Why Faith?

I was taking part in a worship time at King’s Domain this evening when I had a new insight into the question, “why faith?”

What I have to share here isn’t the whole answer to that question, but for me it’s a new way of looking at it that adds to what I had previously thought about it.

The Skeptics’ and Believers’ Question

In one form it’s a skeptic’s question: why is it that no matter what else I get right or wrong, all it takes is to get this one thing right and I’m in, and if I get it wrong I’m out. Why faith? Why not something bigger than that, or more ethical?”

In another form it’s a question I’ve asked as a Christian. What is it about faith, that God should like it so much in us?

Something Different About Faith

We were singing about God’s love, and I thought, I could never in all eternity get there: I could never appreciate God’s love for all it’s worth.

We sang about God’s beauty, and I thought, I could never get there: I could never grasp the full beauty of God for all its reality.

We sang thankfulness to God, and I thought, I could never get there: it would take beyond forever to thank God for all he has done for me, much less to thank him for all that he is.

But when we sang about faith, I thought, In eternity, everyone who trusts God in Christ at all now will know how to trust him fully. And though it’s a challenge, it might be possible even on earth. I think maybe I could get there. But even if not, still it’s worth going for!

I realized then that when it comes to attitudes toward God, there’s soemthing different about faith.

Defining Terms

There are many definitions of faith. The ones that atheists tend to use, where faith is something counter-intellectual, “believing what you know isn’t true,” or “believing what you have no evidence for,” are all basically atheists’ inventions. Or if not, then they are at least not Christians’ use of the term. Here’s one that I think fits what I had on my mind this evening: Faith is taking God at his word and acting accordingly.

Taking God at his word is simply a matter of trusting that what God says is true. This trust can and often does come through evidence and investigation, among other things God does to lead us to understanding. Acting accordingly is about living our lives in light of God’s truth, in spite of everything that might lead us to think otherwise about reality.

Faith is a gift from God, according to a widely accepted reading of Ephesians 2:8-9, as well as the doctrine of sin regeneration, which I will not go into here.

Taking God At His Word: Jesus’ Teaching

There’s a great passage in Matthew 6 that illustrates what belief in action. Jesus is speaking, and he says,

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:25-33, ESV)

Here faith is recognizing —and acting accordingly — that as we pursue God’s kingdom and righteousness, God will supply our physical needs. Not to recognize that — not to believe it — is to deny the reality of who God is. It is therefore actually to contradict the way he made his creation to be, as a reflection of himself. It is to be wrong about the very structure of reality

So there’s something seriously flawed in us when we don’t trust God. What positive thing happens, though, when we do trust him? Why has God chosen that to be the means by which we enter into relationship with him?

What We Cannot Do In Fitting Response To God

Tonight at King’s Domain, as I said, we were singing about God’s holiness, his love, his compassion, his wisdom, his beauty, and more: all things whose full reality are beyond human apprehension. No one can grasp God’s greatness for what it is. It is unreachable. I think that it will remain that way even if we keep growing in knowledge of God throughout eternity; for he is infinite, and the infinite cannot be contained in finite minds.

And so it is that the way we can appreciate God’s greatness is only an infinitesimal fraction of what his reality calls for. What then can we do that fits his grandeur, his grace, and his love?

I cannot comprehend God fully. I cannot know God fully. I cannot appreciate God fully for who he is.

What We Can Do In Fitting Response To God

But it is at least conceivable that I could trust God fully. I could take him completely at his word, as far as I know and understand it. And by his gift of grace (Eph. 2:8-9 again), it is at least conceivable that I could act accordingly.

That’s the only thing I can think of that approaches fittingness in our response to God. It’s the only thing we can return to him that approaches something like the comprehensiveness that’s appropriate to God’s comprehensiveness.

God’s greatness is worthy of a total response. Worship must always fall short of totally appreciating God. But faith can be total. I think this is one more answer to the question, “why faith?” And it motivates me to live with that kind of total faith that fits the reality of God.

Comments 23
  1. Brap Gronk

    “Faith is taking God at his word and acting accordingly.”

    Given all the human input that has shaped any version of the Bible available today, how would you recommend someone go about determining what God’s word is? Should people simply have faith (or trust) that God’s word has been accurately recorded and translated through the years?

  2. BillT

    Oh, please, the “…all the human input that has shaped any version of the Bible available today…” nonsense. The Bible is the most reliable ancient historical text in existence by multiple orders of magnitude of any other ancient document. Biblical scholars have good reason to believe that the texts we have are 99% accurate. None of the issues in question have any bearing on any critical facts or theological issues. Attempting to cast doubt on the veracity of the Biblical texts with a throwaway one-liner is as pitiful as the bogus definitions of faith Tom dismissed in the OP.

  3. Tom Gilson

    The way we can know that God’s word has been accurately recorded and translated is the same way we can know just about anything: through transparent, testable, responsible, interactions among a self-correcting community of scholarship.

    You would be amazed if you knew how lively are the debates over the texts and their translations. These things are not mere matters of authoritarian pronouncements. They’re disputed all the time!

    But you would also be amazed if you knew how little the points in dispute have to do with any significant point of Christian belief. Scholars don’t find much to disagree about there, because the evidence (which is massive in quantity and quality) isn’t ambiguous there.

    So no, this is not just a matter of blind faith. It’s something we can know the same way you probably know anything outside your direct personal experience: the word of tested authorities (i.e., people who know what they’re talking about) in a self-correcting community of scholarship.

  4. Brap Gronk

    Let’s say we had the original manuscripts of every book of the Bible, and almost nobody disputed the fact that they are the original manuscripts. Let’s also assume translation into any modern language is straightforward and not subject to interpretation. How could we know whether or not God’s word (which would necessarily include Jesus’ words) was recorded accurately in those original manuscripts?

    You mention transparent, testable, responsible, interactions among a self-correcting community of scholarship. I’m curious about the “testable” part of that. When I think of a field outside of my direct personal experience, such as the field of medicine, I think of clinical trials and case studies when I think of “testable” theories. But I have a hard time coming up with any way to test any theories or resolve any disputes about salvation, heaven or hell, for instance. (Pick any significant point of Christian belief if none of those are significant enough.)

    Keep in mind I’m not asking how we know what Christians believe God’s word is. I’m asking how we know what God’s word is.

  5. Tom Gilson

    Brap Gronk, that’s one of those important questions that can be asked in a moment but take a long time to answer. It’s a great question; that’s what I’m trying to say; for it’s virtually synonymous with, how do we know Christianity is true?

    When you first asked it you placed it in a context that led both BillT and me to think you were asking about the reliability of the biblical texts. Now you’re enlarging the question, or maybe just correcting the impression we had of its earlier scope.

    Anyway, the how do you know? question has multiple layers of answers, and multiple facets or angles from which to approach all those layers. One of the reasons I blog is to explain my answer from all those perspectives.

    So my answer this time might seem glib. I don’t mean it that way. Here it is: read the blog day by day if you want to know. But not just mine, read others, like reasonsforgod.org or str.org. Look at reasonablefaith.org. Read Cold-Case Christianity.

    You asked a large question. There is no small answer.

  6. Melissa

    Brap Gronk,

    What do you think God’s word is? By that I mean, when you use the phrase “God’s word” what do you mean?

  7. Brap Gronk

    Melissa, at one level I’m thinking “God’s word” is the actual words found in the Bible. I’m assuming most Christians believe the Bible was divinely inspired to some extent, making the contents of the Bible “God’s word,” whether it was direct dictation through the human authors or through a less direct route.

    On another level I’m thinking “God’s word” is the bigger picture that encompasses God’s desires or vision for the human race. When people try to put that into words, I believe their primary sources are the Bible and what they feel is true deep down inside.

  8. BillB

    Faith is taking God at his word and acting accordingly.

    It really might be this simple, were God actually here and actually talking to me. Instead, I have a 2000 year old book, which claims (among others) to be God’s Word, and lots of individuals who vouch for it.

    So in order to get to the point of “acting accordingly”, I first have to have faith in my ability to discern that the Bible alone is in fact God’s word. Or, that the Christians around me (uniquely among all the religious people in the world) have found the correct holy book.

    More than anything else, I lack faith in myself to correctly decide these foundational questions. And naturally, I’m a little suspicious about others’ claimed certainty too. 🙂

  9. BillT

    “How could we know whether or not God’s word (which would necessarily include Jesus’ words) was recorded accurately in those original manuscripts?”

    For me this question has the cart before the horse. The Bible isn’t proof of God. God is proof of the Bible. If there is no God then, of course, it doesn’t matter what is in the Bible. If there is a God then it would seem reasonable to assume that a being capable of creating the universe ex nihilo is capable of getting a book published. Now, we certainly use the Bible to understand God and His plan. However, the proofs of God exist outside of the Bible.

  10. the Old Adam

    Faith is the mechanism which God uses to create faith.

    When a word is spoken (preached or read or shared somehow), and when faith is created (by God – it IS a gift from God)…then we can be assured God’s Word was at work there.

    The Word is not just Bible, although the Bible is one aspect of It. How does this sound, “In the beginning was the Bible. And the Bible was with God. And the Bible was God.”

    Ridiculous. Right?

    The Word is Christ Himself.

    Christ in preaching and teaching about Himself.

    Christ in Baptism and in His Supper.

    Christ in Bible.

    And Christ in the consolation of the brethren.

    And in about that order.

    That’s the Word of God. We believe.

    Thanks.

  11. Ray Ingles

    Tom Gilson –

    The way we can know that God’s word has been accurately recorded and translated is the same way we can know just about anything: through transparent, testable, responsible, interactions among a self-correcting community of scholarship… Scholars don’t find much to disagree about there, because the evidence (which is massive in quantity and quality) isn’t ambiguous there.

    Why do so many think that applies to Biblical scholars but not to scientists?

  12. Tom Gilson

    I’m not sure which aspect you’re referring to.

    For one part of it, I’m not talking about scholars and scientists as much as I am about a particular body of evidence, which is massive in quantity and quality, so there isn’t much to disagree about in that set of data.

    For the other part, where I was talking about a “self-correcting community of scholars” (and by extension, scientists), it does apply to both, so if some people think it doesn’t then they’re misinformed.

  13. BillB

    BillB, your question is pretty much similar to Brap Gronk’s in number 5.

    Fair enough, Tom.

    I guess for some of us, “taking God at his word and acting accordingly” is hard to conceive because it’s far from obvious what God is actually saying — if there is a God. He’s not here talking to us, so we’re left depending on our feelings (e.g. of faith) and our personal estimation of the historical evidence.

    I don’t have the faith-feeling, personally, and I can’t see how I would trust it in any case. Lots of people around the world seem to have strong faith feelings for their mutually exclusive religious beliefs. Why should my feelings be more trustworthy than anyone else’s? And there’s certainly much disagreement among scholars who have spent their lives sifting the historical evidence. So how can I, as a layman, come to any confident conclusion?

  14. BillT

    BillB,

    Like I said to Mr. Gronk (#10), I believe you have the process wrong. You don’t look to the Bible for faith in God’s existence. After all, it seems you don’t believe in God so why would the Bible or any other holy book matter to you. I would suggest you might look at the creation of the universe and in life developing from non life. You could look at the existence of morality, good and evil, beauty, truth and love. You might try and explain how consciousness came from unconsciousness, reason from irrationality and complexity within a natural order arose from randomness and chaos. I think trying to understand these realities and how rational they are, either with or without God, might give you a better starting place in a search for faith.

  15. Ray Ingles

    Tom Gilson –

    I’m not sure which aspect you’re referring to.

    I just mean that I could take your comment #4, swap some words, like “texts” for ‘evidence’, and “Christian belief” for “neo-Darwinian synthesis”, and it’d make the same point. You are among the Christians who will concede the similarity; why do so many Christians dispute it?

  16. Tom Gilson

    I won’t speak for all Christians; I don’t agree with them all on this.

    If you mean naturalistic neo-Darwinian synthesis, the reason we dispute it is because the natural evidence doesn’t point there. It couldn’t. In order to be able to point there it would have to have the ability to prove something false about an extra-natural world, and it doesn’t have that ability.

    In other words, you don’t have a body of evidence for it that’s massive in both quality and quantity. You have a body of evidence plus a philosophical interpretation. And you have considerable pressure on that interpretation, both from philosophical and scientific angles.

    Is that what you were referring to, or something else?

    Let me try to stay on topic here by keeping this focused on the original point in discussion. My comment about massive evidence for the Bible has to do with just one thing: our reasons for confidence that we have the text in substantially its original form. That’s a fairly worldview-neutral conclusion — unlike naturalistic evolution.

  17. Melissa

    Brap Gronk @8,

    The ideal way to determine God’s vision and desire for us is to dialogue over the bible, led by the Holy spirit within our faith communities. If I understand you correctly your question is why should we think the bible is a reliable guide to discerning God’s vision and desires for us. The answer to that is we make our best judgement according to the evidence in front of us.

  18. Ray Ingles

    Tom Gilson –

    If you mean naturalistic neo-Darwinian synthesis, the reason we dispute it is because the natural evidence doesn’t point there.

    This is way far afield from the point of your initial post, so we probably shouldn’t pursue it here. But someday I’d be really curious to know what the difference is between a “neo-Darwinian synthesis” and a “naturalistic neo-Darwinian synthesis”.

  19. Tom Gilson

    The difference is that it specifies naturalism, the idea (roughly) that nothing exists except matter and energy and their interactions according to necessity (“natural law”) and chance.

    I think that most people assume naturalism implicitly when they think of the neo-Darwinian synthesis, so for them, adding “naturalism” changes nothing. There are a few, though, who would top off that theory with some theism or other extra-natural guidance in the initial conditions, perhaps, or even by some invisible hand along the way.

    The naturalistic specification serves to make clear that that’s not the kind of thing I’m talking about.

  20. Gregory Corron

    I was hoping the post would explore the other meaning of faith. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity,

    Now Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. … That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods ‘where they get off’, you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion.

    If faith is only understood as trusting God, the believer may be misled to think of faith as a feeling of trust, and faith as a feeling leads a person to try to improve his mood toward God. Contemporary worship seems geared exactly toward that end, to stir up the emotions. But faith that is worth anything is not dependent on our mood. Nor is it dogmatism — blindly clinging to doctrine. It is more like certainty, a core conviction, that you realize is absolutely necessary for there to be any meaning in life. Faith must be anchored in meaning, the deepest and clearest explanation of existence.

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