I have a faith problem.
Don’t worry, I haven’t lost my faith. Sure, I have occasional doubts, but wrestling with doubt is normal and even healthy. No, the problem that I have with faith is with how believers and unbelievers misuse, misunderstand, misappropriate, and even abuse the word (and the definition of) faith.
More than once, I have listened as atheists or others have mocked the followers of God claiming that having faith is belief in the absence of evidence. Defined this way, faith becomes the opposite of rational thinking. Believing with the utter absence of evidence is nothing more than wishful thinking. If this were the definition of faith, then Christians (and other people of faith) would be held up as fools.
Thankfully, it isn’t.
Likewise, I have heard well-intentioned believers misuse, and even abuse, the word “faith.” Far too often, when spiritual conversations get sticky and honest questions get difficult, Sunday school teachers, Bible study leaders, and even pastors have been heard to say, “Well, you just have to have faith.” In some cases, this might be reassuring, but if a student or seeker has asked a thoughtful, although difficult, question this sort of answer is nothing short of spiritual malpractice.
Faith does not believe, “because I said so” or because God doesn’t allow difficult questions. Our beliefs are both rational and explainable. For a teacher to dismiss difficult questions by telling a student that “you just have to have faith” instead of finding a real answer is just lazy.
I admit that there are difficult questions that connect us to the great mysteries of Scripture. But even in the mystery it is a disservice to put off those with honest questions by saying “you just have to have faith.” An honest answer in these cases often means admitting that we just don’t know.
So what is faith?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it this way-
: strong belief or trust in someone or something
: belief in the existence of God: strong religious feelings or beliefs
: a system of religious beliefs
While two of these are specific to the followers of God, I think that the first definition is entirely sufficient. We shouldn’t think that faith is belief without evidence, but know that faith is the trust that one has in the unknown because of the knowledge and experience that one has in the known.
Here’s what I mean.
I trust (have faith) that my brother will pick me up at the airport even though he is over an hour late, not because of something mindless, but because he has never failed to do what he said that he would do. In all the years that I have known, and lived with, my brother, in all the times that I have trusted him with money, with my most private secrets, with picking me up from the airport, or anything else, he has never (okay, rarely) failed to do what he said that he would do or to be where he said he would be. If he is an hour late picking me up at the airport, I am far more likely to be worried that something has happened to him than to worry that he is not coming.
Our faith in God is (or should be) like that. We aren’t hoping that there will be pie in the sky by and by just because the preacher told us so. Our faith in God comes from the relationship that we have built over time. We met God, we spoke with God, we read stories that told us about his nature and his character, and we began to trust him. As we began to trust God we began to witness and experience his grace, mercy, and love for us, and as we did, we began to trust him more. Over time, many of us have seen some amazing things, we shared those experiences with others and our faith grew stronger. I have seen God do things that medical doctors thought was impossible, I have spoken with those who have seen other impossible things, and I have also seen God open doors and change hearts so that we could adopt each of our children.
Those of us who believe, do so because we have, over time, developed a lasting relationship built on trust. We trust God because he has proven himself to be trustworthy. Because of the trust that we have built through the things that we have seen, we can trust God in the things that we have not yet seen.
This trust is what we call faith.