What Does It Really Mean To Have Faith?

cathedral(H/T Nathan Rupert, Flickr)

Faith.

It may be one of the most misunderstood subjects in the Church today.

Why?

Because I don’t think most of us give a lot of thought to what faith is really about.

I don’t mean we don’t think about what we believe or why we believe it, although some of us don’t do much of the latter. What I mean is I don’t think most of us ever really stop to think what it means to have faith.

Is faith just a set of beliefs? 

A list of things we think are true?

A warm fuzzy feeling in our hearts that everything is going to turn out ok in the end?

Is that really all faith is? An idea? A feeling?

If that’s true, if faith is just a feeling we have inside or a list of beliefs we agree to, then we’re in a tough spot when it comes to trying to make sense of the Bible.

For if faith is just about beliefs, then what are we to make of God’s covenant with Abraham? A covenant sealed not by Abraham’s confession of faith, but his commitment to a particular way of life (“walk before me and be blameless”).

If faith is just about beliefs, then what do we do with Exodus and Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy? They define the identity of Israel not by offering a list of theological propositions, but through instructions for living a certain and sometimes peculiar way of life.

We also have the countless laments of the prophets to account for, who cry out for a God who is angry not because the people of Israel are lacking in orthodoxy, but because they lacked justice, compassion, mercy, and love for their neighbors.

And then there is Jesus.

Who spent his entire ministry, not just talking about faith, but embodying it. And when it comes to the end of all things, he said the ultimate test of our faith will not be what we professed, but how we lived.

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

In other words, biblical faith is about much more than a list of things to agree with.

After all, even the demons believe – and shudder.

Real, true, authentic biblical faith isn’t about a set of right beliefs. It’s a particular way of life. Which is why talking about faith apart from action would make no sense to biblical authors.

Even Paul, who Luther believed preached a gospel of faith alone, didn’t consider faith to be something relegated to the world of thought and imagination. For if he did, if Paul thought faith was simply a confession of belief, then why do the pastoral epistles exist? Why spend so much time talking about how to live if all that really matters is what we believe?

I think our misunderstanding of faith today ultimately comes down to the fact that a lot of us consider things like feeding the hungry or loving our neighbor or caring for the least of these to be secondary extensions of our faith rather than our faith’s foundation.

But compassion, mercy, forgiveness, justice, love, grace, and even salvation itself are not merely ideas. They’re not merely things we should believe are good and true.

They’re ways of living.

Ways of being in and for the world.

Ways of actually following Jesus instead of just talking about it.

This is why James so famously says, “faith without works is dead.”

For…

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

When our faith is kept hidden in the deep recesses of our minds, when it becomes exhausted by empty rhetoric and divorced from action it dies because it no longer spurs us to do the life giving work of the kingdom we are called to do as disciples of Jesus.

We see this tragedy of faith play out nearly everyday, but we too often fail to recognize it when it happens.

When faith is just belief, racial and economic injustice become nothing more than intellectual and political debates rather than opportunities for the Church to embody the kingdom of God to the world.

When faith is just belief, needy children become abandoned pawns in a ideological war.

And when faith is just belief, the lost, the least, and the dying are left to fend for themselves while we hurl Bible verses at each other and argue about orthodoxy.

But when faith is put into action it has the capacity through the power of the Spirit to bring new life into the world.

Through acts of mercy, compassion, justice, forgiveness, love, and grace, faith can breathe new life into the lost, the least, and the dying.

And establish the kingdom of God on earth just as it is in heaven.