For us, faith is all about outcomes. For us, faith is a currency to be used when needed to get us out of a jam. Faith is like a trump card to be played when all the other cards are spent. For us, faith is a tool. We cannot seem to separate our faith from the outcomes of faith. And yet, we have so little to prove to ourselves that faith deserves such a lofty ideal.
We may implicate our faith as a factor in finding an excellent parking place or getting the last bottle of hand sanitizer at the store, but when faith could really help us out—like in a serious illness, or a dire financial condition, or in a seriously fractured relationship—it seems quite often to come up short. When it does, we’re very quick to blame ourselves: Our faith was too weak, too small, inadequate; despite the fact that Jesus says that just a mustard seed of faith could uproot trees and move mountains. When we do not receive the expected outcomes that we wish for, we blame ourselves for our insufficient faith.
If faith is not, and cannot be relied upon, for outcomes, what is its value?
Just assume that your faith—whether it’s strong faith or weak faith, rich faith or poor faith, big faith or small faith—is not a factor in the success or the failures of your life, that it has no impact on outcomes. If that’s a true assumption, why would faith be important?
In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve walked by sight and not by faith. They saw God daily and frequently. We walk, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:7, by faith and not by sight. We can’t see God. Is it possible that faith may just be about the journey, not the destination? Is it possible that it may be that faith is about the process and not about the outcome? In Hebrews 11 we see (and have studied) the lives of so-called great men of faith—Abraham, Moses, Idaac, Noah, and others commended for their faith.
Noah was counted as faithful not because he saved mankind and all the animals in the ark, but because by faith he built the ark, by faith he used technology even though he had no context for the outcome of its use. Abraham too set out by faith to a land he knew not. He had no assurance of outcome, only a journey of faith.
Hebrews tells us:
All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen and welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. (Hebrews 11:13)
One phrase stands out: They did not receive the things promised. There was no assurance of outcome. We work in a context of cause and effect. If we do this, then that will happen, particularly with faith. If we pray, if we fast, if we anoint, if we do x, the activity will claim (somehow) the outcome. For us, it’s all about the finish line; but for God, it seems to be more about the journey.
Is it possible that our link between faith and outcome is not only wrong but is even potentially destructive? I’ve told the story of my patient Elizabeth several times. She was a lady with pancreatic cancer, from a very devout religious community which prayed hard for her healing. She underwent chemotherapy, to which she had a complete response. And her church fellows rejoiced and gave God the credit.
When her cancer recurred some months later, after the chemotherapy was stopped, they were just discontented with her, because they felt that there was something wrong with her faith that had allowed the cancer to return. The whole church turned on her. She died broken and destroyed.
What happens to faith when it is linked to outcome? What happens if the outcome is never reached? What if the expectation of faith is never achieved? What happens to faith then? Hebrews again:
Now faith is the certainty of things hoped for, a proof of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1-2)
Can you live with a faith in what you hope for, what you wish for, what you’d like to happen, but doesn’t assure you of the outcome? Noah was not commended for saving mankind and all the animals but for building the ark. Moses’ faith doesn’t get him to the promised land, he falls short in that regard, but it gets him on the journey out of Egypt. We are called to be faithful on the journey, not faithful on the outcome.
Hebrews reveals what might be a key:
But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:16)
All of us have been in the past, and will be in the future, challenged by unwanted outcomes. Can we divorce faith from outcome? Can faith sustain a journey and not an outcome? Faith as embodied by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is faith in outcome. This is fallen faith. This is broken faith. This is bankrupt faith. This is faith that will let you down.
Faith in the tree of life on the other hand is relational faith, faith in a journey, faith in letting God be God. Two trees, two faiths. Can authentic faith be the sensory element by which we actually see an invisible God? True faith is to be content with the journey, regardless of the outcome.
In Luke 17, we see the disciples of Jesus in a discussion about faith, trying to leverage outcome faith and product faith, evoking cause and effect faith. “Give us more faith!” they demand of Jesus. The context is as follows:
Now He said to His disciples, “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to one through whom they come! It is better for him if a millstone is hung around his neck and he is thrown into the sea, than that he may cause one of these little ones to sin. Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.” The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:1-5)
The parable continues:
But the Lord said, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea’; and it would obey you. “Now which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him after he comes in from the field, ‘Come immediately and recline at the table to eat’? On the contrary, will he not say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me while I eat and drink; and afterward you may eat and drink’? He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? So you too, when you do all the things which were commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.’” (Luke 17:6-10)
The idea that you would invite your slave to dinner even before you’ve eaten is an illustration of unrealistic expectations. It’s going out of the ordinary way of things and circumstances. This is not the natural order of things. Slaves don’t expect miraculous dispensation from their masters. And faith shouldn’t expect miraculous dispensation from God.
Faith is not a tool to make God do something out of the ordinary, like serving the slave first before the master eats. Faith, Jesus says, is simply tending to duty. It is doing what is right, like not being a stumbling block to others, or living a life of forgiveness. It is—simply put—doing what we ought to have done. It is not about the outcome, it is more about the journey.
Jesus’s response here puts cause-and-effect faith to rest. When it comes to faith, Jesus is saying, the outcome cannot be equated with the amount of faith. Even the tiniest amount of faith can do the greatest amount of things. He then goes on a tangent about the servant and works. The servant narrative is about doing your duty. Jesus says it’s about the journey, and faithfulness to the tasks of life. The outcome is immaterial to our faith. Jesus seems to say that we should be driven by servant mentality on the road of life. We’ll see needs and we’ll meet them. We’ll encounter injury and we’ll nurse them. That, he says, is faith.
What we wish for in this life—that the master would say to us: “Have something to eat!”—is not what we should expect. This is not the unexpected outcome, which we’d like even if we wish for that. Instead, the command of God is to get back to our duties, get back to our work, the work of serving and not being served. God is not in our service. He is not here to serve us. We are here to be in God’s service. Outcomes faith is to try to put God into our service. But this, as Jesus teaches, is not the correct kind of faith.
How do you like non-outcome faith? Can we arrive at a definition of faith that is not about outcome? Can we embrace this kind of faith? Can we share this kind of faith? At the bedside of our dying loved ones, can we find this faith useful? Are we willing to let God be God? Do we need a completely different paradigm of faith? Do we need a completely different definition?
Donald: Last week some of us thought faith might correlate to “believe” or “belief”, or trust, or “hope.” I think there’s an order to those concepts. First, I must believe. In order to have faith, I’ve got to believe. And so that makes it binary: I believe or I don’t. Secondly, if in fact, I believe, then I have to have trust and allow God to be God. And thirdly, I have faith in God. So it’s an order of things. It’s not just a matter of faith exclusively by itself.
I would try to equate faith as like a handrail. You hold it because it will steady you, it will guide you, it’ll direct you to think that it’s going to be outcomes. Yeah, it’s gonna take you along a journey, but I’m not sure that it’s going to change the ordinary.
David: I can’t find any mention of faith anywhere in Daoism (and it’s not hard to look because the Daoists “bible” is way thinner than the Christian Bible). There is simply an acceptance of the way, the Dao; that that things are the way they are. The closest thing that comes to a statement of faith is very much in line with what Donald just said about allowing God to be God. To the Daoist. It’s a matter of allowing nature to be nature, allowing things to be the way they are.
Perhaps the closest thing to a central authority in Daoism—the China Taoist Association based in Beijing—gives what I take to be the closest thing to a statement of Daoist faith:
In the Dao de Jing, the basic classic of Daoism, there’s a verse: Humanity follows the earth, the earth follows heaven, Heaven follows the Dao, and the Dao follows what is natural. This means that the whole of humanity should attach great importance to the Earth and should obey its rule of movement. The Earth has to respect the changes of heaven, and heaven must abide by the Dao [I personally equate the Daoist notion of the Dao with the Christian notion of God] and the Tao follows the natural course of development of everything. So we can see that what human beings can do with nature is to help everything grow according to its own way. We should cultivate in people’s minds the way of no action in relation to nature, and let nature be itself. [Source]
David: To me, that resonates with “Let God be God”.
Robin: When we are talking about outcome faith are we saying that we believe God will answer our prayer in the way he knows best? Or are we saying: “This is the outcome I want, God, please give it to me”?
Donald: I have a neighbor who is facing a serious, serious dilemma with her son and alcoholism. It’s become very complex, because now he’s even acquired COVID. She asked us to pray for them. Why are we praying for people? Is it to give them some sense of security? I don’t know. I’m happy to pray for her. But as Robin just said, I’m not sure what to say.
Anonymous: I believe I see things much, much better now. We’re not supposed to look for outcomes but to stick with the message, or the way, or what was revealed to us from the Bible. If only we would just stick to Jesus’ message and stop thinking about the outcome.
Until recently, when I was praying, I kind of answered myself. Every time I asked for something, I would say: “God knows. And he will do it.” If I said, for instance: “Please keep my daughter,” I would say “Well, he’s keeping her.” He does, whether I ask or not. He’s been keeping her all her life. Why do I have to remind him? Does he forget? Does he slumber and something bad will happen while he sleeps? I should stop thinking that way. I know he is keeping her, so why pray for that?
So I’ve started seeing things very differently. I’m trying to undo my previous views. I think that maybe just to live according to God’s way is enough to keep us safe, healthy, and at peace. Because everything God will allow in our lives should be good. We should just have the assurance that what we hope for, as he promised, will come to fruition. So why do we have to worry?
Faith that depends on an outcome is not the way, and that’s why we, or I at least, have failed miserably in many prayers to be answered. He is there for me always, in little things, and although I would like to see him coming through in big things, that’s not the way to think.
Jay: One of the problems with outcome-based faith is the text about the mustard seed—that if we had a mustard seed of faith, we could do anything, which leads us to the idea of faith as a lever and if a lever is long enough you can move anything with it. That verse sets up a quid pro quo relationship, but when you read further, Christ moves right into the story of the slaves, where it seems that after you’ve done everything you should (follow the commandments of God, love your neighbor as yourself and the Lord your God with all your heart) you should then confess to being unworthy slaves who have done only that which ought to have been done anyway.
We tend to think we have a quid pro quo relationship such that if I do these things—love the Lord and my neighbor—I should be getting a little reward, a little blessing, a little something. In these uncertain times it seems harder to decide what is the right thing to do, what is the best course of action. I want to be in control, I want to be able to manage the situation, yet faith may be the acknowledgement that God is in control
Peter denied knowing Christ. So did Peter have faith, or did he really mess up? Or am I looking at it backwards? Did Peter have any choice but to deny Christ? After all, did Christ not prophesy that Peter would deny him? If Christ is God then he is all knowing. Maybe what we perceive as trials of faith are instances of God in control of the outcome, which I might not understand or like or want, but it is God‘s outcome.
Anonymous: Jesus was advising Peter and the two other disciples to stay up and pray with him, so that they would not fall into temptation. If Judas prayed, as Jesus had taught them, “Lead us not into temptation,” would Judas not have betrayed Jesus? The plan of salvation would have changed if God had answered that prayer. It would have stopped the betrayal of Jesus and the crucifixion. So as Jay said, God knows what he’s doing, so let him do it, even through our trials.
Reinhard: To me, faith does not bring results, but results bring faith, or complement faith. Seeing a positive result from our obedience to God helps strengthen our faith. I think we have to go to practical Christian life. We here all have faith, but if we look back to the garden and the fall of Man, we know that Adam and Eve looked at God by sight, not by faith. They knew God. They were the first family. They communicated with God in Eden. But they violated their faith because they disobeyed. They were not in fear for their lives (unlike the disciples in the boat in the storm). They did not need some help from God.
Faith comes out at moments of need. Having no pressing needs, Adam and Eve were easy prey for Satan and succumbed to the serpent’s temptation. We don’t know what went on in their minds, but obviously they expected to become like God, and when that did not happen they started to blame each other and lie. So when somebody doesn’t have strong faith, terrible things can happen.
C-J: I think it all comes down to relationship. Faith is relationship. It really isn’t about cause and effect. In a relationship, you have to invest. You have to commit to that relationship in order for it to get depth—another word for understanding. When we look at faith, we need to understand that we are a participant. Sin to me is separation in that relationship. There’s a disconnect. There is a natural order. You have to learn to flow with it. We can’t learn to run until we learn to walk, and I think it’s the same in the spiritual domain.
If we see ourselves as an instrument in this process, metaphorical instruments in the hands of God, and if we are wielded—that’s the beauty of freedom—if we are wielded to let the root grow deep in that relationship, I think that’s the success of this word “faith.” It isn’t like “If I have enough faith” or “I sinned.” I think it’s all a process. All the players are on the board, everybody has to show up, everybody has a purpose and intention, in time and space.
When we see that beautiful handiwork of the Divine, faith becomes operational. And it is limitless like the galaxy, but it’s always in a state of flux. I just think it’s the way we’re wired as human beings. It’s binary—if this, therefore that. But when we open to the creative spirit that is within us, we understand that you can never say I am in the infinite, as we see it written in Scripture, complete in and of itself.
We’re a work in process, and I need you. We need every element that our brain is able to comprehend to see that expressed. When we say “I see the divine in you” in the word namaste, what we’re saying is that I see the work of this entity, this spirit, this energy functioning, and when my brain can acknowledge it, and interpret it, that same spirit is working with me by faith. We’re very limited in what we perceive, we’re very limited in the language we have, but I know when it’s happening. I know when I feel that faith is operational. The aha moment: “Oh, I get it.”
Kiran: My Christian journey started with outcome faith. I would pray and things would happen. I prayed to quit smoking and I quit smoking. I prayed to quit alcohol and it was so. That’s how my journey began. Then I came to the USA to do my PhD. I was in the program for almost five years and I could not see any end to it. My boss told me I still had a long way to go. In my mind, I had these questions. I’m a faithful Christian, I belong to church, I pay my tithes, I go to church every Saturday, I do all these ministries. So how come God is not blessing me more than my other colleagues—including atheists—who don’t care about God? I should be more successful in my PhD, I thought.
It’s not that I did not put effort in there. We would work like 16 or 17 hours every day. Research is such that no matter how much you work, sometimes the answer is the answer. It’s not publishable. And I got that like, seven times out of the 10 that I tried. What else can I do? I was in a really low point in 2012. I had a thesis committee meeting in September, at which I explained that I wanted to graduate but couldn’t keep going for five more years and I wanted to leave. They said, No, you can’t leave. You can’t get the PhD. You have to get something else. I was really at a low point. I was questioning God.
The next morning I woke up to a devotion that I subscribed to from UK. It talked about destination disease: Some people think that if they reach their destination they will be happy. But once they do, then they realize that they’re not happy and they search for another destination. But God is calling you to live today and enjoy the process and see what you can learn. The other explanation was: If you’re not able to reach your destination, there is something that you have to learn in this journey which you’re not learning. You’re blind to it. You should probably ask God to open your eyes so you can see what it is.
It changed my mind so much, to the point where all my pain and all the things I couldn’t explain, all these things that were keeping me awake at night just broke. I went to my boss next morning, and she was expecting a conflict. But I told her, “You know best. So if you say I’m not ready, I’m not ready. So I’m just gonna go back to the lab, and then I’m gonna do my best. And when you think I’m ready, let me know.” It took two and a half years more in the lab, but I finished my PhD.
Within those two years, my sister, who became a Christian (from a Hindu background) couldn’t find a Christian husband so she decided to marry a Hindu. I prayed and fasted for a week that she wouldn’t do that, but she did. Such things changed my mind to the point where I accepted that it doesn’t matter if bad outcome happens to you. Because in the end, somehow God will make it work out. My sister is fine, she’s happy. I’m okay; or at least, I’m not terribly cut up.
I realized that when I give up expectation of an outcome, it frees me up so much that life is easy and happy. I used to worry about what happens to my mother and sister if I die. I don’t have those feelings anymore. If I die, God will take care of them as he took care of me when my dad died when I was 18. He will take care of people no matter what. It might not be exactly what I expect—I might have to ride in coach instead of first class—but he will make sure that I get to the end point.
The conflicts that we face shape us for the better. The statue of a guard in the temple at Tirupati in India (the second richest temple in the whole world) is made from the same stone as the temple gate. One day the gate said to the statue: “The worshippers know we are made from the same stone. How come they worship you but not me? They pour oils and milk on you, but they step on me.” The statue replied: “Well, for my nose, they beat me 300 times. For my eyelashes, they beat me 400 times. You just had four beatings and you were ready.” So I guess the more we go through fire, the more our mind changes, and we get to be a better Christian. Or as Reinhard said, we become more obedient to the process of God.
But I do say that some people do begin with outcome faith, but God leads them on a journey to the point where it doesn’t matter what the outcome, that whether I get this or that I’m going to follow God no matter what. I think faith is the point of decision where we make up our mind, not the outcome.
Don: One of the things that struck me in reading the passage from Luke 17 is that it begins with the context of misleading the little ones, and if you’re doing that you might just as well tie a millstone around your neck and jump into the sea. That’s the context for the discussion of faith Jesus had with his disciples and he told the parable that we talked about this morning. Is it possible that our view of faith is misleading people, is misleading little ones? Is it possible that we need a completely different view of faith? And if so, what kind of faith? What kind of faith can can give you assurance? Is non-outcome faith good enough? And should we be teaching the little ones—the spiritually immature—about faith? What should be their expectations? How can we make faith vibrant and real and authentic and genuine but not something that brings continuous disappointment?
David: I question the very concept of faith. If there is no outcome from faith, then there is no outcome either for lack of faith. Scripture points to fairly dire outcomes for people who lack faith, yet there are many examples of people who have no faith yet get by in life perfectly well, grow rich and lead happy and good lives, as there are of people of faith who lead horrible lives and have all sorts of disasters happen to them. So logically, if faith does not attract outcomes, then neither does lack of faith. So, again, the question is: What use is faith? What use is the very concept of faith?
C-J: Faith, to me implies a commitment. It’s not situational. I commit to this way of being, even if it means I lose. If I choose to love a person, it doesn’t imply I expect that person to love me back. It’s a free will offering. I choose to do good work, even if I may never see the fruit of my work. So I think that in the greatest meaning of abstract, faith has no boundary. It doesn’t have a beginning or an end. It shouldn’t have an expectation. It is a free-willed decision to commit to something that promises you nothing. But you choose to believe it might have great value. To expect more will most certainly bring disappointment, because we ask amiss—we ask out of pride, ego, even if it’s with good, altruistic purpose. It is not our decision. Our decision is to commit.
Donald: I would concur. But in John 14 (“I go to prepare a place for you”) it is our commission to preach the gospel that Christ will come again. We feel (unfortunately) that our commitment and our actions will determine whether we have eternal life or not. So eternal life is connected to this. It’s not just a matter of a day to day experience.
Kiran: What’s the good when faith is not linked to the outcome? Experientially, for me, it freed me up. I don’t have fear of the unknown, fear of the bad outcome, any more. I don’t seek control of my life any more. I do struggle with it a little bit. But in the end, because of this faith, I give up. It’s like free falling from an aeroplane knowing that at some point the parachute will open, and if it doesn’t, death will be quick. I have way less fear about my future than I had before when I subscribed to this new faith.
David: That would make you a good Daoist. You would have no faith—or rather, no concept of faith. C-J is right to point us toward definition. We’ve been trying to define faith since August. We can talk about it as a relationship, as outcomes, and so on, but if a concept is so slippery that you can’t really ever understand it, then what’s the use of that concept? What good does it do? The Daoist would tend to say it doesn’t do any good (or any harm, either). So forget about it. Just accept the Way, the world as it is; look to the good things. Daoism is not a Satanic religion, it does not do black magic, and I think if you were to look at the millions and millions of Daoists in China, you’d find as good and decent a community as any other community whether of faith or of no faith. So I challenge the very concept of faith. If we have such difficulty defining it, is it because perhaps it doesn’t exist, or we are incapable of ever grasping it?
Robin: We have faith. Almost from day one, we have faith in our parents. As soon as we have an awareness of people around us, we have faith that our parents will provide comfort when we’re upset. We have faith in our teachers when we go to school. Are people going to disappoint our faith in them? Sure! I’m sure I can’t even probably count the number of people that I’ve disappointed in my life, whose faith in me I didn’t honor.
But to say faith doesn’t exist? Not at all. I’m not comfortable with that. If you’re a scientist and you don’t understand something, you study it. Then you increase in your knowledge, and then you increase in your faith in what science has shown you. Well, you just flip it and it’s a spiritual faith. You don’t say science doesn’t exist. And we’d better not say that the spiritual side of our humanity through the God who is a spirit doesn’t exist.
Donald: Carolyn raised the relationship between faith and prayer. Is prayer an indicator of your connection? Reaching out? Holding on? What’s the purpose of prayer? If we let faith go, If we let faith go, then what’s the value of prayer? And certainly, we were taught to pray.
Robin: Faith brings to me and probably to every individual a different way, a different process, but the same result. Like this political upheaval right now. I have a degree of peace. I won’t say that I’m a good model of anything. But some people are very drawn to politics, like all of us are drawn toward something or another in this world. And some are very upset with current political events. To me, Democrat and Republican are the same monster just wearing different masks. So I just have as much peace as I can.
Not that I don’t worry, not that events don’t upset me. But I have this peace that God is still in control and evil is revealing itself for what it really is and what it really will do. But God is still going to put an end to it eventually. And that gives me peace. Faith gives me the ability to have that peace. It’s disturbed sometimes, sure. But when I talk to my Father about what’s bothering me, he provides that peace.
C-J: Regarding prayer: I think that’s more about the finite world we live in. I think prayer is more about us plugging in. If I kept asking the same thing, my father used to say: “Don’t beg, C-J; it’s very unbecoming. I heard you the first time.” I think really what my father wanted was a dialogue about why the decision had been made, that this isn’t a good thing, or I’m just giving an answer of “No, I don’t have to explain it.”
I believe prayer is what we as humans need to do in that relationship with one another, and we transfer that to God because we don’t let the spirit within us flow. I think our relationship with God is intuitive. Just like the mother who knows something’s wrong with her child even though she may not see it. In the spirit dimension the child is saying: “I need help.”
So when we pray for things because of need, or love, it’s not that we’re saying “I can’t do this, let God do it.” It is that we’re really asking for an understanding of the situation—when to let go, when to allow the child to fall so that they can connect the dots in terms of the tools that they should be using and how to use those tools. Because life is that journey of maturation. When we see that in another person, that’s when we don’t pray amiss. We say “Lord, put your hand on this person that they might come into a better understanding of the purpose of this time in place.” It’s a completely different type of communion.
I mean that literally and spiritually, the word communion, in fellowship; that there’s a joint identity of something far greater than what we are. This is so temporal, and so finite. But when we’re in communion, it’s a depth that language cannot begin to express.
Ahmed: My understanding is that faith is most evident and most tested at times of difficulty. It is the light that guides us through the tunnel, through difficulty and through challenging times. The outcome is not expected to be in this life, but in the afterlife.