that case, the words are similar in meaning.

Donald: I’m not sure I agree they are not synonymous. I think the 27 beliefs of Adventism could just as well be called 27 faith principles. We try to convince others that that’s the way to go. That’s evangelism. We’re not really very comfortable having our own personal belief system. Somehow we feel better when other people share our beliefs.

Kiran: At the beginning of my Christian journey, faith was simple. But as I grow older in the faith and also in years, it’s getting more complex. In the past, I oftentimes confused faith with bravery. Faith in my own ability to accomplish things is a kind of bravery, but what we really mean by faith is trusting in God to control our lives even though we know, from Job, that the result could be painful. God might not hear you. He might not take care of you sometimes. Faith is that in the end, the one in whom I believe and with whom I have a relationship is going to make everything okay for me and my family and for all the people that are around me in the context of eternity. Temporary suffering in this life does not affect the bigger picture. At heart, faith is trusting in Jesus to either change a bad situation or give us strength to get through it.

Carolyn: Then I think we could say there is an element of fear that goes along with faith. Faith can override fear. It is where the Lord takes over. Is faith a gift? I cannot say that I necessarily admire the faith of the giants in Hebrews 11, but I admire Peter’s faith in stepping out onto the water before the element of fear came in and his faith wavered. And still, Jesus saved him.

Donald: Faith is a level of confidence. In a faith community we ask “Is your faith good?” I can only speak for myself but when I feel like my faith is strong I’m much more at peace. When my faith is weak, doubt and fear creep in. What makes one’s faith strong? Is it constantly testing it, to the point that you really don’t need it any more?

Kiran: Gideon was so timid, so scared. But God was so close with him and made him accomplish things that he otherwise would not have accomplished. Faith is like quantum physics: Everything that you think is normal is not normal.

Don: What is a working definition of faith? What are the boundaries or parameters?

David: I propose to reverse myself and identify faith with belief is this definition: Faith is belief in the existence of God. To me, it’s that simple, just as it is to people in a foxhole. None of them are atheists, but you wouldn’t say they’re all Catholics or Adventists or Buddhists. When you’re in that foxhole, and the bombs are dropping all around you, all that’s left is belief that God will take care of things whatever happens—which is the same as saying belief in God.

Donald: Was faith always a God thing? Or can we use the word faith without it really relating to God? Is that important? I don’t know. Maybe not. When I sit down on this chair, do I have faith that it’s not going to collapse. Or do I just hope?

Carolyn: People with a face mask may have faith that they are not spreading the virus to others. People without a face mask may say they believe in God and he’s going to protect people from it.

David: It depends upon your definition of God. If you’re a humanist, you’re going to deny the notion of a God but I believe that humanists essentially believe in goodness. And to me that that is the same as believing in God. Same with Daoism, which doesn’t talk about God. It talks about the Way, but the Way is ultimately a goodness, a thing that achieves a good end. If you walk it, if you have faith in it, if you believe it, that’s enough. It’s the word “God” that’s troublesome in my definition.

Rheinhard: I believe faith is a two-way communication. As believers, I think we have to practice it, just like we exercise to build up our muscle. We have to make an effort. God knows our hearts and will help us as Jesus helped the disciples when they could not heal the sick during a mission. So there are times that God will take over. To me, the definition of faith is full trust, without reservation. We put everything in God’s hands.

Donald: Is the person who does not wear a face mask exhibiting faith or presumption? At a certain point, too much faith in something that is unstable seems to be foolish.

Don: We have much ground to plow on the subject of faith. Think about definitions. Think about all these various questions about faith. Start thinking about the future—What future does faith have, if any? Will faith simply run out and we will live a life without faith, particularly if science answers all of our questions? a lot of things to think about over the next few weeks as we talk about faith.

Transcribed by

Leave a Reply