So what does a proper understanding of faith mean for the Christian? We talked last time about the misguided assumption that it must be held contrary to evidence. But if faith isn't just blindly assenting to the beliefs of one's church or culture, then what is it?
If you ask any Christian who is somewhat familiar with the Bible for a definition of faith, you will likely get the following response:
"Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." 1
This verse admittedly defines faith for many Christians, and read in isolation it could be interpreted as advocating the very view I wrote against in my last post. The problem is that this verse was not intended as a strict definition of the concept. As one commentary puts it, "[This verse] is not really a formal definition of faith; rather it is a description of what faith does for us." 2
On this more precise understanding, this verse can be interpreted as saying that faith (our loyal belief in and attitude towards God) allows us to feel certainty about the object of our hope and about those aspects of our relationship with God that are not always immediately clear (such as trusting Him through a difficult decision).
My friend H.L. Hussmann (whose blog can be found here) illustrates this idea better than anyone else I've heard. He relates the story of Charles Blondin, a 19th century French tight-rope walker who became famous for carrying all sorts of objects (including his manager) across Niagara Falls on a tight-rope. He asks us to imagine watching Blondin push a wheelbarrow back and forth across the rope several times with no difficulty and then asking the audience if they think he can do the same again, but this time with a person in the wheelbarrow. It is easy to imagine the crowd shouting in approval until the next question comes: "Can I have a volunteer?"
Here is where Biblical faith comes in. Our beliefs that God is and that He can are well-grounded by the evidence. But faith is trusting that evidence enough to take action. And it is the only appropriate response to the revelation that God has given.
This also helps us avoid another alarmingly common misunderstanding of faith: that it is something that will allow us to avoid difficulty of all kinds if only we can get enough of it. This idea treats faith as though it were some metaphysical currency that can be collected and cashed in when needed, but given the definition of faith that we have worked out, it is clear why this is inadequate.
Faith as an attitude and response toward God leaves no place for this escapist understanding. Rather than allowing us to avoid problems (e.g. the problem of too little evidence), Biblical faith pushes us to honesty about our situation and then calls us to trust God to bring us through it. I suppose it is possible for one person to trust more than another (and so have 'more faith'), but the very idea of trust presupposes some struggle. This is precisely why it is so difficult.
I can believe in Blondin's abilities easily from a distance, but continuing to believe from inside the wind-tossed wheelbarrow is another story entirely. This requires genuine faith, not a cheap counterfeit.
1Hebrews 11:1 (NIV)
2Believer's Bible Commentary. Ed. by William MacDonald