I came across a book recently with huge letters across the cover: ‘Faith vs Fact’. It also had the subtitle, ‘Why Science and Religion are Incompatible’. The font used for ‘Faith’ was faint, thin, and skewed in contrast to the bold emphatic font for ‘Fact’. The visual message was obvious. Faith is ambiguous and uncertain whilst facts are true and certain. ‘Faith’ is guess work, a gamble, wishful thinking but not related to objective realities.
But, is that fair and is it true? The Oxford English Dictionary (claiming after more than 150 years to be the definitive record of the English language) defines faith as this: “To have confidence in (a person), and consequently to rely upon”. That definition is not the implication of ‘Faith vs Fact’, but it is a superb definition of Christian faith. There is a lot of muddied thinking about faith – so here are six facts to help us think clearly.
1. Faith Needs Facts.
Faith must have an object. It must be ‘in’ something, and the object we place our faith in determines its validity. If I put a lot of faith in thin ice, I will step onto the ice and sink by faith! The problem is not the faith itself, but the object in which I placed it. On the other hand, if I put a little bit of faith in thick ice and nervously step out, I will walk on the ice. Not because I had more faith – on the contrary, I had less – but because the ice was strong. Faith is never more effective than the object in which it is placed. The object in which Christian faith is placed is God himself. It is Him we trust, not Christianity. Scripture and doctrine can instruct and inspire, but they cannot deliver by themselves. They tell us why and how to trust God, but it is the act of trusting God which makes it experiential. Faith essentially says to God about any sphere, “In this, I trust you. Thank you”.
2. Faith is a Means to an End.
Faith acts in the way a clutch acts on a car. A car may sit with its engine running and a driver at the wheel, yet not be going anywhere. When the driver engages the clutch, the engine connects to the wheels, they start to turn and the car is soon on its way along the road. The engagement of the clutch produces the action, but the clutch has no power in itself. You don’t tell your neighbors about the amazing clutch you have in your car! It is the engine that gets you down the road, the clutch is the mechanism to make that end possible. Faith engages God, so that God works, not our faith! The focus ought not to be our faith, but God in whom we place our faith. Whipping up a stronger faith will accomplish little. Becoming more confident in God will accomplish much.
3. Faith is Not Measured by its Volume.
People are forever asking God for more faith. When the disciples did that on one occasion, Jesus gave a startling answer. Luke 17:5 tells us, “The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” (NIV). If we were standing nearby listening to the conversation, we would have understood the request perfectly. We have probably made the same request in prayer many times. But listen to Jesus’ reply in verse six: “He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” Mustard seed was the smallest seed they knew. They ask for a ‘big faith’ and He tells them they are asking for the wrong thing! ‘Small’ faith is enough. Let me illustrate. At 18 years of age, I flew in an airplane for the first time. I had left school in England and went to work on a large farm in Zimbabwe in Southern Africa. Having never flown before I was a little nervous on the one hand, whilst excited on the other. Aboard the aircraft, my seat was in the middle of three on the left side of the plane, with an elderly Scottish lady seated on my left, by the window, and a South African businessman on my right next to the isle. The Scottish lady was very nervous. She too had never flown before and was going to visit her daughter, son in law and grandchildren whom she hadn’t seen for a long time.
Her family had persuaded her the plane stood a very good chance of arriving safely at her destination and she would be okay! But she had some doubts! I was a little nervous, but nothing like she was. The businessman on my right had probably flown many times and was completely confident and relaxed in his seat. The three of us each had a different quantity of faith. The Scottish lady had mustard seed-sized faith (enough to persuade her she had at least a 51 percent chance of survival). I had potato-sized faith, and the businessman had watermelon-sized faith. But the remarkable thing was that despite our varying quantities of faith, we all arrived at our destination at the exact same time! It was not the quantity of our faith that got us there, but the object in which we placed our faith – the airplane! The disciples hadn’t understood the nature of faith when they asked for ‘more faith’.
They thought it was about volume and levels of confidence, rather than the object in which it is placed – God. Now, of course, there is value in an increased faith. The man on my right with years of experience under his belt was confident and relaxed for the journey. The lady on my left much less so. It is as we know the object of our faith better, that we relax and trust. Scripture speaks of ‘resting’ in God, with a relaxed confidence of increasing faith. So, how does our faith grow?
4. Faith Increases through Scripture.
Paul wrote, “…faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ…” – Romans 10.17 (NIV). Simply put, the more we get to know God, the more we trust Him. That is why faith grows through reading the word of God. But we don’t read the Bible to get to know the Bible, but to get to know Christ. The scripture is true, but it is not itself the truth. Jesus said, ‘I am… the truth”. (John 14.6). What is the difference? I may read an airline timetable which tells me a plane leaves Auckland on a Saturday morning at 8am and arrives in Sydney three-and-half-hours-later. That may be perfectly true. But it is true only as it bears witness to the truth of the plane. The timetable won’t get me anywhere by itself, it only directs me to the time and place where the plane can take me across the Tasman Sea. We read the Bible to know God better, so we may obey him more completely and trust Him more fully. That is how our faith grows, not by accumulating information about Him, but by increasing experience of Him, in day-to-day life.
5. The Greater our Confidence in the Object our Faith, the Less our Consciousness of the Faith Itself.
If I had the choice to drive the length of New Zealand from top to bottom or vice versa – over both the north and south islands – in a brand-new BMW or a beat-up vintage VW beetle – and I chose the beetle, almost certainly someone would tell me I have a lot of faith! If I chose the brand new BMW no one would comment on my faith. Why? Because the more confident we are in the object of our faith, the less conscious we are of exercising faith. My faith would actually be greater in the BMW, but I would be less conscious of it. When we are impressed with someone’s great faith, what we are really saying is that we don’t trust their God and are impressed that they do. So, the more we know God, the easier and more natural it becomes to trust. It is a growing relationship that becomes stretched more and more to discover His trustworthiness.
6. Faith is not Passive.
Faith cannot be separated from obedience. The New Testament speaks of “the obedience that comes from faith” (Romans 1.5). Obedience and faith are like the two wings of an airplane. Which is the most important wing? Silly question! Obedience without faith leads to legalism, where I am just doing my best for God. Faith without obedience leads to unhealthy mysticism, where nothing of substance happens. But obedience coupled with faith leads to dynamism. I do what He tells me to do, and He does what he promised He would do. That is the rhythm of the Christian life, obedience and trust, obedience and trust, obedience, and trust. I learned a song in Sunday School many years ago which went like this,
“Trust and Obey,
For there is no other way,
To be happy in Jesus,
But to trust and obey”.
While I did learn it in Sunday School, it is not kid’s stuff. That’s the real thing!
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By Charles Price
About the author
Charles Price serves as the ‘Minister at large’ at the People’s Church I Toronto, Canada.
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