Have We Got Faith All Wrong?

During the last week of March 2020, our church board met to consider what to do about church service in light of a new virus that was sweeping the world. After careful review of all the facts, a decision was made to close the church for gathering and to conduct online services. Several members were highly opposed to this decision.

It was, they said, a matter of faith. Why should we be concerned about a virus when we are worshipping a God who is more powerful than any virus? With God at our side, we should advance, we shouldn’t retreat. One couple even wrote a very thoughtful letter questioning whether they could continue to be members of a church with so little faith.

Fast forward now to September 2020. After a summer of outdoors church, the decision to move the church meeting back indoors was being considered. Foremost was the discussion about safety measures—masks, hand sanitizer, social distancing, temperature screening, etc. Again it was raised: “It’s a matter of faith. How can God bless a congregation having so little faith that they require personal protective equipment in church? God will protect us. God is our PPE.”

Just this month, on December 3, I read this article in Healthline, entitled “Indoor church services are COVID-19 hotspots.” I’ll just read it a little bit of the article:

“A number of COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred in churches throughout the country. Experts say that indoor church services are high risk for COVID-19 because people sit close together and many times don’t wear a mask when they sing, pray, and talk. Last week [this article was dated December 3, so it’s a few weeks ago] in a five to four vote the Supreme Court sided with churches and synagogues in New York’s COVID-19 hotspots who argued that capping attendance was unconstitutional. The ruling comes as a novel coronavirus is surging across the country and states are dealing with record numbers of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. ‘It is important,’ one infectious disease doctor said, ‘to remember that the virus doesn’t care where you’re gathering. It’s not going to give you a pass because you’re gathering to worship. It is potentially going to result in increased cases, increased hospitalizations, and more deaths. In North Carolina health officials are investigating an outbreak that began last month at the United House of Prayer for all people in Charlotte and spread to the community. So far more than 200 people have tested positive and 12 have died. Massachusetts epidemiologists have tied 36 COVID-19 clusters of 316 confirmed cases to places of worship in that state since the beginning of the pandemic. Last month more than 200 confirmed covid 19 cases were traced to the Crossroads Community Church in Pittsburgh, Massachusetts.” (excerpted from https://www.healthline.com/health-news/indoor-church-services-are-covid-19-hot-spots-heres-why)

How can faith be accurately assessed in a COVID crisis? Those 12 churchgoers in North Carolina I’m sure died in good faith. Does the use of science and technology mitigate or diminish faith? What is presumption? And how does faith relate to presumption?

By faith, Noah built an ark and then entered the ark and stayed there for 150 days—five months. In this story, we see technology, the building of something that has never been built before, waterproofed in a special way, and then quarantined for five months, all in the service of faith.

God instructed the Israelites on the eve of the Exodus to stay in their houses (Exodus 12:22-23, quarantining them for the night of the Passover. Moses himself was given instructions to quarantine lepers outside the camp, and to burn the clothes of the infectious lepers.

Rahab’s family was likewise quarantined (in the book of Joshua) in their house in Jericho for their safety and eventually their salvation:

…unless, when we come into the land, you tie this cord of scarlet thread in the window through which you let us down, and gather into your house your father, your mother, your brothers, and all your father’s household. 19And it shall come about that anyone who goes out of the doors of your house outside will have [m]his blood on his own head, and we will be innocent; but anyone who is with you in the house, his blood will be on our head if a hand is laid on him. (Joshua 2:18-19)

What does God expect of my faith? The three Hebrew worthies were saved from the fiery furnace. Daniel himself was saved from the lions’ den. Yet in the Hebrews 11 “faith chapter” we’ve been studying we read quite a different story. While “Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, [and] put foreign armies to flight” (Hebrews 11:32-34) others were not so fortunate:

Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mocking and flogging, and further, chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented (people of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts, on mountains, and sheltering in caves and holes in the ground. And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:35-40)

In February 2014, this pastor was not so fortunate, either:

The “snake handling” pastor of a small Pentecostal church in Kentucky died after being bitten by a rattlesnake during a weekend church service. Jamie Coots, the pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, Ky., was handling a rattlesnake during a service when he was bitten on his right hand Saturday night. But when the ambulance arrived at 8:30 p.m., the EMS team found that Coots had gone home, according to a statement from the Middlesboro Police Department. Middlesboro Police Chief Jeff Sharpe told ABC News that, according to people at the church, Coots verbally refused treatment at the church. He said Coots was unconscious when he got to his house. When the ambulance crew arrived at Coots’ home, his wife Linda Coots signed a form declining medical treatment, police said. Emergency personnel left about 9:10 p.m. that night. When they returned about an hour later to check on Coots, police said he was dead from a venomous snake bite. The snake-handling pastor’s son Cody Coots said his father had handled the snake that bit him many times before. (ABC News, Feb. 17, 2014 https://abcnews.go.com/US/snake-handling-pentecostal-pastor-dies-snake-bite/story?id=22551754

Should faith be cautious, or should faith be bold? Where is the line between faith and foolishness / presumption? If I believe in science, does that diminish my faith? Is cautious faith weak faith? Is bold faith strong faith? Is this argument about faith and its presumptuous nature rooted in seeing faith as a commodity, and not seeing faith as letting God be God?

People of faith have long considered science and technology as being somehow the opposite of faith, and hold a deep distrust of science itself. Is it a choice we have to make, or is there room for both faith and science?

David: I believe none of the examples of faith given in the Bible are meant to be taken literally. I think they’re all metaphors. I don’t think that God intervenes in worldly affairs. I think the faith that we have is faith in the existence of God and in the notion of salvation in an afterlife that we cannot possibly understand but that’s what we are to have faith in.

Some of the examples that Don gave this morning (the snake-bitten pastor, the women tortured) just go to show that God does not intervene in worldly affairs, so why have faith that God will intervene? If there is what looks like an intervention—say, a miraculously cured cancer—then it’s either science that came to the rescue, or just sheer luck. I don’t believe it’s ever God in those situations.

Carolyn: I was listening this week to Rick Warren. He said faith is seeing things from God’s point of view. I’m just wondering how we determine God’s point of view, if not through Scripture?

Bryan: It seems to me like God put in motion in this world laws that govern how things work. I’m beginning to agree that there is very little intervention in how those laws work on a day to day basis. You’re kind of dealt a deck of cards when you’re born. The choices you make along the way can affect how those cards are played and the results of those cards, but it seems to me like the cards that you are dealt are what you have been given. You’re to make the most of those, but along the way, there’s very little intervention in the cards, if there’s any at all.

Kiran: The elders meetings that we had in March and in September to decide whether to be indoors or outdoors, or whether to cancel the church or not, were the hardest I have ever attended. I was angry almost to the point of leaving the church. In the gospels, people went around touching and healing the sick and the lame. We know that is true so we believe in the power. But people don’t go around doing that now. Is it wrong for us to think that that kind of faith doesn’t exist any more? Does it invalidate what the Bible says?

On the other hand, if you think that since it used to happen, it should still be happening now, so faith is still available as a protective shield. But as we discussed last week, if the definition of faith is letting God be God, letting him do his job, then it doesn’t matter. We don’t need to think about it at all. But if we think faith is a muscle that can be strengthened through exercise, then we may be inclined to take silly risks like picking up rattlesnakes.

We take action on our own initiative, thinking that God will intervene, as the Israelites did. They took the Ark of the Covenant with them into battle thinking God must then fight on their side and they would win. But God had to teach them a lesson. They lost the battle—and the Ark—to the Philistines.

Knowing that faith is not a muscle to exercise, if it doesn’t grow by exercising it more and more, but believing that at the end of the day, no matter what the circumstances, if you take refuge in God, he will somehow make all things work for the better for you. That does not necessarily mean becoming prosperous and healthy in this life, but at the end, you will be clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

That is a very hard sell as a religion. If we tried to sell it, no one would want to come to our church. And so we have to say he will make people prosper, which he does for some, but it’s up to him. God knows the innermost workings of our hearts and our minds and does what is best for each of us when we take refuge in him.

David: Has there been any drop off in church attendance since the since the Zoom meetings began? Is anybody keeping count?

Kiran: People joining Sabbath school classes online has increased. But only about 75 participate in online worship (not necessarily individuals but sometimes whole families). Now we’ve started indoor service again we’re getting about 35 on average and online has fallen to 25 to 30. We have a deficit of about 10 people but maybe they’re logging into some other church service. So we can’t say for sure.

Donald: We need to be careful, because we’re in a bit of a transition it seems, independent of the pandemic, in the use of online church services. The Adventists among us know that Randy Roberts, 3-ABN and Dwight Nelson are go-to pastors for the whole nation. So to measure how many people are in attendance at Oakwood is difficult. They may have just moved on to one of the other services, while Oakwood is being disrupted.

There are many, many shut-ins now who attend one of those three services rather than going to church, independent of the pandemic. The idea of going to virtual church is quite a different thing than being at a real church. I’m not sure the corporate Church has really come to understand the ramifications. It’s probably going to be significant after the pandemic is over. People may have gotten used to this way of attending church.

It brings us back to the question: Are we trying to be God through technology and control? I think thats a very significant question in relation to this conversation. David was more comfortable with the idea of faith as a constant, as opposed to as a variable. The desire to measure faith as a variable is what leads to picking up rattlesnakes and trying to be God. And so we have settled on the idea of faith as letting God be God.

David: I have faith in the existence of a higher power, faith in the existence of God. I see it as a universal belief. It’s not the property of any particular religion or church or denomination.

I know Jesus said that faith was one of the three weightier matters of the law (the other two being justice and mercy) but I’m arguing that faith is not necessary, that all God really wants us to do is to love one another. Period. That’s it. If we do that, he’s a happy camper, because his creation would run the way he always wanted it to run. It would be a world of love, a world where we treat each other the way we want others to treat us, a world with a single commandment: the Golden Rule.

Jesus boiled everything—everything—down to two things: Love one another and love God. But by loving one another it seems to me we are in fact loving God, whether we admit to belief in God or not. I have friends who are good people, and I’ve read books by good people, who don’t believe in God at all. The only way to account for why they are good people and the only possible source of their goodness is God.

They will deny it, but at the end of the day, having faith in God will probably help anyone to love others more than having no faith in God, simply because God is there (if you let him be there) to remind you all the time.

If you love your neighbor anyway, faith doesn’t matter, it seems to me.

Carolyn: Does faith go together with prayer? Or are they it separate? Is prayer strictly our communication with God, without asking God for favors or whatever we need? We cry out to God, and we are told to pray without ceasing. Is there a balance between prayer and faith?

Don: A few weeks ago, my dear brother died. Prior to his death, there was a special service at his house where all the elders of the church came together and prayed. Some spoke in resounding and unequivocal tones about the importance and the power of faith and how faith could heal my brother. But the course of his illness was unaffected.

I’ve been to innumerable sessions of prayer and anointing and healing. I can’t recall a single one where miraculous healing took place. Some would argue that it’s a deficiency in my faith, that my faith is not strong enough, or that my brother’s faith wasn’t strong enough, or maybe the faith of the elders who came to pray for him wasn’t strong enough. What is the relationship between this faith and putting God to work for me?

Jeff: I have long struggled with this whole issue. We have an entire book—the Bible—that depicts a very interventionist God, yet in our daily lives, and in our observation in daily life, we don’t see that. To me, that’s the crux of the matter. If I didn’t have the Bible-driven expectation of an interventionist God and if I didn’t have the experience that I have had in life, then this wouldn’t be such a conflict. But this is what has brought me to this point of taking the hands-off approach that my understanding is and always will be insufficient. I do not have an explanation for this, as frustrating as that is.

Bryan: I’m with you, when you’re talking about all of these services where you ask for special favors and it really doesn’t change anything. I’ve read a couple of books recently on prayer, and that’s the whole crux of the problem: If our faith is insufficient when we ask for a result, then how do you get the result? The Bible talks about it being very simple. Well, it’s not. At least, it doesn’t seem to be.

That need not affect faith in a higher power, in God, in knowing that God is there, that God is real. You have a life that’s been given to you and you’re supposed to make the best of it by the choices you make. Continue to believe in that. Live your life according to those principles. But don’t ask for anything else, because you’re not going to get it.

Don: Do we need a new definition of faith? Do we need a completely different understanding of faith? The commonly—probably the most commonly—held view of faith is as a commodity or a currency that can be spent, used, at a time of need. In this view, faith is something I have at my disposal. Who wants to serve a God that can’t be called upon by faith to do what we want him to do when we need him to do it?

Donald: I’m not sure it changes things much, but I want to be faithful. I think that’s kind of a response, as opposed to me trying to be in charge. I think prayer is a reflection of your relationship with God. Obviously, if you don’t have faith in God, you probably won’t find yourself often in prayer. So prayer is trying to build that relationship, it seems to me. In the end, if God finds me faithful, he will be faithful. This is the hand we’re dealt, and the way we respond to the hand we’re dealt reflects our faith in God.

Jeff: There are multiple places throughout the Bible where God flat out says he is faithful. What contract is that to us? What is it that he is now contractually bound to give us in this faithfulness? Faithfulness seems to be different from faith. Nowhere in the Bible does it say God has faith but it mentions multiple times that he will be faithful to us.

Anonymous: I thought this topic was complicated enough, but our discussion has made it even more so. It has so many ramifications. We add prayer, we add presumption,… it’s really too big of a subject.

A faithful God and faithful people probably involves two different meanings of the word. God being faithful to us, to me, means that he keeps his word. That’s why he’s faithful to us. To be faithful is to be full of faith in God. What it means also to me is to believe his promise. So to have faith is to believe his promises, believe everything he says, believe that he is, believe in the plan he made for our salvation, believe in every kind of revelation from God, whether personal or corporate or through the Bible.

The Lord’s Prayer says: “Thy will be done.” I once thought, well, that means we shouldn’t pray for anything, because this is the only thing we should pray for, according to Jesus, just for God’s will to be done, and we don’t know what his will is, in certain circumstances. For instance, if I pray for someone to be healed, I don’t know if his will is to heal or not to heal that person. And I don’t know why he would choose to heal or why would he not choose to heal. My part is to accept, no matter what he decides to do.

The three worthies did not know whether God would intervene or not. They just believed that he’s able to do something. And then they said: “Even if he doesn’t, we’re not going to worship your statue.” So God intervened at that point. They did not choose to throw themselves in the fiery furnace, unlike the pastor who handled the rattlesnake, who went to it head on and meant to. It’s not that God told him to do it. He just went, presumably, to prove that God is right. Well, God doesn’t need to be proven. He’s right. He’s true. And he’s able. We don’t have to prove him.

The three worthies did not throw themselves into the fire. The king’s decree was for them to be thrown in. So with us: If we’re put in circumstances where harm is imposed on us, whether we say yes or no, it’s going to happen. But God’s prerogative is to say: “No, I won’t let them go through this” or “It’s okay. I want him to go through this”—as he did to Jesus on the cross. God did not listen to Jesus’s plea—he let him go through the crucifixion. We don’t know why God allows this or that. Our part is to have belief, to have faith, to believe that he knows what he’s doing and no matter what he decides to do, to accept it. I’m not blaming him for not intervening. I’m not angry. But I am making my desires known to him.

And that that has something to do with the definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1 as “the substance of things hoped for.” So we make our hopes known to him. But we have the assurance that if we don’t have this faith we wouldn’t even hope for anything. The three worthies did not see God with them in the furnace before they were thrown in there. But they believed in him, and that’s faith.

To let God be God doesn’t mean that he will intervene every time. Let God be God. Let him decide. Let him decide if he wants to take my life or he wants the chemo to work. Leave God to let me go through an accident and either have broken bones or be paralyzed for life. It’s his choice. I don’t know why he chooses what he chooses, but I accept it. I think that’s what faith is.

Jeff: The Lord’s Prayer is the literal word of Christ. He’s teaching us how to pray. But right within the prayer, to me, is the conundrum: He starts off by saying: “Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven,”—in other words, let God be God. But then he goes on to give a series of specific requests, presumably with the understanding that we’re asking, we’re imploring God to act in a specific way: Give us our daily bread, forgive us our debts, and so on. That’s the whole crux of the problem.

Chris: We always want to link faith to some sort of event or action or outcome. Do we need a redefining of what faith is? When I go back to the garden and I think of two key words mentioned by Anonymous: Hope, and things unseen. In the garden, Adam and Eve saw it. They saw God. They didn’t hope to know God, they didn’t hope to figure out what God’s will was for them. These were things that they could see, things that they knew. The faith that we’re talking about really didn’t come into play until after man’s fall.

For me, maybe there is a redefining of faith as a faith that is not dependent on an outcome or dependent on an action but simply a faith in God, which we’re very scared to do, to be honest with you. Because once you actually put faith in God, you have given up control, you have given up your will. You’re essentially saying: “God, I have faith in you and who you are. And I understand that what happens is happening because you have allowed it to happen. But really, it is no longer dependent on any action of mine, or any influence of mine whatsoever when it comes to faith.”

My definition of faith goes away and it now becomes a definition that is reliant upon God. And we don’t like that type of faith, to be honest with you. We don’t want that type of faith. We want the faith that says if I do this, I know that God will do this for me. When I think of all the things that Jesus and the disciples did, in the end, it was all because that’s what God allowed, that was God’s will.

If Jesus was the perfect divinity within humanity, his will was never being played out. God’s will was always being played out. The faith that Jesus was exhibiting was a faith not on dependence of self or our desires or our wants or our actions, but truly a faith that was: “God your will is going to be done”—and that was seen ultimately tested in the garden of Gethsemane when he was struggling.

In the end, what did he say? “Not my will, but thy will.” The ultimate faith. It’s not a faith that I define, or faith that I desire, but a faith that God is who God is, and what happens is because of what he allows, and I trust that. This is a faith that is very scary in the end,

Don: Because we want the 6,000 angels to come and defend us.

Donald: The rattlesnake pastor was actually putting himself in front of others as a display of faith that God would protect him. As Seventh-day Adventists, we believe that Ellen White was inspired. Does that give her more of something? I think the word inspired would suggest that she has more of something.

The leaders of our faith really want to display faith in action. They do. They’re up front, and they’re not going to be timid about their faith. I just think that’s another aspect of this conversation. There are some persons out there that we would look to as probably having greater faith, as inspired.

Reinhard: I think the human situation in terms of our health, and death, is a big mystery to us as Christians. God probably has some plan for each one of us, for the condition of our lives on this earth and life after. But for godly people, we don’t really see a result for most of our requests through prayer (“Ask and it shall be given to you”). Sometime the result is unpleasant, such as not recovering from an illness.

Our life on this earth will not last more than 120 years, it says in Genesis 6. So to me, it’s God’s prerogative. God can pick and choose what he wants, but I believe God answers most of our prayers. I can see this in our lives. Some prayers get no answer, but the bottom line is if we keep our faith strong and we hold tight to Jesus, we don’t have to worry about the future.

We need not fear death but we should worry about and look out for the one who can kill the soul. We have to remain strong in God so that someday we will have eternal life in heaven. I think that’s the point we have to remember.

David: Of all the people Jesus blessed in the Beatitudes, none was noted for having faith. They were poor in spirit, they were mourning, they were gentle people, they were hungering and thirsting for righteousness, they were merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted. But Jesus did not say that any of them had faith. As with the murderer on the cross next to Jesus, who recognized the goodness in Jesus and Jesus told him he was saved, it was a spiritual salvation. That’s what we’re promised.

And that’s what the Bible is about. It’s a spiritual book. It is not a worldly book. It’s not a “How to Get Out of Cancer Free” book. It’s how to live your life so that at the end of the day you will be blessed. And in spiritual terms, the end of the day means the end of life.

Anonymous: I agree.

Don: We have much more to discuss and are still looking for a functional working definition of faith that that makes sense in the world in which we live and in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

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