God told his people to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land. How would they get across? God said that as soon as they stepped into the river, He would part the waters. (Joshua 1:10-11; 3:12-16) It was an act of faith to step out, believing that God would do what He said He would do. In a case like this, faith believes that if I act, God’s promised results will happen.
We are created beings, and therefore we are finite. This means that we are not God and we do not know everything. Because of our limited power and knowledge we cannot be totally, 100% sure of most things. For example, you cannot be 100% sure that you will reach your destination in a car or plane. You cannot be 100% sure that a surgery will accomplish the health objectives you hope for. You cannot be 100% sure that what you teach your children is getting through to them. We simply do not have all control or know enough to be 100% sure, but in spite of uncertainty, we still go ahead and act on what we know. Faith is that aspect of our finite humanity that enables us to act on something, even though we do not know for sure the outcome. If we required a 100% certainty before doing what we needed to do in everyday life, we would not get much done. It is interesting that some people live on less than 100% certainty with most of life, but when it comes to the Christian Faith, they want 100% proof before they will believe.
Faith is an act of exercising the mind. It involves objectivity. Faith always has an object. It believes in something. Faith is saying “yes” to the object we believe in, whether it is a visible object, like Jesus and His resurrection was; or an invisible object, like God, or a statement such as “the earth is round” or “God is love”. Our mind weighs evidences for the existence and truth of these things, and says I believe it or not. Faith is not a blind leap into the dark, but has reasons, whether good or bad, for what it believes.
Faith is an act of exercising the human spirit. It involves subjectivity, meaning that faith is an inner total commitment to its object. Faith is reliance or dependency on the character, ability, strength or truth of someone or something. It is an inner disposition of trust that places confidence in someone, something, or a statement. Faith is transferring control of your life to the object you trust. These two aspects of faith are involved in Christianity; mind-objectivity and spirit-commitment. (John 14:10-11, believe that…believe Me) The Bible says that faith is information to be believed and a person to be trusted, turning over the control of our life to that Divine truth and to that Divine person.
Faith never acts without an object. We always believe in something rather than nothing. The problem is that there are two kinds of objects to believe in: the good or the evil, the real or the false. God represents all truth – what is real and good. Satan, Jesus said, is a deceiver and a liar and his goal is always to destroy people. (John 8:44) Satan represents what is evil and false. Therefore, when we are presented with an object to believe, we need to determine if it is good or evil, true or false. If the object is true, then our faith will be rewarded with what is promised. But if the object is false, then our faith will be disappointed rather than rewarded. For this reason, it is important to investigate the objects of our faith to determine if they are worth believing in. When we are talking about religious beliefs, what we believe will lead either to life or death. People say all religion is good. Not so. Religions, though there may be truth involved in each, can be based on false facts or statements, and false ideologies. Christians believe that the Bible can be trusted as truth about what is real, and for valid reasons, should be accepted over other religions’ sacred writings. The point is, if we do not put our faith in something that is real and true, it will not deliver to us what is promised. For example, some people have a habit of storing their pills in different bottles. If I take a pill, thinking that it is what I read on the label, but something different has been put into the bottle, my faith may be ok, but the object I believe in will not work for me. The object I believe in must be real and true for it to deliver what is expected. It is possible for Christians to have a wrong idea of what the Bible teaches and then be disappointed because something is believed that is not true. For example, I could believe that God will always make my life better and remove my suffering and problems. But it doesn’t happen because God has never promised this. Our faith has not failed, but the object of our faith failed because it was not true or real. Is the object we believe true and worth putting our faith in? That is the issue. As the apostle Paul said about one of the objects of our faith, “If there is no resurrection of Jesus body, then our faith is worthless.” (1 Corinthians 15:17) What we believe must be true or real for it to produce what is promised and expected.
The Bible gives a definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is an assured confidence that what God promises and is hoped for will happen. Faith knows that the unseen God is real and will fulfill His promises to us. What we understand from the persons in Hebrews 11 is that faith believes the following: (1) that God exists, (2) that God has spoken, and (3) that God will reward all who trust Him. Faith for these people was more than a wish or a “hope-so” type of mental exercise. Faith produced the assurance and the conviction that an unseen God and His yet unfulfilled promises were sure things. According to this verse, by believing these things, faith brings a knowledge that is certain. Persons can be unsure of something until faith is exercised.
God wants our faith to be strong and right, so He will test it to help it become what it needs to be. If you claim to have faith in something, but experience fear or doubt or worry or depression or panic, then, as much as you claim faith, or are trying to have faith, either that faith needs strengthening, or it has been directed to the wrong object. The Bible says, “The Lord tests hearts”. (Proverbs 17:3) It is testing that reveals the condition of our faith and it is the testing that serves to strengthen, or weaken, and for some, even destroy faith. When we talk about a strong faith, we are talking about the kind in Hebrews 11 where a person has assurance resulting in peace of mind and heart, and which will result in the promised outcome. A strong faith in God will believe in His goodness and promises no matter what evils may be in view. For example, if you have faith in Christ, God promises forgiveness for your wrongs, no condemnation, and eternal life. (Romans 5:1; 8:1) Your test may be doubts in your mind – “I feel the guilt of my wrongs and I have a hard time believing that God has forgiven me”. A strong faith will believe God’s promise of forgiveness in Christ and not doubt. As a result, there will be peace with God and with oneself. A weak faith is due to incomplete confidence in what God has done and said. The test has revealed the condition of your faith. The way the test will strengthen you is by challenging you to work through the issues involved. Working through the issues may require reviewing and agreeing with the facts, working on character defects which are preventing your ability to believe, or asking God to help your faith. Remember, a man once said to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief”. (Mark 9:24) This man wanted to whole-heartedly believe, but needed help.
Do persons have free will to exercise faith? There is a sense in which we do not. For example, some will not get on an airplane because of fear it will crash. Some have an unwillingness, or inability, to trust anyone because so often they have been abused or lied to. People have prejudices and emotions entrenched deep within them from past experiences and these pre-conditioned factors prevent them from exercising faith in certain things. Factors for not being able to exercise faith include fears, doubts, skepticism, unwillingness, a need for more knowledge, rebellion, and more. Are people free to believe, or do these hindrances prevent the faith from acting? It seems that certain factors must be dealt with before people are willing or able to exercise their faith? Are we free to exercise faith if we are limited by factors that prevent us from exercising it?
Following is something of my personal struggle with faith. It is a story of how God can help our unbelief by helping to remove hindrances to faith, in my case, misplaced trust. I was experiencing heightened struggles in two areas; with pride, and also with doubts that God existed. My doubts arose because I did not see that God was helping me with my long standing health issues. Of course, the result was added anxieties. I believed Satan was attacking me with these thoughts of pride and doubting. But I knew I should not be proud, and I knew I should believe in God and so I fought against pride and doubting God. I thought I was being spiritual by suppressing these thoughts of pride and by struggling to keep believing that God was with me in spite of doubts. One night, tired of the battle going on inside of me, I pleaded with God not to be silent but to speak something to me. I desperately needed to hear from Him. Why am I feeling prideful and why do I doubt God? Why can’t I get past this and trust that God is with me and helping me? I believe His Spirit spoke to my spirit when I heard this thought, “You think you are being spiritual by trying to fight off pride and doubts. But you cannot win this battle because you do not see the truth about yourself. The truth is that you are full of pride, trusting in your own self to overcome this, and you are a doubter.” It was a gentle and loving “voice” of reprimand. I instantly became humble and agreed with God’s assessment of my life. I did my best to repent by saying, “God, you are right. I am prideful and I am a doubter. I do not want to be those things. Help me overcome them.” Immediately I felt a peace and joy, thanking God for His honesty with me and for opening my eyes to be honest with myself. I then relied on His forgiveness and asked His help to change. The battle with pride and doubt has not returned since. The truth was that I did not know myself and I was trusting in my abilities to be strong instead of trusting Christ to be the strong one who could save me. We are not free to put faith in Christ more fully until we see that we are putting our faith in ourselves and in our abilities, instead of in Christ and what He can do. Admitting our weakness gets ourselves out of the way so Christ can do something. I did not have free will to exercise faith because something in me, pride and doubting, was blocking the flow. Sometimes, God may help our unbelief by an outward sign, as He did for the man who asked for help with his unbelief by healing his son. At other times, God helps our unbelief by helping to remove the kinds of hindrances to faith that I was having. As a result, my faith is stronger, or rather, it is no longer misplaced. I learned that Satan seems to go away when we agree with God about who we are. It is like Satan can no longer use these weaknesses to try and make us become despairing and defeated. Praise God for giving us insight.
Peter is an example to us of a faith that is in danger of failing and a faith that needs strengthening. Peter believed that he would take a stand for Jesus, and even die for him if need be, but Jesus tested his belief by saying that Peter would deny Him three times. Like myself, he was trusting in his own ability to be strong, when in truth, he was weak. He needed to be relying more on Jesus than on himself. Jesus told Peter that Satan wanted to destroy his faith. But, said Jesus, “I have prayed for you that your faith would not fail”. (Luke 22:31-34) How could Peter’s faith fail? One way it could happen is by Peter being so down on himself over his failure to stand up for Jesus that he decides he does not have what it takes to be a follower. Or, he could conclude that Jesus must be upset with him and does not want him. Or, it could fail because, like me, faith is in our own ability to stand instead of in Christ’s ability to help us stand. By not seeing the truth about himself, Peter might shrink back from following Jesus. Satan’s lies, when believed, cause us to fall away from the truth. Will Peter believe that Jesus still loves him and wants him? Will Peter believe that Jesus needs to be his strength instead of trusting his own strength? Jesus prayed that his faith would not fail. Part of faith not failing is putting it in the right place. As some have phrased it, “I can’t, He can”. I need to put faith in an object that can come through for me, and it is not myself.
On another occasion, Peter, walking on water, gets his eyes off of Jesus and onto himself and his circumstances and he begins to sink. He cries out for Jesus to save him and Jesus does. (Matthew 14:28-33) He learns that when his focus is on himself and his circumstances, his faith fails because it is focused on the wrong object. He also has it reconfirmed that Jesus is capable of saving him and is a trustworthy person to believe in. Jesus asks, “Why did you doubt?” Peter could have answered two things: (1) “I doubted because my circumstances seemed overwhelming to me and I focused on them instead of Jesus.” (2) “I doubted because I lacked confidence in how reliable Jesus really is, having confidence in myself instead.” This latter may not have been totally true of Peter; after all, he did get out of the boat and walk on water. But many do lack confidence in God and need their faith to be strengthened, or even more, to be corrected. What is meant by failing faith? It is a faith that shrinks back from trusting God for various reasons. (Hebrews 10:38-39) What is meant by a faith that needs strengthening? It is a faith that lacks some degree of confidence in its object, maybe because it is misplaced, for example, trusting in myself rather than in Him. It needs to be more convinced that Jesus is true and reliable, not me.
Another way that faith is made strong is when we see that our faith is not dead. (James 2:14-26) Dead faith means we say we believe in God, but our lifestyle does not back it up. Faith in God will be visibly lived out. What kinds of actions show that a person has faith? Such actions include a love for God’s people, a desire to know the Bible, obedience to God’s will, doing good deeds motivated by love for God, drawing near to God, and a prayerful life. Seeing things like these in our lives convinces us of the reality of our faith.
An aside to consider is that faith is not a manipulative tool to get what we want from God. Some believers take God at His word, which is good, but they become almost demanding. For example, “God, you promised to bless me with health, now I claim it.” Or, “God you promised to heal those with faith; I believe, and now I claim it.” If it does not happen, we may feel something is wrong with our faith? It may not be a faith problem, but that we misconstrue what God says. The Bible clearly tells us that we are not to test God in the sense of putting Him in a position where He has to do what we want. (Matthew 4:5-7) Faith simply believes what God says and waits for the fulfillment in His time and way. Sometimes, what we want does not happen because God is more concerned about changing us than with giving us what we want.
How can we have stronger faith? Certainly, it is through the testing experiences of life, but here are four actions that will strengthen us. We need to develop a firm root system so that we do not fall away from faith in times of testing. (Luke 8:13)
(1) The Bible says that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10:17) The apostle John said that his eyewitness accounts of Jesus life and death and resurrection were written so that we might believe, and by believing have eternal life. (John 20:30-31) This tells us that faith can happen through hearing (or reading) God’s word. I once shared the message of God’s salvation with a woman and afterward asked her if she had ever accepted Jesus and believed He would save her. She said, “Yes.” I was surprised because I knew she was not a believer, so I asked, “When did you believe?” She said, “Just now as you were explaining it to me.” There seems to be a power in God’s word, a force that enables faith in us. (Romans 1:16) Two chapters in the Bible that particularly help me to better understand faith, and that help to strengthen my faith, are Hebrews 11 and Romans 4.
(2) Being a part of loving relationships in the church is also a way to strengthen faith. When we hear each other tell our struggles and faith stories, and when we hear the teaching of God’s word, we are encouraged to believe and keep believing.
(3) Another way to help strengthen our faith is to study what is called “apologetics”, a study of the defense of the faith. It helps to strengthen our faith when we have more evidences and good logical arguments for the truth and reality of what we believe.
(4) The writer of Hebrews said that Jesus is the “author and finisher of our faith”. (Hebrews 12:2) That being the case, prayer to Jesus to help our unbelief is a great way to strengthen our faith.
I would like to raise some questions about a distinction that theologians make between “common faith” and “saving faith”. Common faith is the faith people exercise in normal everyday living. Saving faith would require people to have a special gift of faith from God; or God must convert them first, so that they can exercise faith in God’s salvation. This distinction is made because it is believed that people are so spiritually dead to God that they cannot respond to His message by natural human reason and faith. (Ephesians 2:1) What is being said is that we are free to exercise faith in common ordinary everyday living, but not when it comes to matters involving God’s salvation. Whether or not we are totally unable to believe the gospel would depend on how we answer the following questions: How far is mankind fallen away from God? And, What is mankind’s potential in his sinful condition? For now, I am simply raising the question of whether, according to the Bible, it is possible for common faith to be adequate for salvation.
I once talked with a man who said that he did not believe in Christ because God had not given him the gift of faith. He admired believers who had the assurance that they were saved and he wished he had the same kind of faith they had. “God has never given it to me”, he said, as he also expressed concern about his ultimate destiny. By believing that he needed to get his faith from God, he did not think he could exercise any natural faith that he might have. He could only wait for God to save him and he could not bring himself to put his “common faith” in God’s offer of salvation. And, of course, I believe he is right because Jesus said that “no one can come to Me except the Father who sent Me draws him”? (John 6:44) But I wonder; was he wrong to expect God to give him the faith he needed? Could it be true that he did not need a faith from God, but simply needed special help to overcome the blockages that were preventing his common faith from accepting the good news of salvation? What if the facts regarding salvation are no different than the facts of everyday life? Is common faith enough to believe salvation facts, just as it is enough to believe secular facts?
In a sense, faith is necessary for us to be saved, but faith is not what saves us. We are saved by God’s grace through faith. (Ephesians 2:8) Is a part of God’s saving grace, not to give us “saving faith”, but grace to draw us to Jesus in a way that enables us to believe with faith we already possess? The word “to draw” literally means to drag, as a fish net, or someone out of a building. Figuratively it means to “pull on a man’s inner life, to compel, to influence the will.” People may want to believe, or are unwilling to believe; either way they can’t without additional help. But what is that special help? Is it the Holy Spirit’s conviction of our need for Him, and the Spirit’s work to open our heart to understand God’s gift of salvation? Certainly that is part of it. I’m sure there are many helps God gives, but what ultimately draws people to Jesus is the conviction of their need coupled with the message of the death and resurrection of Christ. That there is drawing power in the message of the cross seems clear in the Scriptures. (John 12:32; Romans 10:13-17; Luke 24:32; Acts 26:16-23) I realize there are differing theological positions on this subject, all said to be based on Scripture. Certainly, the truth must be in the discovery of what the Bible actually teaches, which may, or may not be, the same as our varying theological views.
In closing, remember, no one can please God without faith. (Hebrews 11:6) God wants us to believe Him. As Christians, we walk by faith and not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5:7) This means that we do not pursue things that can be seen. We know the invisible God exists and we love, obey, and believe Him the best we can, never forgetting – though our faith may at times falter - God is faithful to bring us to completion. (Philippians 1:6) Faith is the victory that overcomes the world. (1 John 5:4) Faith is to believe God’s word and to be courageous and faithful to follow it by walking in the Spirit. And even though we have not seen Him, we continue to live each day in anticipation of His promised blessed hope that will on day reward our faith beyond measure.