Faith in the middle of life

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The Bible teaches that faith requires knowing, trusting and doing

Douglas B. Miller

When I was a young boy, my family had a picnic one day at Papago Park in the greater Phoenix area. It was a fairly easy climb to get to the “Hole in the Rock” formation, but it was a bit more of a challenge for a boy of nine to climb further up on top of the massive mound. Nevertheless, I joined the line of people walking carefully along a ledge that led to the top.

About halfway there I got stuck. I pressed myself against the rock, my feet on the narrow path, but I was afraid to go either forward or backward. So I took a peek over my shoulder at the 50-foot drop that seemed to be my destiny. As I did so, my young life actually flashed before my eyes, like an old slide show of still pictures—me and my cousins, me and my family, me and my dog. I knew I was going to die.

Just then, a man I had never met, coming in line behind me and seeing my predicament, asked if I needed help. I certainly did! But could I trust him? I didn’t know much about him, but I rapidly sized him up. He seemed friendly enough and strong enough. Then he made a proposal that let me know he was wise enough.

“Here,” he said, “let me put my hand on your back. I’ll hold you up while you keep going.” I placed my faith in this man, cooperated with his instructions, and it worked! I then easily scampered to the top of the rock and lived to tell the tale.

 

Everyday faith

The word faith is one of those religious-sounding terms that most of us partly understand. We know that it has something to do with confidence in or commitment to someone or something. When we stop to think about it, we realize that we are exercising faith in small ways on a regular basis.

As in my rock climbing, we place confidence in something or someone even though there is no way we can be completely sure what the result will be. For example, when someone orders an item on the Internet, she has faith that the company will actually send the item and that the shipment service hired to deliver it will do so. It is probably impossible to go a single day without exercising faith to some extent. It is a regular part of human living.

So when we talk about faith in a religious dimension we are not talking about something unique or unusual to the human condition. We are simply discussing how this normal experience applies to something of greatest importance. For Christians, that object of greatest importance is the God described in the Bible as the Creator of the universe. It is also applied to God’s Son, Jesus Christ, the Messiah, who came to earth and called people to join God’s kingdom. We are saved as we place faith in him. We also live each day by faith as his disciples.

 

Three dimensions of faith

I was greatly helped a few years ago when I realized that faith, even our everyday experience, has three aspects, and that each of these is addressed in the Bible. First, there is an important belief dimension to faith. We need to know something about the object of our faith whether the object is a human being, like the man who helped me on the trail, or a piece of machinery, such as a lawn mower.

This dimension is prominent in the following event recorded in Mark 8: “Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, ‘Who do people say I am?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah’” (Mark 8:27-29).

Second, there is an important trust dimension to the Christian faith that concerns the motive for what a person does. If I need a rope to go mountain climbing, I risk my health and my very life in the trust I place in that equipment. On the other hand, if my motive for doing something is really to impress people or to earn money, what appears to be trust in a certain person or object may not be genuine.

For Christianity, this dimension takes the form of a relationship of trust and confidence in a personal God who saves through Jesus Christ. Because God is faithful, we confidently reject other forms of security, such as other saviors and even our own work. It is the redemptive work of Christ that saves us: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).

Finally, faith involves performance or doing. If a doctor prescribes medicine for my illness, my faith in the doctor is expressed by actually taking what he or she has prescribed.

Similarly, the will of God must be done by loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself (Matt. 22:37-39). God is in the process of creating new people who can live this way. The verse that follows Ephesians 2:8-9 (quoted above) about being saved by grace reads, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

The Apostle Paul understood that faith acts itself out. That is why his great letter to the Roman Christians—in which faith and God’s grace are so strongly emphasized—begins and concludes with references to the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26 NRSV, ESV; see also 15:18). The faith is in the doing, not somehow separate from it. This is why Jesus insisted: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21).

 

Faith can be distorted

All three of these aspects—knowing, trusting and doing—are inseparable parts of genuine faith. When one or more of these aspects falters, faith becomes distorted. That is why we find the Bible talking about faith problems in at least five ways. For example, when we are trusting and acting but don’t know why, we can become addicted to work (Eccl. 4:7-8; Matt. 11:28; Mark 6:31). Another distortion happens when we fail to trust God for our salvation and attempt to earn it by the things we do. This involves a failure to recognize the extent of our sinfulness and the futility of such effort (Rom. 3:21-31; Heb. 9:14-15).

When we fail to think adequately about our faith we can operate primarily on feelings of trust and become vulnerable to false ideas and practices (Eph. 4:14; 1 John 2:22-23). Another problem is sometimes called “cheap grace.” This happens when we have a strong mental grasp of who Jesus is but lack a sense of accountability to God for living out the mission to which we are called. We can also miss the transformation of our character that God is trying to do in us (Rom. 12:1-2; Matt. 23:2-3; James 2:19).

Finally, we can overemphasize knowledge and minimize both trust and action, playing an often prideful and contentious intellectual game (1 Cor. 3:18-20; 1 Tim. 6:20-21; 1 John 3:18). All of these are distortions of true and healthy faith.

 

A faith check

It is good to reflect occasionally on the health of our faith, to see how all three dimensions are doing. Here are some possible questions to ask:

  • Growth in understanding: How much do I know with confidence about the nature and character of God? Am I taking opportunities to learn by studying the Bible?
  • Trust: Do I balk at taking risks with the things I know God wants me to do? Also, am I doing any of the right things for the wrong reasons?
  • Action: Am I actually doing the things I’m called to do? What external evidence is there of my commitment to faith in Christ?

The movie The Walk (Tristar Pictures, 2015) depicts the amazing feat (and feet!) of Philippe Petit who, in 1974, walked back and forth several times on a cable stretched between the tops of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. A hundred years earlier, another Frenchman, Charles Blondin, crossed the Niagara Gorge on a tightrope some 1,100 feet in length. By one account, Blondin made 21 crossings on that rope stretched from Prospect Park in the United States to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. On August 17, 1859, Blondin actually carried his manager across the gorge on his back.

As the story goes, one day after he had made such a crossing, Blondin asked the crowd, “Who believes that I can push a man in a wheelbarrow across this gorge?” Everyone cheered enthusiastically. “Now,” he asked, “who will get into the wheelbarrow?”

Faith in Jesus has similarities to Blondin’s challenge. It means understanding Jesus well enough to trust him by getting into the wheelbarrow. Another way to consider the challenge of faith can be framed like this: Are you willing to allow Jesus to teach you how to walk such a tightrope?

Doug Miller is professor of biblical and religious studies at Tabor College, the Mennonite Brethren school headquartered in Hillsboro, Kan. This article is adapted from an essay published in the Spring 2015 issue of Direction, a journal supported by the Mennonite Brethren higher education institutions in Canada and the United States.

 

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