Faith, Weak and Strong

As we’ve seen in our discussion so far, faith is an elusive subject. I hope you’re not too tired of it yet, because I feel we’re making some progress and understanding it a little bit more as our discussion progresses.

Last week, we looked at two aspects of faith: Ordinary, common, universal faith—the faith of all of those who believe; and unusual, extraordinary faith given by the Holy Spirit as a spiritual gift. We took pains to affirm that common faith should not be associated with ineffective or inferior faith, but emphasized Jesus’ reminder that this ordinary faith is so powerful that even a mustard seed-sized amount can do great things, because this is the faith that keeps us connected to God. The other kind of faith—spiritual gift faith—is for the community of believers, and is given usually for special purposes. It’s not for personal affectation, but is associated with a cause or purpose of God.

Job’s faith is ordinary faith. We’re all like Job, caught in the ups and downs of life, and oblivious to the conflict between good and evil going on behind the scenes. But that faith is the ordinary faith that connects us to God. The faith of Hebrews 11—the “Hall of Faith”—is generally of the extraordinary type. This is purposeful faith gifted for a special purpose of God’s.

Today, I’d like to turn away from faith as a quantity and focus on its quality. David maintains that faith is binary: You either have it or you don’t. Either you’re a believer, or you’re not. But if so, then what do we make of the statements by Jesus about people having great faith and little faith? There are numerous allusions to this (about five of each on great faith and little faith), some of which we’ve already studied—Peter on the water, the storm in the boat, the Sermon on the Mount,… Jesus often used the term “little faith” to describe his disciples.

But if faith is not quantifiable, not something to be measured, then what do little faith and great faith mean? To quote Meyers, they simply mean that some truths are easy to believe and others are difficult to believe. If you believe and act on something that is difficult to believe, then you have great faith. If you do not believe something that is relatively easy to believe and is commonly believed, then you have little faith. Since faith is the conviction or the persuasion that something is true, people who have little faith have been convicted or persuaded of even the basic truth, whereas people with great faith have been convicted or persuaded that they act on something that other people do not understand. They have an appreciation for hard and difficult truths that people have difficulty believing.

People with little faith don’t believe even the most basic truths. Those with great faith believe in even the most difficult or even “unbelievable” truths. There are spiritual truths in life and theology that are hard to believe, but people with great faith seem to understand and believe them. Such ideas take great thought, insight, understanding, research, investigation, or a deep personal spiritual experience in order to believe them. When people come to believe these things they believe and act in a way that few others do, and can therefore be described as having great faith. This might be seen as a stage four faith—the universal faith, mystical, not rooted in doctrinal division.

People with little faith, on the other hand, don’t understand even the most simple elementary truths. To illustrate this idea, let’s look at two stories told by Jesus. One is the faith of the centurion and the other is the faith of the disciples in the boat on the stormy Galilee:

 And when Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, begging Him, and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, terribly tormented.” Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.” Now when Jesus heard this, He was amazed and said to those who were following, “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom will be thrown out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; it shall be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment. (Matthew 8:5-13)

Jesus here remarks on the great faith not found in Israel. This makes the important point that faith is not linked to religiosity. Gentile faith is not inferior to Jewish faith. Christian faith is not better than Muslim faith, based on our definition of great faith. The question then is, what does the centurion believe that few others believed, including the Jewish disciples of Jesus?

I think there are at least three truths that distinguish the faith of the centurion in this story. First, he believed in his own lack of merit. Clearly a man of influence and authority, he saw himself without standing before God. Most of us don’t believe or act this way. We believe that because of our piety and prayers—indeed, because of our faith—we can call upon God for favors, for deliverance, for relief. The centurion knew that despite his high standing in society, he was unworthy to meet with Jesus.

The second thing the centurion believed is that God is the God of all mankind. In Jesus’s words [this is from the Easy-to-Read (ERV) version of the Bible]: “I tell you, many people will come from all over the world to take their place in the kingdom of heaven. There they will sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But other people who think that God’s kingdom belongs to them will not be there, God’s angels will throw them into the dark places that are far away from God.” He recognized the universality of God, and that God is not our own private possession. There is not a Jewish God, or a Muslim God, or a Christian God. Letting God be God is a great-faith concept, something that’s hard to believe and even harder to act.

Third, the centurion believed it needed only a simple command from Jesus to heal his servant. Even in healings today, we believe in the laying on of hands, anointing with oil, relying on close and intimate contact with the needy. The centurion believed that if Jesus wanted to heal his servant he had only to say the word. Distance was irrelevant.

These are difficult concepts, held by few. The centurion’s faith was a high quality of faith. Great faith believes truths that are hard to believe and that are believed by only a few.

The disciples on the other hand, are accused of having little faith:

 When He got into the boat, His disciples followed Him. And behold, a violent storm developed on the sea, so that the boat was being covered by the waves; but Jesus Himself was asleep. And they came to Him and woke Him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing!” He *said to them, “Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?” Then He got up and rebuked the winds and the sea, and it became perfectly calm. The men were amazed, and said, “What kind of a man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?” (Matthew 8:23-27)

Here we see little faith demonstrated by the disciples, not believing some very basic truths. The first truth is that if Jesus is with you in the boat, your salvation is sure. Even if you think he’s asleep or unconscious, he’s in control. And if you don’t believe that simple concept, you’re a person of little faith. To be surprised that the creator of the universe should be in control of the universe, is to demonstrate little faith.

As you study other passages of little or great faith you will see this idea borne out. Great faith believes in concepts which are difficult to believe. Little faith is to not believe in the most basic spiritual ideas. But the remarkable thing of all this is that in these stories we have just discussed, we can see that regardless of whether you have great or little faith, your needs are met by Jesus. The servant of the centurion of great faith is healed. The storm so fearsome to the disciples of little faith is calmed. Healing and blessing occurs regardless, it seems, of the faith.

More remarkable is the affirmation which occurs even when there is no faith:

 But Thomas, one of the twelve, who was called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples were saying to him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” Eight days later His disciples were again inside, and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be to you.” Then He said to Thomas, “Place your finger here, and see My hands; and take your hand and put it into My side; and do not continue in disbelief, but be a believer.” Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you now believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” (John 20:24-29)

Here we see the faithless Thomas, who is invited to reach out to Jesus to enjoin that connecting route of faith by actually touching his side. The faithless become faithful by reaching out.

Looking at great faith, little faith, even no faith, the question is raised: If the results are the same, what is the value of great faith?

Does faith say something about us? Or does faith say something more about God? What is faith for anyway? Could it be that great faith just simply makes life better? There is still illness, there are still storms, but great faith takes the fear away. It allows us to say: “God can, but it’s up to him if he will.” The idea that God can heal, that God can calm the storm, that God can make the rough road smooth, is in itself quite reassuring. But even if he does not, as the three Hebrew worthies said when facing the fiery furnace, we still have faith.

The idea that we’re in the same boat as him is something that tamps down a great deal of fear. Look at the disciples as an illustration of little faith. Just imagine: The storms of life are raging. It’s us and Jesus, together in the same boat, yet we are afraid, uncertain, and in despair. It’s such a basic truth that with Jesus in the same boat we should feel secure, that salvation is certain regardless of the storms of life. If we could comprehend that simple truth, think of how much more we would be relieved of the fear. It’s such a basic concept that with Jesus in the same boat as you, you’re safe. If you don’t believe that, then you’re a person of little faith.

What are your thoughts about faith not as a currency to spend or to get something that would take you out of trouble, not as a muscle to get you stronger, or in order to do some work, but as something like a tranquilizer, a medication to help you through your fears and through the anxieties of life?

David: I still have so many problems with these stories. To me, faith is belief in the simple yet complex truth that God exists. Is that a hard truth or an easy truth? It may be hard intellectually, but to me it is easy spiritually to believe in the existence of a higher power of good, which is my definition of God. So the notion of salvation and feeling secure and serene in that belief applies but only to the spirit world, to the afterlife, not to this world. The problem with these stories is that they appear to apply to this world. The Centurion’s servant was healed in this world—he was healed (it would seem) of some worldly ailment.

That just does not happen except as pure coincidence. More often than not, people of apparently great faith are not healed of their worldly afflictions except by human intervention or luck. I have no faith in worldly outcomes of faith. I believe that faith does have outcomes but they are spiritual outcomes, not worldly outcomes. That then makes these Bible stories showing (apparently) a worldly outcome a problem for me, personally.

Bryan: If little faith and great faith are on a continuum, then faith would correlate to relationship. With basic belief you have a basic relationship; with great faith you have a deep and personal relationship. Maybe God can use the relationship with people of great faith more than he can his relationship with people of little faith. Maybe they’re more open to it.

If you look to the Old Testament Kings, a lot of what God said to his people then was through kings. David was a man after God’s own heart. He had a lot of faults but he had a very close relationship and his faith was strong. That was taken to a whole new level with Solomon, who received not only wisdom but also everything else he asked for. Solomon ruled the world. He built the temple. God dwelled in it. It was his place on Earth. There was a continuous holy presence in that temple throughout Israel’s history. But it didn’t really do much for Israel and they kind of let it fade into the background. Even with Solomon’s great faith and everything he accomplished, in the end it all kind of faded away. So it’s hard to know, if you have great faith, first: How did you get it?, second: How do you keep it, and third: Does it really make a difference in the long run? Because, in the end, Solomon squandered the gifts that God gave him.

Reinhard: In the story of the sick servant, the centurion was calm and trusting. He knew Jesus. His servant was really sick and needed healing, but it was not a life-or-death emergency such as the disciples faced in the boat. Even if we have strong faith there is no guarantee that our faith won’t be challenged, even with Jesus in the same boat with us. His presence doesn’t guarantee we won’t be tempted, as I think can be observed in life. So the centurion has great faith in a non-emergency situation and the disciples have small faith in an emergency situation, but God still came through and helped both of them anyway.

This is a great lesson we can apply in our lives. We live in modern days without the miracles that were on display to the Israelites of old. Our advantage is that if we have faith even though we don’t see miracles, if we believe God having learned from history, from past mistakes, that’s what God wants. We need faith enough to surrender to God and worship him.

Don: Do all the stories of faith in the gospels end up with a good outcome and all of our own personal experiences of faith end up with a bad outcome?

Anonymous: Not all of them. Our experiences with faith are not always unsuccessful. We do experience good results from faith. Not big things like parting the Red Sea; but during our lives, depending on our faith, I still believe our requests are answered. We base our faith on promises of God. If we believe the promises, then we’re supposed to reap outcomes that are beneficial to us. And this is common faith, I think.

Jay: It strikes me it’s really easy to have faith when things are good, when things go well in your life, when things are moving along, when there are no major struggles. But it definitely gets amped up when things aren’t so good. Maintaining faith in difficult times in life seems harder.

It also strikes me that the three Hebrew worthies about to be cast into the fiery furnace had a lot of faith yet they did not try to leverage it. “Maybe we’ll die; it is what it is” they seemed to shrug. Christ himself, in the garden of Gethsemane and going, perhaps, through his own faith struggle, in the end says (in effect): ‘God, do whatever you want with me—thy will be done.”

For me, beyond just the existence of goodness, the existence of love, the existence of God, there really is faith that God is in control, that in the end goodness will prevail. But how goodness prevails is God’s prerogative, not mine. That’s where faith becomes hard, because we develop very specific norms for how God’s plan of goodness should be instituted. We have very specific things we expect to see, to know that God’s plan of goodness is happening in this world.

But the Bible is full of stories of God doing things that don’t seem all that good by our definition of goodness. The Ten Plagues inflicted on Pharaoh don’t seem like goodness, neither does what happened to Job, yet God was the cause. If we can acknowledge that God is in control even though we would not take some of the actions he takes—actions that seem to cause more pain and death than healing—if we can say: “Thy will be done” in all circumstances, then we have great faith, it seems to me.

David: But if God is in control, then faith is neither here nor there. It doesn’t matter in the least, because God is always, infallibly, going to do the good and the right thing. He must, by definition. In what to me is the most beautiful part of the Bible—the Beatitudes—Jesus does not mention faith at all. As I interpret it, he blesses people at the very lowest in spirit, in the very pit of despair. They could not be any lower. But their faith, or lack of it, is just not a factor. They are blessed not because they have faith. God blesses them period. Whether you believe that or not, or even whether you believe in God or not, it doesn’t matter; because God is there and will deliver those assured blessings, period.

We’re all struggling with the concept of faith. Some other religious and philosophical persuasions do not accept it as a valid concept, so it does not trouble them at all. To me, it’s a Man-made concept but we have all these stories in the Bible where Jesus himself talks about it, and that to me is a problem, coming as it apparently does from the same source that delivered the Beatitudes.*

Jay: We run into problems when we think of faith as a lever to get something or do something. The only good I see from faith is as a tranquilizer bringing peace to life by letting us know that God is in control. It is not that God is going to change his mind, do something different, do something for me; it is that God is in control. And even though I may not understand why my life is being messed up, if I can get to accept that God is in control, it brings peace. The strength of faith or the power of faith is, in my opinion, to bring peace to the faithful; it is not to leverage the power of God.

Don: Bearing that out in the stories we have read is the notion that whether there was great faith, little faith or no faith demonstrated, the blessing of God was there. It can’t be that great faith comes with blessings and no faith comes with curses. It’s got to be something else. I’m proposing that faith has a real advantage in the here-and-now as a kind of reassuring pablum, a reassuring medicinal that helps us to smooth out the bumps of life. When we’re able to say “God is in control” then that’s a statement of great faith. You could boil down the centurion’s response to “God is in control. I don’t need to try to leverage God in any way.” And the disciples in the boat are so certain that God is not in control that they have to wake him up to make sure he’s paying attention.

Reinhard: I think faith is our personal conviction about God. Jesus didn’t directly teach about faith, though of course the disciples asked him about it. He asks us to obey his commandments. If we have faith in God, we will show it by our actions, by our response to a situation, to others, and to God. It’s true we must accept that God is in control but at the same time God needs our response.

In the parable of the talents, the three servants all responded to God command to put the money to profitable use. God still takes into account that some of us will respond differently. He knows how far we can go. He knows our limits, he knows our faith, but he will still come through to save us. God can reach out his hand to us, but we have to reach out our hands to him also.

Don: To try to forestall any misunderstanding of the stories: At the conclusion of Hebrews 11, after talking about the stories of great faith, it says in verse 35: “Others, refusing to accept freedom, died under torture in order to be raised to a better life. Some were mocked and whipped. Others were put in chains and taken off to prison. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword. They went around clothed in skins of sheep and goats, poor persecuted and mistreated. The world was not good enough for them. They wandered like refugees in deserts and hills, living in caves and holes in the ground.” What a record! All of these won by their faith, yet they did not receive what God had promised. So the notion that every faith story is filled with success—worldly and present day success—is not completely accurate.

David: Then the Bible is accusing God of being a liar. If those people did not receive what God had promised, then God broke his promise. It doesn’t make any sense, unless those people did receive what God promised but what God promises relates to the spiritual world and to the afterlife, not to this world, to this mortal life. It had to be a human being who wrote that passage, believing that what God promised was to save them from mortal suffering and death, which as we know is not what happened.

When Jesus was asked by a rich young ruler what was the most important commandment, he quoted two that amount to one: Love your fellow man and love God. (I think the two are essentially the same one.) Jesus did not say that faith is the most important thing you have to have in order to get into the kingdom of heaven. What you must have is love.

Yes, there are some stories that make it seem as though faith is terribly important. But there are others that suggest it’s irrelevant, not a key factor at all.

Anonymous: It’s the key factor in salvation, I believe, because the Bible says that without faith we cannot please God. I think that in the long run, or in the afterlife, faith has a lot of importance. It makes sense that it’s not designed to help get through this life, even though it does! I mean, it is really beneficial for this life, but is mainly intended for the afterlife. Without faith, we cannot be saved; but even on this earth, it still helps us through life in a simple way that doesn’t depend on us but on God’s grace. So faith is like a fruit, not like a seed.

Chris: Whenever we talk about faith, we jump to outcomes. What are the outcomes of faith? We may talk about loving our fellow man, we talk about loving God, and about faith being not really important, but then we want to jump to the life that comes after our life on earth. How do we make that leap if we don’t have faith that God has something for us after this life? Faith is what we need in order to be able to interact with those things that we can’t see, can’t touch, can’t hear. So for me, faith is more of a foundational component that I’m able to build on.

If I don’t have faith that God exists, or that God has something more for me, I don’t know how anything else then matters, because if there is no God, it doesn’t matter what he said. What does it matter what he told us to do? I have to have faith that God is there, that what God has told me is good and right, and that then spurs on my actions and determines how I interact with others, how I show love to my fellow man and to God.

David: If you had no faith or little faith, would you say you were poor in spirit?

Chris: If I had no faith, I don’t know if I would even worry about being poor in spirit, or even believe that there’s such a thing as being poor in spirit.

Carolyn: We are told to pray without ceasing. How do you pray without ceasing? I think faith is a bridge that takes us into the afterlife. Because if we are in constant daily communication with Christ, the outcome is peace to our own heart. It’s a balm in Gilead. And it’s that constant communication. You don’t pull God out of a drawer when you have a hard time. It’s constant. I just feel our prayer life has a lot to do with implementing faith, because it comes at different levels. But I think sometimes we all have great faith and at other times our faith is like Christ’s in Gethsemane. He really needed faith there. He really needed the help of the disciples. So there we are with our fellow men. And our prayer life has a lot to do with it.

David: If you’ve lost all faith, you can hardly be poorer in spirit, it would seem to me; and yet, Matthew 5:3: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” To me at least, it couldn’t be clearer. Faith is not mentioned. I believe the Beatitudes are about the very end of life, when you’re at the end of your tether, when you finally and truly surrender to God (and I think everybody does—that’s just my belief) that’s when you do have perfect faith. We won’t know that until the time comes, but we can and I do believe it now. I think that’s what that particular line in the Beatitudes means. And it’s wonderful. It is the greatest hope.

Bryan: My disconnect, the more we’ve looked at it, has been that faith as presented in the Bible is an action word, something we exercise to be able to do things for ourselves, for other people, or whatever. A lot of times, when we pray, we have a habit of using God as the genie in the bottle and we use faith as the excuse to be able to use the genie in the bottle. Well, when the genie doesn’t come out of the bottle, what does that do to our faith?

If faith is as simple as believing and trusting that no matter what happens, God is in control and that’s what’s supposed to happen, that adds a lot of comfort, in that faith is no longer an action word. Instead, it’s something that defines who you are. It leaves disappointment in God by the wayside, because you’re not asking him for things that won’t happen. So you accept the cards you’ve been dealt and you make the best of them. And if you believe that those cards were the cards you were meant to have, then that makes a lot of sense and faith is no longer a problem. Faith is how you live your life and the reward is at the end, not along the way.

Don: I think the problem is that we don’t want that kind of faith. We want something to control God. And we want a muscular faith to leverage the power of God in our behalf. That’s what we’ve taught ourselves, that’s what we’ve become socialized to understand and to believe and to accept as “people of faith.” I think that what this discussion, and the many, many weeks of discussing faith has convinced me of, is that we need a completely different paradigm to understand what faith is.

Bryan: I think that’s very true. I don’t think it’s really our fault. I think this is what we’ve been told. We’re only trying to make the most of what we’ve been told, and I think it will require a paradigm shift in order to come to peace with it so it’s no longer a stumbling block but something that leads you closer, not further away—which I’m sure is what it’s meant to do.

Don: One of the greatest impediments to disbelief or to lack of faith or loss of faith is the notion that somehow God doesn’t hear me, God doesn’t answer me, I’ve prayed, I’ve done all the things I was supposed to do, I fasted, I’ve given alms, I’ve done everything I’m asked to do to demonstrate my faith, and nothing happens. And this is a source of great distress to many people who put their so-called faith in God.

Reinhard: Faith nourishes and supports our Christian life and sets the path to eternal life. I think the goal for us—the big reward for believers—is to get into the life hereafter, but there’s also got to be a purpose for us on this earth. And the same time I think if we obey him he will bless us as he promised. If we give our life to him to the fullest, he will bless the best of us to enjoy life and worship God. Unfortunately, this doesn’t include the poor of spirit.

When we are poor, when we are thirsty, we are always looking how to slake our thirst and fill our bellies. We work hard to get back to a state of mind where we are ready to approach God. So if our lives, our goal, and our minds always want to be right with God and follow his commandments, faith is what we need while we live on this earth. But the big prize is eternal life.

Dewan: I think fear of God is our definition of faith.

David: This life is surely nothing compared with the afterlife. There may be a purpose for this life, but compared with the afterlife and eternity, it is nothing. It’s all about the afterlife. It’s all about life in the spirit.

Don: We have a few more issues to deal with in faith but we won’t be on the subject too much longer—we’ve been on it since August. I’d like to, to round out our discussion with a few more topics.

. . .

*Postscript from David: Perhaps the faith stories were delivered by the mortal Jesus and the Beatitudes were delivered by the divine Christ.

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