That biblical faith encompasses the belief in a God who is almighty and who does great things, from creation to miracles, to rescuing his people, is a rather self-evident fact. We’re told that faced with the prospect of sacrificing Isaac, “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead”. He believed in God’s power to act. And that was and is called faith.
Still, I think that that part of faith, the idea of doing great things, is particularly seductive to us modern Westerners. Especially as Americans, we are the quintessential doers. Just travel from coast to coast in this great country. As theologian Hans Küng remarked in his memoirs (My Struggle for Freedom: Memoirs), everything you see has been built in the last 100 years or so. That’s amazing; entire cities, skyscrapers, monuments, amusement parks, etc… We are the ultimate pragmatists and doers. We get things done!
So it’s only natural that when we think of faith in God, one of the things that first captivates us is his capacity to perform great deeds: creating life, parting the Red Sea, defeating armies, healing the sick with just a word, even raising the dead.
So what’s the problem? I had a troubling conversation a couple years ago that illustrates my concern. I was speaking with a man who leads a large congregation in this country. At some point in our conversation, he began to speak of the importance of having great faith, to believe that great churches could be built. What struck me was that in our entire conversation, he never mentioned God even once, despite using the word “faith” repeatedly. It became obvious that he was talking about believing in what we could accomplish. He was speaking of faith Nike style, in other words believing that we can “Just Do It.”
I think we start with faith; but then, something happens along the way that subverts our faith. We focus so much on our having faith, that we begin to deemphasize the object of our faith. In his little book (The Soul of Prayer), P.T. Forsyth develops that idea relative to prayer, explaining that most of the doubts that arise with respect to prayer come because we’ve begun to put our faith in prayer rather than in the God who answers prayers.
Here’s the progression as I see it. Each step is a small step, and a logical one. At the beginning, the focus is on God. Gradually, the focus changes so that we equate faith with God’s people doing great things:
God is great —> God does great things —> God does great things through us —>
We do great things with God —> We do great things
Sometimes, the consequences are dramatic. A woman is burdened down with guilt and feels inadequate as a believer because she is not healed of an illness after repeated prayers: the only conclusion she can come to is that her faith is inadequate. It’s her fault. If only she had believed more and better. After all great things happen if only you believe. What begins with God (who He is and what He does) ends up being about us (how much we believe). That’s not faith! I see where the idea finds some support in Scripture (e.g., “According to your faith will it be done to you”). But I would argue this is simply not what faith generally refers to in the Bible. Instead, faith is a more positive, hopeful and a more God-centered idea.
Sometimes, the pressure is not turned on ourselves but on others. For instance, a leader believes God can grow his congregation. But when results are slow in coming or less than what he had hoped for, he begins to exert pressure for his flock to work harder, give more, repent of laziness and self-centeredness. I know evangelists who feel great about setting goals for the number of baptisms in a given month and holding their staff and congregation to those goals. I don’t think that’s faith but rather a subversion of faith. The focus, subtly but surely, changed away from God and onto us, our work, our efforts. What subverted our faith comes more from the modern business & a corporate sales model than the New Testament.
Again, I see where the idea gains some support in Scripture (e.g., “I will show you my faith by what I do… faith without deeds is dead”). But the emphasis is wrong. It quickly becomes about what we can do through our efforts, with simply a little prayer thrown it on top. In the end, our “faith” is more in a method than in God. Even prayer can become little more than a method to produce guaranteed results.
We’ll look next time at another example of faith being subverted before going on to discuss what I see as central aspects of faith.